Below is the final part of my long and likely not super exciting article based on the project I carried out with and for my colleagues in 2018. My idea was that teachers don’t need to rely so much on external sources (read: managers, invited guests, conferences, etc.) for their professional development, or passively receive it “delivered” to them in a top-down way. Teachers can and should OWN it, and it’s better done TOGETHER, hence the word support you’d see throughout the text.
In the academic year 2018 I offered my colleagues to take part in (1) creating a mentoring system to support our professional needs; (2) online professional discussions in a Google+ community; (3) face-to-face group discussions on the topics of our choice.
In this post (1/3) you can read about why I undertook this project in the first place, as well as some theoretical reasoning for it.
In this post (2/3) I guide you through the actual project as it happened, from the start till the end, and describe how the activities were organized and set up.
Finally, in the part that follows I look at my colleagues’ feedback and attempt to draw a conclusion, which (as such small-scale projects go) is nothing that couldn’t have been anticipated.
***** REFLECTION *****
From the onset of the project in May 2018, I kept a journal where I noted ideas and my shifting objectives, planned sessions to hold, and reflected on the sessions that were held. In hindsight, the journaling experience benefitted the project in more than one way. Not only could I connect the dots and see the logic of proceeding in a certain way, but I also had access to my changing thinking process and the chance to see how my reflection-on-action at every single stage impacted further decision-making and allowed the project to remain flexible. Additionally, at the end of the academic year I created a comprehensive survey for my colleagues to complete. The survey questions aimed to gather the instructors’ opinions on the effectiveness of the three activities that they had been invited to join on a voluntary basis throughout the year, as well as to collect their general perceptions on the value of self-initiated teacher development and support formats in EDC context and beyond. It was both my personal journal and the results of the survey that informed this reflection and project analysis in general.
The critical learning that took place during the implementation of the project happened because of, or rather thanks to, getting stuck and disoriented in it by the end of the Spring semester while piecing together the effects and results of the mentoring undertaking. Halfway through the term, I already felt slightly discouraged to continue with the project the way I had envisioned it, as it was not truly living up to expectations. Finding help and emotional support in the conversations I held about the project with a manager and a few colleagues, I realized where the feeling of disappointment from irregular participation and only a faint interest expressed by a big percentage of instructors came from. The most troubling aspect of the mentoring was the following dilemma I faced: Am I doing this for others, or am I doing this to satisfy my own needs to be useful? As Clutterbuck (2005) pointed out, “the more the relationship is driven by the mentor’s need to feel useful, the easier it is to overshadow the mentee’s need to achieve independence” (p. 5). This resonated with me in the way that my own need to feel useful and ‘do good’ blurred my understanding of what the real value and goal of mentoring was supposed to be, i.e. coming from the needs of the mentees.
Once I resolved the dilemma in my mind and felt comfortable with a facilitative role – creating opportunities for teachers to interact with mentoring in the ways that would suit them, no commitment, no strings attached to the project itself – it fell back into place and I could see anew what the support project could truly become. Now I accepted that the online document that we were compiling altogether, a database of the instructors willing to position themselves as prospective mentors or mentees, is a valuable resource on its own, and whether to use it or not, whether to reach out for help or not, is ultimately the choice of each individual teacher. The importance of the voluntary, informal nature of mentoring has been noted multiple times during the project by the teachers, and this idea has also been proven true by research. According to Maggioli (2017), “the mentoring relationship is best established through a common agreement between colleagues to work together. Research has shown that forced mentoring relationships do not actually work.”
