From this Teacher’s Family

from teacher familyThe ‘From the Teacher’s Family’ issue is up over on the iTDi blog with posts from Rose Bard, Matt Shannon, and Ayat Tawel.  Each post is a story of what being a teacher does and means to our families.  They are posts filled with the joy that comes when our families know our jobs change lives.  They are also stories of the insecurity that comes with yearly contracts, the loneliness of waiting for a weekend when a partner doesn’t have to work, and the pain of sometimes feeling forgotten.

Each of the iTDi bloggers was given a list of 11 possible questions to use (or not use) during their interviews.  I thought I would simply share those questions here, in case any other writers might be interested in doing a similar post and were stuck for ideas.  But the other night, before going to sleep, my wife Mamico asked me if I would interview her.  I prepared two glasses with ice and took down the bottle of Japanese style whisky we sometimes sip when chatting late at night.  I must have pulled a strange face, because she said, “Don’t worry.  I don’t have much negative to say about you being a teacher.  I want you to know how I feel.”  So here are the 11 questions and Mamico’s answers, as well as the gratitude that comes from people I love and respect sharing their lives and thoughts with me.  Thank you Rose, Matt, Ayat and Mamico.

1) What are three good things about having a mother/sister/wife/daughter who is a teacher?

You’re always thinking about how to teach children.  So the way you interact with our daughter never changes  No matter what she asks you, you always try to give her a thoughtful and serious answer.  And if I ever have a question about English it’s really easy to ask you and I know I’ll get a good answer.  You also always have interesting stories to tell about your day at school.

2) Were there ever a moments in your life when you wished I wasn’t a teacher?

Well, for example, when Luca doesn’t understand something you sometimes try to explain it too well, in too much detail.  It’s kind of the opposite of the good part of you being a teacher.  You take about two steps too many and I’m sometimes thinking, ‘That’s enough, that’s enough, that’s enough.’

3) Was there ever a moment when you were very proud of something I did as a teacher? 

Well, recently, we met one of your students at a music festival.  I remember you talking about that student last year and what a hard time he was having at school.  And during the music festival, while we were sitting together, he was such a kind, and thoughtful, and decent boy.  I thought that you must have had a very good influence on him.

4) How do you think me being a teacher has made life more complicated for you?

When something hard or bad is happening at work, and you are under a lot of stress, I’m thinking about what I can do for you.  A lot of times I realise there actually isn’t anything I can do.  I can just think, “Poor, poor, Kevin.”  It’s not really a problem for me.  But I sometimes feel uncomfortable because there’s not much I can do for you.

5) Do you think I am well suited to be a teacher? 

Oh yeah!  You are a natural born teacher.  You like teaching.  You like studying.  And you believe that people can change.  Even when your students are not ‘good’, you believe in them.

6) What other jobs do you think I could have done or should have done aside from teaching?

Aside from social worker?  Wait, let me think.  You are a very caring person, so you could probably be a nurse.  But you’re a little too forgetful to be a nurse, really.

7) Why do you think I became a teacher?

I think you became a teacher because you wanted to be in an environment where you could always be studying.  I think you wanted to have a job where continual studying would be useful to the work you were doing.

8) Why do you think I continue to be a teacher now?

Because you like your students and you really want them to grow.

9) How would our lives change is I stopped being a teacher tomorrow?

You would be depressed.  And we would be very poor.  But really, I think it would be so boring, for you and for me.

10) Do you have any message for teachers around the world who might read this post?

Thank you for the job you do.  Thank you for teaching and caring for the children and the adults who still believe in trying to improve and learn new things.  Oh, and thank you for being very kind to my husband.  I think he loves teaching because he knows he has the support of so many other teachers.

11) Do you have any message for other family members of teachers around the world?

Please listen to the stories of your family member’s students.  The more stories you hear of real students’ lives, the more you will want to support and cheer on the person who you love who is a teacher.  Actually, the more stories you hear of students, the more you will want to support all teachers.

Learning to Laugh

For six years I was a social worker in Chicago.  I worked with clients with severe mental illnesses, teen runaways, young men at high risk for HIV transmission.  I learned a lot and often times found myself wondering how the powers that be (my bosses, the health care system, family members of my clients, my clients themselves) could possibly let a guy like me do an important job like this.  I worried about if I was doing enough.  If I was making unfixable mistakes.  If I was a pretender.

