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Tefl four month diary experiments and conclusion

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Over the last four months in fact since I arrived in Jeju on the 1st September 2009 which marked the beginning of my third year in South Korea I've been keeping a Tefl diary on the British Council website ( http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/profmortimer) for whom I was a guest teacher for six weeks.

The purpose of my Tefl diary in South Korea has as explained in my first few entries on the British Council website was to describe my weekly experiences teaching English as a Foreign Language here in South Korea and in turn, thanks to your comments and suggestions and my experiments to determine how to create an ideal middle school classroom which enhances both student-learning and teaching ability.

I intended this experiment to last sixteen weeks and now those sixteen weeks are up. By way of a conclusion I’ve enumerated a list of tips below that could be taken into consideration for elementary and high school teaching and be applied in the teaching of different subjects other than English as a Foreign Language both at home and abroad.

Although some of the tips are specifically related to Native English Teachers in South Korea who work in collaboration with a Korean English Teacher they can also be of use for teachers of other Foreign Languages who teach on their own in both the private and public sector wherever they may be in the world.

So what have I learnt over the last sixteen weeks ?

One of my fellow NETs once said to me “don’t blame yourself” and this is sound advice when we may feel that our teaching is not reaching our students.

Indeed, “don’t blame yourself” because while there may be problems related to our teaching there are also a huge amount of variables unrelated to us and to our teaching that may cause teaching to seem to be an uphill struggle.

External problems

To this I would add therefore that for peace of mind and to reassure yourself that we are not to blame it is comforting to be aware of what I’d call external problems that is to say problems that you cannot solve alone but with the school that may be some of the reasons behind difficulties that may occur in teaching.

For example, large class sizes, the little emphasis on English speaking and listening skills in exams particularly in South Korea which diminishes the importance students feel in learning these skills which is what Native English Teachers (NETs) in South Korea provide, long study hours the students in South Korea endure as is the case for middle school and high school even elementary school children, ineffective school disciplinary measures etc.

The list can go on and on and they all have an effect on the learning ability of our students and thus our teaching.

But let’s not resign ourselves to the idea that it’s a fait accompli and beyond our reach to solve. Indeed we should talk with our colleagues or co-teachers and try to solve these ‘external’ problems together and with the help of our school and the local community.

Other ‘external’ problems not mentioned above but that we and our colleagues and co-teachers can solve is marking and reporting.

For example, my co-teachers in South Korea have all had the initiative of making at least 5% of test questions throughout the year including those of the final test related to what I teach the students.

Although this doesn’t have a major effect on their overall student performance it does however make them realize that we are part of the school team of teachers and not separate from the school staff even if we are only “visiting,” if you like, for a year.

If the students feel our schools value our input then the students should value our input and presence too.

On the subject of reporting it might be worth our while suggesting to our co-teachers that our observations of student performance should be also taken into consideration and that the students are made aware that what we observe will be mentioned in their school reports.

Again if the students see that we are respected like another teacher even though we may be just “visiting” for a year and of course that what we observe will be taken into account then this should make the students more respectful of us than if we didn’t have an impact on their grades and school reports.

Another potential obstacle to effective teaching and student learning which could be categorized as being ‘external’ are the psychosocial stressors and cognitive and physical transformations of the boys and girls we teach.

Although an ‘external’ problem they can be attenuated by tailoring our lessons to relieve our students of these sources of stress and thereby enhance student learning. (For a brief introduction to these psychosocial stressors and cognitive and physical transformations please read the annex attached below).

Internal problems

In addition to the external problems mentioned above we should also be aware of internal problems that is to say problems that we can, as teachers, solve on our own.

I think the first of potential internal problems to solve is bonding. Indeed if there isn’t a strong bond between us and our students then it would very probably decrease rather than increase learning ability and teaching effectiveness.

It is important to be aware however, that it’s very probable that we’ll need an elapse of two months even more for students to not only familiarize themselves with us and to connect with us but also our methodology.

This two month plus getting to know each other period may be shorter if we teach in only one school and perhaps it may be shorter still if there isn’t a language barrier (as is the case for most of us NETs in SK) which can hinder stronger bonds with the students and understanding of them.

Once there is a healthy relationship between us and our students, one that is not only a teacher to student relationship but also similar to that of younger and older brothers and sisters or children and parents then teaching will be much easier because these kind of relationships foster mutual respect, trust, care, and love.

In addition, we should also be aware that we are also role models for the students to emulate so it’s important we strive to meet their expectations of us as positive role models.

