confidently going beyond the textbook

As a teacher there infinite suggestions, requests, demands, proposals, responsibilities (etc) placed upon you. It’s an immense job to do, hence why it is consistently enthralling, inspiring and motivating.  It’s also why new teachers can find it immensely challenging and intimidating.

This intimidation leads new teachers to see their textbooks as crutches. The textbook leads the teacher who leads the students. The textbook manages student learning. The teacher decides how fast to move through that learning.

I find this depressingly formulaic and dull.

I follow an axiom I learned from somewhere – A great teacher is a good thief (ie, a good teacher sees what works with others and steals the ideas for use in their own classroom). I am always on the look out and thinking of ways to twist or change exercise to make them more engaging for my students.

Breaking the norm in a Korean classroom has not always been easy, but after three years I can assuredly say that it is doable.

One way I seek out new ideas to thieve is through reflective practice meetings. They are a treasure trove of ideas and experiences from teachers of all sorts of backgrounds and classroom contexts.

For our most recent RP meeting I planned on recycling one of the very first topics I did as an RP facilitator – Our teaching toolbox. (You can read about this meeting through this previous blog post)

Meeting with 5 fellow teachers, we began talking about how we wanted to step away from what we have always done in class. Stuck in a rut is a phrase I heard with nods of agreement all around. “Fantastic!” I thought, this fits so nicely with my toolbox topic idea. Huzzah!!!

However, that excitement quickly turned to confusion and a tinge of frustration. As much as I prodded my participants, none of them came up with much from their toolbox- aside from computer, markers, textbook/workbook. I gave examples of some tools in my toolbox and how I used them. They were not impressed. One participant actively told me the myriad of ways my ideas can not work in a Korean classroom (forgetting the fact that I have only ever taught in a Korean context). I asked them if they could think of anything they could use to do what they do in class a little differently. Bupkis.

At our break time I sat and thought awhile. I’m still not sure what exactly was the issue. Perhaps I presented the idea poorly. Perhaps their minds needed more time to adapt away from their preconceived “Korean classroom context”.

Afterwards I came home slightly dejected. Never had I left a RP meeting feeling…unfulfilled.

In the past few weeks I have continued thinking about this meeting and how I could have more successfully steered our discussion. I think I might bring up the following.

Teaching in Korea is difficult. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. However, the context of a Korean classroom does NOT have to define YOUR classroom. There IS a way to integrate autonomy and fun into your students learning while still achieving the objectives set out in the curriculum/course book. In order to do so we need to remember a few things.

1. Failure is OK. It is OK for the students. It is OK for the teacher. Nothing worth much of anything is ever done correctly the first time. So, let’s stop worrying about what our students/peers/administrators think of us every minute in the classroom. Make mistakes.  It opens a space for your students to do the same.

2. Once the space for safe experimentation is established students will find what used to be the chore of production (ie speaking and writing) to be a fun, flexible and freeing exercise. To see students honestly expressing themselves in a different language,  after years of restriction and critiques of each and every flaw produced, is a joy. It becomes a joy for you as the teacher, but more importantly students find the joy in learning.

3. When students find joy in what they do they often desire to keep doing it, even without the leadership of the teacher. This is called autonomy. It is a good marvelous thing!

4. No textbook topic can match the vividness of memories. No textbook exercise can hold the same meaning as a personal experience. Use the students, and your own, lives to your advantage. They are a wealth of usable knowledge, and they’re keen to share it (whether or not they will ever admit that fact to you!). Additionally, when you do this you help students connect what they are learning to why and how it is useful to them in their lives. They start to learn for themselves rather than for the next test.

5. Textbooks aren’t all bad. I’m not saying that we should all be rebels and throw our textbooks out the window. I don’t believe all teachers need to “stick it to the man” and that such. Textbooks ARE a tool. They are ONE tool. Not every project needs a hammer. Not every task can be completed with a screwdriver. As a teacher, it is your job to know which tool is needed and when to use it. A wide array of quality tools is the best way for you to enter the classroom confidently. If you’re confident with the tools at your disposal, you’ll find yourself ever less reliant on that hammer (ie- textbook) and more willing to utilize the best tool for each circumstance that arises.

These are my humble suggestions to my fellow peers in the Korean ELT world (and beyond). I have found them to be quite helpful over the first three years of my career. I hope they prove useful for you as well.

**Side note- apologies for yet another listy type blog post. I know there are myriads doing the rounds on blogs these days.

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