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You might know me as the person who writes those conversation lessons or maybe as a teacher and teacher trainer. One thing you may not know about me is that I’m a huge NBA nerd. I know stats from 20 years ago and the salaries of bench players and what not. Recently the NBA and some of its players have shed light on mental health issues and that struck a chord with me.
The reason for that, and this is the second thing you may not know about me, is that I have been diagnosed with depression twice in my life. I often say that teaching can be a lonely profession – you are left to your own devices in a classroom, responsible for the well being and success of other people. I believe this is even more true when you suffer from mental health issues.
Let’s go back to 2008, when I lived in Rio de Janeiro. I need to take medication for hyperthyroidism every day (quick aside: hyperthyroidism and depression run in my family and the former can often cause or trigger the latter) and likely will for the rest of my life. Now, in early 2008 I was working a lot and one day I ran out of medication. I went to the pharmacy the next day but they didn’t have the dosage I needed. Next day I forgot to stop by another pharmacy and … do you see where this is going?
Yes, young and stupid Ricardo stopped taking his medication. The thing is, at first you don’t feel any different, so you think you will be OK without it. But what happened was, and I only understood that much later, my life started to slow down. From my thoughts to my desire to do things and interact with other people, things started to become numb.
By the time the second semester started in August I was in really bad shape mentally. I remember taking my then wife to hospital (because of food poisoning or something similar) and thinking “If I fell from the stairs and broke my arm, would I need to go to work?” I was afraid of going to work. And not because I didn’t like it – I actually loved it, my students, my boss, my colleagues – but it was hard to interact with people, to stand in front of a classroom and feel the weight of the responsibility that a teacher carries in their job every day.
Now, the worst thing about mental health issues is that (and I’m quoting Kevin Love, who talks about his own issues in the interview above) “you don’t look the part” of a sick person. Someone who has a broken leg clearly can’t walk. Someone suffering from conjunctivitis obviously can’t go to work. You can see those things. But Kevin Love is a fit, tall, good-looking white man who comes from a rich family (his uncle was one of the Beach Boys – see what I said about being a basketball nerd?) and who at 20 years old became a millionaire himself. I mean, how could this person have any problems whatsoever? He looks the same as he did last year when he wasn’t depressed.
And this is exactly how I felt. I was ashamed of my problems (which I didn’t realise were caused by the hyperthyroidism) and felt powerless to explain them to people. So I started having problems at work, not performing to the best of my abilities. There were some good days, there always are, when you wake up feeling OK and being able to cope with things but I was struggling and my boss noticed it. And she was the one who put an end to it. She said I needed to get treatment or I would end up losing my job. She was very understanding and helpful, though, and for that I will forever be grateful.
I went to an endocrinologist who identified what the problem was and, once I was taking my thyroid medication again, I started seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist too. This was a long process, but certainly not as long as it can be for some people. Once I had been to the doctor, I went on medical leave. The first month is paid by your employer. After that you need to go through a ‘perícia médica’ at INSS in order to extend the medical leave.
By the time January rolled around, I was feeling better — there was a lot of therapy and medication involved, of course. I had a great support system in the form of both my wife and friends. I can vividly recall conversations I had with Yone Santos, Luciane Laxe and Antonio Drummond, all teachers with whom I worked, and how important a role they played in getting my confidence back. My family was important too, even though they lived in Jundiaí at the time.
If I’m not mistaken, I got groups again in February and my life got back on track, mental health-wise. That is, until last year.
So let’s fast forward 10 years. I’ve been taking my medicine every day, I got a divorce, moved cities, got married again, became a freelancer and, finally, had a baby. I had known something was not a 100% for a while, but I was coping well enough, both with work and with my relationships. Then something changed. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was, and there may well have been multiple things that triggered it, but I started to get worse. The feeling of numbness was back. It was different this time, but there was depression knocking on my door again.
In hindsight, it’s funny that it took me a good six months to look for medical help. This is another villainous side of depression — it renders you powerless, even when you know what the problem is. I finished all of my commitments in the first semester, but I was reaching a breaking point. After coming back from the BTIC in Caxias do Sul, I was mentally exhausted. There were too many people to say hi to, too many people to put on a brave face for. I was able to hide behind my son for some of it, which helped, but ended up watching very few sessions — choosing instead, to spend time at the hotel with my boy. I did deliver both of my sessions, but the trip took its toll.
