Welcome to Fool for Language

Welcome to Fool for Language, the site for people who are crazy about learning languages - like me! If you are new to this blog, I recommend you read the articles in order. The information will make better sense.

This is my first blog and writing each essay has been much more enjoyable than I expected. I have spent most of my life teaching and, more importantly, learning languages. I have “survived” a wide range of teaching techniques, materials and teachers. The result is that I have a pretty clear idea of what has and has NOT worked for me. Yes, I am opinionated, but even if you don’t agree with me, I hope you will enjoy the stories and think about what gets you “wired” when you dive into the wonderful world of learning another language.

I want to thank some people who have helped me maintain momentum with this blog. To give you, the reader, a break, every 10th essay is written by a guest blogger, all close friends with their own special take on language learning. As for the uploading process, Kurt meticulously proofreads and makes insightful comments on each essay; while Yoh patiently provides technical support, including selection of the vibrant visuals. Thank you!


36. Another Perspective: Team Teaching

Today’s blog entry will go off on a rather different tangent. Yes, it talks about language learning, but in the unique context of team teaching. I was recently contacted by a major Japanese publisher of school texts to write an essay about this topic, which is dear to my heart. Here I present the unabridged version.

I have lived in Japan for over half of my life and during many years here have had a wide range of teaching experiences, including several working with Japanese instructors in junior and senior high schools to teach English. This arrangement is surprisingly common thanks to team teaching programs established by the Japanese Ministry of Education (Monkasho). A great deal of funds have been spent over the years on these programs; however, the results are mixed. Depending on who you are talking with, you will hear of amazing or horrible classroom experiences.

Although I am no longer involved directly with team taught classes for English, I do coordinate programs where I serve as the non-native instructor in a team-teaching context, most recently Thai. I also conduct workshops for regional education boards for both foreign and Japanese instructors who work for the government-sponsored Association for Japanese Exchange and Teaching (AJET) program. In my discussions with participants after these workshops, I hear praise and complaints very similar to those I encountered in my own team-teaching contexts many years ago. The French have an expression which describes this situation: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” - The more things change, the more they stay the same. No kidding!

My first team teaching experience took place in 1984, well before the official Ministry of Education programs were set up. I was one of a very few foreigners living on Shodo Island in Japan’s Inland Sea area and was approached by two local high schools to work alongside their teachers in classes. The goal was the same for each school – to give the island kids a chance to interact with a native English speaker – but my experience with each school was radically different.

In the first school, I arrived early on the first day of class early to discuss the lesson plan with my teaching partner and confirm who would be responsible for which components of the lesson. What activities were planned? How would we interact? Would I be solely responsible for some sections or would we do everything together? I was excited by the prospects. I had studied Chinese at university with native and non-native instructors working together, and knew such classes could be very productive and motivating (see blog entry 21). In my case, it was exciting to speak with a native Mandarin speaker and really communicate. On the other hand, I was impressed by my non-native instructor who inspired me. He was clearly comfortable working with a native and gave me the confidence to persevere. If he could learn Chinese, so could I!

The teacher I was to work with at the first school, Mr. F, didn’t take my phone calls and appeared in the staff room minutes before the class actually started. When I asked about the lesson plan I was told “Nan de mo ii.” (“Anything is okay.”) then marched into the classroom and left at the front of the room as my “partner” walked to the back and sat down. I felt like a curiosity on display. Fortunately, I am energetic and quick on my feet. I came up with some introductory activities that did not require handouts or one-on-one interviews with students, a time killer which leaves the other kids uninvolved and bored. This first class was a big disappointment for me, but I was determined that the students would enjoy themselves. I could “fix things” with my teaching partner by the next class. Sadly, the only thing that changed was my attitude towards the school. I didn’t like working there.

Over the weeks of visiting this school, my attempts to sit down with the Japanese instructor and discuss lesson planning were met with resistance. Mr. F was always “busy” when I asked for some time together, and started each class by walking quickly to the back of the room and sitting in his chair. Occasionally he would get up and stroll about when students were asking or answering questions. I understood his purpose when I suddenly turned from writing on the board and caught him hitting a student on the back of the head for making an error! How did he expect his students to try if he hit them when they made mistakes? After class, I told the man that, if I caught him hitting a student again, I would not return to the school. As a result, he never left his chair at the back of the room and we were both miserable.

