The Night Before a Course Begins

The bridge between the life before the course and the life during the course... The image is from http://www.gorod.dp.ua/photo/fotoday.php?id=85976

The bridge between the life before the course and the life during the course… The image is by K-Valentin from http://www.gorod.dp.ua/photo/fotoday.php?id=85976

By a ‘course’ here I mean an intensive pre-service training course, or a course for in-service teachers, usually lasting between 2 and 5 weeks, taking place either in my native Ukraine or abroad.

How do I feel on a night before a course begins? Well, to be honest, and giving a very short answer: nervous. To give a bit longer answer, I would simply say that thinking about the participants I have never seen, trying to pre-plan the day, anticipate their learning challenges, find solutions (or rather ‘browse’ through any possible alternatives my experience can provide, etc.) On the one hand, I have already experienced starting so many new courses (more than thirty overall), and so many new terms or academic years (can’t even say how many, and this is not the point now) The point I am trying to make is no matter how (much more?) experienced I become this last night before the course begins does not get easier.

I have been wondering if there is anything I can do to change it. I came back from a course in Korea last week and decided to write down a couple of ideas (to myself, first of all, and also to share and see if anyone else experiences the same kind of ‘beginning syndrome’ and ask for advice or suggestions)

What I have already tried doing on a night like this (and what seems to be helpful):

  • write down a detailed plan of what is going to happen, usually with the exact timing of those steps, even with breaks (well, sounds obvious, but oftentimes I found this helpful during the day, and sometimes when starting a new course in the similar culture/context)

  • play ‘what if’ game: looking through the plan I anticipate any possible challenges (and here it can be anything, literally anything: no paper, not working audio or video equipment, lack of stationery, etc.)

    [Note: My own solution would be ‘materials light’ course beginning, and if I travel to run a course somewhere else I put my materials for day 1 into my carry-on luggage]

  • learn the participants’ names, if the list is available (or at least have it with you): perhaps it is just me, but if ‘learning names’ activity is planned and starts early in the course in a very new place to me I sometimes forget about 70% of the names I hear during that game. I am usually quite happy with my short-term and long-term memory, but this particular moment of a course somehow lets me down!

  • plan an activity or two that are absolutely new to me: might sound weird, but this helps me stay ‘fresh’ and alert when a new day begins, and also broadens my own repertoire of possible Day 1 starters (the most recent example is trying Teaching Timeline activity my friend and colleague suggested the day before the course started; I took a look online and have not found any descriptions of this activity, so perhaps will write about it here one day!)

  • choose the very first activity to be something that does not require any materials at all, or the materials I surely have with me (ideally, an activity I myself really like doing with students or participants)

  • the point above reminded me of this one: talk with my colleagues about the coming course, sharing the plan and asking for more thoughts and ideas (usually happening earlier than the night before, or could be even at night if this colleague is your co-trainer and is feeling in the same way!)

  • plan how to organize the room for training (ideally to see it before the course starts, but that depends on a situation, of course; sometimes I arrive and start immediately): where would a small ‘welcome message’ be hanging? How many groups of participants will be my ‘default’ seating arrangement, and how many times and when do I plan to mix people in the group? How much do I plan to use the board, and ‘what if’ I don’t have one in the room at all?

  • brainstorm how to manage silence or noise, thinking (or wait time) time or interruptions — depending on a culture these can become really important on a course for teachers

I am looking at the list above and asking myself: why are those (obvious) tips so self-centered (trainer-centered?) There is so much about ‘what I can do’ on that first day. So much about me being worried or nervous. One possible explanation at this point is that spending the night before and going through each and every minor detail of that first day with the group will allow me to completely focus on the people when the course actually starts. I found (so many times!) that I am not even looking at those detailed notes during the day, or that I check the break times once or twice to simply find out that they are changed! I think that having a kind of ‘checklist’ or ritual helps me feel confident and perhaps be learner-centered both on the first day of the course and later.

I am also thinking that perhaps re-reading this post might become my new strategy when my next course begins.

What else can be done? What do you do for a smooth and productive start – be it a course or another project?

Thank you for reading! 🙂

About Zhenya

teacher educator, evidence-based instruction trainer, PD Coach https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/
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10 Responses to The Night Before a Course Begins

  1. Ron Bradley says:

    Zhenya, I love this. I love the bridge image left unfinished for the students to complete. I think you have nailed it. You 30, me 50+ courses, and while it gets easier I find the that it is only too easy to fall into the trap of familiarity. “I have done this a million times, so no need to plan, no need to think it through, no need to consider how it could be different, etc. etc.” And so we miss the opportunity to grow, to see more, actually, even to forget something–the hacky sack, the CD player, an important step in the directions or process, What you say about doing a totally new activity the first day makes so much sense. It forces us to keep focused and alert.

