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Running header: PRACTICUM FINAL REFLECTION

Julia Damion

Practicum Final Reflection

Dr. Cheri Pierson

Wheaton College

September 5, 2017
PRACTICUM FINAL REFLECTION

Introduction: Context and Overview

After finishing the course Practicum Dynamics at Wheaton, I completed the

practicum field requirements in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region of China. Through

Pinnacle Teaching Solutions (formerly known as ELIC in Mainland China), I served as an

instructor in a teacher training program in Shizuishan, a town near the border of Inner

Mongolia. The program’s aim was to provide additional training for local teachers in TESOL

methodology and English language, addressing all areas of communicative competence. The

teachers I instructed were from various schools around the region, and many had been

directed to attend this program by their schools for professional development. My sixteen

teachers were between twenty-five and sixty-five years old and had taught English for a

period of two to thirty years. Fifteen of the teachers instructed junior middle school students

(7th-9th grade) and one teacher instructed primary students. To minimize confusion, I will use

“teachers” to refer to the Chinese teachers in this specific context, “students” to refer to the

learners they instruct or to learners in general, and “instructor” when referring to myself or to

teachers in general. In total, there were eight foreign instructors and over one hundred

teachers of primary through high school-age students in attendance.

For the training program, we used a task-based curriculum, Bridges, which is

designed for use in overseas teacher training programs. The middle school curriculum has the

teachers completing seven tasks per day, which include interactive activities (role play,

information gap, etc.) as well as direct instruction in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.

All activities completed in the class were based around strategies that the teachers could use

or adapt to their own classroom contexts. The teachers received three hours of instruction

each morning using Bridges and one hour of instruction in the afternoon using two

supplemental textbooks with cultural and additional strategy-building activities.

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The teaching placement in China was an opportunity to put what I learned in the

classroom into practice and to see how to apply the methods and strategies discussed to a real

classroom context. Below I will discuss insights from both the training and the teaching

elements of my practicum, focusing on four dimensions of teaching: planning, interaction,

classroom management, and classroom climate.

The Planning Dimension

One of the greatest benefits to having the training and microteaching opportunities

prior to going abroad was to learn about planning, particularly to develop an understanding of

how to articulate objectives, which are fundamental to any lesson taught. Part of the learning

process for me has been realizing that objectives need to inform activities taught, not vice

versa. Objectives serve as guideposts for lessons, focusing them and setting parameters for

relevance of the lesson contents. Creating our own lessons for microteaching raised my

awareness of my tendency to consider the lesson activities before identifying objectives.

Once I began thinking more proactively about objectives, I found it gave my lessons greater

clarity of focus. While I did not need to create objectives for my lessons in China, as they

were already outlined in the curriculum, having practiced creating my own heightened my

awareness of their underlying presence throughout a lesson. Keeping the lesson objectives in

mind helped me focus when I was teaching in class, especially when I needed to adjust the

lesson for time.

My experience teaching in China also impressed upon me the importance of being

prepared. This was vital to success in my context, for several reasons. First, it was a highly

professional environment: I was instructing teachers, all of whom had received prior training

in English language instruction and were quite proficient in the language. While I felt

confident that my prior training had given me a solid foundation in TESOL methodology, and,

furthermore, that the curriculum was comprehensive and the lessons oftentimes self-

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explanatory, there were additional factors, such as the one noted above, that impelled me to a

higher devotion to preparation. Second, societal expectations in China dictate that the

instructor is the expert, and so a high level of preparedness is expected for all instructors.

Finally, authority accrues with age, and my relative youth, while never posing a problem, did

leave me potentially vulnerable to skepticism regarding my authority on the subjects at hand.

Fortunately, this never became a conspicuous issue during the program. Even with the lesson

plans already laid out, I spent several hours per night familiarizing myself with the content, to

make sure that I could explain the concepts as clearly as possible and lead the activities with

little to no hesitation. The days for which I felt fully prepared were often the ones during

which I felt I projected more confidence and assurance.

