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The Surge to Online Teaching

26th July 2019

There is a mini-crisis looming in the world of English Language teaching.

Most companies which play in this area are still operating on the traditional business model. They have very expensive training centres filled with very expensive teaching staff, delivering very expensively designed and created training courses – always run on a very expensive computer network and displayed on different sizes and shapes of displays, some small and basic, some large and interactive, but all pretty expensive.

As you will have surmised from the previous paragraph, the traditional face-to-face English Language Training Business model is very cost intensive – which explains, in part at least, why these companies charge such large sums for their English Language Training Courses, and are so intensely focused on maintaining their revenue stream.  

The reasons behind this behaviour are clear. These are high throughput, high student-turnover organisations with very high monthly costs, operating within very tight margins in a very competitive market. The pressure is always on, and the first optional-extra costs which are thrown onto the‘maybe-someday ’ pile are customer care and service quality assurance.

So the market is ripe for change, purely because of the threat posed to the existing high-cost model by the current migration trend to online training.

The Students

Surprisingly perhaps, the idea of remote learning has in fact been around for almost 70 years. Given Australia’s unique population distribution profile, where 95% of the population live within a few miles of the coast and everyone else lives in the middle of nowhere, it is not surprising that they came up with a way of educating those children who lived many miles from the nearest school.

The first School of the Air was started in Alice Springs in 1951, based on providing direct one-to-many teaching using HF radio communication with children on remote farms and cattle stations. The service is still in place today all over central Australia, still using radio where that is the only available way of talking to the students. Broadband provision is mostly non-existent in these remote areas, and satellite based internet systems run expensive.

Today, 98% plus of any population outside the jungles and deserts of Africa and South America will have a smart phone more-or-less cemented to their hand. They look to their phone to provide them with everything: information, social networking, money, entertainment, and even communication.

For them, the additional move to building education into their daily mobile schedule is a natural and un-contentious next-step, especially for younger students who have already seen the beginnings of this in school. (For many years schools fought against phones – attempting to lock them away in broom cupboards to try to get the kids to listen to the teacher. Today most schools recognise the futility of this kind of regimen, and build the mobile phone into their lesson planning and lesson management.)

So, for many students the idea of moving to an online teaching system seems natural; the logical next step. However life is never quite that simple. Almost all these students remember having an actual teacher in the class for their lessons at school and college. It felt natural, it seemed to be effective, and there seems to be an extra level of added-value and added-comfort which stems from the ability to go up and have a quiet word in the teacher’s ear, or have them come up and have a quiet word in yours.

There still seems to be a strong underlying suspicion that perhaps online-only teaching is not as effective and not as valuable as real-time classroom teaching. On the other hand, if it is much cheaper, much more convenient and much more flexible than classroom based teaching, as online learning certainly promises to be, then perhaps that more than offsets the effectiveness question.

One other point to consider with regard to the student side of this equation though, is the whole question of social interaction. Most classroom-based language schools focus very strongly on building a friendly, caring-sharing attitude in their training centres, with lots of small low-cost ideas and events encouraged to build the idea of teamwork and confraternity.

The original idea behind this was to encourage the students to build up relationships within their classes, which would give them additional reason for wanting to keep coming back to the school, and might encourage them to sign up for further tuition. This is still true of course, but an important additional element has now been added.

Many younger students tend to live more and more as online only creatures, with little in the way of real-world interaction. The idea behind the social side of Language Schools is currently aimed at providing these people with a communal space where they can use and practice their English in the real world, not simply online – and they are encouraged to believe that using English in the real world, talking to real people face-to-face, is better for their English, though it is rarely made clear why this might be true. This is one of the ways that classroom based EFL centres are attempting to turn back the rising internet tide.

The Schools

The very large language training companies with which we are all familiar, have only quite recently realised that the internet represents an existential threat to their operations. However the problem they face is quite simple and should have been obvious to them all along.

We are all now living in the Convenience Age. Everything – EVERYTHING! – is available to us through a few quick taps and swipes on our phone – and yet, for some reason, if we want to learn English we are expected to actually physically go to an office somewhere and watch and listen to a teacher play with their technology, as opposed to using our own technology and doing most of this stuff over WeChat, or Skype, or Zoom or Facebook.

For some people the idea of actually having a teacher in front of them and a group of classmates around them to work on communication with, is a high value proposition; but for many more people this set up is an embarrassing inconvenience which they would much rather do without, being quite content to simply log-in, participate at the level they feel comfortable with, and then log-out and get on with the rest of their life – virtual or otherwise.

The big language companies are finding it very hard to cope with these pressures. Small new online English language companies are popping up every day, with a very low cost-base and a highly flexible approach – deliver what the customer asks for, at a very low price, and in the comfort of their own phone.

Most of the big boys have tried or are trying to roll-out their own internet based solution, based on their name, market position and reputation. The two problems they face though is that they have to try to do this without cannibalising their existing user-base, and their need to avoid shifting most new customers to the new lower-cost online model. They still need to fill their classrooms and pay their rent.

