Mindfulness for teachers and learners – musings a year on

It’s been just under (edit: just **over** a year! Life got in the way of this blog post – book chapter resubmission deadline and last few weeks of term, I’m looking at you!!)  a year since the universe conspired to guide me towards taking up mindfulness. The 2nd of March, apparently, so 10 days hence (edit: 8 days ago!) will be the anniversary of when I picked up my first book about Mindfulness – “Mindfulness for worriers” by Padraig O’Morain. At about the same time, Rachael Roberts promoted her 30 ways to Mindfulness book which you can obtain from her very thought-provoking website, and the then TD coordinators promoted a certain Futurelearn course (see below!) Since then, I’ve learnt a lot about Mindfulness and developed my own practice of it, doing multiple courses, reading around it and integrating it into my daily personal and professional life and into my teaching. This blog post is a reflection on what has changed for me in the last nearly a year.

The first aspect of the journey has been learning about mindfulness and trying to apply it. There are two Futurelearn courses about it – Mindfulness for wellbeing and peak performance (this is the one the TD coordinators promoted and it is running again starting on Monday!) and Maintaining a mindful life (this is aimed at people who have already done the wellbeing and peak performance one) – delivered by Monash university and I have done each of them a couple of times, getting more out of them each time as my practice has developed. My choice of tense is deliberate – I am still learning about it and will probably repeat those courses again this year. As with many things in life, the scope for learning with mindfulness is infinite, because as you evolve so what you take from courses or reading etc evolves too. Here are some things I have learnt:

  • I have learnt how to be more aware of where my mind is and bring it back to the present moment when it wanders. (Some mind-wandering is harmless but general lack of awareness of where the mind is can lend itself to worrying/rumination/awfulising/catastrophising.) I have spent a year gently training my ability to bring my mind back to the present moment whenever I notice it wandering, so that I am better able to that when it goes in a direction I don’t want to go in. Which leads me to…
  • I have learnt that I am not at the mercy of my thoughts, I don’t have to follow them all or get bogged down by then. They are there and there will always be new thoughts popping into my mind, but just like buses coming past a bus stop, I can choose whether or not to board them.
  • I have learnt a lot about how the mind works. This includes the different parts of the mind and the different systems at play in the mind, as well as how they influence my behaviour. As a consequence I am better able to recognise what is going on in my mind at various times/in various situations and use that knowledge to influence the direction things take. This is partly as a result of the Futurelearn courses, partly as a result of extra reading and partly as a result of Rachael Roberts’s Facebook group, Life-Resource Lightbulb Moments, which is connected with her blog too. One of the many things that has happened in this group is a virtual book group – we all read (well I am still reading!) The Chimp Paradox. This has involved reading a portion of it and then discussing it on a thread within the group. I wouldn’t have read the book (or as much as I have so far, ongoing!) without the recommendation and the motivation of the reading group, much less had the opportunity to discuss it. So, if you are interested in mindfulness and how the mind works, join the group!
  • I have learnt how to meditate and how much I need it in my life! I now meditate for approx 40 minutes in the evening before bed and sometimes I manage to do a bit before work too. Minor meditative moments can also occur throughout the day. Fridays include extra meditation but more about this later! Meditation has a positive effect on the brain. For me, my evening meditation routine has really helped my sleep – I fall asleep much easier after it. Occasions where I can’t get to sleep because I am too wound up about something are much fewer and further between.
  • I have learnt to use red traffic lights as a mindfulness bell. So, rather than getting annoyed by a minor delay, I use them as a reminder to be fully present. They are little islands of calm in the commute now instead of irritation points. In connection, I have learnt to accept that Sheffield drivers are frequently rather inconsiderate and unpleasant, and not use up precious energy in getting worked up about it. Getting worked up doesn’t change their behaviour, it just affects me negatively.
  • I have learnt  how to deal with stress more effectively. Case in point the last couple of weeks. A colleague I work closely off has been on sick leave, resulting in a big increase in my workload. Where in the past I would have used a LOT of energy and time worrying about not being able to do everything, this time I communicated calmly with the leader relating to one of the hats I wear and explained what was happening to the other hat, then made myself an extensive list of things to do for said other hat and how to do them. Then it was just a case of focusing my energy on ticking them off, one at a time. Crucially, when the weekend arrived and I went home (and indeed each evening when I went home during the week), I deliberately focused my mind away from work and onto home stuff, allowing my mind and body a rest from the stress. (This is where the mindfulness concentration training comes in – being aware of when it started to wander towards work meant I could bring it back, repeatedly, away from work rather than being in a constant state of high alert due to stress.) Last year when a workload-time-related stressful situation arose, I handled it a lot less well – communicated unmindfully and spent far too much time panicking. The issue was resolved fairly quickly but it could have been resolved a lot more effectively. Live and learn! And Iearning I am!
  • I am much more aware of when my mind is slipping into states that are not useful to me. I’m human, so it is prone to do so! Thus, if something happens which goes against what I would like to happen (holiday to Sicily that was meant to happen on Monday next week but is now cancelled, I’m looking at you!), yes I am angry and disappointed, but I also choose to limit the amount of time and energy I allow myself to spend on that. Better to accept that it is what it is, find things to be grateful about (e.g. it would be a lot more stressful for me if I were already there and the lock-down kicked off!) and refocus on now and things I CAN influence (e.g. this will be a useful opportunity to knock my garden/greenhouse into shape ready for growing everything that is currently germinating in my propagators! I will also have more time to complete this fundraising challenge that I am currently undertaking!) By being better able to notice when my mind is slipping into those states that are not useful, through mindfulness meditation training, I can redirect it sooner and more effectively. Multiple times.

