No matter how rigid the curriculum and learning materials are, there will always be cracks. This is where you should start innovating if you find yourself forced to teach in a McEnglish-style learning program. Image credits: mrtruffle
Partly to alleviate problems of inconsistency with new untrained teachers, and partly as a way to streamline program implementation and management, a lot of language institutes in various contexts now go with heavily pre-set curriculums with incredibly precise syllabuses. Every lesson and every day is mapped out precisely, with this many pages of these coursebooks, etc.
In some cases it's sort of like an "English program for dummy teachers" - while in other cases it fits the aspirations of chain schools who want to "guarantee" their product's consistency irrespective of which city or suburb one of their branches or franchises perches in. Students tend to be numbers on a class list, and catering to large numbers of students in the exact same way is not only desired, but strictly enforced.
As far as consistency for the masses goes, these programs generally achieve their desired effect. They also tend to confine more creative and eclectic teachers (and those looking to address the particular needs and preferences of individual classes and students) to a sort of concrete jungle, with every turn mapped out in cold detail and nary a place to stop and grow something.
For these creative, eclectic and student-centred teachers, highly pre-set programs can be like going to jail.
But remember, no matter how well it is built and reinforced with concrete, every single curriculum or "system" will have cracks. In fact, the more elaborate and stacked up the learning program is in advance, the more cracks you will find.
In my experience as a teacher in private insitute settings, it's always been a more effective option to find and start innovating within these cracks than to start alarming people (and drastically reduce ongoing employment prospects) by waving a rebellious sledge hammer at the reinforced curricular walls.
So for teachers confined to McEnglish-style bleakness, here are some general ideas to make sure you still have room for innovative, more student-centred activities.
1. Find the cracks and exploit them
They're always there somewhere. At the beginning of a term or session, look carefully through your coursebook(s) in advance. McEnglish-style set ups have a tendency to look at the number of pages in a coursebook and then divide it neatly by the number of teaching lessons in the session (and some more "sophisticated" programs will even calculate in days for review items and sesson tests). This almost never results in a precisely even workload for each lesson. There will always be pages that will go faster or need less attention than others.
Find these pages in advance and mark them in your schedule. Depending on the exact nature of the program and material, you should be able to find plenty of spaces where 5-15 minute activities of your own design can be inserted. They could extend or adapt the existing course structure and content, or they could be completely stand-alone activities.
So long as you don't get too ambitious with the scope of these additional activities, you could quite easily work within a concrete curriculum and still have room for many of your own small plants. Nobody can accuse you of not delivering the core program, and some contexts may even appreciate your innovations. Even if your manager doesn't appreciate it, there's a very good chance your students will, and at the end of the day that's what should really count.
2. Create cracks (quietly, mind!)
Some institutes will bless you with programs that are as ambitious as they are ridiculous. You know the sort: six different textbooks to cover in three lessons per week over one month. Leaving even one box in one page blank is tantamount to risking court-martial. They give you the feeling that you are being asked to showcase every discernable feature of French cuisine on an Eiffel Tower monographed plate the size of a coin.
You often need to tread carefully here, because these programs are more commonly designed in stand alone institutes that try to compete with the big boy chain schools by covering absolutely everything that could possibly be associated with the English language (hence showcasing how they are doing things more thorougly than the brand name chain schools). They are often made by pencil-pushing academic managers who walk and gesture strangely as a result of too much sitting and too much mouse clicking (and certainly nowhere enough actual teaching). They can also be monitored and enforced with gestapo-like fervour that results in sputtering fits of rage in staff meetings when it is revealed before all and sundry that last week Teacher Tom neglected to fully cover the grammar box crammed into the corner of page 87.
So you'll need to be a bit of a risk-taker here, and so long as it doesn't directly threaten your employment, perhaps consider that asking for forgiveness is often more effective than asking for permission. There aren't any real cracks here in this sort of syllabus (other than the overall mien of the person who deliberately designs the curriculum this way), so you may need to create some.
To create cracks, you basically need to look at ways to speed up certain activities or pages (to ensure you can say they actually were covered and students have important evidence of it in their coursebooks).
Here are some of the techniques I've used in the past to speed up the chaff and allow some precious time for genuine grain:
- Keep explanations simple and brief for content/material that doesn't require any writing
- Read aloud entire texts myself (it's faster than read-around, and can be passed off as additional listening practice)
- Do and correct exercises as a whole class on the spot
- Apply the activity or exercise as a "fluency building" process (like doing a gap-fill in 25 seconds)
- Fill in all the blanks myself in advance, then turn the written exercise into a quick dictation exercise
- Pre-prepare answer sheets and have students use them to self-correct their work
- Break a coursebook task into a number of sections and have different groups do each, then check as a class (say you have 10 comprehension questions: 5 groups take 2 questions each, reducing the time it takes to finish the overall task dramatically)
- Claim a loss of memory ("the students told me we'd already finished that page last week")
- (For the quite sneaky): Stick two pages of your copy of the coursebook together with a minute amount of glue, and use this as an explanation as to why you neglected to teach two whole pages from the coursebook
- (For the really brave): Have students loosen the bindings on their coursebooks, and whenever a student discovers a page has gone missing from their book, skip it entirely for the whole class in your pursuit of equitable learning opportunities for every student in your class.
So whether you're finding cracks or creating them in your carefully constructed curriculum, make sure you then take those spaces and fly with them for all their worth. Make them like a breath of fresh air for your students in an otherwise claustrophobic program. Make sure your students really enjoy and get a lot out of them, because in court-martial situations (for curricular treason) they may just help sway the governor into granting you a pardon.
And once you've got cracks to work within without upsetting too many important people too often, start thinking about devious ways to widen them!