Introducing and implementing radical changes in your teaching

(Reading time: 4 - 7 minutes)

The world is changing fast around you, your colleagues have been tooting their own horns about the innovative practices they have introduced in their teaching while your students keep yawning in class…. Yes, it is time for a drastic overhaul. But where do you start? How many changes can you make without jeopardizing what you have already achieved? 

Dimitris Primalis - EFL teacher, author and oral examiner.

Plan before you act

I often hear people thinking out loud “I need to modernize my lesson with a few apps and a few IWBs in the classrooms” Is this the solution though? Painting an old car will not save it from mechanical failure. Setting goals and making a clear roadmap with the steps you are going to follow is of critical importance. It is highly likely to save you time, energy and - if you are a school owner-  a lot of money.

Respect the institute’s culture

Every school sets up their own working – learning in this case – “routine” with a rather fixed approach which learners and teachers tend to follow. Even though occasional breaks from this routine are usually welcome, a ground breaking one may make students feel insecure. Change takes time and patience so it is better to choose carefully the type and extent of change and integrate it smoothly to avoid resistance from the other stakeholders (students, parents and members of the staff). For instance, this may involve forms of interaction (pair/group work), material, types of correction or any other change one may wish to introduce.
From my experience, a drastic overhaul can confuse learners and parents and can ignite frustration as they feel that the environment is no longer stable and learners do not know what they will be assessed on.
It is worth keeping all the elements that seem to be working and have kept the institute going even in rocky times and then one can decide what needs to be adapted or completely replaced. For example, you may feel that weekly or monthly tests are part and parcel of the school’s life but you may change the types of exercises and content to meet the demands of the revised exams.

Explain what you are about to do and why you do it

Before implementing any change, inform the parents and students. It need not be in detail but it will help if you explain why you intend to introduce changes and what you aim to achieve. For instance, this year, students will be asked to work in pairs or groups because in this way, they will practice more in class and because they will be examined in pairs when they take the “x” or “ y” exam. Another example: learners will be asked to work on projects because this will give them more exposure to authentic language. 

Be creative and flexible 

Set clear aims from the beginning of the school year and decide how they can be supported i.e. extra material, new books, new techniques. Acquaint yourself and your teachers – if you are an owner- with the new material and reflect regularly on how it works in class. Be prepared to make concessions or modifications based on the feedback you receive from learners, parents and possibly colleagues. For example, you may want to make a selection of the material you are using instead of trying to do the book from cover to cover if you realize that students need more time than you had originally planned. 
An activity or some educational material may have seemed perfect when presented at a conference or an exhibition but when in class, you may realize it falls short of your expectations. Most colleagues give up and return to the safety of the good old tested methods and materials. Yet, this may be perceived by the learners and parents as a sign of inconsistency or even incompetence.  Be prepared to cater for your learners’ needs by  adapting instructions or what you expect them to achieve based on their prior knowledge and skills.
From my experience, it is the small but steady, everyday steps you take every time you meet your class that can be fruitful and lead to establishing a new “working routine” for the class. 

Give credit to the effort your learners have put 

One should not forget to praise learners for achieving even part of the goal set for the day or month. For example, saying something as simple as: “I am very proud of you that you found the main idea of the text. Tomorrow, you will have more time to find the details we are looking for” can take away the stress and fear of failure from students when reading a difficult text.
Implementing change is multi-faceted and cannot be covered in an article. But if somebody asked me for some practical tips for those who want to adopt change, here’s a list with 7 dos and don’ts that I would give:

1. Consult the coordinator or Director of Studies before implementing your ideas in class. They will be able to reassure parents or children if they know what the changes are about.
2. Inform briefly parents when meeting them about what is new in class this year and why this is happening.
3. Introduce gradually- if possible-  changes in class. This will allow students more time to get used to them.
4. Explain in simple words to your students what the intended goal is. For instance: “I don’t want to interrupt you when you speak during this activity but I will note down your mistakes and when you finish, we can talk about them”.
5. Be patient and give your students time to feel comfortable with the changes. Every change is a challenge for them and some may need more time than others.
6. Reflect on the changes you have introduced and keep the ones that seem to be working but modify or omit the ones which have been unsuccessful.
7. Help your learners feel that the new elements in your teaching will not threaten the security provided by the routine they have had so far but in fact, they will help them become even better.

1. Introduce too many changes at once.
2. Let the school staff in the dark. In fact, they can help you with remarks or ideas so that you avoid pitfalls in class.
3. Ignore the background of the class and the approach followed before you. There are definitely some good, solid elements that you can rely on.
4. Underestimate the parent’s role. They can be powerful allies and support you at home when students express doubts.
5. Expect all the students to respond positively and carry out the new tasks in a satisfactory way. Repetition and time can help them get used to it.
6. Take it for granted that what worked for your previous class should work equally well with your new one. Every class has its own unique idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses
7. Expect all your goals to be achieved immediately. 
Final thoughts
As I mentioned above, innovation and change take time, patience and good planning. A key factor for success is good communication to avoid resistance from any of the stakeholders (students, parents – when teaching young learners and teenagers – and the school leaders).  Wishing you the very best in your effort to raise the standards in your class!
“Rebel without warning” D. Primalis, The BELTA Bulletin Issue 3 Winter 2014


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