As well as learning more about Mindfulness and using it myself, I have in the past year also used it with students in the form of a short (+-2 minute) meditation at the start of each lesson. Feedback from various groups of different levels has been primarily positive. Out of 65 responses gathered thus far, 57 have given positive feedback (relating to concentration, calmness, relaxing stress etc.), 5 have said they aren’t sure or not helpful but not unhelpful, 1 said it wasn’t helpful due to being too short and 2 said it made them feel sleepy! For some of those who respond positively, it seems to make a huge difference. Here are some of the comments that came with the feedback:

This was indirect feedback i.e. the students mentioned the meditation in a question not relating to the meditation!

These below are all in response to more direct questioning:

All in all, I feel this has been a very positive outcome. Mindfulness and education is becoming a more popular topic of discussion, even in ELT, with Pearson recently hosting a series of three webinars about it, and it is definitely something I want to pursue further. At the moment, the start-of-lesson meditation is the main extent of what I do, with a little bit of focus on concentration, particularly in relation to listening to a 10 minute lecture twice, having already listened to fifteen minutes worth of twice-repeated conversations, as my students have to do in their listening exam. In the future, I want to look more into how I can help them train their concentration and do this more systematically.

All that really remains to  be said now, then, is thank you universe for starting me on my mindfulness journey just over a year ago! 🙂

Do you practice mindfulness? When did you start? What changes have you noticed since then?

Looking forward

In my latest TD bulletin (the one which also inspired me to blog about my “first class of the year”‘s!), in the “Food for thought” section, I offered teachers a number of reflective questions to help them think backwards to last academic year AND forwards to the one that lies ahead:

  1. How did last academic year go for you?

  2. What went well? What two things are you most proud of? Why?

  3. What two things did you do with your students last year that you would do differently this year? Why?

  4. What new things did you try? Why? How did it go? Will you use them again this year?

  5. What new things are you planning to try this year? Why? What effect do you hope they will have?

  6. How do you hope to grow as a teacher this year?

 

So, I thought I had better answer them myself! (Edit: I started, and then term kicked off. Now in week 2 so still early enough days to merit getting round to finishing and publishing!)

1.How did last academic year go for you?

I have already answered number 1 here – a post about the various things I felt I’d achieved during last academic year, with a positive slant to counteract the normal negativity bias that the human mind proffers. It’s just as well I did, as though I have only been back 4 days, there was also an intervening 4 week break, so last academic year seems an awfully long time ago already! For the rest of this post, I am going to focus on the teaching portion of my job here (rather than the TD coordination or ADoSing!).

2. What two things am I most proud of?

  • The improvement in my students’ performance over the academic year, knowing that I did everything I could to help them along that path.
  • That I pushed myself to try new things in the classroom rather than just staying in my comfort zone.

3. What two things did I do with my students last year that I would do differently this year and why?

  • I finished my lessons generally with productive activities. The way I want to change things up this year is to allow more time for feedback/reflection/evaluation afterwards – both in terms of the given activity and the lesson as a whole.
  • I used listening logs with them. It worked well and their feedback at the end with regards to using them was positive. But this year, or at least for this term as in January I will be pinged into to January start student classes due to my January cohort ADoS role, I have much lower level students. So I still want to use them but I want to give students more guidance, make it more scaffolded.

4. What new things did you try last year? Why? How did it go? Will you use them again this year?

  • Doing a short mindfulness meditation with the students at the start of every lesson. I did this for two terms, and their feedback at the end was very positive around focus, concentration and relaxation (in opposition to stress). I did it because I’d learnt about Mindfulness myself and come across lots of research to suggest it is helpful for students as well. I will definitely be continuing!
  • Using Quizlet live with students in class to review vocabulary. It worked really well with my foundation students, as they were a) fairly young (I know not a necessity), b) generally a bit knackered (lots of studying in all their subjects) and c) responded positively to the bit of geeing up that Quizlet live provided. I used it to liven up vocab review, motivate students, wake them up a bit, change the pace of the lesson. I will keep using it but I want to also work more on getting students to use the sets independently as well.

5. What new things are you planning to try this year? Why? What effect do you hope they will have?

  • I want to encourage growth mindset use so I am planning to incorporate advice from Chia’s EtP article about it into my teaching and read around it from other sources with a similar goal too.
  • I want to incorporate a range of flipped learning opportunities more consistently as I believe it will really help my learners to access the course content more successfully.

6. How do you hope to grow as a teacher this year?

  • I want to make use of all the tools, techniques, materials and methodologies at my disposal to ensure that my lessons help students get as much as possible out of them. This is in terms of content, how I deliver that content, lesson structure, incorporation of mindfulness-linked strategies, metacognitive strategies, encouragement of growth mindsets and more. This term I have a lower level group and a mid-level group, so a different set of challenges to the high-level group I had for a few terms last year.
  • I am also going to be participating in a peer observation programme, so I hope to gain new ideas from those I observe and insights from those who observe me, to enhance my practice.

If you decide to answer these questions and write a blog post about it, please do share the link to it in the comments!

