The ongoing mentoring experiment experience

A couple of months ago I put out a call on Twitter to say that I was interested in mentoring teachers who thought they might benefit from it. To be utterly transparent, I was interested in the conversation between a less/differently experienced teacher and me, the grizzled journeyman. I was not disappointed.

A whiteboard with several clarification questions written on it.

I won’t say my mentee’s name here, but I will say that they are far too modest about their experience and knowledge. They have a first degree in TESOL and unlike arrogant/ignorant younger me who thought teaching in a foreign country would be a lark and finance my novel writing, they are volunteering to build experience before seeking paid work. And still they want to get better at what they do.

So far we have chatted about giving learners more responsibility and taking a bit more agency in selecting what parts of the class materials are used, not used, and how this can still be cohesive and assure student parents and managers of the organizational that everything is educationally sound.

We have also wondered about online teaching of older children and teens and how to engage them more than just going through the motions, which is probably quite a lot more complex than it seems.

Anyhow, I look forward to our next meeting and email. I get the chance to reflect about things that I haven’t really considered at a deep level for some time. Hopefully I have shown a bit of a possible route ahead.

Who’s Paying?

Everyone I know seems to be teaching online right now. It’s not exactly a surprise: nobody wants to miss work, and nobody wants their students to miss out on learning.

This is all very nice because it means that we get some sense of normality. However, in among all this, have we further normalised the use of our own belongings for work? I am paid for my time, in that I am salaried, but most jobs don’t provide laptops or WiFi for their teachers. My main job has provided me with a tablet-laptop hybrid, which is – as far as I am aware – unusual for people on a teaching only contract.

Are all these institutions providing the infrastructure or equipment needed for online teaching, or just saying “Get on Zoom and teach a full timetable”?

The interaction of training and observation in one teacher’s development – Chapter Summary

Oooh, I’m in a book. Well, not me, because a 6’4″ book would be a bit unwieldy. But I have a chapter in Daniel Hooper & Natasha Hashimoto’s book, Teacher Narratives from the Eikaiwa Classroom: Moving Beyond “McEnglish”, which is published by Candlin & Mynard as an ebook and on actual paper. I think the book is very reasonably priced and I know that several chapters are actually brill. You can buy it from Smashwords as an ebook and Jeff Bezos’ shop in your favoured territory, and probably other places.

Cover of Teacher Narratives From the Eikaiwa Classroom: Moving Beyond "McEnglish" Edited by Daniel Hooper and Natasha Hashimoto. Foreword by Ryuko Kubota

Summary

The chapter started life as an offhand comment at a conference that all in attendance were freaks who wanted to attend a conference on their day off from work. In the chapter, I puzzle about how I got from fresh off the plane English instructor at a chain language school in Tokyo, with no experience, to where I am now and pontificating at conferences, in print and on this blog.

There’s a lot of trial and error, basically due to rushed on-the-job training. The only winner here is the company owner. Teachers are stressed and students are annoyed. Eventually I learned through incidental observation through makeshift plexiglass cubicles and talking to colleagues. However, we all have basically the same training, so there’s an argument to be made that teaching in language schools is made into menial work. The incentive at the companies I worked for to have any teaching qualifications was Y5,000 per month, which is not great, especially seeing as you got it whether you had a certificate, a diploma, or a master’s degree.

Any formal guidance given in the language schools I worked at was by managers, who rarely had any teaching qualifications themselves. This was also geared more to customer satisfaction/retention than sound pedagogy. Also, due to the lack of training that the managers had, they were going off beliefs and instinct.

So, the formal observations could be less useful than the informal, incidental ones. Also, not only seeing ‘good’ lessons helps; seeing ‘bad’ helps you to take a reality check and think about whether or not something is a good idea.

The chapter goes into theory a lot more than I have done here, but hopefully this gives you a taste.

 

How Have I Developed? How Can I Develop?

I think I’m a pretty busy person as a teacher, in that my teaching load is quite large (for a part timer at three universities, freelancer and co-op member) and I juggle quite a lot on top for continuous professional development. Sometimes it stresses me out – the actual balancing of the things I want to do with the things I should do and the things I absolutely have to do.

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Why on Earth am I so bothered about developing professionally anyway?

I don’t know whether it is pride in my work or not. Probably a sense of reward in knowing that I haven’t messed up, and have helped people learn something faster than Continue reading “How Have I Developed? How Can I Develop?”

Some games made in class (and for homework)

Regular readers, or people who read the last but one post on here know that my students were making and playtesting board games as a project. The point of the games were that they should need to be played by communicating in English. All the playtest information was provided in English, too.