When the semester started in August — and that seems like a lifetime ago, even though it’s barely been six months — my wife and family were concerned and kept insisting I look for a psychiatrist again. I had another extensive CELTA lined up, my sixteenth course in a row, without a break. On the second day of the course, August 17th I believe, I woke up and thought I wouldn’t be able to make it to São Paulo. I did, but on the way I called Bjarne, my boss, and said we needed to talk. I asked if he thought he could find someone to replace me in the course. At first he thought I had been offered a better deal elsewhere, but once I told him what was going on, he was sympathetic. We talked to Higor, who was super busy at the time, and I explained what I was going through. He really stepped up to the plate when I needed the most and I owe him for that. Not having the obligation to go to São Paulo every Friday helped, but there were other commitments I was dreading, such as the BrELT on the Road event on September 7th and a workshop with Vinnie Nobre on September 21st. In the meantime I turned down lots of job offers and quit some other things I was doing, so I could focus on getting better. At this point I had to dig in into my savings (babies are expensive, as you might have heard) because I was not working a lot.
The road to redemption was similar to the first time, but not less bumpy. I quite liked the psychiatrist I got a recommendation for, but then didn’t like the first therapist I tried. I hit it off with the second one and, once the meds started having an effect, things started to get better. The BotR was a big moment too, as I was dreading having to meet some of the people I had said no to during the semester, but everyone welcomed me with open arms. Vinnie smiled at me, I got warm hugs from the BrELT coordinators and had a great conversation with Lucia Rodrigues from Seven. All of this took a huge weight off my shoulders.
One key difference between what happened to me in 2008 and 2018 is that the first time felt much stronger and completely paralyzed me. This time I was still able to work and face people: for instance, I gave a talk to 50 people at BotR and 25 in the workshop with Vinnie. Ten years before, that would have been unthinkable. Still, things required extra mental effort at every corner. That really sunk in when I almost dozed off while driving home from São Paulo. I was just too tired. I got a real scare once and then decided not to drive to São Paulo alone anymore, until I got better.
All in all, one could say I’m pretty privileged despite having had to fight against depression twice. For one, I got better in about 5-6 months both times, which is a luxury. I had money to afford good doctors and medicine; I had the support from friends and family and I was able to take time off from work. By December I started to feel like life was in colour again. Even small things like buying chocolate made me happy. January came and went and it made me realize I’m finally back to being myself.
The reason I wanted to share my story, while possibly dealing with backlash, is that it shows that, despite what might be shown on social media, we never know what people are going through. In fact, the worst I felt, the better I tried to look to make up for it. If you are going through something similar to what I did, look for help. Talk to a friend or family member. Go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. This burden is too heavy to be carried alone.
Jill Florent, has kindly agreed to share with us her materials writing experience and she has written a practical and comprehensive list of suggestions for teachers who want to start (or are in the process of becoming) materials writers.
We believe, though, that such advice can be applied to a series of teaching related activities that even if you’re not thinking about becoming a writer yourself, you may find the reading intensely interesting and applicable.
Advice to teachers becoming writers
by Jill Florent.
Teaching and writing have a lot in common. Many of the same principles apply to planning a coursebook and planning a course for your students. There are a lot of similar factors to consider when writing a unit and teaching a lesson. Lessons needclear aims and objectives, a mix of presentation, practice, individual work, pair and group work. You want your lessons to have a consistent structure and a degree of predictability, but you don’t want them to be dull and boring. Lessons need balance and variety, changes of pace and an element of fun in order to motivate students. The same applies to coursebooks. Most of the writers I’ve worked with have also been teachers. At first, teachers tend to write material that is suitable for their own classes. The next step is to write material that is suitable for other people’s classes.That is not a lesson that they could deliver themselves, but a blueprint for a lesson that anyone could teach, a jumping-off point to inspire other teachers to create interesting and effective lessons. As an editor, my watchwords are: clarity, consistency, simplicity, balance, variety. Let’s unpack that a bit and see what it means in practice.
