Embracing opportunities in easy-access professional teacher development

The need for ongoing professional development is something I’ve heard repeated a lot in language teaching in recent years. As you can probably tell for the way I go on about developing as a teacher on this blog, it’s an issue that’s dear to my heart. One thing I like is that formal teacher training programs are no longer – if they ever were – seen as the be all and end all; increasingly many language teachers look for opportunities elsewhere for professional development. This post, I hope, is a brief look at some of the things we can all be doing to better ourselves as teachers without going to great expense. It also hints at ways that those of us who have a wealth of experience may wish to go about helping, guiding and facilitating the development of those who are newer to the profession.

Teacher training or teacher development: what’s the difference?

There are two broad aims within the scope of teacher education; teacher training and teacher development. As they are terms that we often hear, it might be useful to differentiate between the two at this point:

Teacher training

Teacher training involves the understanding of the main ideas and principles of teaching as requirements for applying them in the classroom. The content of such training is usually determined by teacher trainers and experts and is often available in the standard formal teacher training programs or courses. They have short-term goals like getting a teaching position or doing certain job or assuming a specific responsibility.

Teacher development

Teacher development doesn’t focus on a specific area. Rather, it serves a long-term goal and attempts to facilitate teachers’ understanding of teaching and of themselves as teachers. It involves documenting different kinds of teaching practices; observation forms, reflective journals, evidence of peer discussion and cooperation with peers on a class project, and ideas on the teaching practice that shows deep understanding of the teaching reasons. The last thing just mentioned is more (able to last/helping the planet) and it involves more creation of teacher learning on the long-run.

When might one be more appropriate than the other?

FLED 3Recognizing the differences between the beginner and the experienced language teacher can be very helpful in deciding the type of professional development that’s most helpful for the teacher in question. An experienced teacher’s approach to their work is undoubtedly different, carrying their experience and knowledge of the subject matter and teaching practices alongside them into the classroom. However, the beginner teachers lack a good enough collection of mental scripts and behavioral routines. Therefore, there comes a need for the experienced language teacher to work with the beginner teacher to help them overcome challenges they face in their early years of teaching. Furthermore, beginner teachers can find opportunities to create a self-development system to avoid burnout through the activities discussed in this post.

Nevertheless, whether beginner or expert, language teachers tend complain about the challenges they face in getting professional development:

  • The expenses of the professional development opportunities
  • The time; as teachers are usually busy planning for their lessons and catching up on administrative tasks

In such situations, demotivation and burnout can occur. Indeed, a teacher’s decrease in positive thinking and interest is a natural result of the daily grind of work; planning for the class; developing class materials and, too often; being involved in administrative decisions. Burnout is a response to long-lasting stress related to factors in the educational organization and the teaching environment: when it happens, the first thing teachers forget is their need to be thinking of their professional development.

Funnily enough, this challenging environment can be the source of the solution, by getting experienced teachers to work together with newer teachers to help each other teachers and the cooperation of the beginner teachers themselves to help each other grow professionally.

This kind of ‘from the ground up’ teacher development can involve many different activities that teachers undertake within their workplace, without the cost of spending time and monetary resources on inviting a guest speaker or attending a professional conference. This blog post outlines three practical PD activities we can think about. Where possible, I’ve outlined how these activities can help foster cooperation between beginner teachers and experienced teachers to provide assistance and advice for the success of the institution.

1. Reflective practice

The first thing I want to suggest today is using reflective journals as a tool to help teachers reflect on their teaching practices and seek guidance and assistance, as and when needed. Recent literature in ELT has made a point of the need for support, particularly for beginning teachers.

To initiate this, teachers may wish to maintain a weekly teaching journal. The format and length of such journals may be flexible, but it should aim to be a well-informed reflection that indicates the thinking behind the choices of classroom activities undertaken in that week (or given time period). The audience for this journal can be one of the three people; the teacher himself, their peers and/or their immediate superior.

In the first case, if the teacher themselves are using the document, these reflections should provide some means of reflection about their class and the activities they do, and whether they were effective in learning or not. Its purpose is mainly to provide this space for the teacher to self-reflect on the patterns that occur over a certain period of time; the document itself helps to uncover such patterns.

In the second instance, a reflective journal may form part of a teacher development group. Teachers working at the same institution can work on developing these journals for themselves and then have a regularly scheduled meeting to share their reflections and give each other feedback or ideas. It might also form the basis of a group discussion on the kinds of problems that are repeated issues in different classes, thus helping to give a focus on suggesting solutions or alternative teaching methods. This can also be a rich source for the sharing of classroom lessons and activities among teachers, as teachers will not have to necessarily visit each other’s classes to learn about a new teaching idea or activity. Instead, they can easily share their reflective journals on their classes.

The third scenario is the one that will give beginner teachers in particular a boost, depending of course on supportive directors or superiors who are willing to offer the time and dedication to enable their teacher to grow professionally and become aware of strengths and areas for development. In this case, the teacher share their reflective journal with the ‘boss’ who in turn hosts a weekly discussion with the teacher, after reading the journal, to talk about points and highlights of the reflections. The role of the experienced teacher / ‘superior’ is important in this relationship: holding discussions in this situation is more of a supportive encouraging kind of feedback than a critical or demotivating one. The role of the superior is to help the teacher, drawing on their wider experience and rich background, to develop a critical eye on developing teaching practices. This enables the new teacher to look at the bigger picture, rather than focusing on details that need not be worried about.

To sum up, in each of these cases, teachers should keep and review their journals, using them as valuable documents for things such as teaching portfolios (if you’re not sure what one of these is, I wrote a short series on teaching portfolios a while ago) and even as reference documents for future jobs. Using reflective journals is also a very useful tool for groups of teachers within the same institution. Firstly, they provide opportunities for sharing class ideas and activities, concerns and successes, and looking (for) help and advice from others. Secondly, they aid in boosting the cooperation and spirit of teamwork and collaboration in the workplace, as teachers start using each other as resources by undertaking this simple but effective professional development activity.