Using Mindfulness with Students QandA

Yesterday I did a short TD session with the teachers in my team about using mindfulness meditation with students. This is not a write-up of the session, as the ground it covered is already largely covered in the afore-linked-to blogpost but I thought I would make a note of the questions my colleagues asked and my answers, as it is possible that others reading my blog post about using meditation with students, or who are just thinking themselves about using meditation with students, might have similar questions floating around in their heads!

Did you do the meditation at the start of every class?

Yes, every single class for two terms! And also when small groups of students came to do their seminar discussion exam, I led the meditation before starting their exam so that they would be calmer.

Did you use the same meditation every time?

Yes, the same one every time! So the students were familiar with and knew what to do/how it works etc. I think it also means that students can focus on the meditating, not on processing what it is that they are being told to do.

Did you get bored of doing it?

No, I found it a lovely, peaceful way to start each lesson and bring the class together into a space of readiness for learning.

What about getting the students to lead it?

I didn’t try that but I don’t think I would because I want them to just be able to benefit from those couple of minutes, and not have to take the responsibility of leading it which might be quite stressful for some (which would be counterproductive!).

Did you notice a difference in their behaviour between the term when you didn’t do it and the terms when you did?

The key thing for me was that once we did the meditation each lesson, they were with me and focused on what was to come. (And if you look at the feedback from them in the blog post I linked to at the start of this one, you’ll see focus and concentration were the major themes!)

What about lower levels?

This wasn’t actually a question, but we also discussed about how it would work for lower levels and the consensus was that you could simplify it right down so that you say much less and have longer silences. So that there are fewer, simpler words but the meditation takes the same length of time. But also, provided you give them time to look at the print-out in the first lesson and they can check any unknown vocabulary, and provided you then use the same meditation consistently, linguistic issues can be dealt with early on.

Do you have any more questions about it? Feel free to comment with and I will happily add them and answers to this post!

First class of the year

You have a new group of students in front of you and all you know about them is their approximate level. What do you do? This isn’t a trick question, this is what all teachers face at the start of each academic year and whenever else in between times that they are given a new group to teach for an extended period of time.

Where I work, there are no regular lesson materials for the first two-hour lesson. “Teaching proper” begins in the second two-hour slot of the week. In the first lesson, we have the luxury of time to spend getting to know our students and introducing them to what the AES (Academic English Skills) course looks like. At this point, I have taught a fair number of “first class of the year”s (especially as in January, being a January cohort ADoS, I switch from teaching September starters to January starters so two terms in a row, I get “first class of the year”s).

In my role as teacher development coordinator, I send out regular “bulletins” with links to content to help teachers develop and change up what they do in the classroom. The first bulletin of the academic year (which I have already started working on – I started towards the end of last term and have done a bit this week too – though I don’t start back at work til Monday!) is focused on beginning of the academic year-related content and one section is dedicated to ideas for making the first class of the year a fruitful one. So it is that I have been reading a range of content around first lessons, in order to select suitable links for the bulletin, and, thus, inevitably, reflecting on my own first lessons past and to come.

My “first lesson of the year”s

To me, the most important thing that should happen in that first lesson of the year is that I learn all my students’ names and they learn one another’s names too, as I feel this is essential for a conducive environment for learning: students need to be comfortable working together, so they need to know who one other are.

The activity I always use at the start of a lesson with a new group of students who are going to be my students for a term or more is a variation on the “I went shopping” memory game. Very simple, very straightforward: Student A gives their name and something they like (E.g. My name is Lizzie and I like running), Student B introduces Student A and then themselves (E.g. Her name is Lizzie and she likes running, my name is Bobby and I like football) and so on until everybody has introduced themselves and all the students who have already had a turn introducing themselves. While this is unfolding, I am silently repeating all the names along with the students (and chipping in to help when anybody struggles) so that once everybody has introduced themselves and their classmates (and the one who went first has to then introduce everybody!), I have a go. Obviously, the larger the group the longer this activity takes but I firmly believe it is worth the time taken. Simple but reliable, and the students tend to have a bit of a laugh doing it, which also helps break the ice and relax them a bit.

Once names are in place, I want to know a bit more about them all. In this slot, I don’t always use the same activity. I’ll use any activity that will get them talking to each other, learning about each other and sharing what they learn with the rest of the class, as well as ensuring that I tell them a bit about me and let them ask any questions they might have, which I answer as long as they are within reason. For ideas of such activities, see my Back to school-related links post. I tend to be strict on timing with this one, ensuring it doesn’t run on for too long so that there is still time for everything else I want to do!

Now that I know the students a bit, and they know me, it is time to focus on the course content so that they have a picture of what to expect from their 5 hours a week of AES classes for the next three terms. Each student receives a workbook and in the workbook there is a lot of information about the course. So for this element, I tend to do a workbook quiz i.e. give students a list of questions, the answers to which are in the workbook and have them work together to find the answers. This way, as well as ensuring that they have the information they need, they have the opportunity to practise working in a group. As well as going through the answers to the questions once they have finished (eliciting answers but also giving them a bit of a chance to sit and listen while I elaborate), this then provides an opportunity to get them to reflect on the effectiveness of their group work and how to improve it for future lessons when it will often feature.