    It’s kind of like sight reading a new piece of music. As a musician, I find I play a piece better the first time than subsequent times, as I am paying attention the first time, focused on everything and reading ahead. The second time I tend to make mistakes because I am not paying close attention, thinking “I know this.”, not reading ahead, which I think is important in training too–being aware of what comes next, how it may need to be adjusted to the needs of the students at that moment.

    Yes, knowing your plan well can help keep the focus on the students, but I would add that too much focus on the plan can interfere with being truly student centered. (like playing all the notes perfectly, but not communicating the music to the audience). I have always said, we plan linearly but teach cyclically, adjusting to the students’/student’s needs–being present with the students. Hope I am not getting too off track.

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  2. Zhenya says:

    Ron,

    Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful comment. I have read and re-read it, and there are several ideas in reply. First of all, what a great detail you noticed in the picture I added to this post: I really like what you are saying about the unfinished bridge for the students to complete; it might also mean that even though the bridge is build it is us (the teacher/trainer and the group) to decide how far we want to go on the very first day, and maybe even stop to watch the stars in the sky…

    It does feel encouraging to me to learn that you can also identify with those feelings even having done many more courses than myself. ‘The trap of familiarity’ seems to exist in so different areas of our life (thank you for the example about a piece of music!)

    What you are saying about paying close attention to what is happening in class right now as opposed to thinking/planning ahead is something I am also thinking and talking a lot lately (often to myself, sometimes to my co-trainers 🙂 Where is the balance? The ‘right answer’? The paradox to me lies in the idea that thinking ahead is being out of this moment, but adjusting to the group’s needs does require some thinking about the future. Is this more about reflection in action? Maybe I am digressing.

    Your final point is a very important reminder to me: teach the people/students, not the plan. Perhaps what I called ‘internalizing’ the plan for the day in my post was more like thinking through options, not memorizing the plan. I do agree that if the plan is the objective, then it is more about coverage and less about learning. I like what you said: ‘we plan linearly but teach cyclically’.

    Thank you for taking the time to read and write, and for the follow. Looking forward to more conversations!

    Warmly,

    Zhenya

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    • Ron Bradley says:

      Ah yes! I like your digression. Thinking ahead vs. being present in the moment, ready to adjust, and yes, I think any adjustment needs to come from reflection in action–but who’s action?–the teacher’s or the students’?.or is it both? In other words if the students don’t know what to do as a result of poor instructions, then it is the students “behavior”, non-action, confused looks, etc. that tell the teacher to address the need at the moment–probably stop and give the instructions again, but through reflection in action adjust them to be clearer. If this doesn’t happen, the rest of the lesson plan is moot.

      Another example: If the students are making lots of mistakes with the target language in the Internalization stage, then the teacher being present will notice this through monitoring. Reflection tells him/her that the reason may be that there was not enough controlled practice and so cycle back up. The reason we are aware of the issue is both because we have planned so well that we are clear on the activity objective and we are present enough in the moment to notice that the objective is not being met. So for me they are mutually interactive. Again like reading music; while the musician is looking ahead, he at the same time must pay attention to what is or should be happening in the moment. In fact, looking ahead can inform the moment. Well, I don’t know if the analogy fits, but it is fun to think about.

      warm regards,
      Ron

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      • Zhenya says:

        Ron, thank you for thinking more about this. I really like this line: looking ahead can inform the moment. I think it is true both for teaching and training, and also for the first lessons or days, and for any lesson or input session later in the course. You are asking whose actions – well, I would say teacher (trainer?) and the learners. The analogy with reading music confirms (again and again!) that both learning a language or learning to teach a language is a skill, not just knowledge. I am thinking of a post about reflection, and will hope to share it here soon. Thank you for writing, Ron, really looking forward to more discussions!

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  5. Thanks for a very interesting read with practical tips for aspiring teacher trainers like me. I like the idea of a ‘materials free’ first activity to minimise the amount of things that can go wrong, something I really would not have thought of.
    I am starting to shadow a CELTA course on Monday, and if all goes well, will be a teacher trainer on the following course in August/September. I’ll be scouring your blog for more advice, tips and brain food.
    Thanks again.

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    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Aidan

      Thank you for reading and leaving your comment!

      Yes, minimizing the number of things that might cause extra stress on day 1 is my strategy (after all, the beginning of a course often holds enough ‘surprises’ by itself, on different levels)

      Good luck with the course you are starting! As I understand, shadowing will involve a lot of observation and reflection (and hopefully conversations with the tutor). I envy you for the coming discoveries and ‘a-ha’ moments actually 🙂 Hope you enjoy this process.

      Once again, thank you for reading – hope we stay in touch! Would love to hear how this summer goes for you.

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  6. careymicaela says:

    I always enjoy reading your thoughful posts as well as the lively discussion in the comments section. I’m catching up now on lots of reading I haven’t had time to do during the school year 😉

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    • Zhenya says:

      Thank you for your comment Micaela – and for reading my posts. I learned from your blog how busy and productive your year was. Would love to read more about your ‘a-ha’ teaching/learning moments with little ones! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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