Maintaining the structure

(in a summer school context)

Please, if you will, ponder on these five questions…

First question: Why should we not allow students to chat during a test?

Second question: Why should we run standardisation sessions for teacher who are oral testing students and marking placement writing?

Third question: Why should we veer away from language led didactic teaching and instead, get our students engaging more in a meaningful way?

Fourth question: Why should we limit the times when students and group leaders are able to address queries and concerns about lessons with the director of studies (DoS), or when they can come and ask the activity manager for bespoke trips?

Fifth question: Why should the night warden insist all children are in bed by 23:00?

There are many other questions like this, but I want to limit it to those which fundamentally don’t have moral or legal ramifications, such as, why do we ensure child welfare? Etc.

Give me six hours to find the appropriate stress and intonation patterns, and I will spend the first four hours sharpening my Cuisenaire rods.

Caleb G. (never said this)

First question: Why should we not allow students to chat during a test?

If they chat, are they likely to cheat? Do we not allow students to talk as it’s simply part of the conventions of testing that everyone remains quiet?

What happens if the test is difficult to swindle? In our school, we rely predominantly on spoken and written samples and unless a test taker gets someone to write the text for them, both of these elements are difficult, if not impossible to cheat. If this is the case, why do we still insist everyone is quiet?

Second question: Why should we run standardisation sessions for teacher who are oral testing students and marking placement writing?

One person’s intermediate is another person’s advanced. Once the testing process has finished, all the DoS is left with are a series of scores to create class groups. At this point, you have to trust the data and if there is no correlation between the score and learner abilities – the assumed perception of what, for example, an elementary learner of English is – how might this be a problem?

Third question: Why should we veer away from language led didactic teaching and instead, get our students engaging more in a meaningful way?

Those, including myself, who started out in the English language teaching game via a pre-service course, such as CELTA, are versed in techniques steeped in the ideas which are broadly part of the fabric of communicative language teaching. Group leaders, who are often state secondary school teachers, recognise that breaking from their normative teaching style is essential, i.e., lecturing in the student’s L1, silent study, grammar translation, and negligible amounts of time for meaningful student interaction, etc. It’s not uncommon for group leaders to tell you that they are not allowed to do the kinds of things we do back home in [pick a country]. For them, a lot of their teaching is geared towards mid-term tests or end of year exams.

They don’t want the children they bring to summer school to be slavishly focusing on the 3rd conditional- they want reading races, find someone who activities, and lots of spoken interaction. They are not afforded the opportunities to do these things in their classrooms, and regardless of the efficacy of these old TEFL linchpins, specifically in terms of what baring they might have on student outcomes, this is what group leaders want and expect. Now, cue the entrance of those teachers who learnt their trade differently. They might – and I have had experience of this – think what we do is wacky and not meaningful. They are all about declarative knowledge…

‘Today, we are going to focus on the present perfect: subject + have/has + past participle…’.

The result: an understanding about language but no real opportunities to use it meaningfully. Why is this a problem for the DoS?

Fourth question: Why should we limit the times when students and group leaders are able to address queries and concerns about lessons with the director of studies (DoS), or when they can come and ask the activity manager for bespoke trips?

I spent years as a DoS and always wanted to cater to every need. When a student stopped me in the corridor and said they wanted to move class, I’d say, ‘I’ll look into it’. When a group leader stopped me in the canteen asking to observe a class, I’d tell them, ‘No worries, I’ll let the teacher know later’.

As an activity manager, I’d get last minute requests to change the following day’s excursion. I’d instinctively say no, but with a little persuading, I’d say, ‘I’ll see what I can do…’.

There came a point when I realised it’s better to have set times and not entertain questions or requests at every touch and turn. Why is this the better way of doing things?

Fifth question: Why should the night warden insist all children are in bed by 23:00?

