Teachers’ well-being and mental health: an #ELTchat summary

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(the following mis-timed page pic has been included here as a reminder that nobody and nothing we do is perfect, as teachers we do some of the most demanding and complex work out there and we all face challenges mental and otherwise that require attention, compassion, and support…let’s not hide our imperfections from each other!)

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Correction: Phil’s training was with @mindcharity (not -clarity).

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March Paragraph Diary 11

Dunno

Writing this paragraph on my second morning of a 10-day stay in Kuala Lumpur. This city is a truly fascinating mix of Malay/Chinese/Indian/Brit/etc. cultures. I love the contrast, which is somehow high-in-look yet gentle-in-action as they all interlock with and around each other. I have a sense that this is particularly pronounced around where I’m staying in Chinatown. I don’t really know. And this post, I guess, is about that: not knowing. Being here in a new city offers ‘not knowing practice’ aplenty. A few examples of the 100s each day: I didn’t really know if there was a bus or a train from the airport into the city when I landed. I worked it out as I went and landed a block from my hostel. On the table in front of me sits a coffee. The waiter asked if I wanted my coffee ‘black or white’? I could have asked what that means. Or, I could answer without really knowing for sure and find out. “White!”. It’s delicious. Last night I had a beer at a bar around the corner. Should I leave a tip for the bartender? I didn’t really know. I walked away knowing that either way, but if someone reacted to my decision I could tell them about my state of not knowing. I didn’t know, but prepared for not knowing. I think what I’m talking about is a learning state, actually.

Each time I act without knowing I learn. I almost didn’t come into this place where I’m drinking coffee because I didn’t know enough about how it works/what they have/what would happen. It’s a really attractive place for me – big, airy on the corner, a kind of co-op of different stalls, full of every kind of human alluded to above, all doing BREAKFAST. [Would there be a UN without breakfast? Breakfast is a sacred universal. Early morning is also universally sacred (I always land on this thought when I rise before 5am as I did today) isn’t it?]. I almost didn’t come in here though. Scared of the not knowing. I wasn’t comfortable because I wasn’t sure I wanted to enter this not knowing/learning state. Not just the co-op, the state. But then I decided: I embraced the not knowing and the chance to learn. In that sense it’s actually an act of unknowing within a state of knowing! So I’ll try to stay here (in this state, not this shop) all day. Hmmm…you know, I’m not thinking ‘ignorance = bliss’ here. I’m asking a lot of questions when I don’t know something and too much not knowing is not okay. I’m not a glutton for surprises and I’m not too shy to inquire or too lazy to do my research. Preparation is power. But then there’s this simple, tiny space where little things get learned because I’m not to anxious in the face of not knowing. I think keeping spaces open for these spaces is really important (I’m certainly no OVER-planner!). I decide to walk in. And in the moment I determine whether I need to inquire more, or if I can just take a chance on the black or the white coffee – I can surf the little and medium unknowns. The coffee: such a tiny moment, but it’s much the same dynamic when facing more consequential learning/decision-making opportunities.

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This is a bit of an old saw.

Rob posted this the other day just as I was arriving here and it resonated:

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March Paragraph Diary 10

Defensive

In earlier paragraphs I wrote a bit about my Thai leaning process and progress. I assessed my learning positively – giving myself internal feedback. I’ve gotten some external feedback in the form of complements about my ability as well. The most common being how clear my speech is. I usually respond with something self-depreciating (and true) like “it’s easy to be clear when you only know a few words / have been saying the same handful of phrases for years”.

