Sunday, January 18, 2015

Split personality teacher

DAY 1 
An Introduction or What am I going to talk about?

I suppose this is a rather rhetorical question because you have probably read my short introduction to this topic and  you know what these blog posts are going to be about. However, because I am a teacher, I will repeat once again, just in case somebody jumped to these pages without reading the blurb. For them, and to remind the others, I will copy-paste the intro.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, after twenty years of happily teaching English to my students, I was 'promoted' into a native speaker teacher! How?
Of course, I started teaching Serbian for Foreigners! So I'll be comparing my experience as a native and a non-native speaker teacher (two in one). It is always interesting to have a new perspective.’

Before I go deeper into the heart of the matter, and before you take me too seriously, I also want to point out that this is a very personal story, and everything  I say here comes straight from my experience in  my classroom, processed by my brain and  is not based on any scientific research or any other sophisticated method of finding out the truth. These ideas are primarily based on my psychological profile and   probably modified by my students’ behaviour and reactions.
As I rely heavily on my own experience, here are some facts and figures about it. I started learning  English in primary school at the age of 10, continued in  secondary school  and studied it at university. All in all, that is twelve years of learning as a learner. With some very short breaks at the beginning of my career, I kept on  learning English as an English teacher (To teach is to learn twice! - Joubert).  I can say I have been learning English for thirty-five years in total and I have been teaching it for twenty-three years.
I don’t think I have ever learned Serbian. I acquired it when I was ready for it and began learning about it in school. Naturally, I already knew the language when  I started learning and no wonder I  have never applied any grammar rules to my Serbian sentences. Honestly, it would be an epic ordeal to start now (I got a severe headache after only three sentences in an experiment of mine).  As you can see, I was learning about Serbian for twelve years in schools as well, and I have just recently resumed learning about Serbian as a teacher.
Now that I have made this thing clear, I can freely move on to inner circles of my mind. Why do I feel the need to talk about it? Simply because I suddenly got the chance to see more of the whole picture which supplied me with  a new pair of eyes to look for some more pieces of this gigantic puzzle called teaching&learning.  As it is something we rarely get the chance to experience, I wanted to share the phenomenon with whoever wants to read about it. I will repeat  (again?), I   don’t claim I have any answers to any questions. I just want to say that this unexpected and unwanted good luck allowed me to step behind the mirror and pushed me where I feared to tread.
The  wiser side of  my split personality  is urging me not to bore you anymore with irrelevant details but to go on straight to the point. What are the questions I will try to answer to myself? So here they are! How is my newly acquired status of a native speaker teacher different from my old self of being a non native speaker teacher? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being either? How can one side of me benefit from the other? And finally, why not, have I become any wiser from this experience?
So let’s start from the beginning, i.e. let’s meet both sides of my split personality and see how each function separately and what happens when they meet...
(to be continued…….)


My Non-native speaker teacher (No one can escape her destiny)

It is my great pleasure and also relief  to share with  you bits and pieces I know about two very  different teachers who accidentally met in my head and got stuck in there… In one corner of my head is the Non-Native Speaker Teacher (NNST) - smart, confident, experienced but still  enthusiastic and ready to learn. In the other corner of my head is the Native-Speaker Teacher (NST) -  newly appointed, inexperienced, insecure but eager to learn and above all - native. Two teachers for one head is a bit too much and talking about  two teachers in one day could be confusing and to avoid confusion I will split them into two days.

I  will introduce them to you in the order of appearance. Once upon a time there was a student of English who wanted to be a translator. She finished her studies and became a teacher while she was waiting for a big film producer to discover her talent. (sorry, this is from a different film)..... As a matter of fact, she was waiting for a chance to work as a translator. And quite unbelievably, she got the chance to work for Tanjug,  the national news agency of old  Yugoslavia, a very prestigious place where she was trained by top professionals in the field. She worked there for almost a year, and she liked it  but she realised that she had fallen in love with teaching and that she missed it so very much. Luckily (or not?), her ex boss met her in the street one day and asked if she would go back to teaching. YEEEES!