During this time in my professional life, it was my good fortune and plain dumb luck to be teamed up with Thomas Dunning, a veteran social worker and golden-haired prince of a man with the quickest smile in the city of Chicago.  I remember the first time I expressed my fears to him about the job I was doing.  Instead of a furrowed brow and the serious leaning-in response I expected, Tommy D. sat back in his chair and laughed.  The warmest laugh you could imagine.  A deep bubbling laugh, sweet like honey; a laugh that rose up and wrapped you not in shame, like some laughter does, but in joy and understanding.  And after he laughed, Thomas Dunning asked me, “What makes you think that what you are doing is so important?  That you are so special?”

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.  Tommy D. did not always laugh.  He cried like all of us cried when we lost a client, when a teenager came to us broken and needing to be put back together, when the world was just too dark.  But it is his laugh I remember and miss most of all.  It was his way of reminding me, of reminding anyone who cared to listen, that we are not the centre of all things.  That while what we do might be important, it is not the final word, or even the most important word.

There is all kind of advice for us language teachers, things we should and should absolutely not do in our classrooms.  One of them is, ‘Never laugh at your students.’  Social workers get similar advice about never laughing at their clients.  Like all advice with the word ‘never’ in it, this advice is mostly worthless.  Tommy D taught me that it’s almost always OK to laugh.  Avoiding laughter wasn’t going to help anyone.  What I needed to do was find a way to laugh, my own way to laugh, which helped my clients feel safe.  It is the same laugh I carry within me now, the laughter which, I hope, helps my students feel safe as well.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised Tommy D., my first real mentor, was teaching me something much more important.  It wasn’t just about laughter.  It was about all rules which tell us ‘don’t.’  Rules which tell us  ‘don’t’ are the simple way out.  Don’t-rules are someone saying, ‘Hey, don’t think too much about about it.’  Don’t-rules are the simple path which cuts us off from finding our own way.  The real path to growth is rarely about believing in a list of don’ts.  Thanks to Thomas Dunning, I started to see how real growth began when we looked at all those don’t-rules, and tried to figure out when and why they sometimes need to be do-rules.

[The new iTDi blog is out .  From the beginning of March, I’ve been the acting editor/curator.  This issue, the blog posts are all about people like Thomas Dunning, people outside of ELT who have influenced us as teachers.  I hope you will give it a read, and perhaps join in the conversation by sharing an ‘Outside Influences’ story on your blog and linking to the iTDi blog.  This is my first time taking responsibility of something as large as the iTDi blog.  I am hoping not to make a total mess of it.  But while I’m worried, part of me knows it’s going to be just fine, just as long as I find a way to, at least once in a while, laugh at myself, and everything else going on around me.]

A thought on error correction

By Evan-Amos (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

People have all kinds of ideas about error correction.  Error correction is the technical term for when a teacher tells someone that’s learning that they made a mistake.  Personally, I don’t think there’s any problem with error correction.  Correcting errors is just fine. It’s correcting people that causes problems. A lot of teachers think they are correcting mistakes, but their tone of voice, the look on their face, even the amount of time they wait before offering a correction are all sending a message.  And if that message is less ‘there was a mistake’ and more ‘you made a mistake,’ then sure, the student is going to feel miserable.  They might not take risks in the classroom again.  We talk about error correction without really differentiating it from people correction.  But they are very different things.  And learning how to do one without doing the other is part of the reason why teaching can be so hard.

Dialogues: moving away from the words on the page in 5 easy steps

"Valentine and Proteus" by Henry Courtney Selous.  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Valentine and Proteus” by Henry Courtney Selous. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The other day I attended a roundtable discussion through Nara JALT on, “The New Academic Year: Resolutions, Reflections and Revelations from the Classroom.”  It’s a great title, and it was a great two hours of teachers just talking about what they had done in the classroom this year.  In Nara, (the ancient capital of Japan by the way) teachers, or at least the teachers at the roundtable discussion, seem to be using lots of dialogues in their classes.  But they all had pretty much the same two big worries:

1) Students get stuck in the simply-read-the-words-off-the-paper-without-looking-up stage.  And even if they manage to look away from the paper once in a while, they rarely sound natural or seem to genuinely engage with one another.


2) The dialogues are bat shit crazy a little unnatural and a tad on the boring side.

