Show and Tell

Remember when you were a snot-nosed third grader that brought in some bullshit toy that no one else cared about? And since showing it off wasn’t boring enough, you had to open your yapper and tell your classmates about it, as if your blathering would add any degree of interest. Not much has changed.

The whole appeal of show and tell is the showing, of course, not the telling. Would kids rather be shown a new video game or told about it? Would you rather be shown the Mona Lisa or told about it? Why would I tell you how much I hate you when I could just do this?

Middle Finger

Words simply don’t have the same impact as images.  Yes, there are exceptions. We will always remember ‘I have a dream…’ and ‘…one small step for man…’, and we probably won’t forget ‘I’m in love with someone else’ or ‘you’re not the father.’ But by and large, our brains don’t remember this way.

Pop Quiz: What do the following all have in common?

“Life is like a box of chocolate…”

“Do you feel lucky, punk?”

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

“Mirror mirror on the wall…”

“Beam me up, Scotty.”

“Luke, I am your father.”

“Hello, Clarise.”

“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Famous movie quotes, right? Can you name the movies? You can probably picture all of them. Forrest Gump sitting at the bus stop. Dirty Harry standing in front of a mirror. Dorothy holding Toto. The only thing is, no one ever said these oft-attributed quotes. They’re all (famous) misquotes.

It’s dangerous to attach percentages to how much we learn via any particular sensory input, but research consistently shows a higher degree of retention through visual stimulus rather than aural. If you spend enough time in the field of learning and retention, you’ll eventually come upon Edgar Dale’s ‘Cone of Experience’. I could tell you about it, but you probably wouldn’t get it. Better show you instead.

Edgar Dale's Cone of Experience

The first thing to notice is that this looks a lot more like a triangle than a cone. What the fuck, Edgar Dale? The important thing is that verbal symbols (a bullshit expression that just means ‘spoken words’) occupies the least amount of learning retention. The quality of learning then grows with seeing written words, pictures and motion pictures to doing demonstrations to finally experiencing.

But don’t take my word for it. Old Ben can say it far better than I ever could.

Benjamin Franklin Quote

They wouldn’t put just anyone on the hundred dollar bill. And money talks, folks, but as we’ve just seen, people don’t learn from talking. So I don’t expect you to actually learn anything from what I’ve just told you. We both know how slow you are on the uptake to begin with.  I’m going to have to show you, aren’t I?

Pace, Grade, Brevity. (What we talk about when we talk about talking.)

As fun (and accurate) as it is, it isn’t enough to merely say that you talk too much. That only hits one third of the equation — brevity. There are still two other factors, namely pace and grade, to be conscious of whenever you’re addressing your class.

Pace (peɪs) n. rate or style of proceeding at some activity

teacher talking time (stfu)

Have you ever listened to Eminem and had to rewind because he was rapping too fast to be understood? Me neither. He whines too much. It was probably about his mom, anyway.

The point is that  what seems like a completely normal pace of speech to us can sound like an auctioneer’s sale to beginning-level students. So how slow do you need to speak? Slow. Painfully slow. Slow to the point where it feels awkward and patronizing because it’s as if you’re talking to small children.

Grade(grād) n. an accepted level or standard.

POTC quote

Generally speaking, most new teachers are given beginner-level classes. Just as students in these levels are severely limited in vocabulary, so too must the teacher restrict him/herself to language that the students can understand. It’s not as easy as it sounds. How do you know how much vocabulary your students know? Often you don’t, at least not until you get into the classroom. A good rule of thumb is to assume they know nothing. Aim for the same level of vocabulary you’d use when talking to a toddler and adjust accordingly only when you’re positive most of the students can understand you.

Brevity: (brĕv′ĭ-tē) n. concise expression; terseness

the dude

Brevity isn’t just the soul of wit, it’s the essence of understanding in an EFL classroom. To put it simply, the shorter you can keep your expressions, the more likely you are to be understood. To put it even more simply, talk less.

A Case Study

The following instruction was taken verbatim from a teacher addressing an elementary class:

“Okay. Alright guys. Let’s open our books to page 98 and let’s review the different aspects of hotels which we’ve been studying for the last two weeks.”

