Category: Teaching ESL

If you want to teach English, be ready to learn

I’m going to say right now that I’m not a normal teacher. I didn’t like school, I wasn’t big on university, and I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher.

And, I believe, that’s part of why I’m a good teacher.

Why “teaching” doesn’t work

For better or for worse, the people I teach have been conditioned by years of experience that teachers teach and learners learn. And, as soon as they recognize that I’m teaching, most of their brain shuts down and they go into ‘learner mode’ which is just a step above ‘hibernation.’

And, learning (and teaching) does take place, but it’s an uphill, grinding process.

Sometimes, it’s what students need. But, I’m lucky that I hate doing it as much as they do, and they can see that. Then, they’re willing to accept that it’s something that I, in my professional opinion, think is necessary and know I’ll try to get us through it as quickly as possible.

The important thing is this: nobody thinks that I shift to ‘teacher mode’ to avoid demonstrating my ignorance of their work.

Learning is a better model

First, most EFL teachers will agree that we never understood English grammar so well as when we started teaching it. There’s something about teaching that makes you really understand a thing.

Once my students are able to start putting coherent sentences together, they learn a lot more if I ask them to teach me. Then, building on the fact that they’re fully engaged in trying to explain something — with pictures and gestures as well as with language — they’re quick to pick up vocab. (I only have to introduce the word ‘screw’ once, if it’s important for explaining how to use their product.)

This builds on a few things. First and foremost, most people in highly specialized jobs are used to (but not happy with) being surrounded by people who say “this is my husband, he is an engineer but I don’t really understand what he does.” They’re ready for someone to want to understand.

Second, most people are, by their nature, helpful. If I can find something even tangentially related and can genuinely need their help, they’re engaged and motivated to use the language.

How to be a teacher who learns

The trick, I think, is to be humble and curious. There is no shame in saying “I don’t understand your work, but I understand practicing an instrument. Is it like that?”

The first lesson or three with me is generally spent getting to know the person, of course, and establishing what they’re goals are, but my agenda is mostly to find the things about their job that I think are interesting. Once I have found those, I try to ‘master’ them if I can (“take me to your desk and show me how you do this”) and get to understanding other parts of their job relative to them.

I am blessed in that I enjoy building up my mental model of the world, and can be fascinated by the design processes of battery systems because they help me think about other things better. If you’re not naturally curious, I suggest you figure out how to be unnaturally curious.

An example

I will be restarting private lessons with a woman who works as the head of the accounting department in a company nearby. In the last block of lessons, she was willing to endure book exercises, but only really spontaneously used vocab when talking about sports (not what she was paying me to get better at discussing) or teaching me to appreciate the nuances of finance.

If I could find a newspaper story about a company selling its building and leasing it back, I knew I had an hour of conversation just by going in and saying “why does this make sense?” She was proud of what she did and happy to show me why some things that seem counter-intuitive (why sell something that you know you will need) actually can make sense.

As I approach restarting the lessons and I need a plan, I know we’ll stick with the book we had, but I bought myself a copy of Financial Intelligence for Entrepreneurs. If I ever want to be an entrepreneur I need to learn it, and I know that I’ll have conversation material for a half year’s worth of lessons.

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Branding, or how much material can you copy from the Internet?

I’m going to sit now in judgment on other English teachers. I think that most of them make one of two opposing mistakes:

  1. Everything comes from the Internet. Their students experience the lessons as a hodge-podge of formats and headers. The general impression that students have is ‘All Toby does is print stuff off from the Internet.’
  2. They make everything themselves. The people I have seen do this generally have pretty abysmal formatting, but they make great resources tailored to each group. The groups are impressed with the work they put into preparation and would happily recommend them to friends and colleagues, but the teacher is so swamped with preparation, that they don’t have time for more lessons.

As a guy who wants to make a resource to create worksheets on the Internet, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on downloaded (or photocopied) resources. Students do not value your talent in leading a conversation, introducing vocabulary, and explaining grammar. The best teachers make it seem so effortless, that most students won’t appreciate the effort you invest until they try to teach their own native language.

And, of course, going the other route and just doing everything yourself is great… for one group, but not for twenty or thirty. (Not if you also want to learn to code, have writing projects, make music… This post is basically aimed at me.) What’s more, when I create a resource for only one group, we always find typos, and there is no point correcting them because nobody will ever see it again. This means that everyone basically sees the first draft of everything. I make a pretty good first draft, but the second draft is always better.

