Starting Over (Blog da Disal – April column)

This will be a slightly odd post, so bear with me.

First of all, it’s great to be back. I’ve always been a big fan of Disal’s and writing for the blog has always been an honor. I’m back, and back to stay!

That being said, this first post of mine in this new phase – as a columnist and as a teacher – will be a confession of sorts, as I’m going to own up to my…shortcomings as a teacher lately. Hopefully it will strike a chord with a few of you out there, and, if I can be so bold, perhaps shock you into action with me. Perhaps a few of us can get out of this rut together.

I believe I realized I’d been suffering from what Jeremy Harmer calls teacher burnout – when teachers get depressed or overtired and lose interest in (or have no enthusiasm for) teaching – at some point last year, much as I tried to pretend I wasn’t, for myself mostly. I’d been working for schools for upwards of 12 years and was in dire need of a change. I just couldn’t deal with the predictability of it all anymore. I just couldn’t. So I left, and began my newfound career as a freelance teacher/teacher educator. It helped a lot, but somehow it wasn’t enough.

A month ago (to the day), I arrived in Glasgow for my second IATEFL conference, first time as a presenter. I got off the train after a glorious week of gluttony in Italy and, on seeing the gray weather in Scotland, suffering – and failing – to make out a word or two from the taxi driver’s impenetrable accent, I admit I was more than a little unimpressed. There was nothing I could do, though, as I’d left Brazil precisely because of the conference, and I had my own presentation a couple of days down the road. However, I was not at all excited to be there, and that scared me.

Now, I love Adrian Underhill. I honestly do, and so should you. His Sound Foundations was nothing short of professionally life-altering for me, as it was only after reading it that I started to believe in my ability to teach pronunciation with anything resembling confidence. His opening plenary, however, was… well, not what I expected. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about, to be honest, and that was a major blow. Underhill was the reason I’d spent 7 hours on an awful train all night long, as I wouldn’t have made it in time if I’d caught an early flight. It was definitely not an auspicious beginning.

Nevertheless, the beginning of a new beginning was to come on the very same day, in the form of the great Jim Scrivener. His presentation, Demand-High Teaching, was so powerful, so rich and enriching, so practical, that I just knew, there and then, that things were going to change for me. I just felt it was OK to feel the way I felt, because even one of the greatest writers, teachers and teacher trainers in the world of ELT felt somehow disenchanted with our status quo.

No, Scrivener is not suffering from teacher burnout – he is Scrivener, after all. What he feels is we’re just too comfortable in ELT at the moment, that after a few decades of Communicative Language Teaching we’ve reached what he insightfully calls a peaceful dead-end. We’ve lost our curiosity. We don’t question ourselves anymore (or don’t do it enough). We’re more concerned with steps (be them PPP, ESA, TBL, AAA, whatever), getting above standards and merits in our CELTAs, DELTAs or what have you, than in gauging the actual learning taking place in our classrooms. We’re…in a rut. (my words, not his).

I left Scrivener’s talk lighter, with the proverbial weight of the world off my shoulders. One of my favorite quotes in ELT had and has always been Harmer’s the constant repetition of lesson routines, the revisiting of texts and activities with student reactions that become increasingly predictable, can – if we do not take steps to prevent it – dent even the most ardent initial enthusiasm.”, and I’d used it countless times in training sessions over the years. I had merely, as it were, forgotten to listen to myself, but I certainly heard Scrivener. I heard him loud and clear.

This is, thus, what this post is all about. It is about how I attended a 45-minute talk by one of the big ones and left it transformed. This is about how Jim Scrivener (not for the first time, mind you), helped me see, or at least remember – even if that was not exactly what he was talking about (but then again, students don’t always learn necessarily what we’re teaching them, right?) –, that we should always be curious, and that we should always try and do things differently, and that we should never just do things a certain way simply because they seem to have worked well before. It is not only students who need to enjoy our lessons. We need it, too. We need it bad! Arguably, they won’t enjoy them it if we don’t; they won’t learn much if they don’t enjoy them.

