Surviving the School Trip

I haven’t posted in just over a week – not due to forgetfulness, lack of motivation, or even the demands of my usual teaching schedule. In spring and autumn Czech schools routinely have ‘School in Nature’, and as I teach pretty much full-time at an elementary school, lucky me, I get to go too!

Detect a hint of sarcasm in that sentence? That’s probably because there is one, lurking, or at least there was before heading off for my seven days in the mountains. Back in October I went on a similar trip with my grade 5 class and a combination of poor weather, poor planning (on everyone’s part), lack of communication and a bitchy class teacher meant that it wasn’t a very fun experience. This trip, I’m thankful to say, was far better.

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A mountain walk…

Not familiar with the premise of ‘School in Nature’? Basically an entire class, their teacher, and a few other adult helpers all head off to a chalet in the mountains for a week, where the children then have a combination of normal (ish) lessons, trips, walks, and outside games and activities. It’s a little bit like summer school, with the exception of the fact that the children are still in their usual school class and with their usual teacher. It’s pretty much compulsory, and I never fail to find it surprising how happily even quite young children (this trip was with grade 1 and 2) will merrily troop off to spend a week without their parents – mobile phones were banned and so the only contact the children had with their families was daily postcards (helpfully provided by the parents in advance so that no one was reliant on the Czech postal service!)

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Snow!

I have to admit that we didn’t do much formal ‘English’ during the course of the week – unlike the grade 5 trip the class teacher was more keen for me to simply help out with whatever she had planned, rather than giving me the kids on my own for an hour or so at a time, meaning that most of my nicely planned lessons/activities never actually got used. However it was nice to work with the children in a different environment to usual, to share in their memories of the trip and to see them trying to use their English to genuinely communicate with me, rather than simply producing the language I have taught/am trying to teach them.

My favourite memory of the trip is probably (bizarrely) on our excursion to the ‘mini zoo’ down the road from our chalet – to be honest a slightly depressing experience as it wasn’t a particularly ‘animal friendly’ zoo as zoos go. One enclosure contained a ‘Myval severni’. Now, although I can understand a reasonable amount of Czech (due to its similarity to Russian) my ability to speak it is almost non-existent, and a lot of vocabulary I simply don’t know. The Myval was hiding in its shelter, and so aside from a vague outline of fur I couldn’t see what it was. I asked both the children and one of the adult helpers (who spoke around intermediate level English) if they knew what it was in English. The description I was given was as follows: ‘It’s like a small bear. Or a cat. Part a bear, part a cat. It washes. It puts food in the bowl and it washes and then eats it.’ Any ideas? (*answer at the end of the post*)

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These cups may have contained something slightly stronger than coffee…

What would  I recommend for EFL teachers asked to accompany their students on a trip?

  • Stay as flexible as humanely possible. It’s hard, it’s stressful… but it’s mandatory if you wish to maintain any sort of sanity.
  • Be aware that anything: getting ready to go outside, packing suitcases, getting ready for bed – will take at least ten times longer than expected if you are trying to get children to do it. One morning I witnessed one of the girls take ten minutes to put a pair of trousers on.
  • Try to enjoy it as much as possible! Make the most of moments that are funny, or beautiful scenery, or things that make you smile.
  • Plan for wet weather. Chances are that at some point, it will rain. On this trip (despite being late April) it snowed almost every day. If all your activities are dependent on being able to go outside/sit on the grass, you’re going to have a problem.
  • Have some back-up activities ‘just in case’. The teachers on this trip were incredibly considerate and helpful – but there was still the dreaded half an hour when I was asked to take all 48 of the children for some kind of activity, with less than five minutes’ notice. Having a back up will help your sanity.
  • Remember that what you are doing is hard. If things don’t seem to be going to plan, cut yourself some slack.
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Jablonec-nad-Nisou from the mountains

 

 

 

*This, dear readers, is a Myval severni. It is part cat, part bear, and it washes food.

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Did you guess correctly? I had no idea until I googled it. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Lurgy: Beating the Child Germs

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Photo: Grzegorz Wasylko

 

First, a confession: I am writing this while off sick. It seems ironic then that I am writing a blog post about that which I frequently fail to do, but as I sit surrounded by Strepsils/saltwater/paracetamol I couldn’t help but think that there are many other EFL teachers in the same position. Teaching (any age group) means that you are constantly exposed to people, therefore exposed to their germs, and as soon as you are teaching children, the likelihood of you getting sick expands exponentially. Children are GROSS.

