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Self-initiated Teacher Support: Owning Your Professional Development. Mentoring, Google+, discussion groups. (2/3)

Below is part two, Discussion, of my article on self-directed teacher support systems. You can read part one, Introduction, in this post here.

***** DISCUSSION *****

At the beginning of the academic year 2018-19, I chose mentoring to be the sole focus of my professional development project and exploratory research. The idea came from my own increased interest in offering support to other teachers, learning more about mentoring, and in general “giving” as opposed to “taking” in my profession. I had planned for the project to revolve around establishing and sustaining mentoring relationships among instructors within EDC. I was interested in offering support to other teachers’ professional needs myself and was also keen to promote the development of such relationships by teachers amongst themselves, on a voluntary basis, guided and inspired by the idea that “relationships are a major source of learning” (Clutterbuck, 2005, p. 2).

After reading professional literature on the use and potential of mentoring in both English language teaching and other fields, I came up with the structure of the project to be followed in the Spring semester. This included facilitating monthly meetings, each focusing on certain aspects related to developing possible mentoring relationships among EDC instructors, and creating a shared online document as a database of potential mentors and mentees within the program. I had planned to re-assess the value of the project and the level of interest of participants towards the end of the term in order to make changes for the Fall semester.

The first meeting aimed to gauge the participants’ initial interest in the topic of mentoring. Sixteen teachers attended the session, and in small groups they shared their previous experience of being in a mentoring relationship, either in the role of the mentee or a mentor. The questions guiding their discussions included specific organizational aspects of those relationships, the goal statement, communication patterns, and so on. Also the participants were asked to give their assessment to the benefits, successes, and any problems that arose in the process. Finally, all instructors worked together to map out the characteristic qualities of both mentors and mentees, based on their own experiences and the stories they heard, as well as the features of the mentoring relationship itself. Mentors were described using the words “insight, guidance, comfort, nurturing, willingness, character, inspiring confidence, encouraging reflection, willing to share and listen,” while mentees were identified as “eager to improve and listen, in need of something, desiring support, being less experienced in a specific context, feeling insecure.” An interesting point that came to my attention before the meeting during the planning process and that was brought about by some of the teachers in the session, regarded the potentially uncomfortable terminology of defining two members of the relationship as “mentor” (seen as superior) and “mentee” (seen as a novice). This distinction coming from the words themselves could create a power imbalance that some might feel uneasy about. Peer mentoring, vis-à-vis a “buddy system,” sounded less threatening and discouraging.

When describing mentoring as a relationship, Clutterbuck (2005) details five main phases that characterize it: rapport building, direction setting, progress making, winding down, and moving on to professional friendship. For me as a facilitator of the meetings, which as I was hoping might cultivate some supportive relationships between the colleagues, it seemed important to allot some time to rapport building. My colleagues agreed that even though teachers in our program spend a lot of time together in the team rooms, faculty development sessions, and even spend some time socializing with one another after working hours, there is still a lot we do not know about our respective professional backgrounds. In order for the mentor-mentee combination to work and progress, it is essential to share the appropriate balance of similarity and dissimilarity, which is manifested as an experience gap that provides opportunities for learning (Clutterbuck, 2005). It was with the purpose to identify those experiences and match them with the gaps that the second meeting was planned.

In the second meeting, teachers noted down and then shared with each other the complete stories of their professional journeys, including education, qualifications, jobs, major professional interests and achievements. As a result of this session, we collaboratively decided to create a digital resource that would contain information from and about teachers of the program who would be potentially interested in becoming either a mentor or a mentee. A shared Google document, accessible only to the EDC instructors and managers and called “EDC Support Network,” is open to edits and at the moment of writing this article comprises information about nine instructors, detailing their professional backgrounds and interests. Most importantly, in the document the teachers identified their strengths (i.e. areas they can help with and offer support for others) and their needs (i.e. areas they feel the need to receive support in from others). Specific examples mentioned were assistance with improving writing skills for papers and research projects, preparing conference presentations, guidance on carrying distance MA programs, e-learning and technology in the classroom support, EDC lesson support for less experienced instructors, as well as broader aspects that cover life of a teacher in Japan in general, such as strategies for learning Japanese, possible career paths for long-term expats in Japan, connecting to professional organizations, etc.