Being an English  teacher for so many years does bring a lot of advantages  in your professional life. You get a lot of confidence. After a couple of years students gradually run out of  new questions they might ask you on any topic, surprise questions are rare but possible.  You see how they follow the roads  of  learning  you once followed and take the detours and bypasses you took. They say the greatest  strength of the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous is the encouragement new members get from their mentors,  who help them endure the hardships in the process of leaving old and acquiring new habits. Similarly, in your classroom you become a great role model for your students as you also started from scratch, went a long way and reached the heights most of them do not aspire. Nevertheless,  one significant part of your journey would be identical to your students’ and  you travel alongside  them and give them all the encouragement and support they need.

You also recognize their patterns of thinking, both from your own experience and from observing them. You get familiar with characteristics of all types  and subtypes of language learners. You have tons of empathy and acres of love for your students. After a couple of classes in a new group you know who will go red when the time comes for grammar,  claiming it makes no sense and logic and who will be desperate when checking reading comprehensions. You start answering their questions before they are asked and you look exactly at the student who is about to ask a question. You read their faces like open books. Of course, it is not all milk and honey as the process of learning languages is a complex one.  You can have a look at some troubles I have seen in the post below: The unteachables        
  Still, your classroom is the place where you feel so safe that you are ready to leave your own comfort zone and go with your students wherever  they lead you, even into the depths of the Digital sea :).
I will introduce my NST tomorrow. As you can see, they have their exits and entrances carefully planned. On rare occasions when they meet, they make the students confused. I remember once I went into my upper intermediate English class and began speaking cheerfully. The students looked at me in disbelief and started smiling: ‘Oh, teacher, we have never heard you speaking Serbian!’ Ooops!

Day 3

My Native-speaker teacher (Knowledge is in the eye of the beholder)

I’ve been blogging for  three days here and I’ve just heard a tiny voice in my head suggesting I might be doing something wrong. The tiny voice insists that all SEETA guest bloggers write under the same title ‘My working week’. I haven’t written about a single working day, let alone the whole week. So in order to improve the accuracy of my writing, I’ve decided to write about one day in my busy teacher’s life. Staying in line with my own title, I have chosen to write about the most untypical day in my whole life: exactly the day when I was converted into a native speaker teacher.

Untypically, I was not at work  attending our stressful Saturday staff meeting when the  new  semester timetables were delivered.  I was in Hradec Kralove, as an  ELTA Serbia official representative, having a really great time. The Czech conference was truly impressive, packed with interesting speeches and presentations, the hosts were so hospitable and I clicked right away  with other official representatives, as if we had been friends for ages. (Warmest regards to Zarina, Moly, Daria and Esma). So on Saturday afternoon it all finished but a few of us stayed till the next morning. There was still a lot to discover about magnificent Hradec on a beautiful September day. When I returned to my room, still full of impressions about the conference and the city, my cellphone alerted the arrival of a little wanted message. It was from my best friend and colleague Natasa. I knew it was about my timetable. And the message did sound  sinister:

‘Are you sitting down?’
‘No, I was sitting down but now I’m lying down’- was my answer.
‘Even better’, she continued. ‘I am sending you the timetable’.
So it took her some long fifteen minutes to kill me with suspense.
‘Mon-Wed: Ser.Beginners; BEC III
Tue - Thu Ser. Up.Interm; BEC II’
My reply was swift.
‘OK for BEC but what is Ser? A new course?‚’
‘It is Serbian for Foreigners!’
‘But I can’t teach Serbian!!! I don’t know anything about our grammar. I have forgotten the declensions and conjugations.I don’t know a single rule and there are so many. I will not be able to answer their questions! I will be lost!’
Natasa was sympathetic.
‘I understand you! I have Ser. Intermediate. Sorry! I’ve run out of credit on my cellphone!’