I was given a compliment by one of my nieces about a different skill the other day: my driving. She said (in Thai): “Wow, it’s impressive that Uncle Matthew is able to drive in a different country, if it were we I’d be freaking out”. (Understanding her, I said “thanks!”, to which she responded “huh, his listening skills have improved too!”…yay, more language feedback to boot!). We’ve been borrowing my brother-in-law’s car mainly to drive up and down from my wife’s family home in the mid-south and the Bangkok suburbs where he lives. And when we’re home, here down south, I drive around on rural roads mostly. It’s easy…is what I didn’t say to my niece. I’ve had a few opportunities to drive into Bangkok proper but opted for public transportation. I’m adventurous, I’m brave. I’m not a sadist. The trip from Ken’s to home down south is essentially tie lefts, straight for 5 hours on Phetkasem Road, a u-turn and a left. Phetkasem is full of trucks but it’s not too hairy once you’re out of the industrial zones in Bangkok’s orbit. This means I’ve been able to ease in, with Phetkasem as my Thai driving classroom. It’s not the first time I’ve driven here, but it’s the most I’ve ever done. It takes a day just to really internalize the flip to driving on the left, etc. Then it takes a week to get a sense of how Thai drivers float around from lane to lane. It also takes a while to get out of the habit of yielding for pedestrians! It was my mother who mainly taught me how to drive and she stressed a full-on “defensive driving” approach. Thais typically hand amulets and flowers on the rear-view mirror for luck and protection in the car. When I hang a fresh garland (bought from a seller hawking them at a long red light) with a quick ‘wai’ and prayer I think of her who I lost in 2002 but is still with me slamming her own feet against the passenger-side floor when I get within 25 feet of the car ahead…

March Paragraph Diary 9

Electric Slide

Today, just a short n’ sweet update paragraph on my first (or second?) post in this series in which I mentioned high-current power lines in close proximity to my skull, the container for my brain aka MUM (“Matthew’s Unlikely Moneymaker). This was an example of things I’d grown out of finding fun in some way since my younger days in Thailand, swinging on them to cross the street to another, better stocked 7-11 like Yankee Urban Tarzan. Well here’s my simple update: a couple weeks on my level of shock about and preoccupation with this particular hazard is such that I can smile…sort of…half way…with a vaguely crazed twist of the jaw…in the face of a hundred thousands watts of Matthew murder:

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March Paragraph Diary 8

Lit Review

I’m feeling great about my progress with Thai language over the last month (no, not ten days!). Since moving back I’ve focused on literacy in a way I never did before (I essentially ignored it!)

“Literacy” wiki: Literacy is traditionally meant as the ability to read and write . The modern term’s meaning has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge, solve mathematical problems and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture.

In the wide world of global ELT, I’d say ‘literacy’ to connote the initial, basic meaning above isn’t a high-frequency word (from my perch anyway – is it where you are?). I’ve surely never heard it uttered in Thailand ELT. Phonics, reading skills, writing skills, sure. But never this L-word. It wasn’t always exactly thus for me in localized terms. I believe the main phase of my career than involved a focus on what was termed ‘literacy’ was working in ESOL in Massachusetts, often with beginners, sometimes with low-literate L1 learners. For example, Somali immigrants who never learned to write. I taught one how to hold a pencil and went from there. I find myself thinking of her often as I struggle to simply trace Thai characters in the correct direction, or sound out the simplest of words in the most basic of sentences.

By the end of her course she had produced a picture book about her life. Mostly about the goats she took care of as a child. Her and her work on that course will continue to serve as my model and I hope one day soon to post my own picture book in Thai. Maybe focused on the cats and dogs I grew up with, and definitely dedicated to a student from rural Somalia living in Boston, Massachusetts who showed me what literacy work looks like.

March Paragraph Diary 7

Roles, Models

It’s Friday morning in Bangkok, Thailand and out my window falls the first sustained rain I’ve experienced since arriving here in late January. In this city, any kind of sustained rainfall means a lot more than puddles – it means both macro- and micro-flooding, insta-ponds forming in what little open space there is, little rivers in the streets, rainwaterfalls pouring off the jagged rooftops. You need to be careful! Checkout time (I’m staying in a small hostel for a night) is about 2 hours from now and I’ll need to be careful heading out. I stayed here last night instead of commuting back out to the suburbs at the in-laws where we’re squatting at the moment so I could attend this talk. And I’m so glad I did. If you look at his bio at the link there, you see he’s a fluent speaker of Thai. In fact, he speaks multiple Thai dialects and has even mastered the rarified vocabulary used by/for Thai royalty, “kham rachasapThere was a sub-theme of language in the wide- ranging and extremely lively talk including ways in which sensitive issues are ‘talked around’ in Thai society with extensive use of euphemisms and indirect/passive speech acts. During question time, I planned to ask about language learning and perhaps the issue of perceptions of him as a non-Thai near-native speaker, etc. I did end up asking a question but it wasn’t about that (it had to do with his description of an emerging rural-based Thai middle class and a couple other things…it was one of those too-rich talks you can’t figure out which of many, many things you should respond to during your turn). To wrap up, Longfellow is now an inspiring L2 role-model for me as a Thai language learner. I’m very aware how important this is for me just as it is for my own English language students.