The third and fourth meetings, held later in the term, were poorly attended in comparison with the first two (four and three people, respectively), and it seemed to me that the interest of instructors in finding use in the project had waned. That somewhat affected the plans for the meetings. I had prepared to discuss the practicalities of organizing the relationships, such as deciding together when, where, and how to communicate, the importance of setting the purpose of the relationship and goals to be achieved, in order to give potential collaborations a head start. Instead of this practical approach, participants and I discussed possible ways to move on with the project with a more hands-off engagement on my part, improving the online document structure and presentation, providing more freedom for the instructors to follow up on the mentoring chances on their own.

In the final, fourth meeting, some skills and competences of an effective mentor were brought in to be discussed and reflected upon by those of the instructors who might be interested in learning more about becoming such a mentor. Self-awareness and behavioural awareness, a high level of emotional intelligence, the ability to pose the right questions and to listen rather than talk were mentioned among the skills and competences that might require specific training and practice over time. This meeting concluded the semester-long project and an email was sent out to all instructors, with a reminder that the Support Network document exists online (last updated on October 16th, 2018), it is open for adding information at any time, and it can be used by instructors to find support on various professional matters from colleagues within the EDC program. Upon reflection, I realized that the project needed a major shift of focus. It was clear to me that mentoring, organized informally in the way that was suggested and driven exclusively with the energy of those few instructors who expressed desire to be mentors, did not necessarily offer an alternative format of self-directed PD to all of the teachers, a format that would be attractive and suitable for their varying personalities and needs. A decision was made to broaden the scale of the project towards a bigger view of what might constitute self-initiated teacher support in EDC, taking into account the already existing complex system of faculty development sessions and professional development projects mandatory for all instructors.

Given the need to make some adjustments, what used to be the “mentoring project” expanded into a larger umbrella of the “teacher support project.” The project was planned to include two more forms of teacher development to be tested out in the Fall term, namely an online community, open to all instructors to join and create discussion threads on the topics of their interest or concern; and offline discussion group meetings. The major goal that concerned me now became to investigate which of the three distinct teacher-led support activities would be seen as more valuable and desirable as an additional form of professional development in our quite specific teaching context.

The online community called “EDC Teacher Support Community” was set up using the Google+ Communities feature in October 2018. The access to the posts is only available by invitation and was created on Google+ platform because all of the instructors already have a Google account provided by the university, which means that there is no need to reach to an external network and go through the process of setting up a new account. The purpose of this online community was to provide an extra space for EDC instructors to talk about teaching outside of the workplace and to support each other. Moreover, the online, asynchronous communication aspect could potentially lead to increased participation levels, especially if it could appeal to those teachers busy with assignments during their working hours and/or technologically-savvy colleagues.

A few emails were sent throughout the Fall term informing the teachers of this space being open for communication and sharing, explaining how to access the community, and encouraging to take part and initiate their own discussions on the themes related to teaching. Some of the discussion threads existing in the Google+ community included posts on such themes as challenges and successes in and outside the classroom, sharing useful links with resources for online PD courses, and exploring teacher identity reflecting on the questions, “Why did you become a teacher? How does it feel being an EDC teacher?” At the time of writing this article, the Google+ community consists of seven members, less than half of them having been active with posts and engaging in comments with others at the time of the project (October – December 2018).

Finally, one other form of teacher-initiated PD activity offered was discussion group meetings, held monthly for about an hour during working hours. In professional literature, such a form of teacher development is well researched and described under the terms of teacher development groups or teacher support groups (Farrell, 2018; Richards & Farrell, 2005) as a common, valuable type of collaborative reflective practice. Richards & Farrell (2005) mention a number of benefits to be obtained through participating in a teacher support group, such as greater awareness, increased motivation, effective teaching, benefits to students, empowerment, and facilitating teacher initiatives. Most importantly, since teacher support groups are created and managed by teachers, they provide an invaluable opportunity for educators to truly own their professional development: “Teacher development groups facilitate dialogue, sharing and collaboration, and the exchange of resources, information, and expertise” (Farrell, 2018, p. 154). With this in mind, it seemed plausible that such a format might look attractive to a wide range of instructors who could see a chance to engage with their professional learning more directly.