At the start of this academic year I caught a cold or had a sore throat every fortnight. It isn’t my first year teaching – this year marked the start of my fifth. The child germs are eternal, and at times it seems invincible. But fear not, because there are still some things you can do to fight them.

 

Wash your hands*.

It sounds like such an obvious thing, doesn’t it? But it’s so easy to forget when you’re rushing between one class and another, or trying to remember that you have the relevant books/boardmarkers/coloured pencils/cuddly toy for your next class. Make yourself wash your hands as soon as you finish teaching a class – especially if you’re going to be eating during the break. You will convince yourself that you don’t have time, or that you don’t need to – you need to. Sooner or later you will regret the alternative. From what I’ve seen hand sanitisers have mixed reviews, some people swear by them, others hate them and repeatedly point out that they damage skin and aren’t as good as soap and water. Personally I keep a thing of hand sanitiser in my bag as back up – if I slip up and forget to wash my hands, or use a student’s  pencil, or hold a student’s hand and then realise where that hand has been, I use a surreptitious squirt of hand sanitiser. Otherwise, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.

*I find handwashing and hand sanitiser do tend to dry my skin out, especially in cold weather. Invest in some decent hand cream too, if it’s not too girlie for you.

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Photo: Kevin Drum

EVERYONE needs to wash their hands.

So, you’re washing your hands regularly. Problem solved, right? Unfortunately not, because yours are only one pair of hands in the classroom. As I’m teaching elementary school students this year, I can honestly say that their hands go to far more horrific places than mine do while we’re in the classroom – down their trousers, in their mouths, up their noses. I’m fortunate enough to have a sink in all the classrooms in which I teach, which does make my life easier here, but I’d like to think I’d still continue the handwashing routine even if it were not the case. Picture the scene: mid-way through the lesson, little V, sitting in his chair, suddenly decides to explore the contents of his left nostril. I find a well placed ‘Ew!’ (or culturally/L1 understood equivalent), possibly a mimed demonstration of the undesirable behaviour, followed by ‘Wash your hands!’ tends to be quite effective. You spot the hands going anywhere you don’t want the hands to go, the hands get washed. Yes, I’m interrupting the flow of the lesson. Yes, I’m calling the child out in front of the class. But I’m also educating them about being human and behaving in an appropriate way, and businessmen do not pick their nose mid-meeting and then smear it on their desk.

Wash the things too, if possible.

Part of teaching, particularly teaching littlies, is that we end up using a load of *stuff* in class. Pens, pencils, scissors, cuddly toys, flashcards… A few weeks back I found myself in an entirely earnest conversation with my flatmate about whether or not it was over the top for me to disinfect my flashcards. We came to the conclusion that it was not. Most lessons, the flashcards go on the floor. They get touched by  all of the students. Every so often a student will take it upon themselves to kiss them (as my grade 1 student did when we were learning family members) or lick them (as a student did when we were learning food vocabulary). If it’s yours, and it’s possible to wash it, wipe it, or disinfect it every so often – do so!

Sharing is great – except for when it’s your stuff.

My first few years of teaching I was always the nice kind teacher who lent pens and pencils to students who had ‘forgotten’. Until I taught T, a student whose forgetfulness, loudness and trouble-making abilities were only exceeded by his disregard for other people’s property. One of those children with an almost permanent snot-stream coming out of his nose, I lost count of the number of times that I would lend him a pen or pencil, only to realise that it was either being gradually inserted up his nose, or being returned to me complete with teeth marks. I no longer lend my students stationary. Their classmates can lend it, the school reception can lend it, really anyone can lend it, apart from me.

I also try to avoid using my students’ pens or pencils. It has taken some getting used to remembering to pick up a pen of my own on my route round the classroom when monitoring – but it also means I can correct their work without exposing myself to whatever germs might be on their pen.

Look after yourself!

I don’t want to sound like a broken record after my last post, but it really is important to look after yourself. Make sure you’re drinking enough water. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Try your best to eat a healthy diet and get some exercise. Take multivitamins. If you’re fit and healthy you’re more likely to ward of germs, and even if you do fall prey to them, you’ll probably get over it quicker. You are doing a hard job. Look after yourself!

This includes…

Take a sick day if you need to!

I’m sure I can’t be the only teacher who would prefer to be on their deathbed before taking a sick day. Having to rely on colleagues to teach your class instead of/as well as their own or having to make the hours up by teaching extra on a different day (both of which I have experienced) often seem like good enough reasons to force yourself to go into school no matter what. The fact is, though, that you do need to take time to rest and recover, and taking one day off to do that is better than forcing yourself to plough through, only to need to take more days off when you haven’t got better.

