In the first part of this post I had a think about what it was like going back to academia, and how I was managing to fit studying around the rest of my life. In this part I’m going to examine the differences that doing a distance MA in TESOL and Applied Linguistics has made to my life inside the classroom.
The course I am taking currently is entirely online, and is based largely around reading and reflective practice. A definite upside of this is that it helped to formalize the reflective practice that I already did, but also to increase the scope of it beyond reflecting on the success of lesson plans and classroom management into reflecting on teaching techniques and how to help students to acquire language. The reading part also essentially forces you to read some really amazing books and introduces you to the world of journals which I had not previously delved into. I’d recommend a subscription to TESOL Quarterly or ELT Journal to anyone, whether you’re pursuing academic study or not. It has occurred to me that essentially all I’m doing is reading a load of text that teachers should be reading anyway, but the MA provides a real incentive to do it (and do it fast), and to really reflect on and engage with what you read.
The downside of having no face to face time or practical help on the course is, well, exactly that. Any improvements to your teaching come entirely from yourself (more on that below). While it can be useful to try to improve your own practice, nobody has watched me teach for over two years (except for my Korean co-teachers, from whom feedback is not usually forthcoming) and I feel like I could do with a fresh set of eyes. At the end of this course I might well want to do either the CELTA or the DELTA as well to get some practical help. Of course, this may not be such a problem if you have other teachers willing to help out at your institution, but for me it’s perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the course.
Inside the classroom the things I have learnt have definitely made a difference. Where I’ve found the greatest difference is teaching small elementary classes. The situation that I’m in dictates that I never know what I’m teaching until I arrive in front of the class, and the book we use in no way takes advantage of the small class size. The techniques and theories I have learnt on the course mean that I’m much better at creating classes on the hoof, particularly out of the reading material, which is completely useless otherwise. At high school level, with unwieldy classes (full of fairly unwieldy students) things can get a little more frustrating. A lot of the techniques have learnt about on the course definitely seem more suited to keener students, and I’m frequently frustrated by my attempts to introduce more communicative techniques into the classroom. That said, some of my best lesson ideas have also come out of the time I spend studying – the wall behind my desk is covered in post-its with lesson ideas that I’ve scrawled in the middle of a study period (see photo above).
The best aspect of the course so far has been the opportunity to design and carry out some classroom research. I looked into the effect of student expertise on genuine communication, and it really opened my eyes to the processes of communication that go on in the classroom. Part of the process involved recording conversations with my students, which is the first time I’ve watched myself teach, and the 5 minute clips I gathered helped me an incredible amount. It also opened my eyes to the possibilities of referential questions in the classroom, and how they can be used to spark genuine discussion, and the knowledge I gained has produced some promising results with my high-schoolers. In general, the opportunity to analyse what you do in class in real detail is a great one.
The detail with which you can study something on an MA course is a bit of a double-edged sword. It means that while you can learn a lot about one area, many other areas are completely neglected. I found that I didn’t have time to finish all of the reading for the course as it wasn’t in my area of research. I also found that the course materials opened my eyes to all kinds of avenues for study which I didn’t have time to explore, frustratingly. I think that feeling may get worse as the course goes on, because the teaching module is now finished and we’re into the grammar and sociolinguistics modules. On reflection, I think perhaps following a straight TESOL masters may have been a better choice.
Still, I am enjoying the course, and it has definitely been useful. However, I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near finished with my teacher education, and I’m already looking at what I might do post MA to continue my academic career.
Where would you go next if you were me?