Questions I ask myself before class

I’m currently working on a project that asks me to question what teachers may need to consider and do in order to confidently teach an English language class. To do this, I wrote a list of questions that have come to my mind during my years of teaching, and thought it might be of use to you as well. The list below relates to questions I try to ask myself before class, with “before” being subjective to time. I also intend to create a list of what I think about during and after class.

  • Individual learners – Who are my learners? What do they already know about English? What are their interests in life? Why are they here? How do they feel today? What’s going on in their lives that might affect their time here?
  • Group dynamics – Do the learners get along? What can I do to create a community (collaborative rather than competitive)? What are the cultural dynamics at play? How do the learners relate to me?
  • Classroom dynamics – Is the layout conducive to discussions or the tasks I have in mind? From what I know about them (how they may feel today or their personal preferences), or based on the task I have planned, will they need to move around? How can I display visuals?
  • Materials – Do they have a textbook (assigned audio)? Will I use what’s in it or will supplement it? Will I disregard parts of the chapter? Will I create my own material? Will they create their own material? If so, with what and how? Will I tell them what to create or will they decide?
  • Language – Are we starting with target language in mind? How could I visually or conceptually clarify the language that comes up? Do I have examples or visuals (audio) to help clarify the language skill (i.e.: genre; communicative purpose; register)? Do I want to be explicit (deductive approach) or implicit (inductive approach) with my clarification, or both? Is metalanguage needed (thanks to Chia Suan Chong for this inspiration)?
  • The language lesson – How can I structure my lesson in a way that the learners feel supported yet also challenged? Do they need a heavily structured lesson or do they work well with a more laid back, organic approach? Writing skills – What do they need to know in order to write a successful text? What is the genre or purpose of the text? What kind of language (register, grammar, lexis…) is needed to write in this genre or to communicate a desired message? How much time will I give for thinking, planning, outlining, revising, editing, and sharing with the audience? Will they share their text, and if so with who and how? Reading and listening skills – Is the text meaningful to the learners? Do I need to pre-teach lexis? What language may they find challenging? What skills (prediction, scanning, skimming, listening for details or gist…) will be needed to complete the task? What questions can I ask to help them catch the main idea and specific details? Speaking- What are they trying to communicate? Is it a conversation or a presentation? Is the topic meaningful to the learners? What is the context (i.e.: what is appropriate or inappropriate  language)? Do they have a reason to use the language (i.e.: is someone listening and does that person have a reason to respond)? Do they have enough time to practice the language? How will I help them clarify the pronunciation? 4skills – How will I help learners balance accuracy and fluency? How will I deal with errors? Can they self or peer correct?
  • Approach – How does what I know about how languages are learned inform how I create opportunities for learning (i.e.: input theories, output theories, affective learning theories…)? How will my past experience with learning language inform my approach? What methodologies would would work best considering the needs of my learners (audio-lingual, CLT, TBL, grammar translation…)? How can I mix these up to serve them best?
  • Teacher (self and intentions) – How am I feeling today? What do I need? How do my past experiences influence today’s class, and what am I ready to do about it?

Now for the last question: what am I missing? If you notice I’ve missed an important question, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Synchronicity Visits a Teacher

If you know me, you know how I excited I get about the topic of synchronicity. If you don’t know this about me, well, now you know. And now that I am blogging about synchronicity, you can imagine how doubly excited I am.

My favourite nickname for synchronicity so far is divine winks. I’m going to put a twist on this and call them divine synchs. How these synchs usually come to me are through words. For example, I’ll be contemplating something all day, and then the answer pops up coincidently on a t-shirt or bag on the street or subway.

Stay Real
subway in Hong Kong

Or maybe friends and I have been discussing a very obscure topic, and the next show on TV is about just that. There is something both comforting and uncanny about these moments. I see them as signs that I’m on the path that I’m supposed to be on. So if these synchs arrive at a higher frequency than usual, it means I need to slow down and pay attention.

This post is me slowing down and paying attention.

The word that has been popping up is, confidence. It first revealed itself while doing research for a post I’m writing for the iTDi blog. The research involved me going through all the posts I’ve written on Throwing Back Tokens since 2009 and looking for themes. This is when the synch first appeared. Below are all the posts that speak directly of or even allude to confidence.

The next time it showed up was during our post lesson observation feedback. One of the observers noted how confident the teachers who had just team-taught looked to him. The way they were able to answer questions and give directions in English made him realize how important it is to feel confident as a teacher. For him, without such confidence, it was really hard for him to teach.

Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that the next day the word came up again after team-teaching, but I’ll still call it a synch. This time it was the teacher who taught the lesson who shared how valuable confidence is when it comes to standing in front of the class.

I’m not sure what all this means exactly, but I think it has something to do with a trajectory I am supposed to take: maybe research into confidence and the teaching self; maybe help teachers explore what confidence means to them and how they can actualize it; or maybe I need more confidence myself. Whatever it means, this is a synch I’m keeping my eye on.

Believe in Me

What inspires change?

I think part of the change equation involves…


Anyone who has played competitive sports understands this. You push your body to its limits; you strategize and analyze, but also realize it may not be the right move for the play; you anticipate and equate; your personal, emotional boundaries are tested. You collapse, and you break.

Yet, you keep playing.

Why? Why do you put yourself through this?

Because you believe you can do it. If you’re lucky, this belief comes from within, but for many, it comes from the people who surround us.

Continue reading “Believe in Me”

Monitoring: Context & Emotional Proximity

When you observe 41 teachers, you learn a lot. This is what I did during the last 5 weeks. My task was to observe my participants’ microteaching, and give them feedback on what I noticed. The most memorable teaching behavior I observed throughout this experience was the different monitoring styles, notably the “too-close-for-comfort” teacher, and the teacher I like to call “the avoider”.

*Disclaimer: the avoider was a teacher who never gave feedback on his/her students’ performance throughout the lesson.

During our last class together, I thought it would be important for me to help them become aware of how these different monitoring styles might affect their students. With the inspiration of a quick 5-minute, pre-class brainstorm with my colleague, Michael Griffin, I decided to give my participants insight into their monitoring habits, and did a little microteaching of my own; I became the teacher, half of the participants took the role of students, and the other half were observers.

Continue reading “Monitoring: Context & Emotional Proximity”

Ploughing through the First Day

Why do I feel exhausted? It was my first day back, I only had three, 50 minute classes and I covered the same material in each of them! So if it was such an easy day, where does the strain behind my eyes come from?

The exhaustion comes from my snowplough imitation. With a quick and steady advance, I made my way through the participants’ attentiveness. I can just imagine how my big, round, fully animated eyes must have seemed to them: like looking into blinding blue headlights with too much self-powered energy. I speculate I have a teacher’s gaze that could cause my participants to topple over with either giggles or confusion. But with their cultural composure, they listened and held back on any social slip ups.

My eyes were saying this, “I REALLY want you to understand what I’m saying. Do you understand that this is important?”, and with the strength of a plough, I pushed through the course expectations, trying to pack all the information onto the snow banks of my participants’ minds.

“This folder is for your writing portfolio. You keep your writing tasks here, but don’t keep your classroom notes in this portfolio. Your portfolio is a learning tool, and it will help you see your writing progress. You also keep your reflective dialogue journal entries here. These entries are written at home.”

“What is an entry? An entry is a single written item. For example when you write something in your diary, this is an entry. You have to write two entries per week. If you look at the handout I gave you, I ask you to answer these questions. They are reflective questions. Reflective implies thinking about yourself, and your experiences, and then writing about it. You answer the reflective question and then give it to me. At this point I will read the entry and comment. When you write your entry you can also ask me a question. I will answer this question. This is a private written conversation between you and I.”

“You use the yellow notepad that I’ve given you for your in-class writing tasks. When you are done with the tasks, you rip the paper and put it in your portfolio.”

“…blah blah blah.”

Some instructions went over their heads like the last bits of snow trying to make it to the top of that snow bank.  I was giving them information I knew some of them weren’t understanding. I feel exhausted because I spent too much time talking. What’s embarrassing is that I always encourage participants to decrease TTT (teacher talking time), and here I was using it as my only teaching tool.

I tried to convey information I know will only be understood when it is experienced. This is the beauty. Teachers just don’t need to talk for their message to get across. Being understood is all about action. I know this is true when it comes to giving instructions for a language activity.

So my question is, do I really need to go through this again next semester? Is there a more fun and less tiring way to let them know what their responsibilities are for the semester?

I could have asked them to get in groups to discuss the syllabus and instructions on their handout. I could have given them the folder and notepad, and ask them to imagine what they might be for. Any other suggestions? How can I refrain from acting like a snowplough on the first day of class?