He’s also a role-model as a human being; I was sincerely moved by his work and his spirit.

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March Paragraph Diary 6

Turn, turn, turn

No “diary”-style writing today. Instead, for today’s short paragraph post I’m reaching back into my files to share something vaguely related to ‘mentoring’, yesterday’s topic du jour.

I once contacted a handful of wonderful CELTA graduates with a simple question: do you remember anything I said? I mean, can you actually remember specific lines I uttered that stuck with you? This is what one wrote back (with permission to share): “The most memorable, “Matthew-like” feedback I remember getting was when you pointed out that “the pacing problems…cut off the cherry on top.” This was particularly effective, in my mind, for helping me focus on my opportunities in future lessons. Some other positive feedback you gave me was that “students ohhhed and aahhhed when you gave them such a visual handout.” Not only was this a more entertaining/interactive type of feedback, but it also got the point across very well, and made me feel good about the efficacy of my lesson. Also, I liked the “emoticons” (smileys) that you included in the written feedback. And I remember that another time, about a writing assignment, you said, “I want to teach that lesson myself!,” which was very encouraging feedback”.

Have you ever asked a student or student teacher if they can recall specific things you said in class? How much attention do you pay to…I don’t know what to call them…I think I’ve always called them “turning phrases”, which I suppose is an (odd?) variation on the idiomatic verb ‘to turn a phrase’ (wiki definition: to create a particular linguistic expression which is strikingly clear, appropriate, and memorable) and/or the noun ‘a turn of phrase’. I think my request for feedback from those CELTA grads had to do with a desire to better and more conscientiously focus on this.

…as I reflect on it here, I’m getting to thinking that perhaps it was my TESOL professor at Boston University Dr. Marnie Reed who got me looking harder at being very intentional and strategic with memorable “turning “/mnemonic phrases for teaching. See, for example, Step 3 of this: http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolc/downloads/features/2014/2014-12_lesson%20prep.pdf

Thanks for reading. 🙂

 

#ELTmentor (to Anna)

It seems Anna’s just the spark these days! OK, so Anna Loseva’s latest blog post is about mentoring. She writes:

“Because I want and feel the need to support and listen and help to reflect, I want to have more clarity on what mentoring is or can be. On what a mentor is and what the relationship involves. On how it starts and if it ever finishes. On how it’s organized…I think stories that I’m sure other people have might be just what I need to get that clarity…
…so, do you have any #ELTmentor stories? Successful or not so much, stories where you were the mentor or the mentee, for a specific period of time, project or otherwise. I hope you can share some of your stories with me – and anyone else who is interested – in the comments to this post, in the comments on Facebook, or on your own blog”.

I honestly don’t have the time/energy/memory juice to do a lot of involved “storytelling” on this great topic and I don’t have anything particularly smart to say about it but I did want to respond in some way. So here are some initial and rather general and sketchy thoughts along with a little glimpse into one specific instance of mentoring from my personal experience (the latter shared via the words of my mentee).

Hmm. It’s easy to see how mentoring is baked into the cake of being a teacher trainer. In this respect, I’ve been a ‘mentor’ for a handful of years working as a CELTA tutor. But I’m thinking right now about how mentoring is ‘baked into the blood’ of being a teacher. Whereas students generally function in groups, teachers do individually. But this is only seeming, only at the surface level. This is what we see just looking through a window into the classroom: any number of students, only one teacher together in Room 6. However, if we were able to look into the heart and mind of the teacher-in-action, or if we went in and listened very, very carefully…things might appear different. Then, we’d see how the teacher thinks and acts out of a space beyond an individual self. We might see how the teacher’s decisions and actions are guided by all of their own teachers and by all of their teacher trainers and educators. Not to mention (ideally) the learners they’re engaged with presently. As teachers we are a kind of holographic personification of a potentially quite large group beyond ourselves; from this perspective teaching is much about being a colleague as it is about being an instructor; it’s as horizontal (and diagonal?) as it is vertical. A horizon filled with the influence of parent-mentors, peer-mentors, trainer-mentors, mentor-mentors. From this perspective, the statement “whereas students generally function in groups, teachers do individually” can be seen as pretty superficial.

