Dear Trainee MFL Teachers

Dear Trainee MFL Teachers,

First of all, make no mistake: in a good school, with good systems and a strong leadership, you will find you have chosen the best job in the world.

Now, in your early years of teaching (and if you haven’t already) you will be exposed to a huge amount of collective wisdom and orthodoxy about how languages are best taught. You will be given handbooks, articles and blog posts. You will have many training sessions. You will be given, or directed toward, a vast universe of resources and teaching ideas.  You will probably not have time to read, let alone digest and use, 95% of these things.

You will, in all likelihood, be told to use pictures, all manner of games, Power Points. You will observe topic-based lessons: colours, pets, the environment, ‘what I did during my holiday’. You will see teachers speaking in the target language and miming actions. You will see pupils chanting individual words like ‘fromage’ and ‘ciencias’ and ‘Bahnhof’. Some of your colleagues may, generously, point you in the direction of the department’s set of flashcards and card sorts that you can borrow, but please be aware that some of the sets are missing the picture of the ‘piscine’ or the symbol for ‘Kunst’.

You’ll spend lots of time making resources.  Sensible people will tell you not to reinvent the wheel, but you’ll find some things on TES that you want to ‘make your own’, and so you’ll spend an hour or so each evening in front of the television resizing pictures of fish, or making a super snazzy Battleship slide that you’ll definitely use again with the next module. (You won’t use it again.)

You’ll spend some time marking books.  These will just be short passages of writing, constructed using sentence frames and vocabulary lists and dictionaries and based on examples – no more than 50-100 words at a time.  The sensible, focused kids will make minimal mistakes. Others will make huge numbers of the same mistakes, or write almost nothing. You’ll get frustrated and wonder how they can have failed to understand the task at hand.

In lessons, kids just won’t speak the target language as much as you think they should. The keen ones will enjoy reading out their sample sentences, but most won’t. Accents will be pretty shoddy. Spellings will be even worse. You will be disappointed in the pupils’ levels. You’ll look for the next thing to engage/inspire/motivate/challenge/support. There will be a million suggestions.

Stop.

I have done this – all of this – and I’m here to tell you it’s not necessary. You don’t have to know the theory. You don’t have to read the handbooks. You don’t have to download and tweak the resources. You don’t have to speak 80% in the target language and 20% in English (but only when you’re teaching grammar). You don’t have to work evenings, or weekends. You don’t have to make card sorts, plan games, get out the sugar paper.

MFL teachers are trained to do things that take a lot of time and effort, and can actually damage learning.  Take the use of pictures.

Rationale: Pictures bridge the gap between mother tongue (L1) and second language (L2). Pictures support lower ability or EAL learners. Pictures are engaging.

Reality: Pictures are hugely time-consuming. Pictures distract from the written and spoken language. Pictures distract lower ability learners, and encourage them to focus on pictorial rather than written designations. Pictures have a high opportunity cost: focusing on pictures means less time spent looking at and using the words.

Another example: the use of games.

Rationale: Games are engaging and fun.  (This is, in truth, the only reason I can now remember for using games.  I wasn’t always this joyless – I passed my QTS on the basis of a lesson that involved the rolling of dice.)

Reality: Games are hugely time-consuming. Games distract learners from the deliberate and thoughtful use of language. Games have an even higher opportunity cost: time spent instructing pupils on the ins and outs of the game, and game-appropriate behaviours, is time lost for language teaching.

I’ve taught this way, and even controlling for my inevitable inexperience and ineptitude, the results strongly indicate that it doesn’t work.

I want to be able to go through all of the things I’ve listed above, deconstruct them, point out their flaws, and suggest alternatives. I will, I’m sure, and I’m very happy to be challenged on a point-by-point basis. But that’s not the best use of my time when it comes to writing to you.

Think about the following:

  • Am I spending longer making this resource than the kids will spend using it? If so, don’t. Do something else. Spend that time reading a [insert target language here] website
  • Am I getting pupils to play games? If so, stop. They’re focused more on the game play than on the language.
  • Am I speaking the target language but miming my instructions? If so, stop. The kids aren’t listening to you, they’re watching your hands.
  • Am I working harder than the kids? If so, stop. Make something that will require them to sit and think and read and write and work, in silence, for a significant part of your lesson.
  • Am I reading lots about MFL pedagogy but not putting much into practice? If so, stop. Spend that time creating rich input, like long parallel-translated texts.
  • Am I getting my pupils to guess things? If so, stop. If you do that, some kids will get it and move forward; others will be left behind and feel stupid. Tell them, explicitly, what they need to know, then get them to use it. Repeat the good stuff all the time.
  • Am I marking work that has lots of mistakes? If so, stop. Teach it again, differently. Get them to look at the words they’re using in detail. They can make mistakes – they cannot repeat them.

