Monthly Archives: March 2016

weakness

This is a post about burnout. 

I almost didn’t post it. It was a google doc all month, and maybe some of you saw it attached to my last post about the CELTA. I’ve added the missing piece now that I was afraid to write about then. I post it now in order to share my experience and in hopes that it might help teachers who have gone through similar. 

Burnout happens. Everyone has limits. Our job pushes the limits. We push them ourselves. What stopped me from sharing the experience? For a long time it was the inability to articulate what was happening/ had happened. I was just tired and couldn’t stand the thought of doing any more work. And everything I used to love doing and would have done without a paycheck at times now looked like work

Stress-vs-Burnout

Burnout and stress are not quite the same. Photo taken from http://www.whydev.org/burnout-and-its-causes/ (Creative Commons)

So here it is. I wrote it during the last week of my CELTA course, when I was given the gift of validation of my feelings and something opened up so I could write again. I left out the part about my coworker. I add it now.

“I’m weak,” I kept telling myself. “I’m just not trying hard enough.” “Maybe I’m getting old, and my energy is not what it was.” “What’s wrong with me?” My memory was failing. My brain felt fuzzy. I couldn’t get enough sleep.

Every day I wondered what was wrong with me. “My best” was less and less effective. Weekends seemed shorter and shorter. “That’s it,” I thought. “I just have to quit.” “I’m not a good teacher anymore.” “Maybe I never was.”

I should have known. I was hired for this job in August of 2013 and I knew then that my bosses were burnt out. They needed help, and I was looking for a job where I could feel useful. Their foreign teacher of 12 years had come back from vacation with a virus attacking his brain. He was very, very ill and it was uncertain if he would completely recover. I took the job and he came back on my first day of work. I had the pleasure of working with him, chatting with him, and sharing ideas with him for eight months. We talked about work, but also about life. One day he helped me make a piggy bank out of an old coffee can. He was good with his hands, good with the students, and good at communicating. Once he came to me and thanked me for coming to chat with him. It had been a lonely workplace where people didn’t talk to each other. Then one day, he didn’t turn up to work. He had collapsed and was back in hospital. Brain cancer.

I was happy to pick up the slack. It was what I was there for and it was the least I could do. Beginning in April of 2014, I began teaching 30~32 hours a week. That was comprised of 18 different groups of students. Some of those groups had textbooks and some didn’t. No classes were repeated in the week. Some classes met two or three times a week and some only once.

The curriculum had been presented to me as a set of textbooks we expect the students to be able to complete in each year. It was not boiled down to handy ‘can do’ statements, and I never had time to read through 8 sets of textbooks and figure it out. I was busy trying to plan 6 or 7 fifty minute classes a day.

The school was a good place, but modest. There was no dedicated room for teachers to work or go during breaks. Students demanded our attention at all hours. There was no time at work to prepare for classes before or after. The doors opened 30 minutes before the first class and closed immediately after the last. Going to work every day was like taking a deep breath and plunging into the ocean, to come up for air six hours later. If students learned anything at all by the end, it was purely by accident. 

Emotionally it was difficult as well. The previous teacher got worse and worse. He couldn’t read any more. Soon he couldn’t walk, talk, or feed himself. One day my boss asked me if I wanted to go visit him. “Should I?” Yes. It’s time. It was not an easy visit. I had nightmares after. He died three weeks later. The school decided not to tell the students. I don’t think they knew that the students asked me every day, “When is he coming back?” I disagreed with the decision, but I toed the line. Every day became a struggle and I threw myself into more work to avoid the emotional pain.

So on top of the teaching job, I was proofreading and writing for a publishing company, participating in professional development organizations, co-ordinating a reflective practice group, and taking classes online. I was sleeping about 20 hours a week. I was struggling to take care of myself. I wasn’t loving my work anymore.

Something had to give. And in the end, everything did. I quit my job and left that life behind, believing that something was wrong with me. I thought I had been tricked into thinking I was a good teacher, when really people were just trying to keep me happy. I wasn’t even an average teacher, I told myself. I probably never have been. So I did what any rational teacher-creature would do – I signed up for a CELTA to find out if I could become at least an average teacher. I gave myself a month of vacation first, though. A month of rest should be enough, I thought. I really didn’t realize.

I’ve been off for two months. The first month I traveled and relaxed. And I started to improve. I lost weight, felt my smile come back, and felt my brain begin to recover – my memory and ability to focus improved. I was getting better.

And then CELTA. The month in Chiang Mai was incredibly rewarding in so many ways. But the intensive CELTA is not made for people in my state. I gained in confidence and creativity, but the fuzzy feeling in my brain came back. Stress made me lose my appetite, and insomnia crept back in.

Now it’s several weeks later – and a year since my coworker’s death – and I know I’ll survive. One gift CELTA has given me, besides skills and feedback, is the friendship of so many wonderful, supportive people and the objectivity to see that my work environment was not normal, and perhaps my response to it is understandable. 

The Treasure: working with short stories in middle school classes

From the drafts folder.

I want to share some of the activities my classes did last fall around a short story called ‘The Treasure’. 

