The job of an English language teacher in a state secondary school is an exciting opportunity to learn while teaching, and to enjoy listening to the insights of young people. When I started teaching I knew that teaching would not make me rich, but doing the job I loved was enough to make me feel really fulfilled. I had big ideals and a lot of ideas on my mind.
As a conference geek I enjoyed listening to some renowned presenters and I was absorbing the tips and ideas that could enhance my teaching. I loved creating my own materials by using some news or magazine articles, video clips, or some other resources on the Internet.
After a few years of exploring some teaching approaches which might be more effective for my teenage students, I was eager to share my experience, ideas and reflections with my colleagues. I also thought that simply watching how other teachers do their jobs in the classroom would be very useful for all of us.
I encouraged my colleagues to be more adventurous and try to use some new learner-centred approaches, but there was a series of classic “that would not work with our students”, responses. My colleagues were not so motivated and they were willing only to slot into existing programmes and methods, they were resistant to any kind of change.
As I was keen on experimenting with new methods I regularly asked my students for feedback (firstly anonymous and later on non-anonymous). My weaker students objected to my insisting on speaking mostly English in classes. In my view, L1 should be used only when it is really necessary: when explaining the grammar points comparing the English grammar with the students’ mother tongue grammar, or doing some translation exercises, when giving instructions to beginners, explaining some difficult words or directions in order to manage the time more efficiently. However, my weaker students found the traditional teacher-centred approach (where teachers massively overuse L1 in their classes) easier and more understandable.
On the other hand, my intermediate level students (who were exposed to a lot of English outside of the classroom) were really glad to have an opportunity to speak a lot of English in the classes and thus improve their grammar and pronunciation. I also loved to help them find the useful sites on the Internet in order to practise the language on their own. These self-reliant students usually succeeded in acquiring the more advanced levels and they were successful at the University entrance exams or pre-employment English tests.
The issue of using L1 in the classroom has always seemed as a really complicated one to me. I’ve been pondering the issue for years and trying to create some interesting tasks in order to make my weaker students more interested and engaged.
While struggling to introduce a new approach to teaching where students discuss various topics they are interested in and that are relevant to their learning, with a focus on interaction and learners’ autonomy, I did not have any support at my school. The most difficult of all was that nobody really cared about my ideas, my innovations, my striving to improve the students’ learning.
There were some other things that seemed paradoxical to me and very difficult to cope with:
- You know what is best for your students and you are doing a very good job (encourage your students to speak English in class, challenge them with some interesting activities and projects, give them a continuous formative assessment and feedback…), but you cannot be as good as those teachers who use short cuts and some more efficient ways (who stick strictly to coursebooks and prepare their students for tests as this seems an easier way to get good results and get a higher score in the customers’ satisfaction survey).
- You are interested in improving your teaching and you spend a lot of time and money on books and your continuing professional development (but you are not a good teacher as you refuse to do some assignments like translating and interpreting for the school without being paid for it).
- You realize living your dream career is more about the bureaucracy (tons of formal lesson plans and other useless administrative work) and less about doing what you love; and, everything matters much more than what goes on in class.
I think that some teachers who advocate a new approach to teaching in their schools may relate to the story I described in the post. I also feel that you can imagine the difficulties teachers face in a post-communist country in South-East Europe in the period of transition. In my country with a weak economy and an outdated educational system, teachers are overloaded with work and constantly faced with the problem of being made redundant.
Despite the very exploitative educational system, there are some English language teachers who love their job so much that they find it impossible to work against their beliefs and opinions what is really good and professional. They also strongly feel that teachers must encourage one another to advocate better professional development, and to press for improved conditions and for change.