An Interview with David Hayes from darren elliott on Vimeo.

In February of this year I was fortunate enough to visit Kathmandu for the NELTA conference. As an outsider and an observer I felt the conference itself had a very interesting dynamic. It seemed to me that as the local organisers and the foreign developmental agencies seemed to respectfully dance around each other, trying to balance financial support, advice and autonomy. In that kind of situation it can be awkward for a foreign presenter to be parachuted in – feted as an ‘expert’ yet with little understanding of the local context. Overall, I think the outside agencies try their very hardest to offer support without overpowering the recipients of that support, but I don’t know …. I’d be interested to read your comments on the topic below, or even in a private message if it’s too delicate to discuss.

However, in David Hayes, I think the organisers identified someone who could offer insights to his audience. David has worked all over the world and been involved in teacher development projects in many different contexts. We talk about some of them here, as well as teacher training and development in general.

The next NELTA conference will take place in March 2016. Sadly, there are still many people who need support after the devastating earthquake of 2015. At the time of the earthquake there were a number of Nepali-led local groups who were very active. As the relief efforts have become less urgent some of these have wound down, but if you would like to support the reconstruction there is still a lot to be done. For long term benefits, Room to Read has a strong programme in Nepal. If you know of any other small but effective charities, please comment below.

An Interview with Thomas Farrell from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Reflective practice is a way for professionals (in education, social work, medicine and many other fields) to assess their work and manage their own development. Even if you don’t know it by name you may well have engaged in a form of reflective practice in formal or informal training programmes. In this interview we discussed reflective practice, what it is, what it isn’t, and where it’s going.

I’ve done quite a lot of these interviews now, and everyone I have spoken to has been gracious and thoughtful. Some of the interviewees I knew little about before I spoke to them but in preparing for, and then conducting, the interview I have become interested in their work. On the other hand, Thomas Farrell is someone whose work I have been interested in for a long time. What would he be like in real life, I wondered? I enjoyed a long conversation with the charming Dr. Farrell at the JALT conference in Tsukuba, Japan last autumn. Both his plenary and his workshop demonstrated that academics do not have to be dry to be rigorous.

Dr. Farrell hosts an excellent website, where you can read more of his work. If you are looking for a book to start with, I think ‘Reflective Language Teaching: From Research to Practice’ published by Continuum is a very accessible introduction. His latest book is on my list when the next budget allocation arrives in April….

If you enjoy this interview please share it with your colleagues. You can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

a class with no teacher from darren elliott on Vimeo.

I don’t blog about my classroom practice as often as I used to, but I still have a great interest in reflective practice. One difficulty in maintaining meaningful reflection is that your reflective needs change over time. A worthwhile exercise, then, is to revisit past practice. I have a blog, and a stack of notebooks from several years in the classroom. I like to look at what I’ve done and see how it fits with my current practice. How would I do this differently now? Have I changed, and if so have I changed for the better? Does this connect to anything I have read, seen or experienced since it happened?

I’m trying to piece together the genesis of this piece. About five years ago, I had a lovely class who I thought could do even better. To shake things up, I decided to opt out of my responsibilities for a week, and the blog post I wrote about that (and more importantly, the second post about the students interpretations of the experiment) generated a lot of discussion. A little after that I reviewed a book called ‘The Developing Language Learner‘, a book which made a tremendous impact on me. When I was involved in planning the PanSIG conference in 2013, I was keen to bring Judith Hanks, one of the authors, to Japan as a speaker.

This video is my presentation for the joint TED / CUE forum at JALT 2015 (if you don’t know the acronyms, don’t worry… I’m too far gone to pick them apart here). I always enjoy these events because you can see so many different ideas around a theme, but I particularly wanted to attend this forum because it was to be chaired by Thomas Farrell, someone whose work I have admired for a long time. The conceit was to present ten slides for thirty seconds each, but I just made a five minute movie and narrated it live.

I can now reframe what happened in this class through my subsequent reading into Exploratory Practice and Reflective Practice. As an experiment, I don’t think I’d be able to do this now. What is really interesting is to see myself as a younger teacher, and not necessarily a worse one. I’m very satisfied with my teaching these days, and that’s not good. Maybe I was a little less slick and a little less polished in those days, with a little less book learning, but I was probably a little more daring and possibly a little more engaged. Time to shake things up again?

 

I spoke to Dr. Folse at the 2013 JALT conference shortly after a very engaging plenary. We discussed writing and vocabulary, teacher development, and his extensive experience of both teaching and learning languages around the world. You can read more about Dr. Folse and his work at his own website. This interview is audio only.

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There are more interviews to follow, and if you like this please visit the archive for more. You can subscribe via iTunes, and I would appreciate reviews there if you have time. You can also find us on Facebook and twitter.

