ETAS Journal- vol.30 Voices from Greece

An English teacher or a Language School owner?

What it takes to serve two different roles in one.

Welcome to my world, or maybe…two worlds? The more I think about it, the more I realise that they’re ,indeed, two totally different worlds. The one of an English teacher and the other one of a school owner’s. I experienced this, once again, the previous week. It was registration time for my school and I had to deal with confused parents every day. What would you say to a parent asking:”What’s the appropriate age for my kid to start learning English?” “Exposure to the language at a pre-school age would be more than beneficial”, most of us would say. Well…not in this case, you see, children in Greece start  having English lessons at the age of 7 or 8. Parents are of the opinion that their children should firstly learn to read and write in their mother tongue. And the truth is that they might be right up to a point since the Ministry of Education has not included CLIL in public schools yet. So, how could 4-5 year old infants, who haven’t developed their cognitive skills, learn a foreign language in a formal classroom environment where they  are exposed to the target language for an hour or two each week and the teacher focuses mainly on teaching the alphabet, some grammar rules and the basic vocabulary? This is almost what happens to some private foreign languages schools in my country. Even though teachers would love to use drama, poetry ,rhymes and games  in the lesson so as to get very young learners immersed to the full in the foreign language by learning through real life experiences, they are apprehensive of the parents’ reaction. The latter disregard such methods assuming that they are a waste of time as long as their little heroes do not come back home with a pile of homework assigned. Another point that should be also mentioned is that both learners and their families are not actually interested in learning the English language. All that matters is merely acquiring a certificate. The sooner, the better! If only it were possible for students to sit for B2 level exams at the age of 10 or 12!

I do not blame the parents. The public educational system is also exam-oriented. At the age of 16, students start preparing for the university entrance exams and this takes almost 2 years. They’re so fully occupied with lessons at school that they do not have time to do anything else, not even to follow their extra curriculum activities; far more to study for English lessons. And as certificates (B2 level and above) are considered a “Must” for a child’s future pursuit of best professional career, we end up having frustrated parents and miserable students.

Now, as a teacher of English, I do know that it’s far too difficult or I dare to say impossible for students to reach the required B2 level at the age of 13 (though I’ve met rare exceptions). The standards required by the CERF are too high for the Greek students. No matter which syllabus you’re going to follow, which booklist you’re going to choose, whichever methodology approach you apply, the result remains the same – dead end. Students are not mature enough to deal with specific parts of the exams. They haven’t developed their ability to think critically in order to perform well in the reading tasks of the exams. And what about writing? The kids themselves call it “a nightmare”. They’re to express their views or argue on issues they’ve never come across. And we have to admit that writing is not all about set phrases or formulaic expressions, as some of my colleagues might support. Encouraging and inspiring creative thinking is what the students actually need. Thus, we should act as role models to them by being resourceful, adaptable, able to “deviate” a little from the lesson plan and implement creative tasks which will initiate learners to show their innate skills and interests, and think critically (“outside the box”) coming up with authentic ideas.

On the other hand, I have to see my role as a school owner- a businesswoman. A manager of a private language school who is responsible for recruiting the staff and monitor its performance, managing accounts and bills and attending meetings with my personal accountant and business counselor in regular basis. I have to make sure that the school, which is like all other businesses, is financially viable and profitable. Meeting deadlines and living up to my customers’ expectations is sometimes really stressful and unbearable. But that’s the price I have to pay as a businesswoman involved in the rat race of a highly competitive job market in Greece. I always point out my country as it is one where school owners have to be teachers, managers, accountants, Director of Studies and lots more at the same time. Of course there are large school organizations with experts and qualified staff in each department (marketing, accountancy, teacher training, etc) but these ones exist only in few of the biggest cities. The reason why is more than profound – large population means more customers which in turn means high business turnout. Hence school owners, in these cases, are able to afford such services offered by specialists, free themselves from these burdens and commit themselves to teaching.

