It’s been 10 days since I left Japan. I said my goodbyes and lived through that pain, yet there is still a lot to reflect on and share here, things more practical and ELT-related.
I’ll start by blogging the article I wrote in February this year, that is based on the project carried out in my workplace throughout academic year 2018. I have shared two of my articles on this blog before (article on my experience with dialogic journalling and this one about articulating beliefs after just a semester in the job), each time with some changes and cuts. This time I’ll probably go for a rather unedited version the way it got published in the internal EDC journal (also accessible here). The project I’m describing in this paper was my “passion project” I put a lot of heart, thought, time, and reflection into. I’ll reflect on it more at the end of the blog post sharing series, but I’m definitely more than happy to talk about anything I wrote in the comments to each part. That is, if there’s anything that interests you here at all.
With this, here goes Part 1 of 3.
***** INTRODUCTION *****
As Farrell famously pointed out in his article, TESOL is a profession that eats its young (Farrell, 2016). Indeed, research in the field of English language teaching shows that beginning teachers often leave the profession in their first three years of teaching, often due to a lack of appropriate support (Fideler & Haselkorn, 1999; Odell & Ferraro, 1992). Positive and supportive workplace conditions lead to higher morale, stronger commitment to teaching, and intentions to remain in the profession (Weiss, 1999). However, it is not only teachers beginning their careers that need a supportive working environment. In fact, we might look at any EFL teacher’s career as a career of a novice teacher: a new job inevitably poses new challenges, a new context forces instructors to experiment with and master new methods and techniques, a new classroom presents students who are different in every way from those we have taught before. Given the oftentimes precarious nature of this profession, “the support that teachers receive from their fellow professionals is known to be a significant contributor to job satisfaction, professional development and teacher retention” (Kelly & Antonio, 2016, p. 138).
It is not a coincidence that the words “support” and “professional development” can often be seen used next to each other when talking about teaching in particular. In his study of teachers’ perceptions on the effectiveness of continuous professional development (CPD) models, Maggioli (2017) asked the survey respondents how they envisioned their CPD. Overwhelmingly, they requested that it be part of their job and that they would have access to ongoing support systems. Moreover, one of the conditions of truly effective professional development that Maggioli’s research found to be necessary is for it to be organized by teachers in a bottom-up fashion in the community that they teach in. “If teachers come together on their own initiative in order to reflect on their work, they can complement individual members’ strengths, and compensate for each members’ limitations, all for the common good of the group and the institutions in which they work” (Farrell, 2018, p. 154). While support and encouragement from administrators play a significant role especially during the first stages of a new employment, only teachers can help each other understand what really takes place in their classrooms and what their professional learning needs are based on that. Through opportunities to engage in self-directed learning, they can assume responsibility for setting their own goals for self-development and in this way take ownership of it. Professional development of teachers does not have to, and in fact should not, rely entirely on the programs run by employers and institutions.
Additionally, although much teacher development can occur through a teacher’s own personal initiative, collaboration with others both enhances individual learning and serves the collective goals of an institution (Richards & Farrell, 2005). Cooperation becomes a value that can guide the process of teacher development and emphasize the idea that teaching does not have to be a job done in isolation from your peers, within the walls and constraints of your own classroom. Communicating and sharing with other teachers can drive the actual teaching process, bring about creativity, and even reduce work-related stress.
That said, successful collaborative learning cannot be taken for granted and must be carefully planned and monitored (Richards and Farrell, 2005). The premise of this article and the project carried out with the English Discussion Class (EDC) instructors of Rikkyo University is to suggest ways for teachers to take on a more proactive approach towards satisfying their own professional needs, engage in their own self-development, and support others in doing so. It is important to understand that the EDC context is unique in the way professional development is organized and offered to the teachers. The EDC has a comprehensive, well-structured professional development program and training specifically in the first year of employment that continues further on into the following four years. This professional development (PD) program consists of numerous faculty development sessions (FDs) on topics related to the curriculum, observations held with both program managers and fellow teachers, opportunities to do research on areas related to teaching English discussion, amongst others.
After finishing my second year as an EDC instructor, I had enough experience with and knowledge of the PD program to see and appreciate its undeniable benefits. I also realized the (for the most part) top-down nature of this support: in the majority of cases, what my colleagues and I would work on in our PD projects or discuss in the FD sessions, was decided by the program. Also, while program managers unfailingly provide practical assistance to all of the instructors on a daily basis and colleagues are open to communicate with each other about work- related issues in their team rooms, it seemed to me that there was a space for establishing our own self-initiated support systems: teacher development and support that would be organized, planned, and activated for EDC teachers, by EDC teachers.
In order to take on this not inconsiderable task, it felt necessary to better understand the fundamental notion of “support,” a key concept underlying this study that is manifested through cooperative learning. Having the support of others within their profession is known to be critical for a teacher’s development (Kelly & Antonio, 2016), so it is essential to make sense of what characterizes the very term of “support.” In the research on humanity disciplines, social support is often seen as a meta-construct involving several components, including support network resources, supportive interactions, and perceptions/beliefs that one is supported (Vaux & Harrison, 1985). Based on the definition that teacher social support in particular is summarized as interpersonal relations with elements of affect, aid, and affirmation (Kahn & Antonucci, 1980), types of social support can be distinguished as:
1. Emotional support in the form of esteem, affect, trust, concern, and listening;
2. Appraisal support in the form of affirmation, feedback, and social comparison;
3. Informational support in the form of advice, suggestion, directives, and information;
4. Instrumental support in the form of aid in kind, money, labour, and time. (Kelly & Antonio, p. 139)
Social support in the workplace ideally happens in all four types through various forms; some of those forms might be offered as institutionally coordinated and formally organized professional development activities, such as in the case with the PD program in EDC.
In the next section of this paper, I will detail the procedures and rationale for choosing to plan and facilitate three teacher development activities, in which my colleagues would have a chance to take charge of their own professional learning and grow with each other’s help. All three separate projects relied on the spirit of collaboration and were looking to inspire a sense of “togetherness,” because through group activities each individual teacher can feel to some extent empowered (Richards & Farrell, 2005). The exploratory nature of this project was manifested in the modified research questions that had to be restated half-way through. Initially, I set about to experiment with mentoring as a way to provide mutual teacher support. Mentoring, when organized informally, facilitated and sustained cooperatively by the instructors themselves, could prove a valuable support system to rely on for both new and experienced teachers in EDC. However, as the project unfolded and I reflected on its impact on the instructors and my perceived view of its effects of support, I came to a decision to explore other formats of PD activities. By the end of this project, my research questions evolved and were, in their final form, shaped to look as follows:
1. How effective are the self-initiated teacher support activities that were offered in terms of procedures?
2. How effective are the self-initiated teacher support activities that were offered in terms of results?
3. What are the EDC instructors’ perceptions of the self-directed teacher development and support systems?
***** End of Part 1 *****
Thank you for reading, as ever.
Come back for Part 2 soon, in which I actually describe what activities we were doing.