Even if this had been delivered at an appropriate pace, which it wasn’t, there is approximately zero chance of elementary students understanding this sentence.

Check out the grade. Many elementary students won’t know ‘alright, guys, page, review, aspects’. ‘…which we’ve been studying…’ is grammar they won’t have encountered yet.

How about the brevity? More like, what brevity? That’s the opposite of brevity. That’s longwindness, garrulousness and verboseness all wrapped into one big travesty of an instruction.

What is the essential information the teacher was trying to convey? ‘Open your books to page 98.’ That’s it. That’s all you need, and you don’t even need that. Could you get your students to open their books to page 98 without saying anything? Sure. Just write page 98 on the board and mime opening a book. The rest is extraneous verbiage you needn’t waste your breath on.

Learning to speak with grade and brevity at a slower than normal pace is a crucial aspect of TTT, a skill that some experienced teachers struggle with (often without even being aware of it). But how are you supposed to teach if you can barely talk to your students? There’s the rub.

Time for some show and tell.

Teacher Talking Time (the Subtle Art of Shutting the Fuck Up) Part 1

So your first time in class ended up being a greasy shit smear of a lesson. A real turd. Are you still wallowing in it or have you recovered enough to wash your sheets? Have you been able to piece together what exactly went wrong? Maybe you’ve suppressed the whole experience, written over the whole memory like a trauma victim because your fragile Millenial ego couldn’t handle the embarrassment.

The unhelpful answer to your problem is that you suck at TEFL, but you already know that or you wouldn’t be here. The better answer is that you crapped the bed with verbal diarrhea. Your instinct was to talk. That’s what teachers do, after all, don’t they? But that is precisely the wrong approach in an EFL classroom. What typically happens is new teachers talk their students into a mess of incomprehension, and then either try to talk their way out of it if they’re perceptive enough to recognize the meaning behind those blank stares, or just keep on yapping if they’re not. And you, you’re a yapper.

Maxim 1: New teachers overestimate how much their students can understand.

Your first misstep was talking to elementary level students as if you were gossiping to your best friend back home. You assumed your students were following you when in actuality they started tuning out after a minute of your garbled gapping. You failed to pick up the subtle signs of incomprehension, and they are subtle; students (particularly in Asian cultures) don’t typically raise their hand to profess their own ignorance. Most new teachers have an Aziz Ansari level of awareness of non-verbal cues.

Here are the signs:

Or perhaps:

Or maybe even:

Maxim 2: The more you talk, the less they understand.

Silence feels awkward. We have an almost genetic compulsion to fill it with idle platitudes and uninteresting chit chat, especially you. But it isn’t that your students don’t want to hear it (though I certainly don’t), it’s that they simply can’t understand it.

There’s something disarming about communicating with someone who speaks a different language. Whatever charms, wit , sense of humor and irony you have (and let’s be honest it ain’t much) are rendered useless with the loss of language as a medium of transmission. The sheer act of making yourself understood is as humbling as it is frustrating, not to mention exhausting.

It’s also unnatural, in a way, not to be able to use language to communicate. Most of us grow up surrounded by people who readily speak our own language. If you’ve never lived abroad, how many times have you actually had to express yourself to someone who couldn’t understand a word of English? Not many if I had to hazard a guess.

Only when you’re faced with someone who can’t understand you do you realize how essential language is to communication, how expressing yourself simply and concisely is a skill that takes a lot of practice to develop. As with everything, some are naturally better at it than others. Some people have a knack for pith just as some love hearing their own voice, and we both know which you are.

So how do you get better? The first step is awareness of the problem. If you’ve read this far, you can consider yourself aware of it. You’re welcome. The second step is being conscious of every word that comes out of your mouth and taking into consideration three things: grade, pace and brevity.

 

Crapping the Bed (Your First Class)

So you’ve got a new class and you, a budding new teacher, show up hours early and painstakingly prepare a kickass lesson chock full of fun activities. You’re scared you don’t have enough to do, so you plan things down to the minute just to make sure every last moment is accounted for. You’re nervous, palms are sweaty, vomit on your shirt already (mom’s spaghetti), but your well-designed lesson plan is your road-map to see you through so you don’t get lost in the weeds.