Still, most of us feel a bit nervous when it comes to meet parents who want their children to be enrolled in a course. They have a lot of saying to their offspring’s education and combined with the lack of proper information about the teaching of the English language make them rather demanding. However, these parents are also my customers (I hate this term by the way). How am I going to convince them that getting a certificate requires specific skills, a lot of practice and of course time?  Am I risking to lose a “customer” if I tell them the truth? What about if I’m honest and speak myself as a teacher? It’s a vicious circle…

I run the risk all the time. I do try to have a discussion in depth with parents, to make them aware that learning English is not just a certificate. It’s all about education! It’s about teaching learners to think, to understand, to integrate what they have learnt and move on one more step on becoming better human beings. Education is not supposed to be the transmission of knowledge from the educator to the learner, though this should be the primary purpose. It is the transfer of knowledge from school to real life. What’s the point of having memorized endless lists of words and grammar rules without being able to use them in real life situations? What is there beyond certified knowledge of another language? Shouldn’t we pose such questions to those who are interested in learning English? Shouldn’t parents be aware of the fact that even in a language school teachers struggle to inspire virtues and find the hidden treasure in the soul of each child? I suppose I’m a dreamer. The financial crisis, my country is facing these years, has badly affected all of us. We have lost our faith and trust to values such honesty and dignity. No one is proud of that. But we must overcome obstacles each one day. Payment cuts, taxes and unemployment are the daily topic discussions. Most teenagers are to face a gloomy future. Some of them see no future at all. Parents are there to support and provide them with all the qualities and qualifications needed spending every little penny wisely. I sympathise with them wholeheartedly on the tight budget but , on the other hand, I am not willing to accept the fact that the crisis might undermine the quality of education language schools provide in Greece. English teachers must be on alert both for the benefit of our profession and the learners’. No matter what the circumstances are, children have the right to quality education and lifelong learning. We are the ones to lead them to proper language learning and protect them from any pitfalls. They do not deserve the added pressure from their social environment.  Some of them might have managed to achieve their goal and get the so-called B2 certificate. But what about the rest? Have we ever wondered how candidates feel after failing once, twice or even three times? I feel it’s my duty to warn parents about that, too. It’s about their kids, after all. Or is it all about money?

Still, I don’t know whether honesty pays. I must admit that there have been parents who didn’t even want to spare a few seconds discussing or thinking about it. It is obvious that I have lost some “customers” because they took the easy way out. Fast exam courses, less money, little time but ….dubious results. I’m not judging anyone. At least we’re honest to ourselves.

If I fail as a businesswoman, I hope I’ll survive as a teacher.

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Classroom management problems

A learner who doesn’t follow the pace of the lesson

It’s quite common in classes with very young learners (aged 7-8) to have students who do not follow the teacher’s rules and particularly the pace of the lesson. This year I’ve been challenged with such a student who seems unwilling to follow the stages of each lesson and he insists on finishing the tasks at his own pace, he starts doing activities before I give explanations, he sometimes skips intentionally the tasks the whole class is supposed to do because he’s bored.


On the one hand I can sympathise with that little learner as he’s making his first steps in a learning environment. He isn’t able to distinguish the difference between home and school yet. On the other hand, his behavior is annoying for the rest of the class which have to wait for his turn to move to the next task or finish it on time. Some of his classmates feel frustrated and they always put the blame on him for not enjoying the lesson as much as they would like. At first , I spoke to him in person. I didn’t take him to the office; instead we stayed in the classroom in order to feel more comfortable and above all to be in his “second home”, as most of us consider schools to be. We talked about the classroom, what his opinion is about it, about the colours of the walls, the posters, the way the desks are arranged. My aim was to make him feel familiar with the environment and its role which is totally different from the one of his home. It’s a place where he has to collaborate with other children, follow some rules, and realize my authority in this place. Then I offered him a seat in front of my desk so as to have close eye contact during the lesson.  This way I do not have to call out his name anytime he’s not following me, but I just raise my voice and see him into his eyes.


It took quite a long time for the student to get used to the idea of me as the authority. He left behind his selfish behavior as soon as he realized that he belongs in a group and should stick to the rules.

