Saturday, 21 July 2012

Still working on overcoming procrastination, or.... how to eat a frog

I'm  really, really busy at the moment.  I'm teaching IELTS and Academic Reading and Writing, and also preparing my lesson plans and materials for my first ever TEFL Weekend course.   

I'm really having trouble getting started on my stuff for the TEFL Weekend, because it seems overwhelming - I could have up to 20 students, and I need to prepare 20 hours of teaching materials.  I know what I need to teach, but it feels like I need 40 or even 60 hours to cover everything the trainees need to learn.  I'm going to have to be very focused and very creative to work out what to do and what to leave out.  The experienced teacher I observed during my training was amazing - I've got a lot to live up to!

I've written about my tendency to procrastinate before - here - and my method using a 15 minute timer to get myself started is certainly helping me to get focused on my work generally.  The problem is that while I've been doing fine focusing on my work in general, I wasn't really getting started on my biggest, scariest project - the TEFL Weekend.  I needed to learn to 'eat my frog'......

A writer called Brian Tracy has written some interesting stuff about procrastinating in general but also the difficulty of focusing on the really difficult - but really important - tasks, which he describes as being like live frogs which you are being forced to eat.  Although I'm sure there are cultures around the world where people eat cooked frogs (for example, in France frogs' legs are a great delicacy), I'm English and the thought of eating any frog, let alone a live one, is not appealing.  However, sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do, so here's how to eat that frog:

  • Eat it first. Some children, and probably some adults, when faced with a plate of food containing something they don't like but which they feel they must eat (out of politeness, or for health reasons), eat the horrible thing first, to get it out of the way.  Then they can enjoy the rest of the meal. It's the same with the horrible or difficult task - just do it, and do it now.  The rest of the day will be so much more pleasant because you won't be dreading having to deal with that frog.
  • Don't sit there looking at it for too long.  Looking at it makes it seem worse than it really is - you just need to get started.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this topic (see the link above), I just set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes, and really focus on getting started, even if all I do is read over what I did last time I worked on it.  Then I take a short break to do something more enjoyable.   After exactly 15 minutes, I go back to my 'frog' and give it 15 more minutes of undivided attention. After that, another break, followed by another 15 minutes of concentration on the task.  It sounds a lazy way to eat the frog, but it works for me.  If I know I have to spend a whole hour dealing with that frog, I never get started.  I'm a quick worker when I get going, and I can usually do an hour's work in 30 minutes if I really, really work hard.
  • If you have two frogs to eat, eat the ugliest one first.  Always start with the task you dread the most - after that, things can only get better! Your sense of achievement from completing the worst task will make the second frog look a whole lot more beautiful...

So, I'm off to eat my frog - in 15 minute chunks, with 15 minutes of reading my Ruth Rendell detective novel inbetween.  Later we're going out walking in the countryside, making the most of the sunshine, and I'll be able to do it with a clean conscience, knowing that I've eaten today's frog.  If you'd like to read more about procrastination and eating frog's here's the link to Brian Tracy's free e-book.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, 13 July 2012

Things I wish I'd known when I first went to study abroad

In my previous post here, I talked about my recent visit to St Johann im Pongau, the village in Austria where I spent my year abroad as part of my German degree.  It's not surprising that this visit has triggered a flood of memories not only about that time but also about other trips I made to German-speaking countries in an effort to learn German.

