It really isn’t that hard to learn how to teach. Or should I say, a teacher can be trained to stand in a classroom without making an absolute idiot of themselves within about a week, from a standing start. For something which is only actually relevant for a very small proportion of a teacher’s career, training seems to generate a disproportionate amount of discussion. The pre-service teacher or the teacher spending the first few months in the classroom needs to be drilled in ‘the fundamentals’*, but beyond that the teacher is largely in need of development rather than training **. Guidance or mentoring from senior staff, advice and hints from colleagues in the staff room, encouragement from peers in formal or informal communities – development rarely takes place alone, but it is often initiated and directed alone. After the first year or two this often becomes a practical necessity, but I suspect is also what most of us prefer.
As so many of us plan our own professional pathways, we need to know what we are aiming at. Something of which we are infrequently reminded is that we will stumble off the path on a fairly regular basis. Teachers fail. For example.
A new class is misjudged early in the course and the teacher gets stuck in a cycle of student demotivation.
A teacher changes context (new institution, new country, new…) and finds his or her hard-won expertise meaningless.
After attempting to implement too many innovations, a teacher burns out with exhaustion.
Many longitudinal studies by mainstream education specialists and sociologists have followed teachers to identify developmental patterns and life cycles. ELT has its own too, notably Rose Senior’s “The Experience of Language Teaching“. This blog has been up for nine months now, and I have been promising a review of the book after which it is named – Michael Huberman’s “The Lives of Teachers“, a study of 160 secondary school teachers in Switzerland. If you were at IATEFL 2010 you will know that Tessa Woodward has done the job for me. If you weren’t, or you missed the plenary, or something, you really ought to watch it here.
What I particularly like about Huberman’s study is its recognition of failed outcomes, dead ends and dangerous trajectories. Self-doubt, personal crisis, lassitude, disenchantment, apathy… all possible or even likely stages in the life of a teacher. Stability can be rewarded with stagnation, rather than harmony and satisfaction. Expertise is not a permanent state, and teachers can easily slip back to previous stages of development. Everyone ends in disengagement. If you are lucky, it is serene. If not, bitter.
These are not the little failures of the novice who forgets to set up a listening, or speaks too quickly, or doesn’t know how to field an unexpected question. After a time (and given a full teaching schedule) such mechanical issues are resolved and many of the processes of teaching become automatised. If they don’t, this may spark a crisis, not uncommon after the first two years of teaching. In ELT the teacher/tourist may quit before reaching either proficiency or crisis – without, even, the concepts crossing his or her mind….
For those who continue in the profession, and reach a certain level of expertise, the next danger area is in the eight to ten year bracket. Stagnation, exhaustion or a full-blown existential crisis are all possibilities. The potential stimuli for difficult periods change as one goes through life as a teacher, but are always there.
If you are new to the profession, or in a sticky patch at the moment, I apologise. But this post is not supposed to be a negative one (or a patronising one). My point (via Huberman) is that by accepting the inevitability of difficulties, by being aware of the danger zones in the career cycle and how particular vulnerabilities manifest themselves, we have a far greater chance of reducing their impact, getting through them more quickly, and perhaps (just perhaps) avoiding them altogether.
“The teacher who had not experienced one or more difficult periods in his career was very rare…. In effect, the ‘fickle’ nature (of triggers) meant that teaching moments of exhilaration are just as fragile and ephemeral as moments of distress…. ” (p. 257)
Or shall we say, the distress is just as ephemeral as the exhilaration?
** This refers largely to EFL or ESL teachers, who I believe are largely responsible for their own development from the very beginning – financially and practically. If we consider postgraduate degrees or diplomas to be formalised development rather than training, then I can only count five weeks of training in ten years of my own career. However, I would be interested to hear from UK ESOL, which I understand to have a much more standardised system as part of mainstream education. I would also love to know about training programmes in larger institutions such as International House and the British Council.