Language school

You’ve got about five minutes left…


Sean MacEntee: google exam (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve just had an exam and have some time to kill, so I thought I’d start a new post. Normally I type them up in Word and only add them here when they’re pretty much done, so I never have anything in my drafts folder. But today I’m using the university computer.

When I say I’ve just had an exam, I mean my students have, and I was babysitting supervising  sitting and watching them. Today is the first time I’ve done something a little crazy – I listened to my audiobook for about half the time. Does that seem crazy to you? I’ve heard stories of teachers supposedly supervising exams, but actually reading newspapers or marking test papers/assignments instead of watching the students. I can totally understand that. Watching students scratching away with their pens in (almost) total silence for an hour or more is incredibly boring. However, unless you keep an eye on what they’re doing, I’m pretty sure they’ll find a way to cheat. I don’t know if that sounds terribly mistrustful, does it?

It occurred to me that I’ve never had any input/training on how to administer/supervise tests/exams. Maybe that’s fine and it isn’t necessary, because, I mean, how difficult is it? We’ve taken a bunch of exams when we were students; it’s all pretty straightforward.

I thought I’d briefly describe what I do. Now that I teach in a university setting, I’m less flexible than I used to be in a language school. I try to put together the questions a couple of days before the exam date, so I can read through them with fresh eyes on the day before/of the exam. It’s really embarrassing to catch typos and questions that have more than one correct answer – unless I’ve deliberately planned it that way – when a student asks you to explain something in the middle of the exam. Plus, you’re likely to get flustered (okay, I’m likely to get flustered) and will miss the two students in the back row having a chat.

On the day itself I make enough photocopies for the students who have signed up – I check this online – and always a copy or two extra for the students who didn’t for whatever reason. I don’t have to let them take the exam if their name isn’t on the list, but I usually don’t mind.

When we’re all in the exam hall, I make sure they’re not sitting too close together, and their bags, etc. aren’t too close to them. I don’t ask them to leave their bags and books on the desks in the front row because I rarely have more than 15 or so candidates, and I can easily see if someone is sneaking glances at their open bag. Or something. If I know there are going to be more students than can comfortably sit so that there’s an empty chair on either side of them, I’ll have version A and B of the paper.

I hand out the papers and tell the students how much time they have. At the language school I used to go through the instructions for each task with the whole group, and warn them about common mistakes or what to watch out for, but I’ve come to realize that when the student gets their hands on the exam paper, they just want to get started. Putting them through reading the instructions together would be torture for most.

So, they’re all scribbling away and I start off by sitting behind the teacher’s desk (the instructor’s desk?) – definitely the only time I’ll be sitting down in the classroom unless I’m teaching 121 or a really small group. Then as time goes on, it’s like in a movie when they want to show time is going by – the scene is the same, but I’m behind the desk, then I’m sitting on the desk, then I’m standing at the back of the room, then by the door, and finally by the window. Then behind the desk again. It’s more to get exercise, really, than to check if anyone’s looking at anything other than their paper.

Time drags by. Occasionally, someone asks a question, and I go up to them and answer quietly so as not to disturb the others. Around halfway through, I say half their time is up, and it seems like everyone wakes up for a second. I warn them when they have around 5 minutes left as well. I usually wait for everyone to hand in their papers themselves – I can’t bring myself to say, “Pens down, everyone!” If that means waiting 5 minutes longer, that’s fine. I might say something like, “Okay, Martina, your hour’s up now, so you should be thinking about finishing off that last sentence in the next couple of minutes.” As the students leave, I tell them when they’ll be getting their results.

When I taught at the language school, I was more helpful (flexible) in the sense that I would watch out if anyone had problems completing a particular task and try to nudge them in the right direction. I wouldn’t do that with undergrads. Also, if, say, most people wanted to listen to the recording (in the listening part of the exam) more than twice, we’d do that. There really is no point – I felt – making adult learners who’re paying for their courses feel as if the whole structure is really rigid.