You walk into class and find two dozen faces staring at you. 48 eyes watching your every movement. You say hello. One returns the greeting while the others just sit there impassively. They’re nervous too, but you don’t know that yet and it doesn’t seem to matter because now you’re starting to panic since their silence would seem to indicate that they must be judging you. Somewhere deep in the recesses of your mind, a seed of doubt sprouts.

You make your way to the teacher’s desk to drop your bag and get things ready. You take out a book, put it back, take it back out again. You shuffle a few papers, pretending to look through them. You fumble a marker because you’re clumsy when you’re nervous. [New teachers ALWAYS drop something.] This teacher’s desk is your safe space, your island in rough, uncharted seas. And now you’re just killing time so you don’t have to leave it. But leave it you must.

You walk over and take your place at the front of class.

“Hello, my name’s Todd (of course that’s your name). How are you guys today?”

You’re answered with silence. You swallow a pit of fear and feel cold beads of sweat forming on your brow. You decide to single a student out in the front row.

“Hi. How are you today?”

Front row student stares at you wide-eyed, then turns to another student nervously with a look that seems to say ‘what the fuck is this guy on about?’ He smiles awkwardly but never replies. Screw it, you think. Let’s do an activity.

“Ok, guys. I’d like to get to know you a bit better so let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. Can you maybe tell me your name, age and what you like doing in your free time?”

Silence.

“Okay?”

Now heads are turning, looking for someone to break this thick gauze of what-the-hell-is-happening.

“Can we start with you?” you ask, indicating a woman in a green shirt. Green shirt lady’s eyebrows perk up in perfect arches of incomprehension and no-fucking-way. “Come on, guys. Someone. Anyone. Bueller?” Of course they’ve never seen the film and your stupid joke falls flat but you laugh anyway to hide your growing exasperation. Your emotions fluctuate between humiliation and annoyance. Growing desperation looms over your thoughts.

What the hell is wrong with you guys. Say something.

But your students look like this:

deer in headlights

And you do too, you just can’t see it. But you feel it. Your exasperation nurtures that seed of doubt in your mind, and though you’re only minutes into what was supposed to have been a brilliant lesson, that doubt begins growing and pokes through the soil as conscious thought: what in God’s name was I thinking? 

Yes, this is what it feels like to crap the bed. The bad news is that you can’t uncrap it. Your students have already seen quite clearly that you have no idea what you’re doing. The good news is that you’re not alone. Nobody’s first class comes without a certain amount of incontinence, so you don’t need to go home and slit your wrists. The key thing is to roll with it. Handle yourself with a sense of humor and a modicum of poise and your class will forgive you. Lose your cool and all bets are off.

More importantly, recognize that this is a moment of truth. Lesser teachers (and there are no shortage of them) will mosey into the teacher’s room nagging about how horrible their students are, how they can’t do anything. Well of course they can’t, you naggots (not actually a word, but you get it), that’s why they’re in a classroom.

The best among you will look at this moment as an opportunity for self-reflection. What happened? What did I do wrong? How can I improve? If these are your thoughts, then first thank your parents for raising a well-adjusted human being. There aren’t enough of them or you in this world. Second, go home and cringe as you relive your failure over and over again, wondering what happened. Maybe have a long, cliched stare in the mirror.

So what did go wrong? That’s the easy part. Without having seen you teach I can tell you exactly what happened. How could I possibly know that? Because every single teacher makes the same mistake. I did. We all did. Remember, nobody craps the bed alone.

It starts the moment we open our mouths.

 

 

Seating Arrangements

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Close your eyes and go back to your high school days when you peaked. Remember your hair? Your freshly-popped pimples? Jesus, you were a loser.

