Thoughts and reflections

Looking back on 2018

I love year-in-review posts. They’re often a tad more personal than the usual ELT blog post in that they touch on areas of life outside of the classroom, which I always enjoy reading about. I’ve been following some folks’ blogs long enough to feel as if I know them in real life, so it’s great to read about their successes and challenges, and how they overcame/are dealing with the latter. Year-in-review posts can also be a useful reminder of things people have previously shared on their blogs or social media, but with the flood of news out there it’s often easy to overlook/forget bits of pertinent information.   

The idea for this post came from Sandy Millin’s blog, where you can also read which other posts inspired hers. I’ve adapted it a bit because a) it’s not December anymore, b) if I wrote about 31 points this would be completed in June, and c) I have nothing to say for some of the prompts, so I left them out.   

Your favorite activity from 2018

I haven’t taught offline much for quite a while now, so I’m going to go with an online activity which isn’t from 2018 but remains one of my favorites: the anonymous peer review. I wrote about how it’s set up in my course and which tweaks have been added over time in this post.

Most memorable story from 2018

This would have to be my visit to Athens in the spring. I hadn’t been to Greece before and it was great to have the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks there. One thing I’ll definitely remember the visit by is meeting one of my PLN in person – thanks for everything, Christina! Proof that the ELT world is indeed a small one is that in the brief time while I was in Athens the sixth BELTA Day took place and Christina was a presenter, so I was able to reminisce about the lovely BELTA people and previous BELTA Days without – hopefully – sounding too nostalgic.

the moment in 2018 you felt proud as a teacher

This isn’t classroom related but I’ve been adjuncting at the University of Zagreb since 2008, and a couple of years into this I was expected to qualify for the title of lecturer, which is the educational title lowest on the scale in the Croatian tertiary education system. Once you qualify, you hold this position for five years, after which you can go for re-election or try to move a step up the ladder. Last year I qualified for senior lecturer, which sounds grander than it is (especially if you’re still adjuncting – I expect I could soon be setting some kind of record), but was a bit of a proud moment nevertheless.

A new idea you implemented in 2018

The idea isn’t new but I finally got around to trying out badges. I’m still planning to create two more – for which I’ve more or less defined the criteria – by the end of the semester.

Your favorite teaching aid in 2018

A reliable board marker that doesn’t die on me halfway through the class.

The moment in 2018 when you felt proud of your student

There was definitely more than a single moment/student, but one that readily comes to mind is when a wonderful, very motivated and hardworking student – who recently graduated (or is almost there) – got a job at a place that inspires job satisfaction and looks good on their CV.

Your favorite teaching website in 2018

I don’t really have one. My favorite resource for everything teaching related is Twitter and I follow up on interesting info I come across by clicking through to whatever resources the person tweeting has linked to. These are, however, far more often blogs than websites like Edutopia or Teaching English. A quick look at some of my recent retweets suggests that I may have visited the EdSurge HigherEd website pretty often and I think this is explained by the fact that they cover topics of relevance both to my non-teaching (but still in the education sector) job and tertiary ed topics.

The person who inspired you in 2018

Some of my coworkers. I won’t single anyone out just in case someone from work ever reads this, primarily because many people there have been inspirational in a number of small (and not-so-small) ways and I don’t want anyone to feel left out.

Your greatest challenge in 2018

Overcoming impostor syndrome. Changing professions/working environments after such a long time did leave me with nagging doubts as to whether I was doing a good job, even if objectively I knew I was coping at least satisfactorily. Before I always used to be the one who had been doing that job forever when a new coworker came along and it was a challenge to be on the other side.  

Your strongest point as a teacher

Modesty dictates I say my students should be asked about this. But now I think about it, this really is a tough question. I’ve been teaching for 20 years so there are probably few things I’m hopeless at (apart from teaching YLs and teens, which I’ve never done). I hope I’m good at making students feel confident about their language skills. Let’s put it this way: I would be happy if that was how students felt.    

Your favorite teaching application in 2018

Definitely H5P, which I’ve written about here and here. I’m planning to try out more of their content types this year.  

The best CPD book you read in 2018

Readers of this blog know I occasionally do translations, so I think I’m justified in choosing this as a CPD book: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos.

Your greatest frustration in 2018

Probably the fact that I wasn’t sure if my non-teaching contract was going to be extended, as a result of which I thought it would be prudent to hang on to any work I’d been doing previously. This included proofreading/language-editing/translation work and online teaching, so I worked almost every evening and weekend for the first half of the year. Luckily, the contract was eventually extended.

One thing you want non-teachers to understand

That it’s normal for teachers to be on the lookout for things that will make their job easier. People in other professions do this too. It’s great that there are teachers who enjoy being immersed in PD opportunities 24/7 and who will always take the more challenging route, but that works for them and shouldn’t be seen as the norm every teacher should necessarily aspire to.