Fortunately, my team teaching experience at the second school was completely different. The instructor assigned to work with me, Mr. Y, was happy to meet several days before we were to work together in the classroom. He greeted me at the door the first day we met and lead me straight to his desk in the staff room where he showed me the ideas and activities that he had planned for our first lesson. We discussed who would do what and, once we entered the classroom, things went incredibly well. Mr. Y’s English wasn’t perfect, but his attitude certainly was. He was completely involved in the lesson and inspired his students – and me – with his pleasant, approachable manner. I finished the school year with a new friend, convinced that team teaching could work with some planning and sensitivity towards your teaching partner.

I left Shodo Island to continue my education in the UK, returning to a Community Program Supervisor’s position at the Language Institute of Japan (LIOJ) in Odawara. By coincidence, LIOJ had just received a contract with a local high school and I was asked to set up the program using the four community teachers on staff, including myself. I was very excited by the possibilities and encouraged the LIOJ teachers by telling them how wonderful team teaching could be, while providing clear, structured training. Our group worked closely with the teachers in the local school. Everyone knew what their tasks were and did them well. We ended the year on a high and frightening note: 40 local education officials came to observe our team taught classes, as many observers as students! Subsequently, Odawara City asked us to expand the program to seven schools, a testament to its success.

Why were the LIOJ team teaching classes so successful? Clear guidelines were applied to improve the chances that the working relationship between the local teacher and visiting LIOJ instructor got off on the right foot. These guidelines included the following three core principles.

1.        Consultation is critical.
As I learned on Shodo Island, taking the time to discuss the role of each teacher in the classroom can make or break the working relationship. Both teachers are under pressure: the local teacher doesn’t want to look incompetent in front of his or her students, while the visiting instructor doesn’t want to be treated like a dancing poodle for entertainment vs. education purposes. A little time spent together preparing outside of the classroom can make a huge difference. Whether you meet in the staff room, in a nearby café or simply discuss on the telephone, this consultation time goes a long way to making your classroom efforts a success. An added benefit is that you may develop a strong friendship in the process.

2.        Lesson plans equal less stress.
Consultation about classroom activities and roles is great; however, your end goal should be a concrete lesson plan that you are both more or less satisfied with. A good lesson plan is designed like a stage script with clear activities, estimated time required, and assignment of “roles”. In other words, who does what and how long will it take. In the beginning, there will be miscalculations and things might be a little messy; however, with time and patience both teachers should become more adept at recognizing what works well in their team taught classes. A lesson plan reassures both teachers and makes for productive discussion, particularly afterwards when you discuss how things went and what to do differently next time.

3.        Attitude saves the day.
In the end, all the discussion and lesson-planning in the world is worthless unless both teachers respect each other’s efforts. Each teacher has his or her particular strengths. The local teacher probably knows the class better and can help identify which students are likely to provide the best model at the start of an activity, while the visiting teacher can add an energizing element to what would otherwise be a repetitive routine. Identify each person’s strengths and design the lesson plan around them. Maintain a flexible attitude. If an activity is not going as planned, don’t step in and take over. Discuss the situation with your teaching partner and make adjustments. Students are not stupid. If they see that their teachers are working well together to provide a productive lesson, they will respond with respect for both of you. I know this from my own experience.

Years have passed since my first forays into team teaching. I have been on both sides of the team teaching equation, as a native English speaker and as a non-native French, Spanish, Japanese and Thai teacher. I know that with planning, patience and sensitivity towards your classroom partner, the end result can be a wonderful, productive experience for everyone, especially the students.

If you enjoyed this article, you might be interested in reading two earlier papers I prepared on team teaching published in the academic publications Cross Currents and The Language Teacher. Click these links for access.

And, of course, if you are really a fool for language like me, check out my language learning website at http://en.sulantra.com/ with courses from and to EnglishSpanishChineseJapaneseTurkishBulgarianThaiGermanKorean and Italian!

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