Summer School: Teaching between the Lines

Summer School: Teaching between the Lines

24th February 2020

By John Flynn

Like so many TEFL teachers that ply their trade in Summer Academies, you tend to have many memorable and defining experiences, some good and some less favorable. The following article is based on the summers I spent at a UK based Summer School. It was based at a boarding school located in the south east of England for students aged 11-18 and was used by Summer Academies during the Summer months.

The student market it focused on attracted students from China, Russia, Israel and Turkey and but the classes were also made up with students from Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, and Venezuela. The ages of the students corresponded with the age level of the boarding school, 11-18 years old. The Levels ran right across the CEFR (Common European Reference for Languages) from A1 Beginners to C1 Advanced.

Like many English Summer academies, a usual day is quite long being filled by Classes, Activities, Excursions, Meetings and CPD Sessions, which will sound familiar to any TEFL teacher that has summer school experience.

The course induction was held on the Friday prior to the Summer Program beginning. Some of the topics covered were pretty standard, i.e.,: line management; people to contact in certain situations; the rules of the premises and grounds;  fire drill procedures;  and rules of the Academy. One aspect of the induction which I found particularly significant was a point made by the Senior teacher of the Younger Ages. Namely, the importance of remembering that persons under 18 in a country where their first language isn’t spoken falls under the category of “vulnerable people”.  I felt it was a very important point to raise and that there is a paramount responsibility we have as teachers for the wellbeing of the children and teenagers in our classes.

Our days would usually consist of two ninety-minute General English classes that would run until 12.30, followed by an English in Action class.  These were classes based on themes and topics.  Then there was a Workshop class. These could be classes in Film Production; Stage and Screen; Creative Writing; Health and Fitness; and Exam Preparation. I was able to participate in Film Production that involved themes with Pirates and Kings and Queens.  I would say this requires a lot of work because you are acting as Writer, Producer, Director and Editor for these workshops, but it is also rewarding when you see the end result and the students enjoying themselves. The Exam Preparation and Creative Writing workshops were less taxing as these were topics I would have worked on during a regular academic year   

In my last year at the Academy, they offered a program that focused on Business English and skills that included CV building, Interview Skills, Holding a Meeting and Enterprise Skills. I was privileged to be a part of this program.

Aside from classes, the rest of the timetable consisted of Morning meetings, Evening meetings, CPD sessions and Excursion Meetings.

Touching on the topic of CPD (Continuous Professional Development) the Academy was quite proactive in allowing teachers to run the CPD sessions. This resulted in a very varied program with interesting sessions on, for example, Interactive Learning; Teaching with Limited Resources; Teaching through Drama; and Cambridge Exam Preparation. I was fortunate enough to be able to run the Cambridge Exam Preparation session.

A considerable part of the weekly schedule comprised the weekly Excursions. Although it was always emphasized that the Excursions were a “Lesson On The Move”, they were a welcome change of pace for the students and teachers alike. Although this by no means diluted teacher responsibility for student accountability and wellbeing at all times while on excursions, they did give the students a unique opportunity (and indeed teachers) to experience some of the historical and national gems that Great Britain has to offer. These excursions included such sites as Buckingham Palace; St Paul’s Cathedral; Oxford University; Roman Baths; Portsmouth; Tower of London; Blenheim Palace; and Brighton.

The excursions also provided different cultural experiences for the students. An example of this would have been our Excursion to St Paul’s Cathedral. Our student group included students from Turkey and Israel, none of whom had been inside a Christian place of worship before, so they found the venue quite intriguing. An unexpected bonus was that there was mass being offered during our time there so it was a new cultural experience for these students to see a Christian religious service.

This schedule was from Monday-Friday. Aside from some Level Placement Testing that only lasted an hour or two, teachers did have their Saturdays and Sundays to themselves which was always appreciated.

Of course being a returnee teacher at a Summer Academy for three years, one does experience highlights and low points, as in any teaching situation. In my case-

A highlight of the Summer Academy came in my first year when the Academy had a British Council Inspection. Anyone who has experienced this will tell you of the additional pressure it places on Academic Management and Teachers in order to pass this Inspection, and we were no exception. Areas such as Strategic Management, Staff Management and Development and Student Administration are only part of the criteria, so much emphasis is placed on Administration, Reports and Lesson Plans that have to be of the highest standard (which should always be the case). It was such a triumph for the academy and the group of teachers that we successfully passed the inspection and impressively so.

Another highlight was the camaraderie among the teachers.  This was especially true during our Inspection year. Everyone worked together towards a common purpose which created a bond between us. For me it is this ethos of camaraderie that can make a Summer Academy a worthwhile and memorable experience. 

Also, as I hinted earlier, another highlight was the excursions. Obviously for the students, they get to experience these places for the first time. But this is also true for teachers. Many of the places that we visited, I know I would never have seen otherwise. It is one reason that one becomes part of the TEFL community, to experience and see new places.

Unfortunately with highlights come low points, and my experience was no exception.

During my first year, there was one staff member who was new to the UK and therefore experienced difficulty dealing with the local culture and staff. It coincided with the British Council inspection and potentially could have had a negative effect. However, the professionalism and camaraderie of the rest of the staff carried us through and it is fair to say that the highlights were far greater than the low points.

To conclude, I am asked as to whether or not I would recommend teaching in a Summer school in the future. It’s a question that does need much weighing up. On the one hand, Summer Schools provide the opportunity to experience multicultural classes which you may not experience on a year-round basis. By having multicultural classes, you are taken out of your familiar routine and it is refreshing to create lesson plans and source material that can be enjoyed by students from all walks of life. Part of being a good TEFL teacher is about discovery and the process is rewarding for both students and teachers alike when your class material is carried off successfully.  Also, in my case, being granted the opportunity to attend and present CPD classes is also a valuable feather in any teacher’s cap and a positive addition to one’s CV.

On the other hand, for the uninitiated, the workload can be very long and intense.  I have had some days of up to 12-14 hours, but this does come with the territory. Also, if one returns to the same school year on year, its is likely that staff dynamics will have changed and that can take some time to get used to. But, on balance, the pros outweigh the cons. As teachers we can all experience crises of confidence in our teaching abilities and my experience of teaching summer school has gone a long way to restore that confidence just when it was needed.

To all my fellow TEFL teachers, I wish you all the best of luck in your endeavors as a teacher and perhaps our paths will cross for some professional and memorable collaboration in the future.

John Flynn

John has lived and taught English in Poland, Slovakia, Spain and the UK. He has taught levels from 3 years old to Adults along with holding classes in Cambridge, Trinity and IELTS exam preparation and Business English courses.

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