Inspired by Scott Thornbury’s recent reflections on teacher autonomy, I thought I’d make a list of things that can help you become a more autonomous teacher – or even “graduate” to teaching unplugged ;-)
My list got a bit out of hand, so I’ve broken it down into parts: below, I’ve listed some things you can do when planning, and thinking about planning, your classes.
The downside of doing any of these things is that they take time, and you are unlikely to be paid for this time; the upside is that you will undoubtedly develop as a teacher, which can make you more valuable to your school and should eventually lead to better and more job opportunities elsewhere.
When planning lessons
- Create your own materials
- Prepare to use some authentic materials
- Make time for feedback from your students
- Research a grammar point
- Try a new teaching method or technique
- Become a psychologist
- Adopt a critical stance to the methods you encounter, to your classroom materials, and to your classes
This could be a boardgame revising language from the week’s lessons; a table of functional language used in a social situation relevant to your learners; drawings to accompany a story you’ll tell your class (for example, about your morning routine); and so on.
There are lots of online resources to help you. I have a post here about different ways you can use the program Wordle; you may also want to use some of the online programs and resources here (for speaking lessons or practice), here (writing) or here (for vocabulary work) to create materials.
As you monitor how your students are using your materials in class, reflect on what works and what needs improvement, and when the activity has finished, you can ask your students (in English) what suggestions they have for further improvement. This will benefit you and them (the materials you create for them can become increasingly tailored to their needs and interests, and they should derive motivation from knowing they are helping create classroom materials).
There’s a huge swathe of interesting materials you can find online, as well as English ads, newspapers, songs, and so on. I have a list of online materials for high-level students here, and more general collections here (for reading) and here (listening).
It’s a good idea anyway at the end of a lesson to allow a few minutes for your students to reflect on what they enjoyed and didn’t like so much about the lesson, and on what they feel they’ve achieved. If you like, you could photocopy a sheet with sentence stems (“I liked…”, “I didn’t like…”, “Today, I learnt…”) or happy/sad faces you can give to your students for this purpose. You could collect in these sheets and use them when planning future lessons, or use them to start a class discussion about what you and they have done that day, and what your students would like to do in your next lesson(s) together.
If you’re using a coursebook or syllabus, what grammar point will you be covering in your next lesson? Research it online or via books (I like Tony Penston’s Concise Grammar for English Language Teachers, Michael Swann’s Practical English Usage, and Martin Parrott’s Grammar for English Language Teachers) and think about different ways you can present it in class.
You can also read more widely about grammar and different ways of approaching it, which might dramatically alter the way you teach. There are interesting discussions to be had on pragmatics and discourse analysis, for instance; and Michael Lewis’ The English Verb, which examines how verb structure affects meaning in English, has had a big influence on the way I introduce and revise English verbs with my students.
I spent two months after my CELTA using very little other than PPP; both my students and myself came to find this technique dull – and, fortunately, I had access to enough resources to experiment with different ideas and grow away from what was swiftly becoming a stale approach. If you find yourself in the same boat, have a look at a few of the different methods you could adopt, or experiment with any or all of task-based learning, community language learning, suggestopedia, the silent way, the jigsaw classroom, total physical response, or even content and language integrated learning. Find out from your students and from your own observations what works with them and what doesn’t, and adapt accordingly, and never be afraid to experiment with new techniques.
Many of the teaching approaches mentioned above were inspired by research into how people learn languages, and from educational psychology more generally. By finding out about this research, they become less strange or apparently arbitrary, and you are better able to critically assess them. Perhaps most importantly, you can also use research into learning, and how people learn languages, to create your own approach to teaching English.
There are two excellent overviews of educational psychology by Anita Woolfolk and Robert Slavin (here and here, respectively), which I highly recommend reading, and a good, active wiki on the psychology of classroom learning and management here. Vivian Cook has written a handy introduction to research in second language acquisition and how it can relate to classroom practice (Second Language Learning and Language Teaching); and Cambridge University Press publish a very useful series on psychology, studies in second language acquisition and language teaching, which you can see here.
This is perhaps the most important thing. All the research above, the various methodologies created and recommended by psychologists, teachers, applied linguists and SLA researchers, the coursebooks you’ll encounter, the materials and resources you’ll find online, the lessons you create for your students, and the dynamics of your class itself – they all require your critical evaluation. Not all methods will work with all students; some approaches, theories and hypotheses are based on hot air or hokum; coursebooks often seem to bear little or no relation to what researchers would call best practice; and so on. Most of us want to do the best by our students, and to be the best teachers we can be; but it’s worth bearing in mind how young empirical psychology, applied linguistics and SLA research are, and that, fundamentally, no-one really knows how we learn a language or how best to teach it. We can, however, look at the research and discover what seems to work quite well and what does not.