The Final Nail

Real-time on-line video communication has been around for nearly forty years, but only recently have network capacity and video transport technologies been sufficiently well aligned to allow for at least reasonable on-screen performance with the likes of FaceTime, Skype, Zoom and WeChat – but bandwidth has always been the Achilles Heel of this kind of application: resulting in poor frame rates, poor synchronisation and link-loss.

All of this system friability will disappear in the next 18 months with the widespread introduction of 5G Technology – after which time the ability of any training organisation to deliver very high quality one-to-one or one-to-many video training links will have become, to all intents and purposes, free.

In my view, the introduction of 5G technology will be the death knell of the large scale in-class Language Training schools we have become accustomed to. Between now and the end of 2020 I think we will see large scale closures or at least re-purposing of most of the high-street Language Training premises which currently dot the high streets of cities from Belfast to Beijing, via Berlin, Beirut and Belo Horizonte.

I am sure some of the big names in language training will survive this lurch to the web, though in very different form, but the real problem they will face is that this is just the beginning.

 Immediately on the tail of 5G, we’ll see the introduction of learning-machine based AI teaching-systems. These will be able to ask students questions, work out their language learning requirements just by analysing the words they use to formulate their answers, and then deliver individually tailored course material specifically  designed to sort out the student’s grammar, vocabulary, sentence structures and accent, all at the same time. Human teachers will still be required - to coach, remind, advise and encourage, but not to compete with the AI’s level of language capability.

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The LGBTQIA+ teacher abroad: Doing your research

25th July 2019

‘You are so lucky!’ ‘I wish I could go on permanent holiday!’.  Probably the two most common responses on finding out I am an ESL teacher, and in one sense I understand it, we do seem to have a dream job. With a teaching certificate and your degree, the world is your oyster. Who among us can say we hate the fact that we can take our skills and find work in almost any country of the world? But for all of us there is a flipside to this luck. You miss things, the big and the small, you miss moments and gradually it can seem like people begin to forget you. What’s more it can feel as though you are in an endless loop of making. Making: beds, friendships, new routines, new relationships, a life, before putting all of that in a box and moving on. It’s not easy, but hey! adventure calls. There are new countries to see, new vocab to teach, the ever elusive ‘amazing salary’ to earn, so you go, jump in and restart all over again. You don’t even have to do too much research ‘learning about other cultures’ is just another of the amazing things about our job.

 

However for the average LGBTQIA+ teacher it’s not quite that easy. There are some additional considerations, from the profound: is it really worth risking imprisonment for a great salary? Or If I go to this country can I be fired if they find out who I really am? To the slightly less profound: What is the gay scene like in that city? Or how good looking are Chileans? (these are all questions I have either asked myself or google, seriously).

 

For this reason it is useful and relevant to look at some experiences of LGBTQIA+ teachers. If nothing else, to save you from making some of the mistakes my friends and I have made.  I am very aware that this issue is huge, that one person’s experiences cannot reflect the experiences of such a broad and multifaceted community, and I would certainly never seek to do that. I will try to talk to as wide of a variety of people as possible, to read as many studies as possible and to give as balanced and complete a picture as I can.

 

That disclaimer in mind, there are some advantages for a young member of the LGBTQIA+ community in becoming an ESL teacher.  There is a certain freedom to travel, in leaving your community and having an opportunity to reinvent yourself. The other day, while talking to a colleague I had a sudden intense flashback to the intense feeling of hope and excitement I felt as I left for my first year teaching abroad, in Chile. I remember it feeling as though a little balloon of hope had grown inside of me, that finally I would introduce myself with pride, that I wouldn’t have to hide. I would be me, I would make friends who I wouldn’t have to come out to, I would just be out. I wouldn’t have to pretend that my interest in football had anything to do with the looks of the men on the pitch, that my lack of interest in talking about boys was because I had been ‘burned’ that I would feel free to be me.

 

I vividly remember walking through the fantastically named Arturo Merino Benitez airport feeling lost, confused, and elated.  I was walking on air at the thought of what I could be here, and how I could reinvent myself. It truly was an incredible feeling. One which I realised was by no means unique while I was talking to my, aforementioned, colleague.  He told me about how the act of leaving his small hometown, and his group of friends, allowed him the freedom to express something he had long felt. To explore what he could be, away from the confines of home. For me it was the idea of escaping the pressure to ‘live up’ to my family’s picture of how my life would be. I never wanted to embarrass my mum, nor break my gran’s heart, and certainly not if it was just a phase, or if I was wrong. But how could I explore that if they were close by?

 

Whatever your reason for seeking to reinvent yourself, that first month, while incredibly difficult, as moving always is, can feel incredible. You can feel free, liberated and at peace,  if you’ve done your homework that is. For my colleague it was incredible, freeing and overwhelming. He did exactly what he set out to, he didn’t hide, he came out and he reinvented himself. For me, well there was a small flaw in my planning, which brings me to my top tip: one google search does not count as in depth research. I am now going to share a cautionary tale with you. 