I think there is probably a pretty strong relationship between point 1 and point 2 here.  I mean, if you read something that resembles the dialogue from a James Cameron movie, minus the cool special effects, it’s going to be pretty hard to  sound natural when you’re saying your lines.  It might also be a little difficult to pretend you’re interested in what your partner is babbling on about.  But let’s put that issue off to the side as I’m hoping to touch on it in a followup post.

Let’s say you’ve got a coursebook, you have to use it, and it’s got some dialogues in it.  What are a few things you can do to help pull students away from the page? How can you help the students actually “get into” what they are saying?  Truth is, I used a coursebook this year.  And I used the dialogues in that coursebook.  And I tried out a whole bunch of different ways to use those dialogues. What worked with my students might not go down like a storm in your class, but when I used the following activities, students in my class could finish up a 50 minute lesson and present a dialogue with: no paper in their hand, a decent sense of prosody, and an occasionally surprising and authentic seeming gesture or two.

1. Listening for Silence: before getting into the nitty gritty of dialogue practice, have students listen and put a slash between words whenever they hear a pause.  These chunks of language between the slashes are called sense groups or syntactic groupings.  Often times they are clauses.  And during dialogue practice, if students try to produce a full sense group at a time, they will immediately sound much more natural.  Added bonus: it gives the students a good reason to really listen to the dialogue a few times before they have to produce it.  I think one of the big reasons students keep their eyes glued to the words on the page is because that’s all they have to work with.  Unless a student has a chance to hear a dialogue multiple times (and in my experience I’m talking 6 or 7), they are going to have no confidence in their ability to orally produce the language.

2. Look/Think/Turn Over/1-2-3-Speak: Students love the paper in their hands.  They grip it, stare at it, refuse to glance up from it.  You can command your students to, “make eye contact.”  But once you wander away to a different part of the room, they’re just going to go back to staring at the paper.  So get the paper out of their hands.  Have the students put the dialogues on a desk just off to the side.  They can look at the paper as often and for as long as they want.  But before they start talking, they have to flip the page over.  And not only do they have to flip it over, they have to count to three before they talk.  Yes, I realise that this will make things even more stilted sounding.  But only at the start of the exercise.  If they have those sense group slashes marked on their dialogue, most of the students will be able to hold one syntactic grouping within their working memory.  And the more they practice saying that one natural chunk of language, the more human they will sound.

3. Less becomes More: Students refuse to let go of their dialogue worksheets because they don’t feel that they’ve remembered the words.  And they don’t feel they’ve remembered the words because they keep relying on that piece of paper.  So how about showing the students that they are actually remembering huge swaths of language while they practice.  How?  By having them whittle away at the text.  After a few practices with the dialogue, have them rewrite the dialogue without any vowels.  So a line like, “I have to catch the 6 O’clock bus for Bugharvest,” ends up looking like, “ – hv t ctch th 6 clclk bs fr Bghrvst.”  This will provide them with enough information to practice, but will also tax their working memory enough to aid in memorising.  The next step is to rewrite the dialogue again, only this time, they only get to jot down the first letter of each word and then a dash for each remaining letter.  So they would end up with “I h_ _ _  t_ c_ _ _ _ t_ _ s_ _ O_ _ _ _ _ b_ _ f_ _ B_ _ _ _ _ _.”  At the beginning of the year my students met this task with a lot of moaning and complaining about how I’d asked them to do the impossible.  But actually, by this point in a lesson, students have pretty much remembered most of the dialogue and find that they can get through it with little to no problem.

4. In Your Own Words (L1): A final option is to let students write out an L1 equivalent (not word to word translation) of each sense group in the dialogue.  I know that there is some controversy about how much translation, and L1 in general, we should be using in the class, but if you are really having a hard time prying students away from the printed dialogue, it might simply be a sign that, as they are speaking, they are trying to puzzle out the meaning of what they are saying.  The more sure they are about the meaning, the more confidence they will have in trying to convey that meaning and not simply saying the words.  In my experience, when my students use a sense group translation as a kind of cheat sheet for their final practice, they are much more willing to use gestures and sometimes even try on different accents.