Reflection

I tried to solve the problem by aiming at the reasons of such behaviour and not on the specific behaviour itself. Moreover, I managed not to involve  the rest of the class. What worried me was the fact that I had to rearrange the seating of the students and exclude him , in some way, from his classmates by having him sit close to me. I believe that he won’t feel insulted as these are temporary measures and he’s going to be ready to assert his rights really soon.

 

 

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guest blogger on Seeta Community

The dilemma of placement tests

Posted on 29/09/2011 by nora

Towards the end of the month, almost two weeks since the beginning of the lessons and it feels like I’ve been working for a whole school year! It’s one of those days when I feel a complete wreck and start asking myself if it’s really worth it. I’m really not proud of my secret thoughts but where is the passionate teacher who’s ready to give her heart and soul to students today? Where has all my energy gone? No, it didn’t vanish into thin air, it’s just the need to act more as a manager of a school today that laid heavy on me.
I had to face the usual dilemma when it comes to students who have attented lessons in another school and wish to enroll in one of my classes.I made the mistake just to mention the term “placement test”. You will find out the reason why…
All of us, as teachers, value the need of this procedure so as to be aware of the student’s exact level of English. Unfortunately, many kids are afraid to undergo this preliminary phase/test before starting lessons in a new school. I can understand them up to a point, it’s not an easy task and sometimes it looks like a formal examination. So, I find students’ stress reasonable. But, on the other hand, I find annoying the fact that most schools do not use placement tests at all.
School managers, in search of more clients for the their school-businesses, accept students based on information about their level of English only by what parents have said, or even worse based on the books they have been taught. As a manager, I see the point of trying to have a standard number of students/clients, to increase the clientele, to run a profitalbe business. But what about the long-term effects? Is it right to accept a student who insists that his/her level of English is the one of A2+ and sooner or later we realise that his/her actual level is A1? Who’s going to benefited from such a mix-up? The student will be placed in a class where he/she will be struggling to keep up with the other students’ level and the school owner will earn the tuition fees only for a year or two. I can assure you of that!
As time goes by, those children realise that there’s something wrong. They are unable to bridge the gap between their own and their classmates’ level. The saddest thing is that they get so disappointed that a large number of them give up in the end.
As a school owner, I’ve decided that students should take a placement test before enrolling to a class. I want to feel safe and be fair and honest to them. I try to persuade them that undergoing this procedure doesn’t mean that I’m trying to doubt or underestimate their level of knowledge. Placemenets tests are a tool which will help both of us to  plan the following years’ syllabus which will meet their needs. Here’s a blog post fourc.ca  by Tyson Seburn with lots of feedback on how other teachers see placement tests and students’ evaluation.
….The student (encouraged by the parent) denied taking the test today. They told me that they’ll have second thoughts on that.
Needless to say that my role as a teacher is of vital importance to me. I’m here to stay!  I strongly beleive that in the near future some of these “clients” will appreciate my efforts. Till then, I’ll keep on fighting to prove that private language schools are more than just business.

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games in class!

Game: “jumping on the article!”

The games focuses on the correct use of the indefinite article a/an. It is a 20 minute revision-consolidation game which can be played at the end of the lesson. It’s suitable for young learners (aged 7-8) at their first steps of learning English. A rope (about 3-4metres long) and two pieces of coloured cardboard (size A4) are needed. It is a game I’ve adapted to the English language teaching after watching clowns performing similar ones at parties but only for recreational purposes.

 

20 minutes before the lesson finishes, the teacher with the help of the students move the desks, leaving a space big enough for 12 children to stand in two lines. He? She makes sure that the classroom equipment in placed in such a way that students won’t get injured, as they’ll have to jump during the game. Then he/she places the rope on the floor , dividing it (the floor) into two imaginary separate spaces. On the first one, he/she places the first piece of cardboard having written the article “a” on it, and on the other space he/she places the second cardboard with the article “an” on it. The students stand in the first space with the article “a” and the games starts! The teacher calls out nouns and the students have to jump from spaces “a” to “an” according to the article that they should use in front of the noun. E.g. the teacher says “apple” and all the students should jump over the rope and move to the space with the “an” article cardboard. The teacher quickly says “ball” and the students have to jump to the “a” article space. He/She goes on saying “fox” and if the students jump to the wrong article , they are to leave the game. The role of the teacher us to call out nouns quickly and make students confused. The winner is the student who has jumped on the correct article spaces during the whole game.