In the powerpoint for the first lessons, there are two sentence starters – something like “I am excited about studying here because…” and “I am nervous about studying here because…” Generally students discuss these in pairs or small groups. This stage helps them realise that they are not alone in their feelings and that their classmates are all human too. This time I am toying with the idea of getting them to write their completions on a whiteboard (one board or half of a board, depending on the room per sentence starter) and getting them to identify the themes. With the “nervous about” board, we could look at each theme and brainstorm suggestions to ease those nerves. This time, I would like to perhaps also use this as an opportunity to cultivate growth mindsets: reframe the “nervous about” elements in a positive growth-conducive way. Turn any “I can’t’s” into “I can’t YET” and so on. This article by Chia Suan Chong has other ideas for cultivating growth mindsets which I will be referring back to in my preparation for this lesson and beyond.

Finally, I like to use the first lesson of the term to introduce regular features of the course. So, provided the students are already streamed and good to go:

  • get them registered on the Google+ community for their class, ensuring there is some content already there for them to dabble with.
  • introduce them to Quizlet and Vocab.com, again getting them to join the classes I’ve set up
  • and this time round, introduce the idea of doing a meditation at the start of each class, and have a go at doing one so that students know what to expect at the start of the next class

I don’t want to overcook things, so something like the listening logs, which will become a regular feature, I will leave til the first listening lesson of the term.

I like to finish off the lesson with a bit of fun – “How many of your classmates names can you remember?” (also to review that information and hopefully lodge it more firmly in their minds and mine) – and a preview of what’s to come in the rest of the week (has typically been a listening-based lesson in the second two hour slot and some sentence structure in the final one hour slot, but there have been some syllabus changes so whatever it is that is there) and set any flipped learning content I want them to look at in advance of those lessons.

So, that’s my formula, refined over the terms/years. Each stage has a clear goal and the activities tend to work quite nicely to achieve those goals. I always really enjoy those first lessons, getting to know my new students and getting things set up for an effective term/year of learning for them.

What do your first lessons of the year tend to look like? What are any of your go-to activities?

Using mindfulness meditation with students

Last academic year, having discovered mindfulness myself and done a 4-week Futurelearn course (Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance – next starting on 7th October and highly recommended!), I decided to experiment with using a mindfulness meditation with my foundation class students in their second and third terms. I finished the course sometime around the end of their first term, so the beginning of term two seemed the logical time to jump in, if I was going to do it.

As it was the first time for me to try something like this with students, I was very nervous about it BUT my belief in the potential benefits for them gave me the courage to try. Just prior to the first lesson of term two, I adapted the shortest mindfulness meditation from the Futurelearn course (the “Comma” – so called as you can use it to draw breath briefly and reset throughout the day) so that linguistically it was more accessible to my students. I didn’t have to make many changes as I had a high level group, but with lower level students I would make further adaptations/simplifications. In the first lesson of term, I distributed print-outs of the meditation and asked students to look at it and discuss these questions in pairs:

  1. What is this? What is it for?

  2. Why do you think it is called “Comma”?

  3. Have you used anything like this before?

  4. What could be the benefits for using it on a regular basis?

The “Mindfulness meditation: Comma” was obviously a give-away with regards to the what, and being Chinese students the concept of meditation was familiar to them. Once they had discussed the questions in pairs, we discussed them as a whole class. The fourth question is particularly important, as by talking about the potential benefits, you create some buy-in for when you then go on to say that the plan is to use this meditation at the start of each class.

What are the benefits?

  • It allows students to “arrive” in the lesson
  • It helps them focus their minds into the present, letting go of distractions such as worries generated by the previous lesson, content of conversations with friends, worry about various assignments, arguments they might have recently with friends/family – basically anything that isn’t happening now.

However, I will let the students speak for themselves. At the end of the two terms, having been observed teaching by my line manager who was impressed by the students’ response to the meditation, I gave them a little questionnaire to complete. There were four questions – one about the meditation, one about the listening logs we used at the start of one lesson per week (after the meditation), and then one about what they thought was good about AES (Academic English Skills) classes and one about what they thought would make AES classes better.

100% of them responded positively to the question about meditation (“For terms 2 and 3 we started every AES lesson with a short (2 minute) meditation. I think this was good/not good to do because…”). Here are their sentence completions:

I think this was good to do because…

  • it helps us to relax ourselves, and get our minds back to AES class.

  • It helps to concentrate on lesson better, feels great.

  • It was able to clear the mind and get ready to start the lesson in refreshing feelings.

  • It helps me relax after climbing up 7 floors. It helps me to concentrate easily. It could take up some lesson time.

  • I can pay attention for my AES lesson.

  • It made us focus better in the class.

  • Concentration.

  • This was a very good thing to as it allowed us to focus more.

  • It can clear my mind and help me focus on the tasks and activities.

  • It could help me stop thinking other subject’s work and help me be more focus in class.

  • During this section, I can relax myself before the start of the lesson.

  • It helped me concentrate better in class. I was able to clear my mind of all the unwanted thoughts and focus better. Relax too.

