OK, I’m not going to suggest that a global, multi-billion-dollar, once-every-four-years spectacle like the Olympics is comparable to an English lesson. For starters, in my classes at least, there are no fake robberies or gold medals for best student. But look hard enough and we can all learn a thing or two. Here are six points that occurred to me:
1. Preparation beats adversity
Rumor has it, an Olympic kayaker was practising in Rio when he crashed into a submerged sofa. This story may be apocryphal, but in the lead-up to the Games, the media’s focus was clearly not on Olympic glory. Brazil’s woes took the headlines: the Zika virus, the failing economy, the impeachment of the president, and the unfinished facilities. But in the end, the Rio Olympics were a triumph.
What’s the lesson for educators? We worry constantly about how our lessons will turn out. Human interaction always involves an element of unpredictability, but if we prepare well, the chances are we’ll avoid disaster.
2. Being there means you’ve won already
In Rio, there was a Refugee Team from countries including Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Having fled their homelands, these athletes were effectively stateless. Several of them had lived in refugee camps, and one of them had crossed the Mediterranean in an inflatable boat. The Olympics is child’s-play to them. Their triumph was to be there at all.
We don’t always know our students’ life stories – what they’ve suffered and sacrificed to be there. Particularly in ESL contexts, some students may have escaped great danger to reach the host country. For them, obtaining any form of ongoing education is an achievement.
3. It’s about the participant
There are coaches and fans and journalists and sponsors. But the Olympic Games are about the athletes. In Teddy Roosevelt’s words, “The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Education involves teachers and managers and institutions and publishers, lesson plans and materials and tests and equipment. But ultimately it’s about students. Experienced teachers understand that the focus isn’t on themselves; they realize the limitations of their lesson plans. Learning takes place inside the student’s mind and there’s only one person who can control that.
4. Try something new
The Rio Olympics had two new disciplines: rugby sevens and golf. These were an unqualified success. Fiji won its first ever gold medal (for rugby) – a great achievement for a small, underfunded country. At the Tokyo Olympics 2020, five more sports will be added, including skateboarding, surfing and baseball.
Educators, try something new! It might be a game; a role play; a change of classroom set-up (put the furniture against the wall!). Get the students to do a 10-minute teaching slot; combine classes to team-teach; bring in a speaker; take the class to a gallery or museum or park. You never know how it will go, but breaking free of routine often pays dividends.
5. Uphold the spirit
Many of us recognize that elite sport is tainted by corruption, commercialism, and performance-enhancing drugs. So forgive us our cynicism. But the Olympics always has feelgood moments and heartwarming stories, too. Usain Bolt secured his legacy as the greatest ever sprinter, but he also volunteered to guide a handicapped athlete in the upcoming Paralympics. In the women’s 5,000-meter race, Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino tripped, crashing out of contention, but helped one another up and over the line.
Education is about people coming together in an act of transformation. Students collaborate, work together to complete tasks, and develop a classroom culture. These factors are as essential as good sportsmanship is to the Olympics.
6. Involve the community
Several reliable sources claim that communities in Rio were displaced in order to secure the Olympic site. And just how involved were the people of Rio in decision-making about these Games? While the favelas (shanty towns) were represented artfully in the Opening Ceremony, no one actually from the favelas would have been able to afford a ticket to see it. At least one Olympic superstar knew this. When U.S. basketball player Carmelo Anthony had a day off, he went to a favela and played ball with local kids. He later posted a message on Instagram: “I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.” Anthony had been raised in a rough Baltimore suburb, so he could empathize with those kids.
Education is always more powerful when we do two things: (1) go into the community, and (2) bring the community into the classroom. The most effective learning isn’t separate from the outside world; it’s part of it. Wherever you are, investigate the possibilities for involving the community in your students’ learning. It enriches both.
1. Read deeply
Take any subject related to English Language Teaching – linguistics, pragmatics, theories of Second Language Acquisition, etc. – and read all you can: books, blog posts, journal articles. Then try to relate your reading to your classroom practice.
2. Do Action Research
Action Research usually begins when we identify a problem or issue in class. We experiment with a solution and monitor its effectiveness over a period of time. Finally, we evaluate the solution. It becomes a cycle: identify, experiment, monitor, evaluate. An extra stage of Action Research may be to write an article about it, to share what we learned.