The aim of the first discussion group meeting was to brainstorm the aspects of teaching that would later become the basis for future discussions, a needs analysis of sorts. The participants (of which there were only three, including myself), made notes and then shared the answers to the following questions:

1. What do we talk about in the faculty development sessions?

2. What do we talk about with colleagues outside of FDs?

3. What do you feel we do NOT talk about with one another in EDC?

4. What would you like to talk about in these discussion group meetings?

As a result of this activity and a fruitful discussion that followed it, over 20 specific themes and questions emerged that the group members felt keen on exploring with other instructors in self-facilitated discussions. The topics ranged from ones specific to our context (i.e. sharing experiences writing class comments for students, the lifestyle impact of this job, and sustaining teacher motivation in the context of a strongly unified curriculum) to farther-reaching issues of teacher identity, the life cycle of a teacher, technology in education, ELT theories and research ideas, and the long-term effects of teaching a limited set of skills. An email detailing all of the brainstormed questions and issues was sent out to all teachers of the program, and this same list of topics served as a springboard for three more discussion group meetings till the end of the school year.

This next section of the paper will focus on both my own personal reflections on the results of the project activities and the results of an extensive survey carried out among instructors at the end of the academic year. This survey sought to canvass opinions about each format of teacher support activities in particular, as well as the general view of teacher support types and formats in a workplace.

*****

Reading this again now, I chuckled at the use of Google+ (RIP).

 

Thank you for reading, and I hope you come back for Part 3 of this, the Reflection.

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Self-initiated Teacher Support: Owning Your Professional Development (1/3)

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.

Dialogic reflective journaling as a way to see more

Recently, I’ve let my blog be another avenue for publishing the articles I write as part of obligatory semester projects at my workplace. Last summer the article had to do with me examining and articulating my teacher beliefs. In the winter I blogged in two installments (notes in part 1 and questions in part 2) what later transformed into a solid article on my dialogic journaling experience last fall. Here I want to leave this *slightly cropped* piece of written reflection. It is something that reads a lot more formal than the blogging me, but hopefully my voice can still be heard through the unnecessarily flowery language.

Enjoy, if you can (it’s long).

*****

Engaging in reflective practice for professional development through different means and especially by keeping a written account of my teaching has been an area of the utmost interest for me for over four years. For this reason I was enthusiastic about the prospect of continuous focused journalling during my second term as an instructor for English discussion class. The initial idea for this reflection project was threefold: (1) act on the goals I set for myself at the end of the first semester in the program; (2) experiment with a new format of reflective journaling; and (3) the primary goal of this project, i.e. observe students’ classroom behaviour and/or performance, analyze it, and initiate changes accordingly. Firstly, it is important to comment on my intention to act on my personal goals, stated at the end of the first semester corresponding to my teaching beliefs. Those goals included finding opportunities for a more reflective dialogue both with and among students, experimenting with micro-writing activities in class, giving individual students more focused attention, and above all, working to nurture a positive, friendly, and supportive classroom community. After meeting the thirteen groups of students that I was assigned to teach in the fall semester, I quickly came to identify the class that would become the subject of my journaling based on Thomas Farrell’s idea of critical incidents. According to him, one of the purposes of reflection in English language teaching is to explore and examine critical incidents, which pose “a particular anomaly for a teacher <…> and can cause teachers to perceive dissonance between their beliefs and theories and actual practice.” (Farrell 2016, p.102) One particular group of eight students from the very first lesson together posed what I perceived as multiple “issues” that would make it challenging for me to feel comfortable teaching this group. The main areas of concern that I noted down after Lesson 1 of the course compiled the following list: group dynamic, low proficiency level, low motivation, lack of active response to teacher instructions (and to the teacher in general), students’ reluctance to engage in communication with each other either in Japanese or in English, etc. The class appeared to be a rare accumulation of potential critical incidents that would indeed occur repeatedly throughout the term on a regular basis, thus making it a critical case in and of itself. It seemed like a suitable occasion to meaningfully apply my goals stated above, bearing in mind the priority of nurturing a classroom community that would ensure mutual support and understanding, a community responsive to each other and to the teacher. However, after the first few classes another potential problem surfaced for me: I was overwhelmed by too many issues that I wanted to “fix.” In a sense, that meant no obvious, clearly-stated observation goal regarding lesson stages or students’ performance in specific tasks. It was important to simply thoroughly document as many interactions happening in class as possible, both among students and with me as a teacher, in order to observe closely and facilitate as possible the process of establishing the rapport.

