First of all, I can promise I won’t write this sort of post until the end of time, going up to ‘things I’ve learnt during my nineteenth week as an English language teacher!’ ! It just so happens that, since my first ‘real’ ELT job was only a three-week cover position, it has been an excellent place for me to try out different things I learnt on the CELTA and new techniques I read about online. I originally drafted a ‘things I learnt in week two’ post and had another post in development for week three, but now I have finished the job, I thought I would do what I apparently do best and just write one long post instead, to save clogging up your inboxes!
Also, my apologies, but WordPress is misbehaving and not recognising my paragraph breaks between each numbered point, so sorry if it’s a bit tricky to read!
If you missed my first post, I shared nine things I learnt during my first week as an English language teacher, and this post expands that list, based on my experiences teaching a mixed group of A1, A2 and B1 students (!) on an intensive course in a small school in southwest Berlin.
- It’s worth bearing in mind whether colour photocopying is essential to your students’ understanding of a particular worksheet, which I found out the hard way! For example, during the German train drivers’ strike, I decided it would be helpful to teach my students how to give instructions about alternative methods of transport, in case tourists were confused. (There was also something similar in the textbook and they were struggling with prepositions so I thought I’d combine the lot!) I printed them off a map of Berlin’s underground network to make it real (is this accidental task-based learning?!) but of course, I could only print in black and white. This meant that, although I knew that all my students were from Berlin, those who knew the public transport system less well struggled a little bit because they weren’t sure which train line was which. When I gave them scenarios along the lines of ‘You are at Greifswalder Straße S-Bahn Station and want to get to Hohenzollerndamm station, but the S-Bahn isn’t working,’ it was definitely a little trickier without the colours. The problem was solved by allowing them to use their phones, though, which I have learnt from many other ELT bloggers is OK!
- In Germany, the mood and weather apparently play a huge role in the success of a lesson: sun seems to motivate everyone and energise them for class, whereas changeable cloudy weather makes everyone very sluggish.
- Classroom life outside the CELTA adopts a considerably slower pace, as you are not under pressure to whip through every single element of a classic reading lesson (lead-in, prediction of content, reading for gist, reading for detailed understanding) and then give feedback, as you are on a CELTA course. Or at least, that’s my feeling. I learnt to give students time to finish, and to give the fast finishers extra work to do whilst the weaker students finished the exercise, so that everyone benefited when we did class feedback.
- Curiously, in my mixed group of students, the students who are much weaker are much keener to learn! I suppose it makes sense, as the slightly lower level of the class means that the stronger students might occasionally be bored, but I’ve still been consistently impressed with the weaker students’ questions about collocations, different verb forms and similar meanings!
- Very often, the conversations in textbooks are a bit too contrived in my very inexperienced opinion. On Wednesday in my second week, I thought I would try and get through all six lessons without my safety blanket of the textbook. I used to work in publishing, and of course know that all textbooks are put together by a selection of ELT experts and experienced publishing professionals, but sometimes the exercises are just not suitable for my class, especially considering the mixed level I am teaching. I have also read a lot about what I once amusingly heard a keen ELT blogger refer to as ‘the D word’, or dogme teaching, whereby teachers don’t follow a course book and teach in a reactive manner according to their students’ needs. I was intrigued and wanted to try it for myself, and I have to say that I was amazed at how successful it was.
I started with a warm-up of ‘Who Am I’ because, due to the train strike, I started with only three students and ended up with six. They loved this game, and thought it was hilarious that I had no idea about German national goalkeepers! Then we moved onto prepositions, which I taught using ideas taken from Adam Simpson’s excellent blog. I elicited the prepositions using myself as the object, jumping around the classroom like a crazy person, ‘behind the board’ or ‘under the table.’ Then I gave them all photos of a very eclectic British Bed and Breakfast bedroom full of lots of objects, and they had to write a number on each object I located using a preposition. Then they got a photo of a very blank and empty room, and had to get creative by drawing on the items that I read out in my sentences. They also loved this – everyone laughed at everyone else’s attempts at modern art, and they appreciated seeing my own terrible attempt, too!
