“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
George Bernard Shaw
This post is about the challenges of introducing and using CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) method in a public secondary school in Belgrade where I have been teaching the English language for about seventeen years. I hope it can be helpful to some teachers in Serbia, or some other teachers around the world who teach bravely from their heart and who are alone in their struggle for positive changes.
I, also, want to encourage teachers in Serbia (and worldwide) to start using social media for professional development because they will enjoy the company of other teachers who are passionate about teaching, and who have the same concerns and uncertainties about teaching as they do. And, the possibility of sharing knowledge, thoughts and ideas through your PLN is the most fascinating of all.
My experience of introducing CLT
I can remember very clearly how enthusiastic I was about starting using CLT in my classes some thirteen years ago, because it was completely different from the obsolete, ineffective grammar-translation method used by many teachers in Serbian primary and secondary public schools for ages.
Since 2000, I have attended a lot of really good and interesting seminars in Serbia (mostly organized by the English Book and ELTA) with many excellent lecturers: Scott Thornbury, Ken Wilson, Tim Bowen, Michael Swan, Mario Rinvolucri, Marisa Constantinides, Shaun Wilden, just to mention a few. These seminars are aimed at providing high quality training in communicative language teaching for the English language teachers in Serbia.
However, I was really disappointed to hear during and after the seminars a lot of my colleagues talking that all we practised there could not be used with our pupils. The common view was that our pupils are different and accustomed to strict and traditional ways of teaching. During the last decade in Serbia most public schools have introduced English coursebooks (OUP or CUP) which were designed with the emphasis on learning communicative functions of the language; they were obviously supposed to be used by teachers applying communicative approach. Unfortunately, many teachers in Serbia, even nowadays use, for example, New Headway – OUP, and only do grammar and vocabulary exercises without students’ interaction. In their opinion, everyday English dialogues, pair/group work, role plays, etc. are impossible to be done with our primary and secondary school pupils.
When I started using CLT in my school, I was completely alone in my attempt to make changes and teach the way that matters. I would like here to mention some of the challenges I have faced during this period of struggling to introduce CLT.
- In the traditional schools with teacher-centred approach students are accustomed to listening to their teachers talking most of the time. They learn grammar rules by heart, and do a lot of grammar exercises (usually practising the sentences out of context). The first problem I faced when I started introducing CLT was to organise pair/group work because my pupils were not used to it in primary schools. I tried to make a fun, relaxing atmosphere for speaking, so my classes were noisier than the classes of my colleagues who used teacher-centred approach.
- Then, when your classes are mostly in English, with a lot of speaking practice, and when you teach students skills without dictating grammar rules, but only giving them short grammar explanations with a lot of practice, and when they practise grammar listening to songs, watching video clips, reading newspaper articles, doing crossword puzzles, games, etc. they do not even notice that they learn English. This is the best way of learning, in my opinion, when the students enjoy learning in a pleasant atmosphere created by the teacher. However, it has happened so many times that some of my students have asked me when we are going to start doing something seriously (meaning: when I will start teaching grammar the way the other teachers do, because they were used to it before me).
- The next, and the hardest of all for me, has been a survey of the satisfaction of our pupils (introduced by the management in our school about seven years ago). The questions in the official survey have not been the type of the questions I have usually asked my pupils about my teaching when asking for feedback. It has happened that among all the English teachers in school I have had the worst result so far because of the first question: are the lessons clear and understandable? This could have happened because my classes have always been mostly in English (except for the grammar explanations and translations of some words my pupils do not know). My method of teaching has been more challenging and my demands higher since I value speaking the most of all. The results of the survey have been pinned up on the board in the staff room every year, usually after the winter break, and it has always been very painful for me.
As I started an innovative method of teaching in my school, I needed support and help, particularly in regard to improving my management skills. Instead of support and understanding, I was told by my head teacher (director) that the English methods I learnt at the seminars were obviously not accepted by our pupils; I should not have imposed on my pupils something they did not like and I should speak more Serbian in classes.
My experience of using CLT
In spite of all the difficulties, of course that I have not given up the method of teaching I find more useful for our students (perhaps because I have always been more stubborn than the other teachers of English in my school). I continued with my professional development and always had a wonderful time with some enthusiastic teachers (mostly from private language schools in Serbia). With time I have improved a lot my teaching methodology and behaviour management skills, and developed my own teaching method with these basic tenets:
- be familiar with the latest knowledge, be flexible and open to new ideas
- reflect on your teaching, and get regular feedback from your students
- create an atmosphere conducive for learning, and a classroom environment characterized by mutual trust and respect
- provide challenging and relevant work to do, and always have high demands
- help your students to discover by themselves and create something new
- be friendly but strict on discipline, and be consistent
- devote a lot of time to lesson planning (especially to questions you are going to ask the pupils)
- do not stick to the plan and coursebook so strictly, the class can be very interesting and useful to your students even if they discuss some other topics you have not planned before the class.
When I was observed in June this year by an assistant head teacher and a school psychologist, for the first time in the last 13 years (!?), I was told that my class was really successful, interesting and dynamic. My students were very active, engaged in speaking in pairs and small groups, and they spoke English fluently. I told my students at the end of the class that they could find the lesson and some additional material on my blog. I was really happy because this was the result of my continuous professional development and hard work during the last thirteen years.
In conclusion, I would like to say that only slight, mostly formal changes have been made in Serbian elementary and secondary public/state schools so far, although the reform of Serbian educational system started about thirteen years ago. Education is, of course, greatly influenced by the society around it, and Serbian society has always been very turbulent, politically unstable, and economically and socially undeveloped.
Why do many teachers in Serbia (or some other parts of the world) tend to give up innovative methods of teaching very easily and just say “it doesn’t work” or “it won’t work”?
In my opinion, teachers use methods according to their beliefs, knowledge and skill. Thus, maybe, one of the reasons is their belief that some innovative methods are not applicable to our students. However, there is also the fact that very few teachers in Serbia are brave enough and willing to make real deep changes because this is very difficult and painful. Most teachers, obviously, prefer easy, quick and fairly efficient ways; however, profound changes in our educational system demand a lot of effort and sacrifices, and a lot of enthusiasm and passion.