One student was absent. Obviously the clear themes running through the responses are about focus/concentration and relaxation. You might be thinking “but I don’t want my students to relax in my class, I want them to work hard!”. I think though that the sense of “relax” here is in opposition to stress. The students where I work are under an immense amount of pressure, and research shows that when stress goes beyond a certain amount, performance and productivity drop. So, if my students are worrying about all the assignments and deadlines, and what they didn’t understand in the class they had before AES etc etc, they aren’t going to be receptive to what I teach them as they will be distracted by stressing and worrying. Additionally, experience shows that when they are relaxed and engaged (the two are not mutually exclusive), they perform well in class and evidence of their learning can be seen in their assignments. As for the one who said “it can take up some lesson time” – these students have hours and hours of classes a day and I saw them 4-6 (last slot) on a Monday (all three terms), 2-4 on a Wednesday (term 1+2) 3-5 on a Tuesday (term 3) and 1330-1430 on a Friday so particularly for those late afternoon slots, it’s tough on them, so it’s not surprising they welcomed the chance to breathe for a couple of minutes. The benefits yielded in terms of focus were, to my mind, well worth those minutes.

I’m really pleased with the results of my little experiment and this academic year plan to continue my use of the guided meditation at the start of each class. (Basically, I lead the meditation, which begins “Now, with your body balanced in the chair and your eyes gently closed”. The first time you do it, the students might be a bit giggly, looking at classmates with one eye etc but very soon it becomes routine and they do it very calmly.) I will also be leading a short session with my colleagues next week, to share this idea with them so that they can also have a go using it with their students if they want to. I’m planning to get them to do the meditation just as I would do it with my students so that they have a feel for what it is like. Here is a link to the unadapted version of the meditation that I used, by Dr Craig Hassad. It is the first recording in the list – One minute comma.

Do you do any kind of meditation with your students? How has it worked for you/them?

If you are interested in the science behind mindfulness and learning, I recommend this book:

Finally, for those who want to know a bit more about Mindfulness, here is a TED Talk about it by Dr Richard Chambers:

 

2018 Self-Reflection Challenge

Yes, I know, I wrote 2018 and it’s 2019 now!! It wasn’t a typo though, the challenge was set in 2018 and it’s a looking backwards, looking forwards kind of a thing – very suitable to the turn of the year. I discovered it via Sandy Millin (thank you, Sandy!) but it originated here (thank you, Monika!). Here it is:

Day 1: your favourite activity from 2018

A year is a long time and I am sure there were some good activities back in January or February of 2018 but I’m damned if I can remember them! So, I’ll pick an activity that springs to mind which I did last term, to give my flagging students some stimulating paraphrasing practice (difficult to use these three words together! :-p ).

  • I put them into groups of 4 and each group had to find and copy an interesting fact from the internet onto a piece of paper. The sillier the better.
  • Once finished, each group passed their piece of paper to another group.
  • Each group had to use a variety of strategies to paraphrase what was written on the piece of paper they had been handed and write it on a separate piece of paper. The citation used is based on the names of the people in the group who wrote the original.
  • Once finished, the original piece of paper is passed on again to another group.
  • Eventually the original piece of paper makes its way back to the group who created it. At this point, each group hands each paraphrase they have written to the group whose original fact it is based on.
  • At this point, each group has their original fact and a paraphrase written by each of the other groups. Now, the groups look at the paraphrases and evaluate them. Which strategies have been used? Is the meaning still the same? Is it sufficiently paraphrased? Is the citation correct? They give a score out of 5 and must justify their answer with comments based on the above questions.

It worked well! The students did lots of paraphrasing and evaluating of paraphrases, consolidating awareness of and practice of the strategies we had looked for paraphrasing.

Day 2: Most memorable story from 2018

Well, in final third of the January term in 2018, I had an email from my programme manager asking to have a word with me. I received the email on a Friday after I got home from work and Monday was the suggested day for this conversation. I went into complete panic mode, thinking I must have inadvertently done or been doing something wrong. Anyway, I replied saying that would be fine and that I hoped I *hadn’t* done anything wrong. Fortunately she replied fairly swiftly and said I hadn’t, far from it – and so my weekend wasn’t ruined!

Monday arrived and eventually we had this meeting, and far from being a telling off of some sort, I was actually invited to join the team of ADoS’s here, starting in the April term, for the April term and the June term. So I accepted and so far it’s gone well enough that I am still in that role and I am really enjoying it! But I will never forget the sinking feeling in my stomach when I opened that email in contrast with what a positive thing it turned out to be!

Day 3: the best piece of advice you were given in 2018

Have a proper lunch break! I think last year in the January term I always ate at my desk. Funnily enough, after I became ADoS, I became much better at taking a lunch break, as I’ve tended to eat with my co-January ADoS colleague (I ADoS Jan foundation, she does pre-masters). Then, last term, there was one day per week where I was in early, busy and then taught a class just prior to lunchtime and then a meeting during lunchtime, and once the meeting was over, I would invariably be completely zonked and not function very effectively for the remainder of the day. In 2019 my goal is to have a proper lunch break each day – yes it takes time from the day but in return you get to function more effectively = win!

Day 4: the moment in 2018 when you felt proud as a teacher

I had originally written the answer to Day 11 here, and then reached day 11 and realised that this one must be after something else! So…to interpret it differently… one thing I am proud of in terms of myself as a teacher is the amount of professional growth I can point to and identify in the last year.

In the classroom but related to development outside it, an example that particularly comes to mind is all the little changes I made as a result of doing the Futurelearn course about Dyslexia and Foreign Language Learning. Greater awareness of learning difficulties, something which was also enhanced by a number of the sessions I attended at IATEFL last year, and of different strategies for helping students who may have them, helped me help a group of majority struggling students that I had at the time. I’m not saying they all had learning difficulties but the strategies I learnt were nevertheless useful for helping them progress.