Now imagine one of your classrooms. If your high school was anything like mine, you sat in rows. And if you were anything like me, you sat in the back where you wouldn’t be noticed because hey, let’s face it, you weren’t worth noticing. Remember that seating arrangement? Just like this:

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I won’t say that I never use this arrangement in my classroom, but it’s damn close to never. Perhaps for exams or presentations. Perhaps. This set up describes the traditional ‘teacher-center’ classroom where the teacher is primary and all eyes are on him/her. While such an arrangement was perfect for someone like me who wanted to sit in the back and do fuck all, it doesn’t suit the ESL/EFL classroom for several reasons, the most important of which is that you want your students’ eyes typically on each other rather than the back of someone in front of them.

Remember the mantra — ‘students are primary’. I’ll flesh this out in another post, then I’ll beat it like a dead horse. Suffice it to say that your main job is less about teaching and more about providing students with opportunities to use English. So how do you do that?

 

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This is the default setup for my classroom. Do you see the first of the Cons — ‘not suitable for work in small groups’. Bullshit. [I didn’t design the picture.] The horseshoe gives students the opportunity to see each other speaking while everyone can still see the board, but also allows students to peel off into pairs or small groups with minimal movement.

Classroom_Clusters_Infographic

Some teachers choose clusters for their default setup. The cluster is the student’s group or team, and often there’s a running tally of points kept from all the games played throughout the lesson. Students being noisy? Take a point from the team. There is an increased risk of distractions since the students are constantly focused on each other as opposed to the teacher, but there’s a possible hidden advantage to this. Eventually you’ll have a class with an absolute catastrophe of a student. One that will make you question not your choice of teaching as a profession, but the existence of God. Think Type-A, know-it-all, class clown, bully, ADHD, jock, whatever. These students have the potential to ruin a lesson if they’re a constant distraction to the whole class which can easily happen if you’re in a horseshoe arrangement. Put them in clusters, though, and these assholes are neutralized by only being able to distract their group. In your face, John Bender.

My classroom, as noted above, typically begins as a horseshoe, then breaks up into clusters of two or three depending on the activity, then again reverts back to the horseshoe. Horseshoe mode is for presentation and instruction. I want all my students’ eyes on me and the board, not a partner or group member or potential love interest. Then, when it’s time for group-work, students shift into cluster mode. This switching between the two arrangements lets students ‘know what time it is’. Horseshoe means shut up and listen, clusters mean it’s practice time.

[Confession: 75% of my lesson is in horseshoe mode. Students can easily pair off or even form groups of three without actually having to shift their desks into a cluster. Consider me a fan.]

The point is that students should feel comfortable but never completely settled. They need to know that just because they’re in one place now doesn’t mean you won’t move them later. The sooner you can play with different seating arrangements, generally the more amenable students are to changing. Don’t let them grow roots.

Other options to play with:

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There’s little you can do with a runway that you can’t do with a horseshoe, but I might employ two parallel rows when I want partners face to face for activities such as speed-dating or dictation.

Classroom_Stadium_Arrangement

I’ve only ever used this for presentations.

Classroom_Combination_Arrangement

Rare. Perhaps if some students have finished an activity before the others, I’ll group them up separately for another activity while the others finish.

In a nutshell, the type of activity should ideally dictate the seating arrangement and not the other way around, but in practice teachers are often given limited space and resources which constrains the number and type of activities we can employ. If you find yourself in this latter situation, you’ll probably have one of two possible reactions depending on who you are as a person. The first reaction is to piss and moan about how shit the school is and how ridiculous it is that poor you is forced to slave away under such abject conditions. The second is to be creative and challenge yourself to come up with activities that work within the confines of your resources.

I confess I was in this first group until a wise man told me three pieces of sage advice that have stuck with me every since. Three tenets of a philosophy not just of work, but life: 1. Shut the fuck up and stop whining. 2. Suck it up. 3. Adapt and overcome.

 

The Classroom

Congratulations. Somebody actually hired you. You’re well on your way to becoming an actual human being rather than just some basement-dwelling, parasitic slob living off your parents. I didn’t think you had it in you.

Perhaps you’re already in country. Have you seen your school yet? Toured the facilities? Been in a classroom? The equipment and facilities in the TEFL world are so varied that a (boring) book could be written about all the configurations. Suffice it to say that while you can change your lesson and activities, it’s much harder to change the equipment you’re given. You can only work with what you’re given and what works in one classroom may not work in another.

