Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Teacher self-evaluation and the iconoclast

By Lesley Woodward, MA, M.Ed. - Cleveland State University IELP, Cleveland, OH USA

I have found that occasionally taping my own classroom teaching sessions was invaluable in determining my own amount of teacher talk. It's hard to overcome both our own and students' preconceived notions of what is good and bad teaching, and subjective evaluation is a skewed perception. By unobtrusive taping of segments of my classes, I had an objective account of how much teacher talk I actually generated.

In my own teacher training at Teachers College, I was lucky to be exposed to the FOCUS observation system which uses a descriptive observation system rather than the usual prescriptive checklist. I highly recommend the book, "Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching" by John Fanselow. When I first used this system, I was amazed at how consistently I did not practice what I preached. I found that I used the same strategies over and over again, that I talked most of the time, and that I tended to call on the same students. Taping segments of my own classroom teaching coupled with using FOCUS allowed me to expand and explore alternatives in teaching. By using a descriptive system, I could see my teaching in a broader conceptual framework.

I have also found that attending to "wait time" is crucial in reducing teacher talk and this is something that I have had to consciously work on throughout my long teaching career. It's so tempting to finish student sentences, and assume that we understand what a student is trying to communicate before that student has really had time to complete his or her thought, much less express it. Over the years, I have learned to intuit when a student is thinking of how to say something and when that student is just stumped for an answer. It's a fine line between waiting and embarrassing a student who just doesn't know. Over time, I learned how to perceive the difference.

John Fanselow was a wonderful though quite eccentric teacher. His book "Breaking Rules" defies a cover-to-cover reading. You have to sample it and then reflect. Most important, he moved away from the prescriptive observations which were and are so prevalent and introduced a descriptive protocol which urges teachers to move outside their usual mode of teaching ... to "break rules."

Two examples: We came into a large methods class once and sat down and began chatting as usual. The time for class to begin passed. Slowly, we became aware that John was sitting in the rear of the class, watching. He finally spoke, and taught the entire class sitting in the back of the room. Then we talked about how interactions were different if the teacher sits and different if the teacher is not front and center of the room. He also like to put "T's" on the board. He would put various aspects of pedagogy up on the board in one column, then we would be asked to brainstorm ways in which certain received wisdom was not good depending of variables. Or conversely, how practices which we thought bad could be good in certain situations. He was the ultimate iconoclast.

The last I heard, he was teaching on the Tokyo campus of Teachers College, and then that he retired. I'll never forget his classes.

For more on John Fanselow, see: ESL MiniConference Online interview with John Fanselow

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