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Thursday, 4 May 2017

Native or Non-native, is that really the question?

Lately, and by lately I mean the last couple of years, I've come across a number of articles about Native EFL Teacher and Non-Native EFL Teachers.

This thing about natives and non-natives has always bothered me. 20 years ago I felt hopeless. I knew I was good (so imagine now ;) ) and it felt absurd having to compete with someone based on nationality. In these last 21 (going on to 22) I've met dozens of teachers. Some have my deep respect for their work. Some I would have liked to help, if they had been open to the idea. All have taught me something. However, this was never based on their nationality. I have to be very honest here: some of the best teachers I know are not native speakers.

Some years ago I attended a training course in England. Just a few days before the course began we were sent a pre-course questionnaire. I was expecting a normal needs-analysis questionnaire. Just that, it wasn't. It had all I expected it to have: questions about the groups I taught, the sort of school, my areas of interest, etc. BUT, a section of the questionnaire was dedicated to me and it started with the question "Are you a native speaker of English?" Kabammmmmmmm And I though "Here we go again."
It was then followed by 2 other questions to be answered ONLY if the applicant was not a native speaker.

"What do you feel are your strengths regarding your own English language ability?"

Grammar                     Speaking                      Pronunciation
Vocab                          Writing                         Other (please specify:----)
Listening                     Reading

What part of I'm an EFL teacher did you not understand?!?!? I ticked all options. I also added another skill - sense of humour, that's something I'm really good at.

"What do you feel less confident with regarding your own English language ability?"

Grammar                     Speaking                      Pronunciation
Vocab                          Writing                         Other (please specify:----)
Listening                     Reading

This time I said "Spelling. I'm terrible with spelling in English, Portuguese, French, German and Spanish".

(Told you I have a sense of humour)

So you see, they were assuming, as many people do, that if you are a native you don't have problems with any of your skills. That only happens if you're a non-native... Oh boy, could I tell you some stories...

Unfortunately, the truth is this myth has been perpetuated and is ingrained in students' minds, too. They enroll at private language schools looking for native speakers and often they say they'd rather have a British teacher because that's the "real" English. Sometimes I think schools are to blame, they allow this fantasy to go on, however I do understand that they are a business and a business cannot survive without clients, in our case: students. 21 years ago I was not allowed to say I was not from an English speaking country. I would have to make up a past for myself. I had to lie. 

Nowadays, things have changed slightly, but not as much as we would have expected or as I had hoped. Or maybe now, in my head, I just think "Your loss. I'm an amazing teacher. I could teach you so much. I could make you improve. Your loss." But inside, it still makes me sad, because I know how good I am, I know that students keep coming back and asking me to keep on teaching them because they know how good I am. So why should they be so concerned about nationality instead of qualifications?

Is that all there is to teaching? Your passport? Or even your qualifications? What about creativity? How about empathy? How about adaptability? And the hundred things more a teacher needs to be good at?

I guess we're still years away from equality. 

Monday, 1 May 2017

APPI conference 2017

I'm so proud of myself.

Maybe I shouldn't say it like this, but I am. This was my second year at an APPI's conference. APPI is the Portuguese Association for English language teachers, so quite a lot of teachers attend the conference, coming from all sorts of places in the country and from abroad. Last year I presented a session called "Learning? Sorry, not interested." which focused on sharing some techniques that might help teachers with those students who are more challenging. This year, I decided to follow up on the topic and did a session on "Leave me alone! I said I don't want to learn!"

I had a full room. I know it wasn't one of the big ones, but still I had 50 people sitting and about 20 other who decided to stand or sit on the floor. There were a number who went away after showing their disappointment when the staff wouldn't let them bring chairs from other rooms. I couldn't believe these people were all there for me! And then I realized something extremely important: they were there because I'm openly talking about a topic that makes a lot of people feel ashamed. A topic that exists, that is ever more present in our schools. They were there because I was able to give them some practical ideas that work last year, and this year they came back for more! And they spread the word!

It felt amazing having so many people come to me at the end of the session and congratulating me and thanking me and asking to keep in touch with me. It really felt good knowing that I was helping them, and through them, I was helping students.

I guess this really was what I needed. I've been so tired this year, involved in such time consuming projects, that I've been feeling a bit under the weather.

Thank you APPI for the opportunity, thank you to all who attended, even if you had to stand or sit on the floor.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Wheel of Feelings

Initially developed as a therapy aid, the wheel of feelings can be used in ELT to expand your vocabulary more accurately. 

If you're into apps, here's one for Android that can help you learn more (and more sophisticated) vocabulary.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Passive Voice

Passive Voice is one of those grammatical structures you are bound to need if you're an advanced student. Be it for a writing task at CAE or CPE level (and yes, you'll need to use it even if your level is lower) or if you're working on an article or any form of academic writing.