In practical terms, here’s what I propose. In your next class, surprise your students somehow. Tell them a joke. Use music. Do a video activity. Don’t use the coursebook. Take them for a walk. Bring food to class. Have them work out the rules of a grammatical point from a text or a dialog, if you don’t normally do it, instead of explaining it to them. Play Hangman, or something else if you always play Hangman. Do something different, something completely different. Surprise your students next class, so that the results of that class will in turn surprise you. I believe the solution for our teacher burnout (mine, at least) lies in it.

My next columns on this blog will be entirely dedicated to this new project of mine then, and that I hope will become yours too. How can we surprise our students? How can we do things differently? How do eliminate – or alleviate – boredom from our classes and thus from our jobs? How do we keep ourselves interested, and therefore our students? How can we help our students achieve better results? How do we never stop caring? How indeed? I don’t know, honestly. Or maybe I have a few ideas, and I’m willing to try them out.

I am, however, going to start this quest to answer those questions by asking for your help. Share your ideas with us by commenting here on the blog, or via email by writing to cavalcante.higor@uol.com.br. Any ideas! I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for here, but I know I’ll recognize it when I find it. I know that I want now, 13 years later, to be as excited about this thing I love so much as I was when I started out, and I hope these over 1000 words I’ve just written about it here will interest you in helping me out.

A few suggestions to start us off:

-          Three incredible books which have helped me a lot recently by piquing my curiosity and giving me some much-needed fresh ideas:

  • “Essential Teacher Knowledge”, Jeremy Harmer. Pearson, 2012.
  • “Classroom Management Techniques”, Jim Scrivener. Cambridge, 2012.
  • “Atividades de Vídeo para o Ensino de Inglês”, Louise Emma Potter & Ligia Lederman. Disal, 2012. (the book I wish I’d written!)

-          Two great blogs you absolutely have to read every week, plus a great summary/review of Scrivener’s presentation in this year’s IATEFL:

Good luck for us all! =)

Higor Cavalcante is a teacher and teacher educator based in São Paulo, Brazil. He has worked for various schools in Brazil as a teacher, teacher educator, pedagogical consultant and director or studies, and is primarily interested at the moment in teacher education (his included), exams preparation and the impact of reading in the learning of English. He is also a blogger, and you can read his posts on www.higorcavalcante.com, as well as find out how to have him for talks and courses in your school.

*This post was published on April 20, 2012 on http://www.blogdadisal.blogspot.com.

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10 thoughts on “Starting Over (Blog da Disal – April column)

  1. Very inspiring article, dearest Igor! Happy to have you back where you always belonged…To the classroom… to the teachers! A big kiss!

  2. You`re back! I have been looking forward to more posts from you. As you know I have been doing a course and this very subject has been discussed at times.

    For teachers that do not know much about the history of ESL/EFL, I think that researching what has happened and experimenting with those ideas will broaden your views and allow for more opportunities for reflection and data collection- this goes for newer approaches/methods. Very often we may be inclined to stick to what works disregarding other ways not even taking much time to really investigate deeper or consider how to take from or adapt to create something new.

    This has been one of the areas I have been working on and I must say, I have learned a great deal from my students and about myself.

    • Emma dear,

      Thank you very much for taking the time to comment here! I miss having you around to bounce ideas off of you, and your commenting here makes it feel like you didn’t actually bail on us and fled to Japan! =)

      Using different approaches is definitely a great idea. I myself have experienced (very timidly, I’m afraid) with Dogme, and it was wonderful. What exactly have you tried out? How effective was that?

      This is serious, dear. I really want to put a great deal of new ideas and activities into practice in the near future and share them all here. I believe we need to reinvent ourselves.

      Please don’t be a stranger! =)

      xxx

      • Hi Higor,

        I will be back in Brazil hounding you about experimental lessons and other things before you know it. As you can see I have decided to officially stalk..I mean follow you:)

        What exactly have you tried out?How effective was that?
        One of the methods that struck me the most is strong-end TBL( as part of my course, I wrote out a formal lesson plan).

