Performative Teaching


I’ve spent time agonizing over my own teaching. What went wrong, what went OK, what went disastrously? I’ve mulled over a concept in my head that I call performative teaching, and I am  going to use it in this post.

One important thing to note is that I mean something entirely different to the definition in Naidu (2017), where it is described as:

“[Teacher and student] could co-enact in in quasi-theatrical fashion, any question or answer that might arise in class… Such a method invited the participation of students beyond merely listening and taking down notes. It also notionally and visibly shrank the class.” (Naidu, 2017: p. 462)

Instead I see it as a performance of teaching without the consideration of learning taking place. It may happen in classes where the teacher has planned activities for learners but a significant proportion of the learners do not engage with it. This lack of engagement may be due to amotivation (Ryan & Deci, 2017), an absence of motivation because of a lack of perceived ability to take part in or succeed at the activity or else a failure to see utility in the activity. Obviously this is far from ideal, but what is a teacher to do?

One option is to panic and teach anything, and this is what I mean by performative teaching. It is the teacher performing the art of teaching, but the art of teaching is much like the art of live music or theatre; the ‘audience’ or community of learners may be engaged in alternative activities at the same time, such as texting, having side conversations among others. Yet the show goes on. However, without students paying attention to what is being taught can the teacher even begin to imagine that anything is being learnt?

Of course the other option is to stop the ‘performance’. If the planned activity is not appropriate, or felt to be as such, if it is forced then not much is going to happen except for a bit of resentment and perhaps even some foreign language classroom anxiety (Horwitz et al, 1986). “Because complex and non-spontaneous mental operations are required in order to communicate at all, any performance in the L2 is likely to challenge an individual’s self-concept as a competent communicator and lead to reticence, self-consciousness, fear, or even panic.” (Horwitz et al, 1986: p. 128) Therefore, it would probably be best to not have the whole class and the teacher in a state of anxiety or panic. A brief acknowledgement that things are not quite going according to plan is fine because we are all human, after all. Think about what could be done.

If your classroom culture is one where there is an expectation of student-teacher exchange of opinions, you might even get students co-creating an activity with (or without) you. You don’t even need to ditch the plan that didn’t work because maybe it’s something that would work better on another day. If not, perhaps you have a particular activity that you use as an assessment task that you could instead use for formative assessment (see where students are at and what they should work toward next). It might also help you to see what students might not have felt ready for in the ditched activity.

However, as a devil’s advocate here, let’s imagine that you’ve kept going along in your state of panic with an activity that nobody is into. If you’re like me and you have a task followed by (or in tandem with) a focus on form (Long, 2014) you have either not much to focus on or way too much to focus on due to limited output. If you teach forms – grammar, vocabulary, functional language – first (and I know some people are mandated to) and that’s gone OK but the following activity has gone awry, you could pay lip service to it and think of a different situation with the same language use, or even a few sensible questions with the language point and turn it back on the learners. Maybe this works better, maybe it doesn’t. Can you try to see why and how this happened, though. Sometimes people go into a classroom unprepared for learning and it isn’t the end of the world and isn’t always the teacher’s fault. As a teacher, maybe it’s worth learning from the experience, because if you have to be dripping in nervous sweat and having a painful pit of anxiety in your stomach, you should get some benefit from it.



Horwitz, E. K., Horwitz, M. B. & Cope, J. (1986), Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70: 125-132. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1986.tb05256.x

Long, M. H. (2014) Second Language Acquisition & Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

Naidu, M. (2014). Engaged Pedagogy and Performative Teaching: Examples from Teaching Practice. International Journal of Educational Sciences, 6(3), 459–468. doi:10.1080/09751122.2014.118901

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.

Every Little Thing The Reflex Does

I’m showing my age, I know.
I was just thinking earlier, about decision making in the classroom. There’s a brilliant diagram by Chaudron in one of my favourite books, Allwright & Bailey (1991?) Focus on the Language Classroom. CUP. It shows the multitude of decisions we have to make in our classrooms on the fly about error treatment. Add to these the decisions about whether to divert from the lesson plan and how to do it and then it’s an even larger number.
With all these decisions, how do we go about them in a principled way? I feel we do an awful lot based on reflexivity as opposed to reflection. I know that we build up our intuition as we log more classroom practice and think about what goes on but can any of us say every single one of our decisions is planned in advance?
So, the point: I wonder if we logged every reflexive decision and its outcome whether it would help to make better decisions more likely, sort of by step-by-step proceduralizing the metacognitive process (or thinking about what was a good decision and what was a bad decision and hoping that the remnants of this reflection will be accessible the next time you have a  similar decision to make).
We can wing it every lesson but is it always the most effective to wing every stage of the lesson all the time? If you’ve done similar things, you can hopefully make similar successes more probable. It’s just making those seemingly more trivial decisions more principled because they might just have ramifications that we don’t anticipate. And as Duran Duran say, “Every little thing the reflex does leaves an answer with a question mark”. Flex-flex!

