Lessons learned: Many things are shyte for a reason

Sometimes I just can’t believe I have been in this ELT racket for more than 13 years. Other times it seems like a completely natural and normal thing. I am proud to say I feel as though I have learned a lot in my time. I thought it might be interesting to share some of my “key learnings” from my journey.  This may or may not become an ongoing series here on the blog. Though it is summer break I have quite a few things going on right now (with some tight deadlines) but felt compelled to share some thoughts. You might read the mention of “tight deadlines” as a bit of foreshadowing or at least excuse making for the lack of quality in the documents I just created and submitted.

When I think about all the lessons I have learned over the years there is one that always pops into my mind.  There are reasons for crappy material that can go beyond the skill of the creator.  As we know, there is a whole bunch of crappy teaching material out there. At first, and for years, I thought this was because those creating the materials had no idea what they were doing and were incompetent at best. I am mostly talking about lesson plans, syllabuses (spelling intentional, thanks), and scope/sequences (all these are stuff hereafter). I have seen some things that struck me as terrible and ill-conceived and my initial reaction was to blame and judge the creator. Now, I am not so sure. In my older age, perhaps I have softened on this stance a bit. Things are not as simple as they seemed. Speaking of simple, I apologize if the points that follow seem simple. They somehow eluded me for years.

Speaking personally, I think I am capable of producing high quality stuff from time to time. I also know I can produce some rubbish. For me, a major factor in this is how much I believe in what I am doing. When I don’t buy into a project but am asked to create something what I make tends to be pretty crappy.[Note to potential employers: I am sure I will always buy into what you ask me to do so you don’t need to worry about crappy work. Really. Probably.] I’m assuming this is likely the same for most people? When I see stuff prepared by other teachers I have no way of knowing how much they cared about the project or how much they felt it was worthwhile.

An example that comes to mind is a few years back when I was working in a training center. The edict suddenly came down that they wanted copies of all the materials we used in our sessions. For various reasons (mostly because my obligations were continually shifting and being added to coupled with unethical behavior from the owner) I didn’t think this was fair or reasonable to pile on so much more responsibility halfway through a project but I didn’t want to rock the boat too much. I simply submitted some piece of material every single day. What I submitted was a chaotic mess. Reasonable and experienced trainers would have a hard time making sense of it. If I had seen the material submitted and not known the background I would not have thought highly of the creator.

Support and information from the admin or other stakeholders is a key point that comes to mind.  I think this often comes down to a lack of vision, a lack of planning and foresight, a lack of understanding what teachers want and need to know or any combination of the above. It might very well be a Northeast Asian thing but I have seen courses offered and changed in the blink of an eye and the teacher is often the one left holding the bag and scrambling to create stuff.

Related to the whims of admin is requirements that might not be readily apparent to me. Those asking for the stuff to be created might have imposed ridiculous specifications that would surely cause the quality of work to suffer. A friend once remarked that all the lesson plans he was given were terrible and almost entirely consisted of the proposed teacher talk for each section. From my perch as an enlightened person incapable such judgments I wondered if maybe there were some constraints placed on the teacher. For example, maybe all the plans (for no good reason) had to be 5 pages or more. Maybe the people receiving the plan had no sense of criteria for plans so they just weighed them. This could cause otherwise talented creators to submit crap. Just submitting stuff to meet requirements reminded me of the fun I had with neguices back in the day. 

Time is also another obvious factor and flows from and relates to the previous sections. Who knows how rushed the teachers were when asked to produce the crappy stuff they ended up making. Quality stuff usually takes time to create and under deadlines created by non-educators this can be tough. Speaking personally again, I know that sometimes I just send off any old thing in order to meet the deadline and know that I will have to rework things later when and if I have more time. The crappy stuff I make just ends up being a placeholder.

Look, I am not trying to just blame admin for everything and and give crappy stuff creators a free pass. There are surely people creating stuff who haven’t a clue what they are doing and are in over their heads (I don’t think admin is blame free for this either though! The more I see the more I think that there are behind the scene factors helping make things crappy not as good as they might otherwise be. I can just see the mitigating factors a bit more know and hope to be a bit less judgmental to humans based on the stuff they have created. My lesson is to not judge the human who created the stuff I think is crappy. Who knows why it is that way.
(Of course I fully realize that what seems crappy might be completely awesome to others.)

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7 comments

  1. ALiCe__M

    Thank you for this post. I can relate to it very well, all the more so as I’ve been teaching about the same amount of time as you.
    Reading your post, it dawned on me that what makes ressources and school atmosphere “crappy”, is viewing the school (and teaching) as a dry sausage (saucisson) : in order to eat it, you need to slice it. The teaching slice, the teachers slice, the admin slice, the student slice, the equipment slice, etc. This “sausage thinking” can be fine with ordinary “products”. But language is not a sausage, it’s a whole. So, in order to teach a language, we need to see ourselves as part of a “team”, aiming together at the student’s learning and well-being. So of course admin is fully part of the team, and maybe they should know what’s happening in class, and maybe we should know what each person in the admin staff does everyday, because the “team” effort highly contributes to learning, because it’s an on going process, because “team” also means “trust” and “respect”: everything preventing the emergence of crappiness.

    • mikecorea

      Hi Alice,
      Sorry for the very late reply!
      I really liked your analogy here. I was thinking in many situations everyone is sort of doing their own thing while not really knowing what the others are doing or how they see their roles. I know that from a teacher’s perspective it can be very easy to be critical of the edicts that managers are handing down but I think a lot of the time this might come from not seeing the whole picture and just from seeing on part of the sausage production. 🙂 I like your emphasis on team and I think this is something that was severely lacking in some of the negative environments I have been a part of.
      Thanks again for reading and commenting and I hope all is well!

