Earlier on in our careers as EFL teachers, there’s a lot of focus on how to plan a ‘successful’ lesson based on the material we use, how we stage it, pitching the lesson right, what approach is best and so on.
I did that for many years but still, from time to time, experienced the feeling that it wasn’t enough. A few years ago I embarked on my own reflective journey as a teacher and realised that what was missing was the affective factor. It wasn’t enough my delivering a textbook lesson if I didn’t take on board what my students brought to class. That is, themselves, with everything that implies. So the shift happened. I learned to slow down, listen and observe my students. And it worked! I feel I’ve reached a stage where, on most days, I feel a sense of harmony with the people in my class.
So, here are seven of the things I now do routinely which I believe have contributed to this.
- Focus on group cohesion from the onset of the course. There are many ways to do this but one which I feel is essential is to dedicate the complete lesson to meaningful get-to-know-you activities. What I mean by ‘meaningful’ is, not just random fun activities but activities which will get you as much information about the students as possible. Be ready for lots of jotting down and try to include at least one where the students need to collect information about someone else for a homework task. If you’re interested in finding out more about ways to improve group cohesion, here’s the link to a previous #ELTchat on the subject.
- Discuss the content of the course with your students and allow them to contribute to the direction of the course. Rather than focus on the learner centredness of the lesson, perhaps a shift towards the learning itself and the students’ involvement in the decisions made during the course. Give your students choices. Let them be part of the decision making process of their own learning and create a learning-centred classroom.
For more on this watch this short video post by Scott Thornbury and try to make sure you read the ensuing discussion. It’s well worth it!
- Connect with each one of your students individually. This helps me view them as people rather than just students and thus build enough of a relationship that they are comfortable expressing their anxieties in the classroom as well as what holds them back . I make a conscious effort during the lesson, or outside the classroom (in the corridor or the cafeteria), to stop and have a quick chat with the students who I feel appear more passive or not as involved during the lessons. I do this in a ‘compassionate’ way rather than prying and intruding on their problems. This isn’t the time to tell them off for being late or not doing their homework, but rather try to understand why this is happening and offer support. According to Richards and Rodgers (1986: 117) ‘‘true’ human learning is both cognitive and affective.’ Sadly, in my opinion, the latter lacks from initial teacher training courses where planning and timing take precedence over students.
- Don’t take personally negative ‘incidents’ with learners. Instead, I’ve learned to take my students’ negative reactions as a need and/or a frustration they’re experiencing which they’re not able to express any other way. This could be related to their expectations, their understanding (or lack thereof) of the lesson, or something as simple as a bad day! Now that I do this, I’m generally able to defuse those stressful moments and turn a situation around which could have had a much different ending.
- Create a channel of communication with your students outside the classroom. I’ve done this so my students can contact me, or other students in the group, if and when they need to. For many years I didn’t give my students my number and tried to keep my contact with them outside the classroom as limited as possible. When I first began using WhatsApp groups with my students, I was worried I would be inundated with messages at all hours of the day, and night! But surprisingly, this didn’t happen. First, I can choose to respond, or not, depending on my availability. What usually happens when I don’t is that other students respond which is great and ties in with my first point on group cohesion. Also, I can always mute the group and only consult it when it suits me.
- Show interest in their country, culture and language. This may sound obvious but it’s actually disturbing to see teachers, both abroad or in English speaking countries, make no effort to find out about the culture and language of their learners. In some cases, some teachers have spent years in one country, socialising only with the expat community and having no direct contact with the locals or interest in their students’ world. My students always show pleasure at the fact that I know about their food, customs, etc. and that, I believe, helps build mutual respect.
- Be ready to go the extra mile, and give them tips and advice on group or individual needs. I sometimes dedicate the beginning of the lesson, or the end to share with my students ideas on things they can do outside the class to improve their English. This could be going online with them, either on the IWB or their mobile phones, and showing them how to research, use a website or even what dictionaries might be better for them. It could also be a chat about something useful like recording themselves on their phone and using that to develop their speaking skills.
There are probably many other things one could do to improve both teachers and students’ learning experience. What do you do? I’d love to read your tips.
Richards, J.C. and Rodgers, T.S. (1986) Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.