The first pillar of my solution: I use stuff from the Internet. But I have also become very proactive about communicating in the I form what my plans are, and on what basis I’ve made them. And that I got some resources to help us with whatever. Here are some things that I have said in my lessons:

Steffen, Mary, and yes, sometimes you Bert, have been making the ‘He, she, it — s muss mit’ mistake and I know that you know it. But we’re going to drill it a bit more in the next lessons to help make it automatic.

Or:

Normally, I’m happiest when you don’t make mistakes, but I’m glad you made that one because it brings me to something I want to talk about: the passive voice!

I know you all love grammar, but it’s important to master this if you want to talk about processes…

The goal in these little chats is to explain that I am a professional who has a plan, and not just a guy who was lucky enough to grow up speaking the language they are paying to learn.

The second pillar of my solution: With my worksheet generator (mostly) finished, I’m focusing this year on creating worksheets that are highly reusable, and yet tailored to me. The goal is to make it clear that I made the resources and to make them so quirky that it feels tailor-made for my classes. (Which are, fortunately, all quirky.)

The way I’m approaching this goal is by using two kinds of text in the worksheets. There are the absurd texts that I write, illustrating the use of the structures to be practiced. (See this example.) And there are the ‘drill texts’ in which the students fill in the blank, or complete the sentence, or translate from German, or whatever… and these are (almost) entirely boring, could-be-copied-from-the-internet bland.

The goal is to make something that confronts students with the vocabulary and structures they need and is still uniquely me. Then, after one group finds a typo, I can correct it and use it with another group. Because I teach in three different schools, I make them without a header and just paste in the header I made for the appropriate school.

In summary: I’m only about two months in, on using the second pillar of the solution. Nonetheless, the first results are positive and, combined with using my dynamically generated worksheets (which are, being made by me, also quirky) with the appropriate header on them. (That’s automatic with my great website!)

Making business worksheets

Not long ago, I wrote about the “imposter syndrome” I feel when I try to teach Business English. Don’t worry, I certainly still feel that way.

However, my goal this year is to go from simply saying “it’s all English, master this grammar and then use it in a business context” to showing it. And, to that end, I’m actually making business worksheets focusing on a specific grammar and using ‘business texts.’

However, to avoid getting caught in the situation where I write about things I don’t know, these worksheets follow fictional companies in ridiculous industries (the collection I’m working in for emailing follows a business in the “world domination” sector).

Here’s one of my favorite example texts, from a worksheet focused on using the passive to describe processes.

Hits are made at the Ohmpah Express! Internationally famous groups such as the Grammar Junkies and the Homework Heroes were discovered by the talent scouts of The Ohmpah Express and their unique sounds were developed in weeks of workshops with our ‘rock doctors.’

At The Ohmpah Express, we don’t wait for music to happen. Here, music is made. The musical demands of next summer are predicted now, using complicated statistical models. Rhythms, lyrics and songs are carefully constructed using advanced aritifical intilligence (and some alcohol intelligence) and refined until they’re guaranteed to sell out stadium concerts the world over.

Then, these songs are delivered to the talent we have developed in-house and are turned into platinum-selling albums.

I’m happy to report that the worksheets have had the best resonance of any I’ve used for ‘Business English.’ Partly, that’s because my students know me and we all laugh at the absurdity of these businesses, and it’s partly because my texts still come across a lot of vocabulary that they find useful in a business context (‘proprietary algorithms,’ ‘generate reports from user data’)

If you’re struggling with adapting texts to your students, the lesson to me seems to be adapting the texts to you, and inviting your students along for the ride.

Having the same conversation seven times

I’ve been thinking about what I can say that is of value to people who are considering becoming EFL teachers. I have a niece who wants to live in Europe and thinks teaching EFL can be her ticket. I told her two things:

  1. Learn another job in the U.S., because the most in-demand teachers are the ones who have experience in something else, and can teach specialist vocabulary. Also, because…
  2. I don’t think my job will be around in the future. Machine translation will be a much more affordable way to do the communication that I teach most. Sure, it won’t help much in vacations, but the people who pay for my work, bosses don’t care about their employees’ vacation experience. For what they want, machine translation will be great.

However, I’m collecting a couple of tips that I think might help people who are thinking of teaching EFL or are starting off. Today’s tip is this:

Get good at having the same conversation fifteen times, but making the person you are talking to feel like you’re having it for the first time.