Day 5: your favourite memory as a student

Using speed review on Memrise? Thinking I would never be fast enough to do it with Polish but then, with a few practices, becoming able…

Day 6: the funniest story from 2018

Enlightening in an amusing and terrifying kind of way was looking at all the answers given to our google-form based academic writing quiz!

Here are some examples:

NB: The “essay” referred to here is a coursework essay which provides 60% of their writing progression score for AES (Academic English Skills programme, which we teach)

Day 7: your favourite course book from 2018

We don’t use course books here at USIC! We have our own in-house materials. What’s been memorable about 2018 is that I have been involved in some redevelopment of the Term 1 materials which we will be using again with January starters this term, so at the end of last term it was rather satisfying to see stuff that I’ve produced and stuff I’ve helped edit in print in the workbooks when they arrived back from the printers! 🙂

Day 8: a new idea you implemented in 2018

Something new that we introduced in the September term in 2018 was the use of Google Communities with students. They worked really well, being an attractive, user-friendly, efficient way of fulfilling the purpose we decided to use them for. If you want to know more, I have written about launching them here and evaluated their use here.

Day 9: your favourite teaching aid in 2018

Quizlet Live? I used it for the first time last term and used it several times. Works wonders in making relatively dry terms more palatable and memorable for students as a consolidation activity!

Day 10: the best joke you heard in 2018

Not a joke but this made me laugh! Shared in our scholarship circle about giving feedback on writing. Moral of the story: be direct, don’t hedge! 😉

Day 11: the moment in 2018 when you felt proud of your student

I feel proud every time any of my students are successful in the assessments they have to do while they are here! I was particularly pleased to get all of the students in my weaker January foundation group through their coursework essay assignments – some of the first drafts were abysmal but through the feedback and tutorial process I managed to help them do enough for even the worst to meet the requirements for a pass. Giving feedback on writing is something that continues to be a focus for improvement, and of course is also the focus of our scholarship circle which will continue this term.

Day 12: your favourite teaching-related website in 2018

(Slightly edited this one to clearly differentiate from day 19!) It would probably still have to be Sandy Millin – Sandy updates her blog regularly and it never fails to grab my attention/inspire me/give me something to think about/make me feel completely inadequate etc!

Day 13: the person who inspired you in 2018

A colleague of mine who was already an ADoS when I was invited to join the team and had previously been my ADoS. She inspired me in two ways: 1) by believing in me with regards to the ADoSing job – she said I’d be brilliant at it. I don’t know that I’m brilliant but at that point I was dubious as to whether I could do it at all. Having some else be that confident that I could really helped me. 2) The way that as well as seemingly always having everything under control, nothing was ever too much trouble for her and she was always on hand to help and answer questions when you needed it (when she was my ADoS but even when she wasn’t!) – that was the kind of ADoS I wanted to be for my teachers too! Still working on it, but the memory of it is something that continues to inspire me! 🙂

Day 14: the moment in 2018 when you realised why you are doing your job

To be honest, there hasn’t been a time, since I started the CELTA many moons ago (October 2009) and did my first teaching practice, that I HAVEN’T known why I am in this profession! A realisation I did have in 2018 was following suffering the loss of my equine best friend Alba who died from colic at the beginning of September. Coming back to work forced me to function again after that shock and what I realised is that my work is one of my primary raisons d’être – my horse was the other. Work was a powerful enough positive force to get me through that loss. More prosaically, in 2018 I also realised I must actually be good at what I do – as otherwise, I wouldn’t have been invited to take up a more senior role!

Day 15: your greatest challenge in 2018

Taking on the ADoS role, definitely. I’ve not ADoS’ed before so I was learning as I went – and continue to do so! The biggest shift has been from the focus being on my one little world as a teacher (my classes, my admin, etc – as long as I am on top of what I am doing, all is well) to making sure that the worlds of all the teachers in my cohort are also running smoothly and doing what I can to help with enabling that. That and writing meeting notes meaning that we ADoS’s have to be multiple weeks ahead of everybody else in terms of what we are thinking about!

Day 16: your strongest point as a teacher in 2018

Something I’m pleased with as far as 2018 is concerned is that the more EAP teaching experience I get, and the more my subject knowledge improves, the better able I am to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses, and create materials to help them overcome the latter. This also impacts positively on the feedback I give for writing tasks and is something I want to keep building on.

Day 17: most motivational idea/quotation/picture in 2018

This one is motivational enough to be my mantra for 2019. 🙂

Day 18: three reasons why you became a teacher

  • Enjoyed helping out in my mum’s EAL classroom when I was young
  • Found the British Council language assistant programme I participated in for my year abroad at university (languages degree), teaching EFL to kids in France, as well as volunteer teaching kids at a summer camp in Romania, brilliant experiences
  • Discovered that you could do a CELTA and make it (teach English in this way) into a career!

Day 19: your favourite teaching application in 2018

I think I would have to say Google Docs! In conjunction with Google+ Community for ease of sharing templates with students. Using it enables me to make writing activities a much more interactive, cooperative, process-based useful experience for students. From planning to writing to editing and redrafting in pairs and in groups, or individually but looking at each others’ work as well, it really changes the game. I mean, you can do all this stuff offline as well, but when you are writing complex pieces of writing, as our students do for their coursework, the process involves a lot of changes being made, which would be somewhat of a nightmare on paper (though obviously people did it before computers were a thing!). Using Google Docs in class enables us to reflect and scaffold what we want them to do in assessment in the learning they do for it.

