10 March 2014

Where's the pleasure in teaching?

A long time ago, in an ESOL context far, far away, I asked a colleague to cover my class because I had to take an exam …

Lovely colleague: Sure.

Me: Shall I leave you a lesson plan and some materials?

Lovely colleague: I'll do my own thing, if you don't mind. Teaching someone else's lesson feels a bit like wearing someone else's shoes.

… and that analogy has always stayed with me. Because that’s exactly what it’s like.

Lydia Mann, "teaching_5052" September 29, 2005 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

At the organisation where I’m working now – for three more days – we’re piloting a new project. How it works is this: adult students can enrol online for individual classes of 90 minutes. They can see which teacher will deliver them, and what the content will be. Each lesson is standalone, so learners can attend every day / once a week / once a month / just once, as they choose. The materials are pre-prepared, so teachers can simply turn up and print them off, and divergence from the materials is not allowed.

This blows.

And presumably it’s too late to sack me for saying this, so I will say again: THIS REALLY BLOWS.

The title of this post – ‘Where’s the pleasure in teaching?’ – is not facetious (i.e. ‘Where’s the fun in that?’). I mean, literally, what is it that makes teaching pleasurable? I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently, because this pilot takes away three conditions that generally make teaching a great job: the scope for autonomy, creativity and connection.

Autonomy

I don’t want to wear someone else’s shoes. It just doesn’t feel right, even if they’re limited edition Converse, and to be honest, more often than not, they’re Bata sandals which could do with re-heeling. Sound the analogy klaxons!

The teachers at our centre are being asked to use materials designed by people who work in different contexts from ours, who may or may not be professional resource developers. This would be of no consequence if the materials could be adapted, but they can’t, so in many cases experienced teachers are delivering lessons of a lower quality than they otherwise might. Which seriously doesn’t make sense.

Maybe, just maybe, when I was fresh off my CELTA I would have appreciated this zero-prep, one-size-fits-all approach. But more than 10 years down the line, to have it imposed as a modus operandi with no consultation is frustrating and diminishing.

Creativity

I’m slightly biased, perhaps, because I’m also an ELT materials writer. Turning complex ideas into coherent activities makes me very happy (oh yes, I shall impose my bento box order on the world). But of course, that’s not the only way to be creative. Braver teachers than me enter their classrooms with nothing more than a board pen and an idea, and run with whatever their students throw at them.

There’s an enduring cliché that most TEFL teachers are failed actors. Whilst I’m not sure that’s true, I think an awful lot of us are frustrated creatives. Some of the most brilliant people I know are underemployed TEFL teachers who only stay in the job because they have the freedom to experiment, and to design engaging programmes of learning based on what students actually want and need. When you take that away, you take a good chunk of teacher motivation away with it.

Connection

The biggest downside of this pilot is that you never know who will be in your class. OK, I can see how, on one hand, this might be an advantage. It keeps things fresh. But developing a rapport with students is one of the most rewarding and, I would go as far as to say, necessary elements of good teaching. There’s a reason why it’s assessed in observed lessons. It’s also important for students to build rapport with each other so they become more confident and take more risks, and it makes me uneasy to work on a project that immediately alienates more introverted students.

I want to find out over time what makes my students tick: what factors in their personal lives might keep them away from class; what kind of learning experience will bring them back again. I want to feel, at the end of a term or an academic year, that we’ve all somehow moved forward together. I just want to remember their names, frankly. But within this system, I can’t.

*  *  *

I always worry that I only blog to vent. I can’t pretend I’m not vexed right now, but in fact I just wanted to get my thoughts straight and take away something positive from this job. And I think the positive thing is that, if we consider what makes teaching pleasurable for us, we can ask better questions in interviews and find posts that support our individual priorities. So I guess mine would be:

* Will I be allowed to work autonomously, or are there systems in place which limit this?
* What opportunities for creative work are there for teachers?
* Are classes timetabled to allow teachers to develop a connection with their students?

For you, where’s the pleasure in teaching? What questions should we all start asking in interviews?

3 comments:

  1. Your story is sad, but typical...it's the other PBL - 'Profits-based' lunacy. How convenient (for the management), everything is so straightforward - they'll save money on staff too because all the experienced teachers (higher earners) will probably leave, like you. How convenient is their new system though, so easy, even a robot could teach it. Maybe that's what will happen. Still, our Students aren't stupid, they'll eventually vote with their wallets, unless they use really cheap robots.

    By the way, I learnt a new expression today - 'blows', I presume it means 'is not good'. In New Zealand, where I'm from, it has other, less salubrious connotations, but I like it...and you're right about your soon-to-be ex-employers latest project, it blows like a Wellington southerly.

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    1. You're absolutely right when you say students aren't stupid - ours are already starting to 'play the system' by searching for classes that their friends or a particular teacher is taking, and just signing up for those. They obviously want the connection element back as well. And ultimately, I hope that students' wishes will drive the decision whether to keep this pilot or not. I hope.

      Oh and blows is pretty rude where I come from too :)

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

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