How building on TEFL techniques can help all of our students

In 2018, having seen first hand how much new to country EAL students were struggling in secondary classrooms, I decided to leave my job as a TA and complete the CELTA in the hopes of learning how to better support EAL students.

For those of you who are new to the term ‘CELTA’, it is an English teaching qualification that covers a range of topics including language analysis and awareness and language skills. https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/teaching-english/teaching-qualifications/celta/about-the-celta-course/ I completed my CELTA on an intensive full-time course and it was challenging, eye-opening and deeply rewarding. I would strongly recommend anyone teaching EAL students to consider embarking on a CELTA and I would be happy to answer any questions about it. I really enjoyed explicitly learning English grammar (something I have never had to do before and had never really even considered) and doing this made me realise just how complex the English language is. It is no wonder that EAL students need time and support to develop their acquisition.

Some typical “TEFL/CELTA techniques” that I really like include:

  • Getting students to talk in pairs before getting them to answer a question
  • Modelling answers so students have a sentence structure to hang their own answer on
  • Activating prior knowledge (A student may not be able to rely on English to understand a new concept but we can draw on past experiences they have had to activate knowledge they might have in their home language – EAL students are not blank slates)
  • Using images to help activate prior knowledge (I am excited to also try using more techniques from dual-coding theory in my classroom)
  • Anticipating language problems and solutions – This can include explicitly teaching new vocabulary and considering language problems EAL learners might have before the lesson. Could we give set readings before class for example or provide students with a list of key subject terminology at the start of term?
  • CCQs (Concept Checking Questions – https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/checking-understanding – see here for a good explanation about how to form them)

These techniques may not be revolutionary but they are excellent for our EAL students and so easy to make part of our practice.

I strongly believe that we should set every child up to succeed. It is not enough to just let them get on with it and hope they will pick up English solely through immersion. EAL learners bring a whole wealth of knowledge and experience into our classrooms and with a little extra support we can do so much more to help them.

Organisation

I am a naturally heinously disorganised person. I have been painfully aware of this from a very young age, having attended an all girls school where everyone would arrive to lessons with beautiful pencil cases, spare pens, homework neatly presented in plastic wallets and matching socks. I was always the girl frantically asking my friends if I could borrow a pen before the teacher noticed (perhaps why I am far too lenient about giving my own students my pens and then wondering where they have all gone at the end of the day). I remember sitting next to girls with the most immaculate handwriting in the world and wondering how immaculately organised their brains must be in comparison to my scrawl, that was often compared to ‘a spider on rollerblades’. I desperately envied the organisation of my friends and as an adult, I still feel like I am trying to compensate for my poor organisation. I sometimes feel like I have a thousand thoughts a minute and my note taking is laughable (I was the one at #ResearchED writing notes on my programme because I forgot to bring a notebook). I don’t think many people who know me would ever perceive me as a disorganised person, it is a closely guarded secret. But the truth is I work incredibly bloody hard to keep myself together – it is all an act of sheer determination.

I have completed two years of teaching now, one TEFL year in Italy and one year as an UQT in the U.K. I will be starting my teacher training in June and I am truly thankful that I have had two years to start establishing some routines with myself that should hopefully help when I start my training.

Here I am going to share the things I have invested in to help me be more organised in the hopes it might help others.

  1. Use a teacher planner religiously. I invest in PTC planners (https://thepositiveteachercompany.co.uk/) because they are so pretty which makes me want to write in it and I really like the layout/added extras in them. They include sections to write goals, log professional development, review wellbeing and write meeting notes amongst many other things.
  2. I have also invested in a Marking, Feedback and Assessment Record this year because my school has started live marking (which is brilliant) and I’m hoping that by having all of my feedback sheets in one place, I will get better at tracking repeated mistakes/misconceptions so that I can anticipate them in the future. (https://thepositiveteachercompany.co.uk/collections/marking-feedback-and-assessment-record-2020-2021)
  3. Keep a ‘weekly planner‘ pad on your desk (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Peachly-Weekly-Planner-Notepad-Weeks/dp/B07CKKV7M3 – I like this one because there is space to track drinking water too which is something, much to my boyfriends bafflement, I need to be reminded to do). I have found this a life saver because it helps me to prioritise and visualise really clearly the things I need to get done in the week. It’s also a place to write (and keep safe) things I would usually put on post it notes and then proceed to lose.
  4. Talking about post it notes – I could not live without them, but I have to be really strict about putting them either in my planner or on my weekly planner pad so they don’t grow legs and leave.
  5. Using my expanding file folder to keep worksheets for the week has been a Godsend this year. My intention was to use one section for every week of the half term – of course that didn’t happen, but I live in hope that I might be that person one day. (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Expanding-Xndryan-Organisers-Expandable-Organiser/dp/B07GP7RQXC/ref=sr_1_4?crid=29C6ZDUQST1EH&dchild=1&keywords=expanding+file+folder&qid=1587998193&s=officeproduct&sprefix=expanding%2Coffice-products%2C159&sr=1-4)
  6. I have started keeping board pens in a caddy stuck to the board with suction cups. I stole this idea from another teacher in my school who has a classroom that is truly magnificent. https://www.tesco.com/groceries/en-GB/products/303420949

In the future I need to get better at keeping notes I have made from CPD in one place and making notes from good books/twitter threads I have read. It pains me how many things I have read, thought wow thats a good tip, and then proceeded to forget. I am currently in the middle of working through a SKE and have found the process of making learning diaries for that incredibly helpful so I will try to continue doing those going forward.

