How are you going to teach better in 2017?

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At the beginning of January everyone always seems to be bombarded with the idea of starting afresh. 2017 is the year to start a new diet, start a new hobby, learn a new language, save money, do more exercise… etc. etc. Since the year as a teenager where I set 72 new year’s resolutions (and didn’t keep any of them) I’ve always been a bit suspicious of new year’s resolutions, seeing them more as a way to set oneself up for failure than anything else. Saying that, though, I do think that setting goals and keeping track of our progress is one of the most important things we can do as teachers – and is a sure-fire way to help you towards better teaching.

Why do I need to set goals anyway?

I know, I know, sitting down and thinking ‘how do I want to improve my teaching?’ is one of those things you do in your end of year review meeting or just after starting a new job… where you’re compelled to write down something (anything!) because your senior teacher/DOS won’t accept a blank box as an answer. What if I told you that setting teaching goals doesn’t need to be like that?

We’ve all had classes where we’ve taught the same coursebook too many times and it seems like we’re not doing anything new. We’ve all taught classes (or even just individual students) where the thought of spending even 45 minutes in their company fills us with dread. And we’ve all taught grammar points or vocabulary topics or different age groups or levels where we genuinely don’t feel confident in what we’re doing. Setting teaching goals (and not just goals that you write down and then forget about) can be the best way to deal with these challenges – to overcome them and become happier, more confident and less stressed teachers as a result!

How do I decide what to work on?

You can simply look at the feedback you had from your last observation… or ask your senior teacher or a colleague to observe you and give you some recommendations. The one problem with both of these approaches is that if the goal doesn’t come from you, you’re less likely to be motivated to achieve it.

Personally I prefer to take a more intuitive approach to goal-setting. You don’t even have to decide on an area to work on now. The huge advantage of setting a teaching goal for yourself is that you can start it whenever you want, so if nothing comes to mind I’d recommend thinking about your teaching over the next week or so. Rather than thinking about what sounds good, or what an observer would want you to say, here are some questions to think about. Make some notes if you want to:

Which classes do I find challenging to work with at the moment? Why?

How do I feel about teaching low level classes? What about high level classes? 

How do I feel about teaching children? Teaching teenagers?

Are there any topics/task types I really hate teaching? Why do I feel this way?

What do I find the most stressful about teaching? 

What is my biggest fear/worry about teaching?

How do I feel about my life outside of teaching? Is teaching having a positive/negative impact? In what ways?

Once you’ve figured out what areas are potentially problematic, you can then move on to the most important question:

What would make me feel happier about this? 

Your goals could be something immediately connected to teaching and learning – for example you want to find out more about language acquisition, or classroom management, or find new filler activities you can use in class. They could be subject-related: maybe you want to improve your language awareness (whether you’re a native or a non-native speaker none of us knows everything there is to know about English!), you want to get to grips with phonetics or a tricky grammar point you struggle with, or you want to learn a new language yourself. They could be more personal goals: you want to get more organised, you want to spend less time planning, you want to understand your students’ culture better.

Those of you who have been following me since the autumn will know that one of the goals I set myself for this was to get more confident in using IPA. Why did I choose this goal? Well, teaching pronunciation has always stressed me out. Although I’ve got better at drilling (and now use this more frequently in my classes) I never really felt confident in doing anything more than providing a correct model. Then in September I started teaching a designated pronunciation class – something which filled me with dread as soon as I saw it on my timetable. What was going to make me feel happier and less stressed about this? Remembering what at least some of those pesky IPA symbols meant, and plucking up the courage to write them on the board during the lesson.

Goal-setting 101

I remember being taught, even at school, that goals and targets needed to be SMART.

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Realistic

Time-based

Since then, I’ve come across another acronym for target setting which I think is equally important: SMILE.

Strength-focused:

I don’t mean that you should choose something to work on that you know you’re already good at – after all, where would that get you? However, setting goals allows you to work on weaker areas in your teaching and build them up: as with going to the gym, your aim is to strengthen the weaker muscles to allow the stronger ones to function more effectively. Rather than approaching your teaching from the perspective of ‘what am I bad at?’, consider what areas you can build up to complement your existing strengths. Love teaching kids? Would finding new classroom management techniques allow you to do this more effectively? Enjoy teaching high level students? Would you be able to do this more confidently with a better grasp of grammar?