Blackboard or Whiteboard?

Why anyone would use a blackboard when there’s such a thing as a whiteboard boggles my mind. There’s literally nothing you can do on a blackboard which you can’t do on a white except perhaps break your writing utensil and leave cocaine-like piles of dust scattered around the area. Whiteboards aren’t only cleaner, they’re also decent media for your projector, so if you’re working off interactive software, you can use a market to write answers, highlight, underline, circle…basically everything you’ll want to do in the program.

How big is the room? How many desks?

The games and activities you plan are constrained by class and classroom size. Do you want a mingle activity? A board race? What if there’s physically no room? Can you move desks outside the classroom? Do you have enough space to move desks for pair and group work? You’ll need to see your facilities before planning a lesson.

thai-school-class

Google images says the above image is a Thai classroom but I suspect it might be Burmese due to the shit (thanaka — a sandlewood paste) on their faces. Regardless, the above classroom isn’t atypical for the region. If you find yourself with such a setup, first slap yourself in the face for signing up for that, then quit your job and head to a real school. I jest, but in all seriousness, many teachers make such classrooms work. Just know that all the fun and games you’ll want to play are limited by the physical space.

modern classroom

That’s more like it. In the classroom above you’re limited only by your imagination. Need small groups, pair work, or maybe you need the floor wide open? No problem, just move the desks into whatever configuration suits the purpose. The flexibility afforded by the facilities here gives you far more latitude and creativity in terms of lesson planning. The room probably even has air-con so you needn’t worry about sweating through your shirt and bogging out the class with your rancid onion body odor.

The point (which I’m belaboring so even you can grasp it) is that form (facilities) dictates content (activities). So do yourself a favor and make sure you know what you’re (literally) walking into.

Scam City.

So you think you’re ready to take the plunge. You’ve got your crisp new passport with nary a visa inside. You’ve got a country chosen. You even managed to grasp the impenetrable depths of an online TEFL certification. Look at you, big shit, thinking you’re on top of the world. Hold your fuckin horses.

Have you done your research? I mean, really done it. Have you talked to teachers working at a school you’ve got your eye on? Have you talked to administrators? I’m not trying to scare you, I’m just watching your back to make sure you don’t fly to China only to end up bound and gagged in a tub of ice water with stitches where your kidneys used to be. Joking.

The world of ESL is littered with the remains of teachers who were chewed up and spit out by unscrupulous schools who said whatever you wanted to hear to get your dumbass into their classroom. Not a few of these scams, unsurprisingly, come from China where it’s not just products that are fake, but also classrooms and Apple stores along with the employees working inside. Not joking.

Generally, scams can be sniffed out by anyone with even a rudimentary bullshit detector. But I know you, dear Millenial. Perhaps the peach fuzz on your upper lip is keeping the sour stench of lies from reaching your nose. Well bust out the wax because we’re about to get raw.

Pertinent questions to ask:

  1. How many contact hours per week? How many hours are you required to be at the school?
  2. Is there homework and/or exams to be marked?
  3. Are lesson plans required for submission?
  4. What is the max class size?
  5. Can you see some pictures of the facilities?
  6. Does the school have a photocopier?
  7. How often do you get paid? What’s the tax rate and who’s responsible for paying it?
  8. How long are the lessons?
  9. What materials are provided for the lessons? Are there books or are you meant to design your own curriculum?
  10. Do you have access to a computer/projector in the classroom? How will you conduct listening lessons? On a tape deck? (If yes, fucking run).
  11. What benefits do you get for signing a year contract? Health insurance? Housing? Meals? Be specific.
  12. Can you talk to a teacher currently working at the school? (Tough to lie your way through this one.)

Finally. And this is really important so make sure it gets through your thick skull. Never, ever, forever never does the school ever need your fucking passport except to get you a visa. Don’t give it to them because they want it ‘just because’. If you’re getting a visa, fair enough. If it’s for any other reason, well, enjoy your ice bath.