The fabled 40-hour week

When I worked in a language school, I worked my contracted 30 hours a week. In exchange I got a decent starting salary. What nobody tells you from the company is that the salary only goes up a tiny bit and there’s rarely any real career progression.

That’s why I don’t work for language schools anymore. I went with agency work teaching business English and a junior high school. The agency also sent me to teach at a university. I was teaching PPP lessons, mostly with no planning to speak of (being able to wing it through a double-page coursebook spread is not very demanding). I was working about 35 hours a week, not including travelling between several workplaces in a day.

I did my DipTESOL, had my eyes opened to second language acquisition (SLA) and task-based language teaching (TBLT). This is language teaching and learning with purpose and evidence-based foundations, I thought. My planning time went up. It was a bit of a learning curve. My working hours went up to about 45 hours a week, not including travel between jobs.

Between my DipTESOL and my MA, I started working direct hire for universities and reduced my agency work as the agencies seemed to be reducing hourly rates and only get contracts in inconvenient places. With more university work and more ideas about how to support learners, I decided on portfolio assessments. I gave myself tons of marking. I decided to eschew coursebooks. I made my own materials because I couldn’t find anything decent or just what I needed. My working hours went up to about 50 hours a week, not including travel between jobs. Sometimes it’s more.

This new year, I decided to work less. Work what I need to do. I’m not compromising my principles by using stupid materials or going back to only PPP. I may change the portfolio assessments to something less demanding for me, so I am aiming for working about 40 hours a week, not including travelling about between jobs. Other professions do it, so why not us?

If you liked this, you will probably find TAWSIG interesting, too.

Advertisements

Demotivations in Language Teaching

Uber cynical post warning. Consider this warning a warning and your last warning.

So, I’m back after the holidays at one of my places of employment and freelance me has already been out on the road and in cyberspace. This post is mainly looking at the institutional side of language teaching and the demotivations from my point of view as a serial part-timer.

“CPD? Computerized Personal Data? I don’t know.”

There is no continuous professional development on offer; a DIY approach is essential, there are no books available except my own personal collection and that of one of my coworkers. There are limited discussions about teaching, pedagogy or learning of languages, just firefighting conversations about students who do things they ought not to do or teachers who basically can’t teach.

Contrast this with one of my universities that has a fantastic library just for the teachers and a decent library with English books about language teaching and learning in it for the English majors and another university that cries a bit hard up but has kept subscriptions to TESOL Quarterly and a few other journals. Something always beats nothing.

“Align the tests with… the tests.”

I make the tests. This is in my contract. I make the tests and then show them to the head of English for the year group and he (or she depending on the year, but mainly he) approves it. Or not. There was one year that my coworker and I decided to be idealistic and actually attempt to assess the students by assessing what we teach. This is, clearly, madness. What is the most logical idea is to give an essay topic one week prior to the test periods for a speaking course and have students write a page on one of the topics. The week after that they will answer questions or formulate questions based on a list of questions the teacher/assessor will ask and a list of answers from which to formulate a question, provided with the essay topic. After that, there will be a paired conversation based on an everyday situation except that all students will have half-arsedly memorized a script instead of reacting to questions, leading to such gems as:

S1: What are you going to do tomorrow?

S2: I am going to Disneyland?

S1: Where are you going to go?

S2: I am going to go with my friend.

This is purely because language is expected to be taught as a content-subject, not a skills subject. Recalling facts about morphology and syntax, but we are employed to teach “natural English” and “help the students communicate naturally”.

“Oh, can you proofread this?”

This is in the contract. I don’t mind doing this, actually, because it is interesting, English teachers essentially having a fetish for odd points of grammar, pragmatics and semantics. Except I don’t like the one person who gives something in the break between second and third lesson and expects it to be done by lunchtime. So in ten minutes. Or 8 if I am teaching far from the teachers’ room. The same person, who is usually considerate except for this time. I do not wish to become overly curt, I bite my tongue, but there is a veritable cesspool of swearwords waiting to be expelled on the walk between the school gates and the convenience store.

There are lovely things about the job, mainly the time off and the bonus (kerching – except actually it could just go on the monthly pay, couldn’t it?) but I would love a bit more of a free rein. Perhaps the worst thing is knowing I have free rein at university and then back at school.

At university there are only a couple of demotivators:

“How many times have I been absent?”

Too many for B but you’re probably OK for a C if you’ve made it and found me.

“I left my homework in El Segundo. I got to get it back. Can you come to university tomorrow to get it?”

