Learning No. 1: Confidence=Fuel for Teaching

My first year as a teacher trainer has now passed. It can undoubtedly be defined as one of the most rewarding and challenging years of my professional career up to date. Writing and researching my MA thesis throughout the year definitely compounded my workload, but the arrival of my diploma in October mitigated any memory of academic exhaustion.

Yes, last year was quite the learning load. My lesson planning creativity was flexed and stretched to multiple degrees. My understanding of teaching and learning magnified due to the “meta” nature of teacher training. My confidence as a teacher dropped a few steps, and in the end found its way back to the top of the staircase. This is where the list of my top 5 learning moments of 2010 begins.

1. Confidence = Fuel

Teachers need confidence. Confidence ignites our drive to utter the first word at the start of a lesson. It fuels our ability to keep pushing through when a student/trainee asks a question you just can’t answer. At the core, confidence is what allows teachers to stand in front of a class of individuals and be vulnerable.

I say this because I had a few memorable bouts with confidence last year. It mostly came into jeopardy at the beginning of each semester, a sensitive time for everyone. Participants (students) are trying to figure each other out, and they’re also testing the trainers (teachers), to see what they know. It was during this storming stage that I most frequently questioned my skills as an EFL teacher, and as a teacher trainer.

Why did I question myself this way? It’s dreadfully simple. Participants asked me questions I just couldn’t answer off the cuff (detailed questions about grammar and sentence structure), and I believed I should be able to answer right away. I know I put too much pressure on myself, and that it is impossible for teachers to know everything off the top of their head, but I couldn’t help hearing that little perfectionist’s voice inside my head saying,

“Come on Josette! You should know this. Can you really call yourself an English teacher if you can’t answer this question right now? What kind of example are you setting? Why would they want to keep learning from you if you can’t answer these kinds of questions?”

Harsh right? But this kind of self-talk is all too common.

When a participant asked me that type of question, luckily I mustered up enough confidence to tell them,

“I’m not sure about that. I’ll look it up and get back to you tomorrow.”

So I went home, plopped down on my office floor, and surrounded myself with reference material. I figured out the issue to the best of my ability, and I came back to the participant the next day with what I discovered. This is how I saved my confidence.

Yes, we can debate whether or not teachers should admit that they don’t know the answer to a student’s question, and I know this is debated in the teacher training world. But if this is what you need to do in order to keep a hold of your confidence, I believe it is an essential maneuver.

This belief was brought home when I was told on a few occasions during both semesters (semester 1 = 57 participants; semester 2 = 37 participants), that my honesty about not knowing all the answers was refreshing. Some participants were relieved to learn that they could respond this way to their students, and still maintain confidence from both the student and themselves. In the end, the way I responded to my drop in confidence fueled confidence in my participants.

There isn’t a magical way to create self-confidence. The way I know how to hold on to it is by reflecting on what I don’t know (what went wrong), and making sure I understand it at the end of the day. From here I can create an action plan. This involves getting up to date with teaching methodologies, studying grammar, reading books about sentence structures, listening to Grammar Girl, and collaborating with colleagues. It isn’t easy, but I know that since I need confidence to teach, I need to spend extra time building it up. Anything that kills the little perfectionist’s voice in my head is definitely worth the extra work.


Fall Feedback in Words

Keimyung University

Over the course of the last two weeks, I conducted interviews with my students as their midterm evaluation. I could definitely dedicate a reflective entry to this interview process, but I’ve decided to focus on the student feedback that I requested from each student after his or her interviews were over. This was the first time I requested feedback this semester.  In this post I’m interested in exploring how the students perceived the feedback and also what purpose it served for me.

After their individual interview, I gave each student a slip of paper with these two questions: What do you like about this Communication English (this is the name of the class as chosen by the Department of Liberal Education) class? What would you change/improve about this Communication English class? When I gave them the slip I gave them the choice to either include or omit their names. I gave them this choice because I felt it gave the chance to be open and honest.  I feared that if they felt they had to write their name they would not be critical. They might feel that being critical would negatively affect their grade.  I reminded them that their feedback wouldn’t be graded, and that I appreciated honest answers. I asked students to write their answers outside of class, and leave the paper on the desk at the back of the class when done.  While they were outside writing their answers, I continued interviewing other students.

Out of approximately two hundred students, the majority of answers to the first question resembled these; “I like communication with friends and professor and enjoy the class.” “Free talking.” “Game is interesting to study English.” “Every week change partner good!! because meet many friends.” “This English Communication class very interested. I’m English speak no good. But this class many speak chance very good. Thank you.”

Answers to the second question mostly looked like this, “Nothing. Thank you teacher.” however some provided insights such as, “detail explanation please.” “more communication with partner”, and two of my most advanced students were able to go even deeper, “You make teams when we have a class every week. I suggested you separate fixed group. Our class is big. I think you can save the time.” “I don’t know what to say…Ah! The more opportunities to participate in the class, the more confidence students can get.”

Some students seemed to interpret the second question as if I was asking how they could improve or change. For example, they answered, “speaking, listening and full of confidence.” “English communication ability improve.” “English. My bravery? Thank you LeBlanc.” Since I hadn’t given students prior indication that I would ask for feedback, this reaction was expected.

Keimyung University

If anything, I felt more confident about my teaching practice after reading their feedback. I realized that I was on the right track with group and partner activities.  I also learned that I need to make sure that I balance these activities with clear explanations of the language point. Some students may not be able to perform as well in groups and with partners because they don’t feel confident with the language point we are studying in class. I need to brush up on techniques that reinforce language, but don’t require students to go through a typical grammar lesson where they only do activities in their workbooks. Their feedback has helped me realize that they want to speak, but they also need more reinforcement with detailed explanations of the language point.

How can I create lessons provide explicit (deductive) and implicit (inductive) learning? I believe I have a tendency towards creating lessons that focus on implicit learning of the language, when the students might need more explicit language instructions. I’m not always spelling out the grammar rules, because I believe they have had enough exclusivly grammar-based lessons in their lives. However, now I realize that this may be part of their comfort zone, and could help them connect to the group/partner activities more confidently.  In future lessons I will work towards providing explicit instructions and activities at the beginning of lesson, and focus the rest of the time on partner or group activities. This will give them the chance to reflect on what they previously learned, and therefore they might feel more confident to use the language.  This is the scaffolding that is necessary for a successful speaking class.  Following this method, I hope students will increase their fluency.

I regret that I didn’t ask for feedback earlier in the semester. We only have four more lessons to go before the final exams. I believe that next time I will ask for feedback during week 4 or 5.  This would give me more time to tweak my lessons in order to meet their needs. Since our time is very limited, meeting their needs is crucial to their learning and could also increase motivation. The feedback also helps me enormously when deciding what to add to my lessons.

I’m left with one question: Was this the best way to ask for feedback? For some students they may have found it too difficult to put their feelings into words, and therefore opted for the easy, “Nothing”. For lower level students a scale from 1 to 10 might be more effective for receiving honest feedback. This is something I can experiment with in the future.

Keimyung University