18 Oct Working with new teachers (Part III): The Things That Schools & Staff Can Help with
Article originally published in the IH Journal, issue no. 46. Author: Sandy Millin.
Is your work-life balance right? Are you able to stay away from the perils of burnout? Do you know your teaching strengths well enough to build up on them? Can you cope with homesickness while working abroad? Whether you’re a novice teacher, a mentor or a DoS in charge of novice teachers, this article goes through the most common questions in the career of an English teacher to give you practical and reassuring answers from one of today’s most prominent TEFL stars: teacher trainer, writer and blogger Sandy Millin.
I believe that the first year of teaching is easily the hardest in our careers. If teachers are lucky enough to start in an IH school, they should have at least some support, but there is always more we can do. Without support, many teachers leave the profession very soon after they join it.
How can you avoid teacher burnout?
The instinct for professionally-minded new teachers is to spend all of their time on work, but this causes a lot of pressure and can lead to burnout. Teachers, colleagues, and people outside work can all play a role in reducing this risk.
Teachers should spend at least one to two hours each day doing something not related to work, and aim for at least one full day off at the weekend to have a proper break and recharge their batteries. Two days would be even better, but I know that it can be a real challenge for new teachers to not work at the weekends – I certainly used to! This time should be timetabled and “sacred” so that it definitely happens. As Sarah Mercer said in her IATEFL 2017 plenary, if we don’t look after ourselves and our health, we won’t be able to give our best to our students.
Sarah also talked about the importance of strength spotting, noticing the positive things about ourselves and not just the things we should be working on. New teachers should practice positive self-talk and think about the good things that can be repeated from a lesson, not just the things that they feel went wrong. A great way to think about this is to consider what you are saying to yourself about your lessons, and whether you would say something similar to a beginner student who was just starting out with English. For example, new teachers often think “I’m not a real teacher” or “I shouldn’t be teaching if I make mistakes like that”, but if a student said “I’m not a real student” or “I shouldn’t be learning English if I make mistakes like that” we would encourage them. Teachers should not say anything to themselves about their teaching that they wouldn’t say to another person. My ELT Playbook blog has a free task available to help you to examine your own self-talk and confidence: https://eltplaybook.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/bonus-task-self-talk-and-teacher-confidence-elt-playbook-1/
Colleagues and managers should look out for signs of potential burnout in the new teachers they work with. These signs could be obvious: constant tiredness or anxiety, to name just two. They could also be much more subtle, for example not really asking questions, the questions they are choosing to ask, or the time they’re spending in the staffroom. In my experience new teachers feel like they need to be perfect, and won’t let themselves be beginners. Ask them “What do you need help with?” rather than “Do you need help?” as if they think you’re too busy, they might answer “No” to the latter question.
New teachers can also enlist the help of people outside work, by asking their friends to invite them to things, to notice when they’re working too much, and to have conversations to let off steam. An important part of time off should also be time spent outside, as this has been consistently proven to boost our mental health.
The final tip for avoiding teacher burnout is to look at time management, particularly for planning. More experienced colleagues could offer tips on how to plan more efficiently, and new teachers could reflect on what their planning time is being spent on, and whether it is really worth it – this is particularly true of cutting things up and creating slides!
How can you combat homesickness?
It may feel like that this is beyond the remit of the school, but helping teachers to combat homesickness is a key part of managing foreign teachers, as it makes the staffroom a much nicer place to be. Happy teachers are less likely to be off sick too, so that’s a lot less cover to organize!
Before teachers arrive at your school, you should manage their expectations as much as possible. Be realistic about the place where you work and encourage new teachers to communicate with teachers who have worked there before to find out more. At our school we try to put teachers in touch with their future flatmates as soon as possible so they can start getting to know each other before they arrive.
Many brand new EFL teachers are living abroad for the first time, and experience lots of new things at the same time: a new country, a new city, a new language, a new career, a new job, a new workplace, new colleagues, a new way of working, and more! It’s no wonder that they want to cling to something familiar, and with our connected world it can be very easy for them to spend a lot of time chatting to friends from home and staying in their rooms. Schools and colleagues can help by organising social events like meals or cinema trips, or day trips to local places of interest. The latter is particularly useful as navigating public transport in a new country can be quite daunting the first few times you do it. It’s much easier to make trips once you’ve already done one or two with somebody who knows what they’re doing.