Those are my quick-jot thoughts. Now onto an account of mentoring from July of 2012. I am posting the text from a sort of ‘testimonial’ written for/about me back then. It describes how I mentored the writer.

“I cannot begin to tell you how helpful Matt was to me. Since his office was just outside my classroom, when my class was over he would sit down with me and critique my lesson as well as my interactions with the students. While he gave me positive feedback and praised my engagement with the students, he also pointed out areas where I could improve. I found his analyses to be invaluable.

When I would work on my lesson plans prior to class, I would enlist Matt’s help. He was always willing to sit down with me and go over my lesson plans. He once spent three hours with me going over one lesson plan pointing out in detail how I should approach it with the students also pointing out how I should work with them on pronunciation and repetition. He further assisted me by introducing me to several excellent ESL teacher Web sites where I found a wealth of worksheets and approaches.

He taught me that the classroom should be 80 percent student-focused and 20 percent directed by the teacher. Consequently, I arranged lessons where the students would be talking to one another employing whatever the concept for the class was (present tense, past tense, comparatives, etc.). The students enjoyed the classes; attendance was good throughout the semester; and I believe they learned a great deal”

The one comment I’d like to add here is that sometimes you can just sense that you are the person another person needs, just as you might sense that another person is the person you need. This was one of those times. Her class was indeed right next to my office (at an ESOL program in Salem, MA…I was a student counselor on top of teaching English) and I could hear the entire thing really well. This meant that I learned a lot about who/how she was as a teacher before too long. And in our early casual conversations, I kept noticing that she was reaching for understandings I was in a good position to help her grasp, or at least keep reaching in a healthy and productive way. So that’s what happened. As similar things happened before in a different times and places…with me in her position. Perhaps I’d say – to wrap up and try to offer something concrete here –  that when it comes to mentoring, don’t be timid. Go for it. There are so many good reasons why mentoring activity should be increased in teaching. And the reasons not to? Rife with pretensions and shallow fears.

I’d also like to just add Sarah Priestley’s talk here and this book to the list of potentially interesting and/or helpful resources on the topic…and I’m hoping the muses will bring another, different type of response to share soon.

PS – I see my whole online PLN as a community of peer-mentors.

PPS – I was so happy to meet Anna, one of these peer-mentors, in person recently! 🙂

PPPS – Back to single paragraphs tomorrow…;P

 

March Paragraph Diary 5

Question X

“Why are you 39 years old?” “Why are you tall?” “How come you don’t have a car?” “Why can you play music?” and “When you poop, does it stink?”. These are four questions Kenneth, our friends’ 4 year-old son asked me yesterday (the fifth in Thai, after he called me ‘so silly!’ for being able to speak Thai at all). The questions of children have a special quality. They are equal parts ridiculous and profound. I think questions we post to learners can be similar. We might ask questions to engage and focus learners, activate schema, check understanding, seek authentic opinions, or any number of other things. To the outside observer, these questions may sometimes appear like those of a child: a bit naive, somewhat beside the point, or a little direct, a bit abrupt. But in the context of instructional conversation, questions can perform multiple functions and like children we are usually “up to something”. It’s rarely only about asking question X to collect answer Y, is it. This rather quirky site lays out 17 types of questions and I like some of the fresh descriptions.

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March Paragraph Diary 4

Not a Sprint

The term “long-winded” is used to describe speech or writing that tediously expands beyond its ideal length and/or the person who produces that speech or writing. Well I’ve expanded beyond my ideal size physically recently. And so I’m paying more attention to diet, eating less, exercising more. I’ve lost a kilo or two since moving from my BBQ heavy winter stint in South Korea. I try to jog every morning. Early in the morning before it gets too hot to workout outside here in Thailand. I notice how my body feels better overall when I sit down in front of my computer screen. It’s an easy time to scan and notice this, as I’m very still, upright, quiet at the desk. These paragraph posts help me avoid being very long-winded here on my blog. In contrast, nothing allows me to avoid becoming quickly winded on these jogs. I’ll call me “short-winded” in that way. But each time I last a bit longer; each day my threshold moves up just a bit. So many worthwhile things tend to happen slowly. Including language learning, teacher development…how much patience and persistence (“grit”, maybe?) I bring to it is, it seems, the key variable. One I’ve often lacked (compared to others around me) in various areas/at various stages in my life.

Me this morning, winded:

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