Arguably, children should be in bed much earlier than 23:00 and if Wee Willie Winkie had anything to do with it, they’d be in bed an hour earlier. But aside from welfare and the hour, what are the ramifications for children not going to bed until after midnight, or, 02:00…, 04:00, or even 06:00 in the morning? Leaving aside all things moral, why should the night warden insist children go to sleep at a set hour?

The answer, via a question, to all of these questions is… how much extra work will be generated if you don’t get it right the first time around?

To be honest, most of my understanding comes via lived experiences, assorted failures, pondering, further failures and half-successes and eventually, a method borne out of a plan of action.

Going back to the questions, here are my answers:

First question: Why should we not allow students to chat during a test?

If they cheat it will skew the results. As a consequence, it increases the chances that students will come back to say they’ve been placed in the wrong level. If they are not cheating, they are not on task and therefore wasting time.

Whether they are cheating or not, both scenarios require more of the DoS’ time and energy. If it’s not a compromised lunch hour because more time was added to allow students to finish, it’ll be having to retest students when teachers inform the DoS some have been misplaced.

Give me an hour to invigilate a test, and I will periodically make shushing noises.

Matthew W. Champion DoS and artist (verified)

Second question: Why should we run standardisation sessions for teacher who are oral testing students and marking placement writing?

If you’ve ever been an examiner or if your school sets the standard of where students should fall on a sliding spectrum of abilities, in order for them to be level placed, there has to be a method and series of rules; it cannot be arbitrary. For individual teachers to decide what they feel upper-intermediate output should look/sound like, will create more work when students come back to complain their class is too easy.

Conducting speaking tests and marking writing, or rather judging writing in our case, is a skill which requires training and practice. It isn’t, and should never be the case, that all teachers should be expected to just know what we want from a placement test.

If a student hasn’t bothered to write anything and the examiner hasn’t guided the speaking test properly in order to receive a broad enough spoken sample, and/or the examiner’s calibration measurements are offset, this upper-intermediate student may well end up in an elementary class. When they complain – and there may be a lot of them! – the DoS will need to speak with each student, diagnose the problem and move them, if necessary, to an appropriate cohort group. At this point the DoS’ working day has just been extended by three hours.

Give me 3 minutes to conduct an oral placement test, and I will spend the first 20 seconds asking each student whether they’ve taken Starters, Movers, Flyers, KET, PET, FCE, CAE, CPE, Trinity GESE, or, IELTS. Oh, and what level do you study at back home?

Phil W. ELT godfather (not an authentic quote)

Third question: Why should we veer away from language led didactic teaching and instead, get our students engaging more in a meaningful way?

The truth is that summer schools typically advertise their teaching product as communicative, conversation-based, task-based, or task-led. Whichever term is used, it suggests a shift away from language as the centre piece of a lesson. From my experience, there is a move towards teaching language skills which have a direct transfer outside the classroom, focusing on 21st century skills, and learning about the attractions students are going to visit during their stay at a summer school. Fun and meaningful, anything that bucks this trend will generate complaints from students and group leaders:

‘my students didn’t come here to learn past simple -ed endings, they’ve done that already at school…’, ‘It’s boring…’, ‘they just do grammar…’, ‘we don’t speak…’.

The DoS will need to set aside time to talk to every student/group leader who has made the effort to come to the office – complaints may all come at once or could be staggered over days. After this point, a conversation would need to be had with the teacher(s) concerned and training organised on how best to manipulate the resources and where the limits lie. This could take a significant amount of time and with an already busy schedule, the right induction and training for teachers for the outset would have helped prevent this from happening in the first place.

Give me six hours to focus on authentic meaningful tasks, and I will spend six hours focusing on authentic meaningful tasks, but not before setting fire to any coursebooks.

Jimmy-James J. Task-based cajoler (26% authentic)

Fourth question: Why should we limit the times when students and group leaders are able to address queries and concerns about lessons with the director of studies (DoS), or when they can come and ask the activity manager for bespoke trips?