New teachers need the opportunity to talk about how they are feeling, with people available who can be a listening ear. Often talking about homesickness can go a long way towards helping people move past it. This could be a friend, a manager, or a mentor. At IH Bydgoszcz, we have introduced a very successful mentoring system this year – new teachers are mentored by second years who were in the same situation twelve months before.
We have a Facebook group for all of our teachers where we post upcoming events in the area. This is a good way for the teachers to experience life outside the school, as otherwise it can be hard to escape and get to know the local area and people. For those who aren’t on Facebook, we ask their flatmates to pass on any information. We also provide links to language exchange clubs, Facebook groups, cafés where you can meet people, and a detailed handbook with information about lots of other leisure events. These ideas can help teachers to really live in the country, not just work there.
What if a teacher refuses to teach a certain age group?
The first thing to do is to find out why they don’t want to work with this particular age group or profile. For example, they might never have really been around children in their lives, so they may be daunted by a room full of young learners, or they may have little workplace experience and feel they don’t know enough to teach in company.
Tell them you will support them, and follow through on this support. You can help the teacher by making sure they have a solid plan to go into the lesson with, including any routines that they may need to set up. Rehearsal can improve confidence, for example practising how to set up a particularly challenging activity. That way when they walk into the lesson, it won’t be the first time they’ve ever set up that activity.
I also make sure to reassure teachers that I’m giving them a particular group because I believe that they can do it. I encourage them to try teaching the group for three or four lessons, and if they really don’t like it, we can see what we can do. In life in general, not just in teaching, the fear of doing something can often be a lot worse than the act of actually doing it. This means that once new teachers have tried out these new groups, they discover that it’s not as scary as they thought it was!
How can we help new teachers to engage with further professional development?
Create a programme of required professional development that new teachers have to attend and show them how to connect this to what they are doing every day in the classroom so that they don’t feel like it’s a waste of time. We have had a lot of success recently with asking teachers to bring a lesson plan or a coursebook they’re going to use in the upcoming week and spending at least 5-10 minutes of every workshop getting them to apply what they have learnt.
You should also lead by example, showing how development can fit around teaching. Demonstrate your own development and show what you have learnt. Highlight all of the little things that you can do as part of professional development, not just big things like workshops, like the conversations that we have in staffrooms after lessons. IH also has many resources that can fit into the week, such as the short IH Teachers Online Conference (TOC) talks. My book, ELT Playbook 1, has a series of reflective tasks based on typical problems new teachers have. These can be done fairly quickly by new teachers, and managers and trainers can select tasks which cover relevant areas for the teachers they work with.
What can CELTA tutors do to prepare trainees for the reality of teaching?
The CELTA course is very intense, and we throw a lot of information at trainees. Tutors should try to make this information as “reusable” as possible, for example with handouts that can be referred to easily after the course. They should make sure that the reason behind particular advice is clear, and it’s not just to meet the criteria. It’s also important to demonstrate professional development as a tutor, and to show how many opportunities exist for trainees to continue developing after the course.
One example might be drilling – don’t just tell trainees that they need to do it to meet the criteria, but show them the benefits of this for their students.
In the final week of the course, tutors can encourage trainees to ask as many questions as possible. Many of the courses I’ve worked on have included an open session when trainees can ask about anything which has worried or intrigued them about the profession. We can also show trainees how to plan in the first few weeks after the course, including different possible layouts so they can see alternatives to the long-form CELTA plan.
The final and by far the most important thing that tutors can do is emphasise the power of reflection and show how trainees can do this constructively and in a balanced way. Tutors should reiterate that the form trainees complete after teaching practice is not just a tick-box exercise, but the first steps in truly developing as a teacher. Experiencing this cycle multiple times throughout the course, and having the power of it pointed out to them (because they don’t always notice!) allows new teachers to be less harsh on themselves and helps them go through the process of being a beginner.
Sandy Millin is the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz in Poland. She is also a CELTA trainer and materials writer. In February 2018, she self-published ELT Playbook 1, a book of tasks to help new teachers settle into their career and begin to build up an online support network. You can find more information on her blog: http://sandymillin.wordpress.com