So I was left all alone in my hotel room,  with some very dark clouds overcasting my mood . I felt helpless. The nearest Serbian grammar book was some thousand miles or 24 hours away from me. I needed one badly. (If you think I was acting foolishly just think about whether it is possible to teach Latin without knowing   Latin grammar. There are many grammar similarities between these two otherwise unrelated languages. NB Serbian has 7 cases and Latin merely 6). The Serbian coursebooks were even further than that as they were safe in my staffroom which would not be opened before Monday morning.  I needed those desperately. I could teach English without coursebooks and grammar books for hours, days and months maybe. But I knew I couldn’t teach Serbian. I could speak it but I wasn’t prepared to teach.
Maybe you still  wonder why I was fussing so much about becoming a native Serbian teacher. I was familiar with methodology,  I knew a lot about psychology,  I had a lot of experience as a teacher and, of course,  I was a native speaker. But believe me I was right to fuss.
Methodology was probably the only advantage I took  from being a NNST  for so many years although different languages need different approaches.  
My biggest problem however was the issue of empathy. At the beginning of NST career I completely ran out of it.  I honestly loved all my groups but I simply couldn’t put myself into my students’ shoes and see things from their perspective. As I have already said, I acquired Serbian as a carefree child and my students were working their way through the maze of Serbian sentences.
The most obvious problem was with the beginners. They came from different backgrounds and naturally spoke different first languages. The very beginning was OK but soon Serbian grammar complicated things immensely. They needed solid explanations given in a simple but effective way.  I wanted  my explanations to be  clear enough for them but I had no idea whether I unnecessarily repeated something that was crystal clear after my first explanation or I dismissed the topic that needed repeating time and again. Their faces didn’t tell me much, my students politely nodded whatever I was telling them.  
My biggest advantage as a NST was my knowledge of Serbian. Let’s be frank, I am an above-average speaker of Serbian. My vocabulary is boosted by reading  and generally it is the language of a well educated person.  At one point in my life I was a translator  (remember Tanjug?) and I went through their training both for translating English to Serbian and Serbian to English. Little did my students benefit from my vast vocabulary, even at the upper intermediate level! Their needs were way below. I could speak well but I couldn’t explain why I say it like that. I had no idea what is the principle behind my words.
How true  is the saying that it never  rains but it pours! In my upper intermediate group I had a ‘grammar girl’. I am sure you have all met that type of language learners. She knew almost everything but she always had an extra question or two that would send my blood pressure right into the red zone. ‘Why do we use accusative with preposition ZA in this sentence but not in this one?’ ‘How do I know whether I should use genitive  or locative with preposition OD?’ The only sensible answer from my side could have been : ‘You say it and if it sounds normal, then use it and if it doesn’t sound ok, simply don’t use it. That’s how I know!’ And that was exactly the answer I couldn’t give her. She needed rules. I don’t know why she bothered to ask me anyway. If there had been a competition in Serbian grammar, she would have beaten me then, I’m not joking. It took me a year of hard work to reach her level of grammar expertise.
In spite of my inner battles, my students believed me completely and never for a moment doubted my judgements. For them, I was a monolithic giant of a teacher - experienced, knowledgeable, always-ready-to-help and, of course, native.

Day 4

One and one is eleven? (My family and other questions)
The first day of my new life came ineluctably like fate.  I went into the Upper intermediate  Serbian class and I introduced myself in Serbian. ‘Hello! My name is Sneza, and I am an English teacher, I have been..(oops, old habits die hard, correct yourself!) I am also a Serbian teacher. So I teach English and  I teach Serbian as well. I teach these two languages!’   I could hear myself talking very  fluent Serbian and the part of my brain in charge of teaching Serbian  played its part brilliantly. The idle part of my brain  remembered a funny episode with my little son.

Last year  he broke something  while he was playing football.  When I asked him what  happened he started telling one of his tales, he is good at that. And in the middle of it, he turned his innocent eyes to me and asked: ‘ Mum, am I lying now?’