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Photo: Alex Jedlinski

Any more tricks and tips to fight the dreaded lurgy and avoid getting sick?

 

 

 

All photos from https://stock.tookapic.com/

How to Stay Sane

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At the start of this academic year I moved to a new country. I started a job which sees me working in a very intense environment, regularly dealing with the demands of parents and class teachers as well as my students, and getting to grips with an entirely new set of coursebooks. I have seen several colleagues quit. My boyfriend’s father has also suffered severe health problems, meaning that Keiran has had lots of (often short notice) trips to the UK. In short, it hasn’t been an easy year.

Teaching (and EFL teaching is definitely included in this!) is a stressful job, and adding life’s other stressors on top of this can make things seem unbearable. I’ve been forced to rethink how I approach and deal with my own stress, and as an experienced teacher, I’ve also had other teachers come to me with the weighty question ‘Does it get easier?’. I often tell my teenage students life doesn’t get easier, but you do get better at dealing with it – and the same holds true here. What can we do as teachers to minimise our own stress levels and keep ourselves doing the job we set out to do? I don’t by any means have all the answers, but I can share some things that work for me.

Number One: Focus on the positives.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should start bouncing around like some kind of pedagogical Pollyanna. However, all of us had a reason to start teaching in the first place. If it was to give you the opportunity to travel, think about the amazing sights and places that you otherwise would have been unable to experience. If it was to work with children or to inspire people to learn a language, remember the times when you have genuinely enjoyed doing this, even if you have to force yourself to do so. Your student said or did something funny? Great! Make a note of it, remember it, write it down.

Number Two: Talk it out (but remember to talk about other things too).

Remember, you are not alone. Chances are that if you’re feeling stressed out, other people are too. Struggling with a particularly rowdy class or a seemingly useless coursebook? Maybe colleagues can offer advice, and even if not, sometimes it helps to simply have a good moan. Be careful though: complaining can become a bonding mechanism, and once started it can be hard to step outside the cycle of negativity, especially if it’s threatening to take over the staffroom! Sometimes it can be helpful to give yourself a self-imposed ban on talking shop – particularly if, like me, many of your friends and your significant other are also teachers. I always find that I feel better after a talk about films, books, holidays, boys, or really anything other than work.

Number Three: Try to minimise your planning time. 

Time spent planning is time spent thinking about work, which is time spent working. We all know teachers who proudly proclaim that they spend ‘no time’ planning, and who simply walk into the classroom and let the magic happen. I am in no way suggesting that you become one of these teachers. If, however, you’re a year or two (or more!) into your teaching career and still find yourself spending hours planning every weekend, it’s worth looking at what you could do differently.

  • Tip 1: Speak to other people. Even if you’ve never so much as seen this coursebook before, chances are you have colleagues who have. They know what works, what doesn’t, and may have suggestions for good supplementary materials that work well with the lesson you’re about to plan. Ask them!
  • Tip 2: Limit the number of extra resources you use. One thing I’ve noticed is how easy it is to lose hours sifting through Google search results for ‘past continuous activities’ or the like. If, however, you limit your searches for extra resources to a set number of books and websites that you know you like, you can streamline the whole process. The best thing is that as you get more acquainted with the resources you’ve chosen, you’ll start to learn what is where. Eventually time searching can be time spent photocopying, because you already know which book to look in for which activity.
  • Tip 3: Reuse if possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean laminating the carefully cut up bits of your worksheet so you can reuse those exact ones (although it certainly can!). However, if you have two classes of the same level who are studying the same topic, you can definitely use the same activity more than once, even if it means saving it to use it three months down the line. Even if your classes are different levels, if the activity can be easily adapted, go for it and use it again!
  • Tip 4: Set time limits for yourself One thing I often find about my own working style is that tasks have a tendency to expand to fill whatever time I allocate them. If I start lesson planning with my time completely open-ended, my planning takes far longer, and (this is key) that extra time spent doesn’t necessarily yield better results. If I have plans for after my planning, however, which necessitate that everything is done by a particular time (I’m planning in a gap between lessons, I’m meeting a friend for coffee, or even a firm resolution that I will be home by 3pm)  my planning tends to be more efficient, more effective, and, most importantly, much, much faster.
  • Tip 5:  Don’t reinvent the wheel.  When supervising newly-qualified teachers, this is one thing that I’ve noticed takes up huge amounts of planning time. Sometimes coursebooks can be dull, uninspiring, or simply inappropriate for a class. However, they were written the way they are for a reason, and often they can and will work with your class. Adapting heavily and using hundreds of photocopies does ot instantly make a lesson ‘better’ than one taught straight from the book, it’s simply more time, more paper, and more stress! As an addendum, however, sometimes that reinvention is necessary. If you know exactly what you are looking for, it can be quicker to make your own worksheet, rather than spending time searching for someone else’s creation which perfectly matches the image in your head. (I normally realise this about 20mins into looking). For more hints and tips about when to (and when not to) adapt have a look at my post on the topic here.