Your most memorable teaching experiment in 2018

This has got to be the workshop on academic writing I delivered for my coworkers. I asked for my PLN for ideas and input in this post and would like to thank everyone once again: I thought the workshop turned out pretty well. There was some talk at the time that we might have more frequent sessions for those interested, and not only on academic writing but other aspects of language, but that hasn’t yet come to pass, primarily because I haven’t done anything about it. I didn’t want to commit to something I might not have the time and energy to do properly.

your personal success in 2018

I’m not sure if the “personal” is meant to stress that I see this as a success only I contributed to/brought about (as opposed to being part of a team), but I’m going to interpret it as also referring to team successes. I wrote about being involved in AMORES project here and here. The project ended three years ago but in 2018 articles describing project results were published in two books. It’s great to see the project living on!

One thing you plan to change in 2019

If I were the least bit confident that there was a chance of this actually happening, I’d say I’d do more exercise. 

Your greatest discovery in 2018

I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but you know the timer app on your phone? Oh, okay, I know, Google Keep. ILovePDF? Nope, nothing revolutionary.

Thank you for reading! I hope it’s not too late to wish you a great year ahead and please let me know if you’ve done a year-in-review post – I’d love to read it!


All you ever wanted to know about EAP

I have recently volunteered to plan and deliver a short workshop for my coworkers on academic writing. I’m very much looking forward to this because I do very little F2F teaching these days – I’ve just done my biannual two weeks and so am not likely to step inside a classroom until exam time in June, during which time any teaching I do will take place online.

Photo taken from ELTpics by Dace Praulins, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

A little bit of background: our department has recently run a couple of in-house workshops on various aspects of conducting academic research, so my topic – academic writing in English – ties in nicely with the overall theme. I also have considerable experience teaching introductory EAP sessions to undergrads, which helps explain my readiness to volunteer. For those interested in what that experience entails, I wrote briefly about it for EAP stories over on Joanna Malefaki’s blog (along with six other EAP instructors from a range of backgrounds).

My usual EAP classes are different from the coming workshop in that I have 60 hours instead of a semester and roughly 30 undergrads as opposed to half that many adults (yeah, yeah, undergrads are also supposed to be adults and if you’ve followed me for some time you know how I feel about that 😛 ).

I’ve been thinking along the lines of “Everything you wanted to know about EAP (but had no chance to ask)” for the title of the workshop, with the idea of covering as much of the very basics as possible in 3 hours. Obviously, I already have some ideas – one of which is definitely to use that table with academic phrases and their actual equivalents (you know the one: sample size was small = I could only find one person to experiment on, that kind of thing) maybe as a matching activity for humorous effect.

If you were running a similar workshop, what is something (the one thing) you would definitely include? I don’t mean actual activities, but topics. The assumption is that the audience has research experience (and in terms of writing it up) but hasn’t had (many) EAP sessions. Your input would be very much appreciated, PLN – thanks in advance!

Edtech Thoughts and reflections

Some perks of teaching online

Recently I had the occasion to read Joanna Malefaki’s comprehensive (and occasionally tongue-in-cheek) overview of the advantages of being an online teacher. I also had the privilege of meeting Joanna in person earlier this year at BELTA Day. As soon as BELTA started with their “Meet the Speaker” series, I knew I was going to attend her talk “Do’s and Don’ts of teaching Business English online”…until I discovered that Marek Kiczkowiak and Chris Holmes were going to be speaking about NNEST-related misconceptions in the same slot! In the end, I opted for the latter, using the time-honored scientific method popularly known as eeny meeny miny moe.

The topic of Joanna’s talk appealed to me because it was the only one, apart from my own, to address some practical issues of online instruction that day. I don’t think of myself primarily as an online instructor (or an offline one, for that matter), but as I’ve been teaching almost entirely in an online environment for the past year, I find posts, articles and talks on the subject increasingly relevant to my situation.

Having read Joanna’s post, I thought I’d throw together my own list of perks. Although there will undoubtedly be similarities, it’s worth noting that, unlike Joanna, I teach in an asynchronous environment. More specifically, I teach a semester-long undergraduate course in writing skills in Moodle. So, what do I like about it?

This isn't what I see when I look up from the computer - but it could be!
This isn’t what I see when I look up from the computer – but it could be!

