2016 was quite a year. It started in the tropical climes of Gabon at the helm of a small language school operation and assisting EAL students in an international school.

It ended in the desert heat of Bahrain in charge of ICT at one of the largest teaching centres in the region. Any new job brings new challenges and the need to adapt and rethink our approach to a different context. This post outlines the major challenges my new role brought about:

Teaching Beginner YLs

I have been teaching young learners for the majority of my career. However, they have always been kids with some background in learning English. I have worked in private schools where my learners had been studying English since pre-school and in Gabon, I worked with EAL students who were generally high level (B1/B2+) and in need of improved academic skills for their other subjects delivered in English.

In Bahrain, I have found myself teaching beginner level kids for the first time. While not complete beginners, these are primary and secondary level learners who have perhaps only had one or two hours a week of language lessons at school, a far cry from the 10+ hours a week in my previous schools. Add in the fact that their L1 is Arabic and therefore they are not always familiar with the Latin alphabet (the first time I have ever taught students like this) and there was a considerable challenge to face.

That was clearly obvious in my first lesson with a class of secondary students labelled as ‘A0-A1’. I wanted them to ask me some basic questions but they struggled to produce any, even orally. It was back to the drawing board with me instead focusing on basic vocabulary, writing and forming letters and short words, and lots of work on pronunciation. This helped them not only develop their basic comprehension and production skills but also build confidence – a key factor for the older ones who had been deemed to be ‘failing’ at school for too long.

With primary aged learners, there was the additional challenge of needing to go over the basics in detail while also providing enough variety and changes of pace in the lesson to keep their attention. It was a struggle in the beginning with lessons often teetering on the point of chaos, a feeling I hadn’t experienced since my first days of teaching YLs. Routines and repetition were important in helping me adapt. Once I had figured out what the students responded well to, such as starting the lesson with a vocabulary game and closing one with story-time, lessons started to go much more smoothly. There was also value in repeating and recycling activities from lesson to lesson and week to week. Older learners might find this boring but if my primary beginners have enjoyed an activity, they relish the chance to do it again, which also aids reinforcement.

ICT and Interactive WhiteBoards

I have also enjoyed using technology to support, enhance and personalise learning. In my previous jobs, I have made use of digital games in class, encouraged students to make their own videos, and run class blogging projects. As a result, I have been seen as a ‘go-to guy’ when it comes to integrating ICT into lessons. However, this is the first time I have been officially responsible for ICT – training teachers, selecting key areas for future investment and development, and providing on-going pedagogical support.

I soon realised the reality of the role was not always going to be about helping teachers integrate ICT into their lessons to support learning though. On my first day on the job, a teacher approached me saying “When you get a minute, can you look at the IWB in Room 10? It’s got a green tint!” That was the start of a cycle of me being asked to troubleshoot random issues, often minutes before lessons started (often minutes before my lessons started!)

The solutions were usually quite simple – no sound? Check the desktop audio and the volume control on the side of the board. No network? Check the Ethernet cable hasn’t been pulled loose by the cleaners moving the computer to clean behind it. Pen not working? Make sure the board is switched on!

While it was useful to learn about the hardware and how it all connected, it was frustrating to see so much of my time devoted to fixing simple problems (I was even asked one more than one occasion to unjam the photocopier!) I did two things to address this: first of all, I ran a session at one of our training days to remind everyone of the correct procedures for logging ICT issues (emphasising the best practice of checking everything is working more than 5 minutes before the start of class) with a practical element of recreating many of the issues I had been asked to fix and getting teachers to have a go at sorting them out themselves; secondly, I created some ‘how to’ documents related to those common problems and circulated them by email. That means I am now able to guide teachers to the issues rather than drop whatever I am doing to fix it.

Moving into Management

Although I had been in charge of a language school in my previous post, it was a small scale operation with only three teachers including me. That made managing my team straightforward. My new job as different as I not only had responsibility for all things ICT but I also became line manager for three teachers and had other duties such as being duty manager for a couple of shifts a week.

This was all quite daunting at first with many procedures and regulations to get to grips with – what to do when teachers called in sick, how to deal with complaints from students, how and when to observe my team, how to conduct a performance review, what to write in the report, and many other things. Luckily, I work in an environment with plenty of support in place. I have my own line manager, who is always available to help when something new pops up. There are also in-house self-study programmes for observations and training was provided about performance review.

Recognising that educational management is not always a step teachers are ready for, my centre also supports and encourages people to undergo external training and I was signed up to a Certificate in Academic Management course. This allowed me to look at the big picture of educational management with specific focus on performance management, observations and running teacher training programmes. Crucially, I was able to apply what I was learning immediately and reflect on the experience for my assignments.

2016 was certainly a year of changes and new challenges. As with all challenges we face as language teachers, a combination of past experience, adapting to the current context, and training and development helped me turn difficulties into opportunities for development. I can now look forward to the new changes and challenges 2017 will bring.

Biodata

David Dodgson, originally from the UK, works for the British Council in Bahrain as an ICT coordinator. He has also worked in Turkey and Gabon, gaining experience with young learners, adults, exam preparation and EAL classes. He runs two blogs, davedodgson.com, which is about his teaching and learning experiences, and eltsandbox, which focuses on using digital games as authentic materials for language learning.

Comments

Hi Dave,

What an awesome experience you are facing. I am Carmen and I live in Mexico City. I have been an English teacher for 20 years. Teaching is my passion. I am convinced that as you mentioned not only is teaching English challenging but it also provides the opportunities for new experiences just like the one you are having. This is why I take course every time it is possible because I do believe teaching development is important.
I hope you open your language school soon.

Wish you the best.

Carmen

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