How I got here

School

I was an insufferable goody two-shoes at primary school. I worked incredibly hard, was keen to be liked and I always offered to help out on open days. I was monumentally proud of my school and I loved my teachers (especially Mrs Schumpski, who used to come to my ballet recitals or choir performances in the guise of ‘Mummy Schumpski’, when my own parents were working).

Moving into secondary school I grew into a moody teenager as I dated boys who played in bands and grew my fringe out into that classic “emo-sweep” that covered one eye. I lost some love for school in the run up to exams. I became very anxious and still remind myself to this day that ‘if I can get through GCSEs I can get through bloody anything’. Studying for A levels was so refreshing. I loved having the choice and freedom to only focus my attention on things that I was really interested in.

University

Throughout my school life, I never had any doubt that I would go to University, partly because my schools never presented any alternative routes as viable options but also because despite the stress, I did genuinely love learning. I spent the next three years studying History of Art which included a semester abroad in Prague. This semester was monumental and it made me truly comprehend and value the importance of communication. My university sent me to Prague in full confidence that I would be able to study HoA in English. After a day of sitting in lectures in Czech completely unable to understand a bloody word and incapable of communicating the problem to my lecturers because my ability to speak Czech didn’t extend much further than ‘dvě piva prosím’. I borrowed a copy of ‘Harry Potter’ in Czech sat down with my beginners Czech textbook and embarked on becoming fluent (God loves a trier). I sent many emails to my university who were frankly useless and eventually managed to make friends with a lecturer who spoke English who let me enrol on his modules. Despite the academic mess of this semester, I had the most incredible experience of my life. That feeling of desperate frustration at not being able to communicate also really stuck with me and I remind myself of it whenever I meet a student who is a new arrival to the country.

I finished university with no plan as to what I wanted to do next. The graduate programs in my inbox just felt superficial and I had no desire to apply for any of them. For the first time, my life didn’t have a clear trajectory. It was terrifying. It was exciting.

Teaching Assistant

I came home, worked silly hours in a pub over the summer to pay off my overdraft and somewhere, somehow I stumbled across an ad for a Teaching Assistant in a new school. Without really thinking twice about it, I applied for the position. Then I was invited to an interview where I had to teach ‘complex sentences’ to a small group of year 7s. I spent hours preparing for this five minute lesson. I truly surprised myself at how much I wanted this job. I received an offer on the same day and I couldn’t wait to get started in September.

I learnt more from being a Teaching Assistant than my whole education so far and I would strongly recommend to anyone considering a career in teaching to be a TA first. I was incredibly fortunate to be working in a very supportive, dynamic growing school with a Head Teacher who encouraged us all to take responsibility and gave us the autonomy to make decisions that were genuinely grounded in putting our students first. After a couple of weeks, I went marching into the Head Teacher’s office to complain that I didn’t feel enough was being done to support our new EAL arrivals. He agreed and tasked me with taking this on. The unwavering trust he put in me has stuck with me and without a doubt propelled me into feeling like this is a career I could actually find my feet in and effect change. If anyone reading this blog is in a position of leadership, the best piece of advice I can give as someone being led, is to trust your staff wholeheartedly and then trust them some more.

At this time, I also started using Twitter after discovering #twittered because my God trying to find ways to best help EAL students is ridiculously hard! (Hugely grateful to @kamilaofprague @beth_southern @lingosia and @bifieldjonathan).

Teaching Abroad

Over the year, I realised I really wanted to learn more about how best to teach my EAL students. Looking back, I knew then that I wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t want to admit this to myself. I was adamant that I wanted more ‘life-experience’ (whatever that is) before becoming a teacher. I decided I wanted to do some sort of TEFL course and after a lot of research decided that completing a CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) would be a good starting point. My boyfriend was studying in Italy and I discovered a school close to his university that offered the CELTA. I was incredibly reluctant to leave my TA role at a school I loved so much, but I felt that this was the next step I needed to take, for the sake of bettering myself for my students.

I was incredibly fortunate to be offered a job in the school I completed my CELTA in (both experiences I could write extensively about but I will save that for another day!). During my time there, I learnt numerous strategies for supporting EAL learners but I was also immeasurably stressed. I missed my old school. I was really well supported in Sicily, but the scrutiny was unbearable, I didn’t feel trusted in the same way I had as a TA. TEFL is not the picnic in the park it is presented to be, it is a fantastic experience and one I have no regrets about doing, but ultimately I couldn’t stay there for more than one year. I stayed in contact with my old school and after visiting in February and being offered a position as an EAL teacher for September, I knew for certain that I wanted to go back.

UQT

I have worked as an UQT teacher since September. I have been lucky enough to teach two year 7 classes, a year 8 class, EAL interventions across the whole school and I have a year 7 tutor group. I’ve fed my imposter syndrome on a large diet of EdResearch books and conferences, learning walks and now a SKE as I have been accepted onto a Teach First program that I can’t wait to begin in June. I am now without any doubt that this is the career I want to be in.