The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

Having an aim is the key to achieving your best – Kaiser Hal

I’ve been doing some lesson observations recently. I’m not a big fan of this sort of thing – they confuse the developmental with the authoritarian and they lead to teachers and managers getting more wound up than they should be, given that it is only a job, after all. But, unlike my musculoskeletal structure, my word carries little weight round these here parts and the observations needed to be done. Much to my surprise, I’m rather enjoying the experience.

Not necessarily for any particularly affirming reason, I should add. It’s not like I am observing and finding my ambivalence towards ELT being swept out by the brush-wielding invigorating lessons that I am privileged to watch. Au contraire, mon frere. The lessons I have seen so far have been bog standard efforts where one gets the impression that the teachers know -more or less- just what it is they are supposed to be doing, but not necessarily why or how

So we have students working in groups, students learning about a poem, students discussing environmental concerns, students working in pairs, students discussing a vocabulary exercise, students doing the past simple, students watching a TED video (I am formulating a somewhat shaky hypothesis that TED videos may be the single greatest evil since Pol Pot), students working alone. And I sit there and wonder just why they are doing this. And how they are going to know if they have done it very well.

I imagine my much-better-half being sat in the class as a student. Then I imagine what said-half would say were I to innocently enquire of them: what did you learn today, darling? How well do you think you did? What do you need to improve? My assumptions are that Better Half would not need to have to guess this kind of information because they are not a qualified language instructor. It follows, therefore, that language instructors should be constructing the narrative of the class and offering their version to the students: Today, liebchen, we have been…How well did you do? If you did X, you still have some way to go; you will need to…; If you did Y, you are getting closer. You may still need to…; If you did Z, come and see me after the class; we may have placed you in the wrong level. As it is, I suspect that Better Half would come back and say something like, I have no idea what we did. It was something about the spotted feathered lemur and how it was under threat from the World Cup deforestation program. I didn’t take a sabbatical from my directorship of the World Wildlife Fund to hear all of this amateur bollocks. I want to improve my English. [NB This is clearly a translated version of what might be said].

Still confused about the whys and wherefores, I look to the lesson plan to see what the Aims and Objectives [capitalised for a reason, suckers] might be. I am consequently lobbying IATEFL to have a Special Interest Group established that will seek to extirpate the use of the verb to practise from any lesson plan. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Teaching Profession, to have the aim of practising in a lesson reveals you to be among the shittiest teachers that have ever done a two-week course in English Grammar and How To Teach It To Johnny Foreigner. Why not say instead that The aims of this lesson are to allow students to metabolise energy in order to maintain a steady body temperature of around 37 degrees (celsius) and to further practise the oxygenation of the bloodstream through focused use of haemoglobin? At least that can be subjected to some sort of empirical analysis. 

Instead we get to practise ability to listen to liberal tripe being regurgitated to the chattering classes, or practise the ability to talk about wind turbines or practise reading about the colour blue or practise writing using the past perfect continuous. Really? Let us not assassinate this profession further, Teacher. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?

Were I to ever have an income that would allow me to squander vast sums on learning a language, I would want more for my buck than just the opportunity to practise. Might I be expected to hope for a world where having spent hours in a language classroom, I might dream of leaving it for the day having actually extended  my repertoire of language skills? I would bloody well hope so. You might have me watching a TED video of how technology is going to save our planet – I don’t give a damn: I’m a Green-eating oligarch of the petrotobacco industry. I want to know how I can write to indigenous tribes to tell them that I am going to obliterate them from the face of the earth. I have sat in the crowds of TED presentations and taken notes on my fellow audience members which I will one day pass on to the torturers and assassins. I do not want to be making basic grammatical errors in my evil memoranda. 

Teachers! Teach! Direct the learning of the students towards language skills and share your insights into how these skills might be developed! If you’re not quite sure about how reading skills might be developed, use the text for some linguistic analysis! Don’t say that you aim to practise listening unless you are going to teach students something about how to deal with the challenges of listening to a piece of English. Don’t teach writing when what we really need to be teaching students are the conventions of English rhetoric. And above all else, this: make sure that when the students get home and somebody asks them what they did, why they did it, how well they did and what they need to do to improve, you can at least sleep easily in your beds knowing that you deliberately pointed all of this out to them in the lesson.

A postscript

I am familiar with the dangers of modern technology. I know that Facebook users are driven to the very edge by an unanswered friend request. I know how Twitter can leave people facing the abyss because they are no longer followed by someone they have never met (called stalking irl)And for this reason I want to reassure anyone whom I may have offended.

My recent hiatus has involved me taking stock of everything that I have in my life. I was following close to 500 people on Twitter and would toss and turn in my sleep knowing that there were tweets I may have missed that would lead me to the tree of knowledge. But then I realised that most of the people I followed on Twitter had blogs. Blogs which I followed. Blogs which would automatically appear in my RSS reader. This led to the realisation that Twitter was actually rather secondary. So I slimmed my twitter account down to a mere handful. 