Number Four: Have a life outside of work.

I realised that I needed a hobby around the same point that I realised I was lying to my students every time they asked what my hobbies were. Or at least that I hadn’t engaged in any of my professed ‘hobbies’ for between several months and several years. And no, ‘surfing the internet’ or however you attempt to justify the hours spent refreshing Buzzfeed and Facebook does not count as a hobby.

Everyone is different, however for my own sanity I’ve found that at any given time I need to have two hobbies I engage in regularly: a creative hobby and an active hobby. How these actually manifest themselves varies, but at the moment my ‘active hobby’ is running. A couple of colleagues and I will be taking part in the Prague Color Run at the start of June, and as I’d like to run the entire 5k and ideally not die shortly afterwards, I’m aiming to spend half an hour or so every other day training. My ‘creative hobby’ currently alternates between crochet and adult colouring books, both of which I find wonderfully relaxing and mind-numbing.

Friends who are not teachers are also immensely valuable for your sanity. I know, particularly if working in a smaller town or city, that it can be easy to end up trapped in a bit of a TEFL teacher bubble. At times, though, it can be genuinely refreshing to realise that the people you are talking to are completely oblivious to the trials of New English File or the terrors of 3C.

Number Five: Acknowledge what you are doing.

Teaching is hard! As with focusing on the positives, make sure you take the time to recognise the good things you are doing, even if almost everything seems like a complete disaster. You didn’t kill that annoying child? Well done! Your class proved that they actually took on board something that you said? Go you! You remembered to take some time out of talking about/thinking about/doing work, met a friend and took a walk outside? Brilliant! You rock! Sometimes we all need to be our own personal cheerleader a little bit.

Number Six: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

At the end of the day, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Your DOS or ADOS or Senior Teacher or mentor is there to help you. Maybe they can simply offer more support. Maybe they can suggest solutions for a particularly troublesome class, or one where the students just don’t seem to be the right level. If you’re reluctant to reach out in person, remember that the internet can be a great resource too. Sandy Millin shares this wonderful post based on her IATEFL talk on time management.  Anne E. Hendler opens up about her experiences with stress and burnout here. At the end of your day, while it may be a substantial part, your job is only part of your life – and no job is worth losing your health or your sanity for.

My TEFL Story

This coming week is the IATEFL conference, which I wish I was going to but sadly finances don’t allow (next year, I hope!). As such International House (the company I’ve worked for for the last five years now) has asked teachers to share their ‘TEFL story’, which seemed a pretty interesting topic for a blog post on a grey and cloudy Saturday morning!

As a fifteen year old, adamant that I was never going to become a teacher, I started volunteering as a way to remain involved with a Girlguiding unit that I was officially ‘too old’ to be a part of. When choosing work experience working in a school seemed the obvious choice as in many ways it was much of the same – and so working with kids and teenagers became something that I ‘did’, something I enjoyed and something I was good at, even though it was something I’d never set out to do. Off the back of that once at uni I took a job working as activities staff at an international summer school, because sure, the kids didn’t necessarily speak English that well, but in many ways it was sill something I was used to doing. Summer school was amazing. Over the seven (?!) summer schools I’ve now worked, I’ve realised that summer school is a kind of ‘marmite’ thing. People either love it or they hate it – and I definitely fall into the former group.

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Technically I could always start a new career in noticeboard design…

As I ummed and aahed and generally made my university’s careers advisors despair, I settled upon the idea that maybe I didn’t want to become ‘that kind’ of teacher (teaching English Literature to bored teenagers seemed unappealing, I wasn’t confident enough in my French to want to teach secondary MFL, and the idea of having to teach primary school maths was downright terrifying)… but maybe being a teacher wouldn’t be all that bad afterall. I did my research, applied for the Trinity CertTESOL, and then embarked on probably the most intense learning experience of my life.

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Teaching! I can do this… I think…

After five weeks of realising that my envisaged weekend walks along Bournemouth beach were not going to become a reality, I was a ‘qualified TEFL teacher’ – little realising that, much like when learning to drive, it’s after you clutch the piece of paper in your hands that the real learning begins. Then I worked for my university chaplaincy. I worked in the head office of a language school. In short, I did pretty much everything in my power not to have to sign the overseas contract and book the flights.