Later on, the survey results showed that among the reasons for inactive participation in the project was the lack of time, other obligations and commitments, or even a negative experience with mentoring in the past. One instructor shared that mentoring meetings they had taken part in on other occasions had sometimes turned into venting or complaining sessions and the negativity of it left a lasting impression. Such feedback made me even more convinced that in order to implement an efficacious mentoring program, it is important to make sure both mentors and mentees are well-prepared, while mentors are trained and made aware of the competences needed for developing a mutually beneficial relationship. There was also positive commentary about the project, and even instructors who did not actively participate in it shared that having such initiatives was a strength of the department. In fact, 60 percent of the respondents said that informal mentoring might be beneficial for EDC teachers, and 33 percent believed that formally assigning mentors from a pool of volunteers would also be potentially useful. The online Google+ community seemed to be least interesting to the teachers and was thus the least successful part of the projects. While the invitations and multiple reminders to join the conversations in the community were emailed to all of the instructors, only 7 out of over 40 teachers in the program became members (including myself); just a few of those seven were actively engaged in discussions, both by leaving comments and posting new questions. Some of the survey respondents confessed to a lack of experience using this particular social networking platform, a lack of time, a lack of interest (or trust) in online communities, as well as a general preference for face-to-face communication for work-related matters, especially if colleagues share the same building and it is easy to contact each other.
After reading the survey comments, it came as a shock that 65% of the respondents answered that such an online community was possibly useful for EDC instructors. In hindsight, I recognize that one of the important missing stages of introducing this format of support system on my part was the lack of official orientation. It might have helped in attracting members and activity to the community to hold an additional face-to-face session that clearly explained the purpose and potential benefits, as well as to provide the necessary technical support in setting it up on computers and smartphones for ease of use. Participation in a social network requires time, energy, and engagement that only occurs when there is an expectation of return in terms of direct or indirect benefits (Kelly & Antonio, 2016) – so pointing out those benefits and discussing previous experiences with online teacher development communities might have changed the way the instructors reacted to this initiative.
The most effective in terms of the teachers’ engagement and positive feedback were clearly the four discussion group meetings held in the Fall semester. The sessions following the first one had relatively big audiences (12, 9, and 7 instructors respectively) and there was good willingness to discuss and share ideas in each one. As was described in the previous section of this paper, the topics and questions that were generated by the three instructors presented more than enough discussion material for the three sessions that followed.
The survey results showed that an overwhelming majority of 93% of respondents believed that such discussion meetings were valuable, and here are some of their stated reasons:
It was interesting to talk about questions that normally don’t get brought up in our everyday EDC teaching.
It was good to step out and think about things differently.
It was helpful to hear what other teachers are concerned about, it made me feel like there are others like me.
It was interesting to see how different people react to the same issues and what they think of them.
It was good to hear thoughts on what is good or could be improved in EDC. Knowing that many instructors share these thoughts and talking about it helped me deal with some of my job related stress.
In an attempt to interpret such enthusiasm for teacher-led discussions, I included the following question in the survey: Are you satisfied with the amount and quality of professional discussions that you have in this job (in FDs, in team rooms, and beyond)? While many of the respondents mentioned how useful and helpful official FDs are, especially in the first year of employment, and emphasized the value of more casual team room conversations with their peers, there were some comments that, to me at least, explained the need for self-initiated discussions as were provided by the project (shared verbatim):
The official professional development and training sessions are great, but limited because they pertain to our work, which is limited too. The self-initiated discussion groups are very valuable because we can usually be more ‘meta’ about our work and step back from actual teaching or classroom-related training and development session and think more holistically about our experiences.
I would also appreciate support and FDs related to teaching in general (i.e. growing as a teacher). Many of the FDs are focused on how to be a better “EDC teacher”. Although this has many benefits, I also feel that I’ve lost confidence in teaching other skill areas because I haven’t had enough time or opportunities to discuss teaching these skills.
From both the teachers’ honest comments and my own personal experience planning, facilitating, and reflecting on the discussion group meetings, I found the practical evidence of the true value of teacher support groups. Farrell (2018) mentions such advantages of teacher development groups as establishing supportive relationships for its members, creating non- threatening environment conducive for learning and supportive feedback, and offering an opportunity for language teachers to help other teachers face and overcome dilemmas related to their practice – all of these seem to me to be of utmost importance and, in fact, fundamental to a positive, healthy working environment, where teachers feel professionally fulfilled.
