Do They Know It’s Christmas Time At All?

spendingDo they know it’s Christmas time at all? No, they don’t, because it’s just another Tuesday.

This was my somewhat humbuggy Facebook status on Christmas Day 2012, my second Christmas spent in a foreign country. Russia, I should explain, does celebrate Christmas, although with some notable differences to the UK. They still have decorations, presents, special food, and a ‘Father Christmas’ type figure, Дед Мороз (Grandfather Frost) – but these are for their celebrations at New Year. Christmas does exist, but following the Russian Orthodox calendar it’s the 7th January, and is a purely religious holiday, marked simply by attending church and having dinner with one’s family, if at all. Christmas 2012, 2013 and 2014 saw me headed into work on 25th December – because as far as my students were concerned, it was just a normal day.

As I approach my first ‘normal’ Christmas season in the UK since I first started teaching abroad, it got me thinking about Christmas as it’s been for me the last few years. Many EFL teachers will be working in countries which also celebrate Christmas on 24th or 25th December, and so will be heading home for the holidays as per usual. That won’t be the case for everyone though – some teachers will be working in countries where Christmas isn’t celebrated, or at least isn’t celebrated on the 25th (you’re in luck this year guys, it’s a Sunday so you won’t be working!). Others will have the time off, but be living too far away from home for a flight to be practical (or financially viable). So join me on a trip down memory lane: Christmas, EFL teacher style.

Christmas 2011 – my first Christmas abroad.

I have to admit that in many ways I was lucky in that on my first Christmas abroad Christmas Day fell on a Sunday. There were still some elements of surrealism however – waking up to a Christmas stocking from my excellent flatmate, realising that I hadn’t reciprocated, and so dashing off to the local shopping centre for some hasty last-minute Christmas shopping. Eating lunch in Burger King before heading into Moscow to meet friends and spending the entire meal being quizzed by a Russian lady wanting English lessons for her daughter.

Where do you get Christmas dinner in Moscow? Well, I can probably suggest some places now, but in 2011 I don’t think anyone was sure, so we did the next best thing: that traditional English dish, curry.

The rest of Christmas Day was, as I recall, spent wandering around taking photos in the snow, embarking on an (unsuccessful) quest to find a steak house we’d been promised sold reindeer meat, and coming perilously close to missing the last train back home (the joys of living outside the capital – unless you have somewhere to stay in the city, you are always at the mercy of the dreaded last train).

Christmas 2012

As previously 66406_826910610193_675254884_nmentioned, Christmas 2012 was my first ‘true’ introduction to celebrating Christmas in a country where December 25th is just another work day. Working on Christmas Day is weird! My older, more culturally aware students did wish me Happy Christmas, as indeed did my colleagues, but for the most part, yep, just Tuesday. I did however cook Christmas dinner for my flatmate and one of my other colleagues in the evening. Christmas dinner 2012: Russian style!

This allows me to mention another staple of the EFL teacher’s Christmas abroad: work Christmas parties. Aside from the strangeness of socialising with people you often don’t normally socialise with, and feeling on edge half the time as you don’t want your boss to see you drunk, Christmas parties take on a whole new level of weird when they’re organised by someone who has never been to a Christmas party.

My well-meaning Russian colleagues always insisted on fancy dress, which lent a somewhat surreal air to proceedings.

The different nationalities of those attending also led to some confusion on the matter of food. In 2012, I was nominated to bring crackers. Now as a Brit, that meant one thing: the Christmas table staple containing a silly paper hat, some kind of gewgaw that will end up on the floor and inevitably get stood on, and one of the worst jokes in the history of mankind. There was just one problem: you can’t buy Christmas crackers in Moscow. I reported back to my colleagues, who regarded me with expressions of incredulity as I informed them of the impossibility of purchasing crackers, for love nor money… they went to our nearest supermarket, and returned… with crackers.

Christmas 2013

For whatever reason 2013 in general seems to be a year I took very few photos. I did however see in the New Year with fireworks like a proper Russian.

My favourite photo (probably one of my favourite photos I’ve ever taken, if I’m honest) was hands-down this one, though:

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Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden, waiting for a bus mid-morning of 1st January. How else are they meant to get home after a hard night’s work?!

Christmas 2014

My final Christmas Day abroad, since in 2015 I had moved to Prague and was able to come home for the 25th. If I’m honest, this was probably my strangest Christmas, as by this point the Russia I was living in was far from the one I had moved to back in 2011.