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It always surprises people when I say that I’m quite a homebody. I like to have roots, to get to know people and places – and travelling for the sake of travelling has never been particularly interesting to me. When push came to shove and I found my fixed-term contract was not going to be extended, however, I ended up taking the leap and found myself on a plane, for the first time in my life, with a one-way ticket from Heathrow airport to Moscow. Had I been asked, in October 2011, how long I thought my teaching career would last, my answer would probably have been ‘roughly the same length as my 9 week trial period’. Four years later, I was still there.

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A grey October day at St. Basil’s…

I taught journalists, teachers and engineers. I taught sparky, brilliant teenagers and bored, unmotivated ones. I taught a charming six year old boy who could natter away almost fluently in English thanks to his Nigerian nanny. I taught a pilot who wanted to brush up on his interview techniques before applying to work for an international airline. Over the years, I realised that the job I never intended to do really was the ‘right’ job for me.

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My classroom!

I’ve always loved summer schools, and having done almost every job there from activities staff, to activities manager, to teacher, to senior teacher (I have yet to cross course leader off my list, but am sure there is still time) it seemed oddly appropriate that it would be at summer school that I would meet, befriend, and later fall in love with one of the most creative, caring teachers I have ever known.

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Let’s face it, when you look this good…

I left Moscow. I moved to Prague, where I now in a crazy trial-by-fire teach 27 hours of young learners a week. I am still learning, still growing, still finding new things that interest me and things that surprise, entertain and educate me.

 

I am a TEFL teacher. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

 

A Good Teacher

In teacher training, applying for jobs and CPD we tend to think a lot about what makes a good teacher, albeit from quite a technical aspect. A good teacher has a good rapport with their students, can explain language clearly and concisely, or, if multiple job adverts are to be borne in mind, must have ‘a good standard of personal hygiene’.

A couple of weeks ago, as part of a lesson on modals ‘must’ and ‘mustn’t’ with my Grade 4 class, I asked them for their ideas on what makes ‘a good teacher’. Their answers were both humourous, sensible, and at times insightful. Here is the edited version of ‘what makes a good teacher’.

A good teacher must:

  • Be smart. Also be intelligent. They’ve included these as two separate points, and although I know their level of English isn’t high enough to understand the nuances between the two, I think they might be onto something. Often when we think about intelligence we think about being ‘book smart’ – and it’s true that a teacher won’t get very far without good subject knowledge. However ‘smart’ on its own is also necessary; it takes a particular type of ‘street smart’ to engage a tired class, or to forsee at least some of the challenges a particular group may throw at you.
  • Be happy. It’s not always easy, or even always possible. But our attitude, be it positive or negative, can have a real impact on what goes on in the classroom.
  • Have a good class. This is where I think my students show wisdom beyond their years. Sometimes your class will be angelic, everything will go perfectly to plan, and you’ll come out of the lesson feeling like the best teacher in the universe. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are – some classes are just plain difficult.
  • Sometimes be quiet. Another insightful point, I feel. We are constantly warned about limiting TTT, but talking or being quiet isn’t just about that. I have to admit to not always being open to my students wanting to chat, I’m thinking about what I hope to achieve by the end of the lesson, or their upcoming test, or the grammar point they really struggled with, and if we listen to the story about Ema’s trip to the cinema we simply won’t have time to fit it all in. When I do remember to be quiet and listen, though, I’m always glad I did.
  • Eat. On the face of it, it looks like a ridiculous one – all of us need to eat, teachers or otherwise. However, although I know it’s far deeper than they intended, I do welcome the reminder that I too am human, and I do need to look after myself.

A good teacher mustn’t…

  • Be shy. This is an interesting one for me, as I do tend to be quite shy when faced with new people (excluding students). For me this is a reminder that my students are still young – they are growing and changing and their personalities are and always will be a complex thing.
  • Put their pen in their nose. I’m glad something I tell them repeatedly has obviously sunk in.
  • Be stupid. Again, this one made me think. Being stupid could simply be seen as lacking subject knowledge… but it could also be choosing to plough on with an activity when it’s apparent it isn’t working, or expecting the students to complete a task that is completely inappropriate for their age or level. It’s something I admit to being guilty of from time to time, as I’m sure we all are. But I’m learning, and it’s something I hope to do less and less.
  • Be late. A given, really – I’m sure their school agrees too!
  • Kill students… let’s face it, we’ve all fantasised about it…

Have you ever asked your students what, in their opinion, makes a good teacher? What did they think?