Finally, when answering the more general question of which kind of support is desirable in a workplace, the vast majority of respondents gave their votes to receiving practical assistance, advice and guidance, and interestingly, noted the importance of emotional support as well, something I personally value a lot in a workplace and what I think loops back to the benefits of collaborative learning. Among the particular forms of teacher support that are seen as preferable by the EDC teachers, small and big group team room conversations were the top choice, followed by the self-initiated discussion group meetings on the topics of interest, a format that was brought to the instructors’ attention by this project. It was pointed out that there should be more teacher-led discussion groups and that more professional development that is not focused entirely on EDC is valuable.
In this exploratory, year-long project I attempted to introduce a variety of self-directed teacher support systems in addition to the already established institutional PD framework in order to explore the importance and effects of bottom-up teacher development. While the teaching context described in the paper is undoubtedly quite a specific one that offers a plethora of PD activities for its teachers to engage in, it still seems reasonable to draw generic conclusions that educators working in other contexts could take into consideration as well. With however mixed results and successes, the experiment shown in this article served one of its bigger purposes of illustrating the importance of teacher control over their own professional learning. There are many ways in which teachers can take ownership of their own professional development and collaborating with their peers appears to have a positive influence. Most importantly, a deep understanding of the context and its teachers’ needs is crucial in order to plan and offer a variety of activities that would be on demand and would appeal to the needs and interests of many. Even when it might seem that sometimes colleagues are uninterested in or indifferent to professional development activities, by choosing from a range of options they might find their ways to reignite the passion for what makes teaching exciting to them in the first place. That said, having a say in what they choose to do for their own development is a central element of a successful PD story.
1. Clutterbuck, D. (2005). Establishing and Maintaining Mentoring Relationships: An Overview of Mentor and Mentee Competences. SA Journal of Human Resource Management, Vol. 3, No. 3, 2-9.
2. Farrell, Thomas S. C. (2016). TESOL, a Profession that Eats Its Young! The Importance of Reflective Practice in Language Teacher Education. Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research, Vol. 4, No. 3, 97-107.
3. Farrell, Thomas S. C. (2018) Reflective language teaching: Practical applications for TESOL teachers, Second Edition. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
4. Fideler, E. F. & Haselkorn, D. (1999). Learning the ropes: Urban teacher induction programs and practices in the United States. Belmont, MA: Recruiting New Teachers, Inc.
5. Kahn, R. L. & Antonucci, T. C. (1980). Convoys over the life course: Attachment, roles, and social support. Life-span development and behavior.
6. Kelly, N. & Antonio, A. (2016). Teacher Peer Support in Social Network Sites. Teaching and Teacher Education, 56, 138-149.
7. Diaz Maggioli, G. (2017). Empowering Teachers through Continuous Professional Development: Frameworks, Practices and Promises. In Pattison, T. (Ed.). IATEFL 2017: Glasgow Conference Selections, 3—30. Canterbury, UK: International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL).
8. Odell, S. J. & Ferraro, D. P. (1992). Teacher Mentoring and Teacher Retention. Journal of Teacher Education, Vol. 43, No. 3, 200-204.
9. Richards, Jack C. & Farrell, Thomas S. C. (2005). Professional development for language teachers: Strategies for teacher learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
10. Vaux, A. & Harrison, D. (1985). Support Network Characteristics Associated with Support Satisfaction and Perceived Support. American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 13, No. 3, 245 – 268.
11. Weiss, E. M. (1999). Perceived Workplace Conditions and First-year Teachers’ Morale, Career Choice Commitment, and Planned Retention: A Secondary Analysis. Teaching and Teacher Education, Vol. 15, 861-879.
I’m glad if you made it all the way here.
Admittedly, the three recent posts that make up the whole of my article are not an easy read in the way that they are different from the way I’d usually write on this blog… But then again, it’s an article I wrote for a publication. I had to use more words and longer sentences than was necessary, I had to spell out the obvious, and I had to choose my words to sound as neutral and down-to-business as possible. I dislike writing this way, but I hope I did my best to be honest and remain true to myself. What made writing this article more manageable for me was the fact that I was genuinely invested in this project the whole time. It is this project that made me realize just what it is I want to be more focused on in the future…
Thank you for reading.