That was exactly the question I wanted to ask somebody that day!  I told the students I was a Serbian teacher but that day I definitely didn’t feel like one. My brain assured me  I was in the right place but my heart said ‘no’ . I almost felt like an imposter. I didn’t feel I deserved the title. I felt there was some hard work yet to be done before I could call myself a Serbian teacher.
In the months to come I tried hard to be a good Serbian teacher. I sometimes even asked my daughter for help. She was an expert on Serbian grammar in our family as she had just passed her entrance exam and she excelled in Serbian  - 100% score.
I must digress a bit by telling you how she changed from hating Serbian classes in primary school to considering  studying Serbian language when the time comes to choose. What does it take to make Serbian somebody’s favourite subject? Nothing more and nothing less than an inspiring teacher, and that exactly happened to my daughter. A friend of a friend agreed to help my daughter to prepare for the entrance exam. And what a Serbian teacher she was! It took her some six weeks  to perform a miracle! Her approach was fabulous, her explanations were so clear and memorable and she knew everything about the language. I wish I had sat somewhere at the back of the room just to take notes!
Knowing what a good Serbian teacher with a university degree knows and  being fed up with my questions, my daughter asked me one day: ‘ Mum, why do you teach Serbian at all when you don’t know it?’ After a couple of moments of silence during which my brain was desperately searching for a good explanation I slowly explained: ‘Well, you see, I am an English teacher, I studied  to become a teacher, I took a lot of exams and I have a lot of experience. I am also a native speaker of Serbian.  As you see, I am a teacher and I am Serbian so I can be a Serbian teacher.` I congratulated my brain on its great work. My daughter just muttered in the irritating way teenagers sometimes speak. `Yea, yea, yea  like one and one is eleven?`. Her reply  made my brain think hard, again.

Is it enough for somebody to be a native speaker to become a teacher? If the answer is yes, then there are 7 billion teachers in the world, all being native in different languages. So the answer here must be no.  What does it take to be a teacher? Being a native speaker, a university diploma, a crash course in teaching, a piece of paper or desire and ability to light fire in your students`s eyes?  (to be finished tomorrow...)

Day 5

Wrapping up (A song, a recipe and a few more thoughts)

Have you noticed that teachers are very dangerous people? They change our lives forever! Who can resist the magic of an inspiring teacher? I have been talking with my  adult students a lot about their favourite teachers and it turned out that almost half of them study or studied the subject of their favourite teacher. Coincidence? I don’t think so.  I myself was lured into studying English by my English teacher Ljubica. She taught me for only one year in secondary school but she laid the foundations for my choice of career. I would have probably studied maths if I hadn’t met her! She was, without any doubt, the best teacher I have ever had, native or non-native, in primary, secondary or tertiary education. She was phenomenal. She was Shakespeare of all my teachers, her  words were music to my ears, she explained in visions. She had such a way with students. I would best describe it as  a multi-level approach, backed up by crystal clear explanations and spiced up by her witty remarks.
What does it take to be a teacher?  I don’t think I know the answer completely   but frankly, I am much more interested in what it takes to be a Teacher, the one who makes a difference. I will try to come up with something-like-a-recipe  from my  long teacher-learner experience.
You take a lot of love, mix it  with equal amounts of empathy and knowledge.The knowledge  for this recipe is best   if you can find the perfect balance of knowing what you teach and how  to teach it. If you want your teacher ‘really well done’, then you are bound to add some talent, as well. And then, you gradually add experience….  The place where this recipe is served (a classroom) must be full of positive energy, roars of laughter, silences of hard work, buzzing sounds of myriad of voices, periods of intense attention,  words of encouragement, some time to have fun and some time to think. (Don’t exaggerate with any of these, your students may have to pay the disbalance)
I would say that the most important ingredient is LOVE. You simply have to love this job in order to do it. Teachers are generally underpaid and arguably overworked and it takes a lot of passion and enthusiasm to do it. Students  can unmistakably recognize an enthusiastic teacher when they see one and  are always ready to join in.  Loving this profession generally means loving your students and  only when you care for them and for their needs will  you be able to give your best. Hand in hand with love is EMPATHY, the ability to step back from your almighty position in order to see things through their eyes.
KNOWLEDGE  is  almost like a synonym for teaching, the cause and the consequence. One can’t go without another. It goes without saying that you need to know the language you  teach but there is much more than that, you have to know the principles that lie behind your sentences, as you will help people to learn the language, not to acquire it. And of course, you have to know the principles of good teaching practices or methodology. Do you remember the Gambler by Kenny Rogers? For a taste of his whiskey the gambler gave him some  good advice. Because I also feel ‘I made my life out of reading people’s faces’ with just a few changes I would try to reduce methodology to just a couple of lines. So this is my modest attempt.
"If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold on, know when to go on,
Know when to demand high  and know when to smile.
You never worry about your lesson plan when you're teachin' in the classroom.
There'll be time enough for worryin' when the class's done.