5. Put Some Ground Beneath Their Feet: A few years ago, the teacher in charge of the drama thread of our English program observed a class of mine which made extensive use of dialogues. During our feedback session, the drama teacher asked if I ever gave the students a set of stage directions.  He grabbed a script for a play off his desk and pointed to the stage directions at the start of the scene and said something like, “Without a stage, a set, and some props, students are floating in an ocean of words.  But even without all those things, a good set of stage directions can set the students down on firmer ground.”  So if your students are gripping their dialogue sheets like a castaway clinging to a life-preserver, perhaps what they really need is some stage directions.  Here is an example of simple stage directions for a dialogue about one high school student asking another high school student for help with their homework.

John and Tracy are in the park near the school.  John is sitting on a bench, holding a book.  He looks worried.  Tracy and standing under a tree a few feet from John.  She notices him and walks over.

But But But…a final word

Yes, I realise that almost all of these activities seem to give the students a good excuse to stare even harder at the paper in their hands.  Slashes between sense groups usually mean students look at the paper longer so that they can remember where to pause; words without vowels take time to decode which also means more time staring at the paper; and of course stage directions have to be read and understood.  But even though this series of steps results in more interaction with the paper over the course of a class, it also provides the kind of support and framework for students to eventually set the paper down on their desk and walk away from it.  And when they do walk away from it, they are sure of:

  • what they have to say
  • how to say it
  • what it means
  • where they are saying it.

When a student knows all these things about a dialogue, there is a much better chance that they will be able to speak their lines, if not with emotional conviction, at least with a healthy dose of confidence.  And here in Japan, with the students I’m teaching now, that sense of confidence is often the point at which real communication can finally start to take place.

Why not leave it up to them

IMG_4127-2Yesterday was the start of the 3rd high school semester here in Japan.  That means all the students came to school for a one and a half hour “School Opening Ceremony.”  There were speeches about how important it is to study and prepare for university entrance examinations, why learning Japanese history is a key component to finding your place in the international community, and a final speech on how Japanese culture has a tradition of the ‘fresh start’ so this semester was everyone’s chance to change and become a better student.  And once all of these very serious (and very long) speeches about change and the importance of studying were finished, we had 20 minutes scheduled for homeroom, were supposed to say ‘sayonara’, and send the students back home…without holding classes.  Which got me thinking about how cavalier schools are about students’ time.  We tell them when to come, how long to be there, if they can stay late or not.  And especially high school teachers (and certainly I am accusing myself of this as well) are constantly trying to impress on students the importance of using their time effectively.  And yet, in a traditional school environment, students are actually given very little control over how they spend their time aside from whether they pay attention to the teacher or not.

After the School Opening Ceremony yesterday, as I was about to start my 20 minute homeroom, I stood up at the front of the classroom with a folder of flyers, standard test result reports, study abroad applications, and even an advertisement for a lecture by the architect Ando Tadao sponsored by my school.  I looked at the students.  Most were happily talking about what they did during winter vacation.  They were animated and smiling and listening intently to one another.  One student had a book, Key Words to Mastering English, open on his lap and seemed to be having a wonderful time studying vocabulary.  And not a few students were busily trying to finish their winter homework assignments.  I looked at them and decided that all of the things I had to say, pass out, or return to them could probably be done on a one-to-one basis.  I walked from table to table and gave the students the flyers and chatted a bit about some of the buildings Ando Tadao had designed and why it would be an interesting lecture to attend.  I laid standard test results upside down on the desk in front of students without interrupting their conversations (they new what they were and how to read them).  I handed each student a study abroad application and spent a bit of time with students who had expressed an interest in going to Australia in the second semester.  And 30 minutes later everything was passed out.  It took 10 more minutes than usually.  But when I stood up in front of the class  and made eye contact with a few students, saying, “I missed you,” to each one in turn, it got quiet pretty quickly.  And then I told the entire class, “I really missed you all,” and ended the homeroom.

Which got me thinking.  How often do I demand an entire classes’ attention?  Does everyone really have to be listening to me when I talk about what is going to happen next in class?  When I talk about the average score of a test?  When I introduce a group work assignment?  There are plenty of students in my school who can figure out an activity by themselves after a few seconds of watching without any directions from me at all.  And if those students can be using that time more effectively (and want to use it to do something else), what kind of message does it send when I demand they stop whatever their doing to do whatever it is I want them to do?  When we talk about a student-centered classroom, shouldn’t some control of how students use their time in the classroom be at the heart of that idea?  So here’s a few other ways teachers can allow students a bit more choice in how they use their classroom time:

Don’t give oral instructions for written work:  Give simple written instructions of how to do a written assignment and then walk around class and check in with students who seem to be having difficulty.  Students who read and understand the instructions can start the assignment when they are ready.  Or if they want, they can help explain it to students who are a little lost.