The ongoing sanctions and counter-sanctions following Russian military intervention in Ukraine meant that in August 2014, a ban was introduced on products imported from the US, the EU, Norway, Canada and Australia, including a ban on fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, milk and dairy imports. The US and British media reported one thing, the Russian media reported another, but what I did find was that the supermarkets became unreliable in the extreme. In the UK, we take it for granted that we can go to a supermarket, buy whatever we want, and the following week those products will still be on the shelves – because, well, that’s how supermarkets work. Christmas Day 2014 was the day that I went to the supermarket planning to buy food for Christmas dinner… and discovered that the supermarket did not sell potatoes. Not that they had sold out, you understand: that they did not have any available to sell in the first place. For the record, roast chicken, cabbage (no sprouts either), carrots and cranberry sauce *do* go ok with rice.

It’s not all doom and gloom though – Christmas 2014 was also a great period. We still decorated the school for New Year, I decorated my flat for Christmas (I think each time I’ve moved country I’ve left a trail of Christmas decorations and yoga mats…), and the Annual Christmas Market at St. Andrew’s Church, Moscow led a sense of festivity to proceedings, even if everything didn’t seem quite ‘normal’.

Now that I’m back in the UK for the forseeable future, I can honestly say that I’m glad to have had the experience of spending Christmas abroad. It’s given me such a valuable insight into how other people celebrate, led me to reflect on what exactly we are celebrating, why, and why we have the traditions we do, and it’s also made me more appreciative of the Christmasses I do get to spend with family and loved ones. I don’t want to deny the facts and present an overly rose-tinted picture though: spending Christmas abroad can be a strange experience (especially if it’s the first time you’ve spent Christmas away from your family) and it can also be a lonely experience.

What advice would I give to someone spending Christmas abroad?

  • Try to keep an open mind. It’s unlikely that Christmas abroad is going to be the same as Christmas at home – even if you’re teaching in a country where Christmas is celebrated, there are sure to be differences, even if it’s just in terms of the food. It might be different, but that doesn’t necessarily make it worse – just different.
  • Homesickness is normal. I’ve never really had much of a problem with homesickness while living abroad, but Christmas is one of those times where I do find it hits. Do things you enjoy, look after yourself, and remember, you will survive this.
  • Spend it with people, if possible. It might be friends, colleagues, or students, but if you’re feeling at all down or are missing family, it’s best to be around people.
  • Skype/call your family. If it’s your first Christmas away from home, it’s not just going to be strange for you – it’ll be strange for your family too! Try to arrange a Skype date with your family in advance: it’ll give you something specific to focus on even if nothing else feels Christmassy.
  • Don’t be afraid to decorate if you want to. The first couple of years I lived abroad I always resisted decorating for Christmas – it seemed like a waste of money buying decorations when I wasn’t going to be there forever. I’ve come to terms with it now, however, and bought a Christmas tree in Prague even though I was only going to be there for one Christmas, and had no intention of bringing it back home with me. Yes, it might not be a great long-term investment, but if it’ll make you happy for a few weeks, then it’s worth it!
  • Find out about your new culture. I’ve always found Christmas to be a great talking point with my students – even if they don’t celebrate Christmas, there’s often a winter holiday of some kind, and this gives you a great opportunity to find out about it. What do they eat, what do they do… students of all ages (even kids!) love having the opportunity to be the teacher for a change!
  • Remember that if nothing else, it’s a story to tell! It sounds silly and flippant, but I’ve often found this a helpful reminder to go with the flow when things have got a little bit too strange. My rice Christmas dinner of 2014 wasn’t exactly how I wanted it at the time… but if nothing else, it’s a story!

Have you every spent Christmas living/working abroad?

Did you have any weird and wonderful experiences? 

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Learning IPA

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At the start of the academic year I set some resolutions for myself, and as we’re now a few months in, I thought I’d give you all an update on how things are going.

Learning Italian, I have to admit, has fallen by the wayside. I enjoyed the course, and have enough of a grounding in other languages to be able to complete the activities without too much difficulty. However, I found that I’d need to spend quite a bit more time studying to get the vocabulary to actually stick in my mind so that I’d be able to easily produce it rather than simply recognise it. I also found it difficult to find the motivation to catch up once I’d fallen behind with the course, which should be a lesson to some of my students who miss classes and/or don’t complete their homework on a semi-regular basis! I have been writing more, although still not as much as I’d like, and so this is something to continue working on.  My main goal, however, and one which I have actually been making headway on, was to learn and get to grips with IPA.