Advantages applicable to online teaching in general

  1. You can sleep in. Possibly this sounds self-centered or frivolous, or both, but I’m dead serious. The fact is, I’ve worked for private language schools since 1997, and that means…well, that means your schedule is often crappy. You teach in-company courses in the mornings, so you have to wake up at 6 and put on your bright and perky smile as you wait with the surly security guy for your students to show up at 7:30. Which they do, late, yawning and saying they haven’t done the homework. “That’s okay,” you say, contemplating various forms of torture, careful not to drop the smile. (It’s not always like that, but you know what I mean.) Then you teach again in the afternoon and evening, and when you come home, you prepare for the class you have the following morning. Sunday evenings are also reserved for Monday morning lesson plans. That’s a whole lot of Sunday evenings since 1997. So being able to sleep until a more decent hour, followed by breakfast and a coffee during which I don’t have to smile if I don’t feel like it, feels wonderful.
  2. Your schedule is less stressful. I don’t spend half my day in public transport, going from client to client, lugging books around, missing lunch, waiting around twiddling my thumbs for the one-to-one student to finish their meeting/phone call/email before they’re ready to settle down to English class. Oh, yes, I almost forgot the thrill of one-to-one clients cancelling at the last minute!
  3. It’s cheaper. All you need is a computer and broadband connection. I definitely spend less on public transport, unhealthy on-the-go snacks, book bags or folders, as well as clothes and makeup.
  4. It’s challenging and fun. I’m not saying I know everything there is about classroom instruction, but after 17 years of teaching there’s a certain element of déjà vu when I walk into a class. There is obviously comfort to be drawn from this, and there are always different activities you can try out to avoid getting stuck in a rut, but online everything is new to me. I enjoy designing the course and moderating it: selecting the activities, making podcasts and screencasts, designing quizzes, reading and commenting on the students’ learning journals, and more.
  5. You gain a new set of skills.  A lot has been written over the past month about the future of teachers and whether they will eventually be made unnecessary by tech advances. This is not the topic of this post, but I do recommend that you watch the excellent eltjam IATEFL talk on what educational technology means for ELT. As someone who has struggled to keep a small business (a language school) afloat through the (aftermath of the) global economic crisis, I can only see advantages to being open to whatever is going to allow you to keep your teachers employed.
  6. It permits you to carry on working for your institution even if you no longer live in the same town/country where the institution is based. This flexibility may, of course, not be important to everyone, but if, for instance, moving abroad was not your career choice, it counts for a lot. Hopefully, this uninterrupted collaboration will allow me to continue teaching face-to-face at my institution when I return. I can practically guarantee this wouldn’t happen if I dropped off the radar for a couple of years; someone would take over my course, and that would be that.
  7. Your professional engagement isn’t (temporarily) over when you move to a new country. Like the previous point, this one assumes particular importance when you may not have a job lined up, and as a NNEST you may have difficulty securing one. I’ve heard of the term trailing spouse used to describe someone moving from place to place at the whim of the personnel decisions of the company their partner works for, but this is not a designation I feel comfortable with.

Advantages applicable to teaching writing skills online

  1. Students actually get to do a lot more writing than in a face-to-face environment. When I taught the same course offline, we did a range of interactive activities in class: presentations, discussions and games, and the students did most of the extended writing at home in their portfolio, which they would hand in three times per semester.
  2. More authentic written communication takes place. The instructor was the sole audience for the students’ writing efforts in the face-to-face class; hardly conducive to getting them to exert themselves beyond what was strictly necessary, for instance, write 250 words on a given topic, include a topic sentence for each paragraph, etc. By contrast, online everyone can see almost everything an individual student writes – in forums, wikis and learning journal entries – so they’re writing for a wider audience. Wider than just the instructor, at any rate.
  3. Less outgoing/weaker students participate more than they would in a traditional class. If you’re discussing a topic in class, talkative students will often dominate the discussion, even if you try hard to make sure most people get to say something. On the other hand, if everyone is required to participate in an online discussion, they will. Or they won’t get a grade.
  4. You can consider the feedback you want to give more carefully. In class teachers are sometimes asked questions they don’t know the answer to. This is absolutely fine; after all, it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate that the teacher is not the ultimate vessel of all knowledge, but that some responsibility for their learning lies with the students. However, you sometimes do wish that you’d known the answer to a question because it would have been pertinent to the subject under discussion or useful for all students to know. You sometimes want to point the students to a useful resource which they can use for further research. It is certainly possible to bring up the point at the beginning of the next session, but it may not seem as relevant any more. Online, you can highly personalize the feedback and tailor it specifically to a student’s needs.

My experience with teaching online has been positive overall, though I wouldn’t be in a hurry to say that an online course is inherently worse or better than a face-to-face one. While I was putting this list together, I considered a number of points I didn’t like so much, but finally decided to leave those for another post. The list isn’t meant to be exhaustive and is definitely determined in large part by the context I work in, so do by all means let me know of any advantages I’ve overlooked.