If you were at the event on Sunday and are coming to look for the supplements on my presentation about digital video, please hold tight! I’m hoping to upload the checklist, some activities, worksheets, link, videos and a bibliography in the next couple of days. While you are here, if this is your first visit, have a look around! This might be a good place to start ; D

In the meantime, I just want to say what a pleasure it was to attend such a great little conference, and the evening pecha kuchas were amzing – the first session in the world to be held in a karaoke box? It’s great to see people getting together and organising these events (I wish I’d been able to attend the equinox too, which appears to have been a series of absolute belters)

Big shouts to @chucksandy @lesleyito @GifuStocks @m_yam @StevenHerder @barbsaka and all the other great non-tweeters who will hopefully become tweeters soon!

I’m not talking about how to get a laugh (although it’s always a pleasure). No, but I’ve been listening to some great interviews with comedians recently, and what struck me was the way in which they talk about honing their craft, succeeding, failing and getting better. They could easily be talking about teaching. I particularly recommend this series of interviews from Marsha Shandur.

A few quotes.

“It takes ages to learn how to do stand-up, because you can only practice on stage…you can try to imagine it, and write it, but the business of getting your stage legs takes ages.”

Dan Antolpolksi

“You can’t fake talent, but you can gain experience. You just can’t fake those first thousand gigs. You have to do ’em. ….and then after that you start to become more like you are off-stage than on ”

Russell Kane

This came up time and again, through all the interviews, along with the idea that the first few gigs were great and then things suddenly came crashing down. We can find exactly the same ideas in the literature surrounding teachers’ career pathways; expertise is transitory, one can reach a plateau, or start to go backwards. Like teachers, most of the comedians talk about their work as a craft, something which needs to be polished and developed through practice, yet the craft can only be practised through the act itself… something which takes a thick skin and enormous self-confidence.

“If I’m playing the wrong crowd now I can go to absolute silence, whereas other times… a sort of hysteria is created in the room.”

Stuart Lee

Even an acclaimed, successful and talented comedian can fall flat on his face from time to time – and it might not even be his fault. He may simply have taken the wrong gig. Teachers, too, may occasionally come up against a class with which they can do nothing right.

Another common theme is diversification. Comedians seem to come to comedy from all over the place, and once they get there take on any number of roles to make a living. I get the sense that, as with EFL teachers, comedians change things up because they have to and because they like to. In my own research I found many instances of teachers who had chucked it all in to move to a new school, a new country, a new ‘gig’… to keep things fresh. Clearly ELT is an unstable career, change is often forced upon teachers who have to follow the work with the students and the seasons. I wish that there were more security, and I could plan my life with a little more certainty. But I think many of us secretly like it that unpredictability too.

So, what we can learn from stand-up comedians is that professional development is not unique to teaching. That those professionals who reach a level of succcess in their careers (and I am not talking about the superstars, but just those who make a decent living, do what they do well, and find happiness – my definition of professional success), have something in common. Confidence in their own ability, resilience in the face of knockbacks, flexibility, and a love of the job.

A final word from Dan Antolposki….

About a week ago I wrote about an experiment in silence with a class, and promised to come back with a report on the students’ reactions. It really was quite enlightening. This is what we all learnt.

1. A particular result may not mean what you think it means
Looking back through the many comments on my previous post (which was one of the most commented upon I have posted) it is interesting to see that we, as teachers, slightly misread the whole situation. As professionals, committed to our students, caring about them deeply, we all assumed that the end result (constant discussion in L1) springs from the joy of freedom, the taking up of responsibility and other positive emotions. Actually, according to the students, they were terrified.

“We actually thought that you were angry at us and abandoned us because we use too much Japanese in class.”

“I took it for granted that you were angry and you didn’t want to give our class.”

I don’t know where this leaves Krashen. Despite the cause being the negative emotion of fear, the result was very positive.

“To do task without your help was difficult for me. However, I were able to hear much English. And I could speak more in English than usual!”

“…if we have no teachers, we must think how we should study. However,this situation is very important to us too I think. Actually we try to look for the answer more harder than usual. I spoke in English more ,moreover I heared more opinions of them than usual. Though we had much difficulties, it was very interesting to me.”

Of course, anyone who has met me in real life will find this fear highly amusing. Teaching teenagers we do sometimes need to wield a big stick. However, I don’t want this to be the dominant motivating force in my classroom, which leads us onto our next point.

2. Although mystery can be effective, we must ultimately provide transparency

When the students realised what I was trying to do, they were very happy. This was a vital step in the experiment – revealing the mystery.

“But I read your comment , you tried to see our class from all kinds of directions.”

“After reading this article, I noticed you care about us more than I expected. So I’m happy that you are our teacher!”

“We were so puzzled! Me, K., M.,and M. were discussing about ゙what’s happening!?゙ through out the whole class.
K. and I were even talking about it the rest of the day!”