Take a look at your favourite textbook. Why do you like it? For me, the layout is a very important factor. I find coursebooks that use double-page spreads clearerbecause the ‘lesson’ appears as a whole. A double-page spread with the right amount of material for a 45-50-minute lesson makes it easier for the teacher to plan their lesson from the coursebook. Texts and exercises that fit into the columns and pages look more organised that ones that break across the page in uncomfortable ways. It is helpful for illustrations and any text boxes of key language to be in the appropriate place. Something I would consider ‘uncomfortable’ is where a key language box is placed at the bottom of a column or page and the activity using that language is in the next column or over the page. You certainly don’t want a language box to be split, and if possible (and it usually is), exercises should not be split. If the rubric and items 1, 2, 3, 4 fall in one column but items 5 and 6 spill over into the next column I would make adjustments. Either the exercise could be reduced to 4 items or an illustration of some kind could be added to the first column and the whole exercise moved to the next column. It’s helpful to have a little ‘white space’ sometimes, so the page doesn’t look too crowded.
The aims, objectives and outcomes should be clear, even if they aren’t overtly statedin the Students’ Book. It’s important to know what the unit is about and what students are expected to have learned by the end. Whichever way the syllabus is divided,each unit and each (double) page should have a clear focus and outcome. Headings and target language boxes can be helpful signposts, showing what type of language and activities to expect.
Consistency aids clarity, if you describe the same activity in different ways, teachers or students may look for non-existent differences. Don’t vary the rubric for the same type of exercise, choose one style. For example, each activity where students have a gapped text or sentence should have the same rubric. It could be Fill in the gapsorComplete the text/sentences orPut the correct word in each gap. But it’s important to use the same formula every time. If you think about this from the beginning, it will help enormously. You will be able to see right away how many of the same sort of exercises you have, and if you find you’ve got too many of one type, you can easily amend this, because you can search for the relevant rubric.
Headings should also be clear and consistent. If you decide to call a language box key words in one unit, don’t call the same thing useful language in the next. However, if there are differences, for example if you’re giving key words for a vocabulary activity, and supplying useful language for a speaking activity, then it’s a good idea to use different headings.
Keeping it simple makes the tasks easy for everyone to follow. Complicated rubrics or exercises cause confusion and slow the lesson down because students don’t understand what they are supposed to do. If you can’t write a simple rubric, it probably means that the exercise is too complicated. Try splitting it into two or three parts. If tasks are straightforward and instructions are clear, the teacher’s job is easier, and the lesson will flow.
In creating practice exercises it’s a good idea to start with binary choices and gradually include more options. There are a variety of ways of presenting the choices, but the principle is to start with very simple either/or choices and slowly make the activities more demanding. That way, students have more chance of getting the correct answers, which builds confidence.
Keeping rubrics simple (as well as consistent) is also helpful. Think of rubrics as Teacher Talking Time and it’s natural to want them to be as short and direct as possible. So, 1 Listen and match 2 Now work with a partner and compare your answers is better than You are going to hear four people talking about their journey to work. While you listen, match each speaker with their method of transport, then compare with your partner. Have you got the same answers?
This applies to each aspect of the book and to the book as a whole. As well as making sure that you have a balance of skills and a variety of exercise types, check that you have a variety of photographs and illustrations, that there are different voices and points of view, a balance of male and female, young and old, ethnicorigins, hair colour, etc. (and remember, men are not always taller and stronger than women); make sure that it isn’t always men or boys who speak first, check the gender stereotypes of attitudes and attributes (girls can be daring, boys can be caring), as well as jobs (women can do the same jobs and be senior to men). At the same time, be wary of overdoing it. If you put all the women in superior roles, and make all the men incompetent, you will end up giving an equally unrepresentative view of the real world.
Magic fairy dust
A course can be perfectly well organised and easy-to-follow with a clear layout and stated aims and objectives, and yet be stiflingly dull. The missing ingredient is what I call ‘magic fairy dust’. This is what gives a book ‘character’, what makes the courseinteresting and relevant to the target users. The magic is in the author’s choices: the new twists on old topics, the unusual or surprising texts, the people (real or created) chosen to exemplify the language, the opportunities provided for students to explore interesting ideas and use the language they learn. This is what the author uniquelybrings to a book – editors can look out for all the points mentioned above, but only the author brings the magic. It’s the key ingredient in a successful course, one that has staying power in the classroom.
For more specific and detailed advice, go to eltteacher2writer.co.ukwhere you willfind books about writing different types of activities and for different audiences, as well as other resources and training opportunities to help you develop as a writer.