24 hours later – I didn’t have time to finish yesterday, but on the plus side, I can confirm that the drafts folder didn’t do anything rash, like go ahead and publish on its own accord, so I may yet use it again.

So, greater flexibility in a language school – there’s one more thing I wanted to add. I would sometimes have students who had difficulty keeping their eyes on their own paper. These would as often as not be students who were less accurate in terms of grammar than the rest of the group and probably had a more restricted vocabulary when it came to production, but they didn’t really have a hard time keeping up with the others or following what we were doing. I would then have to decide – especially if we were using a B2 coursebook, for instance – if it was worth it making those people feel bad for getting very few points on the future continuous vs future perfect task (or something equally unlikely to prove indispensable in everyday conversation) and possibly failing the exam. Which they would then have to take again with all the attendant stress; there would be little improvement in accuracy, and they would still continue with the group next semester. I would often pretend I didn’t see them peeking at their neighbor’s paper.

What about you? How seriously are exams taken where you teach? Do you ever multitask as you supervise? What do you do if see/catch students cheating?

Language school

Recruiting the right teaching staff

This is a very brief post – for me in any case (I think the WordPress Reader might even rate it as a 2-minute read, which has not happened yet. 😛 ). So, I was doing nothing useful clearing out my inbox, when I came across this task that we had to do in the Moodle MOOC I took in September 2013 and wrote about in more detail here.

The aim was to demonstrate how forum discussions work in smaller groups, or something of the kind. I think we had to try and get a discussion going with the other group members by explaining how a topic we (felt we) knew something about works. I ended up posting tips on hiring teachers, as at that time I still primarily saw myself as a traditional (or offline) teacher and school owner. No one ever responded – well, it was a MOOC. We had, I think, 10 people in the group and only one besides me came up with an opening post. It was something to do with cloud computing, I remember. I feel I’m about to digress again, and I do want this to be a brief post!

So here we go, I’m sharing the tips below and am not going to edit a thing. The title of this post is the title of the original discussion thread. Oh, and right, I thought I’d share these here after all this time because one of the topics I said I wanted to write about in my first ever post was – what do language schools look for in a teacher?


image: studiotdes | CC BY

What I would like to do in this discussion is share my tips for recruiting new members of teaching staff in a small language school. I can hardly claim to be an expert on the topic, but as I’ve been running a school for the last 7 years, I have had to hire new teachers quite a few times. Sometimes we were looking for full-time employees and sometimes for contractors, but generally I have found that the same principles apply if you want your business to run smoothly.

These are my five key guidelines in looking for new staff:

  1. Make sure that you advertise the vacancy at least a few days in advance, if at all possible. Ideally you want to be in a position where you have a few teachers to choose from, not to be forced to hire the first person who shows up because you need them to start teaching the very next day.
  2. Try to set aside at least 30 minutes for the interview. This is often hard in a small school where owners answer phones and send off invoices as well as teach, but it is crucial that you get the opportunity to talk to the candidate in a relaxed setting (you want to spend some time really listening to them).
  3. If you have a choice between lack of experience and a positive attitude on the one hand, and vast experience and a superior attitude on the other, I would advise you to go with the first combination. The new teacher will have a mentor and will gain experience. The one with the superior attitude will, unfortunately, not lose the attitude (at least not in my experience), which is not likely to make her/him a good team player.
  4. Try not to ask the candidate questions about their CV. Asking them things like, “So, I see you worked for X for 2 years..what did you do next?”, is not likely to give you any information that you don’t already have. Instead, ask them specific questions – how they would start a class at the beginning of a semester, how they would deal with a mixed-ability group, or what their favorite speaking activities are.
  5. It’s worth finding out how the candidate feels about CPD. If they don’t express any interest in training of any kind, I would suggest that you interview at least one more candidate. I don’t expect my teachers to spend all their time at work and work-related activities, but if they are uninterested in enhancing their teaching skills, I have doubts as to whether they will contribute much to the team.

Do you think these tips could apply to any small business to some degree? Which one would be most important to you if you were hiring? Are there any tips which you find out of place or disagree with?