In a recent conversation with a friend who wasn’t in ELT, he seemed relatively shocked when I spoke about regularly using articles from the day’s newspaper in my morning lessons (of that very same day). He remarked, “If you are using that day’s paper, then you can’t be very prepared for the lesson, can you?”
And my friend isn’t alone in his belief that being well-prepared in advance of a lesson is the mark of a good teacher. Many students, when asked what makes a good teacher, would often include being prepared as part of their criteria.
But what does it mean to be well prepared?
To many, being well prepared means knowing fully well what one is going to do during the lesson, having lesson goals and lesson plans written out, each stage of the lesson planned and timed, handouts photocopied, flashcards and pictures cut out and laminated, and any equipment the learners might need ready to go in a resource box.
And to imagine the opposite would be to imagine a teacher lost and unsure, standing in front of their class looking frazzled, scratching their heads wondering what to do next, stuttering through their sentences and unable to answer any of the students’ questions, and wasting everyone’s time and not offering the students’ any learning experiences.
But is this necessarily a result of not having prepared the lesson well?
On the contrary, could a well-prepared lesson be a complete time-waster?
Not long ago, my 8-month-old attended a course where the teacher came extremely prepared with coloured cards, a variety of marker pens, glitter guns, scissors and glue, and all sorts of audio-video equipment for the task that she had planned for the students. She had even memorised a long script and written a song for the lesson.
It was therefore unfortunate that the lesson was pitched completely wrongly: the babies in the class were not yet able to use the pens, the glitter guns, the scissors, the glue or the audio-video equipment. Their short attention spans meant that the long story led to a lot of drifting and crawling in the direction of the doors. The parents ended up doing the arts and crafts while the babies lost interest and constantly tried to grab the forbidden scissors and glue and put them in their mouths.
Although the lesson itself was extremely well prepared, the target audience hardly got anything out of it.
Are we perhaps confusing being prepared for a lesson with being prepared as a teacher?
Being prepared as a teacher need not mean having lesson plans written out to the last detail. Being prepared as a teacher need not mean being inflexible and unable to go with the flow of the class. Being prepared as a teacher need not mean having lots of props and materials to impress.
Teaching methodologies like Dogme (aka Teaching Unplugged) promotes the ditching of materials in the classroom in favour of using the students as a resource and tailoring the lesson to fit their individual needs. Although this might seem extreme to some, trying out a methodology like Dogme can indeed empower the teacher and remove the distractions of props and materials to focus on the learning processes of the students.
But carrying out a materials-light method like Dogme without being prepared as a teacher could also lead to disaster.
So what does it mean to be prepared as a teacher?
1. Being prepared with your subject content
As an English language teacher, are you informed about the way the language works? Do you know the different uses of modal verbs? Can you pinpoint the areas in the mouth where fricative sounds are produced? Do you know the possible verb-noun collocations for the verb ‘boost’? Are you familiar with cross-cultural turn-taking styles? What is the difference between the discourse of a newspaper article and the discourse of university essays in Anglicized countries like the UK?
2. Being prepared with your teaching methodologies and approaches
Are you aware of the different lesson shapes e.g. a Test-Teach-Test vs a Task-Based Learning lesson? Are you familiar with the Lexical Approach? Are you acquainted with the concept of English as a lingua franca and how this affects what we could prioritise in the language classroom? Do you know of the benefits of using L1 in the classroom?
3. Being prepared with your research
Do you know why you do the things you do in the classroom? Why do you do pairwork instead of always having an open-class, student-to-teacher interaction pattern? Why do you believe in mobile learning? What studies or research can you quote that support your fondness for lexical notebooks and mindmapping?
4. Being prepared with your materials-creating abilities
Are you able to look at a piece of authentic material (a video clip, a blogpost or even a newspaper article from that morning’s newspaper) and pick out the vocabulary and grammar points that are beneficial to your learners? Are you able to create tasks on the spot that help learners practise their skills in skimming, scanning and reading for detailed information? Are you able to design interesting follow-on tasks that will allow students to practise their spoken and written fluency?
5. Being prepared with your traditional resources
Do you have what you need in the classroom if you decide on an activity on the spot? Do you carry a box of tools with you that caters to most tasks you implement? You might want to consider the following in your box of tools: blank sheets of paper, marker pens, coloured paper, sheets of poster paper, glue, rulers, scissors, acetate, acetate markers, Cuisenaire rods, dice, a small ball (for throwing around the class), a bell, an hourglass/stopwatch, and mini-whiteboards.
6. Being prepared with your online resources
Can you use the Interactive Whiteboard? Can you access the computer in your classroom? Are you fully utilising mobile devices that you have at hand? Do you know what you can do with the smartphones that your learners bring to class?
Do you know how to direct learners to useful talks and presentations online? Can you show them how to make use of corpus tools to find out more about lexis? Are you able to set up a class page on Facebook? Can you guide your learners to continue their learning outside the classroom?
7. Being prepared for your target audience
What do they already know? What can they already do? Why are they in class? What are they learning English for? What are they hoping to learn? How do they learn best? What are their interests? What motivates them? How can you best cater to them so that they maximise their precious learning time in the classroom?
8. Being prepared to really listen
Do you listen to your students? Are you listening to what they are really saying or are you just listening to see if their answers match the ones you already have in your head?
Are your students aware that you are really listening? Or are they trying to say what they think you want to hear?
Do you foster an environment in the classroom that is conducive to students speaking freely? Or do they feel like you are ready to jump on every language mistake they make?
Is this what you do?
9. Being prepared for change
On a minute-to-minute level during a lesson, are you able to deviate from your lesson plan? Are you able to dump a plan that’s not working and formulate a new one on the spot?
On a broader scale, are you able to change the way you conduct your lessons? Why do you do things the way you do? What are the beliefs behind what you do? Is there a better way of doing it? Consider areas like error correction, testing, concept checking, speaking practice, etc. Don’t be afraid of trying out different things, rejecting some of them, and adopting new practices. And be brave enough to admit that sometimes, your old ways are not necessarily the most effective.
10. Being prepared to let go
We can’t know everything and we must be prepared to admit that we are not always the fountain of knowledge. Accessibility to the internet both in and out of the classroom means that learners can now find the information they need for themselves. Are we prepared to make that shift from knowledge owner to ‘teacher as facilitator’? Instead of forcing students to learn what we want them to learn, are we able to let go and allow learning to happen?
So consider the preparation that you need as a teacher. And realise that it goes beyond lesson plans and having the right photocopies. For being a well-prepared teacher requires our ability to reflect and to constantly develop ourselves professionally so that we can offer the best learning experience for our learners.
As American politician Sargent Shriver puts it, “It is well to be prepared for life as it is, but it is better to be prepared to make life better than it is.”