Key points to consider

  • As a new teacher, do you have willing experienced teachers available to provide meaningful feedback on your reflections?
  • As an experienced teacher, are you aware of the needs of new colleagues? Do you understand the need for continuing reflection, despite your many years of experience? How are you going to use this effectively as a tool for reflection?

Suggested resources

2. Embracing the wider world of teaching

The idea here is that we can extend our development as teachers by taking us out of our relatively enclosed professional environment and into the outer world of professionals. Your first thought might be that this means bringing in guest speakers to your institution or even spending money on getting teachers to attend professional development events such as conferences. While these are all well and good, it can start off a lot simpler and less costly.

Starting from the base up, this can involve holding workshops at work for teachers so as to get training in writing conference proposals and applying for conferences through an in-house journal. Let me explain a little bit more…

The idea begins with development of some kind of in-house journal for teachers with certain, loose framework of guidelines and outlines for submission and writing. Then, after the necessary development sessions – given by experienced teachers or through the above mentioned development group – the teachers can choose to have prepare a journal to be issued on a monthly or quarterly basis, for instance. Topics also can be related to a certain issue at work, for example, teaching reading or the challenges in dealing with lazy students and possible solutions. Teachers may work with peers to write an article, or they can collaborate with a group to complete an article. The writing process should ideally involve research into the literature, providing references to previously read articles or books in the profession.

I should note here that this is definitely not a top-down method; it need not necessarily be the case that the DoS or school director is the only one giving advice; rather this should take place as a collaborative project. The end product is, after all, the teaching journal that includes pieces of writing from many teachers with differing levels of experience. This activity is great as it can build confidence in less experienced teachers, empowering them to submit proposals to regional conferences, as it guides them towards learning about the process of conducting small-scale research.

The last type of teacher development groups I want to suggest is teacher network groups, otherwise known as personal learning networks (PLNs). Joining professional networks should be very important to language teachers as they can view themselves as part of a larger community of teachers. This can be done from the comfort of a laptop, thanks to the proliferation of education-related chats taking place on social media platforms such as Twitter. Because these are open space, available to all, participation is particularly easy.

Setting up a professional network can start from home, at your institution, or by simply starting a blog or website where teachers can share their ideas and class materials, while reading each other’s comments and suggestions. Your blog, when developed, can serve as an in-house network for teachers from as small a group as the same workplace to teachers on a worldwide scale.

Key points to consider

  • As a new teacher, who can you turn to for advice on how to get started? Who is willing to conduct basic classroom research with you? What avenues are open to you for sharing your findings?
  • As an experienced teacher, are you aware of the needs of new colleagues? Do you understand the need for continuing reflection, despite your many years of experience? How are you going to use this effectively as a tool for reflection?

Suggested resources

  • Legendary conference presenter Ken Wilson has a great blog in which he talks about his experiences, as well as hosting great guest posts from others.
  • At some point, you may wish to make the transition to becoming a ‘full-on’ conference presenter. I wrote a long and detailed step-by-step guide on this a couple of years ago: here’s a link to part one of my series.
  • Webinars are an increasingly prevalent – and usually free – source of quality professional development. The best way to find out what’s coming up is to join the Webinars for  English Teachers group on Facebook.
  • For those of you eager to embrace technology and like the sound of tech-based professional development, Nicky Hockly’s Webinars: A Cookbook for Educators is an essential text.

3. Teacher literature clubs

This is something I’m involved in currently, so it seems like a good idea to share it with you. Teacher literature clubs can involve one or both of these things:

  • Investment of money in getting professional development books and literary resources for teachers, or using currently available resources.
  • Online or self-developed resources, shared in a monthly (or other convenient time frame) meeting at work for discussion among groups of teachers.

Such a book club may begin with managers, or teachers themselves, suggesting an article they have read recently dealing with a particular problem or need they recognize from their teaching ‘big picture’. Then, teachers get in groups to discuss the article in question and whether they have ideas of their own to add or reject.

The atmosphere created in such an environment has many benefits; it sets aside time for busy teachers to sit down and read about contemporary issues in the profession and also gives them a chance to exchange ideas with fellow teachers who, despite the fact they may see them everyday, only do so in the form of quick greetings before or after classes. This provides an opportunity to discover new trends in teaching and may also serve to combine up-to-date findings with what teachers have learned in their formal training, especially when the discussion is built around a school-related topic and is advanced through the exchanging of opinions that are supported by contemporary evidence. Holding literature club like this regularly can also serve a long-term goal in motivating teachers, especially newer teachers, in that they gain experience of the school-related environment and relevant discussions, which can form a knowledge base for them to use later in doing action research at the institution.

Key points to consider

  • As a new teacher, what resources do you have openly available to you? Have you explored all of these resources carefully enough? Who can you turn to for recommendations on how to extend your knowledge?
  • As an experienced teacher, have you taken such resources for granted, or are there things you can still learn? How might you set up discussions with newer teachers? How might you get them to reflect on what they are reading? Are you keeping up to date with all of the new opportunities and resources that are becoming available?

Suggested resources

A final note

As language teachers, we are involved in a profession that guarantees us more than our fair share of challenges, but also personal growth and joy. This is challenging in the sense that it regularly presents opportunities for growth that we may not be aware of, or ready to take, because of the daily grind of teaching. However, we can also renew out love of the job through professional development opportunities that embrace these challenges and the goal of professional development provides the needed aim of keeping busy teachers motivated and ready to teach classes that always lead to success.

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