Modifiable

I think this is equally as important as measurable. As much as it’s important not to give up on achieving your goal at the first hurdle, it’s also important to recognise when a goal is not working – or when you need to work on something else first in order to achieve it. Your goal setting is for you: not your DOS, not your school, and so there’s no shame in changing or adapting your goal to meet a more pressing need. If you need to change your goal, or even abandon it, don’t beat yourself up about it – simply try it again at a better time.

Integrated

One easy way to make sure that you stick to a goal is to choose something that is integrated into your daily life. Don’t decide to become an expert in teaching business English if you’re only teaching young learners – choose something that you can use and reflect on now. Try to make your goal into something active as well as simply passive. It’s great to expand on your knowledge by reading a teaching book, reading blogs or researching something online – but then choose a way of incorporating that into your classes. If your goal is to research classroom management, choose one behaviour management technique and try it out in your class. If you want to learn a new language, decide that you will set-aside some time to reflect on how this experience makes you feel as a learner, and see if there are any takeaways you can take into the classroom with you.

Long-lasting

Your goals don’t need to take up the whole academic (or even the whole calendar!) year. It’s perfectly fine to have a goal that you will do something over the next week or two weeks or month. However, don’t give up once you’ve achieved your goal and revert back to exactly what you were doing before! If something you started doing when working towards your goal was successful, keep doing it – otherwise look and see what you can take away. Did working towards your goal raise any further questions or ideas?

Enjoyable

Remember, you are setting goals for yourself here. If your goal isn’t ultimately going to help you improve your life (remember, our aim here is to become happier, more confident, and less stressed), then choose something different! Once you have achieved your goal (or even when you’ve achieved baby steps on the way there) remember to congratulate yourself and enjoy your success!

What does all of this look like in practice? Well, say for example I have a class of 7-10 year olds. Some of the class are really badly behaved, and it’s stressing me out because I’m worried I’m going to lose control completely and won’t be able to get them to do anything. What would make me feel better about this? Finding a classroom management method that will actually work with this group.

What am I going to do? Well, let’s say I’ve decided that I’m going to speak to my colleagues and ask them what classroom management methods they use. How am I going to make this SMART and SMILE? Well, I’m going to take what my colleagues suggest and try three different methods with my class (specific, achievable, integrated). I’ll try each technique for three weeks (bearing in mind that it takes students time to get used to changes in routine!) and after each lesson I’ll make a note of any major problems or positives in terms of student behaviour. At the end of those three weeks I’ll reflect and decide whether or not there have been any improvements (time-based, realistic, measurable). If during the process one of the techniques I use works really well, I’ll stick with that one (modifiable). At the end of the process I’ll hopefully have a better managed class that I’m able to enjoy teaching – and continue using what I’ve learned (long-lasting, enjoyable). I’ll also be able to use my improved classroom management to introduce new games and activities (strength-focused)!

So I’ve chosen my goals… how do I stick to them?

First and foremost, these goals should be easier to keep to than ones you’ve perhaps tried before – because they’re something you want to do. Desire is a far stronger motivator than duty!

Accountability is a really important factor in whether or not we stick to our goals. Tell someone what you’re doing, why you’re doing it – and get them to check up on you if necessary! Even a simple ‘how is it going?’ is enough to give you a big kick up the backside if you know you’re going to be asked. With this in mind I’ve created the TEFLing Together 2017 Facebook group. My hope is that this group is going to be a place where teachers can support, encourage and inspire each other – so if that sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, come on over!

Remember that your goals aren’t set in stone. If you’re trying to achieve a goal that you’ve decided is no longer relevant or helpful, it stands to reason that you won’t be feeling very motivated. If your ‘achievable’ goal suddenly starts to seem impossible, think about moving the goal post or breaking it down into smaller chunks. If your personal life starts to get complicated and it’s no longer possible to spend an hour reading as you’d planned, be kind to yourself. Changing or rescheduling a goal doesn’t make you a failure, and self-compassion is just as important an achievement in itself.

Remember to reward yourself. Don’t just brush your achievements aside – when you’ve achieved a goal, celebrate it! Whether it’s doing something you enjoy, buying yourself something, or even just treating yourself to something special that you wouldn’t normally buy at the supermarket – celebrate your achievement. Why don’t you pop over to the Facebook group and share it with us? 

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Are you setting teaching goals for yourself this year? I’d love to hear how you get on…

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