Sometimes the fight around certain rights and which countries do and don’t have them can distract us, and make us think that the simple act of having gay marriage or civil partnership means a country is safe and liberal. Don’t misunderstand me, it is overwhelming and incredible to reflect on the changes in attitudes we have seen in the past few years. Consider that at the turn of the century there was not a single country in the world in which same sex couples could marry, while today same-sex couples can marry in 28 countries or territories, while a further 11 offer some kind of civil union. By any estimation this is staggering progress. However my point is that sometimes the staggering statistics can hide a more complex reality. If you research a little deeper, you come to realise that having a legal status is not the same as having a social status, especially if you consider the differences in opnion across a country. People in a city tend to have different perspectives than people in small towns.

 

To make my point clearly I'll use my first teaching post as a case study, not because I think it is typical, but because form the specific we can draw general advice. Where we left off with my story – I was walking through Arturo Benitez airport on air, getting lost, swallowed up by crowds, but still sure this would be my place. 7,166 miles would surely be enough distance. I spent my first week in the capital with a group of teachers in a hostel. This was where I learned that if you put enough teachers together in a hostel it will only ever end one way, drinking and competitive exercise, hopefully not simultaneously.This was the perfect place to try out the new me, I introduced myself to everyone and, whether or not they asked, cared or heard, outed myself. It was an amazing week, I discovered the freedom from not having to hide, the way pride comes from being open - it’s really difficult to feel proud of something you are desperately hiding.

 

It really was a dream, but I was soon to learn a vital lesson. There is a difference between living in the bubble existence we ESL teachers often find ourselves in, where we only hang out with other English speakers who tend to have similar world views and approaches, and living alone in a small town in the Andes. If you are a LGBTQIA+ teacher I would tell you to take heed from my experience. You see I went from this perfect week to a very small town, which I won’t name to save its blushes. This town I soon learned was not a safe place to be out. Despite the fact that gay rights are legally recognized in Chile, they are not respected and that is the diffeence between being able to get married, and being able to walk down the street without being yelled at. In a sense I was incredibly lucky, as on my first night with my host family I got a hint at how things were, when my host dad asked me ‘que piensas del aborto y el matrimonio gay, po?’ (what do you think about abortion, and gay marriage?’). My Spanish at this point extended to a response of ‘yes, is good’. My host dad then spent an hour lecturing me about why it was the invention of the devil, and that all gay people should be castrated. This gave me the idea that, on reflection, it may be best to hurry back into my closet. I then spent the following year watching as students were harrassed for not obeying to gender norms, seeing the one gay couple in town being harrassed, and more than anything begining to lock myself right into the closet. I tried to date a man - horrible idea- and become more acceptable. This was a horrible experience which could have been avoided by more careful research, had I talked to people from the country, read local newspapers, and tried to find out more than whether it was legal, and if there were good looking people.

 

The moral for today is this. It shouldn’t be necessary for us to have to be more careful. In a perfect world we would all have equal access to our ‘oyster’ but, until the rainbow flag flies proudly over every part of the world, make sure that before you go, you take some time to learn about where exactly you are going. If you are on a programme, ask the organizers if they will make sure you are going to a safe place. Safety first!

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Wandering blindly into my teaching career - An American in Spain

25th July 2019

Spain is a wonderful country and one that has been my home for over 12 years now. Having come from the United States with a Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in History / English Literature and with little ability to speak the languages of Spanish or Catalan (the primary language of the area I was moving to), I knew teaching was going to be my main job option. I had had lots of business and management experience before the move, but not knowing the local language was a real handicap for finding a job here in most fields.

When I first got to Spain, I actually lived about an hour outside of Barcelona in a small village, which also didn’t help my job prospects much. I had moved here for love and got married a month before I made the leap abroad, upending my life completely. Being Spanish, my husband had already established a life here and had an apartment rented for us because he was teaching Science and Technology at the local high school, so around that small village is where my work life in Spain began. I needed a job and I needed it quickly, so I updated my CV and off to the academies I went. It just took a few hours to hit the three small businesses in my village. No luck there at all. Being a native speaker piqued the interest of the academy owners, but not having a CELTA or DELTA certificate and having had no real teaching experience beforehand (other than a little voluntary ESL teaching to immigrants in Boston), I was not the most hirable person for the position.

We had a car and my husband didn’t need it to get to his job at the local school, so I decided to expand outwards. I applied for all the jobs in the local villages and towns and after a week I had a job, albeit a forty-five minute drive away to a seaside village that worked me five days a week for no more than 2 hours at a time each day. Experience is everything in this country, so I took the position, but for those next three months, I probably spent as much on petrol and car maintenance as I actually made in salary.

I learned a lot about my new career in those three months, but after my first autumn term, I knew I needed to find something closer to home for both my sanity and my bank account. This is where my real teaching career in Spain began. Feeling a bit more confident than I had felt before, with a little experience and understanding of what was needed, expected and required of me as a teacher, I went to the local larger town. It was 10 minutes away and much more desirable than where I was working at the time. I distributed my CV in person to all the academies and (nicely) demanded to speak to the owners directly as I looked them in the eye, shook their hands and handed them my CV. The American go-getter in me really thought that would work. Sadly, no luck. The lack of a CELTA or DELTA certificate was certainly holding me back.