Day 20: a piece of advice you would give to a rookie teacher

Mistakes will happen, things will go wrong, but it’s not the end of the world! Take a deep breath, do what you can with the situation at the time, learn from it and move on. It doesn’t make you a bad teacher, it makes you a human being. Embrace it.

Day 21: the best CPD book you read in 2018

I tend to dip in and out of books rather than read them cover to cover and I am also a big fan of journal articles, so I will talk about the best CPD reading I’ve done in general. I’ve particularly “enjoyed” (when I say enjoyed, I mean I found them interesting, relevant, worth reading – purposeful pleasure: a term that may make more sense if you look at this post!) the articles we have read as “homework” for our scholarship circle, about feedback on student writing. I also found the reading I did as part of the Futurelearn course about Dyslexia and foreign language reading very enlightening, as well as a book called “Teaching to Avoid Plagiarism”, which I read as part of the process of thinking about how to teach paraphrasing more effectively.

Day 22: your greatest frustration in 2018

When other peoples’ time management isn’t quite up to my exacting standards 😉 Clearly patience and understanding should be on my list of things to nurture in 2019…

Day 23: the one thing you want non-teachers to understand

I know Friday night is a weekend night, but having been up since 5.20 (as normal) and spent the fifth day in a row intensively peopling in various ways, I tend to treat it as a school night – i.e. dinner, bath, early night rather than have any particular desire to socialise! Lack of desire to socialise also applies to marking week, which is generally mental and, being the last week of term, I’m at my most knackered anyway! I DO want to see you and hang out with you, but just really not at certain times!

Day 24: your most memorable teaching experiment in 2018

Using Google Docs for students to do writing practice individually yet collaboratively. So, I had a whole class of 20 students using the same google doc, which was a table with sentence starters and space for answers, also divided into rows according to the type of sentence, and students had to individually write their completions (with a rule of not copying anyone else’s ideas) and then proofread and make comments on (using the comment function on Google docs) their classmates’ sentences. I was a bit worried about how it would work and whether it would be too chaotic etc but in the event it actually worked out really well.

The other one would be adapting my classroom management techniques and materials for my lower level foundation group using ideas from the future learn course about teaching languages to students with dyslexia/specific learning differences. The thing is, a lot of the little techniques are very simple to integrate, don’t negatively affect students who don’t struggle but can really make a difference for the ones who do!

Day 25: your personal success in 2018

I’m going to interpret this as being a success that is not related to teaching? (As I would call a success related to teaching a professional success…) So I would say, I am pretty pleased with how I’ve managed work-life balance in the last year. I have put heart and soul into my work but I’ve also been strict about not working in the evenings or at weekends (probably 95% of the time!). Other than the odd occasion where I decided to work on draft feedback outside of work time in order to take the pressure off, the only ELT stuff I’ve done at weekends is CPD stuff like book chapter writing when the deadline got imminent and watching webinars (which is enjoyable rather than “work”!) Last term, in addition to work, I managed to do something non-work related every day after work – Monday was yoga class, Tuesday was running (mostly by headtorch after the clocks changed), Wednesday was Barre Pilates class, Thursday was running, Friday was indoor bouldering.

Day 26: one thing you plan to change in 2019

Not so much change as build on – my ADoS peopling skills, my ADoS organisational skills, my classroom subject knowledge, differentiation in the classroom. Also need to finish my book chapter – but I can’t do that til I get the feedback on the first draft, then it’s revisions and resubmission! Also want to keep blogging more – I managed to do it a lot more regularly last term than previous terms!

Day 27: your greatest discovery in 2018

That I was doing my job well enough to have been invited to take on a more senior role here!

Day 28: which superpower would make you a super teacher?

Not needing sleep? Having more than one pair of hands? Or, better yet, clones of me to put to work… 😉

Day 29: one area to improve in your teaching in 2019

I want to keep building on my subject knowledge as that has already had a very positive impact on my practice and according to a TD session about peer-assisted self-observation that I attended it is a highly significant factor. I also want to keep working on making lessons that are sufficiently challenging for higher level students. Our in-house materials are aimed at average students (by our standards) so in order to keep higher level students engaged and motivated, and develop their skills, supplementing the in-house materials in various ways is a necessity. Now that we stream students according to their IELTS scores on entry, there is a lot more scope for tailoring lessons to those students who are either above or below the average, which is a really positive thing and something I want to continue to exploit.

Day 30: how do you plan to start your first lesson in 2019

By learning my students’ names and making sure they learn each others’ names via a game! I think learning students’ names and students learning each others’ names is vital and when you have multiple large classes it might not be the easiest thing in the world. What works for me is that game where a student says their name and something they like and then the next student has to introduce that student before saying their own name and something they like and so on until the student has the job of list all the names. Then you spot pick people to make sure they didn’t stop listening after their turn (having warned them that this will happen!). Of course, when they struggle, you have to help them so you have to focus 150% as the game unfolds. By the end of it, you know their names 🙂

Day 31: the most important thing you want to remember tomorrow

To edit and send out meeting notes for next week’s module meeting! But tomorrow is now today – I answered this question yesterday!