The students are too shy to share their games as print and play games but they did give me permission to share their games on my blog.

Travel Game

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This game has a similar mechanic to Japanese favourite Game of Life (which, incidentally I was playing with my son on Sunday, the Japanese Timeslip version). You collect money and country cards. You take country cards to collect but you can’t actually possess them until you land on or pass the country card code.

It was, unlike Game of Life, very quick to play and not at all complicated.

Nutrition Game

This game was an epic. It took 70-odd minutes of a 90-minute lesson to play. You gain calories by eating food on one board. After completion you lose calories by doing activities on the other board. The winner is the one closest to zero. There are other little twists like giving other players missed turns after collecting condiments and such. Long, but it didn’t feel like it!

Game Party

This one was so entertaining. You move from the start to the finish, collecting coins to buy cards to muck around with board positions and such. You can collect coins but more importantly win them by playing the games within the game, like ‘staring game’ (see who can stare their opponent out), arm wrestling, word association, snap and career poker which is still somewhat unclear to me. Gosh, the staring games were amazing, and the word association game with the theme of school items being won (by majority consensus) with ‘door’ was controversial enough to make the game exciting.

Next, I just have to get the evaluation sheets in.

Development Interrupted? Precarity, stress and effects on my CPD

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have noticed that I am following and retweeting more and more UK and Australia based accounts that tweet about (anti)precarity and (anti)casualisation in academia. Why? Well, I work in multiple universities on renewable one year contracts with the number of hours I can work for each university usually capped. I am relatively comfortable in the knowledge that I can renew for a generally unlimited number of times but one frequently hears of colleagues whose contracts do not get renewed and then need to take any work that comes up last minute. Continue reading “Development Interrupted? Precarity, stress and effects on my CPD”

New working paper on teaching listening

I put up a working paper on SocArxiv about teaching listening.

Jones, M. (2018) Exploring Difficulties Faced in Teaching Elective English Listening Courses at Japanese Universities (working paper). https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/sa2kw

In this paper, an exploration of the problems encountered in teaching two elective English listening courses at Japanese universities in 2017 and 2018. Intended as a working paper with an intended audience of teaching professionals and those who support them, problems in working memory, motivation and general listening pedagogy are detailed.

Making Work For Yourself

Well, first a famine and then a feast, that is, if self-indulgent nonsense is at all a signifier of a festival atmosphere. 3 posts in 36 hours!
Sometimes I think of expertise in teaching as the intuition that being time served gives to you. It’s not the sleepwalking through a class but that you can do everything through habit and stay alert to the novelties of the day. Other times I think of it as the way that you can get through a lesson without needing to plan a rationale with a 3000-word literature review and a methodology section. You already have the skills to pay the bills, as it were.
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However, comfort zones are made to be broken out of. This year I am teaching a listening module (yay!) with endless amounts of faff for the resources (no way!) but which I chose to do myself (ey?) in the name of pedagogical thoroughness (hmmm!). Where do we draw the line between martyring oneself to The Absolutely Correct Way Based on Proper Scientists of Learning and being a heretic to the cult of Maybe This Is Good Enough and The Students Will Never Bloody Notice?
“It’s why they pay us the big bucks,” said a person (this very week) that would be unlikely to read this blog. Except, I feel that part of me in the standardised parts of my job feels very frustrated that some of what I do is not The Absolute Correct Way but is definitely only Maybe Good Enough. The bits of my job where I have designed the syllabus and where I have lots of independence make me really happy, although for a few of those there were some marathon reading sessions on good practice for reading and writing pedagogy.
“That book basically teaches itself,” said someone in a staff room this week. I didn’t even have a small aneurysm. I sat on my hands and did nothing; no arguing, not even a grumble. I just disagreed, felt that I understood the time pressures but wondered why they even had a Master’s degree if they enjoyed being deskilled so much.
Anyway, there’s assessment as well. Not being much of one for exams, them being a single event that might not be representative of learning development, I sort of eschewed them as much as possible until this year going with portfolios and ongoing assessment. Unfortunately, I don’t think portfolio assessment is the way to go unless you are teaching a light load and have plenty of time for painstaking assessment necessary. My portfolio assessments make up a much smaller proportion of grades this year, but I do have exams to give but they are smaller, less stressful affairs. I would much rather be able to conduct task-based tests more often, but 30 in some classes and I teach 30 hours a week at different places and with different systems. The Absolute Correct Way is toast again.
Am I a bit sorry? Well, I have the flail out, yes. Is there any way around it? Well, probably not until I start a Patreon or something (joke).
So, what can be done? Well, at best, I can probably plan my time a bit better, which should be easier now I cancelled Netflix. I could do a bit more assessment in down time and use time at home as down time instead. I also have a lot of repeating classes next semester, so that is a small mercy and I won’t need to mess about with video editing software on a crappy Linux computer with insufficient RAM at midnight next autumn or winter.
 