Just before heading home defeated for the day, I stopped at the very last academy on my list. It was not an open door business, but one where you had to ring the bell to be let in. The older woman who answered the door was talking heatedly on the phone when she let me enter and she was obviously British and probably the academy owner. She covered the phone receiver and briskly asked me what I needed. I started to tell her that I was looking for work and handed her my CV. She abruptly returned to her phone call and held up her finger in that way where someone is telling you to hold on for a moment. My heart sank. It definitely felt like a clear rejection, but it seemed that she wanted to be nice and say to my face that they weren’t looking for anyone new. I waited anyway.

Once she finished the call five minutes later, to my shock and surprise she asked me if I wanted to start working in two hours’ time and to do classes for the rest of the week on a probationary period. I’m no fool. Of course, I said yes. She explained to me that she had just been informed of a death in her family and that she had to fly back to England for the week for the funeral. She didn’t have any extra academy teachers she could ask to take on her classes because one teacher had quit just days before and, since I had a little experience, she would let me take over her classes on a trial basis to see if I was worth hiring long term. At this point, I was feeling confident in my abilities as a teacher and knew I was going to give her students the best learning experience they were ever likely to get in all their years of English study.

I ended up working for 5 years for that academy - teaching General English to students at every age and at every level, teaching Business English to a wide variety of people who work in a lot of varied fields, teaching at organizations and unions that need very specific English instruction, writing my own industry-specific course and course book for people in the wine industry around Barcelona, becoming a Cambridge University English Speaking and Writing Examiner for every level, becoming an English editor for a variety of different types of publications, etc.

That is the story of my beginnings as an English teacher in a foreign land.

Now, what’s the takeaway from all this. In my twelve years here, I feel like I have a lot of advice for newbies to this field. Let’s take it step by step for those who are thinking about going abroad and believe teaching English is what they want to do.

1)     Get the CELTA or DELTA certificate if you don’t already have teaching experience. I am lucky in that my university degree included English Literature as part of my BA, but the truth is that I lucked into my teaching career and struggled until I got fortunate enough to have an owner/teacher desperate for a quick hire.

2)     Be committed. I knew that all I had to work with wasn’t sufficient for the very specific things Spanish people expect from their potential employees - experience, qualifications, flexibility, etc. If you are lucky enough to find something, commit and work hard. Don’t come to a place thinking you’ll work for a couple of years to get some life experience in a foreign land before returning home and can be nonchalant about punctuality, preparation, or other things. The owners of these academies sense that in a person and are much less likely to hire you if you don’t seem committed.

3)     Make sure the work you do is all contracted legally. There were many places willing to hire me, but the money was under the table (black money). I did a little bit of that, but ended up getting cheated out of 800€ at some point and realized that the only way to guarantee you get what you were told is to make sure everything is above board.

4)     Speak the native language if possible. I have also been lucky that the language barrier didn’t stop me from getting hired. I fortunately had a native Spaniard at home to help me when I didn’t understand some things, but the language issue has been a really big one for me. Many of the business and academy owners are Catalan / Spanish here and without the ability to talk or interview with them, my prospects were much more limited.

5)     If you don’t live in a big city with good public transportation, you will probably need a car to work a full schedule. If you don’t want to be stuck in rooms all day with groups of really small tired children for afterschool classes, then a car allows you to accept classes outside of your academy. I work in Barcelona now and don’t need a car for what I do, but when I was living outside of the city, it was essential.

6)     Make sure you have a friend or partner that has some understanding of the governmental systems, rules and offices and can help you understand things when necessary. Living in a foreign country brings on a lot of new challenges, but the biggest one is not understanding how things there work. You might need identification, tax filing help, unemployment benefits, medical coverage, etc. In every country, administration is a complex maze and you will appreciate any and all help someone who knows the system can give you.

7)     Accept everything possible at first and after a few years start being selective. At the beginning, I accepted almost every possible job that came my way. It exhausted me sometimes and wasn’t always convenient, but I needed the experience and it gave me an opportunity to figure out what I was good at, what I liked and what was acceptable for me once I had a bit more to put on my CV. After a few years of doing this, I was willing to step back and look at the practicality of what I was doing and start eliminating things that just weren’t financially or emotionally good for me. It’s hard to do, but it’s essential that at some point you take stock of your situation and set boundaries. I now only accept the things I want to do or work well for me. I am also much more comfortable in saying no to jobs if I don’t think I’m getting fair pay or respect for my experience. I feel secure about doing that now.

8)     Have fun. Teaching has been the joy of my life. Oh, I’ve had some rough classes along the way, but I’ve discovered that it can be such a fun and rewarding job. Having a class laugh at a story you tell or seeing that light in someone’s eye when they finally understand something is everything. It’s a job I fell into, but one I love and know I was meant to do.

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The flexible ESL teacher - Teaching to students' interests

25th July 2019

When adult students come to class to begin learning English they are not going to want to learn about why 'read' is spelled the same in simple past but pronounced differently in present tense. Why you ask? Because it's not immediately relevant and therefore not of interest to their current lives. They are more than likely to have just arrived in a new country and are interested in learning the basics: how to navigate a new public transport system in their host city or how to order a cheeseburger without the embarrassment of causing a scene. Teaching to students’ interests can easily be done by placing the shoe on the other foot and really considering what students may be going through upon arriving in a new country as an ESL learner (or those planning to travel to a new country). There are different ways of exploring students’ interests in the ESL classroom and in doing so, you may also need to have a flexible approach to the traditional teaching methodologies. I will offer up some ways of achieving this that have worked in my own teaching experiences and some basic ideas and concepts to integrate (if you should choose to accept) into your own ESL classroom.