        It was one of those “I can`t believe this lesson is not ending!” ones. I wrote out my reflection as pedantically as I could( as would many teachers) and realised that if I was to really learn from it, I would go back with a better lesson plan, adapting it for a better outcome-this is what I think most teachers don`t do.

        Once a lesson backfires, it immediately drops into the pile of “never again” without even taking some time to really think about what they could have done to make it successful and even when they do…it remains pure theory and doesn`t reappear in their classroom out of fear.

        Teachers in general make a great song and dance about mistakes being the path to learning but how much of it do they do themselves?

        Emma.

        p.s. I returned with another TBL lesson plan(same group) and it went swimmingly:)

  3. Hi Higor,

    A great comeback post.

    I know exactly what you mean about getting bored with it all, but then again, I think this would happen in any job that you have been doing for years on end.

    I didn’t go to the IATEFL conference, but I have seen the Demand High website. It certainly seemed very promising and hit a note with me, but unforunately they seem to have added three posts and then given up.

    Something that I have done recently to change things wih my students is what I call ‘Walk and Talk’. I take my students out of the classroom and we go for a walk; sometimes I have a specific destination in mind, sometimes we just go for a wander. I am going to blog about it soon, whenever I get more than 5 minutes to myself!

    Your new project sounds very exciting and I look forward to following you on it.

    By the way, I tried to post this on the DISAL blog itself but I couldn’t do it without a sign in name for Google, AIM or some other such account (which I don’t have).

    • Hi Stephen,

      Thanks a lot for your comment!

      Regarding Scrivener’s blog, you’re quite right. Nevertheless, I remember him saying something about that during his presentation in April, something along the lines of “the blog’s been kind of abandoned but we’ll go back to working on it in the near future”. Something like that.

      As for your idea, I’ve loved it. I’d heard of going for a walk with students before (I might’ve even suggested it myself), but can’t say I’d actually done it before. I did it today, though. I had breakfast with a private student during the first half of his class at a bakery. We talked about soccer, his impending wedding… he sounded great, actually. I think the sheer change in location made a very big difference indeed. Many thanks for taking the time to suggest this!

      Finally, I’ll copy your comment from here and post it there. Also, I’ll let Disal know you had difficulty to post to see what they can do.

      Once again, thanks a lot!

      Cheers,
      Higor.

  4. Dear Higor,
    First of all, thank you so much for shortlisting my blog, and, above all, for your kind words.
    I enjoyed reading your candid, heart-felt post and, halfway through, I started to look back on my own teaching career, trying to pin down moments of burn out. Yes, there were a few, but they usually subsided – just like yours.
    Scrivener also impacted my early career in a very profound way. I remember being told about the ubiquitous PPP back in the early 90s and wondering where, for example, skills lessons would fit or what to do about vocabulary. PPP felt like a one-size-fits-all straight jacket, but I didn’t really know that there was life outside those confines. Then, one day, somebody threw his learning teaching book on my lap and I read about his flexible, sensible, descriptive rather than prescriptive, all-encompassing ARC model… And all the pieces came together.
    I hope to be able to meet him some day.

    • Hi Luiz,

      Thanks a lot for the comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and it’s great to know Scrivener has been important to you as well. He’ll be in the Braz-TESOL, did you know? He’s 50% of the reason I’m going to Rio in July!

      As for recommending your blog, it really is one of my favorites. One of my very few favorites.

      Cheers!

  5. I usually surprise my students “kiching them out of the classroom”..without any further explanation, I simply ask them to leave their things and follow me…Each time I do sth different. Last week, I had already posted flashcards with words written on the walls at the canteen area. Then I told them I was going to play a song and they would have to run for the words and catch them from the walls at the exact instant they hear them.It was really fun and a new way to break the routine and explore listening skills. I`m trying hard not to go for the filling in the gaps song-activities.

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