My first step towards learning phonetics has been simply to expose myself to the symbols as much as possible. Sandy Millin was first to point me in the direction of some great dresources, including the pictoral version of the chart from New English File coursebooks. As someone with a very visual memory I’ve found it much easier to associate the symbols with a picture (and a word) than simply with the sound that they make. I was already familiar with this version of the chart (having taught in several classrooms where the poster is displayed!), however OUP also has some extra resources online. There is a flash version of the chart (with recordings if you want to check pronunciation)  and also a fun online game to practise word stress – I can see myself directing students towards this in the future! They also have an App available on iTunes and Android, although it does cost a bit.

Sandy also shares some useful links on her resources for CELTA page – scroll down until you get to ‘Pronunciation’. I particularly liked the activities suggested by ELT Concourse . I’ve only done a few of them so far, but like the idea of jotting down random words in IPA from time to time. I can definitely see the appeal of making learning IPA a fun thing you do in a relaxed environment, not least because it removes anxiety about potentially getting it wrong!

Teresa Bestwick also had some helpful suggestions for me: writing shopping lists/lists of related words (eg. vegetables, clothes) using the symbols, and downloading an IPA keyboard for WhatsApp!

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I still feel like I have a long way to go, but I am already feeling a lot more confident about using the phonemic chart in the classroom. From almost never using it, I’ve now started regularly including the symbols in my board work, and have found being able to use the alphabet a useful extra tool when correcting students’ pronunciation.

 

So, what have I learned about learning IPA?

  • Learn the vowel sounds (and consonant sounds your learners  struggle with) first. Back when I was training to become a teacher, I made the mistake of viewing IPA in the same way as a standard alphabet – where all the symbols are equally important and you can’t really learn only some of them. I realise now that I made my life far harder than it needed to be!
  • You don’t need to write whole words in  IPA. Another of my misconceptions about IPA was that if I was going to use it, I needed to transcribe the whole word. Teaching on my school’s Pronunciation course however has made me realise that if you’re trying to focus students on a particular sound – you only need to write those sounds.
  • Use it little and often. As I’ve gradually become more and more confident with using IPA, the most helpful thing I’ve found has been to use it.
  • Introduce your students to it too. Especially as I’ve been teaching mainly beginners this term, I’ve been a bit afraid to introduce them to IPA – some of them are only just getting to grips with the roman alphabet and I didn’t want to confuse them too much by bringing another alphabet into the mix. However, after some discussion with my senior teacher, I took the plunge, and I’m glad I did! Again, little and often has been the key: pointing out the differences between vowel sounds in ‘can’ and ‘can’t’, for example.
  • Don’t be afraid to check. One of my great fears behind using IPA in the classroom was that I would make a mistake. It’s taken lots of time (and lots of mental pep-talks!) but I’ve finally realised that IPA is the same as anything else: it’s better to admit that you’re not sure and to check your facts than it is to plough ahead and teach something that’s wrong! Worst case scenario: get your students to get their dictionaries/phones out and ask them to check themselves.

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Did you set any new (academic) year’s resolutions? I’d love to hear how they’re going!

 

Project ideas for Summer School

Project Ideas

 

One of the loveliest things (for me, at least) about summer school is having a bit more freedom in your classes than you often have the rest of the year. The combination of mixed nationality (and potentially mixed level groups), seeing the same groups of students every day, and potentially quite long lessons (my last summer school had three 90 min classes a day, pretty long for 7-13 year olds!) all lends itself to one thing: project work.

Film Project

I have to admit that these are hands down my favourite type of project. I’ve done them at summer camps in Russia, summer schools in the UK, and even managed to slot them into the last few weeks of term when my students have desperately needed a little ‘something different’ as a pick-me-up. Ideally for a film project you need at least a couple of 90 min lessons – they work best if you can spread them out over a whole week. It sounds like a lot of time to spend on one project, but I’ve found that the rewards of seeing a film through to the end are enormous, a lot of language learning will be taking place, and once the ball is rolling, the students will provide most of the input, meaning minimal planning time!

