Modern challenges and how to deal with them.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

I teach EL teachers, conducting whole courses, workshops, seminars, taking part in various conferences. As the saying goes, children reflect the adults in their life; in the same way adults reflect the children they teach. There is a great difference in evaluating educators who attend a refresher course and students.

* An adult who speaks perfect English is not necessarily a capable EL teacher. Our job includes not only the knowledge of the subject per se, but also the ability to manage groups of pupils of various ages, to solve discipline problems, to motivate children and to deal with their parents or guardians. It is a well-known fact that while some young specialists learn how to cope with behavioral issues others leave after a few months, or yell themselves hoarse to no effect. Thus at any course or workshop we need to deal not only with the subject taught but also with a lot of other topics which most probably were not in the university’s curriculum.

* Any learner may present a challenge. A very talented one has to be occupied all the time so that they do not get bored; we need to bring in extra tasks and invent special activities for them, involve them in the whole process more. While a person with the lower level would plod along with one task, a more advanced one would fly ahead and ask for more or surreptitiously turn to some other occupation. In that, adults do not differ much from children. Teachers remain quite noisy after the bell has gone, and tend to extract a magazine to leaf through or their cell phone to check and send messages whenever they feel that a task or a topic is too easy for them. Not surprisingly they would use the word “boring” about as often as the pupils.

* I would simply ask my listeners what they would like to change, what topics they wished to introduce. Then I would explain that while some themes were a must due to the educational authority’s requirements for the course, others were flexible and could be modified or eliminated, and others could be done instead. Teaching a multi-national multi-cultural class for instance is the issue at hand today. I always follow the same simple principle: see what you have got and deal with it. It is rather useless to try and teach all the traditional curriculum topics to newcomers who do not have much or any idea of what the whole educational process is. For us, pupils remain children who must stay at school until they are 17-18. In another culture they are considered to be adults at 14-15. Consequently the main challenge is not the subject we teach but the discipline and motivation. “Why exactly do we need this stupid grammar?” may be the main question we hear, not for instance “How do we turn Passive into Active?”

* Amazing but true: incompetents do not always know they are. Every year I meet adults, professionals who have been teaching for decades, yet they cannot speak English and teach the subject in their native language; or they speak fluently without a single English sound in their speech and usually without any idea of doing so. It takes a lot of tact to even broach this topic, and none of the devices and techniques may work. Those who are confident in their level and abilities present the greatest challenge. It is usually possible to encourage and help those who are aware of their drawbacks, who are shy or who never got a chance to better their level. It is extremely difficult to reach any understanding with those who are very sure of themselves without any real grounds for such confidence.

* What always works? I use a lot of visual, audio and video aids in my courses and workshops. A few pictures explain a lot to professionals without long lectures and discussions. Once we announce the topic of the day, the audience knows what to expect. They eagerly perform the familiar tasks like “Describe a picture” or “Decide which topic is better illustrated by which photos”. Songs work really well. Let’s confess: practically all of us had had a dream of becoming a rock-pop-hip-hop singer as teenagers, even if it was just a daydream. When I suggest that we listen to a popular song and then sing along, the adults are always enthusiastic. Why do songs work so well? We need to sing in tune, and to follow the rhythm; this is a good phonetic exercise. Video clips combine the images with sounds and introduce variety into any activity.

* Being attentive to one’s students’ needs is very important. On the one hand we have the rigid school curriculum which dictates that we teach everybody a certain volume of knowledge and produce the expected results by the end of the academic year. On the other hand we may come into a class and find ourselves faced with the new challenges. A quarter century of teaching (doesn’t it sound better than the mere 25 years?) shows me that there is no such thing as an average pupil or an average teacher. One easy way of dealing with reality is rely on the requirements regardless of the reality, persevere with the established course of action, and most probably achieve zero results academically. Yet bureaucratically everything may be in order: the lessons conducted as per schedule, the material given to one and all, the tests performed and evaluated. Another way comes with time and experience. We always get mixed ability classes. This is a reality we have to deal with annually. So we may work out our own strategies, enlist the help of various levels of educational administration beginning with the school, start from scratch if needed and achieve very good results by the end of the year. It always pays to be aware of your audience, to see them as real human beings.

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