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.

Searching the Cambridge CELTA syllabus for ‘culture’, I discover the following.

Unit 1 – Learners and teachers and the teaching and learning context

1.1 Cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds

Demonstrate an understanding of the range of backgrounds and experiences that adult learners bring to their classes

A quick scoot around the Trinity CertTESOL site yields similar results….

Learning objectives

Successful trainees will be able to demonstrate the following on completion of the course:

b. awareness of the learning needs of individuals or groups of learners, and of the motivation of learners in a variety of cultures and environments

These organisations are the prominent international providers of entry level TEFL qualifications, and many of the trainees on these courses will go on to their first teaching jobs after receiving their certificates. A fairly large number, I would predict, would be NEST’s , and a lot of them would be going on to their first extended forays into foreign cultures.

I am at the preliminary stages of work on a paper at the moment, and I wonder if I could draw on the expertise of teacher trainers and trainees out there. Some questions, to help me get a feel for the topic.

  1. If you train NESTs on either the Cambridge or Trinity certificate, how do you interpret the excerpts reproduced above? What kind of input sessions do you give on ‘culture’, and how do you assess whether trainees have gained cultural understanding?
  2. It would appear, from the syllabi, that cross-cultural training focuses on what happens in the classroom. How well are trainees prepared for life / work abroad? (Or is that beyond the remit of a four-week course)?
  3. If you are a NEST who has taken an initial training course before travelling to a teaching job abroad, did you feel sufficiently well prepared?

These questions are very broad but any feedback is welcome. If you would like to answer but would rather not respond in a public forum, please feel free to contact me directly at darrenrelliott@gmail.com. Any response will be confidential and identities will be protected. If you want to forward this to colleagues who are not active in the blogosphere, please do so.

Thanks in advance and your help is much appreciated!

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.

An Interview with Angela Buckingham from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Today I talked to textbook writer, teacher and teacher trainer Angela Buckingham about how she got into textbook writing, why the characters in her books are non-native speakers, the differences between certificate and diploma trainee teachers and working with asylum seekers in the UK Further Education context. She was great company and didn’t even mind too much when I asked her to hold up two of her textbooks to camera, and she had plenty more of interest to add after the cut. Charles, by the way, is our local OUP rep who is busy guiding her around the area. He’s a pretty good sport too!