Postscript

Happy new year, everybody! And if you decide to do this challenge too, please pop a link to your response in the comments so I can have a look 🙂 I actually really recommend it – it was a nice way to look back at the year and think about what to take forward with me into a positive new year.

Taking a leaf out of Sandy’s book (see, told you she inspires..), here are some previous new year posts that I have written in the past – some challenges, some random reflective pieces, some relating to WordPress stats:

So, if you don’t fancy the current challenge, you could always try something like any of these above! 🙂 Or look at Sandy’s version of this post and her previous new year writings to see if those inspire you more!

Here’s hoping 2019 is one to remember for all the right reasons! 🙂

Mental Health in ELT

“Mental Health” (Pixabay)

Yesterday I read a Guardian article stating that the number of referrals to mental health crisis teams in the NHS has gone up by 60%  in the UK. It didn’t seem to specify the time period in which this increase has taken place, but nevertheless it’s clear that mental health problems are something that a lot of people face to varying degrees of severity. Another recent article argues that in adopting the new GCSE result grade scales, schools are putting elite performance ahead of pupils’ wellbeing while yet another discusses the increase in mental health issues in students at university, with the number of drop-outs being three times higher in 2014-2015 than it was in 2009-2010. The context of education can be, by its very nature, a very pressurised situation where the stakes are high and failure unthinkable, even for children as young as six years old. Meanwhile, the Independent reports that at least one tenth of the 4908 teachers questioned rely on anti-depressants to combat work-related stress. An interesting initiative responds to the issue of pupil mental health at schools by proposing to give teachers the training they need to be specialists in mental health. I would argue that everybody involved in the education system – students, staff, managerial staff – would benefit from greater awareness of (potential) mental health issues, how to recognise them and how to address them.

Within education, mental health can be considered from three main angles: pupils/students mental health and mental health awareness, teachers’ mental health and mental health awareness (both of their own, colleagues’ and their students’) and managers’ mental health and mental health awareness (both of their own, their colleagues’, that of their staff team, and that of the students in their school). That’s a lot of mental health awareness needed, and alongside it, systems both for dealing with the problems that arise and, importantly, addressing the causes in order to bring down the number of these. I think this applies as fully to ELT as it does to ‘regular’ teaching, whether teachers are based in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors or whether they are based in private language schools. All contexts are high stakes in various ways, demanding in various ways and potentially conducive to mental health issues in the staff and students within them. Universities often have support services within which students and staff can seek help if they are struggling but this relies on people a) being aware that they are struggling more than is ‘normal’/need help b) knowing how to access that help and c) not being ashamed to access it.

Looking  back on my own experiences of poor mental health, the requirements stated above are not necessarily easy to meet. If you are struggling, you are generally too focused on trying to keep your head above water, in one or multiple contexts, to see the bigger picture. Things accumulate, build up, things that each individually by themselves may be minor but in combination become more difficult to overcome. For example, at one school I was working at, I was told that I had had some complaints from students in one of my classes. It eventually transpired that there was a mismatch between their current syllabus and their expectations based on the syllabus of the previous level they had studied. However, between the issue arising and being resolved, my confidence took a massive hit. This spilled over into my personal life, as I lost confidence in my linguistic abilities too, meaning that when my gas bottle ran out, and I had to phone the service for obtaining a replacement, instead of it being a little thing and easy to do, it was a difficult thing and I couldn’t face it. So I didn’t. Which meant that I then wasn’t eating particularly well as I couldn’t cook. I was also having issues with my social life that were making me very unhappy, details unnecessary. I reached a point where I would sit in my flat in the morning feeling physically sick at the thought of going into work (and this ‘work-dread’ anxiety took a while to ease/wear off even after I changed jobs due to my contract reaching its natural end.) While all of this was going on, there was a workshop that required me to use the language I had lost confidence in, and as a result of all the issues described (which I just had to resist the temptation to qualify with “silly”!) I didn’t participate properly. This led to me being hauled into the DoS’s office for an explanation. I was asked if everything was ok, but my automatic reaction was to say yes. (I don’t know about anyone else, but that tends to be my knee-jerk response, almost a defensive one, but also what was wrong was all ‘little things’ that I was ‘dealing with’, it didn’t occur to me to talk about them when asked what was wrong.) So then I was told off, which shocked me into ending up in floods of tears explaining what was wrong and did then get the help I needed to sort out the gas etc. I think this is one example where better mental health awareness, both on my part and on my manager’s part, could have made a big difference.

Mental health, like physical health, is always in flux, is affected by what we do, what we consume, what situations we find ourselves in and other such factors. Like physical health, we need to be aware of how to manage our own mental health to avoid becoming ill and of symptoms that our health is off. Like physical health, sometimes ill health is minor and can be adjusted/improved fairly easily and other times it is a longer and more difficult process to heal. Like physical health, sometimes we need help to treat the symptoms and identify the cause. For that to happen, we need to be able to recognise and acknowledge when things are not ok with us, and we need to be able to help others to recognise and acknowledge when things may not be ok with them. Mental Health First Aid  is one interesting approach to enabling this.

“Mental Health” (Pixabay)

I don’t have the answers to it all, but it’s certainly something that I feel is important and want to explore further. To finish off this post, I leave you with Sandy Millin’s very useful post that brings together a lot of links relating to mental health and recommend that you have a look through. I also invite you to share any thoughts you have on the subject as I would be very interested to hear them. 🙂