Friday, August 28, 2009

Keeping it up at 60

Just when I was getting a perverse feeling of dread about having to face new students next week, I fell upon this little piece from a few years back. It's just what I needed to put me in a positive frame of mind about venturing out onto fresh turf and facing an unknown away side for the very first time.


I came across a wonderful little article in the online Torygraph the other day. It wasn’t specific to EFL, but teaching’s teaching, innit, and I thought some of you would appreciate its conclusions regarding knowledge, humour, presentation, and involvement – not to mention the lack of the prescriptive approach.

Anyway, I’ve lifted large chunks of the article (lazy sod, I am!) to present to you here, but I do recommend you read the whole piece for yourself.

So, to start off with, the author asked his class of youngsters what their “Ideal School” would be like...

"We want more lessons like Mr Orme's." they said. This provoked a collective gasp of approval. I was not surprised; our pupils have long revered Mr Orme, who has taught history at the school for nearly 40 years.

Nevertheless, curiosity and mild envy provoked me to ask why they so enjoyed his lessons. "We learn so much", "They're fun!" and "I don't know - they're just good" were some of the answers.

A few days later, I sat at the back of one of Mr Orme's lessons. He places a lot of value on the use of the visual image and had a slide of a painting projected on a screen as his pupils entered the room.

The whirr of the projector, the dim light and the sight of a wide-eyed teacher perched on his desk, greeting his pupils as they entered, all combined to create a special atmosphere.

He was successful, I think, for three main reasons.

First, almost everything he said was a question. It was clear that all the pupils felt confident that sensible answers would be warmly received with a nod and a smile.

This, combined with the fact that all the questions were demanding but answerable, meant there were always hands up. The children wanted to be involved and recognised, so they listened to each other's answers and their teacher's embellishment of them. This all generated a gradual build up of knowledge and confidence.

Second, the content of the lesson was demanding and stimulating. Even at a selective, academic school like mine, it can be difficult to pitch work at the right level.

The topic these 12-year-olds were studying - the difference between medieval and Renaissance attitudes towards mankind - and the level of thinking required of them, were impressive.

But Mr Orme's energy and obvious enthusiasm were perhaps the main reason why the pupils concentrated so well. They were engaged by his lively and humorous tone, by his depth of knowledge and by the way he made eye contact.

Afterwards, I told him that I hoped to be as energetic as him at his age (60). What, I asked, had sustained his enthusiasm for all these years?

There were, of course, many things about the job he loved, but he was especially emphatic when he said: "I get to teach what I am interested in. My head of department doesn't prescribe what I have to cover in my lessons, and he encourages intellectual debate."

At a time when teachers so often complain that their job is overly prescriptive and burdensome, it is an approach that seems especially wise.


Now, I know my approach to teaching on this blog is usually a corrosive cocktail of cynicism and despair, but I really enjoyed reading the Torygraph article, as it restored my faith in my ability to possibly get something right in the classroom. The key-words are all there - student involvement, recognition of their efforts and contributions, humour, etc - yet there seems to be something more, some sort of hidden factor.

Can anybody tell me just what it is ... before I go all moisty-eyed?


William Frederickson said...

I suppose,to increase student talking time/teacher-doing-bugger -all-time,this article gives a few pointers towards making things interesting,and encourage students to learn and practice what they've learned in the classroom.

However,it should be done in accordance with or contributing towards whatever learning objective there is at any given time. Failing that,as a means of assessing a new class's knowledge of English,discussion of a subject solely for that subject's sake is the best means of research.

As we're all aware,most learners are there for objective reasons:learning English to pass exams or to travel abroad/use in whatever profession that they are working in,and they want 'results.'The approach outlined in the article i.e student-centred is ,when used in language learning,good as long as it is practical and instils knowledge in learners.

However,Sandy,i don't think ,beyond making learning enjoyable for 'em*,that there is any 'hidden factor.' No need to get moist-eyed,then.Such a question brings one into the Pseuds' Corner-esque realms of Tessa Woodworm and Mario Rasclotlooney.Perhaps the hidden factor could be discovered using the game involving playing with imaginary objects in the IATEFL article that you lampooned.

*I suppose it might be useful in private tutorials:especially if one has a few female students who look like Lucy Liu,Jordan or Amy Winehouse...Take em into the stationery cupboard to discuss an English-language translation of the Kama Sutra as a group and have them act out scenes from it,involving the male teacher and his private stash of 'learning aids.'

William Frederickson said...

Couldn't help slipping that one in(Fnarr!Fnarr!Oo-err,missus!)Seriously,stimulating (Tee-hee!)students' interest in the subject matter taught,in the style outlined in the article is all that one needs in the classroom,and is a 'holy grail' on most teachers' part in day-to-day teaching...or summat!

Kapitano said...

Everyone I've worked with has been in TEFL for much longer than I have. And some of those have been lousy from day one. So here's Kapitano's list of five things I've learned from watching bad teachers who didn't realise it.

1) Only teach today's scheduled grammar/usage/vocab if there's a good reason to. Only use the exercises in the book if you absolutely have to.

2) If the lesson flies off at a tangent that you think will help the students learn or practice some English, let it fly right off.

3) Fluency and confidence are more important than perfect grammar or large vocabulary. If the class want to practice what they know rather than learn something new, let them do it - just not for the whole lesson.

4) A busy class is not the same as productive class. A happy class is always productive in some way.

5) Students will often know more about grammar than you, so stop being afraid of it.

And as a special bonus:

6) There's nothing wrong with defining by translating.

The TEFL Tradesman said...

Thanks William, Kapo, for your comments - almost frighteningly coherent, you have me quite worried!

William Frederickson said...

Sandy,it's Ramadan,and,truth to tell,no Stella Aretois,Jack Daniels,or Amy Winehouse-look-alike shag-nasty on the end of me fingers...that must have something to fucking do with it....