  • The first step in any film project is for the students to understand what is being asked of them. They’ll all be pretty familiar with films, but I find that often they don’t have much of a clue about scripts, and what they tend to include. I’ve found that the easiest way to introduce this idea is simply to show the students some short sections of simple scripts – some can be found here  or here. Ask them what is different about the scripts compared to a normal story – that they contain stage directions (telling you what you can see, when and how people enter and exit, and how people say things), and that they are generally laid out ‘Character name: What the character says…’ – but that they lack lots of the information that we normally include if we are writing a story (adjectives, long descriptions of people and places, lots of background information etc).
  • Once the students understand what format a script normally looks like, explain to them that they are going to write a script – which they will then act and turn into a film. Brainstorm film genres and then vote for the most popular one. At this stage you have multiple options: if you have a very small class, they can all work together to write the whole script. In larger classes you many want them to roughly outline the story as a whole group, then allocate smaller groups of students to each write a section of the script. Alternatively (ideally with teens) each smaller group could plan and write their own script, for a different short film.
  • Monitor and help the students as they are writing their script – you may need to remind them of the format, or help them to make sure the different sections of the story fit together seamlessly (if they are in smaller groups who are each writing a scene of the film). Once the scripts are complete make sure you read them all through and check that they make sense!
  • Ideally set aside one section of a lesson (or one lesson!) for students to make/find the props that they will need in their film.
  • Allocate the different roles in the film, and practice reading through the lines – it’s easier to correct pronunciation at this stage rather than waiting until everyone is acting! (It could be helpful at this point to make some photocopies of the script so that everyone can see it easily – particularly your main actors).
  • Record your film! The great thing about technology these days is that you can now record film on most cameras, tablets, and other handheld devices – eliminating the need for a video camera. Even if you don’t have the ability to record video yourself, chances are that one of your students will have some kind of device that can. If your summer school is based at a school, you will normally have access to some kind of video editing software already installed on the computers – if not this programme is a free download which I’ve used before. Either the teacher or one of the stronger students can act as director.
  • Once the film is complete, make sure the students have a chance to watch it! Ideally have a screening so that they can show it to the rest of the school too.
  • To extend the start of the project: This one is pretty easy to extend, as you can use it as a follow up to any other kind of work on film – discussion of students’ favourite films, reading about films/film making, or film related vocabulary such as different film genres.
  • To extend the end of the project: Especially if you have had several groups/classes making films, you can make the screening into a big event – your very own film premiere, complete with red carpet and interviews of the stars. The students can review the films they watch, and you can have an awards ceremony with prizes for Best Actor, Best Actress, etc.

Dragon’s Den

Again, a tried-and-tested project that I’ve done multiple times, with both kids and teenagers. This is a really good one for getting students to work on their presentation skills, and gives them a great opportunity to be creative! For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, Dragon’s Den is a TV show in which contestants showcase their new invention or business idea. They present their idea to a panel of ‘dragons’ – successful businessmen and women, who are all looking to invest in new projects – and successful candidates receive money towards their business, in exchange for shares in the company or part of the profits. It all sounds very ‘adult’, but some years ago the BBC produced a great kids’ version for BBC Children in Need – and it’s been lovely to show my young students that just because they are young, it doesn’t mean that they can’t have a taste for business!

  • Show the students an extract from Dragon’s Den. I tend to use the BBC Children in Need version which can be found here – but be warned, I’ve found that this clip is not available outside the UK. For those teaching elsewhere, I’ve found that the best option available is this Irish version of the same concept, but be warned, the accents can be quite tricky for learners to follow! Tell the students that it is a TV show/competition, and ask them to find out: Who are the dragons? and What do the contestants (preteach if necessary) have to do? 
  • Collect feedback, then ask the students to watch the extract again – if you’re using the BBC version you can choose a different business idea if you prefer. This time ask the students to write down as much information about the business idea as possible. They should be looking for things like: What is the idea, why did the contestant decide to produce this product, how do they make the product, how do they sell the product, how much money have they made so far etc. Again, collect feedback.
  • Explain to the students that they are going to do something similar – they need to design their own product/their own idea for a business, and present it to a panel of judges. Put the students into groups, and then allow them time to brainstorm ideas and decide on a final product/business idea.
  • Once they have decided on a product, encourage the students to think about it in as much detail as possible. They should think about what it is made of, its size, any possible variants on it (different models, different colours etc). If you have lots of time on your hands and creative students, they can draw or make a model of their finished product.
  • Having designed their product, the students need to work in their groups to create their presentations. It’s worth reminding them at this point that everyone in their group needs to speak, rather than just one person doing all the work while everyone else stands around awkwardly! At this point, as well as the specifications of their product, they should also be thinking about things like how they will sell their product, how much it will cost, how much it costs them to make, and how much profit they have made already.
  • Now it’s time to host your very own version of Dragon’s Den – the dragons can either be a panel of teachers/other staff members, or be all of the other students in the class! There are different options when it comes to prizes – I’ve had students request the number of housepoints/raffle tickets they would like (rather than the size of the investment) – and then granted the winning students’ request (tying in with a whole school reward system), but I’ve also simply awarded a small prize to the group with the highest number of votes.
  • To extend the start of the project: Students can discuss other inventions, or read or discuss ideas about entrepreneurship. Students can study useful vocabulary/structures, eg. passives, vocabulary for describing objects/materials, presenation skills.