No joke, I think this is my greatest strength as a teacher. It saves me thinking of something to speak about for every lesson, and the students think I’m the fun teacher who always has a different, wacky idea.

Even more, after you have the conversation twice, when you go into the third group you’ll know better which questions to ask, you’ll be able to provoke conversation with “you know, I’ve heard…”

A go-to conversation topic for me.

An example I have is talking about when to say “Hello” in Germany. I think this sounds absurd to Germans and people who haven’t lived in Germany, but I can do a good job of moving from one point to the next in this conversation spontaneously, as though I’m asking this question for the first time. I should point out, my style is much more conversational than this, but here are the major points in the conversation:

  1. In the U.S., when I studied German, my professors taught us the words “Guten Tag,” and then emphasized that we should never greet strangers in German. “It’s the fastest way to let them know you’re not from Germany.” Do you think that’s true?
  2. Here’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about this, because my wife — who you know is German — absolutely hates one of our neighbors because “she can’t open her mouth to say hello.” Why would she hate her for not doing something she shouldn’t do?
  3. So I should say hello to my neighbors? Even if I see them downtown, shopping?
  4. If I see you guys when you’re shopping, should I say hello?
    1. From what distance? I mean, I have no problem yelling across the street “Hey, Marcus, it’s me, the English teacher” and waving, but I don’t see other people doing it…
  5. Now that I’m thinking about it, people say “Hello” when they walk into the Doctor’s office. What’s up with that?
    1. Are there other places I should say hello?
  6. My mother-in-law greets every hiker we pass when we’re hiking. Is that normal?
    1. Should bikers greet each other? What about joggers? What if I’m walking with a stroller, should I wave to other people with strollers?
  7. Okay, thanks… I think you’ve helped me in my goal to become a little more German. I really appreciate it.

The think about this conversation is that I’ve found people love being helpful. And so, I like to give them the chance. You can see in reading this that the conversation is based on an actual question that I once had.

My strength is in letting people help me again and again. I think it’s once you should develop, too.

Impostor Syndrome

Teaching and coding are more similar in my life than you might think. Not only am I ‘unqualified’ to do both, but at my moments of peak self-esteem, I think I’m good at both, and that my lack of qualifications is a strength.

However, in other moments, I suffer from impostor syndrome.

In Germany, there’s a difference between your job and your profession. Or, as one student put it, “What do you do?” and “What are you?”

And I don’t really have a profession. I have two Bachelors of Arts in German and Communication Studies. (Fun anecdote: When I got married (in German), my marriage certificate was supposed to have my profession on it and it was a very long discussion with the civil servant who was supposed to put it there. “If I write ‘communication scientist,’ is that wrong?” — “It’s not right.”)

But, I learned German as an adult, and feel empowered by that experience to teach English, especially to Germans. (They just learn everything backwards from what I did, easy, right?)

However, impostor syndrome rears its ugly head whenever I’m asked about English for situations that I never had to discuss in English. Many adult topics, such as taxes, financing a house, and divorce, fall under that heading. Even worse, so does the dreaded “‘Business English.”

I never feel more like an impostor than when I teach “office phrases” that I can’t imagine saying or that, worse, sound like something that annoying boss from Office Space might say in order to demonstrate what an utter insult to humanity he is.

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However, I know that phrases that I’ve actually heard myself say in the lesson, such as “In the Army, I was required to answer the phone with…” are not helpful to people who (rightly) assume that the Army is not a language model for their mid-sized German business. So, my experience isn’t really helpful.

I’ve taken some pretty extreme (for me) measures, including taking Business English courses online, to ‘pirate’ phrases they use, as well as actually taking an office job here in Germany (I’m the office’s English-translator / guy to ask randomly for vocabulary) with the rationale that I’ll have stuff to think about in English.

It’s all been great material for lessons (I sound like a comic here, mining my life for material), but none of it has helped with impostor syndrome.

Are you an EFL teacher? If you are, how do you deal with teaching vocabulary that you’re not comfortable using in your day-to-day life? How do you get ready?

Django!

So, I reached a milestone without ever blogging about it: I ‘perfected’ the desktop version of my software.

Note the quotes. Obviously, there’s a lot more it could do, and the interface couldbe a little less clunky (you can tell I just tacked things on as I made them), but the software does what I wanted it to do when I started writing it: It creates PDFs of vocabulary workhsheets for English learners, entirely using hand-made material, but re-using material that’s been used before.

