Hi – I’m Abby and I am a Teacher Trainer and Coordinator of Professional Development at Lewis School of English. Perhaps the part I love most about my job though is teaching.
I sometimes cannot believe it was 16 years ago that I took my initial teacher training course. There are parts I remember very clearly and others that are now a bit of a haze. The teaching practice is perhaps not surprisingly one of the clearer memories. We were given a coursebook page to work through and our task was to make it ‘come alive’. I quite enjoyed that as we could be safely creative. The focus was on making the content accessible by taking into consideration learner styles, and for the most part this meant preparing lots of little cut up bits of paper that students could move around and stick on the board.
Once qualified, my first formal teaching job was delivering group classes to employees of a tobacco factory in Portugal. They had just been taken over by an American company and needed to improve their English. The company picked a course book and that was what I would teach from for the following 2 years. They didn’t want cut-up bits of paper – in fact many of them didn’t want to be there at all! The plan was to work through the course book activity by activity, page by page and module by module. If I am honest, I was relieved to start with. As an inexperienced teacher this meant I didn’t need to worry about the content of my lessons and could focus on developing some all-important teaching techniques like giving instructions, error correction, feedback methods and organisation of my whiteboard. That suited me just fine … to begin with. Then I started to get bored. I tried to fight this feeling as I was aware that the lessons weren’t supposed to entertain me – so long as my students were learning. However, I soon started to sense that my students were also bored. Was this my fault? Should I start giving them some cut-up pieces of paper? Would that solve all my problems?
That contract came to an end before I was able to find a solution and with 2 years’ experience under my belt, I moved back to the UK and got a job teaching at Lewis School of English in Southampton. On induction day I was told that there was no coursebook but instead there was a syllabus with topics and language points. The rest was down to me to create. How exciting! How different! How … terrifying! I had a feeling that I would need more than some cut-up bits of paper to survive this. On learning about the Lewis School non-coursebook approach my first question was ‘How?’ followed closely by ‘Why?’. The second question was easier to answer.
Lewis School welcomes students from all around the world with different educational experiences. Many of them have spent their whole English-learning lives using a coursebook – they don’t come to us for another one. Instead they often want something different, something current, something real. Rolling enrolment means that some of our students come to us for a couple of weeks and others for almost a year. Some are learning English to go to university in the UK while others need it for work or to help them integrate into life over here. Some have a solid foundation in grammar but have never had the opportunity to speak freely in English. Others struggle with the alphabet due to learning another script. Which coursebook would suit all of these students? Which coursebook would understand their needs, motivation, background and skills? It made complete sense to me that a coursebook was not the answer and yet I had spent the first 2 years of my teaching career entirely dependent on them.
For the next 2 years I worked hard to make my own resources. Every lesson took hours to plan. These were skills I hadn’t been taught and I had never really thought of myself as a creative person. I had to truly understand my learners if I was going to produce meaningful tasks that would really work well and help them achieve their linguistic goals. This required a much deeper level of thinking than I was used to. I remember the disappointments – lessons I had worked so hard to create that didn’t quite work in practice. But I also remember the lightbulb moments when everything seemed to click into place. I was learning the principles of good material design through trial and error and that was possibly the most effective way to learn. I just wish I had done it sooner.
5 years later I became a CertTESOL tutor in our Lewis Teacher Training Centre watching trainee teachers nervously prepare their classes and cut up their bits of paper. However, like our Lewis School teachers, our trainees also have no course book to work from. Right from day one they are taught the importance of creating their own materials. They are immediately developing skills to evaluate their students’ needs and produce resources that meet those needs. They have to research their Target Language in depth to understand the best types of activities to include. I believe these are invaluable skills that they will take with them wherever they go.
There is no doubt that there are lots of great teaching resources available these days. The point is not to criticise these materials but to ask the question ‘Could I do better?’. I like to think that with the right skills the answer to this question is ‘Yes’.
This month we are launching our Lewis Online Learning course ‘Getting Creative with Resources’. Helping to write the content has made me think about my own journey with materials design and the help I wish I had earlier in my teaching career. This is why having the guidance of an online tutor and the opportunity to collaborate with peers is such a key part of our approach. A lot of our professional development as teachers happens in our classrooms on our own through trial and error but it doesn’t have to. I am looking forward to working with teachers from around the world so we can share our ideas and be inspired to get creative with our resources.
CPD Manager & Teacher Trainer
Lewis School of English