A perfect example of a positive role model would be what Abraham Maslow would call a “self-actualized” person.

He defined these figures’ characteristics as marked by a “humility and respect of others, human kinship or compassion, social interest and humanity, strong ethics and a “freshness of perception” which means that they saw even the most mundane and ordinary things with wonder. With this they were creative, inventive and original.”

(http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/maslow.html). We as teachers can imbue our students with these characteristics by simply behaving like the self-actualized person and thus fulfilling our role as a positive role model.

However, this doesn’t mean to say that there aren’t any more internal obstacles. Indeed, once we have a healthy relationship with our students there’s the problem of our methodology and material. As we’re all no doubt aware diversity is key and so diversity it must be in class activities and content.

My experience has proven to me that an elapse of one month is necessary before we repeat an activity in class. By activity I mean how we teach the chosen target language.

For content I find that changing the content of our lessons for five weeks before reviewing it all during the sixth week is enough coupled with different activities for at least one month to maintain student interest in our lessons.

Another way to create diversity and thereby arouse even more student interest in our lessons is to change the seating arrangement which should go without saying because different activities usually require different seating arrangements.

With large classes we could also try the “diamond class” which involves dividing the class in two whereby one half of the class is managed by our co-teachers (CT) and the other half by us. We can provide our CTs with activities we’d like half of the class to do e.g. writing and reading activities reviewing language taught so far and we can focus on listening and speaking activities and switch groups half way through the lesson.

To help us choose the language we’d like to teach in class it’s a good idea to look at the student textbooks and to ask what language areas our co-teacher would like us to teach the students.

The textbooks and co-teachers should be able to provide us with a clear framework that could form the basis of a curriculum we could come up with and give to our co-teachers which is recommended to be done at the very beginning so that we have at least a six month plan of what we’ll be teaching.

Once the target language has been chosen e.g. the past simple we have to gauge that the topic we choose to teach the past simple in this example is perfectly tailored to student interest.

So in this example we could choose free time activities as the topic and the students in the course of the lesson will learn how to conjugate an array of different free time activities both familiar and unfamiliar to them but of equal interest into the past simple.

Of course, the level of the language of the topic has to be attuned to theirs so not too many words with more than three syllables for example and maybe address the past simple regular first and then later the past simple irregular.

Once what I’d call the potential pre-class internal problems have been solved that is to say we’ve established a healthy bond with our students, our methodology and material is sufficiently diverse and we’ve appropriately tailored our material and topics to our students’ levels and interests there are the class-internal problems to solve.

Class-internal problems

The major class-internal problems are lack of interest, lack of motivation and unruly behaviour. These class internal problems can be avoided by the way we operate in class.

For example it is wise, as we are no doubt aware, to never dive in at the deep end that is to say to choose a little too challenging activity to begin the class with rather than an easy one.

Choosing to start with the latter is best because it arouses student interest from the outset which is of prime importance because if we don’t get student interest at the beginning of the lesson getting it later will be harder.

Of course, this works both ways so if we do get the students interested at the beginning then we’re almost guaranteed to sustain their interest throughout the lesson.

Another means of keeping student interest and motivation high is by marking student progress.

This can be achieved by keeping a record of their performance in class by stamping their folders and worksheets with stamps saying "fantastic !" , "amazing ! " "wonderful!" "extraordinary !" etc.

At the end of each month we can add up the amount of stamps student amasses and give out certificates of commendation which can be displayed on the wall. We can also count the number of stamps each student acquires by the end of each semester and prizes could be given to the three best students (gold, silver and bronze for example) and small prizes e.g. a sticker to all the others who constitute the runners up this way at least everybody wins a prize.

Other ways of marking student progress can come in the form .of publication of their work in the school magazine, displays of their work in class and in the corridors of the school, booklets of completed worksheets they can take home with them.

I highly recommend the latter which is an excellent way of crowning all the students’ work at the end of each semester.

This can be achieved by keeping a cardboard box (one for each class) in the English room under lock and key in which are put the students' folders upon which is written their name inside of which is put the worksheets they complete in class.

Storing the worksheets in this way will prevent the "I couldn't care less" students from littering the corridors with your worksheets. However, this doesn’t mean they can’t have access to them, they can but they have to go to the English room to look at them much like a student goes to a library to look at books the only difference is the students can’t take their folders away with them.

Having the students make booklets with their completed worksheets at the end of the semester has proven to be an excellent way for the students to mark their progress in English. Their face light up with pride at the fruit of their efforts during the first semester.