Promise to move a student to a different class while on the go, you’ll forget. Promise to setup an observation for a group leader while your nose is to the grindstone, it’ll slip your mind. The result for any of these scenarios is the DoS will end up losing control of what might be multiple threads. Students moving classes without notice, group leaders turning up to observe lessons with teachers unaware. It doesn’t engender trust in their abilities and also… creates more layers of work onto top of the already mounting tasks that have to be dealt with.

As for excursions, imagine the activity manager gives in and changes the trip from Oxford to London a day before it happens. All the planning that has been done to ensure the excursion to London goes off well, needs unpicking, doubling the workload.

How about the activity leader who will lead the trip? They spent the afternoon yesterday researching points of interest and plotting a walking route on their phone. Now they have to start again; how do they feel towards the activity manager for springing this on them? Will they have enough time to give as much attention to detail as the trip they were meant to be leading? Will the trip be a success? The trip might be fine but there is a high chance the activity leader will be ruminating over how they’ve been messed around, and any ill feeling will be compounded when they end up getting lost and have little to say about any points of interest.

The result: angry staff members and a flurry of complaints from the group saying the trip was below standard. The activity manager has already doubled the workload by changing the trip and there will be hours more to placate students, group leaders and activity leaders alike when the answer from the get-go should have been, ‘Sorry, I can’t change it now, you’re going to Oxford!’.

Give me six hours to prepare weekend excursions, and I will spend the first four hours fending off group leaders who have missed the deadline for optional trips and no longer want to visit the Tower of London and now want to go to Edinburgh Zoo. No, no, I’m very sorry, you should have come to me on Tuesday… them’s the rules…

Mickey F, OBE, award winning activity manager (86% accurate)

Fifth question: Why should the night warden insist all children are in bed by 23:00?

‘Wakey Wakey!’, shouts the DoS, banging on a student’s bedroom door. ‘It’s nearly 10 o’clock! Get to class!’. Without stating the obvious, children who go to bed far too late won’t get themselves up in the morning. This falls on the DoS, halls manager, and welfare officer to go and find them when the teacher reports they’re missing:

  • The DoS goes around classes to collect absences.
  • Jan is absent and nobody knows where he is.
  • Going back to the office, the DoS has to find the halls manager to find out where Jan is staying on the campus.
  • Initially, the team try and call Jan, but he isn’t picking up.
  • At this point, two team members have to walk 15 minutes to the accommodation blocks to get him out of bed.

This is only one example, what if there were half a dozen, or even a dozen missing students? How long would that take? Ultimately this sets the working day back, it’s an inconvenience which everyone can do without.

Once Jan is in class, he’s sullen and uncooperative, eventually the teacher asks the DoS to come and collect him as he’s now disrupting the class. Jan is unhappy that he can’t go back to bed and throughout the day he creates further problems. Eventually, a call has to be made to his parents and a formal warning submitted about his conduct.

Again more time is required to deal with unwanted behaviour. The night warden needs to ensure everyone is in bed at the right time, and guardians and group leaders need to check their students are up for breakfast.

Give me six hours to make sure all students are in bed by 23:00, and I will spend the first four hours telling them to go to bed whilst jotting down names so they can be hauled in front of the centre manager in the morning to explain themselves.

Marek S. Diamond geezer (couldn’t be anything but true)

In conclusion, all of the above is a protracted way of saying that structure is paramount and actions are never arbitrary. The rationale for doing anything is there to help time management. The average summer school DoS and activity manager work approximately 50-65 hours a week. Without being mindful of an appropriate routine, these times could easily double. Working 14, 16, even 18 hours a day is not only miserable, but not sustainable. You may be working off adrenaline, but you will be tired, forgetful, and slower. Also, the relationships you have with your colleagues will eventually fray.

Golden rules:

  • Never veer away from the structure.
  • Base your actions on how they maintain the structure.
  • All actions should be labour saving.
  • Never give special dispensation to anyone, it will compromise the structure and create unnecessary amounts of extra work.

Break these rules only if and when there is an absolute necessity.

If you are working in a summer school, remember there are only a 168-hours in a week and for some of those hours you need to sleep.

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