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A day in the life of…… Interview with Maria- Araxi Sachpazian

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Maria-Araxi Sachpazian [BA education & RSA dip/tefl (hons)] is the owner of Input on Education (www.input.edu.gr), an e-consultancy firm that provides academic, business support and IT solutions to Foreign Language Schools. Maria has wide experience as a teacher, teacher trainer, educational management specialist and materials’ developer. She is also the current chairperson of TESOL Macedonia-Thrace, Northern Greece.

(This interview first appeared in the ELTA Serbia newsletter March – April 2017 issue ELTA Serbia March – April 2017 )

Vicky: Dear Maria, thank you for your time and for agreeing to give this interview!

Maria: Thank you so much, Vicky. I am so honoured to be talking to the members of ELTA Serbia and to you.

Vicky: Maria, you are an extremely busy and successful teacher, businesswoman, presenter, manager. I can go on and on with the variety of your roles… Do you miss quiet days at all?

Maria: I am blushing now. Thank you. I am indeed busy and I do miss changes in the pace of my work but I feel that quiet days are a thing of the past. I don’t know if it’s simply me and my many priorities or if it’s Greece and its financial situation but I find it very hard to reject projects or to decline invitations to present, therefore I always end up with more that I had initially bargained for. I must say, though, that I believe this is the greatest gain for us, the generation that had to suffer from the Greek financial crisis during our most productive years. This crisis has shown us what we can accomplish and how much we can do. Personally, I wouldn’t have ventured to teach abroad nor would I have invested in my own company, though keeping it is far from easy.

Vicky: Can you then describe a typical day in your life?

Maria: My days vary depending on what I have to do. I am an early riser so I am up round 6:30-7:00 and it’s usually my priority to walk Brandy, my seven-year old beagle dog. I make a point of setting out my work programme and the things I need to work on before I go to bed the previous evening so after breakfast (or rather while I have breakfast) I hit the books. Planning and in general my pedagogic deliberation is my first priority, no matter what else I have planned for the day. If I have Input projects or meetings with clients I either plan ahead or wake up earlier. My days are full of phone calls, skype meetings and also a lot of writing but I like that a lot. After lunch time (which in Greece is round two) I start my teaching day which usually finishes round 10:30 in the evening. Then I either see friends or go home and plan my next day. Fortunately, I can concentrate everywhere so I feel blessed that I can work equally well in my office, in my classroom, in the living room or at an airport.

Vicky: You are also Chair of TESOL Macedonia-Thrace and this year you organized your first TESOL Conference. Can you tell us what you consider the biggest challenge of organizing big conferences?

Maria: This is an easy answer. Money. As I told the TESOL MTH members in the AGM this year, the resources of TESOL are changing. Publishers and exam boards are still eager to help but they cannot help in the way they used to some years ago. Nowadays, TAs have to prove their worth both to the members and to the stakeholders and the money that comes from membership is equally important as the money that comes from sponsorship. A second challenge, which is still closely related to the first one mentioned, is the fact that TESOL MTH does not employ any staff or have a physical office. This means that we have to do everything ourselves and sometimes this is difficult as we are all volunteers with jobs, families.  

Vicky: You are also the owner of INPUT on Education, a company that provides consultancy to language schools. How can small language schools take advantage of consultancy in such tight economic times?

Maria: Small schools were the very reason I was inspired to start Input on Education. While private schools and large Chains of Foreign Language Schools can afford to employ their own specialists, smaller schools cannot do so. The upshot of that is that owners end up playing all the roles and this means that sometimes they either get too isolated, and therefore easily scared and demotivated, or they cannot deal with certain aspects of their extremely complicated role. That’s why we have many FLS which do great work on an academic level but they have nobody to promote this and publicise it to the target audience. We also have the other example, of the school that produces a great flyer but has little substance below to support this. In this case, clients come and register but leave as soon as they realise that there is little connection between the flyer and the reality of the school. This is where IoE (Input on Education) comes in, with affordable, value-for-money, customized services we study the school and its people and suggest practical solutions.

Vicky: Recently, you gave a seminar on ‘Lesson Planning for Creative Teaching’ at City College in Thessaloniki. Can you tell us more about it? Also, allow me a second question, why does creativity in the classroom matter now more than ever?

Maria: First of all, I would like to thank Dr. Paschalia Patsala for suggesting me as a speaker and her colleagues for their help, support and warm welcome. I was very happy when this particular topic was chosen as I feel strongly about it.  Lesson planning is one of my favourite topics and I believe that it has been both misrepresented and misunderstood. As a student and an RSA candidate, I remember pouring over one single lesson plan for hours and thinking what that would be like if I had to plan for 3 or 4 lessons. This is the most common problem. The process of lesson planning and the pedagogical deliberation that goes with it, is first presented to students of TEFL as very meticulous and time-consuming one. I don’t mean that it is not or that experience does not make things a bit easier. What I have seen is that most novice teachers go from the ultra-detailed lesson plan to nothing at all. Some teachers go as far as to suggest that lesson planning is a luxury. For me, it is far from a luxury. It is a necessity and an absolutely essential part of teaching which is based on the teacher’s knowledge of the material, the students and their needs and the aims that need to be accomplished. The message I tried to put forward at City College was that it makes little difference if the lesson plan is written or not, if it’s typed or handwritten, if it’s on a post-it or a special notebook what makes the greatest difference is the teacher taking some quiet time to sit down and see how to arrange the steps and stages of the choreography so that the lesson can have fluidity, cohesion and the learners are engaged. Getting learners to understand the connection between what they do in class and its usage when using the language is part of this and it cannot be accomplished when teachers go mechanically from exercise to exercise without doing much to put their own finishing touch to the material. Having said that, I don’t want to think of teachers as over-dependent on their lesson plans to the point that they cannot replace a colleague or make the necessary changes if the existing lesson plan does not seem to work.

