If You Don’t Ask You Don’t Get! Embracing The Small Changes

Yesterday I had a frustrating day, I was tired after a long weekend, my class didn’t go well and I felt at conflict with my school regaPicturerding what my students should focusing on in my English class. Today, in comparison, has been a dream! Alright maybe not a dream, but certainly a success! Some small changes with some big effects have been made that I have learnt a lot from, and I would like to share them as I think they could help deal with problems all teachers have faced, are facing or will face at some point!

Change 1 – Dealing with my lesson planning

The Problem:

To give some context, my students are currently doing a lesson that involves learning some key expressions (more about this later!), the main task was to listen for the expressions in a video and put the sentences containing the expressions in the order they heard them. They were then asked to match the expressions with their meaning using the context of the sentences they had in front of them and what they saw in the video. Before the task we drilled the expressions so they could recognize the pronunciation, and then went into the video, checked their ordering and students tried to match the expressions with their meanings using the context of the sentences and what they had seen in the film to help them. When it came to the students matching the expressions with their meanings I got that feeling that awful feeling teachers get when they know something just isn’t working as planned. After the class I figured there must be some kind of problem with the structure of the lesson for the students not to understand the context of the expressions, when really we didn’t think they should be able to. My co teacher and I spent a good hour trying to rearrange the activities, we thought about changing the order of activities, removing activities, or even introducing new ones to help with the scaffolding, but nothing seemed to us as any better than what we had. We ended up making no changes as we didn’t see how we had time in the lesson to introduce more activities that could provide any more support than we already had.

The Change:

When I came to work this morning I still couldn’t figure it out, and then during the first class I made a tiny change. A student asked me a question during the video part that resulted in me pausing the video and rewinding it to let them rehear what was said, which gave me an idea. After each expression was said, I paused the video, asked the students what they heard, and rewound the video 30 seconds so they could hear and see it in the context again, and voila, this simple change had allowed even my lowest level students to be able to understand the contexts and match the expressions with their meanings after the video. The difference in level of understanding was massive. On reflection I can see that this provided them with the extra level of context during the film, especially by rewinding and giving the students another chance to listen and see the expression being used.

The Realisation:

Perhaps this was something a more experienced teacher would have done automatically, but I didn’t want to ruin the flow of a fantastic short film. But it got me thinking, how often, when that lesson I thought was perfectly planned but didn’t flow as expected, could I have just made a minor tweak to it and fixed the problem? Often, no matter how meticulous our planning is, lessons just don’t flow how we expect, when this happens I suggest we start off looking at the little things we can change. Often the structure of our lessons are probably fine, we are professionals at what we do after all, and perhaps with just a little tweak things will just come together. It also serves as another stark reminder as to the importance of scaffolding, but that’s something for another blog.

Change 2 – Dealing with my Institution (sorry, this is turning into a really long blog!)

The Problem:

Again, to give you some context, I have felt a growing conflict between my beliefs as a teacher in the Korean public education system and the expectations my school has of me, this is certainly something I expect a lot of EFL/ESL teachers feel at some point. I strongly believe that, given the limited time I have with students (roughly 22 hours over the course of the year) the most effective role I can have is to help develop my students skills in using and, especially, communicating in the English language. I think that after 10 years in the Korean school system there isn’t any grammar I can teach they don’t already know, or a useful amount of vocabulary I can teach in the given time period. For me, my students need to chance to use this grammar, to create language and to explore just what they are capable of doing the knowledge they have. My school sees things differently; they would like me to teach key expressions to the students as they feel it is necessary to give the students a written and listening test, and so I’ve found myself spending almost all my time helping students to understand key expressions that, if I’m honest, I don’t think will be useful to them and I think could be taught in Korean. It’s been frustrating!

The Change:

Last night as I went to bed I had HUGE plans!!! I was going to prepare a PowerPoint to help me explain my points, I was going to suggest that the school scraps the listening and writing test on our classes and that we do away with key expressions unless they are needed to understand an activity as well as many other changes. Instead I bottled it (which on reflection is definitely a good thing) and I spoke informally with the head of English, explained my concerns regarding the students’ development and how I felt the students could gain a lot more from my classes than just doing well in a test. She expressed her concern that if we didn’t have a listening test students would not be as prepared for the university entrance exams as they could be. We ended up compromising that we will make the lessons cover two classes instead of one, we keep the keep expressions for that theme int he first class and in the second class (week 2) we would focus on the skills I had suggested.  This was a much smaller change than I had wanted, but one I think is going to make a huge difference for my students and keeps everyone happy.

The Realisation:

As teachers we all have our students’ best interests at heart. If we really feel strongly enough that our students can benefit from a small change then there’s no harm in asking, the worst that can happen is our institutions ignore us. I guess what I’m saying is, if we really think our students are suffering and we can explain why to those who make the decisions, there’s every chance they might agree and compromise. Admittedly I am lucky with the co-teachers I have and their attitude towards change, but I think it’s maybe a common mistake we make (especially in Korea) that there is a conflict of beliefs with our institution and that fighting for change just isn’t worth the hassle, but perhaps with a little nudge and compromise we can get what’s best for our students, or at least something we believe is closer to it. I think the best conclusion I can make is a tweet from an amazingly knowledgeable and experienced professor I follow on twitter (@seouldaddy):

@AlexSWalsh In some situations, to be a good teacher is to be a rebel….of course, rebels are often executed.”

Luckily this time I wasn’t!

Have you had any similar experiences in dealing with conflicts in teaching beliefs? If so I would love to hear any tips you could share! Also, how do you deal with those lessons that just don’t feel right? It would be great to share any tips you might have!

Comments

29/08/2012 20:39

Hey Alex,

Excellent post, as per usual! I love that you have brought this up, because it is something I try to do. As a teacher with MUCH less experience, I am always on the look out for what could be “tweaked” in a lesson. For the lessons that go extremely well I think about what went especially well and how I can tweak the others to make it even better.

I think the important thing to remember in this is that it is important to utilize reflection. Often times a small change IS all that is needed, however, if we haven’t spent an appropriate time reflecting we may change the wrong thing and everything can get even worse! (A mistake I have made countless times).

It is particularly difficult in the Korean context thanks to the lack of feedback many of us receive. It sounds like you have tackled your issues with genuine aplomb and in doing so have helped your students and your institution. Definitely a good model to follow.

PS. A late, but super happy CONGRATULATIONS on the recent recognition. Your a top teacher and a top bloke and deserve every accolade. This blog (along with a few others) keeps me going and motivated through the year. It is invaluable to any teacher out there who genuinely cares for what they do.

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