3. Write articles
Writing articles changes our relationship with the profession. Instead of being consumers of other people’s research and ideas, we become producers of both. We join a community that drives the conversation about our profession. The good news is that, with the preponderance of online journals, there are now more places than ever to publish articles.
4. Write materials
Material that is tailor-made for particular students at a particular time and place can have big advantages over mass-produced commercial material. And writing materials is a great way for teachers to develop because it raises our awareness of aspects such as pacing, variety, creating and sustaining interest in a topic, balancing the four skills plus grammar and vocabulary, and balancing individual study, pair-work, and group work.
Collaboration could mean joining a SIG (Special Interest Group), working on specialized curricula, choosing materials, team-teaching, or doing collaborative lesson planning. Inevitably, collaboration demands that we conceptualize and justify our ideas – a good way to develop professionally.
6. Teach a new course
“Some teachers have twenty years’ experience; others have one year’s experience repeated twenty times.” Bearing in mind this well-known adage, we teachers need to get out of our comfort zones and teach classes we’d normally avoid. Depending on where we work, there may be opportunities to teach Young Learners, teenagers, Business English, English for Special Purposes, etc. Great teachers are often those who expand their horizons and thus keep learning on the job.
7. Give workshops
Find an interesting subtopic of ELT – something new or underrepresented in our field. Research it and come up with engaging ways to present it to colleagues. Giving workshops uses many of the same skills as teaching. In fact it is teaching, with the added twist that you’re teaching teachers, a surefire way to get critical feedback.
8. Keep a teaching journal
Make notes on your lessons. What went well? What didn’t? Why? If you keep a journal for long enough, you’ll begin to see continuities in your teaching: patterns and sequences you repeat, activities you rely on, materials you love, islands of safety in the shark-infested waters of the classroom! You will also see how your teaching subtly changes throughout your career.
9. Become a mentor
When experienced teachers help new teachers with lesson planning, troubleshooting, school routines and bureaucracy, interesting things sometimes happen. The person being mentored brings a fresh perspective and may question things that the mentor takes for granted. Being a mentor is great for the mentor’s development because it forces us to analyze and explain the things we do in class.
10. Use PLNs
Your Personal/Professional Learning Network might consist of bloggers you follow, facebook posts, tweets, friends in the profession, podcasts, clips on youtube, journals and newsletters. Your PLN is probably in a state of constant flux as you discover new outlets – other bloggers, other journals – which keep you up to date with the profession.
11. Participate in conferences and courses
Courses usually guide participants along a common path towards some useful destination (e.g., a certificate or a degree). Conferences may provide opportunities to explore a little – to go off the beaten track and find out about things we’d previously neglected. Whether we prefer convergent or divergent routes, conferences and courses give structure to our development and allow us to learn by interacting with our peers.
12. Learn a new language
Doing this will remind us of the challenges our students face: of how time-consuming language learning is; of how elusive words are even when we’ve heard them a dozen times; of the intricacies of grammar and pronunciation; of how listening comprehension can be like trying to catch butterflies in your hands. It also reminds us of the roles of the teacher: mentor, facilitator, cheerleader, expert.
13. Look at developments in other fields
Many developments in ELT originally came from elsewhere: Audiolingualism came from behavioral psychology; cloze tests (gap-fills) from Gestalt Theory; “input” from computer processing. Humanistic teaching methods, the use of recording devices, Big Data – all were imported into ELT from the big wide world. The “feeder fields” from which ELT takes its ideas include technology, sport, psychology, music, and many others. Whatever is in society will eventually filter down to ELT. Great teachers tend to be curious about such developments and look for their educational applications.
14. Learn from great educators
Read and re-read the great educators of the past: Vygotsky, Montessori, Dewey, Freire, Ashton-Warner. Delve into your ELT gurus once again: Harmer, Thornbury, Burns, Douglas Brown. Our interpretation of their work changes as we change and grow more experienced. Inevitably, we begin to ask ourselves, “Where do I fit in? What do I believe? What kind of educator am I?”
15. Examine critical moments
Anyone who has taught for any length of time will have experienced a mini-crisis or a full-blown disaster. A student starts crying; a fight breaks out; a power-cut occurs during a video; the whiteboard won’t switch on; the students riot or fall asleep. What do we do? We fall back on our training and experience, and we remember these are human beings in the room and the best way to deal with human beings is to talk to them. Afterwards, in tranquillity, we reflect on what happened and learn from it.