 

Though the game might be a little noisy and fast paced for the students, they seemed to be enjoying it. There was the sense of competition but there was also the exciting element of luck, as many of them were predicting wrongly the teacher’s next noun announcement and, as a result, they jumped on the wrong article space. At the end, they all felt confident about their ability to distinguish the vowels and consonants sounds and match the correct article accordingly.

Reflection

Since the kids asked to repeat the game again and again, I think that instead of the articles I could use the same game revising vocabulary (food-drinks) or even grammar (adjectives-adverbs) with students at beginner ‘s level. Although team or group games are more common because they are undoubtedly a way to maintain the students’ involvement, I found out in this case, that the students didn’t feel the individual stress of competition. The game itself involves lots of physical activity and excitement that the participants focus on their goal in a more relaxing way.

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ice breaking activity that works in my classes!

 

“I am a teacher”

This specific activity is simple, suitable for YL (aged 7-8), who have already acquired the basic vocabulary of the English language. The purpose is to get the students to know each other, while at the same time introducing new vocabulary (professions) and practising grammar (the verb “to be”). It doesn’t require anything to be prepared in advance, just some pieces of colourful cardboard (size A4) are enough. I created this activity to help young students make their first lessons more enjoyable, using their senses (colours on papers), TPR (make them stand in a queue) without burdening them with a lot of writing or confusing them with lots of materials.

 

The teacher gives a piece of colourful cardboard (size A4) to each student. The students write their favourite jobs on them. If they do not know some of them, the teacher helps them with the spelling orally. Then he/she (the teacher) writes his profession on his/her piece of cardboard. Then he/she stands in front of the class, holding the paper saying “Hi, I’m Maria and I’m a teacher”. The first student, holding the cardboard with a profession written on it,  goes next to the teacher saying “Hi, I’m…..(name) and I’m…(profession)”. He/She also has to mention the teacher’s name and job like” This is Maria. She’s a teacher”. Then the third student comes to the queue saying his/her name, profession and mentions the previous student’s name and job as well as the teacher’s! This way, all the students in class not only introduce themselves but their classmates too.

The teacher makes sure that all the kids remember each other’s names and professions and moves on to the second part. In this part, the teacher shuffles the papers with the professions and gives them to the students. Then he/she stars by saying “I’m Maria and I’m a fireman ( the profession that another student has chosen)”. Then the kids take turns saying “ This is Maria but she isn’t a fireman. She’s a teacher”.

 

As there were some shy students in the class, I chose to let them stand up at the end of the activity. They did this willingly because they had seen their classmates getting confused, making mistakes and laughing. So, it seemed to them like a game. All the learners enjoyed the activity asking to repeat it by using their favourite football teams (boys) and their favourite singers (girls)!

Reflection

The activity is based on Vigotsky’s theory that children learn through social interaction and teaching grammar in context. The teacher gives a clear example of the activity at first (introducing himself/herself and holding the piece of paper with the profession written on it), as it’s important for YL to have clear instructions of the task they’re about to carry out. It’s  an activity for small classes (appr.10 students) and it could be also done with teenagers. In this case, the students could collect more information about their classmates (hobbies, interests etc) and the teacher could round off by having them write a short bio of one of their classmates.

 

 

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Cambridge Esol Greece has its own blog!

I was more than happy to receive an email informing me that  a Cambridge Esol Greece blog was created. It will be of great lehp to teachers of English, here in Greece, who will have the chance tobe informed, discuss, exchange and share ideas with colleagues on teaching issues, revisons on exams, and get a lot more support.

A warm welcome to this effort of Cambridge Esol Greece to be more approachable to all of us.

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