The “Trouble Group”

I grew up surrounded by education. When the teachers in the family talked about ‘troubled kids’ or a ‘trouble class,’ it meant there was something wrong with the kids. (In the 1980s, kids still had things wrong with them. I don’t know what today’s vocabulary is.)

That’s not what I’m talking about.

The trouble is me

When you’re blessed enough to have students who are engaged in class and do the homework, any difficulties you have are not because something is wrong with the students. It’s because something is wrong with you, as a teacher.

The trouble, it turns out, is me.

And, as the next block of lessons begins for my “trouble group,” I want to fix the trouble.

The group

I have a group of five students who pay regularly to come to lessons, and who have been coming for years. (I’m the third or so teacher.) But, where there isn’t much forward progress.

In my time with the students, there hasn’t been much forward progress, because there never was. A previous teacher abandoned the book when it became clear that they’d covered more material in the book than they had mastered in reality, meaning that “moving forward” in the book detracted from class time.

I inherited the group and tried for a year to run a conversation class, the way I would with an A2 or B1 group. But we never moved forward.

Since I started working on teaching vocab better (you’ll get tired of me and vocab, I’ll cover that somewhere else), we’ve mastered vocabulary, but the group is not great at forming sentences.

Some things that have helped

This is the class with which I pioneered bringing a student up to the board every lesson to do the same activity each week. (Same activity, different student.) Doing it once for each person meant that we had five weeks of the same thing, giving the ‘mental muscle memory’ time to form with basic questions.

In addition, planning activities that I can do once, but then put in the hands of a participant has helped. Because this group is good at vocabulary, but not great at producing language, activities where the leader only needs a few fixed questions and instructions worked well.

The plan

In the past, I sort of coupled this group on with my other low-level groups for material, but I shied away from doing some of the drills that are commonplace in lower levels. After all, they’ve learned English for so long that to basically ‘reboot’ the class would be to reinforce that they haven’t received what they paid for.

I realize, now, on an intellectual level, that I’ve done them a disservice. Nonetheless, it’ll be hard. Tomorrow, when I go into that classroom, my goal is going to be to do the drill conversations. Not for half an hour, but to make it our new “welcome to the lesson” ritual.

I’d like to quickly establish a new ‘routine’ for the class that includes the drill in the beginning (because English is a circle — I’ll write on that, soon, too), a bit of small talk, a student-led activity and then a worksheet or something similar. It’s more than I include in a normal lesson, but it keeps each lesson component somewhat shorter, meaning we should be less frustrated with the repetition.

As for grammar, I printed a list of grammars that are needed to be at an A2 level. One of my more general goals for the near future (not just for this lesson) is to get better at ‘stacking grammar’ so that, after one grammar is reviewed, we continue to stress it in some kind of structured (for me, even if the students don’t perceive it that way) manner until it has become truly automatic.

Part of the grammar stacking will be in the conversation drills. Part will be in worksheets and homework. But there need to be other parts, as well.

The Journeyman

Hi, my name is Toby and this will be a blog about me. Not to confuse it with the other blog about me, this will be a blog about me as an EFL teacher. And, while I know what I — the guy on this side of the keyboard — plan to get out of it, I’m not sure what’s in it for you. But, I think it might be more than nothing.

What’s in it for me

Even if nobody reads this blog, I think it’s a good idea for me. The fact of the matter is, reflecting in writing  has always been a good strategy for me. There’s something deliberate and intentional about forcing your ideas into (more or less) well-formed sentences. It slows you down, it gives you a chance to hear that other, more critical voice that might have been drowned out.

So, after more than a decade in teaching EFL in Germany, I’ve learned to embrace the idea that I’m a journeyman EFL teacher, as defined at Dictionary.com: “any experienced, competent, but routine worker or performer.” I’m the kind of teacher who my boss can send to a company and know I’ll do a solid job.

But I’m not amazing. And I’m not sure I want to be. (It turns out that amazing teachers get paid the same amount as solid teachers and seem to invest a lot more of their time per unit of teaching time.)

Nonetheless, I had a realization this spring that I could either spend the rest of my life going through the motions that I have learned and always be ‘a solid teacher,’ but slowly learn to hate my job. (And, probably, to hate Germany.) Or, I could make myself responsible for enjoying my job more.

That’s what this blog is going to be about: my experiments and adventures in having fun teaching EFL in Germany.

What’s in it for you

There’s a thing that Germans say about teachers: “They’re right in the morning and free in the afternoon.” And, while I am not always free in the afternoon, I have gotten comfortable with the idea of being right in front of a group.

To that end, there are going to be several blog posts on what I’ve found to be the ‘right way to teach.’ They might be beneficial to you. They might also offer you an opportunity to correct me. And I invite corrections, because I’m certainly game to improve, provided it doesn’t mean a higher per-unit investment of my time.

Further, my first immediate project — in addition to codifying what I think I’ve learned about teaching — will be blogging about some ‘troublesome’ groups that I teach. I think that taking a pseudo-scientific approach might be good for them. (Pseudo-scientific in the sense of “Here’s what I want to accomplish. Here is what I’m going to try. After x number of lessons, I’m going to reflect on whether it worked or not.” There will be no control groups.) Maybe you have similar challenges and, even if you can’t share solutions, coming along for the ride might help.

Is there more I can do for you? Let me know?