Don’t start with the class, start with a student:  teach what you want to teach to 1 or 2 or 3 students who are ready to learn.  Take a small white board to class, sit down next to the students and start teaching,  If another student shows interest, invite them over to join you.  Show the students that when you start teaching, it is actually worth listening.  If the students really believe this, they will be much more willing to stop what they are doing to listen to you.

Don’t collect homework:  I’m not a huge fan of homework on the very best of days.  But I do give it to students.  Often times I just want them to have a bit more practice working with the language we used in class.  If my main purpose is (forcing) providing students with practice time out of class, why would I collect and mark the homework?  And why would I stop the entire class and use everyone’s time to collect homework whose main purpose was to provide individual practice and review time?  Instead, let students know that if they want feedback on homework, they can turn it in to you and you’ll be happy to let them know their areas of strength or weakness.

Don’t assign classwide listening tasks: while listening, we often give students a task such as ‘write down every verb you hear,’  or ‘while listening circle the stressed/key words on the transcript.’   But this both ends up using time for instructions and assumes students need similar listening practice.  Instead, give students a weekly (or bi-weekly, or even monthly) task which is more suited to their individual needs.  So if you like to start of your lesson with a listening activity, everyone in the class is primed, ready to go, and knows why they are doing what they are doing. After the activity, what should you do with the stuff they have just written down on looseleaf paper or in their notebook?  See: don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect tests:  See don’t collect homework.

Don’t collect anything: see homework and tests (caveat: you need to explain the system of how you give feedback at the beginning of the year.  And you need to hope and pray that there are at least a few students are going to give you something so that when they get the most excellent feedback you have to give them, other students realise that it is a pretty groovy thing to voluntarily hand in assignments, tests, etc.)

Don’t wait for activities to end: If students are doing individual work and 1 student  seems to be finishing up, then grab her or him and start the next activity with that student, alone.  And when another student finishes, well the first student already knows how to do it, so just pair them up and let them go.

Don’t officially end your class:  If you follow most (or even some) of these ideas, there’s a very good chance that when class time is winding down there will be a lot of students doing a lot of different things.  What’s the point in stopping them all and making them look at you?  Really, what’s the point of officially ending class in general? Instead, with a minute left in class, just walk around to the students and let them know you are leaving the class to get ready for your next lesson.  And let the the students keep doing what they want to do.  Trust that they will leave the class in time for the next class of students to come on in.  And you know what, they might just keep learning right up to the very last second. I’ve even had pairs or small groups of students head off to a nearby cafe to continue their lesson sans teacher.

There’s this term, ‘classroom management.’  Whenever I hear it, I kind of get itchy all over. Why would I want to manage my classroom?  I think I’d rather spend my time creating an environment where students can, as much as possible, manage their own learning.   Luckily, as a teacher, how I spend my time during a lesson is mostly up to me. I wonder how classrooms might look if students, whenever possible, were provided with that same opportunity.

Lessons Learned in 2014 (…as a homeroom teacher)

My ChartI am a homeroom teacher.  And this was a year of being a homeroom teacher. No adjectives.  It was just one day.  And then another day.  And sometimes one of those days ploughed into the next day, the way cars can smash into each other on an icy Michigan freeway after just a moment of carelessness.

This was the year I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if a student had dyed their hair (because it was my job to send them home, call their parents, and make sure they dyed it back to black before they could take another class), or calling mothers and fathers and explaining that yes, technically, eyelash extensions are a form of makeup.  It was the year I realised that having enough time to talk about how it’s a waste of time to use lots of time to write lesson plans was, now that I think about, also a huge waste of time.

This was the year I read other teachers’ blogs and thought, wow, here are all these new voices–to me–saying all these things I admire and helping to keep me going (Hana Tichá, you are amazing; David Harbinson, I am a huge fan, please keep doing what you are doing).