Class-internal problems can also stem from being ill-prepared. In South Korea experience has proven to me that we have to prepare well in advance in order to be circumvent problems that may arise from technical problems e.g. the photocopier or the printer doesn’t work or from last minute alterations to schedules that sometimes occur.

This goes without saying but it is a must to come with pens and paper in case some students "forget" them.

It is also important to be flexible because flexibility enables you to alter our methodology for example at a moment’s notice to cater to students’ needs and thus to circumvent the class internal problems that may arise if we are not flexible.

For example, if our class was made to run around the sports field a few times before our lesson for punishment let’s say and they come to our lesson and we had intended to do some physically active learning activities with them the students will very probably show reluctance to do them even though we know them to be stimulated by this form of kinesthetic learning.

If we could change them at the last minute to doing a more passive activity for example then the lesson would probably go better.

Likewise if our class had before our lesson sat a test. Rather than do a passive activity which we may find they are stimulated by, being able to change our activity from a passive one to an active kinesthetic one in these circumstances would no doubt make the lesson more rewarding for both us and them.

Once all of the above has been achieved we’re well on our way to having an ideal classroom which enhances both student-learning and teaching ability.

However, there will always be the universal and inevitable problem of disruptive behaviour that we have to manage to keep our classroom ideal. How can we achieve this ?

Classroom management techniques

The word “disruptive” can embrace a lot of different forms of misbehaviour from physical violence to sleeping in class but the following description of classroom management techniques will address how to solve problems related to high noise-levels and students talking and distracting others while you’re teaching.

In my opinion these are the most common forms of misbehaviour that one can come across in South Korea and I would say anywhere else in the world because again if all of the above has been achieved then extreme forms of misbehaviour such as physical violence or verbal abuse should never occur.

I would define my style of teaching as tolerant teaching which as we shall see has proved to be successful but only once all the necessary steps to diminish even erase any potential forms of misbehaviour have been made.

What is tolerant teaching ?

To put it simply, tolerant teaching is the opposite of managing the classroom with an iron fist.

Why choose the former and not the latter ?

Observation and experience has proven to me that managing a classroom with an iron fist (basically telling students to shut up and listen) has the tendency to alienate students from their teachers and in the process diminishes the effectiveness of teaching and learning ability.

Tolerant teaching on the other hand, which involves tolerating the different temperaments of some students even if its rowdy, wins student respect simply for being patient and tolerant with them which eventually enhances student learning and teaching ability.

Indeed, I’ve noticed that sometimes if we ignore students’ disengaged misbehaviour they sometimes re-focus on the lesson of their own volition so this technique is worthwhile trying from time to time.

I’m already seeing the benefits of tolerant teaching. The students for one enjoy my lessons. They’re rowdy not because they are not interested in my lessons but because that is their temperament at this moment in time which can be the result of a multitude of reasons. They also mange to follow and complete the language set even though it’s completed in a noisy fashion.

In sync with this tolerant attitude toward teaching is a carrot and stick technique whereby we allow students to misbehave on purpose making sure they get a taster of the educational enjoyment of a class activity and then stop doing the activity mid-way.

By this means students realize immediately that we stop the activity midway because we disapprove of their behavior. Next we should explain to them that we disapprove of their unruly behavior and that if they continue to misbehave in the future they’ll never again learn English doing activities they enjoy which obviously dismays them because they enjoy them.

Making a deal like this rather than ruling with an iron fist is better appreciated by the students for we give them a second chance and also has the advantage of strengthening the bonds we have with our students.

However, tolerant teaching such as this can only be successful once all the necessary direct disciplinary measures inside and outside of the classroom have been implemented to diminish even erase any potential forms of misbehaviour.

Direct disciplinary measures inside the classroom

One example of a direct disciplinary measures inside the classroom can be taken during the first ten minutes of the lesson. For example at the very beginning of any given class we should identify the troublesome students. We should write their names on the board and mark how many times they misbehave. Once they misbehave three times we can nip the troublesome students in the bud by dividing them up and putting them in different areas of the classroom.

If they persist, we can, as a last resort, put them at 'bad student' tables at the back and front of the classroom or if possible and practical outside in the corridor (making sure they can be observed by the teacher) and give them a worksheet to complete preferably the one set out to do in class.

It’s important to make sure however that we don’t punish the wrong students. To achieve this we should keep a close eye on why some students are talking while we teach and may have their backs turned to us so as not to punish the wrong student.