As for the format, having had a substantial experience keeping reflective journals in both online and traditional pen-and-paper versions, I was looking for a more demanding and interactive way of reflecting. I chose to experiment with dialogic journal writing, which as a type of collaborative reflection serves a means of further challenging the teacher’s thinking and reflective enquiry (Farrell, 2007). It is worth remembering that reflective practice, as defined by Thomas Farrell, is a process in which teachers not only systematically take notes of their classroom observations, but also “while engaging in dialogue with others, use the data to make informed decisions about their practice” (Farrell, 2015, p.123). Collaborative journal writing due to its two-sided nature enhances the reflector’s experience and broadens the understanding of observed classroom situations. In addition to writing regular personal entries about my class, I invited a colleague to act as my journal companion, who would read the entries and pose questions to help analyze the practice and even trigger some insights to further impact my choices both in lesson planning and teaching. Another idea critical to my decision to have a “second pair of eyes” in this project is the research evidence that data obtained from journal entries serve mostly as a reflection of what the person journalling perceives as being important (Mercer 2005-6, p. 67). Following this idea, the involvement of third party – my colleague – could enrich the reflection by clarifying my own perspective.

The structure of my journal remained consistent through Lessons 3 to 12 of the course and was shaped by my previous experience of reflective practice using a variation of the Experiential Learning Cycle, which asks the reflecting teacher to describe the event, theorize about its causes, and make an action plan. First of all, observations of every lesson were noted in-action during class time. They were later transferred to an online document under the following sub-categories:

  • What happened in class? (factual detailed descriptions of the events in class)
  • How did we feel about it? (notes on the emotional characteristics of the lesson, speculations about students’ emotional response to critical incidents)
  • What does all that mean? (hypothesising about the reasons for certain behaviour resulting in observed critical incidents and general critical tendencies)
  • What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on the observations, interpretation and analysis of this class)

Finally, my journal partner would read the entry information and leave 3-5 questions on average, all of which would be related to the events that I described, to my emotional perception of the class, offering with his questions new angles of considering the issues.

DISCUSSION

In the second week of the course, the students’ performance coupled with the general feel of the learning environment raised a number of issues that both constituted and blurred the focus of observations. While I would like to focus this article on my attempts to remedy three major problems that the students encountered (namely, the use of Japanese, persistent confusion, and difficulties building rapport), it is worth mentioning that the initial list of challenges I found myself faced with was quite substantial. Based on the overwhelming quantity of various challenges that the class presented, in week 3 of the course I came up with a preliminary list of ways to employ in order to fix these issues: help students in discussion time as needed; reduce student speaking time for fluency activity; reduce instructional teacher talking time to a minimum; focus on the communication skills, specifically on checking understanding and negotiating the meaning; be firm about Japanese use; proceed at a slower pace than usual.

As the course progressed, at different times there arose opportunities to implement this or that measure from the list, however it proved impossible and not always necessary to do so consistently. In the next part of this article I would like to give a more detailed overview of the actions taken on the three classroom challenges that, from my perspective as a teacher, most notably affected the learning process for this group of students.

In the first classes of the term the use of Japanese presented a big problem. A few students insistently kept resorting to Japanese during most stages of the lesson, either to painlessly and quickly communicate the meaning of their ideas, or to sort out tasks, or to ease the discomfort of having to have discussions in English. My immediate response was to be openly strict about it: in the beginning of class  I wrote simple, clear class goals on the board (something I didn’t normally do), one of which stated the need to “speak 100% English.” Explicitly bringing their attention to the shared goal seemed to help minimize the use of Japanese and there was no acute need to continue this practice on a regular basis. However, as the course progressed, an interesting pattern started to emerge: when the students were instructed to speak solely in English, the atmosphere in the classroom grew increasingly tense and stifled. As soon as they felt a “permission” to discuss certain things in Japanese, they could feel visibly more relaxed and communicate more actively. Noticing that, I decided to change my attitude towards the use of the mother tongue in this particular group. If their feeling of ease and comfort, or rather a lack of such, was what consistently prevented a satisfactory learning environment, then I as a teacher should provide an opportunity for that ease and comfort to happen. With this in mind, I loosened my rules and stopped aggressively promoting an “English only” classroom. Ample time was given to negotiate the meanings and clarify tasks before beginning the speaking activities in English, because the students needed this zone of comfort and benefitted from it in the end. Interestingly, by the end of the term the few students who were usually the most frequent and energetic Japanese speakers in the class, started to “police”  each other and remind of “English” only rule without my explicit commentary on that matter.