 

Encouraging choice

 

Giving students choice in their learning is an excellent tool for allowing ownership, autonomy and direction over students’ learning paths. They are going to choose things they are interested in learning about and therefore they will want to study this material more because it matters to them.  Some ideas for implementing this can start with providing a suggestion box in the classroom for weekly topic-based lesson ideas (or areas of focus) and adhering your learning outcomes and goals to these. This process can take some adjustment on the teacher’s part but, in doing so, can produce more interested learners and an overall satisfying learning environment. Other ways of encouraging students to take ownership over their learning through choice include: distributing learning surveys to find out what students want to learn about or having an open discussion as to what students enjoyed (or not so much) at the end of each lesson. The concept of integrating more choice into the classroom can readily be applied to both older and younger learners in the ESL classroom.

 

Younger students sometimes fail to have any sort of interest in learning another language, in comparison to adult learners who pay out of pocket for lessons, because they don't actually choose to learn English, their parents do! Satisfying their learning needs with self-guided choices can be trickier, although if disguised well, effective. The same concepts discussed above can also be applied to younger learners. For example, instead of asking students what they want to learn, (which can be quite broad)  giving perhaps 4 or 5 choices as to the topics they may be interested in studying each week and having a diplomatic vote as to which one to focus on, can help with facilitating student-centred learning and choice in the classroom. Introducing project-based learning methods (think designing their ideal bedroom using a diorama or designing their own board or video game and presenting it) can also allow for students to actively gain interest in the learning process and exercise choice by allowing for personal and creative concepts to be carried out, all the while using English vocabulary to ask questions during the process, present, etc. Surveys and reflections on lessons at the end of each class can also help the teacher to see what students didn't like and what they are keen to pursue more of in future classes.

 

Flexibility

 

On one occasion one of my younger learners really ended up teaching me the importance of flexibility in the classroom. My student at the time had come in so excited to talk to me about a festival that she was going to have at her primary school at the end of the week. She could barely contain her enthusiasm and proceeded to tell me (without taking a breath): what games would be held among the different age groups, what food would be available to snack on, the possibility of a water fight, etc.

I had an entirely different lesson prepared for the day but the fact that this normally shy and quiet student had come to class bursting with excitement to share this information with me, to the point where she was digging out all the English vocabulary and grammar she knew to string together sentences, even drawing or acting out scenes when she was unsure of something, I had to be flexible and abandon my lesson completely.

 

I decided to ask my student further probing questions to indulge her interest in the topic knowing that when students attach meaning to something, they are said to be more likely to remember it. We even ended up coming up with the idea together to create a flyer advertising this school event with vocabulary she had used initially and some new related words that were linked to the topic. I had no plan of this beforehand, however, my student's excitement fuelled my own excitement to see her learn and therefore I was able to adjust my plans to mould to what was relevant that day to her.  This type of student-centred approach to learning in the ESL classroom really proved successful and reassured me that linking the students’ interests to learning and allowing the student to take control sometimes can really help to showcase purpose to the learner.

 

Delivery Mode

 

Sticking with the topic of the younger ESL learner. Being flexible with not only what they are learning about and exercising choice here but also how they are learning English as well is key. Let's be honest, English can be linked to any number of topics, therefore the mode of delivery being linked to students’ interests is just as important as the 'what'. Removing students from their classroom and taking them to a park where you can explain, demonstrate and then see students create meaning through play based learning in a nearby green space or park can really encourage active learning and apply to the kinaesthetic learner as well. Having students create an English market for fellow students or parents or acting out a pretend town, assembling kites using English instruction and then seeing them in action can all transform the typical classroom setting to something magical that elicits ‘ natural language learning in a comfortable and fun way that appeals to their interests at home.

 

For older students, ideas for delivering engaging lessons delivered in a different way can include: creating a murder mystery day where the pressure is somewhat taken off the students by playing a 'character', or by creating a mock trial day to elicit persuasive English. These ideas can also help switch up the monotony of the everyday classroom setting.

 

Another option to link learning in the ESL classroom to students’ interests and cross off both the 'what' and the 'how' is to integrate technology. Using VR(virtual reality) to transport students to London, Canada or other countries where they can physically see their English in action by visiting museums, attractions and landmarks, therefore immediately relaying the importance as to why they are learning the language in the first place. If your students are as obsessed with video games as are mine, fear not, these can also be used in the classroom to encourage students’ desires to learn English and derive meaning from it. For example, one student can deliver instructions to a video game both before and whilst another is playing the video game in order to pass a 'level' or progress further in it. One student is practising speaking and pronunciation whilst the other is practising listening while both are actively engaged in the learning process. Reflecting on what went wrong once a student 'dies' or doesn't pass a certain level can further add meaning and understanding to the lesson.