Every teacher knows that the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
'Cause every student's a winner and every student's a loser,
And the best thing  that you can hope for  is to make them shine ."

There is one more ingredient that I find very important and that is TALENT. I believe that teaching is an art, and at least some teachers are great artists. It is true that great artists work harder, but  what makes them exceptional is their talent.  OK, you don`t have to call it  talent. I have heard the expression ‘instinctive teaching ability’. I think it pretty much describes the same thing. I honestly wanted to dig deeper into this matter but I  just scratched the surface and didn’t find much. I would appreciate if you could share a link or your opinion on this subject.

Well, we reached the end. This blog is definitely not My working week, it is My working life. I had to get this off my chest. Thank you for reading this far.
Would I like to continue teaching Serbian? Honestly, I don’t think so. Not that I would mind next time very much but simply I’d rather spend my time on many other things. Don’t get me wrong,  I am not afraid of challenges, and I jump without thinking into new situations, my family and friends  know that. The world of teaching is moving on and I want to be well informed about where. I want to continue making friends with technology (we were almost enemies once), I want to attend conferences both live and online, I also want to contribute with a presentation or two. There is a world of challenges ahead of me, waiting for me to take them, I’ ll pass this one of being a native speaker teacher.

(optional – skip if you don’ t like to listen to thank you speeches)

Firstly I’d like to thank  my  family for putting up with my long hours of not paying attention to them,  when I pretended to listen to them but was thinking about ideas for this blog. My thanks also go to my ex-boss who gave me this unique chance to look at the things from a different perspective.  I would also like to thank all the moderators and friends from BaW who introduced me in this world of blogging.   My special thanks are for my friends and colleagues Rahela and Natasa, who were kind enough to support me when i needed it. Finally, my big thanks to SEETA for being there for us and for this wonderful opportunity to write this blog. And once again, thank you dear readers and friends for reading this to the last line :).

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The unteachables (Goodbye, Posterous!)

I`ve been meaning to write something about my most challenging student for a long time.  I met her about 10 years ago when she was a bank executive.  I went to her bank twice a week to teach her. She was an absolute beginner, and she had to learn English because of her job.
        We liked each other immediately. We were of the same age, both married, two children, same background, a lot of topics in common.....But, her process of learning English turned out  to be a long tiring frustrating journey. Consciously, she realized how important it was for her to learn English. Subconsciously, she hated it. All her obligations were more important than learning English. Instead of having two 90-minute meetings per week, very often it was reduced to  60 minutes. I was chatting to her  secretary for half an hour before her obligations let her have English. She did her homework usually at 2 am after everything else had been completed. And we didn`t have the problem with her lack of time for English only. She found it difficult to learn even the most basic things. She didn't have an ear for English. I kept encouraging her, I am always very supportive, especially with the slower students. I told her that the talent for learning languages could be connected with music. She was surprised, she said she could sing very well and had been the best student in her secondary school at Russian. It was my turn to be surprised. So what was wrong with English?
         After four months at beginner level, we moved on to elementary. After yet another four months I was desperate. I tried every possible method to bring her closer to English. Of course I never let her see my despair. She was blaming herself enough.  Going on to pre-intermediate level at that point would have been a terrible mistake and she had to move on because of her company. And we came up with this brilliant idea to detour to Business English elementary. Nobody else did it but that was her cup of tea! Still, don't expect too much. Her timing was still tight. By the end of this course I could say she was on elementary level. We repeated the detour with pre-intermediate level.
        So after 5 courses, and imaginary 350 classes of English (close to 300 in reality) she was a very weak pre-intermediate level. Still, after so many classes of English, frequent frustration and occasional enlightenment, she didn't give up.  She had a special black leather bag where she kept all her English notebooks and she always carried it with her. She believed she would sometimes use it when she had time. She took it to all her holidays! I told her she had to break the barriers she put up against English. 'You are like a boxer, with your fists up and you don`t let any English there .' She liked that very much, she agreed it was true.
         And then her bank went to a different language school but we stayed in touch. By that timed we became really good friends. We went out for lunch or a cup of coffee. She did another five or six courses of English. She  thought I was her lucky charm, so before her every exam we met to do a kind of revision. She said I made her more confident.
          There is still some bitter feeling of failure when I think about this. I still don't  understand why she didn't make a greater progress with me. I thought maybe she would be more successful with some other teachers. And during her next six courses she changed six of them, with even less success. She always regretted 'the good old times when only the two of us were in her office'
           I was thinking a lot about my friend. Is it possible that there are students that we can call `the unteachables`? I had a few similar experiences as I teach adults, but none was so drastic and so personal. Why is it that despite our great efforts some students make such a slow progress? Can we explain everything by `talent for languages` and the lack of it?