Although I had some wonderful experiences, and my time abroad most definitely did help me with my German, I do feel that I missed a few opportunities and that there are some things I wish I'd known, especially at the beginning of the year in St Johann.  Maybe some of these things will help you if you are studying a long way from home.
  1. Homesickness is awful, but it's a natural part of adapting to life in a new country.  It's one aspect of culture shock, and if I experienced terrible culture shock living in another European country, I can't imagine how hard it must be for people coming to the UK from China or other distant countries.  What I wish I'd know is that it would pass, and in my case it would have passed much more quickly if I had known that the cure for homesickness is to.... 
  2. Get out of your room and do things!  Even now, I still have a tendency to hide away at home if I'm feeling bad, although I know that mixing with people always makes me feel better.  When I first went to Austria several people at the school where I worked were nice and welcoming, but I was very shy and I didn't really show how much I wanted to make friends.  In those days we didn't have the Internet, and phone calls were really expensive, so I spent hours and hours and hours writing letters to friends and family at home.  It would have been a much better idea to get out and about. If you're part of a class of students, like my new group of students at INTO Manchester, make the most of any activities organised by the college.  If you're feeling great, try to notice anyone in your class who seems homesick or lonely,  and be friendly to them. Maybe you will feel homesick at some point, and a person who has already been through it and is feeling better will be happy to help you the way you helped them. 
  3. Make new friends who don't speak your language.  It's natural when you are homesick to want to spend time with people from your own culture, and I would never say that you should avoid them altogether.  However, don't spend all your time with them.  I spent nearly all my weekends visiting English people in other parts of Austria, and by doing that I missed out on opportunities to do things with Austrians, get to know them better - and practise my German. Before I went to Austria, I was one of the best students in my year at university, but when I got back I was nowhere near the top of my class, especially in Speaking.  The people who had made lots of German and Austrian friends were way, way ahead of me.  If possible, fall in love with a native speaker!  One of my Chinese classmates on my Master's degree course had a British boyfriend - her English really improved very quickly indeed.
  4. Even if you don't have much money, spend as much as you can on experiences you will never forget.  For me, I should have had skiing lessons the minute the first snow arrived.  A friend from my aerobics class tried to teach me to ski, but she wasn't a skiing teacher and she found it hard to understand why I couldn't do it!  I should have invested some money in proper lessons, and then I could have joined the other teachers at school who went skiing every weekend all through the winter. That doesn't really apply to my students in Manchester, but I would still say this: don't spend all your money on clothes and electronics - you can have all those things later in your life - spend your money on experiences - meals with friends, music concerts, films, sports and, most importantly of all, travel.  I did travel quite a lot when I lived in Austria, but not nearly enough - partly because I didn't always have someone to travel with.  I didn't realise that lots and lots of people have amazing journeys on their own - in fact, you are more likely to make new friends if you are travelling alone.  I was so happy when one of my new INTO students emailed me this week asking for advice about travelling while he is here - one of his friends had told him that he should take the opportunity to do this before he gets too busy with his studies, and this is absolutely right.  
One day you will wake up and find that you are 30, or 40, or 50 (yes, honestly, one day you will be this old...) and you will probably have so many responsibilities - a demanding job, a home to pay for and clean, children to bring up and provide for.  It would be terrible to have regrets about not having made the most of your freedom while you had it!

To my new class at INTO: you will never have a better chance to become really, really good at English.  Most of you are Chinese, and I understand how easy it is for you to stick together.  However, there are lots of people at INTO and other colleges in Manchester who are not from China, and they would love to make friends with you. Don't miss this chance to really broaden your horizons.

Have a great weekend :-)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Back to where it all started...

The photo above is of St Johann im Pongau, the village in Austria where I spent the third year of my German degree as an English assistant working in two schools.  

Last week while I was in Munich the weather was unbearably hot for this poor Brit used to Manchester weather, so we hired a blissfully air-conditioned car and drove down into Austria (or up into the Alps) to revisit the place where my teaching career began.  I'd not been back for 28 years, so it was quite an emotional day.

Since my very first day at primary school, all I ever wanted to be was a teacher.  I couldn't imagine anything more wonderful than being able to spend all my time helping people to learn new things.  At secondary school I loved German best of all my school subjects, and I was extra ordinarily lucky to have two of the most amazing teachers for German - Mrs Burras somehow had me convinced that learning German grammar was the best fun it was possible to have, and Mrs Irving re-awoke my love for literature that had been killed off by having to read Shakespeare at the age of 11. It was a foregone conclusion that I would choose to study German at university, and my only plan was to go on to be a school teacher.

Teaching in Austria was a terrible shock.  My only training was a couple of days in Vienna with the entire group of English assistants for the whole of Austria that year, and all I can remember from that time is being in rather nice bars and restaurants being plied with food and drink at the expense of the Austrian government.  I certainly don't remember being given any idea at all how to teach English.  