 

Upper-intermediate to proficient adult language learners have likely conquered all your run of the mill textbook topics (think weather, family, vacations...). In which case, using relevant current events, news topic materials, even the newest Amazon or Netflix series will all help to liven up the ESL classroom and appeal to students’ interests in the world around them.

 

Current issues in the community or news can spark debates and opinion-based language, role plays and presentations related to such. Whereas forming predictions on an upcoming Netflix episode of a certain show or discussing who the bad guy is on  'Making a murderer' through character descriptions/comparisons and formulating reasons and hypotheses behind students’ theories, can all appeal to students’ current interests and add meaning to their learning.

 

Community events, concerts, protests and workshops in the area where students are learning can also really help elicit meaning and link to students’ interests as adult language learners. For example, there was an upcoming beach clean up in the area I was recently working, whereby if enough people signed up, it would become a Guinness World Record attempt. I brought up the event to my adult learners living nearby. This in turn sparked deeper discussions on what the next steps should be to clean up the community and that in turn spread to broader topics of interest to students such as climate change, the recent news headline about the impending end of the world in 2020, post-apocalyptic plans, etc.

 

The students were interested in sharing their opinions, learning related idioms and expressions, partaking in discussions/debates and activities related to these topics because they were relevant to them at that particular time and further linked to their own community interests. Needless to say, these lessons were a success for these reasons.

 

Upon further reflection into my own ESL teaching experiences, I am now conscious to allow for a more student centred approach to teaching where students’ interests and direction in the learning process are the focus.  Getting to know your students in the beginning therefore is just as important as getting to know your colleagues because, like different learning styles, every student has different interests and therefore different ways of linking together ideas and partaking in the learning process. Whether you have access to VR glasses or simply a newspaper and a nearby park, with a bit of student input and teacher flexibility, these goals can be achieved in any ESL classroom.

 

These concepts are all based out of previous experience and concepts derived from:

Lee, E. & Hannafin, M.J. (2016). A design framework for enhancing engagement in student-centred learning: own it, learn it and share it. Education Technology Research Development, 64, pp.707-734.

 

McCarthy, J. (2015, September 9). Student centred learning: It starts with the teacher. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/student-centered-learning-starts-with-teacher-john-mccarthy

 

Robinson, K. & Aronica, L. (2016) Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education. New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC

 

Salend, S.J. (2008). Creating inclusive classrooms: Effective and reflective practices 6th edition. Boston, Pearson.

Semple, A. (2000). Learning theories and their influence on the development and use of educational technologies. Australian Science Teachers Journal, Vol 46(3).

 

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Handling Student Complaints

24th July 2019

Few would doubt that we are now living in a world of ever increasing expectations on the part of the consumer.  Everyone wants a bigger, better, TV; faster broadband; and more choice in everything. What’s more, these expectations are not confined to goods and services; they also apply to education.  Students learning English as a Foreign Language, particularly those in the private sector, are becoming more aware of their role as consumers and are becoming increasingly strident if their aspirations are not met. They may complain about their grades, that their teacher is boring, that the level of the class is too high or too low, or that there’s too much or too little homework.

Many English Language teaching establishments seem to be of the view that they are running a first-rate service and that, if a student makes a complaint, then he/she is simply a ‘troublemaker’.  This complaint may be dealt with summarily, and often no action is taken whatsoever.  The result?  A disgruntled student who will spread a bad atmosphere throughout the establishment, and who may even discourage other potential students from attending courses there. This is a grave error on the part of the school. The ‘complaints industry’ is becoming increasingly important. Organisations that don’t recognise this are falling further and further behind their competitors.

I think that it’s important that Directors of Studies are fully aware that most complaints are not made lightly and that they can, in fact, be quite legitimate.  Delivering a course for a student learning English as a Foreign Language is an enormously complex business, and so the chances of something going awry are very high.  And if a complaint is made, it’s of the utmost importance to deal with it properly – for everyone’s benefit.

Here are some guidelines for dealing with student complaints:

Mindset

Treat the student as a valued customer (rather than a ‘student’) and consider the different status that goes with that word.  After all, in the private sector at least, these people pay your salary, your teachers’ salaries, and for all your overheads, etc.  This is a simple truth that is worth being aware of at all times. Without fully occupied classrooms, classrooms full of contented customers, an organisation can’t hope to compete with other ones that do take complaints seriously.

Hearing the complaint

Give the complaining student the time to fully express his/her grievances.  This means sitting, one-to-one, in a closed office, with absolutely no interruptions, and with a consensual seating arrangement.  By this, I mean two chairs of the same height and degree of comfort, facing each other, and not separated by a table. Listening is of supreme importance.  It is a precondition for success in the process of resolving a problem.  In fact, this very act may well be enough to resolve most student complaints. If a student thinks the teacher (or Director of Studies) isn’t listening carefully, and is eager to stop him/her in mid-flow, he/she will feel less respected. It would not be a good example of conflict resolution.

Taking action

Take action which is both fair and reasonable.  Personally, I do not think that “the customer is always right”.  But I do think that an appropriate reaction is crucial. 