This was the year I would get  a mention on FaceBook (Sandy Millin), a trackback on my blog (Anne Hendler, Anna Loseva, Ljiljana Havran), or see a Tweet (that’s you Colm and Mike) and think, oh, I have not disappeared from the world, I am not transparent.  And all of you who worked to keep me connected, I thank you.

It was the year I took class notes and more class notes and maybe, once a month, I snapped at my co-workers and hid out in an empty classroom and tried to catch up on what was going on with my students when it came to English.

But for all this, it was not a bad year.  In all those days piling up one after another, I learned some things.  Some things I want to share as the New Year starts, because they were small gifts that my students and their parents and my coworkers and friends gave to me.

Parents know about their sons and daughters, they want to talk honestly about their sons and daughters, they appreciate when you give them that chance.  This year I sat down with a handful of parents and told them that I was worried.  I was worried that their child could not screen out the normal noise of a classroom enough to concentrate.  Or that their child could not get half way through a short sentence without forgetting the first two words of that sentence, in either Japanese or English.  Or that their child felt so much pressure about studying, that they didn’t want to leave the school when it was time to close the shutter at 7PM.  I had a lot of hard talks.  I was met with a lot of tears and shed tears of my own.  And almost every single time, the mother or father sitting across from me said, “Thank you for noticing what is happening with my child.”  Honestly, it might be kind of nice to work in a job where there were less tears, less sudden intakes of breath like the whoosh of someone losing their breath after being punched.  But now I know that honestly and clearly providing the small details of a student’s life, to both a parent and the student themselves, is part of what it means to be a teacher.  And when the conversation is hardest, when I would rather be doing anything than sitting down with a mother or father to say what I am about to say at 7 PM on a Friday night, I can feel grateful that there is no way to run away from this moment.  That this is my job.  That this is what it means to be a homeroom teacher in Japan, and probably in the rest of the world as well.

– There are an infinite number of ways to be right about something.  There are also an infinite number of ways to be wrong about something.  When listening, thinking about any of those rights and wrong is nothing more than jamming fingers into your ears.  Keeping track of all those rights and wrongs is, very simply, a way to NOT listen.  How strange, to finally understand at the age of 43, 15 years into teaching, 10 years into a marriage, 7 years into being a father, that before I can expect someone to listen to me, I must first listen to them.

– The space needed to grow as a person often feels exactly like the distance which leaves you cut off from others and standing alone.  This year, when I was overwhelmed, when I needed one more day to get a spreadsheet of student grades completed or a new version of a vocabulary sheet printed out, if I said something, my coworkers were immediately there for me.  They stayed late and helped me punch in data.  They made photocopies.  They made sure that my students, our students, never felt cheated because their homeroom teacher was a little too green at his job, a step too slow to get done what needed to be done.  But for all their help, my coworkers never jumped in and tried to save me when I didn’t ask for help.  They never crowded into my space.  They respected me and believed in me.  There is a difference between being cut off from others and finding the room needed to grow.  It is a difference in emotional nanometers, a difference that can only be measured in the response that comes when you finally ask for help.

* * *

This year I am a homeroom teacher.  Next year, if I am lucky, I will once again be a homeroom teacher.  If I am, I am sure that there will still be days upon days that seem to plough one into the next.  But perhaps there will be just as many days that are each a moment entirely in themselves; days startling in their clarity.  And I will see them for what they are because of the lessons that my friends, co-workers, and students took the time to help me learn in 2014: watch carefully and share what you notice honestly; listen more than you speak; try to do the best you can, but don’t hesitate to ask for help.  And maybe one more: every step on the journey is one more chance to say thank you, one more chance to practice gratitude.

Thank you for reading and may your 2015 be filled with health, happiness, and learning.

Kevin Stein

What Kind of Teacher…

hibachiLast week I was in Tsukuba for the JALT international conference.  The sun was out, and the leaves, red and yellow, hadn’t yet started to drop in earnest from the trees.  But now, winter has suddenly arrived here in Nara.

I’m sitting around the hibachi with Anna Loseva and Mamico.  We’re waiting for the water in the heavy cast iron pot to boil so we can make tea.  Anna has suggested we take a few minutes, maybe hours even, to just think and write about teaching.