If the misbehaving students continue to misbehave over a period of two weeks for example we can circumvent any disruption they may cause – and we should do this only after two or more weeks have elapsed so they understand that we are tolerant but only to a certain extent – by, for example, screening the class room layout indicating where students are to be seated making sure no two badly-behaved students are next to each other.

Also, we can make sure the teams we divide the class up into - that is if we divide the class up into teams for competitive learning and positive peer pressure generating purposes- have a roughly equal level. Again this can be acheived by screening the class room layout indicating where students are to be seated.

Other means of circumventing potentially disruptive behaviour is dividing students into teams. This is a great way to get them all involved as it creates not only a playful atmosphere much like that on a sports day but also a competitive one as students compete to win generating in the process positive peer pressure.

As mentioned above it’s important to make sure that each team has a roughly equal level. To achieve this we simply have to put at least one of the best students in the class in each team.

For their performance in class (correct answers to question etc.) they can be awarded points which can be tallied throughout the lesson on the board. At the same time points can be deducted if the students misbehave which most of the time succeeds in replacing any negative peer pressure within the group with positive peer pressure.

One example of direct disciplinary action is a penalty point system that could be done in a football referee style with a twist (three yellow cards equal a red card), a red card equals three penalty points which would mean sitting at one of the 'bad student' tables, four points would mean cleaning the classroom or weeding the garden or some other manual chore at the end of the day, eight points their parents will be text messaged and ten points their parents will be asked to come to the school to discuss the matter. There is an element of fun to this disciplinary system which makes it less harsh but nonetheless it does make the students understand that they are in the wrong and getting the parents involved most of the time calms them down.

The above penalty point system was devised by one of my schools. It is implemented by all of the teachers which makes the students feel that they are being taught by consensual team rather than separate individuals. This of course strengthens the disciplinary action because it is enforced by the school rather than by an individual teacher.

Other direct disciplinary techniques that can be exercised in the classroom are, in the case of the noise level getting too high, to have the students drop everything their doing and put their hands behind their heads in order to get them to take a deep breath and calm down and focus.

This form of discipline has a therapeutic effect and relieves stress rather than intensifies it, as would happen if we told them to shut up and be quiet.

It is all the more important to take this soft approach to student discipline because a lot of the time students don’t seem to be aware of their misbehaviour and will feel unjustly treated if punished harshly. This might in turn risk alienating them from us which is counter productive for effective learning and teaching.

On many occasions for example I’ve had students apologise to me of their own volition when I give them the silent treatment for they realize they’ve misbehaved and that they can’t appropriately conduct themselves yet.

This soft approach to discipline wins student respect and appreciation because they’re aware you’re aware that they can’t control themselves properly yet and if you subtly make them understand by having them put their hands on their heads or by giving them the silent treatment you’ll usually find they will correct themselves of their own volition.

Another way of both winning respect and strengthening bonds and reducing disruptive behaviour is to seize every opportunity we have to have one to one time with difficult students to prove to them that you care for them and their educational needs.

If these most disruptive students feel that you care for them then slowly they will respect you more and more and will conduct themselves better in class.

The same beneficial effect can be had by occasionally adopting a bottom up approach to teaching.

By this I mean showing interest in student opinion in your methodology, activities material and lesson topics. To achieve this we can use one lesson let’s say every month or two months to have the students evaluate some of the activities we might have got a lukewarm response to. The students can evaluate our methodology, activities material and lesson topics by re-doing the activities preferably on a different language area and then filling out the student feedback form we will provide them with.

Due to potential language barriers we could have the students rate our material on a one to five scale one being outstanding and 5 being boring or one being very useful or 5 being useless.

Showing interest in student opinion this way will give them some “ownership” of the classroom and should strengthen the respect they have for us because we show them respect and in turn the bond with our students will also be reinforced.

Direct disciplinary measures outside of the classroom

Other forms of direct disciplinary measures can take place outside of the classroom. By this I mean for example regular morning meetings with our colleagues or co-teachers to discuss ways to deal with awkward students or reporting badly behaved students to their homeroom teacher.

The latter be it the person concerned or us if we are the homeroom teacher will then make the students understand that their behaviour can't be tolerated and of the consequences if they persist such as the consequences outlined in the penalty point system above.

Of course if they show signs of regret and apologise we should be lenient (giving them say two chances to improve) but if they show no regret or improvement we should punish according to the penalty point system.

Posted by JBarker 02:48 Archived in South Korea Tagged living_abroad

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