Another important aspect of the planning dimension, which was realized more in this

teaching experience than in our practice microteachings at Wheaton, was planning for the

unplanned. Regardless of how well I outlined my morning schedule, there were always a

number of ways for the pace of the morning to go off track, including faulty equipment and

interruptions to my classroom by program officials. On a nearly daily basis, I needed to either

think creatively about how to finish or adapt my lesson. For example, dealing with a

temperamental computer and speakers meant that I often read aloud the listening texts or had

a teacher assist me in reading the listening texts. This meant that sometimes the follow-up

activities would need to be adjusted, because the teachers had both listened to and read the

text, when the follow-up activity was on listening comprehension. These unplanned

occurrences provided opportunities to practice patience in the face of obstacles, to

acknowledge the fluidity of a classroom environment that cannot always be totally under

one’s control, and to be ready with Plan B - and even Plan C- for when original plans go

awry. I did not have to worry as much about planning for extra time, since the curriculum

was written for more hours of instruction than we had, and I never finished early. Thus, one

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goal I have for future contexts is to ensure the inclusion of back-up and additional activities,

to make the most efficient use of extra or unplanned time.

The Interactive Dimension

One of the overall aims of the summer teacher program was to give the Chinese

teachers more exposure to teaching techniques and strategies that were interactive and

communicative. In China, it is still the case in English lessons tend to be delivered mostly in

lecture format at the junior and senior middle school levels, and the instructor dominates the

conversation. In addition to the expert-novice relational dynamic that is common to the

Chinese language learning classroom, there are other factors as well, including time, that

cause the instructor to use up much of class time speaking. When students do speak, it is

often in a drill-type format. As a result, my teachers related that their students are often

weaker in speaking than in other skill areas, because they do not have time to practice. What

they do practice, which is based on their textbooks, is not always communicative. The

curriculum we used was very supportive in giving us ways to model interactive activities

with the class, maximize student-student and student-instructor interaction time, and make as

much of that interaction time as possible about authentic communication. Since I was

working with a detailed curriculum that provided a plethora of pre-planned, interactive tasks,

the areas of focus in my reflection are less about the tasks and more about the extra-curricular

aspects of an interactive classroom, including seating and group arrangement, and instructor-

student interactions.

In facilitating an interactive environment through classroom arrangement, I found that

success is dependent in large part upon both the dynamic of students and on the purposes of

the arrangement, rather than on the arrangement itself. For example, for a few days, I

changed the seating arrangement from a half-square to pods of four teachers, an arrangement

that I had not had the opportunity to use in previous experiences. While this made it easier to

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carry out tasks on those days (which required many papers and strips to be spread out over a

large surface area), a downside of this arrangement that I had previously favored, is that it has

the potential to create more distraction. I changed the teachers’ seats weekly and found that

the dynamics of small group interactions changed, depending on the personalities sitting next

to each other. This showed me that the instructor needs to be considering a wide variety of

factors, including the activities at hand as well as the personalities of the students and the

strengths and weaknesses of each type of grouping. The instructor must stay actively

involved in this.

The curriculum, by its nature, catered to different learning styles, but I believe that I

should have been more cognizant of needs of the kinesthetic learners in the classroom.

Reasons for not considering these included assumptions about learner preferences being

based on the teachers’ own learning experiences (which favored auditory and visual learning

styles) as well as their age affecting their desire to be active in the classroom. On the contrary,

I found after giving a learning styles quiz that more than half of my teachers considered

themselves kinesthetic learners. This learning styles quiz was not completed until the latter

half of the program. In the future, I resolve to start future teaching experiences with a

learning styles quiz, to ensure that I am aware of students’ preferences, which will aid me in

instructing them and meeting their needs.

The on-site observations of my teaching were beneficial in uncovering some of my

habits that may have been difficult to notice otherwise, such as speaking speed, filler

language, and wait time. My observer also noted that there was sometimes an imbalance

between those who talked more and those who talked less. The teachers were quite

comfortable sharing together in groups, and I found that I shied away from calling on

teachers, point-blank, for which I would have no reservations with younger learners, because

I did not want to embarrass them. I was projecting what I feel when instructors would call on

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me in school onto my teachers. My goal for the future is to remain mindful of this and to not

be timid about asking students to speak, especially when it is a safe and friendly classroom

environment.

