By: Higor Cavalcante
This will be a slightly odd post, so bear with me.
First of all, it’s great to be back. I’ve always been a big fan of Disal’s and writing for the blog has always been an honor. I’m back, and back to stay!
That being said, this first post of mine in this new phase – as a columnist and as a teacher – will be a confession of sorts, as I’m going to own up to my…shortcomings as a teacher lately. Hopefully it will strike a chord with a few of you out there, and, if I can be so bold, perhaps shock you into action with me. Perhaps a few of us can get out of this rut together.
I believe I realized I’d been suffering from what Jeremy Harmer calls teacher burnout – when teachers get depressed or overtired and lose interest in (or have no enthusiasm for) teaching – at some point last year, much as I tried to pretend I wasn’t, for myself mostly. I’d been working for schools for upwards of 12 years and was in dire need of a change. I just couldn’t deal with the predictability of it all anymore. I just couldn’t. So I left, and began my newfound career as a freelance teacher/teacher educator. It helped a lot, but somehow it wasn’t enough.
A month ago (to the day), I arrived in Glasgow for my second IATEFL conference, first time as a presenter. I got off the train after a glorious week of gluttony in Italy and, on seeing the gray weather in Scotland, suffering – and failing – to make out a word or two from the taxi driver’s impenetrable accent, I admit I was more than a little unimpressed. There was nothing I could do, though, as I’d left Brazil precisely because of the conference, and I had my own presentation a couple of days down the road. However, I was not at all excited to be there, and that scared me.
Now, I love Adrian Underhill. I honestly do, and so should you. His Sound Foundationswas nothing short of professionally life-altering for me, as it was only after reading it that I started to believe in my ability to teach pronunciation with anything resembling confidence. His opening plenary, however, was… well, not what I expected. I couldn’t even tell you what it was about, to be honest, and that was a major blow. Underhill was the reason I’d spent 7 hours on an awful train all night long, as I wouldn’t have made it in time if I’d caught an early flight. It was definitely not an auspicious beginning.
Nevertheless, the beginning of a new beginning was to come on the very same day, in the form of the great Jim Scrivener. His presentation, Demand-High Teaching, was so powerful, so rich and enriching, so practical, that I just knew, there and then, that things were going to change for me. I just felt it was OK to feel the way I felt, because even one of the greatest writers, teachers and teacher trainers in the world of ELT felt somehow disenchanted with our status quo.
No, Scrivener is not suffering from teacher burnout – he is Scrivener, after all. What he feels is we’re just too comfortable in ELT at the moment, that after a few decades of Communicative Language Teaching we’ve reached what he insightfully calls a peaceful dead-end. We’ve lost our curiosity. We don’t question ourselves anymore (or don’t do it enough). We’re more concerned with steps (be them PPP, ESA, TBL, AAA, whatever), getting above standards and merits in our CELTAs, DELTAs or what have you, than in gauging the actual learning taking place in our classrooms. We’re…in a rut. (my words, not his).
I left Scrivener’s talk lighter, with the proverbial weight of the world off my shoulders. One of my favorite quotes in ELT had and has always been Harmer’s “the constant repetition of lesson routines, the revisiting of texts and activities with student reactions that become increasingly predictable, can – if we do not take steps to prevent it – dent even the most ardent initial enthusiasm.”, and I’d used it countless times in training sessions over the years. I had merely, as it were, forgotten to listen to myself, but I certainly heard Scrivener. I heard him loud and clear.
This is, thus, what this post is all about. It is about how I attended a 45-minute talk by one of the big ones and left it transformed. This is about how Jim Scrivener (not for the first time, mind you), helped me see, or at least remember – even if that was not exactly what he was talking about (but then again, students don’t always learn necessarily what we’re teaching them, right?) –, that we should always be curious, and that we should always try and do things differently, and that we should never just do things a certain way simply because they seem to have worked well before. It is not only students who need to enjoy our lessons. We need it, too. We need it bad! Arguably, they won’t enjoy them it if we don’t; they won’t learn much if they don’t enjoy them.
In practical terms, here’s what I propose. In your next class, surprise your students somehow. Tell them a joke. Use music. Do a video activity. Don’t use the coursebook. Take them for a walk. Bring food to class. Have them work out the rules of a grammatical point from a text or a dialog, if you don’t normally do it, instead of explaining it to them. Play Hangman, or something else if you always play Hangman. Do something different, something completely different. Surprise your students next class, so that the results of that class will in turn surprise you. I believe the solution for our teacher burnout (mine, at least) lies in it.
My next columns on this blog will be entirely dedicated to this new project of mine then, and that I hope will become yours too. How can we surprise our students? How can we do things differently? How do eliminate – or alleviate – boredom from our classes and thus from our jobs? How do we keep ourselves interested, and therefore our students? How can we help our students achieve better results? How do we never stop caring? How indeed? I don’t know, honestly. Or maybe I have a few ideas, and I’m willing to try them out.
I am, however, going to start this quest to answer those questions by asking for your help. Share your ideas with us by commenting here on the blog, or via email by writing to email@example.com. Any ideas! I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for here, but I know I’ll recognize it when I find it. I know that I want now, 13 years later, to be as excited about this thing I love so much as I was when I started out, and I hope these over 1000 words I’ve just written about it here will interest you in helping me out.
A few suggestions to start us off:
– – Three incredible books which have helped me a lot recently by piquing my curiosity and giving me some much-needed fresh ideas:
o “Essential Teacher Knowledge”, Jeremy Harmer. Pearson, 2012.
o “Classroom Management Techniques”, Jim Scrivener. Cambridge, 2012.
o “Atividades de Vídeo para o Ensino de Inglês”, Louise Emma Potter & Ligia Lederman. Disal, 2012. (the book I wish I’d written!)
– – Two great blogs you absolutely have to read every week, plus a great summary/review of Scrivener’s presentation in this year’s IATEFL:
o www.luizotaviobarros.com (incredible ideas, activities, theory… Luiz is the best!)
o www.moviesegmentstoassessgrammargoals.blogspot.com(Cláudio Azevedo, from DF, selflessly publishes great movie activities there on a weekly basis. His creativity is baffling.)
o Lizzie Pinard’s blog post on Scrivener’s talk: http://thelizziepinardworldofteachingefl.wordpress.com/2012/04/08/iatefl-2012-notes-and-reflections-on-jim-scriveners-talk-on-demand-high-teaching/#comment-90
Good luck for us all! =)
Higor Cavalcante is a teacher and teacher educator based in São Paulo, Brazil. He has worked for various schools in Brazil as a teacher, teacher educator, pedagogical consultant and director or studies, and is primarily interested at the moment in teacher education (his included), exams preparation and the impact of reading in the learning of English. He is also a blogger, and you can read his posts on www.higorcavalcante.com, as well as find out how to have him for talks and courses in your school.