Vicky: What are your plans for the future?

Maria: I plan to go on teaching because I feel that no matter what other things we do in our field (training, blogging, material writing, consulting) once we stop teaching we gradually become irrelevant. I am also planning to work a bit more on webinars for Input on Education so as to make sessions more affordable for teachers everywhere and finally, it is part of my plans to write a short volume on consulting based on my articles in ELT NEWS.

Vicky: I wish you all the best and a lot of success in all your ventures. 

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30 Goals – # goal 14 – Conquer a fear

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. (Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful. 1756)

While pursuing a criminal across the rooftops of San Francisco, Scottie, a detective , slips and finds himself dangling from the gutter of a tall building. His fellow police officer tries to rescue him but soon after, Scottie watches him fall to his death. It is soon after that when he realizes , with the help of the doctors, that he has developed acrophobia ( a fear of heights). Haunted by his guilt, because of the loss of his colleague, he quits the police force.

In Vertigo, the famous Hitchkock movie, the plot revolves around John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson’s (James Stewart) phobia, which either results in the tragic loss of human lives because he cannot control this fear or because this weakness allows other people to manipulate him. Until he decides to take control of his life and his fears…

I don’t think that, like ‘Scottie’, there is any of us who has NEVER felt threatened by fear. Any kind of fear,no matter how significant or insignificant it may have seemed at the time. The fear of losing a loved one, a fear of heights, a fear for someone’s safety, the fear of failing, etc… What is true, in fact, is that this basic human emotion can undermine our whole existence so much so that to assume that our life can be carried out in an arena void of fear is , to say the least, naive.

Once faced with the ‘Monster’, people usually react in two ways,: ‘fight or flight’! They will either face the threat or flee. A lot of times, a fear exists and ‘persists’ only because it hides a disheartening truth for us, at which we turn our back, in the hope that it will disappear. This is typical DENIAL. What we basically do is that we block away all that frightens and overwhelms us, whatever may force us away from our comfort zone.

Like ‘Scottie’ in Vertigo, people in that situation may initially keep ‘a distance’ from what scares them , exactly because they feel defeated and disabled and it is difficult for them to look at that situation realistically. Until, I think, they realize that the whole situation has easily put them in a ‘bubble’ and trapped them forever. Unless they finally ACT!

in a bubble

An ex-student of mine , Nastazia, fits that description. A girl that was preparing for a specific English language exam because she was going to study abroad. A meticulous and  serious student . She would study hard, she would follow all the advice given. Speaking in English was not her favorite part of the exam, though. Right from the beginning, she told me she did not feel comfortable with it but she knew it would eventually be fine. Since, every time we had a lesson, I managed to make her speak more and more and I realized her level was actually not that bad, I thought there was hope! I thought it was just a simple fear that she would soon be able to succumb. But it wasn’t…

As time went by, the progress she was making was not really significant,so it felt strange whenever she reassured me that everything would be fine with the speaking part of the exam. That she knew she didn’t speak a lot but it was not a big thing. She was acting as if she didn’t realize the problem actually existed ! Sometimes, when she started to speak, this would only last for a few minutes and end in disappointment. A lot of times, when she would eventually talk for more than 2 minutes, she would stop, and would ask me to speak in Greek. Then, after a pause, she would start again saying she COULD do it, she knew HOW TO!  Only to quit again a bit later. She reminded me of ‘Scottie’, who was showing Midge (his ex-girlfriend ) how he could control his fear and rid of it little by little, but in the end the fear kicked in and he resorted in her arms like a little child. I actually experienced a similar scene with her at some point…

I tried several techniques and tricks but one way or another she would hide ‘inside her bubble’ leaving me out..

Until one day, just a few weeks later. That day, she suddenly had a terrible tantrum, which was totally unexpected. She couldn’t cope with her fear anymore. After I let her calm down, we started talking. I think that was the day she realized she had had enough with it and that’s why she had this outburst!

During our discussion, a couple of things came out : first, her fear was the result of a very judgemental teacher’s behavior when she was very young . Second, we established that an exam is not the end of the world. Her life did not and should not depend on a test. Third, we agreed that once you realize that you start feeling trapped in a situation, then it’s time you acted!

And she did. She started slowly to open up more and to build her confidence . Not a very strong one ,but definitely stronger than before. In the end, she managed to get a decent mark at her exams, not a high one , of course , but a decent one. I remember when she came out, the first thing she said was : ‘It wasn’t that difficult , you know, after all!’ Above all, Nastazia confronted this life moment regardless how scary it looked to her. That was perhaps the most important lesson she gained that day.

Fear shouldn’t be seen as an entity that controls us; instead we should confront it as a force which gives us a choice between affirming the truth and denying it. Schopenhauer, and the existentialists that followed later, believed that everything in the universe is driven by a primordial will to live and for him this was the most fundamental aspect of reality. A bit later, Nietzsche made the will to power the basis of the new values created. Why? One has to remember the sense of joy that comes from exercising power. According to Nietzche, this power is not necessarily power over other people, but any successful attempt to overcome obstacles and suffering .

We, educators, are not necessarily neither psychologists nor philosophers. We are not here to solve our students’ psychological problems. Nor are we here JUST to teach them our subject and then avoid any other bond with them. We have a complex role ,part of which IS to identify any possible difficulties our students might be going through and then suggest, perhaps, possible ways to deal with them or refer them to the right person. Teaching adults is even more complex because we always have to keep in mind that when these adults enter our classes, they might already carry a ‘heavy’ load. Most of the times, we mainly need to show sensitivity to them and to any insecurities they might bear. And to remind them that ‘to say ‘yes’ to life is to say ‘yes’ to our attempt to overcome obstacles’!