‘I always do the same thing’ - Ten ways to keep yourself on your toes as an experienced teacher
‘I always do the same thing’ - Ten ways to keep yourself on your toes as an experienced teacher
by Phoebe Gomes
As someone who has been teaching English for almost six years, I find myself asking the question: “How can I stop myself from getting lazy as a teacher?”
Long gone are the days of spending hours on lesson preparation and creating materials from scratch. Naturally this is a result of experience at different schools, gained confidence, and a great deal of trial and error when it comes to planning and delivering lessons. Even so, I often feel as though: “I always do the same thing.”
The pandemic drove the majority of us to adapt very quickly to online teaching, forcing us to completely rethink the way we planned and delivered lessons; but with normality now fully in swing, it is easier to rely on my “go-to” activities on a daily basis. However, there is always more to learn and more to try, and sometimes I need a reminder of that.
This article is that reminder - a list of things that teachers like myself, worried about the onset of complacency, can do to keep us on our toes.
1. Attend workshops
Luckily during my career, I have worked for schools with fantastic professional development opportunities, including weekly or fortnightly workshops which have really helped me with great activity ideas to be used in the classroom. Before I delivered a workshop for the first time, an experienced colleague told me that it is impossible not to learn something from a workshop and this is absolutely true. Just being reminded that an activity exists, even if you are familiar with it but you haven’t used it for a long time, is an example of learning something. By attending workshops, teacher training days or online webinars, there will always be a practical idea or theory which you can implement in your own teaching, no matter how experienced you are.
I am personally guilty of not doing this enough, and I’m sure I’m not alone here. Along with the juggling of planning lessons, teaching, the day-to-day administration, and maintaining some sort of work-life balance, it can be difficult to find the time to read. There is an overwhelmingly large number of resources out there and the main issue I have is not knowing where to start! However, there are small goals you can create for yourself when considering exploring other material. For example, maybe you can try and set aside an hour a week to read something new. Or set yourself the aim of borrowing a different book from your staff room to read every month. If you have no idea where to start with a publication, the chances are that your Director of Studies or a senior teacher is familiar with it, and can offer some guidance.
3. Try something new
This is easier said than done when you are pushed for time when planning lessons. It’s very easy to revert back to the same activities again and again because you know that they work, and the students benefit from them. However, trying something new not only helps you as a teacher and gives you the chance to reflect, but it is also incredibly beneficial for the students. To quote an experienced former colleague, ‘If an activity is new to the students, they will respond well to it.’ From my experience, this has mostly been true and the only way to learn if something works or not is by giving it a go. If I come across a new activity, I try my best to use it with as many different classes as possible, whilst obviously bearing in mind the level, age range, class size etc. This helps you further evaluate which classes it works best with and how you can adapt it further.
4. Push yourself
In every academic year since I started teaching, I have tried to take on a new challenge, whether it’s teaching a new level, age group or exam, offering to deliver a workshop to colleagues or even offering to write for an online journal or blog. In every school I’ve worked at, teachers are asked for their timetable preferences for the following academic year, and I always try to include something in my preferences which I have never taught before. For example, this year I was given the opportunity to teach Absolute Beginner Younger Learners and whilst the preparation for these lessons was initially very challenging for me, almost 6 months on I have gained a great deal of confidence and an abundance of materials which can be adapted and reused. I already know that by the end of this year, I will have a great feeling of accomplishment in successfully teaching this group of learners.
5. Take courses
International House is a renowned organisation when it comes to the high quality of their teacher training courses. I have been lucky enough to complete their Certificate in Younger Learners and Teenagers (IHCYLT) and the Certificate in Advanced Methodology (IH CAM) whilst working for the organisation, and this has been incredibly beneficial for my development. However, there are other programmes which are offered through International House schools which are often free for IH teachers, or heavily discounted such as the Certificate in Online Teaching (IHCOLT) and the one-to-one teaching course. Doing these courses as an experienced teacher gives you the opportunity to experiment and evaluate your teaching practice, both of which are skills that, for the sake of our students, we should never neglect.
6. Observe your colleagues
This is easier said than done when considering teaching schedules, but more often than not, there is a time when you are available whilst another colleague is teaching and vice versa. Observing your peers gives you the opportunity to get a ‘taster’ into how other teachers may do things and gives you the chance to reflect on how you do things. These ‘things’ can be as simple as checking homework, using routines in the classroom and using the coursebook and whilst these seem fairly ‘standard’ to an experienced teacher, it is always helpful to consider an alternative approach. However, do not go into a peer observation without a clear mission. What exactly are you looking out for? Which areas of your own teaching do you think could do with some fine-tuning? These are questions we should always ask ourselves as an observer.
7. Get someone to observe you doing something new
Even after six years of teaching and many formal observations, I still strongly dislike being observed. Every time observations come around, I ask myself: “Why do I do a job which involves people watching me?!” However, the feedback and advice from these observations is indispensable, and I am certainly a better teacher after having received advice from various members of senior management over the years. To push yourself as an experienced teacher, try teaching something in an alternative way or try something completely new the next time you are observed. This is something I did recently, and not only did it offer a new element of challenge, it reminded me that I did not know as much as I thought I did. Being observed, however, is the first step. You need to consider how you’re going to use the feedback and implement the suggestions of the observer in your own classroom practice. It’s often helpful to refer back to observation feedback some time after you’ve received it, as it is very dense. For me, it is very interesting referring back to observations from perhaps six or twelve months ago to see how far you’ve come, but also to remind yourself of feedback you’ve forgotten about.
8. Question Time
I used to view asking questions to other teachers or management as a sign of weakness and I would convince myself that it made me look incompetent. However, the importance of asking questions is severely underrated and I now do the opposite and probably ask too many! If you find yourself going back to the same freer practice board game for the tenth time, for example, perhaps ask a colleague if they have an alternative idea for a specific grammar point. Moreover, if you have to cover a coursebook page and you’re not entirely sure how to approach it, speak to your DoS or a senior teacher, as there is always somebody to learn from in the staffroom.
9. Ask your students
This is something I’m trying to do more as I prepare for DELTA Module 2: asking your students for their feedback and encouraging them to reflect on how useful tasks were for them and their learning is incredibly insightful. Whilst I initially feared their feedback (my first-year-teacher imposter syndrome came back to haunt me), it was actually very handy to see things from the students’ perspective. Don’t be afraid to ask your students for their opinions, especially if you try something new. Their comments have informed me of ways I can adapt activities and which I can reuse.
We all teach lessons that we’re not happy with for whatever reason. Maybe the students were tired, maybe we didn’t scaffold our activities properly or maybe the topic of the lesson wasn’t relevant or interesting to the students. When I was an inexperienced teacher, I used to take it very personally when lessons didn’t go to plan. However, as you gain more experience, it’s very easy to think, “Oh well, the next one will be better” and move on. It is important to reflect and think about why a lesson wasn’t up to your usual standards and what you can change for the future.
Finally, I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with having a bank of ‘go-to’ activities to pull from again and again - this is a perk of being experienced, after all. However, now that we are back to a post-pandemic normality in the classroom, I’ve realised that this is a great time to stay engaged, keep yourself on your toes, and carry on learning.
Phoebe Gomes has been teaching English for six years, with experience of teaching in the UK, Poland and Italy. She currently teaches at IH Palermo where she takes an active interest in professional development. Phoebe holds certificates in DELTA Module 1, the IHCYLT and the IHCam and is going to start DELTA Module 2 this summer.