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Overcoming my teaching rut

Finding some teaching methods, approaches or activities which we can refer to as tried and tested gives a great sense of comfort. It lowers the preparation time and boosts our confidence. Isn’t it convenient to have a nice, little routine that guarantees a successful lesson? Isn’t it also dangerously easy to miss the difference between our positive teaching habits and being stuck in a rut?

Teaching rut, a place where the sense of a different perspective doesn’t exist. A state of being too complacent with one’s teaching or too busy to stop and think whether there are any alternatives to what we have been doing so far. I used to think that this only happens to people who have been doing a certain job for a long time, say 20 years or more. Yet, I first realized I myself might be in a rut last year in November.

I was teaching some groups for the second or even third year in a row and I felt really happy about it. The students and I knew each other, we had an understanding of  how our lessons would work, and the atmosphere in class was great. At some point, I started wondering whether the atmosphere wasn’t too great, though. Were my students feeling that comfortable because I created such a safe learning environment? Or maybe their comfort came from the fact they knew very well what to expect, they didn’t feel pushed or challenged, and enjoyed having the course and the teacher figured out? Was I enjoying my classes because I was teaching effectively and seeing lots of progress? Or was I happy because they were easy to manage and required little effort on my part? I don’t want to say my students got lazy as it wouldn’t be fair. I think it was THE TEACHER who got lazy and complacent with her teaching. The teacher was me.

I panicked a bit (I’ve only been doing it for 5 years, how has it come to this?!) and started devising bold plans aimed at changing everything about the way I taught. Then I panicked even more. And then I sobered up. I decided to check whether devil truly is in the details. I focused on these small things I noticed I’d been doing the same way forever. Was there a better way of doing them? Maybe not, but it was definitely worth checking out the OTHER way of doing them.

Small change #1: A new opening

With some of my groups I’d usually go for a warm-up game-style activity, with others I’d start the class by having a casual conversation or simply asking them whether they had any news to share. I switched it up. This resulted in pretty engaging conversations with my 12-year-olds, who surprised me with new levels of maturity they usually didn’t show while playing games. Then, there were my B2 adults playing a word-formation game of Tic-Tac-Toe for the first 5 mins of class. I later found out they haven’t played this game since they did elementary course.

How did it help?

I surprised myself and my students. It was new, fresh, and unexpected. It injected some new energy into the classroom in those first minutes. I honestly don’t remember whether those classes went amazingly well, but I remember feeling we were off to a good start.

 

Small change #2: A new source

As a teacher who habitually scours the Internet looking for something interesting to use in class, I’ve been neglecting a more obvious source of new ideas: living, breathing teachers working with me. I decided to abstain from my usual sources of teaching inspiration and turn to my colleagues. As a result, I was introduced to a couple of fantastic press articles I later used with my B2 students.

How did it help?

Sure, I might have found the articles myself, using my traditional methods, but changing my own routine a little bit reminded me about the power of collaboration and “humanised” my teaching experience.

Small change #3: A new seating arrangement

I’ve never used a seating chart with my students for other reasons than discipline (separating the most talkative students etc.) Letting my students sit wherever they wanted in order to avoid the chaos of people moving around too much, and being limited by the room size, I often ended up pairing my students up in the same way. With the person sitting next to them. Who often was their good friend. Or the person they’ve been attending the course with for a long time. Or even their spouse. Boring, predictable, pointless pairwork all around!

I rearranged the seating in all the groups I taught. Just for one day. To see whether it’d change anything. I made sure to introduce some pair or group work for my students to interact with their new “partners”. I noticed less off-task behaviour with my younger students and more engagement and motivation to speak with my older ones.

How did it help?

Seeing some new classroom dynamic was uplifting for both my students and me. It encouraged me to forget about the size of the room or the number of people in it and do more activities like this.

Small change #4: A new tool

I’ve been pretty lucky to have worked at a school that offered projectors, smartboards and WiFi access. This meant being able to play with whatever ed tech novelty that caught my eye. Yet, I didn’t. I was either too lazy, too worried (what if it doesn’t work and the lesson falls apart?!) or too overwhelmed by the number of online tools. Not knowing what to use and how to use it, I opted out, drew grids on the board or cut paper.

I decided to overcome my fear of technology with a very small first step: an online Jeopardy game generator called Jeopardy Rocks. I had fun making the game, my students had fun playing it, we revised a number of language points, and everybody was relieved I wasn’t in charge of keeping the score because the computer did it way better.

How did it help?

I could’ve played the same game using a ppt template or simply draw a table on the board and read out questions. I forced myself out of my comfort zone and it felt refreshing. Jeopardy Rocks was my first endeavor into the world of online tools that could be used in an EFL classroom and I wrote more about this topic here.

Small change #5: A new ending

“Always end on a positive note” is what many of my university instructors drilled into our heads during my BA course in TEFL. This line stuck with me and I thought it’s enough to thank my students at the end of the lesson, tell them they did a great job, and remind them about their homework for next week’s class. Or maybe reward them with a song, a funny video, a game, or an activity that would summarise what we’d done. Very often, due to my poor timing, I’d spend these last few minutes correcting the last exercise I assigned, with my students chatting in L1, packing, being very impatient to finally go home. Ending on not such a positive note.

I decided to try a method called 3-2-1 which I first learned about from this infographicThis was the only small change which I tried with every class I taught more than once: spending last 10mins asking them to think about 3 things they learned in class that day, 2 things they found interesting, and 1 question they had about what we’d covered. This was definitely very new for everybody involved and not all my students knew how to answer or what to say the first time I tried 3-2-1. Younger students were more vocal than adults (the funniest yet not the most desired question one 11-year-old boy asked  was “Can I go home?”) but I’d like to think everybody spent at least 30 seconds reflecting about the class.

How did it help?

It was incredibly interesting to see my students think about the class as an experience and not just “English time”. The immediate feedback was useful for me as a teacher and it was great to hear some of my students share something they liked/ found interesting about the class.

Here’s what I took from this experience:

  • It’s dangerously easy to become set in your ways and complacent with your teaching at any stage of the career.
  • The fact that students like something (like working with the same partner all the time) is not necessarily great for their learning and it’s my job to recognize it.
  • The feeling of instant gratification we get in class (yay, my students were enthusiastic about what we did!) is hard to let go of and might narrow down the scope of what we try in class.
  • Being taught and  understanding some principles of delivering an effective lesson, or even witnessing and reflecting on a successful lesson all don’t mean being able to do it. It takes a lot of conscious effort to implement the theory in practice (especially for doers like myself, who follow their instinct a lot).
  • The devil really is in the details. Small changes don’t have to mean insignificant changes.

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a teaching rut? How did you deal with this?

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the link to Jeopardy Rocks! I just created one to check reading comprehension. I think it will be a lot more fun than me just asking them the questions! I can see using this site a lot!

    • Hey, that’s great! I’ve never used it for this purpose, sounds really interesting.

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