If the stated grievances are clearly valid, then you should do something about them.  For example, if the teacher is often three or four minutes late, tell that teacher clearly and firmly to arrive on time.

Example dialogue

Director of Studies: John, can I have a word?

John (teacher): Yes, sure.

Director of Studies: I just had a complaint. From Angelo in class 1A.

John: Oh?

Director of Studies: Yes, do you know what it’s about?

John: No, I don’t think so.

Director of Studies: It’s about your punctuality.

John: My punctuality?

(pause)

Director of Studies: He says you’re always three or four minutes late.

John: Oh.

Director of Studies: Well?

John: It may have happened once or twice. Sorry. I try to make up for it at the end of the lesson.

Director of Studies: Please arrive on time every lesson, OK?

John: Yes, of course. Sorry.

Director of Studies: Angelo knows I’m speaking to you.

John: OK.

Director of Studies: Thanks, John.

By the same token, if you think that complaints are not valid, or partially valid, then you still need to react appropriately.  For example, if the student wants more grammar (while no other students do), ask the teacher to set additional homework for that individual student to do.

Example dialogue

Director of Studies: Boris?

Boris (teacher): Yeah?

Director of Studies: I’ve just had a complaint from Francesca.

Boris: Francesca?

Director of Studies: She says she wants more grammar.

Boris: More grammar? We agreed together on a syllabus and it’s on the wall. I show them every day what we’ve done and why. Am I doing it right?

Director of Studies: Absolutely. Well done. That’s what they should expect. I don’t want to disrupt a good class, but I’m wondering how we can adapt to Francesca’s needs?

Boris: No problem. I can give her some weblinks for the grammar every day? Get her to do some exercises? And check them?

Director of Studies: Could you? I know it’s going the extra mile. I'm sure she’d appreciate that.

Boris: My pleasure.

Director of Studies: Keep me posted, will you?

Boris: Sure.

Whatever you decide to do, you need a period of quiet reflection before you act.  You may need to acquire some more data before you make your decision (for example, talking to teachers and checking work records).

Debrief

It’s vital to check that everything is OK (after the changes have been implemented).  This will be greatly appreciated by the client.  It puts the final seal on the resolution process.  It’s highly likely that the student will be more than happy with the changes implemented (and, indeed, may even feel guilty for having put the establishment to so much trouble!).  If not, then another meeting needs to be set up – and to be conducted in the same rational way.

Example dialogue (scenario 1)

Director of Studies: Angelo?

Angelo (student): Yes?

Director of Studies: You told me about John not always being on time?

Angelo: Yes, I remember.

Director of Studies: How are things?

Angelo: It’s better now, thank you. He’s in the class before me every day. Thank you, Carol.

Director of Studies: Great. I’m always in my office if you need to speak to me.

Example dialogue (scenario 2)

Director of Studies:

Francesca (student): Yes?

Director of Studies: You told me you wanted more grammar in class, remember?

Francesca: Yes, I remember.

Director of Studies: I spoke to Boris, and he said you all agreed on a syllabus, and it’s on the wall. That’s our school policy.

Francesca: Yes, I know.

Director of Studies: But has he given you extra homework?

Francesca: Yes, that’s right. Every day. It’s very useful. Thank you so much.

Director of Studies: You’re welcome. Come and see me if you need to discuss other things, OK?

Francesca: Thanks, I will.

Handling complaints in multinational corporations is big business.  But I don’t wish to be too cynical here.  Doing it in the way described above seems to be both humane and in keeping with the modern world.  And the concrete benefits are likely to be: a) customer satisfaction, b) a better atmosphere in the class in question, c) an enhanced reputation for the establishment (this is long-term), and d) the possibility of repeat sales.

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How Summer Teaching will help your teaching career

24th July 2019

Reminiscing on summer school evokes memories of golden beaches, dreamy blue skies, sport, friendship, and ceaseless laughter. A lot of the time it appears too good to be true. Cathartic moments occur on a daily basis. If you want to travel, meet people from all over the world, earn and save money, while doing something meaningful then consider working in a summer school! The benefits, both personal and professional, will make it worth while.

 

What is the structure of summer school? 

Summer school and summer camps typically last between 1 and 8 weeks, and they can be found all over the world – there are some real hidden gems out there too. They are often residential, meaning that you live with your colleagues and students. Students flock from the surrounding area in order to improve their English in a non-academic, creative, and fun environment. 

Teachers are usually paid quite well for their efforts too! Expect to get a bed in a shared room, with meals and snacks provided, and a decent wage. It is very easy to save money, since expenses are so low. 

Be prepared to work! Teachers will probably have to commit to working 6 or 7 days a week with long hours. When you’re not teaching or running activities, you’ll probably find yourself exploring, enjoying the local cuisine, and spending time with your new friends.

But does a job so temporary and transitory help you in your teaching career?

Yes. Absolutely. Summer school is a goldmine of opportunity for teachers with or without experience. Here’s why:

A chance for everyone!

