Great teachers often don’t make the best students, at least in my experience. Over the years, I have collected a number of tips and tricks which I relentlessly try to embed into my students’ approach to language learning, but it was not until the lockdown that I actually started taking my own advice. Doing so, Ι took my German from A2 to B2 in a matter of months; 81 days to be exact. Since then I’ve been asking myself, in German, warum did I leave it so lange to start taking my own advice?
At different stages of my teaching career, I think back to my training in the hope of hopes of gaining some deeper insight. At first, I would pick over the remnants of those memories in an attempt to dust off a technique or unearth a solid-gem of an activity that I could integrate into my current teaching context. More now than ever, I find myself reflecting on how I was taught to teach. I think about the activities garnered from an eclectic cocktail of teacher trainers that I enthusiastically guzzled down, garnished with their practices and beliefs, and realise there is a slightly sour taste in my mouth.
“A sour taste” might sound a bit harsh, but there was something not quite right with the execution. I’ve never understood why any TEFL or SLA course would stress the importance, let’s say, of learning style preferences, and then have students write essays in response to long strands of text in order to demonstrate their acquisition of the concept. This was exactly what happened on an asynchronous course that I took part in. Surely the best way of teaching students techniques for the classroom is to implement them into how you teach such techniques. Where are the videos? The podcasts? The video message systems? There is clearly a disconnect between theory and practice found at many levels of education.
It is clear that this is something many of us within the profession are aware of. Whilst discussing the idea for this article with various colleagues, one described a workshop on differentiated teaching strategies that she attended. Surprise, surprise, the same tasks were set for all attendees, and the same mode of delivery was used for the content of the workshop.
Evidently, it’s often easier to know how to do something than to actually make it happen. as was the case for the German state-exam exam board (oh, I know this one…Staatsexamensprüfungsausschuss). Another colleague recalled having once taken an exam on how to set German state exams, and was shocked by how little thought had gone into preparing it. They commented that had the roles been reversed, the German state-exam examiners might have failed.
A further example can be found in how courses address the affective filter hypothesis. In fairness, at least many of these courses do mention it. They introduce it to their students, they plant the seed, but what next? After exploring how anxiety can negatively impact the learning process, they then pile it on. Time sensitive tasks, final grade weight-bearing deadlines, the warnings that precede and follow from both trainers and former trainees, it isn’t exactly a bubble bath, more so a baptism of fire.
It is a real shame how many people are scared off from the idea of taking advanced teaching courses. Think just how many more incredible teachers there would be. Even now, I’m speaking with teachers with years of cultivated experience and passion who are choosing not to delve deeper for fears of how they would cope doing such teaching development courses. Their own passion for learning is quashed by the way these courses are designed and implemented.
But does it have to be this way? Obtaining an education can be stressful enough, with the costs incurred and the concerns of what to do with it once you’ve gotten it. Does the process really have to be quite so painstaking?
I’ve fallen guilty of this myself having just delivered a workshop on concept checking questions without including a single one; hindsight is a wonderful thing, although sometimes, it’s also just embarrassing.
At the risk of causing myself even further embarrassment, I should reveal to you, dear supportive reader, that I have done it again; in this article no less! Over the last 2 years, I have been teaching EAP writing courses. I regularly stress the importance of brainstorming and planning. However, with this article, I skipped the planning phase. Fortunately, a good friend pointed out the disconnect and encouraged me to practice what I preach!
Of course, this isn’t just in our professional field. My mother has 40 years of experience raising children; 6 of whom were her own sons, many more were other people’s children. The one thing that has constantly tested her resilience and desire to continue doing what she is so incredibly good at? The constant training that is imposed, the way that it is delivered and the disconnect between theory and practice..
In order for this to change, we need to have a closer look at our own practices. The old saying “If you can’t do, teach,” only applies to those that let it. We shouldn’t let this be a defining quality of our profession, and everytime we forget to ask that CCQ in a workshop or put result levels over anxiety levels, that is exactly what is happening.
In future, I’ll be making a more conscious effort to consider the content of my lessons and to what degree I am modelling what it is I want my learners to do more successfully. It may be a simple case of being more mindful during the planning stages and taking the time to reflect on the success of the class; an approach that I picked up from one of the more successful developmental courses.
About Ian Butcher
Ian Butcher is currently teaching at the University of Munich. He’s half-way through the
Distance Delta and weeks away from getting married to a truly wonderful woman.
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