Should I have unfollowed you and caused you pain and confusion, please accept my apology. My intention was to take Thoreau’s recommendation and simplify, simplify, simplify. You can bet your bottom dollar (whatever that might be) that I am following your blog in Feedly and enjoying all that you have to say, freed from the tyranny of 140 characters.

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21 Jun 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings

5 Comments »

  1. There’s just so much to comment on here, it’s hard to know where to start. Maybe, boringly, at the beginning, with some detail..

    1. “my word carries little weight round these here parts”. You’re the DOS, so what frustration is being voiced here?
    2. “one gets the impression that the teachers know -more or less- just what it is they are supposed to be doing, but not necessarily why or how”. Surely this will ring a bell with many. The bigger question of the 2 is surely “Why?” To the extent that teachers just do what they always do,like actors in the West End of London who’ve been doing “The Mouse Trap” for the last 80 years, the question of “Why?” gets lost. “Why am I doing this?” is the most important question of the lot, and people like Rose Bard answer it. As a DOS, your job must be to encourage teachers to ask themselves the question more often. I don’t think a DOS should expect any given answer – it’s the questioning that matters, eh what.
    3. “I am formulating a somewhat shaky hypothesis that TED videos may be the single greatest evil since Pol Pot”. It’s not a shaky hypothesis it’s a well-informed opinion which I tend to agree with, albeit on scant evidence. Say more.
    4. “It follows, therefore, that language instructors should be constructing the narrative of the class and offering their version to the students”: I couldn’t agree more. THIS is the teacher’s job. Lots more to be said here, of course, but I think one important thing students expect is that the teacher provides a convincing framework and gives students the impression that they’re in safe and expert hands. The easy way to do this is to be a tyrant, and the skills required to manage a more humanistic, student-centred class are what we should be identifying and passing on.
    5. Paragraphs 4 and 5 strike me as you at your worst. Sorry but, IMHO; both positions are equally silly.
    6. “Were I to ever have an income that would allow me to squander vast sums on learning a language, I would want more for my buck than just the opportunity to practise”.
    Amen to that, and, again, this is a HUGE area of concern for teachers. You’re right: not only does “practice” per se have little face value, it’s not enough.
    7.”Teachers! Teach! Direct the learning of the students towards language skills and share your insights into how these skills might be developed!” Quite so, but again one hears frustration more than enlightenment here.

    And then there’s the general message. If somebody asked me “What did she say?”, I’d reply She says she’s upset and that she doesn’t have the answers. I think the message, if there is one, is: Don’t be complacent. Don’t just go thru the motions. Get involved with your students and stay fresh as best you can. And beware the awful voice of the “experts”.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 21 Jun 2014 | Reply

    • Hi Geoff
      Forgive the delay…as you, I will reply in order.
      1. No frustration, any more! I am answerable to higher powers. Who don’t really seem to be programmed to think beyond the bottom line. Still, maybe that’s what’s keeping us in work…

      2. Spot on. Why we do what we do is crucial to reflect on. I have grown away from that “why” referring to the imperial tentacles of Mammon and now think of it as more “Why am I asking them to work in pairs here?” Rose Bard is a blog worthy of following…as is yours, you modest old thing…

      3. I will say more, I hope, at a later stage! TED is remarkably successful and has become so very quickly.

      4. Shamefully, I am leaning more towards tyranny these days than towards humanism! This is new for me…

      5. Not sure which two positions you’re referring to. It is a positive reflection on you that I don’t know whether to take the reference to “you at your worst” as a rebuke or as praise.

      6. Death to practice (in non-approved instances).

      7. Honestly…no frustration, exactly. A call to arms! Find your own way! Engage with your work! Unalienate yourselves!

      The general message, I would say, is as you say, “Shrug off your complacency! Make life worth living. Your way is the way!”

      Comment by thesecretdos | 25 Jun 2014 | Reply

  2. “I am formulating a somewhat shaky hypothesis that TED videos may be the single greatest evil since Pol Pot”.

    Have you read that excellent English Droid interview with the Linvoludicrous? Many a TEDtalk reminds me of that – look! we do this stuff! And it’s like totally cool! [audience laughs/intakes breath audibly/widens eyes/smiles knowingly] And stuff miraculously might happen in the future! [outbreak of jubilant applause in audience and much waxing euphoric] Ideals! Might! Modality! [sweeping pan shot making presenter look bigger than actually is the case, only the swelling music you’d find in a melodramatic hollywood film missing]. The end.

    In fact, now I think about it, that’s not a bad way of looking at a lot of lessons, when whys and wherefores are not known. Maybe it’s just me. And maybe it’s just my lessons.

    I promise next time to actually comment on the content of your post.

    Comment by Chris Ożóg | 23 Jun 2014 | Reply

    • No need to promise while your comments are like this!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 25 Jun 2014 | Reply

  3. […] Delta assignment, all of which I have definitely experienced! You could also read The Secret DoS on why we should banish the word ‘practise’ from our […]

    Pingback by Useful links for Delta | Sandy Millin | 25 Jul 2014 | Reply


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