Design a Game/Sport

Coursebooks aimed at children/teenagers often include a section on sport. However, as we all know, playing sport tends to be far more fun than simply talking about it! This project combines the best of both worlds – and makes for some interesting discussion about some of the wackier aspects of British culture as well!

  • Show students some pictures of weird and wacky sports – we have some great ones here in the UK! Examples can be found here, here and here. Tell the students that the pictures each show a real sport – and put them in small groups to discuss a) what each sport is called, b) what equipment you need for it, and c) what the participants have to do. Collect feedback, and let students know if their predictions were correct!
  • Put the students in small groups. Tell them that they are going to design a new sport – it should be interesting, and unusual, but remind them that it also needs to be safe! Let them know at this stage that provided it is possible (ie. the equipment and space are available) they will be able to try out one of their new sports.
  • Remind the students that they need to plan: What equipment is needed for this sport, where will the sport take place, how many players/teams are needed, what you do to play the game, how players/teams score points (and how the scoring system works), how players win the game, and how the game is won. Give examples using some well known sports (ie. how do these things apply to football, tennis etc). Then leave time for students to discuss their ideas – you can ask them to prepare a poster/presentation about it.
  • Students present their new sports to the class – hold a vote to decide the best/most interesting one!
  • Provided you have time, space, and equipment, get the winning group to teach the rest of the class how to play their sport – and then play it! (This is the most fun part of the activity, so ideally while monitoring encourage students to prepare something that they can actually play – eg. no pig riding/broomsticks/shark-infested swimming pools etc.)
  • To extend the project at the start: Discuss students’ favourite sports/popular or strange sports in their own countries. Turn the ‘wacky sports’ information into a reading activity/running dictation rather than simply telling the students the correct answers. Teach useful structures/vocabulary, eg. must, have to, don’t have to, sports equipment, verbs relating to sport eg. shoot, score, hit, kick, win, lose, draw.
  • To extend the project at the end: Students can review/evaluate the game they played. Students can create an advert for their game. Students can create a kit and badge for their game. Students can teach their game to other people/another class.

What’s your favourite thing about summer school?

Do you have any great project ideas? I’d love to hear them! 

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Putting Away Childish Things: A reflection on teaching adults

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For my first few years in EFL teaching, I taught the inevitable mixed bag of kids, teens and adults. This year, however, I am officially a teacher of ‘Young Learners’, and the opportunity to take that step in my development was one of my reasons for moving to IH Prague. This week, however, the elementary school where I normally work has been on spring break, meaning adult subs. Lots of adult subs.

My fears that I am no longer cut out to be a teacher of adults were confirmed in my first cover class, when I accidentally referred to my assembled students as ‘boys and girls’; thankfully it did get easier during the course of the week! Here are my thoughts on the differences between teaching adults and young learners.

  • Sometimes kids are just better at learning! 

It may well be simply because of what they are used to, but I find that my kids come to their English lessons ready to learn, expecting to learn, and knowing that for that to happen they need to be involved in the process. Some of the adults I’ve taught this week have pretty much just shown up in the classroom, expecting teaching to be ‘done to them’.

  • Kids are spectacular time-wasters.

After about three adult lessons I realised why however much I’d planned, we always seemed to finish 5-10 minutes early. Those extra minutes are spread across my YL lessons, as it takes everyone longer than expected to sit down, or one student can’t find a pen, or someone has to eagerly tell us about their new toy or upcoming birthday party. I tend to take those little moments of chatter, or where classroom management becomes the focus rather than language teaching, for granted – but when they’re not there I realise I miss them.

  • In teaching kids, you’re not just teaching a language, you’re teaching about being a person. 