Perils of Freelancing/Serial Part-Timing as a Teacher

Freelancing is highly romanticised at the moment, or so I feel, on the ‘productivity’ websites. However, the fact is, I would love to be a full-time employee. What leads me to be a freelancer/serial part-timer (FSPTer) then?

  • I make much, much more money as a FSPTer than I would ‘full-time’ in a language school.
  • Pay rises in language schools in Japan are based on whether students like you. This can depend on whether your regular student on a Thursday is always tired and gives you a 4 on a questionnaire instead of a 5, or whether you are handsome. I look like Brad Pitt. In Fight Club. After getting the shit beat out of me. There are many young men in English Teaching in Tokyo who moonlight as models.

Now, before all you other long-in-the-toothed folks like me start thinking about going Omar, don’t think it’s all sweetness, think about this.


Most of your company classes will be agency work. Agencies will not pay you if the client cancels with over 24 hours notice. Will you fill that slot? Will there be a Bambi’s mother-zombie-crossover live-action film? In a language school, you get paid regardless, unless you work for a total piece of crap.
Sometimes an agency will make a verbal agreement with you, nothing solid, but you block your schedule, and the organisation then does further shopping around and drops your agency. They take no hit other than salesperson time. You lose ground on the slots you could have applied for.
Private students are the way to go,” you say. I will say that you may have a private that treats you well but most get flaky and cancel at the last minute. I charge the full whack if there’s less than 24-hours notice, or stop bookings any more than a week in advance. Hit any private with these and they will soon stop taking lessons if you charge a rate that is reasonable to you. This can be good though; you don’t want to be waiting around for people that don’t respect you but only say that they do.


God, I hate admin. You will have at least one agency time sheet to fill in, plus student attendance. Add to that any marking if you have writing classes that turn out substantial work, and there will always be the last-minute thing that you will not get office staff help with because you don’t have office staff – you’re freelance. Add tax returns in a foreign language and messing about with multiple document formats going between phone, Pages, MS Office, Libre Office and other permutations and you’re on a one-way ticket to Self Medication Station.
Basically, you learn to prioritise. My question is “If this isn’t done, will my family starve?” You’d be surprised at how much is let go. However, you still have to balance goodwill and lackadaisical wherewithal.

The Muscles and The Belly

You will be able to shoulder everything a black hole can absorb in an aeon and more. This is because, on a busy day, you might be carrying four textbooks, a notebook, a diary, maybe a portable speaker for listening tasks, food and whatever else you might carry to kill time (novels, game machine, scale model of the Bismarck, etc.) This exercise will not stave off The Belly.
You will get hungry and every subway or train station kiosk will beg you closer with its promise of Snickers, M&Ms, sweet breads, sandwiches, ambiguous baked goods with exotic seasonal flavours. You will not have willpower, especially at five o’clock on a Thursday after a class at a food company and just before teaching a lesson on dining out. You need exercise. You will crave exercise but you might not have time.

The Ludicrous Schedule

You will spread yourself stupidly thin when you can get work (which is basically all the seasons when weather is crap except Christmas and New Year) and have more free time than you can shake a stick at over summer, unless you teach at a summer camp, though many of those pay rubbish money for staying on-site in the sticks miles from home or miles from the pub if you go in for that.
I am getting better at managing this but the cancellations do mess this up a bit.
Do I like my job? Yes, I do. Do I like freelancing? That’s not really relevant; my family likes having a place to live and being able to eat. Some days I like freelancing more, other days less. It’s about how you get by, isn’t it?

Status Update/MEES Michinohe.

OK, so in the last week, this blog has massively increased it’s readership (great thanks to all who shared the post on Coursebooks).
I gave my presentation at MEES Michinoku at Hachinohe Gakuin University and found it wasn’t as contentious as I thought it might have been. I have no scars from things being thrown at me. I also got the chance to meet a lot of cool people and I saw some interesting presentations with practical application to my classroom practice. Of particular note was John Campbell-Larsen’s plenary about discourse/conversation analysis and corpus findings about common speech and conversation. There was two particularly fascinating sections on backchannelling and evaluating in conversations that have helped my students in the last few days.
The slides from my presentation are here if you want to have a look at them, and there may be even a YouTube later so you can see just how nervous I felt!
In the meantime, I’ve had loads of back and forth on Twitter/blog comments with Rose Bard and Glenys Hanson, both of whom I wholeheartedly recommend!