No, but there was this amazing invention in the 20th Century called email. Use it!

 

Paleontology and Fossil Gathering

A brontosaurus diagram from the 1880s. Factually inaccurate.

I was involved in a serendipitous exchange today on Twitter, that started with my friend James musing about yetis possibly being a kind of undiscovered polar bear. I said that given the evidence of polar bear distribution of polar bears and yeti sightings it would be unlikely but not impossible for it to be a kind of bear. One of his followers, Helen, joined in and said something about dinosaur skeletons being reassembled in weird ways to make monsters and it got me thinking about Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and language teaching.

SLA is a relatively new science, much like paleontology. We know some things from observing evidence (if how people appear to learn or not in SLA; of typical anatomical arrangements in paleontology) and making hypotheses to test in order to go on and construct theories.

We also have language teaching. Some language teaching is informed by SLA and some is not. Some fossil gathering is done by people who read up on paleontology and some is done by people who are interested in finding cool stuff, and some is done by accident.

What’s the point? Well, have you ever heard of a brontosaurus? Of course you have. It’s a massive thing with a long neck and a long tail. And the wrong head for years. And endless debates about whether it is the same as an apatosaurus. There is mainly scientific agreement to say the brontosaurus is a kind of apatosaurus. There are still some who say it warrants a distinct genus.

There are plausible ideas in language teaching. Grammar can be learned in a linear way from simple to complex, that massive exposure leads to massive gains. Unfortunately the evidence doesn’t hold up. Grammar (or actually morphology) appears to be learned in a sequence of acquisition with a lot of gaps in the evidence, rather like the allegorical dinosaur skeletons. Some people will go with what we know from science and hold out for the gaps to be filled before making bold claims. Others may try to put a pile of bones together to make a “Harryhausen Cyclops” (thanks Helen) and hoping it’s so, despite a lack of evidence or even overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

There’s also overplaying what science says and making conjectures look like fact. What colour are dinosaurs? Green, yeah? Lizards are green. But not all. There are lots of different coloured reptiles. The skin colour of dinosaurs is conjecture, based on evidence, but taken as fact, per se. Babies are exposed to loads of language, babies get fluent in a language therefore exposure equals acquisition? Perhaps, but there are more factors than that, as any migrant language teacher knows from colleagues who are exposed to the local language but never acquire it (and often never bother to try and learn it).

So what? Well, I think that, no shit Sherlock, getting more SLA literate and informed would help the profession to be less like would monster makers but more like people putting a stegosaurus together. Or having a collection of ammonites, which, while not sexy, are important to natural history.

On stuff about research and conferences

Happy New Year everyone. I am not going to do a yearly reflection because 2017 was a mixed bag and quite stressful.

On ELT Twitter and across ELT blogs there is some murmurings about research (usually on teacher beliefs) and hidden in a paragraph somewhere is a mention that this is in preparation for an IATEFL talk. This got me wondering about whether people would do such research if they didn’t have a conference proposal accepted. I suppose what I am trying to say is that if you had a rejection, at least one person thinks your idea matters (you), and the big conferences are not the only way to get such research out. Local teachers associations and chapters of them want speakers at meetings. If that doesn’t work, it might even be useful as a magazine article or blog post. For all the hand wringing about teacher research, it would be a good idea to follow through on a good idea without needing a conference committee to say something is a good idea.

Speaking of conferences, how many of them are affordable for people without research budgets? Seriously! JALT’s conference is quite expensive for four days (without considering the fact that most working teachers in Japan can’t take Friday and Monday off). IATEFL is expensive, too. Pretty much anything with ‘International’ in the name of the conference is expensive. When ExcitELT came to Tokyo, it was cheap. There were no tote bags filled with university press-branded pens or anything but that’s a weird thing to want from a conference. Could we have more for less? Easy, if commercial entities don’t join in and demand their perks.

I suppose what I am saying is ELT doesn’t have to be a spending spree. What the CPD could be is a lot cheaper, a lot more grassroots and perhaps more relevant. Let’s see more of this from this year.

Teaching Strategy Chains for Listening (or not)

This is a small research project I did for my MA. It was my lowest mark on the course and I totally tried to do more than was feasible. I will address the limitations below.

Teaching strategies

An approach to using strategies in listening isn’t new, although there is more to it than the advice given to new TOEIC teachers of “Get them to predict based on what they hear and then think about the gist.” What interested me was whether the strategy chains that learners build up, according to Rebecca Oxford (2011) could be instructed.