When I was in Tsukuba, I saw Tom Farrell present on reflective practices.  During his plenary presentation, he asked us what kind of teachers we were.  He asked if we were open minded, if we could heed facts and admit we might be wrong.  He asked if we were responsible, if we thought about the choices we make and the impact it has on our students in and out of the classroom; finally, he asked if we were wholehearted, if we continually reviewed our own practices.  The #KELTCHAT-ers had a slowburn chat today which was loosely connected to a workshop Professor Farrell also did at the conference.  As I sip the tea (the water heating over the charcoal finally came to a boil), I’m answering a few of the pre-chat questions posted on the #KELTCHAT site.

▪ “Good teaching requires more than application of methods; it requires self-knowledge.” What does self-knowledge mean to you in this case?

Self-knowledge, I think, first means taking the time to step back from a situation and make sure you aren’t just reacting based on old data.  It means seeing the student in front of you, the situation that is unfolding around you, and being able—at least partially—to mitigate the biases that might prevent an authentic interaction from taking place.

▪How can we go about acquiring this knowledge?

I think there are an infinite number of ways to acquire this knowledge.  Blogging about your classes, taking notes as class is happening, recording and transcribing a class.  But I don’t have time for any of that right now.  The best I can do is simply take a few moments to think about what I am going to say to a student before I open my mouth.  And I just need to ask myself, honestly, before I talk if what I am about to say is going to help this student, or do I want to say it to meet a personal need which might have nothing to do with the person in front of me.  And then, after I do say something, if I can take a moment to look at how the learner reacts, their facial expression, body language, how they participate or don’t participate in class after our interaction, I can learn something about how I am behaving and how it impacts the people in my classroom.

▪How can knowing about ourselves impact our teaching?

Knowing about myself is how I can make a better choice the next time I’m in a similar situation.  But to do that, I need data.  That means I need to be aware of what’s happening in class.  I need to know what my students are thinking and feeling.  When I can tie how I behave in class directly to how my students experience class, I can start to make changes in my behaviours that lead to better outcomes for my students.  I don’t have time to do a lot of the blogging and video taping that I did last year, but I do have enough time to say something like, “During the activity today, you weren’t really participating, so I wrote the first letter of each word of the dictation on your paper.  What did you think about that?”  I do have enough time to chat with my students about what they thought happened in class and how they felt about it.

The #KELTCHATers also put up a list of sentence stems to finish and help us think about our own ideas about teaching.

1. To me, the word teacher means…

…someone who helps learning take place.  Sometimes that means by actively taking part in the learning process.  Sometimes it might mean almost removing oneself from the process entirely.

3. I believe teaching is a calling because…

…I don’t believe it is a calling.  I believe it is a job.  And we can get better at it.  We can learn how to relate to our students.  We can learn how to be empathic.  We can learn how to make people feel safe.  It’s not a calling.  It’s hard work.  Hard work with moments that are touched by the ghost of truth.  But perhaps all work is so touched.

4. When I first started to teach I…

…thought I could be a great teacher by knowing the right activity to run and understanding how the English language worked.

7. I enjoy going into school each morning because…

…I don’t have to follow a manual.  I don’t have to have all  the answers.  I can learn from my students as they learn from me.  We can muddle through a class period together and probably all end up in a better place than if I ‘knew’ how to teach the hell out of English.

12. The worst aspect of my life as a teacher is..

…I will never have enough time to do everything I want to do.  I will not even have enough time to do the things I should do.  In fact, I probably, regardless of how long I do this job, rarely have enough time to do even the things I need to do.  So every choice I make as a teachers means that some student, sometime during the week, is not going to get as much individual attention as they need.

14. My students believe in….

…each other.  They rarely if ever get frustrated while waiting for another student to answer a question.  They believe that their friends and classmates can and will learn.  They are a constant reminder that, more than anything else, my job is to believe in them as well, and have the patience and the compassion to make the space where that learning will happen.

* * *

For the past few months I’ve been feeling incredibly guilty that I don’t have the time to engage in reflective practices.  No teaching journal.  No regular blog posts.  No video recordings of lessons and transcriptions.  But answering these questions, I’m starting to think that maybe those things, while an important part of reflection for many teachers, are not sum total of what it means to be a reflective teacher.  6 months into being a homeroom teacher (and 3 cups of tea into this blog post) I’m thinking that this year, in learning how to take a breath, make a space, and be in the moment with my students, I am finding a new way to be ’open minded’, ‘responsible’ and ‘wholehearted.’