In fact, someone had the idea to add crosswords and wordsearches, and that wasn’t difficult at all. In addition, it will make a nice, alphabetized vocabulary list for the vocab a group has learned.

Arguably, it does more than I had intended for it to do when I got started. And that can only mean one thing:

It’s time to do the django. Since I got about halfway into the desktop version, I realized that it made more sense as a service than anything else, and that the web was the right vehicle for distribution. Imagine if material that I made for my classes could be used in other classes. Imagine if material that my friends and colleagues create for their classes could be leveraged in my classes?

The goal, pure and simple: make it seem like I’m working harder for my students than I am. And the web is the way to do that.

So, I’ve started trying to create a web interface using django. And I’ve been mostly successful. It seems as though very little that I wrote for tkinter can be directly ported without extensive re-writing, but, since I already know how it ‘works,’ I don’t have to figure out how to do it, I just have to adjust it.

Right now, a lot of basic functions have been taken care of, and I have to do a lot of the ‘filler’ work that isn’t so much difficult as… plentiful.

So, look for me to write a bit more about that as time progresses. As well as my insecurities as I go from the pride of working with software that I created myself, to the insecurity of asking my friends to take my software for a spin.

What my App does

I had an inspiration last night. I realized — after working on it for the better part of two years, including several reboots — what it is that my app does. I’m talking about the worksheet generator, which seems closer to becoming something now than it ever has before.

First, I think I have to mention what it isn’t.

What the worksheet generator isn’t

It isn’t just another application or website that promises to relieve you of the burden of preparing for your classes. I pay for such websites, and I think they have their place, but I’m not going to be able to compete with them, even by doing the job marginally better.

The worksheet generator will not be just one more place that you can go because you didn’t prepare a lesson and you want to print something out for that class that is starting soon.

Working just as much – or more – for more results

I realized that, if I had to tell another ESL/EFL teacher what it was that my app did, it would be to say that it does a lot of the ‘stupid work,’ so that the energy I invest in prep goes farther. There are a couple of ways that this manifests itself.

  • Organization: Never my strong point, this is what the project originally was supposed to help me with. The idea is to have a virtual record of what you’ve done with each group, in terms of grammar and vocabulary. The strength of this organization will be in helping to review regularly. And that brings me to the second thing:
  • Permanence: Maybe this is just one aspect of organization, but it’s something I’ve known that I’m bad at. I’m great at creating a single, excellent, engaging lesson. I’m not so great at tying them together into a series that makes sense in a meaningful way. The extent of my understanding of ‘permanence’ has been to say that, if we’re working on the simple past, I can do a series of lessons about the past.

    What I’d like to do in the future is to have a more clear sense of repetition, by which vocabulary that came up once is reviewed again and again in the exercises of the following week. Even more, I want to say “hey, we practiced this structure three weeks ago, let’s do it again with the vocabulary from last week.” And that brings me to the last main point:

  • Modularity: I don’t know if it’s just me, or if every teacher is lazy, but I suspect it’s the latter. If you’ve ever had a teacher, you probably know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about teachers who create one set of PowerPoint slides and then teach them forever. Or,  in my case, who prepare an exercise for one class and then modify it only slightly for another (generally to realize that I overlooked an inside joke meant for the first class and completely without meaning for the second).

    The thing is this: Most of the worksheets I create in OpenOffice are great for the class they’re created for, and only the top half of page two is really great for the next class. So, I could just copy and paste but, inevitably, searching through everything I’ve made to get enough material feels like more work than creating a wholly new worksheet.

    When I talk about modularity, I’m talking about defining — in XML or in code — the basic structure of some exercises and stringing them together (simple past is comprised of these 10 or so modules, some are text explaining regular, irregular and the ‘be’ verbs in the past, others are exercises practicing them…) and then just saying to my app “hey, we’re starting this block on the simple past” and it adding one module to each worksheet until the block has run its course.

    It’s important to note here that this is going to be in addition to the other ‘modules’ in each lesson’s worksheet — whether they’re vocabulary review or a reading text to take home as homework. And, further, that a module is going to define how the exercise is created, but I’ll still be prompted to generate new content for it (“Enter a sentence in the simple past using word ‘ginormous’.”) (Fun fact: I’ve never taught that word in my lesson.)

Looking at what I’ve written, I’m beginning to think that maybe the unordered list might not have been the best way to get that done. Still, I think that summarizes what will eventually make the worksheet generator different from the “we do the work so you don’t have to” websites.