          About three years ago I came across Steven Krashen`s theory of language acquisition. And there in his Affective Filter Hypothesis I think I found a part of explanation My friend obviously had her affective filter up and only rarely we manged to lower it, despite the good will on both sides. Her motivation was somewhere there, but huge amount of anxiety and low self-esteem played their part. I am not sure this discovery could have helped me to teach her  more, I just wish I could have found a way to lower that affective filter.
(This was written in January this year and published on Posterous. Pity it is no longer with us)

Monday, February 4, 2013


          Hello dear friends, old and new!

         I have finally returned to my main blog to continue writing about this Digital Sea journey. The first thing I must say is that  everything is so different from last year, when everything was launched. At the beginning, and good way through the course, I was totally bewildered in an unfamiliar environment, struggling to understand the simplest instructions! As I said, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. This time I don't wonder around strange forests following ambiguous messages (NB all the messages last year  were extremely clear and informative, but when they were decoded by my ignorance a lot was lost in translation). The time has come  to change the film, and the title and picture  make it easy to guess  which film I've switched to.

        Yes, it is  the wonderful Wizard of Oz! Indeed there are a few similarities and a lot of magic here. Like Dorothy, I have my yellow brick road to follow, accompanied by so many dear people along the way. We  are travelling  together, supporting  and encouraging each other. This paved way is leading us, not to the Wizard, but to a different kind of magic, the magic of spaces and links. Like Dorothy, we have our good fairies, dear mods, who appear in the times of troubles to lead us back to the right way.

        And that`s exactly why BaW is different from any other place. Here we are in this beautiful big family, where everybody is doing their best to help you, guide you, not to let you give up. You are given enormous amounts of positive energy, Here sharing and caring are so genuine that it is impossible to be indifferent..Here you feel protected from dangerous sites and serious mistakes. Before, when I got a message about a potentially dangerous site, I immediately retreated to the safety of not doing anything. Now when I see a message about a risk to my computer asking me if I want to go on, I just think to myself: `Of course, I`ll go on where my Baw freinds go`. I feel safe to go into some side lanes, do what I need to do and return to the yellow brick road.    

        To be completely honest, I must say one more thing.. It's not that I don't like being confident, knowing  what one should now. But somehow I miss the mystery of  my first days here.I feel nostalgic about BaW12. I miss the late night talks with Catherine, our struggle to hit the right key. I miss direct tweets to Natasa at 3 am. asking her what URL  or embed code is or something of that type and I miss her immediate retweets. Naturally,  Baw12 will always be a very special for me, because that`s when a whole new world opened  before me. And that, in itself, is a miracle.
       Do you remember the song Dorothy sings in the film? I have just realized something: that place over the rainbow can so very easily be our BaW!