English assistants are generally supposed to 'assist' the actual class teacher, but in one school I was expected to teach the whole class (with no course book to help me) while the teacher put her feet up in the staff room with a cup of coffee and a cigarette (yes, in those days the staff room was full of smoke...) and in the other school I sat in the corner of the classroom as bored as the pupils with the teacher throwing an occasional, usually very difficult, question at me.  For example, I was asked, without warning, to explain in detail the British parliamentary system of government.  I was 20 and more interested in boys than politics, and I still remember the red-faced humiliation I felt when I stumbled over my inadequate answer.  I also remember how much the students resented being made to learn English throughout their whole time at school, and how little attention they paid.

There were many wonderful things about that year in Austria, but school teaching was not one of them.  I came away absolutely certain in my conviction that I would never become a school teacher, and I never have.  I truly admire those people who are successful secondary school language teachers, but I knew it wasn't for me.

I wouldn't be sitting here writing this now had it not been for a friend I met at an aerobics class in St Johann, who taught an English evening class.  She invited me to attend her class to meet her adult students, and I fell in love.  Not with a student - but with the idea of teaching people who had chosen to be there, who were giving up their own time and money to come and study.  Some were learning English to help them in their jobs, others just for something fun and social to do, others for the sheer pleasure of learning.  The teacher had freedom in the classroom to teach in her own way, to meet the students' goals in the way that she felt most appropriate rather than being forced to follow a strict syllabus.  

So, to cut a long story short, I became a teacher of German in Further Education, quite often teaching retired people who had had a longstanding interest in Germany, Austria or Switzerland and who wanted to learn the language when they had the time.  It was a wonderful career - not well paid or secure (everything was dependent on student enrolment numbers) but incredibly enjoyable and satisfying.  I eventually moved over to teaching mainly English - alas, the British are not great lovers of language learning, and German is not so popular these days - and it all began with that one evening class in St Johann which I taught all those years ago.  

I discovered then that what I want is to teach students who want to learn, and what I need is to know what I am doing.  I admire people who can teach anyone, or who be thrown in at the deep end and begin teaching without any training or doing any lesson preparation, but I'm not like that.  Like most people I know, I needed some good teacher training - I did a one year Cert TESOL plus lots more training later on - and plenty of time for lesson preparation, particularly in the early years.  Maybe if I had been properly trained before I started teaching in St Johann, I would have gone on to become a secondary school teacher, but I can't imagine that I would have had as much pleasure in my teaching career as I have had up to now, and expect to go on having in the future.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Second language speaking out in the real world

I've just come back from a holiday in Munich.  As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty competent speaker of German, and can express myself easily in all everyday situations.  Normally when I go on holiday to a German-speaking country I don't have to make much of an effort to make myself understood in every situation in which I find myself.  This time was a little bit different, as I was taken ill while I was there and needed to find and see a doctor.  Surprisingly, given that most educated Germans speak English to an extremely high standard, the doctor spoke no English and I felt very vulnerable having to provide some quite unusual but very important information in my second language.  I was dopey from having taken painkillers and, to be honest, a bit anxious about being so far from home and in pain.  I really struggled to describe exactly what I was experiencing, and discuss with her whether I should see a specialist in Munich or wait until I got home.  In the end we agreed on the latter, and luckily the pain subsided enough for me to enjoy the last couple of days of my holiday.  

I hope that my international students in Manchester find me sympathetic and understanding when they face illness or other difficulties during their time here, but my experience in Munich was a good reminder to me of the challenges of speaking a foreign language (not to mention dealing with a foreign health service) under pressure.  Of course all teachers know only too well how strong students sometimes perform poorly under stress in the IELTS exam, but it does us good to be reminded from time to time that students also have to live here, and negotiate all sorts of bureaucratic situations which we as native speakers might find irritating but they as second language learners find incredibly stressful.  It has definitely made me aware of the importance of a holistic attitude to teaching and learning - our students are first and foremost people rather than students, and while it is not my job to accompany them to the doctor, the town hall or the police station, it is my job to enable them to develop the linguistic strategies to cope under pressure.

More about Munich in due course!