Reflection post-MA and the onward movement


Some of you who know me a bit or have delved in the archives may know that I just finished my MA Applied Linguistics and TESOL (Distance Learning) through University of Portsmouth. Nothing is finalised yet but my work has been marked and in the next couple of months I believe I get a lovely new piece of paper.
Would I do it again? Yes. I loved reading up on stuff I am interested in and then chatting about it. Would my wife let me do it again? Perhaps begrudgingly. There are reasons for her antipathy, none of which are to do with the University of Portsmouth but to do with work-life balance.
My workload (as in paid work) right now is 15 hours university teaching (and does not include planning, preparation or assessment), 16 hours of school teaching, planning, preparation and assessment, and 3 hours thirty minutes of ESP/Business English teaching (not including preparation, planning or assessment). While I was doing my MA, I was teaching 3 to 6 hours less at university but instead teaching 3 hours more Business English, teaching YLs for 7 hours and coordinating YL courses with 2 assigned hours. A colleague told me a couple of weeks ago, “Marc, you should be really proud if you do pass because you have the workload of two full-time lecturers while completing the MA reading and writing.”
I am proud, but I wish I had controlled my work-life balance better, what with having a young son. I also started the MA when I was finishing up the teaching practicum of my Trinity DipTESOL, as well, which was stressful in and of itself. This was not simply unwise but totally stupid and irresponsible. I did all of it by sacrificing family life, mainly by burning the candle at both ends.
Why did I do it, then? I am not a pretty paper collector. I am stuck in a situation where I need money and it needs to go up quite often seeing as I have basically no pension, not really enough savings, and there are social norms in Japan about extra-curricular stuff that costs the kind of kind of money I will probably start to balk at come April. I can talk about the inherent edification of completing work above my comfort zone, and it is a huge factor in what got me through. Learning stuff is fun, kind of. However, I have to at least be a bit utilitarian. MA is basically the new BA. Perhaps I even understate it.
I also work for four different employers, plus myself. I am tired of this. I would love a full-time job that pays a similar amount to my current earnings, after taking into account the social insurance differences and such. Unfortunately, there’s a bit less job security there unless I were to chance upon a tenured position immediately. This is as likely as discovering a magic lamp at the bottom of my bag. However, an MA makes the probability of this at least a sporting chance. It also means that I can move countries if I absolutely have to. It also means that I can advertise my services as that of an expert rather than as a journeyman, and get more money for them. Alternatively, it means I can find better paying part-time work.
Anyhow, studies are finished, kind of. I just have to wait. My dissertation supervisor said in an email, “you should follow up on this research.”
“Hey, let’s move to New Zealand! I’ll do a PhD!” I said, in the mania of knowing I passed everything as opposed to the gnawing fear that I had failed. Also, I am a workaholic, which is definitely not a good thing but a side effect of impulsive decision making.
“Do they have good trains?” my son asked.
“Eh?” asked my wife, with the stoniest stare since Medusa. “No.”
So, not quite that. Instead, I am doing stuff, sort of a long-term research project come side business thing that I hope to use as a PhD by publication in the next few years, to increase the chance of finding a permanent, well-paid, full-time job (don’t laugh, PhD holders; I did say ‘chance’) . Luckily I have good library access with my jobs.
In the meantime, I am trying to find time to transform my dissertation into a research article and figure out how to get my jobs to let me use students as research subjects or else find time to get volunteers for research. Or get the time to try finding a magic lamp.

3 home truths about research evidence in TESOL


Research doesn’t affect anything except practice among some university teachers or a small number of school teachers. It does not affect materials to a degree significant enough to affect teachers’ general classroom practices. This is OK; those of us with lab coat envy can feel good about our principles while others can feel good about being in touch with teaching realities.
However slavishly you believe that you follow a method or approach, you’re probably following your interpretation of it rather than something the developer would regard as a practice they prescribed. This is fine because it is also informed by judgment of how the people in the classroom would respond to your methods.
We can talk ourselves blue in the face about IATEFL, but I have met approximately two members of that organisation in the time I have been teaching. For most teachers, IATEFL has as much bearing on our professional life as Paris Spring Collection has on the clothes sold in Topshop. You can choose to enthuse or dissent about points of view expressed there there but your enthusiasm or dissent is irrelevant to most teachers. It is your own, and it affects mainly your own practice.