Try something that makes you feel foolish.
Something that guarantees you’ll make mistakes.
Something that frustrates and overwhelms you.
In other words, do something that helps you remember what it feels like to be a beginner.
It’s easy to lose the sense of how it feels to be totally lost. Particularly for language teachers, this empathy is invaluable because it puts us in our students’ shoes.
Since only you know your comfort zone, only you know what will take you out of it. But, to get you started, here are a few suggestions:
Learn how to use technology
This was my choice for 2009, and I felt gloriously lost and over my head at first. If you think that Twitter is what birds do and that avatars are movie characters, this might be a good choice for you, too! Registration for the TESOL Electronic Village online begins January 3rd. Becoming a Webhead is an incredible (and kind and gentle!) introduction to how technology might enhance teaching and professional development.
Already know your way around a keyboard? Try learning how to teach in a virtual world. Village: Language Learning and Community Building in Second Life. The skills needed are different enough that you just might feel like a beginner again.
With ten different workshops to choose from, you can probably find something that will help you feel overwhelmed. The TESOL EVO is free, and you don’t have to be a TESOL member.
If the timing of the TESOL EVO doesn’t work for you, try learning how to use a new tool on your own. With helpful teachers on Twitter and Russell Stannard’s teacher training videos, you can learn how to do just about anything with web tools. The process of learning, and failing, is invaluable.
Try teaching in a different way
If you don’t currently use Internet and tech tools in your teaching (and you have access) try incorporating them into your teaching–consider it homework if you signed up for one of the TESOL EVO workshops.
If you teach in a low tech classroom, try to find ways to take advantage of high tech tools without an Internet connection. For some ideas to get you started, check out these blog posts and my workshop on high tech ideas for low tech classrooms.
If technology and the Internet play a big role in your lessons, try teaching without. Get back to the basics of teaching–just you and your students and whatever happens to be in the room. Dogme in language teaching is a methodology that is conversation-driven and materials light. There also happen to be a lot of resources available online for teachers who want to explore this way of teaching. Start with Sean Banville’s Dogme page to learn more about the method, and then move over to Karenne Sylvester’s Kalinago English to read about other teachers exploring Dogme in their own teaching. (At the bottom of the page you will find links to all of the challenges. If you follow the link you will find an explanation of the challenge and a list of the blog posts teachers have written in response to the challenge.)
Learn a new language
Because language teachers develop some pretty decent metaskills for dealing with new languages, it can be difficult for us to feel like true beginners in a language class. Try learning a language that is fundamentally different from any that you already know–one with tones, or one that uses a different writing system, or one that requires you to “speak” with your hands. The Sulantra website is a good place to get an introduction to several very different languages. The focus is on listening and speaking, with an emphasis on learning how to function in another language as quickly as possible. At the very least, their free starter courses will give you a feel for how your language sounds to your beginning students
Give a presentation
Do you feel uncomfortable speaking in front of people? Then offer to give a presentation or conduct a workshop. You don’t have to present at an international conference (although you could!). Local chapters of professional teacher organizations are typically very welcoming audiences for beginning presenters. Offer to share something for the teachers at your school. Not near a local chapter and don’t teach at a school? Consider giving an online presentation at the 4th Virtual Round Table Conference in March.
Write for publication
Are you afraid to let others see your writing? Nervous that people might find mistakes, or that they might laugh at your ideas? Then writing for publication is a great challenge for you. You don’t have to write a book or submit an article to a refereed journal (although you could!). Your teaching organization (TESOL, IATEFL, etc.) has special interest groups (like JALT Teaching Children SIG) that have newsletters that encourage new submissions from teachers. Many blogs, including Teaching Village, welcome guest writers. In fact, if you browse through the list of guest authors in the right sidebar, you’ll find teachers writing in their second (or weaker) language, or whose guest post for Teaching Village was the first time they’d published. You can write about your unique teaching situation, what you’ve learned from your students, a successful teaching idea, or your experience trying something new. In fact, I hope you will consider writing about your experience with this challenge! The more we all share, the more we all learn.
Learn something that has no (obvious) connection to language teaching
The beauty of teaching a foreign language is that there is no prescribed content for your subject (in contrast to, for example, mathematics or history). Any new thing you learn, and your experiences learning it, can become content for your lessons. Try a new sport. Learn a martial art. Take up dance. Try scuba, or snorkeling, or snowboarding. Learn to cook. Learn to sing. Learn to sew. Learn calligraphy, or painting, or drawing. Better yet, learn them in your second (or weaker) language.
It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you feel silly, embarrassed, and frustrated as you try to understand what you’re expected to do. You won’t regret it!
And yes, I’ll be trying new that makes me feel like a beginning. Again. You won’t be alone