Unfortunately, in the context where I work there is no mentoring or coaching system. In addition, there is little peer observation and therefore I have often found myself relying on the feedback given by the learners in their end of semester evaluations. Even these are limited in terms of actual useful feedback. The questionnaires are standardised and many of the questions are not applicable to the classes I teach. Of course, not having a mentoring or coaching system, and rarely being observed, has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, I am free to design my own curriculum and teach in a way that I feel most benefits my learners. However, some of the best advice I have had in the past has been during or after a class observation. It is all too easy to fall into a routine and not push yourself to learn and develop your teaching skills. Over the last few years, I have almost been solely reliant on talking to other teachers either at work or at conferences.
Last year, however, a colleague and I decided to try something different. We were both scheduled to teach the same conversation course to two different classes. The courses ran simultaneously and the students in each class were around the same level. We therefore decided to combine our classes. We considered team teaching each lesson, but after some discussion we opted for an alternative. We decided we would take turns each week teaching or leading the class whilst the other teacher joined in the conversations and activities. They would effectively take a role similar to that of a student.
Initially, we worked together to create the syllabus and develop the materials. We opted for language and culture as the theme and decided who would plan, prepare, and teach each lesson. Neither of us was sure how it would go, but we thought it might be interesting for the students to have a teacher on the ground to talk to for the full 90 minutes. We both went away and produced the lessons we had agreed on and then shared our materials with each other. This was actually a really useful exercise as neither of us had seen the other teach prior to this and it was interesting to see firsthand the different ways we went about planning, preparing and setting up a class. We knew the class would be larger than usual and we agreed that if things didn’t go smoothly the teacher who was playing the role of a student could jump in and help out.
For the first few weeks the students were a little quiet and it took a while for them to get into the routine of the class. I’m sure some of them found it a little unnerving having such a big class and having a teacher sit with them and participate in the activities for the full class. My colleague and I always try to be approachable and friendly, and after a few weeks the class really started to liven up. Once the students got used to the concept of a teacher as a student, the atmosphere of the class became better and better. As the students relaxed, they started to talk more openly and freely. It’s not common in my context for learners to voluntarily ask questions, but this was something that started to happen on a regular basis. The students genuinely seemed to enjoy the lessons. This was also reflected in the end of semester evaluations which were higher than average.
This style of class not only had a positive influence on the learners though. For 15 weeks my colleague and I had the opportunity to observe and learn from each other. Right from the planning stage through to teaching and testing we both picked up new ideas or different ways of approaching activities. In addition, these observations felt relaxed and friendly. There was no pressure because we both had the common aim of making the class the best it could be for the learners. There was no other agenda. During class we could also draw on each other’s ideas or get a second opinion in real time. I have been observed in the past and it has felt a little one sided with the roles of observer and teacher very clearly defined. However, this was different. I am pretty sure my teaching has improved from this experience and I feel I have learned a lot. Of course, I am fortunate enough to have colleague who was willing to do this, and to have a schedule suitable to make it work. I am sure this may not be possible in all contexts, but if it is possible for you, my advice would be to try it! It was great professional development and fun at the same time!
If you are interested, you can read more about my colleague’s classroom experiences at www.languageteachersupport.com, or find free reading lessons and teaching advice from my website http://dreamreader.net/.