Another recurrent issue specific of this class was their confusion over tasks and provided instructions. By confusion I mean, for instance, being silent for 30-40 seconds at the beginning of fluency practice, test phase of presentation stage, or practice activities. Although confusions would appear at the beginning or during 10 and 16-minute discussions as well (not knowing how to proceed with the discussion flow, misinterpreting discussion questions or another student’s communicative intentions, etc), most often the first 30-45 minutes of class would create most pauses and, for me,  subsequent breakdowns in the lesson plan. It was easy to observe that the factual timing for activities rarely coincided with the planned range – some activities took much longer, so I had to cut others short, every lesson looking for a compromise and being stressed about not meeting my goals. Halfway through the course I came to one simple way of dealing with this issue. The core problem was the mismatch between the standard timing of the lesson stages and this group’s own learning flow. Through trial and error a few ways of dealing with this problem were proven valuable, such as: (1) modelling activities with students as much as possible instead of providing instructions, not harbouring expectations that the students would jump into a speaking activity straight away; (2) presenting the target language and desired related interactions in a heavily scaffolded way on the whiteboard and leaving it there for the duration of the whole class, noticing that they refer to it for help. Additionally, the students in this group were given a sufficient amount of time for them to figure out by themselves in both Japanese and English how to approach a certain activity. A crucial shift in attitude happened thanks to the journalling experience, which enabled me to take a distanced look at what was happening when the students were pressed for time. I saw the benefits of not only adjusting my teaching methods but also, on a personal level, of being more patient with their uncertainties. When the partners in a speaking activity fell silent, I was more prepared to wait for them to figure out what comes next before jumping to their rescue. They needed more time to start and I was prepared to give them that time. One very important result of analysing this observation was my conclusion that starting the timer did not necessarily mean the start of discussion with that particular group of students but more of a sign to start organizing themselves.

Finally, a crucial issue that bothered me in the case of this particular class was the rapport among the students and that with the teacher. The tension regarding interpersonal interactions and relationships exhibited a tangible mismatch of personalities, reluctance to communicate and thus develop a learning community. Building the rapport with the students and among students proved to be the most challenging task aggravated also by the fact that the majority of the learners did not talk to each other even in Japanese prior to the start of the lesson, often sat in silence in between tasks during class, did not look at me when being addressed or work together when instructed to combine efforts for some review activities. This was my first encounter with such seemingly shy, disengaged, and disinterested behaviour, especially disheartening since I always seek a certain level of personal connection with learners. As my journal partner pointed out in one of his questions, it was difficult to know how much the students themselves were actually looking to connect with me. The involvement of my colleague by way of asking questions without being personally emotionally invested in this teaching experience once again triggered an important shift in attitude towards this problem. I was reminded of the true significance of a teacher’s affectivity that concerns “‘intergroup behaviour’ in the classroom, the smooth functioning of which relies on teacher empathy” (Benesch 2012, p.8). That said, subconsciously labelling this group as troublesome, challenging and “strange” forced me to see our classes through the blurred lens. I became overly confused, annoyed and frustrated when these learners couldn’t perform the way other students did. I started taking precautions against activities that would put them in the zone of discomfort (such as eliciting ideas from them or activating schemata for the class topic by asking the whole class some questions in the beginning of class). After writing (and later interpreting) detailed notes describing both interactions and emotions they brought about, I slowly came to realize that part of the reason the class instilled discomfort and fear in me was my own predisposition towards it. At some point I was ready to admit that I had become more anxious about teaching them than they probably were of having to maintain English discussions. Labelling a whole group of students as not interested in each other might have affected their communication with me, too, as I was intentionally avoiding the communicative situations that I placed as challenging for them but which were, in fact, uncomfortable for me.

