How the Delta has changed my teaching

A few days ago I saw my name published in the ELT Gazette as part of the list of people who passed one or all parts of the Cambridge Delta in 2015. That’s when it hit me how much I’ve changed as a teacher thanks to going through the gruesome experience of working full-time and doing the Distance Delta.

For those of you who don’t know what the Delta is, it’s a teaching qualification through Cambridge that is considered a level 7 diploma (equivalent to Master’s level work). It’s for teachers of ESL/EFL teachers and consists of 3 modules–an exam, assignments (essays and observed lessons) and designing a course. It’s intense and complete nightmare but totally worth doing.

I still do a lot of the same things in the classroom that I did before my Delta, but now there’s a theory to the madness and I actually understand the theory. Here are some of the ways that my teaching has changed:

  1. I always start with a main aim or goal in mind and then work from that. That seems pretty basic, but all teachers are guilty of sometimes planning around an activity that seems like fun. Now I’m guilty of that a lot less often.
  2. I’m never thinking about one lesson at a time. I’m always thinking of the overarching goal I’ve set for the course and thinking of how lessons connect to each other. It might sound complicated and time consuming, but it’s actually cut down on the time I spend planning.
  3. I’m a lot more confident drilling language and focusing on pronunciation. I used to feel kind of strange standing in front of a group of students and saying the same word again and again with them repeating after me. Now I draw their attention to the movement of my lips, do whisper drills, silent drills etc. with absolutely no shame.
  4. I know where to look when I have a question about a language point or need a teaching idea. I never read methodology books before, but now I know exactly which one to open when I need to look up something.
  5. I’m not afraid to experiment. I love trying out new ideas that I’ve read about. I didn’t even know what dogme was before I started my Delta. Now I have the confidence to read about methods and then try them out.
  6. I feel a lot more prepared to deal with random questions from students. I used to dread teaching the present perfect because of all the questions students would ask. I had to research it and write an essay about it, so now I can answer any question about it without hesitation. I definitely feel a lot more knowledgeable about the language.
  7. I finally understand the difference between teaching and practicing skills. Now I don’t just practice listening or speaking in class. We focus on specific skills to help them speak or listen better.

This list could go on and on, but the bottom line is that doing the Delta is an endeavor worth taking on. It’s not easy, but you’ll feel and see the difference in your teaching. Plus, it opens up more job opportunities which is another major plus.

Why we still need teachers

I can’t count the number of times a student has asked me how many English classes they need to take. Yet I always have a hard time answering the question. The truth is a person doesn’t actually need any classes to learn English or any other language. Neither do they have to live in a native speaking country. Technology can help you learn any language you want, wherever you are. So why do people still take classes? Why do we still need teachers?

This has turned into a rather controversial issue since Sugata Mitra began writing/speaking on the subject. If you haven’t read about or watched any of his presentations, just check out one of his TED talks: http://www.ted.com/speakers/sugata_mitra. While I agree with his basic idea of people being capable of learning on their own, I do think he takes it too far. His ideas are interesting, but I do think they overgeneralize and oversimplify the matter. Some people are perfectly capable of learning on their own, but there’s still a definite need for well-designed courses led by talented teachers.

Learning on your own requires a number of things- resources (now easily found online), desire/motivation, organization and the ability to evaluate yourself. There are of course many other factors, but these are the ones that come to mind first. What most students lack is related to organization and ability to self-evaluate.

When you sign up for a class, you commit yourself to studying that subject on specific days at specific times. If you don’t attend, your classmates and teacher will ask you why. You feel accountable to others, not only yourself. Committing certain hours every week to studying is harder for most people if there’s nobody holding them accountable. It’s the same reason why a lot of people find it easier to finish a class at a gym than an exercise video at home. At home, nobody knows if they sit on the couch and watch the video instead of actually doing it. At the gym, as long as everyone else is spinning, they’ll keep spinning too. Say you’re able to commit yourself to studying at specific times on a regular basis, how do you know what to study? How do you know what to study first? Why would you know that you should study past simple before present perfect? For some people, it might seem more logical to study all the present forms first. People need guidance on setting up a study plan of what to study in what order. It’s the same way that even if you manage to find time to workout at home, you still look to an exercise video or other resource for guidance.

What about the ability to evaluate yourself? Why’s that important? No matter what line of work you’re in, I’m sure you’ve come across somebody who thinks they’re really amazing at their job, but who actually isn’t. As an English teacher, I often come across students who feel that they’re really advanced in the language. These students need a teacher to give them an accurate picture of their true strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise, they won’t work on improving the things that need improvement. This isn’t about breaking their confidence, it’s just about helping them recognize where there’s room for improvement and what they should focus on.

My conclusion: Yes, people can learn at home. No, people don’t have to take courses for 4 years to learn English. With someĀ  guidance from a teacher to help form a study plan and identify strengths and weaknesses, a person can make a lot of progress on their own. Proof of this is in students who take one or two classes and make a tremendous amount of progress over a short period of time. How do they do it? by taking advantage of their class and teacher as a guide for how and what to study and spending extra time at home studying on their own.

Giving students choices

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When I came up with the idea of a class magazine for a group of teens/pre-teens, I only hoped it would actually happen. I was worried that the students would find the idea silly and not give it 100%. My class was made up of mixed abilities and even more mixed interest levels. This made it a challenge but the fun personalities of the students made it a fun challenge. We had several writing sessions on various topics ranging from writing a short story about a time machine, writing a review and even writing a Facebook status.

During all of these activities, I tried to emphasize the choices the students had. They could also choose to work alone or with a group. They could choose what to review- a book, film, video game etc. I wanted this to be their magazine. I let them choose to submit things handwritten or take them home, type a draft and email it to me. When asked about length, pictures and topics, I always encouraged the students to ask each other. Their magazine, their choice.

When it came time to put the magazine together, my classroom was exactly what I’d always dreamed of it being. I had all of the students working with smiles on their faces, so intent on what they were doing that they didn’t even notice or mind me taking pictures. Even more rewarding was watching them share their final product with their school principal. They were so proud and rightfully so!

For anybody who is struggling with tweens/teens, give them choices. Let them take on a little responsibility. Give them a chance to shine.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Although I normally teach adult classes, I’ve been teaching a teen class over the last few months. The students come one day over the weekend and another day after school. It’s been an interesting and difficult experience for somebody who didn’t get teenagers even when I was one.

Last week, I decided to do a movie lesson using The Dead Poets Society. The overall English level in the class is quite high, so I knew they would be able to understand most of it. Before we started the movie, they had a few discussion questions about their past teachers- traditional? nontraditional? best? worst? why? When I asked about their best teacher, one student looked up at me and said “You, miss.” I was shocked.

This particular student belongs to a group in the class that isn’t exactly cooperative. However, the previous lesson this student did an amazing job during a listening activity. While others still looked unsure after a second listening, he was confident (and right) with his answers. Surprised, I turned to the rest of the class and said “A_____ is really great at listening! Did you guys know that?” Like a typical teenager, he got a little shy but he left that day with a big smile on his face.

Never underestimate the power of a little bit of positive feedback.