There are so many more things you shouldn’t do, like limiting the scope of language based on  the level pupils are aiming for, or doing group or pair work.  But the most important things at the moment are saving yourself time and energy. In five – or three, or in my case one – years time you’ll look back and think yourself mad for the amount of effort you’re putting into unsustainable nonsense.  So don’t do it. Don’t allow them to be ‘creative’ with things they don’t understand. Figure out what you want the kids to know and teach it unashamedly and explicitly and to kids who have bums on seats and eyes on you.

Spend the time you gain mastering the language.  Understand the things that pupils will get wrong and deliberately prevent those mistakes. There is no better use of your precious time and sanity.

And please, please stop using pictures.

Yours, with all my best wishes,

Jessica

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Why I love Michaela (but you don’t have to)

It’s a rather odd, almost out-of-body, experience to read Twitter on a weekend, as people argue back and forth about my school and what it does.  Sometimes I weigh in with a tweet or a blog post, but more often I just sit back with a cup of tea as the debate whizzes down my screen.  As Katharine Birbalsingh has said on numerous occasions: Michaela is Marmite.  Lots of people have lots of feelings about it.

Twelve months ago, I did not love Michaela.  I’d heard about the school from friends and colleagues who are more engaged in the Twittersphere, and I was told they were hiring in languages.  I decided to read Barry Smith’s blog.  Like many others, among my first responses were, ‘What is this craziness?  Have these children no personalities?  What about the SEN kids?  How can they all read that much?  What about the Power Points?  Is this not all terribly dull?  Or cruel, even?  Who is this strange repetitive man?  What about creativity?  WHEREFORE SYNTHESIS?!’ (I was an NQT, and my school had a real thing about Bloom’s).

The last of my first responses, as it were, was ‘I’ve got to see this in action’.  No way – no WAY, I thought – could this be proper learning, with the kids actually doing things properly and owning it and enjoying it.  It could only be rote learning of the worst kind, with kids memorising paragraphs and parroting them back with no real understanding or appreciation.  I requested a visit.  I fully expected to dislike the school and everything it stood for.

If you’re reading this blog, you are most likely au fait with the goings on at Michaela, so I won’t write at length about my experience on that day.  Suffice it to say that I applied for the MFL job that same evening.  And this wasn’t a case of self-selection – I was, on paper, not the kind of person they were looking for (or, rather, not the kind of person I thought they were looking for).  I have voted Labour my entire adult life.  When children misbehave, my natural instinct is to cuddle them.  I like the idea of letting kids talk to one another to work their way through ideas.  I think discovery learning can be great fun and great learning.  I think that creativity is important.  I think cheeky kids are hilarious.  I love banter.  I make cracking Power Points.

Michaela was – is – serious and earnest and intensive.  The discipline is just as strict as you’ve heard.  The routines are just as slick and automatic.  The children are monitored constantly.  The teaching is unashamedly didactic.  The teachers are evangelical about what they do and – in equal measure – how they do it.  Clapping and drum rolls are tightly regulated.

On paper, I neither understood nor appreciated what Michaela was.  The above description is in equal parts true and the antithesis of what I thought I wanted in a school, for myself as a teacher or for any child.  I completely understand why, having read about Michaela, many teachers and educationalists would remain unconvinced, deeply sceptical, or even horrified.

And yet, the following is also true: It works, it’s full of joy, and it’s done with love.  I have felt, as a visitor and an interviewee and an employee, an immense sense of excitement.  Of community.  Of a group of 260-odd people working together.  Of course it’s not Shangri-La – of course we have difficult times and tough decisions.  And – lest it not be said enough – we make mistakes.  But the lasting feeling is one of happiness.    The kids are safe, they are cared for, they are learning a huge amount, and they are experiencing meaningful success on a regular basis.  The kids are happy.  I may only be three years into my teaching career, but I’ve worked with kids for almost 12 years, and I know happy kids when I see them.

Michaela on paper is a very different prospect to what it is in real life.  I approached the school as a critic, and ended up loving it.  It has changed my view on a number of issues, and I have adapted many of my personal and professional habits as a result.  The impact of the no-excuses discipline, traditional from-the-front teaching, no games or group work or anything else is that teaching good stuff is much easier, and the kids learn it more quickly and remember it for longer.  Work-life balance is truly achievable here.

I am aware that, having been a teacher for very little time, I can be charged with naivety.  So, all I can say I know is that I am happy teaching, the pupils are happy learning, and they are learning lots of great stuff.

And there you have it.  I love Michaela, but you don’t have to.  Although I have a sneaking suspicion that if you do visit, you might quite enjoy yourself.  What do you have to lose?