by Nathan Beyerlein
The bad weather is finally letting up (unless you’re based someplace rather chilly…) and it’s time to open up those windows and let some fresh air in. Time to let the wind dry up those moldy patches, time to have an honest appraisal about what clothes you need to get rid of for good, time to sweep behind the fridge and yes—it is time rejuvenate and breathe fresh life into your classes. It is time for some spring cleaning.
Routines are Good, Ruts are Bad
Even in the case of our favorite classes, variety is necessary to keep the students activated and the teacher interested. One of the simplest ways of doing this, which is often neglected by teachers, is simply asking students what they are interested in. For adults, teens and higher level primary, this can take the form of a survey, which can be integrated into the lesson and, if you’re clever enough, into the language point.
This survey should include questions about the students’ motivations for learning English, what classroom activities they like/don’t like, what they think their weaknesses are and what topics they’re interested in. Especially in the case of teens, the answers to what movies and music they like changes every few months. You might find yourself prepping a Katy Perry music gap fill activity only to find your students moaning, “Augh, she’s so old.” You can download a sample survey at the end of this post.
For very young learners a survey might not be applicable, but it doesn’t mean you can’t gauge their interests. Experiment with some new activities that you find on the web and try to go out of your comfort zone; this will keep you from getting bored and “mailing in” your lessons. Keeping yourself interested is perhaps the most important thing to remember in terms of keeping it fresh.
After these new activities, there are two essential things that you need to remember to do. The first is to get feedback from the students, this can be as simple as asking “did you like that game?” or involve a fun rating system “How many stars?” The other essential thing when trying out something new is a reflection. Likely, the activity will not go perfectly the first time around. After the class, think about why and if you can restructure it to work for you.
Don’t Pigeonhole a Class or an Individual: Start Fresh
One of the most valuable pieces of advice that I have received in my teaching career is to start fresh with a class every day. If the last lesson crashed and burned or ended with the class getting out of control, don’t let it affect your overall attitude towards the class. Especially with young learners, they don’t necessarily have the memory span to hold a grudge. Come in with a smile and a new strategy; they’ve probably long forgotten what was for you, a traumatic experience.
Occasionally, we end up with a class that, for whatever reason, just isn’t going well. Maybe it’s a class of all boys whose energy is hard to manage. Perhaps they are extremely mixed level. Perchance they just don’t seem to care. In our busy schedules, is it all too easy to let that difficult class slip by the wayside, but it is our job as teachers to give them another chance.
The first step is to get rid of our own rooted attitude towards the class. Reevaluate thingsÂ and try to decide what exactly isn’t working and why. Once you’ve spotted the problem, try to come up with a strategy for how to fix it. Same as my advice in the previous section, when trying new ideas, don’t expect it to work right away: Reflect, restructure and try again.
Quite often it isn’t new activities that are needed to fix these classes, but a new classroom dynamic. Some common problems that become stagnant in the classroom are seating arrangements, routines that don’t work, misidentification of students needs, lack of individual feedback (they don’t see their progress) and the teacher’s general attitude towards the class. Try changing these around and see if it freshens things up.
Keep an Eye on the Individual, not Just the Group
In your quest to better your classes, don’t forget to focus on individual students. What tends to happen when taking on a new class is that we quickly get to know the strong students and the weak students, and they become our gauge for how the class is going. Take this time of rejuvenation to consider the individuals in the middle. Look for students that may not normally receive as much attention, and spend a little extra time focusing on their progress and getting to know their strengths and weaknesses.
For all of the cases above, one of the best spring cleaning activities that a teacher can engage in is peer observations. Ask your fellow teachers, or employer, if this can be arranged. You’ll get new activity ideas, you’ll see a different style and, who knows, maybe they’ve struggled with some of the same issues that you’ve been having with an individual student or class and have found a solution. If possible, have them informally observe you as well to make the conversation you have about your class grounded in reality.
Spring is here. It’s time to get rid of those misconceptions about some of your classes and keep yourself from becoming too lax with your favorite ones. I’ve included a few free resources for you with this entry. There’s a sample survey that I like to use with my teen classes and a sample from Elizabeth Fontana’s “Sharebook”: a book of games made by students in her grade five class for that class. That’s right, take that survey one step further and see if your students have any ideas for games.