After years of teaching learners of all ages from western and central Europe, I have recently had the opportunity to teach several groups from the Middle East. It has been an interesting experience – one which has taught me a lot about:
- Learners’ expectations
- Teacher’s expectations
- Learning and Teaching styles
When I first finished the CELTA several years ago, I had very clear principles and parameters against which skills and systems lessons should be delivered. For example, a grammar-focused lesson should Present the target language, then Practise it, and finally culminate in Producing it.
Needless to say, with time and experience, my ‘principles’ became a lot more principled: I use the PPP approach usually when the topic is completely new to the learners; Guided Discovery when it is an extension of something they already know (e.g. 3rd conditionals and 2nd conditionals); Task-Teach-Task when it’s not clear what they can and can’t do.
However, over time I have found myself more at ease with certain groups and less with others. I’ve even had complaints from some learners. In fact, right at the beginning of my career, one group even requested I be replaced! Yet, as time goes on, and I gain more and more experience, all of these issue seem to be dwindling away: I think all of my learners are fantastic; complaints are few and far between; almost all feedback is along the lines of ‘best teacher ever.’
So, what has changed? What has caused this improvement?
I have moved from teaching in Germany, through Poland, to the UK. Each environment has brought with it different demands and different opportunities. For example, in Germany I had only a blackboard and chalk, in Poland I had my own classroom with a whiteboard, and in the UK I have an interactive whiteboard.
While the environment has clearly changed a lot, I think a lot of it might be quite superficial: when you strip away all the technology, a good lesson is a good lesson.
So, if it isn’t the teaching situation, maybe it is the learners…
I think almost every teacher in the world would do anything to have a whole class full of dedicated and motivated learners. However, in my case, I think the most motivated learners I had were at the start of my career in Germany, and slowly from country to country they have become less and less motivated. I now have a lot of learners attending courses because they have been sent by their employer or parent and they just want to get through it as quickly and as easily as possible.
However, even though these learners lack a lot of motivation – particularly intrinsic – they enjoy the lessons and seem to progress.
Maybe it is down to their learning style: perhaps I have hit lucky and recently had a stream of learners who have been on the same ‘wavelength’ as me. Given my educational background in the UK and several tests, I can safely I am a visual learner. However, the most recent (and most successful) courses have been with learners who were either auditory or kinaesthetic. In fact, as I have moved from teaching Germans, through Poles, to Arabs, I have actually gone as far away from my own learning style as possible.
So, if it isn’t the learners and how they learn, then maybe it is me and how I teach….
I recently read an ELTChat summary written by Hada Latim on the effect of teaching styles in the classroom (https://hadalitim.wordpress.com/2014/12/06/does-teaching-style-influence-the-outcome-of-a-lesson-an-eltchat-summary-03122014/).
While reading the post, and reflecting on my most recent course with the Arab learners, I realised I had gone from a very rigid style of teaching in the early days after CELTA, where lessons followed strict formats and I knew ‘what was best’ for the learners, to a much more flexible style of teaching, where I consider how the learners respond to things and build on top of that.
For example, my learners from the Middle East all view class time as ‘well-spent’ if it includes a large amount of traditional controlled practice, while my former European learners would much rather spend lesson time ‘talking’ and ‘using’ the language. I would generally agree with my European learners, but regardless I have responded to the expectations of my current learners by ensuring a good chunk of the lesson contains controlled practice, while incorporating more authentic use of the language later in the lesson.
In fact, there has even been moments where I have found myself bringing in more ‘communicative’ tasks through the backdoor, by getting the learners to ‘complete the questions’ and then getting them to ask each other the questions from the worksheet – they see this a logical step from the controlled practice; I see it as a change to maximise their speaking time.
So what’s changed?
All in all, it seems to me what has brought about this positive change is this shift from a rigid style of teaching to a much more flexible one, where the learners’ needs and expectations are taken into serious consideration, and everything is developed from that point onwards.
I recently completed the DELTA, during which there was a heavy focus on understand the principles behind effective teaching. Needless to say, I don’t march in to a classroom ready to deliver the DELTA-esque lessons I’ve been trained in: I find out what the learners expect; I give them what they expect; I creep my expectations in through the backdoor.