CONCLUSION

Reflective journalling, especially when carried out  in collaboration with like-minded peers and on a regular basis, can offer unexpected strategies for handling the seemingly unsolvable critical incidents that arise in any teacher’s classroom. The case described in this article highlighted once again three vital truths about a language classroom that are easily forgotten in the attempts to create a perfectly functioning classroom and a “fun” learning environment:

  1. A classroom is more complex than we imagine or are used to thinking, and this becomes even more vivid when many issues surface. Teachers should always remember that a classroom is, first and foremost, the people in it – learners and a teacher, with their distinct personalities and histories, which affect a communicative learning environment greatly.
  2. In this complexity, emotions play a big part and teachers should both take them into consideration and distance themselves from their effect.
  3. Finally, it is the teacher who is responsible for establishing the rapport. Students, at least from my experience working in Japan, might be happy to follow their teacher’s lead but will likely not initiate building the connection.

In the future, I would like to keep these in mind before deciding to “fix” the issues. A way to make the learning experience work both for students and the teacher is to see students for what they are as a whole and teach people in the class, not only the target language of the course. It is important to step back and take a reflective, as well as reflexive, look at what makes the challenging classroom challenging in the first place.

REFERENCES

Benesch S. (2012). Considering emotions in critical English language teaching. Theories and Praxis. New York, NY & London: Routledge Taylor & Francis.

Farrell, T.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, 4(3), 97-107.

Farrell, T.S.C (2007). Reflective Language Teaching. From Research to Practice. London: Continuum.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Mercer, S. (2005-6). Using Journals to Investigate the Learner’s Emotional Experience of the Language Classroom,  Estudios de linguistica Inglesa Aplicada (ELIA), 6, 63 – 91.

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Articulated beliefs

“Methods are of little interest” 

L.G. Kelly

I entered my current job with what could be called an average (for an English teacher in Russia) academic background – 5 years at an English Philology department of a pedagogical university – and approximately ten years of teaching experience. In those years, I taught in a variety of classrooms, from General English courses in a small private comprehensive school to an ESP course for Physics majors at a renowned Russian university. Yet, in that range of contexts, over the years, I did not deliberately consider the principles of Communicative Language Teaching when planning my classes. What I did in the classroom was not determined by any particular methodologies but rather by course goals, suggested materials (in the more rigidly structured workplaces that I had to work), and, more recently and importantly, by my students’ needs.

Were I to discuss the “best” ways to teach, I would state without hesitation that these ways, if they even exist, are not wisdoms encapsulated in methods. In fact, methods are nothing without contexts and the teachers and students that constitute these individual contexts. In this way, I am ready to confess that my teaching has been, knowingly or unknowingly, method-free. My teaching beliefs do not originate in methods but rather have developed from my own experience learning foreign languages, from my teaching experience, from professional discussions with colleagues teaching English in various contexts in different countries, and from attending and presenting at ELT conferences.

Below I would like to introduce and comment in a little more detail on the teaching beliefs about learning languages that I value the most, hold true, and attempt to apply, in this or that form, in my lessons. 

  • Language learning should be centered in human nature. Language learning, above all, is a social activity. The people in a classroom are the most significant elements to the learning and teaching that takes place and their interaction determines the quality of classroom experiences. The emotional “bridge” of a connection between students and a teacher, the rapport that is gradually and mutually established, both students’ and teacher’s motivation and involvement in learning process and class activities – these are top priorities and necessary conditions underlying successful learning environments.
  • A language classroom should have plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity. I see language as more than an entity encompassing combinations of vocabulary chunks and grammar structures, but rather as our interaction with the world in real time. Dogme as sort of a teaching philosophy, in which the central idea is teaching from students’ emergent needs and limiting the reliance on ready-made materials, has been one of the most beneficial influences on my teaching style for the past four years in all of my classrooms.  
  • Writing is a necessary, even crucial skill in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking as it provides sufficient time and focus for organizing thoughts, structuring language both in form and content. Overall, consistent and varied writing experience improves language learning in aspects other than writing itself.
  • Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process and it is a teacher’s job to equip learners with tools for reflection, such as portfolios, learning logs of different types, a chance to co-construct a syllabus, etc. Students need to be aware of what they are doing for their learning in and out of the classroom and why, as well as consider the ways to improve their learning experience and results. Reflection in a systematic way may ensure progress and consistently high levels of motivation.

