Tips for the automated teacher- Keeping your self-motivation up and the experience new as the years go by
For a beginner teacher, the idea that you might be able to the get to the point where you can go through a class on automatic pilot usually seems like an unattainable dream, and exactly the skill level that you are battling to get to. Unfortunately, for most teachers getting to that point sooner or later entails another battle- this time the struggle to shake yourself out of the rut of teaching in a way that provides no more mental stimulation than working for a paper wholesaling company in Slough.
As someone who easily gets bored and so has hit the barrier of just going through the motions several times but has managed to get through it and still finds teaching English more stimulating than being a manager after 12 almost uninterrupted years in the classroom, I’d like to share the general tips I have developed for keeping your motivation up week after week and year after year. The six methods I have developed to keep myself on my toes in the classroom are: 1. Analyse 2. Focus in 3. Try something new 4. Try something old 5. Take a break 6. Broaden out
1. Analyse Although part of getting to the point of being able to teach a class on the Present Perfect Continuous in your sleep is learning sure fire methods of keeping classroom control, timing activities, varying your lesson plan depending on the mood of the students etc, most teachers do not even realise exactly what they are doing that makes their classes run so much smoother than when they first stepped into the classroom. Finding out exactly what you are doing and why is a great way thinking of different ways to do the same thing. As well as being observed or analysing video or tape recordings of your lessons (a horrible experience but very useful), other methods to help with this include reading books that have reflection questions in them (including re-reading the books you first read when you started teaching to see how much you agree with them now) and writing articles like this one or giving workshops on how you do things.
2. Focus in Related to the point above, one way of pushing yourself to continually improve is to spend a period, if only a year or two or even a week or two, putting all your energies and interest into one little part of the teaching job. Although spending a year teaching mainly FCE or a week trying out every method of giving instructions you can think of or find in books might not seem a good way of killing the tedium, in fact clearing your teaching mind of the hundreds of little things you usually think about for the various parts of your lesson plan and your various types of lessons can really help with the one thing you need, which is to make continual change.
3. Try something new Although of course each class is always different, the sheer number of new things we are forced to deal with on a daily basis in the first couple of years of teaching are difficult to reproduce as the years go by. Although it might seem like we are doing something new by teaching Cambridge Proficiency exam classes, New New Headway or very small children for the first time, the fact that it is not as exciting and/ or nerve-racking as it used to be might well be because very few of those other things we once needed to cope with are still new. Some other factors that used to come up naturally but you might now need to make an effort to find include: a) New number of students b) New classroom arrangements c) Classes based on theories of teaching that are totally new to you d) New topics e) New number of classroom hours with the same students f) New reasons why the students are studying g) New general academic ability of the students h) New nationalities i) New ways of preparing the lesson j) New ways of writing out your lesson plan k) New ways of testing l) New amounts and types of teacher talking m) New classroom props (spinners instead of dice etc.) n) New teacher’s role o) New ages p) New jobs or future jobs of your students
4. Try something old Although I’ve mainly described being automated in your teaching as repeating the same things over and over, in fact sometimes continual innovation can be just as automatic. Looking for new worksheets to practise old grammar, changing textbooks, reading the latest Applied Linguistics titles- any of these can become things that are done with as little thought as choosing the latest recommended novel from a book club or buying the latest album from your favourite band when you were a teenager. Sometimes revisiting old favourites (worksheets, language games, pages from old textbooks, books for teachers you read much earlier in your career) can be exactly the kind of refreshment an automated teaching mind needs- especially if you need to make time and mental space to focus on just one aspect of your teaching as suggested above.
5. Take a break As the refreshing effect of taking holidays is a bit obvious, I will limit myself here to an observation that the times I have been most motivated in my teaching and have found myself re-evaluating ways I do things in the classroom most have been after coming back into the classroom full time after a period where I was mainly a teacher trainer, EFL manager or writer/ editor and so had stepped out of the classroom for a while.
6. Broaden out One possible objection to all the points above is also connected to one of the things I have found most demotivating about TEFL teaching over the years- almost everything you do to continue pushing yourself in your teaching and in your career brings you back into the claustrophobic world of TEFL conferences, TEFL workshops, TEFL books as bedtime reading and drinks with fellow TEFL teachers that the fact that you could now plan and teach with less time and help had started to mean you could escape from. One way of making teaching a motivating thing that opens the world up for you rather than a demotivating thing that keeps you from the world is to focus your classes and your personal development on things that are important both inside and outside the industry. For example: a) Use business English classes as a way of finding out about the business world and personal finances, e.g. by adapting texts and videos on general interest topics like the collapse of Enron b) Find out about and adapt for classroom use general cultural training topics like body language, differences between the sexes etc. c) Learn general self-help stuff like relaxation techniques, NLP and speed reading that will help you and help your students d) Buy a guide book on the country or region of any new nationality students you teach and use that and what they say as a way of finding out about a whole new place.
I hope some of the tips that have worked for me over the years will work for some other teachers too, and help you on the way to finding your own ways to continually find motivation in teaching. One last tip is that seeing keeping up your motivation as a challenge you can tackle in the same way as you once tackled the challenge of simplifying your language or keeping discipline in the classroom automatically solves the problem of having nothing to challenge you when you teach!