Two months ago, I started an informal mentorship program with one of the batchmates I got to know on the GMILE course with Scott Thornbury in 2021. I have written about my experience of the course over here. It was a unique course for me because never before had I been part of a formal book club facilitated by one of the top names in the ELT. Ironically, the popularity of the course (30 participants) dissuaded me to join the following years. However, as fate would have it, a handful of us from the course decided to continue meeting regularly to finish the remaining chapters of the book: “Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching”. It’s been almost two years now, and we are more than we started and have ventured beyond Earl Stevick’s work.
Coming back to my mutually beneficial mentorship project with this batchmate, a former head of a language centre and now almost about to retire as an ELT instructor with an M.A. at a German university More importantly, for me, a well-read gentleman glowing with compassion and an expert in intercultural communication. I say ‘mutually beneficial’ because, I happen to be his first mentee on his journey of pursuing mentoring professionally other young and budding teachers like me (I meant the budding part😂) who would greatly benefit from his vast experience and benevolence. I feel extremely fortunate to be his first ‘unofficial’ mentee. 😇 To consolidate my learning from this collaboration, I have decided to write regular blogposts as part of my reflection and homework. 😅
In our latest meet, I shared my concerns about lesson planning. Because I don’t use any course books or a set-course structure (a fixed set of lessons), I tend to plan lessons on a daily basis, which means I don’t plan far ahead in advance; not even a week ahead. This puts pressure on preparing lessons daily. At this point in time, with fewer learners, I might be able to manage this but it will become a cause for concern when the numbers go up. To be honest, I sometimes feel I should have materials and a plan at least for a week ahead. However, I also feel it might constraint me in managing the emergent language or other language concerns that come up during a lesson.
From our discussion, it was clear I was doing the right thing by being a ‘reactive’1 teacher and letting learners guide the lessons, but the practice of creating daily lesson plans isn’t sustainable in the long run. I realised my biggest folly — although my learners were guiding the lessons, I was doing the heavy-lifting of determining ‘what to learn when and why’ of the lessons. Thanks to my mentor’s self-reflection questions and suggestions, we were able to come up with three specific steps that have allowed me to share some of the responsibilities of lesson planning with the learners.
1. Weekly S.M.A.R.T2 goals (Specific / Measurable / Achievable / Relevant / Time-bound)
Our courses usually begin with an activity asking learners to write their SMART goals for the course. Then, at the end of the course, they would assign a percentage of achievement against each of those goals. However, it has dawned on me that I don’t have to wait until the end. We could do this at the end of each week or fortnight. Hence, now, I encourage learners to select what they would like to be able to do first from their list of goals. Of course, it requires some scaffolding before they can wisely as well as confidently choose the topics and more importantly mind the ‘M’ & ’A’ of SMART.
Fortunately, for me, my first couple of experiments with weekly goals have turned out to be successful, as two of the learners had urgent needs. One of them wanted to be able to present her campaign results to the global team without a script, which she hadn’t done before. And the other one had to prepare a response to ‘Where do you see yourself in five years time?’ for her interview last week. This might sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but this learner has just returned from her vacation in Pattaya, celebrating the new job, which, coincidentally, she starts today. Now, that’s a goal! 🥳
2. Offer choices prudently
Thai and Indian public education systems are quite similar in their “jug and mug” style of teaching. Learners don’t have much of a say in their learning journey, which makes the notion of choosing what, how and how much to learn quite daunting for my learners. I had a terrible experience when I threw one of the learners in at the deep end of autonomy by asking (and I quote), “What would you like to cover in our Zoom session tomorrow?”. After a few days, during the reflection stage of a lesson, she hesitantly asked me “Is everything okay?”😟. Apparently, she thought that something had gone wrong, and I was punishing her by asking her to choose what she wanted to learn. That’s what I would call an “own goal”. 😂
Now, I’m much more prudent and start off by offering a few choices on what kind of activities they would like to do to reach their goal(s). My choices are influenced by their learning preferences, identified goal(s), areas of interest or opportunities, and mood. Here is a message I sent to a learner a couple of days ago.
How would you like to spend our time on the call this evening?
1. Read the next 10 pages of Julie Zhou’s book and discuss
2. Practise making small talk
3. Practise delivering a presentation you have delivered before
4. Practise speaking about the Songkran holidays (practicing past tenses)
5. Listen to a podcast and discuss
6. Do a combination of above
3. Ask and listen
Teachers are trained to ask questions, though I don’t think my pre-service course explored the concept of listening compassionately and non-judgmentally to our learners. It feels like I was trained to listen for giving feedback. This reminds me of the anecdote3 about a teacher who starts chatting with learners and asks,
T: …did you have a good weekend? (one of the) Ls: I got married. T: (smiling) You got married! You certainly had a good weekend then. (laughter and buzz of conversation) T: Now turn to page 56…
Over the past couple of years, particularly after the onset of COVID, I have trained myself to listen to my learners as I would to any other adult human being I am having a genuine conversation with. The discussion I had with my mentor reminded me of the importance of “listening for understanding”4 Here is a list of seven questions I find myself often asking because learners’ responses to these have eased some of the burden of making decisions on their behalf:
- How was your day today? (pre-lesson small talk)
- How do you feel? (right after a production activity / post detailed feedback)
- Why do you think this error is difficult to remove? (during delayed error correction stage)
- What did you find most useful? (reflection stage)
- What was the most enjoyable part of the lesson? (reflection stage)
- What did you find least engaging today? (reflection stage)
- What is your biggest takeaway? (reflection stage)
Without fail, I write down exactly what, and sometimes how, they respond to the above questions in my post-lesson reflection log. The more qualitative data I am able to gather, the less time I spend thinking and planning ‘our’ lessons.
How do you reduce your lesson planning time? Do you have any suggestions for me? 💭
(1) (3) Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. (2009) ‘Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching’, Delta Publishing House, 11
(2) Doran, G. T. (1981) ‘There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives’. Management Review. 70 (11): 35–36.
(4) Stevick, E. (1998) ‘Working with Teaching Methods: What’s at Stake?’, A Teacher Resource Book, Heinle & Heinle, (5)