So had I left the class cold, with no feedback or no discussion of what had happened, the positives of confusion may have caused longer-term damage to the rapport we have been building. I kept the next class very light, and the students kept up their good habits from the previous class.

3. Perceived teacher beliefs do not always reflect actual classroom practice

If you had asked me before this class if I believed in learner autonomy and a hands-off teaching approach, I would have given you an emphatic yes. But what I was actually doing in the class belied this. It was only by removing myself completely from the lesson that I could see how students had been relying on me to prompt them, feed them and cajole them into using the language. In the last week, I have given many of my classes similar opportunities and they have all surprised me by speaking fluently in English for as longer than I expected.  Had I been unwittingly restricting learner autonomy by doing too much, by jumping in too soon, by shutting down an activity simply because I was ready to go on to the next one?

This is why I think reflective practice has never been done properly in mainstream ELT literature. The questions we are prompted to ask ourselves are always the same, and we end up giving the answers we think we should. What was good and bad about that lesson? Why did that activity succeed or fail? We will never really know unless we break the mirror and try to rearrange the pieces.

An invitation to experiment, then. This weekends homework – choose a class and do something you never usually do. Then report back and tell us how it went and what it revealed.

Two workshop prezis from JALTCALL 2010 at Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan, May 29th – 30th 2010.

Parallel Learning: How online teacher development informs classroom practice

Video blogging and Podcasting: Interviews with English Language Teaching Professionals

As you can imagine, there is a fair bit of overlap between the two sessions, so I chose to use the ‘flavour of the month’ presentation tool to make one big slide with two different pathways. It was really fun mapping it out… I am not sure if it helps me think differently, in a less linear fashion, or if it just panders to the mind’s natural inclination towards multiplicity. But this is my first paper run through….

Anyway, I am not sure whether it is such a bad thing to have ones thoughts marshalled into straight lines by PowerPoint or Keynote. Something about Prezi does scream ‘Big Fat Gimmick!’, but let’s enjoy the whizz bang fireworks while they last.

Because I hate decontextualised slides so much (one of the greatest dangers to academic discourse today, I’ll venture, is the proliferation of mute online slideshows, stripped of the only thing which gives them a life) I have recorded a run through with commentary so you know what all the pictures mean. It’s forty minutes condensed into twenty, so it’s both too long to watch online and not long enough to make any sense. Apologies for the mumble, everyone else is asleep and I really ought to be myself.

Parallel Learning: How online teacher development informs classroom practice from darren elliott on Vimeo.

I made this using iShowU HD, which works very nicely. Screentoaster also seems good, but a bit more obtrusive.

If you were at either of the sessions in Kyoto, thanks! Questions or comments are very welcome.

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?

(Footnotes)

* Although even this can be approached in a more self-directed fashion. A nice link here with Tessa Woodward, too – the unplugged CELTA concept has a flavour of loop input to me.

** 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.

Two days after I first arrived in Japan, on my first day of a week-long training period, I was awarded the title sensei. You are probably familiar with the word, which is usually loosely translated as teacher in English. In Japanese, it can be used to refer to any professional or expert in a particular field. A doctor, an artist, a poet, all can be a sensei. So, what made me a sensei? My passport, my eye colour? In a private Japanese language school, basically, yes. Having said that, there were some fine teachers there – they were kind, friendly, smart… and with no official teaching qualifications whatsoever they were able to help their students learn.

When I returned to the UK, I was qualified to teach at a university thanks to my CELTA certificate. This time, I had colleagues who were not native-speakers of English. Of course, English Language instructors are not necessaily afforded the same wages and conditions as teachers in other university departments… people who have never studied teaching at all, not even for four weeks.  A historian, for example, just has to demonstrate that they know a lot about their subject. They are not required to prove they can teach it. So a teacher has to have subject knowledge to be considered a true professional?

Now I am in the higher education system in Japan, and the entry level qualification is a masters degree. It used to be unimportant what that degree was in, but now more and more schools expect it to be in English, Applied Linguistics or a related field. Competition is such that a doctorate is increasingly useful, and it is expected that teachers publish and present fairly regularly. A DELTA, whilst handy, is not well recognised. In order to call oneself a teacher, then, research is a high priority.

I don’t know enough about the UK Further Education sector, but from what I can gather there are an incredible number of hoops to jump through in order to qualify. Every ESOL teacher I have ever met, as well as being very nice, has also been in the middle of some nationally standardised training course or another. Perhaps standardisation is the key. We need to be sure that our teachers can fit into a qualification structure?

So what gives someone the right to call themselves a teacher? Because the last one was so much fun, I’ve made a poll… but this time you can vote for as many as you like. The real game is in the comments box though, so get stuck in! I’d also like to know what you have to do to be called a teacher where you are.

(By the way, I never worked at the school advertising above! My company employed teachers of all races, as long as they were native English speakers, or proficient Japanese speakers of English. Click on the picture to read more about the dodgier side of the industry)