Lots of summer schools hire differently to standard language schools. Degrees and teaching certifications are appreciated but not essential – whereas in other teaching environments they are a must. This means that summer schools are a sea of opportunity for young people without experience or qualifications. If you’re still in university, this is a chance to build up teaching experience without actually being a qualified teacher. This can only help if you do ultimately go for a more formal teaching job in the future.

That there are few occupational requirements means that summer school staff are extremely bubbly and eclectic. Teachers come from all over, with different backgrounds and varying teaching styles. Ideas will be exchanged between rookies and experts, and this is a phenomenal way to grow as a teacher, whatever your circumstances.

The Classroom Experience

Never taught before? If you are not sure about going into a career in teaching, summer school will provide you with the chance to test yourself in front of a group of students. If you enjoy it, then great! If not, the fact that camps are short means that you can always seek new challenges afterwards – having gained skills that are translatable into most other fields. 

Sometimes summer schools will require that teachers attend a few days of training prior to the start of the camp. This is a great way for those starting out to   get to know the job. What to do when enthusiasm levels drop? What if a student falls ill? How do you improvise? Questions like these are tackled in training.

Having said that, delivering lessons and activities is really where the new teacher learns the tricks of the trade. Improvisation, building rapport, student interaction, cooperation and how to handle the responsibility of being a teacher cannot be learned in anywhere other than a classroom. Throw yourself into it!

If you think that maybe teaching isn’t for you, you can still reap the benefits of your experience. The skills mentioned above can easily be applied to any other field! To list but a few:

  • a team player yet independent
  • responsible and dependable
  • patient
  • altruistic
  • communication skills

Oh, and a final note on that – summer school tends to be quite relaxed – it is not as academically demanding as a language school. Remember, your students are on their summer holidays too, so enjoy it!

The Money

Apart from the sheer enjoyment of such a thrilling job, this is a way in which you can build up your funds while travelling. Given that your room and board will typically be free, all you need is a few euro for drinks and trips into town!

The money that can be saved means that you can go into autumn with cash in your pocket. Some teachers use their money to get ahead on their rent – meaning that during the academic year they are under way less economic pressure

The References & Contacts

Now let’s take a look at the more bureaucratic side of things. For new teachers, employers will absolutely take your camp experience into consideration in the interview process. After all, some experience is always better than none!

For teachers with a bit more experience, camps are an opportunity to add something different to your CV. On mine, I’m lucky enough to be able to include a Spanish summer school for which I worked in 2017, 2018, and 2019. On a resumé, this proves that you are a dependable and trustworthy teacher. Consistency like that looks wonderful to a potential employer. And who knows, maybe it could prove to be the decisive factor in getting your next job!

You’ll also work with a variety of people, all full of stories and information. Teachers usually have varying experience levels, which means that there is so much to be learned from your colleagues if you’re just starting out. We always chat about our respective schools, the teaching methodology, the location etc. So much can be learned about the world of TEFL through the other staff!

Why not do it every year?!

Summer camps do not necessarily ‘help’ your career, but rather they can be a massive part of your career. Think about it. Summer school typically runs from early June until August, sometimes even into September! That’s a quarter of the year, and given that most language schools don’t operate during the summer, they are a way for teachers to keep earning money through the summer months. Year after year.

Lots of teachers use the summer holidays as downtime, an opportunity to unwind after the academic year. That’s fair enough, but think of employers – surely they will appreciate that you take the holidays as an opportunity to grow as a teacher rather than staying idle.

And like any other field of employment, the more experience you gain the more desirable you become as an employee – which in turn means you’ll have more of a say in deciding where it is that you want to work. Then you will have much more of a chance of getting those cool jobs that pop up on www.TEFL.com.

Promotion?

Say you do the same camp for 2 or 3 years. You will really get to know the ins and outs of the place, and the possibilities for promotions will soon make themselves clear. All camps need a coordinator and/or a director of studies. If you prove yourself to be good at what you do, don’t rule out the possibility of getting that promotion! Companies like hiring internally, so being present at that camp won’t hurt your chances!

Working as a DoS or camp coordinator can be an alternative way into a management position, if that is your cup of tea. Don’t rule it out!

Getting started

The new environment and the high-responsibility yet thrilling job can initially prove too much for some. But seriously, don’t worry. Your students will admire and look up to you, and if any problems do arise you will be surrounded by fantastic people who will be willing to help you out with lesson plans, back-up activities, and anything else that may come up.

Why not have a look at the abundance of job listings on TEFL.com? You’ll find schools in breathtakingly beautiful parts of the world, with requirements that suit you.

 

 

Patrick Riordan

Patrick Riordan is an Irish ESL teacher and freelance contributor. He did his BA in Modern Languages, working in camps across Spain in Italy during his studies. He became a full-time ESL teacher in Florence, Italy in 2018.

 

 

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Freelance Teaching.. Is there an easy route?

23rd July 2019

The problem with being a Native English speaker is that, by and large, we have no idea how the English language works.

Oh, we know how to use it fine well, and we know when people are not using it correctly, we can even point out to those people how they should say what it is they are trying to say. What few of us can do though is to explain exactly why and how what they are saying is wrong, what they need to do to correct it and why, and all the rules that control usage and structure which they need to know, understand and be able to apply to be able to use good English.

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