Karl Millsom has been an EFL teacher in Jakarta for over a decade and now runs a teacher training institution that is dedicated to improving education standards in Indonesia and South East Asia. Karl is especially interested in making high-quality teacher training available to educators from all backgrounds.
I have been conducting teacher development workshops and TESOL training for several years, and last year I also started lecturing various subjects in an English Language degree at a local university.
This semester, the college assigned me the TEFL units in the final semesters of the degree program. These are two semesters that every student of the English Language degree must take at the end of their four years, and this is fairly standard across institutions her in Indonesia. On the one hand, I had for some time coveted the position of teaching these units, given my professional background, but now that I have been assigned them, I find myself somewhat disappointed.
There are two causes for my disappointment. The first problem is the lack of English ability of these students, and the second is their lack of interest in TEFL as a subject.
TEFL for Non-Teachers
The first of these problems I shall not deal with in this article, though needless to say, it is a significant obstacle. Here I will discuss the more relevant problem of the students’ lack of interest, how I responded to that and what I learned from the experience.
So, what to do in a TEFL class full of students who have no intention of becoming teachers? I chose three basic approaches, which I both combined and alternated amongst as the course proceeded:
- Help students identify good teachers in their own learning environments.
- Help the students understand more about how teaching and learning work so that they may become more effective learners.
- Highlight all the most interesting aspects of teaching in the hopes that some of the students might actually become interested in a teaching career after all.
One semester in, and I have seen substantial gains in all three areas. While only one of the nineteen students at the beginning of the semester had an express interest in teaching, by the end of the semester an additional three told me they were thinking about it. That might not be a large number, but progress is progress.
On the other hand, I had a good number of students come to me at different times during the semester commenting on and asking for suggestions regarding some of their other teachers—none of whom I ever directly undermined as individuals, of course—and all of them both expressed and demonstrated growth as learners.
TEFL for Learners
On the TESOL course that I deliver publicly, I try to make a small but important distinction from approaches taken on other, similar courses. Over the last few decades, there has been an incredibly valuable transition, primarily seen in the EFL domain, from teacher-centered to student-centered learning. More recently, we have seen a shift in terminology from student to learner, mostly intended to further remove the emphasis from the teacher and put the learner fully in charge of his or her learning.
In my own syllabus, I have made a further modification, using instead the term “learning-centered”. The learning-centered curriculum still maintains the learner’s position at the heart of the classroom dynamic but places a particular emphasis on making instructional decisions based on what is best for learning.
With this in mind, I was able to unearth a considerable amount of value in my materials for those members of my class who were more interested in their current role as learners rather than their potential role as future teachers. In the end, my students were grateful not only for the inherent value in this approach but also for the effort I made to cater to their specific interests rather than just delivering a syllabus full of content they didn’t care about.
How to Be a Better Learner
As with many things, the true, fundamental key to be a more effective learner is to be intentional. The more we think about why we’re doing the things we’re doing and make plans and consider carefully our approaches, the more likely we are to achieve success, whatever it is we’re talking about doing.
I train teachers to plan the lessons starting with a clear learning objective, and I taught this recent batch of students to think the same way. As a student, try to identify the learning objectives of your lessons, either in the lesson as it is being delivered or from the syllabus, if it is distributed in advance. Try to determine what the teacher is planning to teach so that you can make the most out of the materials and so that you can ask the most valuable questions. If the learning objective is not readily available or self-evident, try asking your teacher to verbalize it for you. By the way, should it happen that she is not able to do so, consider that a red flag.
I also train my teachers to consider carefully how they present information to the students, placing emphasis on student discovery through guided encounters with authentic materials. Similarly, I encouraged my students to approach materials—both in the classroom and out—analytically, to ask themselves questions about the materials they encounter in order to extract as much meaning and as much valuable language as possible.
One of the most important principles I focus on heavily in my teacher training programs is that of applied learning. I tell my teachers that all learning should be applied and that any lesson without clear, real-life application is an incomplete lesson. Nevertheless, I know that many teachers who have not been so trained do not include such applications in my lessons, so I encouraged my students to seek out the real-life value for everything they learned, either by asking their teachers or through critical analysis. Knowing the true value of what you learn ensures that you will understand it better in the first place and remember it for much longer.
I also spent a couple of sessions in the semester familiarizing my students with a variety of note-taking techniques so that they could better record and organize their learning, and I also introduced them to some strategies for using their notes for effective retrieval practice so that the learning they acquire in one lesson is not forgotten before they have chance to apply it.
Whether you are a teacher or a student, I hope that these tips have been interesting for you and that they will enhance the learning in your lessons.