      PS- By the way, “preventing the emergence of crappiness” is a lovely phrase!

  2. Rob Dickey

    teacher-language in lesson outlines is often a by-product of Korean teacher’s training programs, where they are encouraged or reminded to write their script so they won’t make any language errors in class. That can get mutated to “even native speakers need to write their scripts.”

    A lesser version of that is the formal lesson plan where “students doing” and “teacher doing” columns are required. The trainers can be very demanding in terms of specificity. Of course, this is a learning exercise, it doesn’t mean it has to be done for every lesson plan, but again, this theme can be transferred into lesson plan regulations in the local schools, and voila — you have mini-novels for lesson plans.

  3. Tony Gurr

    Mike,

    Had a reply to this on my “to-do-list” – for a while.

    As you know, I always like your “honest” posts…and this one touched a nerve in me. I have been guilty of the same…many, many times over my career ;-( And, it’s dangerous (very dangerous) when we are involved with giving feedback to others on their lessons and materials.

    As a “rule” I try to stay focused on the things you note – and recognise that “good” teachers do “bad” classroom materials from time to time (or just use the crap in their textbooks…the crap they should throw away!)…just as in life “good” people do “bad” things from time. As as a mentor / observer our role is to help s/o “see” further than they could, perhaps, see on their own (without judging – ideally). The problem is that these things are not always (only) about crappy “materials”…sometimes it’s about truly “crappy” lessons…and (I hate saying this) sometimes “crappy” teachers.

    The thing is – what happens when our “feelings” get the better of us…and we discover that we do not “like” the teacher we are working with.

    This is what happened to me some time back.

    As you know, one of the things I do is help schools / universities “ease into” classroom observations – and I often “model” observation and feedback sessions for those that work in these institutions. A while back, I was invited to do this at a school here in Turkey (the city will remain a secret) and a couple of teachers volunteered for the project. One of them seemed especially “keen” to get me into his class – let’s call him “Kemal” (if you know a bit of Turkish, you’ll see why this word is relevant). I liked his “interest”, I liked how he wanted to “prepare” (and fill me in on what had gone before)…I didn’t like him!

    When I was in his class (with another teacher I was “mentoring”), I didn’t like his materials…I didn’t like his “style”….I didn’t like much at all. This hardly ever happens to me! It was tough for me to put myself in his shoes (something I am normally VERY good at)…I even struggled to double-check myself and ask if the reason I was having these feelings was because I “didn’t like” him.

    As it turned out, there were a couple of reasons for me feeling the way I was feeling. I try not to ask “others” about the abilities of a teacher before I see him/her for the first time. In this case, Kemal had had a bit of “trouble” with student complaints and another “drop-in observation” prompted by those complaints. It turned out that the reason he was so eager to get me into his classroom was because he wanted to “prove” both the kids and the administrator were “wrong”.

    I think I had picked up on his “ego” first off…saw how he carried this into his interactions with the kids…and experienced how he had tried to manipulate the whole process. Three things I do not like. Funny thing was it was his materials that I was able to say something good about (always have to start with “something good” – or ask a question that allows the teacher teacher to say something good about the materials him/herself). Kemal did not want to focus on this – at all! All he wanted was my “expert” opinion of how “good” he was – didn’t even want to answer any of my questions (even though he knew it was my questions that would drive the feedback session).

    What to do?

    I had to tell him…firstly, that I did not appreciate the fact that he wanted to break the (ground) rules…secondly, that I did not feel I could work with him. Of course, he wanted to know why – and I told him. He got upset / angry – esp. when I suggested he would need to find his (counter) evidence elsewhere. I hoped he might thunk things over…reflect, perhaps…appreciate the honest.

    He has not (to date)…sadly.

    But, it made me THUNK…a lot 😉 Especially about “old dogs” always needing to LEARN “new tricks”…no matter how long we have been in the “racket” 😉

    P.S: My “vote” is for you to make this a series….a mini-dizi 😉

    Take care,

    T..

    • mikecorea

      Sir,
      Responding to you was on my to-do list for ages and I actually thought I had. In any case I thank you for sharing and for the comments and story. As I mentioned on Twitter I think what you have written here would be a great blog post. We have surely covered a lot of ground on misfires but I think this is a new one. The using observation as a form of validation/protection from the critics is something I haven’t seen much of. It is interesting to think about for sure.

      I just had a brainstorm about collecting observation misfires from around the world. 🙂

      As for making a series out of my lessons learned I think that is a possibility.
      At the moment, after 2 weeks of intensive training and not much writing (and with a lot more free time than I am accustomed to) I feel like I have a lot to write about. Stay tuned!

      By the way, I really loved what you wrote here:

      “As a “rule” I try to stay focused on the things you note – and recognise that “good” teachers do “bad” classroom materials from time to time (or just use the crap in their textbooks…the crap they should throw away!)…just as in life “good” people do “bad” things from time. As as a mentor / observer our role is to help s/o “see” further than they could, perhaps, see on their own (without judging – ideally). The problem is that these things are not always (only) about crappy “materials”…sometimes it’s about truly “crappy” lessons…and (I hate saying this) sometimes “crappy” teachers.”
      I think this is a great starting point. Yet, as you say it is not always as easy as it sounds.

      Thanks as always for the exchange and inspiration!

  4. Pingback: Sorry for judging | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  5. Pingback: A letter of advice to my #youngerteacherself | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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