Then I gave them more free practice by giving each group a new picture of a different hotel room and they had to come up with 8 sentences about where objects are. For once, I didn’t have to photocopy extra things for the fast finishers; I just told them to keep writing sentences and that they should be as creative as they wish. They then swapped sheets and corrected each other’s sentences, which I wouldn’t have dared do unless my pairs had worked out such that each pair had a stronger student in it.
Afterwards, we worked on some pronunciation and then did one of the excellent video lessons from Talk2MeEnglish on ‘the world’s toughest job’ which I can highly recommend. They really enjoyed it, and the day ended on a real high.
It is, however, perhaps worth pointing out here that I was given total freedom during this course – I did have a textbook to follow, but due to the mixed level, I was pretty free to customise it as I pleased, which was what allowed me to play around with ideas that were completely new to me like this.
- Students seem to really enjoy games which I would have dismissed for being ‘too simple.’ For example, in one class we did a running dictation as an experiment, as I wasn’t sure if the mixed level students (A1s to B1s) would manage. Once we finished the whole exercise, I asked them if they enjoyed it or not, and they (thankfully!) said they did. They said it was really good for listening practice, and then gave an example of another good listening exercise they enjoy with the teacher I am covering for, which they initially failed to explain to me in English, and then when they explained it in German, I realised they meant Chinese Whispers! Then ensued a hilarious half an hour where they were absolutely delighted with the random sentences I created to practice the tricky bits of pronunciation we had reviewed the previous week (like the ‘th’ sounds and the difference between ‘s’ and ‘z’.)
- Spelling out loud is really hard in a foreign language – I know this myself from German! But it became a bit of a problem during my running dictation because of course they had to spell things out to each other, so I did a little alphabet game and made the students get faster and faster at saying each letter around and around the classroom. Infantile, perhaps, but the ‘race’ nature of me saying ‘faster and faster’ disguised that element for them!’
- Learning ‘do’, ‘does’, ‘didn’t’ and ‘doesn’t’ is outrageously confusing for German speakers, who make negatives and questions simply by changing the word order. For example ‘Er mag Spanisch’ = ‘He likes Spanish.’ To make this negative, they just add ‘nicht’: ‘Er mag Spanisch nicht,’ and to turn it into a question, they just flip the order: ‘Mag er Spanisch?’ So there is no faffing about with ‘does’ and ‘doesn’ts!
On my last day with the class, I finished off a few bits and bobs from the textbook, and then decided to reward them for their hard work with some fun. I had checked with the boss of the school if it was OK to go and get a coffee, as the guy for whom I was covering had suggested, and she said it was fine. I told my students we were only allowed to go for a coffee if they spoke English the whole time, and I was absolutely flabbergasted to find that they did! We were out of the classroom for about an hour and 45 minutes, and in that whole time, I heard perhaps three or four German sentences and a handful of German words. Even the weaker students tried their best, with the stronger students helping them. It was a real warm-fuzzy-feeling kind of moment, and as we paid our bill outside in the sunshine, they told me how proud they were of themselves for being able to do it, too! We even had a laugh with the waitress, who was confused at a bunch of 7 German people and very British looking me in my M&S trench coat, all talking English to each other – and to her! I’d told my students they didn’t need to order their drinks in English, but they were clearly in the zone!
We ended the day with some fun revision of the phoning vocab we’d done, and then the ‘Hot Seat’ vocabulary game which I discovered they loved the day before. I had then been planning to rush off, as I had to meet the Director of Studies of my new school, but I was asked to wait, and a beautiful bunch of flowers was produced, as well as some Lindt chocolates and a bottle of Spumante! I was really touched, and we celebrated both the end of my time in the school, and the fact that one of the students has got a job. (They are otherwise all unemployed.) They even asked me if there is a ‘TripAdvisor for teachers’ because they wanted to rate me!
I still don’t agree at all with the inclusion of three such disparate levels of student in one class, but I am pleased that I managed to get through the challenge in the end and that, ultimately, my students enjoyed it too – that is, after all, the most important thing!