I put together a class at the local community hall for 6 weeks, with 7 women. The first class let me see the strategies that the learners were already using and give a questionnaire (the MALQ by Vandergrift et al., 2006). The last class involved no instruction of the strategy chain but allowed me to see whether it was being used. Most used a few simple strategies. I derived a chain of potentially useful strategies based upon learners’ answers to the MALQ. The class was a massive mix of levels, from A1 to B2 on the CEFR. I used a mix of authentic texts (reality television) and inauthentic texts (from elllo.org). First I used one text to teach the strategy chain. Learners listened twice and transcribed what they understood from the text in English or Japanese. They wrote what strategies they used in English or Japanese.

The chain

I derived the following chain for instruction: schema activation (through focused thought or speaking to other learners about the topic), plan how to listen based upon their schema activation, relax in order to reduce cognitive load issues and regain focus when attention has been lost. The reasons for this particular chain was that the learners reported little use of these strategies in their listening yet I believed that the learners would benefit from them, particularly the relaxing and refocusing.

So, what happened?

Well, all the learners went along happily with the teaching and said they used the strategy chain in weeks 2-5. In week 6, the assessment week, not a single learner reported use of the chain.

Now, this is not the end of the world. It showed me that teaching is just teaching. Whether learners decide to do something in a classroom is another thing entirely. You cannot force a way of working onto someone. It also comes down to comfort and experience. For some of the learners, they were quite proficient in communication but claimed to be uncomfortable with listening. I used schema activation in the chain and perhaps this was something that they did unconsciously. For the lower-proficiency learners, perhaps the relaxing and refocusing needed more time to be practiced effectively. Whatever the case, strategies are used, in tandem with one another, but perhaps rely more upon learner evaluation of the strategies’ value in combination than teacher evaluation.

Another aspect of the course was that it was 6 weeks which was all the time fast was feasible for me after handing out leaflets on the street and asking friends to share on Facebook (when I was on there). Potentially, with a longer course it might have resulted in learners using this chain in the assessment week. It might not have, and I am going to say that it appears unlikely. Still, it’s good to know what is unlikely to work, isn’t it?

In all likelihood it appears that teaching strategies helps learners, but the chain of strategies used depends entirely on the individual learner. It might be useful to carry out the MALQ in class, see what isn’t being used and teaching successful use of particular strategies.

References

Oxford, R (2011) Teaching and Researching Language Learning Strategies. London: Routledge.

Vandergrift, L, Goh, CCM, Mareschal, CJ, & Tafaghodtari, MH (2006) “The Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire: Development and Validation” Language Learning 56:3 September 2006, pages 431-462.

In to view; a two-way perspective on job interviews

This is a bit more freelance than usual. I am on a long trip to an interview by train (not very long but long enough to need a sit down). After that I have a Skype interview with an organisation overseas that I respect very much. But, what’s an interview? Is it OK to not feel stressed?

Interviews: my take

Loads of people take interviews as a sales pitch for themselves. It’s an opportunity to market your brand. What are your values? I am going to go out on a limb here and say all of that is hogwash. I am not selling myself. That is not an interview, it’s a sales pitch.

An interview gives me a chance to find out what I haven’t already gleaned from an internet search and chatter among peers. Is this somewhere I want to spend time? Do I think it would be beneficial to me? I know I can help students to learn, but how will this organisation help me to develop that further? Is it in keeping with my beliefs about practice or not? It’s an opportunity for teachers to interview someone for the position of employer. It needs to be a two-way street.

So, bizarre as it may be, I’m not nervous. I’m wondering if these jobs are right for me or not. I am not just talking about money but that might be part of it, along with CPD opportunities both formal and informal, conditions made explicit and any possible red flags.

So, no, I don’t feel stressed. I feel interested. If I do not get the job I avoid a poor fit with an organisation. If I get weird vibes, it means I shouldn’t take it even if offered. On the other hand, if the vibes are good and people are nice and the conditions great, even if I don’t get the job I will watch for future openings.

Making Written Recommendations

I’ve added something to my online Google Drive folder for the first time in ages. It’s a short Focus on Form activity for turning basic recommendations into written recommendations using modal verbs and adverbs. I wrote it for a class at a car seat company, so you might want to edit the Word document.

It is very rough around the edges by design – there is more than one possible correct answer so there is no list of correct answers – you need to check the work yourself or have the learners do it, perhaps peer checking before teacher feedback.

Making Written Recommendations (MS Word, PDF)