Finally, I learned much from the lessons in our curriculum, as they were geared

toward teaching professionals, and through them I noticed ways I could improve. For

example, a lesson on higher-order versus lower-order questions caused me to reflect on my

own questioning style and to realize that I would often ask more lower-order questions to my

professional teachers, especially during classroom instruction (less so outside of class). This

is something of which to stay mindful, regardless of the age level being instructed.

The Management Dimension

Reflecting on the management dimension of teaching, I realized that good

management is inherently student-centered: it is all about optimizing the learning conditions

for students and trying to create the best environment possible for them to learn. Through the

experience of teaching and being observed, I discovered areas of strength as well as

opportunities for growth in creating a well-managed classroom environment.

One lesson I learned was about adapting a lesson to suit students’ needs. A

challenging aspect of this program was the amount of material we covered daily, and, as

discussed above, part of the solution was planning ahead and finding aspects of the lesson

that could be modified or shortened. Another part of this was focusing with greater intent on

the needs of the students and determining, during the lesson, whether the concepts being

taught warranted greater or less attention. Once I became more familiar with my teachers’

levels and teaching contexts, this became easier. As an example, I discovered that, when

teaching grammar, I could proceed almost immediately into the task and spend more time in

communicative activities rather than lecture. As the program progressed, I got better at

gauging the teachers’ interest in the topics at hand and at allowing more time to delve deeper

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into topics of interest or areas of need, such as discussing theories of teaching, the adaptation

of our activities to larger classrooms, and solutions to classroom management issues.

Hand-in-hand with awareness about when to adapt is the willingness to maintain a

flexible mindset. Whether lesson planning or working alongside others in the classroom, it is

necessary to be able to see events move in a different direction than one originally anticipated.

This experience afforded me opportunity to practice flexibility in both areas of teaching.

With lesson planning, I became aware of a tendency to let pressure interfere with my

willingness to take risks in the classroom and to be flexible in the moment with my lesson

plans. In terms of working with others, the co-teaching afternoons also afforded me

opportunity to listen to others, to modify my plans and expectations, and to work alongside

others as a member of a team rather than just as an individual. Teaching is in part about being

in control of the environment, but just as essential is the embracing of humility and a

willingness to give up control for the sake of students’ – as well as personal – growth.

Through the teaching program, I also realized the importance of being consistent with

expectations. Training adults, all of whom were older than I was, caused me to sometimes

feel uncomfortable enforcing rules. For example, I established the expectation of hand-raising

early on, but I did not always enforce it, leading to noise congestion in the classroom. I

believe this was partially caused by the nature of the context (instructing teachers, rather than

younger students), since teaching students of a younger age group had not resulted in

significant classroom noise. My expectations of the class were made clear at the beginning of

the program and were highly realistic, and the rules all existed for good reason. Thus, as long

as that is the case, I should have the confidence to enforce them when necessary.

An additional factor in creating an environment that is conducive to learning is the

importance of considering the space in the classroom, including the spatial relationship

between the instructor and students. I needed to be mindful not only of the placement of

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desks but of my placement in the classroom, as well. The nature of my chosen arrangement

(half square), while well-suited to our classroom space, necessitated my commitment to turn

my head or body to engage students to the left and right of me, as well as those directly in

front of me. Sometimes my attention was imbalanced, though I did try to remain mindful of

this and to direct attention to all my teachers as equally as possible. I am also aware that I

was not completely successful in this area, and I will continue to monitor this in the future.

The Classroom Climate Dimension

Building a sense of community in the classroom is as important for adults as it is for

younger students, and I am glad that our program allowed for us to devote the first day

simply to introductions. I realized that activities that may initially seem trivial can cause

people to open up and want to share their lives with others. I will always have a getting-to-

know-you period as part of our initial introductions, regardless of the age of the students.