It might be argued that a few of the aforementioned beliefs could lead to somewhat unstructured classes in which it would be an additional challenge for both a teacher and students to chart progress. While this has sometimes been the case, I have always managed to find balance, remain on track, or adjust initial study plans. I consider myself fortunate to have taught in working environments that allowed me, to a large extent, to practice what I preach and experiment with new ideas. Consequently, my view of language learning as a social, emotionally engaging process that benefits from being, in a sense, unsystematic was confirmed time and again through positive feedback from my students.

During the FEELTA-AsiaTEFL conference held in Vladivostok in July 2016, in his presentation “What drives your classroom teaching?” Dr. Philip Chappell suggested a framework for interrogating teaching beliefs for all practicing teachers. His studies have shown that what teachers believe to be true about language learning and teaching and what teachers really do in class can either converge or diverge. For me in my current position, the dramatic change that this new teaching context brought about for my behavior in class makes more transparent than ever the converging and especially diverging nature of my current teaching practices and my own beliefs. For the sake of clarity, I will classify the beliefs I’ll be talking about into the following three types:

  • converging beliefs – previously held principles that match with my current teaching practice;
  • diverging beliefs – previously held principles that clash with my current teaching practice;
  • emerging beliefs – principles that arose from my current teaching practice.

Converging Beliefs

Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process. From the first lesson in my new job, I could see the significance and potential of using suggested self-assessment lists. The idea of allocating time during class for students to make a reflective pause, analyze their performance, and set their personal goals for the next stage in class (or future lessons) accordingly appealed to me. For every lesson in the term I was using my own variation of a self-check list with every group of students, redesigning it as needed, and developing it to suit my students’ needs as I saw them. New versions of self-check lists incorporated more than the original ticking of the boxes for the used target language: the reflection included gap-fills to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, questions to ask and answer in pairs, and questions to reflect on group discussion performance.

Although the implementation of this way of self-assessment has proven to be quite effective with the majority of students, in the future I would like to bring this reflection to a new level by experimenting with a more extended reflective dialogue. It might include open-ended questions for student-student discussion and/or micro-writing reflective activities for a teacher-student dialogue.

Diverging Beliefs

Language learning should be centered in human nature. In his book “50 Ways to Be a Better Teacher: Professional Development Techniques” Chris Mares suggests that “…we should not only be sensitive to each student in their individuality and entirety, but we should also treat the class as a community that requires nurturing. In this way, the teacher is an integral part of a shared experience, rather than simply a director of activities… Last semester, for what could be the first time in my teaching career I felt very strongly like a director of activities. This “director” leads students through the stages of any given lesson towards expected results step by step, task by task, without an odd minute to pause, breathe, acknowledge the people in the classroom, their moods, needs, real-life problems, and their possible impact on the performance. By the middle of the term I realized that I had failed to establish the quality of rapport that would be satisfactory and in accordance with the expectations that I have of myself as a teacher. A relationship between a class and a teacher takes time to develop (especially so here in Japan, to my observations), but with the rigid plan to stick to at all costs, the very notion and necessity of building a relationship slipped from the area of my priorities, which had quite a negative emotional influence on me. In the first half of the semester there was a significant shift of focus for me, both intentionally and unconsciously, from the people in the classroom to the plan to follow to the letter, from the learning that was taking place to the plan I was/am to follow to the letter. In the next semester I plan to pay more deliberate attention to the process of building and nurturing a community with every group of students that I teach. I will try to remember to communicate more openly and willingly. I will try to remember to acknowledge my students as individuals to empathize and connect with, not merely as recipients of instruction, no matter how student-centered it is.    

Emerging Beliefs

Consistency breeds success. The idea that for most teachers must come as a self-evident matter of course was quite a powerful realization for me: language learners benefit greatly from learning with consistency, learning within a clear system. I have mentioned before that one of the ways my personal teaching beliefs affected my teaching practice in the past was a rather fluid, unstructured, emergent nature of the courses I taught. Last semester, teaching in the *very structured* way I had not taught before, I could observe a tangible, huge improvement most students made in meeting the course goals, and I was convinced.   

While I still hold on to my firm belief that methods are secondary in the success on the path of learning a foreign language, the past four months of teaching gave me an important opportunity to reconsider my beliefs by “doing it another way.” It has certainly been a most eye-opening experience to teach against and in spite of ingrained beliefs. Such an experience, as I have learnt, can be liberating given the right attitude and perspective. