The 2019/2020 Academic year – One hell of a topsy-turvy!

The 2019/2020 academic year – what a bloody interesting ride that was! I, like all you lovely people, felt that this year turned out to be both a challenge and a learning curve (from both a teaching and training perspective). Coronavirus threw the proverbial spanner in the works for pretty much everyone, and the education sectors, both mainstream and private, were thrown head first into the deep-end of distance education. More to that, we all had to contend with quarantines, restrictions, etc. etc. etc. Basically, it was just one big mess. This being said, it was not all bad – there were many lessons learnt and perhaps this was good for some aspects of our industry (I’ll get to this later). Just like last year, the aim of this here blog post is to share with you all my thoughts and reflections on all of these things, so without further ado…

Thoughts from Teacher Jim…

The obvious point to mention in this section is the shift to online teaching. Well, not exactly. The shift to FULL-TIME online teaching to be more precise. I, like many teachers, make a little extra on the side (feels so naughty writing that) through online lessons, however teaching a full-time schedule online was something I had neither done nor wanted to do. It proved to be a tough but rewarding experience as it really pushed me to experiment with different online tools as well as learning the ins and outs of working online and what comes with this. I wrote a post about this – you can read it here!

On a slightly different point… at the start of the year, I had the pleasure of working with a number of dyslexic learners. One thing I learnt is that teaching dyslexic learners is a whole other ball game and ‘conventional’ classroom setups are really not fit for these learners unfortunately. The special thing about one of the dyslexic learners I was working with was that she was what you might call ‘far along’ the dyslexic spectrum. This really forced me to look into why my lessons were not successful regarding her learning, participation and overall happiness. I was shocked to find that there were very few published pieces of literature that focused specifically on teaching English-language learners with dyslexia. The one that I did find, and I highly recommend to all teachers, is called Dyslexia and Foreign Language Learning: Gaining Success in an Inclusive Context by Elke Schneider and Margaret Crombie. This book helped me out phenomenally – it covers the types of accommodations needed for dyslexic language learners, the strategies both teachers and learners can use, and a good deal of information on what dyslexia actually is and how it affects learning (it’s not just about reading!!!!!!).

Further to the point of working with dyslexic learners, one of the points that I was, and still am, dismayed by (at least within Spain) is that many language academies do not have the resources or are not willing to create the resources and types of classes that these learners need. Unfortunately in the Spanish school system, there is still not a lot of support given to these learners, and they are expected to perform as their peers with what they have. I fail to see how we are setting up these learners for success in language learning if we simply put them into conventional classes and tell our teachers to ‘do the best you can’. Of course, it is more complicated than providing differentiated classes – there is need of education for teachers and learners, funding, etc. And looking at it from a business perspective, can money be made off offering specific classes for dyslexic learners? It is something that I wish was more in focus (especially considering that globally 5 – 10% of people are dyslexic to some degree), but we are slowly getting around to it! Rant over.

Teacher Jim’s final thought is related to learner stress and feelings. This year was pretty crazy for us teachers, but it was a lot crazier for our learners. Most of my learners dealt with the changes very well, however there were a few that needed a lot of help, especially with working online. These changes stressed many learners, almost to the point of stopping classes (either for financial or personal stress reasons). Dealing with these issues was something that became even more important. I think that the normal face-to-face/conventional classes provide a much easier environment in which to help your learners with such affective matters. The online dynamic made this very difficult in some cases, but not impossible. I tried to stay in contact with learners outside of class with email and other tools. Much more flexibility and understanding was needed this year, but this certainly has proven to most teachers and learners that they can succeed in a range of learning environments.

Thoughts from Trainer Jim…

OK, so back to the obvious point. Training online proved really interesting. It also made me realise that I really lack experience with observing other teachers online. In terms of observations, we didn’t do any of the formal observations that you would expect from a normal development programme. Rather, we opted for experimental observations in which teachers chose an online tool or teaching technique that they would like to try out in their online classes. The observation was then focused on how well this was implemented and what could be done to improve it for future classes. Overall, it was a success and teachers responded really well to the feedback. For next year, however, as online lessons may very much be a thing again, I will be looking to develop a more online-teaching-focused observation scheme. Any thoughts would be welcome from you online teacher training wizards!

My work with Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment this year was thoroughly rewarding. I got to travel to a number of places around Spain, delivering training sessions both for Cambridge exams and more discreet teaching/learning focuses. Going into these sessions is always a big deal and a lot of preparation goes into each of them and it was amazing to work closely with so many teachers and trainers on a range of different topics. The bad side of COVID is that many, if not all, workshops, seminars, conferences, etc. are all cancelled. There are a number of online conferences coming up, but I don’t think these have the same feel as those events you attend in person. Why? Well, networking really. A big part of attending these events is joining and/or contributing to a community of practice. These events are great for learning and getting ideas for classroom teaching, of course. However, I would say that one of the biggest positives of these sessions is the fact that you meet loads of teachers (potentially future employees/employers!). So, where to now that COVID is in full-swing? Well, online conferences are obviously the way to go, and the more apt we get at organising these with such features as break-our rooms the better they will become. My hope, however, is that these conferences create sessions in which there is more time for networking, be it before or after the sessions. Not sure how this might be done though!

As mentioned previously, teacher stress was also a big thing this year. How did we overcome this? I suppose there are many things that we did to reduce teacher stress, but the main one that I think played a big role this year was mentoring. I am a big advocate for mentoring for a number of reasons (check out this post to see why), and I thoroughly believe that these mentoring sessions helped teachers get through the pandemic with as little teacher stress as possible. I have found that these sessions really do allow for teachers to express their feelings, thoughts, doubts much more effectively and openly than other development tools (e.g. group workshops). In these mentoring sessions, we were able to work thought potential issues with teaching online (from tech to classroom management), and teachers were able to really tell me about what they need, what they want to do/try, and what they think could be done to improve things the next time round. I will write a more detailed post about mentoring again in the near future – there is so much to share, but I’ll try and keep this as short as possible!

Looking ahead…

So, what’s in store for the coming academic year? I think the first thing is to work out how academies and schools are going to open – this is still fairly undecided here in Spain. I mentioned at the start that perhaps this whole situation was good for a number of things, and one of these is distance learning. I think there has been quite a bit of resistance to moving online over the past few years, and I think this has been detrimental. From a learning perspective, distance learning allows for more freedom and more opportunities to interact with English. From a teaching perspective, teaching online encourages us to experiment with new tools, ideas, etc. But, the main area where I think there has been the greatest detriment is the business side of language teaching – it makes sense to work online! Coronavirus has obviously made distance learning more of a necessity than a want, but I think this is good. I also believe that those schools that don’t ‘update’ and move into this new technological age will be left behind. So, what’s ahead for us? Well, the normal, conventional classes for sure (if they go ahead), but also a great deal more of distance learning (even if we like it or not).

On a more personal development note, the next twelve months for me means implementing a new development programme for a new team of teachers. I envision many, many hurdles to overcome this coming year, however I am also very much looking forward to the challenge. As I said, I imagine there to be much more of an online focus, both for teaching and development, so I’ll be looking to work with other trainers and see how they are approaching this. With regard to specific training goals, I wrote in the final post of Cambridge Train the Trainer that I would like to improve my use of exploratory talk in oral feedback sessions. Already got some ideas, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you all some time at the end of the first term.

There are a few other things I’d like to do, if I get the chance. I might not get tothem over the next twelve months, but I’ll write them here anyway.

  • Masters in TESOL: So, I actually started my masters a few years ago but, unfortunately, my funding did not get approved, so I had to pull off the course. In reality this has been one of my goals since I finished Delta. Let’s hope I get the chance soon!
  • Materials writing: An area I would like to experiment with is materials writing, for both classroom teaching and professional development sessions. I have done the latter a number of times and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and now that I am in a position to really utilise what I create, I think it would be really beneficial. With regard to creating materials for classroom teaching, I think every teacher has done this to a certain extent. Now, however, as I move further and further away from coursebooks (another interesting blog post for the future!), I am finding the need to create much more specific materials. Certainly takes more time, but in the end it is worth it.
  • Blogging: I wanted to write more this past academic year, but things just got in the way (work, travels, pets, coronavirus…). I would love to be able to write a lot more the coming academic year. Whenever I write a blog post, it pushed me to research my thoughts, double-check everything, write things clearly, etc. and so they take quite a while (I’ve been writing this post for three days). But, this time I view as well spent – it’s my self-directed development, something I would encourage all teachers to do (it doesn’t necessarily have to be blogging!).

Books you should read…

One of my guilty pleasures is reading. I love it. Generally I read fantasy novels, but I also read a lot of stuff on applied linguistics, language teaching, etc. as I imagine you know already. I thought I would leave you all with five books that I thoroughly enjoyed. If you have read any of these, I would love to hear your thoughts! Also, feel free to send me any recommendations 🙂

  • The Language Instinct – Steven Pinker: Ok, so I read this about two years ago, but I have wanted to write about it for a while, so I thought I better mention it. This book will blow your mind. In short, Pinker talks about how the brain creates languages from an innatist perspective. He gives very clear examples, criticisms, and opinions. This is of course one perspective of how language is created/acquired, but well worth the read.
  • Doing Task-based Teaching – Jane Willis: Task-based teaching and learning is something I very much a fan and advocate of. If you’re looking for a book that provides a clear rationale, definitions, and overview of how such an approach can be implemented in a range of contexts, this is it. I was amazed at how many new little ideas I got from this book.
  • The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition – Edited by Julia Herschensohn and Martha Young-Scholten: A brilliantly written handbook that covers the major theories of acquisition in a good amount of detail without being too overwhelming.
  • Training Foreign Language Teachers – Michael J Wallace: I read this book for the Cambridge Train the Trainer course and my mind was blown. So much super interesting points in this book that all trainers will be able to use in their context. A good book for building a solid base of teacher training theory.
  • ELT Playbook 1Sandy Millin: I have written about this book loads of times, and will continue to do so as I move through (ever so slowly) all the development activities in here. Sandy’s book is not a teacher training book per se; rather, it is a book with many activities that teachers can do on their own (again, self-directed development). This being said, as a trainer I have used these activities with other teachers as part of mentoring or follow-ups from observations, and they have worked out brilliantly. A great little book to have in the school that trainers and teachers can use!

It’s the end… but not for long!

So, it is finally the end. I am officially on holidays and relaxing as much as possible. I, like most of you, will be back at it in another two weeks, but for now I will take advantage of this break. I hope you all have a great holiday and get refreshed and re-energised for the coming academic year!

2 Comments

  1. Hi Jim,
    Thank you so much for including ELT Playbook 1 on your list of books and your continued support with promoting it and writing about it.
    It’s really interesting reading your reflections from this year – there’s a lot there which echoes my own experience.
    Here are a couple of links which you might find useful/interesting:
    – Links connected to dyslexia and other SEN: https://wp.me/p18yiK-1gM
    – ExCitELT, an online conference which really got the networking thing right: https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2020/06/22/excitelt-2020/
    Looking forward to further reflections. Good luck with the new TD programme!
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

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