Another aspect of establishing a healthy classroom climate is making lessons student-

centered. During my first week of teaching, I was inspired, rather than to spend the majority

of the time in class teaching the strategies, to instead spend more time discussing the

application of the strategies we were practicing, working together to find the relevance to

their own classroom and cultural context. I learned to adopt a more humble stance as the

program progressed, acknowledging my role as a foreigner unfamiliar with their classroom

contexts. I learned to cast myself in more of a learner role during this time and to lend more

agency to my teachers as they pondered the connections between our lessons and their

classrooms. While in the beginning I strongly encouraged teachers to consider doing these

activities, over the course of the program, out of respect for the teachers’ experiences, I

encouraged the teachers to voice doubts they had about using or adapting the tasks to their

own settings. I would then ask my teachers if they could think of any creative ways to modify

or adapt the activity, to have them to engage creatively with what they were doing, and

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through doing this, to be thinking about ways they could stretch themselves in the classroom.

I tried to keep their own experiences at the forefront and to subsume my understanding to

theirs. I wanted them to feel like they had a voice and were involved in their own learning,

rather than just being fed ideas. I needed to be humble and to listen more.

The roles instructors have are multifaceted; in this context, over time, though I grew

more comfortable with (humbly) stepping into the “expert” role, as per cultural expectations,

I felt this role broadening to incorporate the identity of coach, as well. As we became more

familiar with each other and shared our struggles and concerns, I tried to find ways to

encourage my teachers, to let them know that they were making a difference to their students,

and that their desire to improve was the mark of an excellent instructor, regardless of whether

they felt they were adequate in every aspect. As I learned, it is more common for English

language instructors in China to receive critical than positive feedback. Encouraging my

teachers was one of the most rewarding aspects of the program.

To be the instructor, I found that confidence was key in establishing authority and

respect in the classroom. I tried my best to come across as confident and informed, without

appearing superior or perfect. I realized that humility is essential, and I practiced grace in

accepting my own mistakes in class. I also tried to model gracious acceptance of errors, not

calling out the teachers or making them feel bad when they made mistakes, in order to

facilitate a greater comfort with viewing mistakes as part of the learning process. There is the

cultural expectation that the instructor will not make mistakes, and this is something that I am

trying to appreciate more when interacting with Chinese educators. The best I could do was

to create a nonjudgmental climate, to self-model what it looks like to turn mistakes into

learning opportunities, and to show respect for the teachers even when they committed errors.

One day, one of my teachers asked me: “What do you think the best personality is for

a teacher?” This is a question that I struggled with upon entering graduate school, and I have

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learned that being an effective instructor has much to do with being able to manage the

energy in a classroom. As an introverted and calm individual, I feared I lacked an exuberance

that I had deemed necessary for the classroom. However, I saw, both in myself and in my

more reserved teachers during the microteaching, an ability to keep a class engaged by

exhibiting a quiet, calm energy. I was greatly encouraged in watching them shine, and it gave

me a greater confidence in my own ability to keep the energy alive in my class, even if

through calmer means than what other people may employ.

My experience participating in the teacher training program in China was part of an

extended process of growing to become a better educator and cross-cultural communicator,

learning more about how to teach and serve in a different cultural context. Entering into the

program with the background my education has provided, this opportunity allowed me not

only to gain valuable experience but also to put into practice what I have learned during my

degree program. It takes time in a teaching context and a commitment to remaining student-

centered to be effective in all dimensions of teaching. I also see, with greater conviction, the

necessity to maintain a mindset that is flexible and open – open to new circumstances, new

lesson plans, new relationships, and new ways of thinking. There were valuable lessons to be

gained across all teaching dimensions, and the process of both teaching and engaging in

subsequent reflection highlighted areas of strength and of growth from past experiences, and

also areas in which I hope to improve. These observations were not undertaken in a vacuum,

but necessitated listening to and learning from those who sat in my classroom and who served

on my team. My teachers may have thought they were the students, but I was learning from

them, as well, and their willingness to stretch themselves provided a wonderful model for me.

The process of becoming an educator is a life-long experience, and it is my hope that I will

continue to afford myself grace in this endeavor.

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