In my one lone YL class this week we had to pause our lesson for a discussion on why ‘We don’t laugh at people when they get things wrong’. In teaching YLs I am priviledged to teach not only English, but also how to interact with others, how to share, how to deal with success and disappointment… the list goes on. My adult students are already fundamentally who they are. Hopefully my teaching will enable them to be more educated about different cultures (and in the process hopefully we all become more tolerant and open-minded as a result), but it isn’t going to make them a different, better or nicer person. At times I question whether or not my kids will actually learn how to treat each other in the way that they would like to be treated – but then I remember that every little lesson adds up, and I don’t have to do it all myself.

  • Adults realise their teacher exists outside of the classroom.

One of the most enjoyable littlies I’ve ever taught informed me solemnly, one lesson, that I lived under the table in my classroom. I find that it tends to be only as teens that YLs develop any kind of interest in, or understanding of their teacher being a person, as opposed to a teacher. The adults I’ve taught this week, on the other hand, have all quizzed me at great length about my career, my experiences of living in Prague, and my experiences of teaching Czech vs. Russian students.

  • Some adults can be downright rude!

In my lessons I expect a certain degree of respect and classroom-appropriate behaviour. This week I have had students play on their mobile phones, openly text during class, completely ignore my instructions to stop an activity/stop talking, and start packing up five minutes before the end of the lesson. My kids can behave better than that, so why does it seem quite so difficult for adults?!

I thought I was going to hate teaching adults this week, and am pleasantly surprised that instead I found it an enjoyable experience. I haven’t forgotten how to teach them, and teaching them is more ‘different’ than it is ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Saying that, I’ll be glad to get back to my kids classes next week…

Do you have a favourite age group to teach? I’d love to hear your thoughts, either in an email or in the comments. 

What Not To Wear: Teaching Edition

During my early days of work experience in a UK state school, I remember the seemingly endless quest for a teacher wardrobe. I quickly became a master of the ‘bending over to help a student’ pose, which, let me tell you, rules out around 90% of tops currently on the market.

In TEFL, thank goodness, it all tends to be simpler. Jeans are often de rigeur, and provided one has a ‘good standard of personal hygiene’ (an actual quote from numerous job adverts), pretty much anything goes. Or so you would think.

Here, then, is The Best Ticher’s definitive guide to What Not To Wear in the EFL classroom.

  • Extremes of colour

I always thought I could be the teacher who wore white to work and never leant against the whiteboard. This was, of course, an illusion. Now the luxury of whiteboards is a distant memory and I work in a school with blackboards. Chalk dust on black trousers is my nemesis.

  • Dangly things

All too often I have decided to use a school day to road test a new pair of earrings, which quickly become a source of fascination (and handling) with my littlies during circle time. If you value your earlobes, don’t. I once wore a beautiful long necklace to work, only to discover that one of my students had tied it into a careful series of knots as I was helping her with her work. Avoid.

  • Old saggy anything

It pains me to share this cautionary tale, although I am now thankfully rather immune to it due to a past colleague’s tendency to share it whilst on a night out. Laundry day saw me wearing a rather elderly pair of tights to work, which in retrospect should have been relegated to the bin as soon as it became apparent that the elastic was no longer doing its job. The moment of horror as I realised that my tights were slowly descending remains with me to this day. I’m positive it was a memorable lesson for all present.

  • The wrong socks

I currently spend most of my time teaching in a classroom where shoes are Not Allowed, and so socks suddenly play a more important role in my life than ever before.  I have a set with the days of the week on of which I am particularly proud – however, woe betide me if I teach anyone above grade two whilst wearing my Tuesday socks on a Wednesday.

Ah, but Elly! I hear you cry. Our hopes of monochrome, baggy jumpers and mismatched socks are dashed! What then are we to wear? 

  • Clothing that will extend your students’ vocabulary. 

One of my favourite t-shirts has a picture of a walrus on it – his name is George. He is the reason why all of my students, even the littlies, now know the word ‘walrus’ in English.

  • Nail polish

One for the ladies of the TEFL world, I suspect (although men, please give it a try and let me know how it goes). Before becoming a teacher I never realised how much of the time students’ attention would be on my hands. I point to an exercise, a word or a page number in the coursebook. I use finger highlighting to correct student errors. Painted nails make me feel better about my hands being on constant display – but they also give me a little something extra to get my students’ attention. At least that’s what I tell myself.

  • Comfortable clothes

At the end of the day, comfort is paramount – not least because you never know what life in the EFL classroom will throw at you. Simon Says ‘Be a cat’? Ask everyone how they are whilst pretending to be a cow? A waiter, a film director, an aerobics instructor: who knows who you will be today?

What are your ‘must haves’ and ‘must avoids’ when getting dressed for work?