But why do we really need the passive voice? Why is this twisted, confusing structure necessary in our daily lives? We use the passive voice in a number of situations, as for example a) when we want to make our writing more formal, b) when we want to put some distance between us and what we're writing c) when the "doer" isn't as important as the result of the action (or the action itself) or d) when we don't know who did it.

Regarding structure, in the passive voice we always have the verb "to be" which is conjugated in the tense we need and then we have the main verb conjugated in the past participle. For example:

Someone told me about the film. - active voice

I was told about the film (by someone) - passive voice.

Some other changes can occur in the sentence, as is shown above.

In the following videos you can find further information regarding the passive voice and further down, you'll find some links that can be used for practice. As usual, should you have any doubt, please leave a comment or get in touch with me.

Using Passive to avoid Responsibility

Passive Causative

Passive Voice

Passive Voice - Exs. for intermediate level
Passive Voice - Exs. for upper-intermediate level
Passive Voice - Exs. for different verb tenses
Passive Voice - Exs. for different levels
Passive Voice - Rephrasing

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Observed lessons

I've done a lot of reflection on teaching lately. Partly because of the Delta, partly because of my own experience and reflexive practice. I find that we don't spend enough time thinking about our lessons. Oh, please don't get me wrong. We spend plenty of time looking at the books, wondering where to go next, what's the language our students need the most. We think about (and  hopefully do a lot of ) planning. We assess materials constantly whenever we look at an exercise and say "This is good, this is nonsense, this will work, this isn't challenging enough" and so on and so forth. So, no, it's not thinking about what we''re going to do that I'd like to bring your attention to. It's the "and what now?" bit.

Teachers going through initial training are encouraged to think about their teaching practice (TP). They're asked what went well and what went wrong and they feel these are tricky questions. The feeling is they're being examined and are supposed to give the right answer. It is my opinion that it is at this stage that we (teachers) begin to hate observations. They're never productive, their aim is purely to assess quality as if watching a lesson in a blue moon will ever (yes, ever) be a significant sample to understand how a teacher works. I've been observed so often that I don't get nervous (not the sort "I'm about to throw up" kind of nervous, anyway) but looking back, there have been very few times when I've come out of a post-observation meeting feeling "Yes, that was really worth it." 

Let me go off my track here and let you know I was observed for 2.5 years in a row, every single lesson, every day. In fact, I took over from a teacher who quit because she did not want to be observed. It took me about 5 minutes to understand what the purpose of this system was, and honestly I couldn't understand how people did not want this! Sounds mad? Well, by now you've noticed I'm a different sort of teacher, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. We are talking about special groups, those groups of students who I find fascinating, but cannot be handled by any teacher (despite the amount of people who "think" they know anything about challenging students...). The school was trying to reduce the percentage of students who dropped out, as well as improve students' motivation and results. The problem here was that there were a lot of teachers settled in their ways (like in any place). You see, it's not enough to talk about "change" and "flexibility", besides talking the talk, they actually have to be willing to walk the walk. So this is how it worked. Each class had a social worker who would have lessons with the kids. She'd be in every class, with every teacher. (Teacher fear no 1 - I'm being compared to other teachers) She's sit with students, listen to the same explanations, be subject to the same methodologies, solve the same exercises, she'd even sit for the same tests. (cool, right?) And after each lesson the teacher (if they'd be willing) would get feedback "You know, it wasn't really clear when you said this or that" or "X and Y are finally starting to keep up" or "have you got some extra exercises I can use to work with X" And it taught me a lot. It taught me a lot, it really did. It was a true opportunity to improve, to grow as a teacher. You see, we were all there for a common goal: we wanted kids to do well, to learn, to overcome their difficulties, to finish high school. You cannot do this if your Ego is so large it fills up a room and there's no space for your students. You cannot do this if you feel the person observing your lesson is there mainly to criticise you, to show you where you're not good at.

I still find observations are useful, I think they are essential. Not to assess teachers, though. I think there are other ways to do it, or that if carried out for that purpose, they should have less impact on teachers' assessment than that that it is given. I believe the mentality around observations needs to change and it is crucial that those observing realise that this change must come from them, that you don't have to (nor should you) observe "everything" that goes on in a classroom. That praise and encouragement are much more important than "finding something" to criticise. Only then will teacher begin to look at observations as something productive instead of a threat, only then will they be able to see them as a way to develop and so, open their classrooms and their hearts to other forms of development.

In the meantime let's remember that just because it works for you, it doesn't have to work for someone else. Just because you've got a lot of experience doesn't mean a new teacher can't teach you some new tricks. Just because a lesson doesn't go as well as you had imagined, that doesn't mean you're not as good a teacher.

There are no perfect lessons, simply because there are no perfect teachers, or perfect students, or perfect classrooms, or perfect books, or perfect people, or ... you get what I mean, don't you? 

So stop trying to be perfect when you are observed, just try to be better every day and eventually you'll get there.