This is the gist of the story:

Isaac is an elderly Eastern European man. He is poor and doesn’t always get enough to eat. He has a dream which prompts him to travel – to the capital city – in order to find his treasure. In the capital city, Isaac meets his foil – a captain of the guard with a comfortable life, who also had a dream. The captain dreamed that he would find treasure under the stove in the house of a man called ‘Isaac’.

This is the background of the classes who used the story:

I shared this story with two classes of 16 year olds. Their levels are elementary, they don’t interact with any English at all (including homework) outside of class, and they are not super motivated. I’d been working with them for two years and slowly they have made progress. It is always challenging to find things that will motivate them and give them reasons to use English. This story kept both groups engaged enough to build a whole unit around it.

The two classes were very different in their make-up. One was a group of 6 boys who loved sports and video games, and didn’t see the value of  English at all. The other was a mixed group of 4 girls and 7 boys who had more varied interests and were sometimes responsive to activities within their ability level. I chose The Treasure because it was easy and repetitive but not childish, and it didn’t need any adaptation. (And I have to admit, I was hoping to make only one set of lesson plans for these two groups.)

Listening Dictations:

Group 1: I introduced the story at first as a listening exercise. I showed them the cover and told them about the story, and then I read it to them. I didn’t let them see the pictures. I read it a second time and the first class took dictation. They compared their notes, corrected each other, and finally asked me questions they still had.

Group 2: I divided them into teams and each team took dictation on a different part of the story while they all listened. The teams compared notes, corrected each other, and asked me their remaining questions. That took us to the end of the class period.

Reflection: I changed the activity for group 2 because group 1 had found it frustrating to take dictation on such a long story. The second way worked better, but in the future I’d give groups that are not writing a different task – like to draw or take notes.

2016-03-25 03.55.39

Listen (or read) and draw:

Group 1:  I divided the first class into pairs. I gave them each a segment of the story and asked them to draw it as a comic strip. They completed their comic strips and presented them to the class as a way to retell their part of the story and put it all back together.

Group 2: I asked each team to draw a picture of their own segment of the story without reading it to them again.  They drew pictures and explained them to their classmates. Then I asked them to write three questions about their own part of the story to quiz their classmates. They exchanged questions with their classmates and answered them.

Reflection: I read the story again to the first group, but decided not to with the second. I wish I had had both groups read the story themselves. The comic strips took longer, but worked better as a review of parts of the story than the individual images. But I liked the time left over for questions that the students asked each other.

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Golden Bell review game and character interviews:

Group 1: We used the questions the second class wrote in the previous week to play Golden Bell (A game show where students write their answers on mini white boards. Correct answers win points.) with the first class.  Then they wrote five questions for the other class to answer in a similar game.

Group 2: The second group started with the Golden Bell review game. In the remaining class time, I divided them into new teams. They chose roles, brainstormed questions, and recorded interviews with the characters in the story.

Reflection: Both groups enjoyed playing Golden Bell with questions another class had made for them. Telling group 1 how their questions would be used made them focus a lot more on accuracy, and their questions provided a good review of the story (for both groups). The extension activity for group 2 ended up being pretty surface level. I wish I had encouraged them to go deeper.

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Some more thoughts:

The two classes both liked the story and liked working with it, but their level and pace turned out to be quite different and I still had to plan separately for them in the end.

The groups made a lot of the materials for the classes themselves. I had to do it that way because I didn’t have time or energy to do it all for them. I think it was good for them, though.

Giving them a purpose and audience for their activities made the first group focus more on accuracy.

The drawing is something I wish I had included more in lessons with both these groups. They have a lot interest in drawing and showing off their art and I could have exploited that more. I’d had a belief about art in English class that stopped me.

This unit made me realize that I had been confusing ‘willingness’ with ‘ability’ in both of these classes. It raised my standards for them.

Some post-CELTA thoughts:

I taught this class last year when I was too tired to plan much and before I had taken the CELTA course. Looking at this through post-CELTA eyes, I can see that I would now order the activities differently. I would also structure the classes a little differently. I kept too much information from the students, forgetting the aims of the lessons. I didn’t always even have explicit aims for the classes. Activities that might work well next time with this text: a jigsaw reading activity; a dictagloss; write/draw/present a new page of the story; discuss/ present your thoughts on the deeper meaning of the story.

#CELTAsurvivor

schwa

Image retrieved from http://pronunciation-paraaula.blogspot.com (Creative Commons)

Last month I took a CELTA course. I had grand ideas before I began that I’d blog about it every weekend to share my reflections (and get this site back up and running). If you’ve ever taken a CELTA you’ll know how silly a thought that was. Luckily I was saved by Matthew Noble’s suggestion: a series of interviews regarding my CELTA experiences. With Matthew’s guidance I was able to keep up with my reflections, read his comments and those of a few other readers, and not have to deal with the arranging and photo-selecting and editing that comes with blogging. He is an incredible superstar for keeping up with all this while running a CELTA of his own.

By some interesting fluke of wordpress today, I couldn’t reblog the posts. But I really would like to share them and so I’m linking them below for your enjoyment or commiseration.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Thank you for reading. Comments are very welcome, of course. And follow Matthew’s (newish) blog if you don’t already.

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