Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hitting the "reset" button

I must confess: I have been doing a LOT of complaining about my job lately. It is an easy rut to fall into, but it is also a very dangerous place to be. Here’s the background: it is the final month of summer, enrollment is low, and as a result I have been spending most of my working hours doing academic admin rather than teaching. It’s a bummer, and as a result I am finding it very easy to drift into boredom and self-pity these days. So I am making a conscious decision to snap out of it: NOW! One thing that always helps when I feel the need to push the reset button on my day is making a gratitude list. Here it is, a list of the reasons I am grateful for my job and the opportunities that it provides.

1. Students!
Even though I am not teaching as much as I’d like to be, all the work I do ultimately leads back to creating a better learning experience for our students, and that is always the #1 most important goal as well as the greatest pay-off.

2. Developing my own skills
Whether it is teaching, lesson planning, curriculum development, or some seemingly boring and useless administrative task, I am building my skill set and making myself a more valuable employee and human being.

3. My own education
This job has allowed me to continue with my own education; as a result I am only a semester away from earning my MATESOL!

4. Getting organized
Spending this time working on the admin side of a school, I have gained a huge appreciation for organization, standardization and systems. Things run so much more smoothly when everything is in its place; not only am I getting to practice doing this myself, but I have also gained a huge appreciation for our regular admin staff and the importance of the work that they do.

5. A paycheck
Lets be honest, I don’t think anyone goes into the ESL field for the incredible financial opportunities, and I am no exception. I do this because I love it, plain and simple, However, a girls gotta eat, and at the end of the day this job gives me an opportunity to suit up and show up, be a worker among workers, and pay the bills. What more could I ask for?

There are countless other reasons for which I am grateful for my job and the work that I do, but I am going to keep it short and sweet, so that I can get back to work! What do you think? What have I missed? What are the things that make you feel grateful for your job?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Grammar Rut

As a self-proclaimed grammar geek this is hard for me to say: I love grammar but I hate teaching it. In teaching my current grammar course, I am required by my school’s curriculum to cover certain chapters over a limited length of time, which leaves little time for deviation from the assigned text. Sometimes it feels like every class is the same: review the previous day’s material and homework, introduce new grammar rules, apply the new grammar rules, practice the grammar in a variety of activities. I get bored! And if I am bored, how could my students not be bored? I understand the usefulness of each of these aspects of a grammar class, but over time it begins to feel so stale and predictable. I am stuck in a grammar rut, how do I get out of it?

I am brainstorming ideas about how to make a typical grammar class more engaging. How to cover the essential grammar points and practice them to maximize comprehension and retention, yet minimize boredom and predictability? Here are a few of the things I have come up with:

1. Begin each lesson with a just-for-fun activity
This activity does not have to be related to the grammar point du jour, but is simply in place to lift the spirits of the students before diving into linking verbs or comparatives. If they are engaged in the beginning of class it will be easier to keep them engaged as the lesson goes on.

2. Using funny examples with the grammar points
If I can get the students to laugh or even just crack a smile during the class it makes my life that much easier. Examples used to illustrate grammar points do not have to be painfully simple and boring. Why not use an example with some humor? This will keep things light, and students are more likely to pay attention to the grammar if the sentence is interesting to them in some way.

3. Relating the grammar to personal examples
I try to do this in all classes, not just grammar. Students need to understand and feel that what they are learning is useful and important in some way, and the best way to achieve this is to show them how to use it in their lives.

4. Get the students to stand up
Doesn’t matter how. Invite them to write on the board. Put them into different groups. Have them stand as they share examples. Something as simple as standing for just a few seconds can help students wake up and bring them back into the present moment, keeping them engaged in the task at hand.

5. Make a game out of it
Students of any age love competition. You can enhance any regular practice activity with an element of competition, and all of a sudden students are awake and engaged in a way which they weren’t previously.

This is a work in progress, I am incorporating these elements into my grammar class every day and observing the change in the classroom environment as a result. I would love to hear some ideas from other educators about how they keep students active and engaged in grammar class. How do you make a grammar class effective yet meaningful?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Observer's Paradox

This week we are undergoing classroom observations. My boss and the corporate Director of Curriculum are performing random classroom observations all week. As a result, I am living in fear that my class will be dropped in on and my every move observed and dissected. So far, it has happened twice. Like a real-life example of Labov’s Observer’s Paradox, it feels as if a classroom under careful observation will never appear completely natural. I am nervous, the students are nervous; no matter how many times an observer says “Just pretend I’m not here!” it is nearly impossible to ignore that presence in the classroom.

As with most things, the fear of observation is worse than the actual observations. Each time my class has been observed I feel that it has been a relatively accurate representation of what a normal class is like. But that’s not good enough! I want it to be an accurate representation of the BEST CLASS THEY HAVE EVER SEEN!

As usual, my expectations set me up for disappointment. I have been lesson-planning my little heart out all week, but of course nothing ever goes exactly as planned. The observers never step in during the best activities, they always seem to show up exactly when a student has gotten completely lost, an activity has flopped, or a grammar point is particularly messy.

But hey, thats life, right? That’s the reality of teaching, and that’s why it’s a pretty accurate representation of a regular class. Things go wrong, activities go stale, students act out and sometimes it looks nothing like the original plan.

Of course, I would love it if they only saw me at my best, but anyone with a teaching background or knowledge knows exactly what its like to be up in front of a class just trying to make it work. Perfection is rarely achieved. And why would we want it to be? If I achieve perfection it will mean I have stopped learning, I have ceased to be teachable, and in my opinion thats the worst place a teacher can be.
So for today I am just going to do my best, ignore the “elephant in the room,” and accept any feedback that comes my way; it can only help me grow in skills and ability, and at the end of the day thats all I can hope for.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

When (and when not) to leave personal experience at the door

Teaching is a job which requires enthusiasm, spirit, and personality. Showing up in the classroom with a good attitude and tons of energy is absolutely indispensable. Students feed off our energy, after all. It is my job to set the bar high when it comes to enthusiasm, encouraging students to match my energy while keeping the atmosphere positive and dynamic. This can be a challenge even on the most cheerful of days. When I am having a bad day, it is downright exhausting.

It is incredibly important to bring our own personality and character into the classroom. Students can relate more easily to a teacher who is human, who is relatable, and who is (hopefully!) likeable than to a teacher who is detached, withdrawn, or removed. I find that bringing my own personality, my own character, and my own experience into the classroom allows students to trust and connect with me; however, there is only a certain extent to which this is appropriate and helpful. On a good day, I can bring my life right into the classroom and share personal examples to aid and illustrate student learning. When life has got me feeling down, it is time to leave my personal experience at the door, put on a happy face, and do the best I can. For me, this is a real challenge: I don’t want to appear “fake” in front of my students, but professionalism and a desire to maintain a positive classroom atmosphere absolutely require this.

Right now I am going through a really challenging time in my personal life. I don’t say this to fish for sympathy or wallow in self-pity, but simply to share my experience that, no matter what I am going through outside of the classroom, I always make it a priority to show up with a smile and work to cultivate a positive environment in which students can learn. That is especially difficult these days, but a great opportunity to practice showing up and doing my best regardless of what else is going on outside the classroom.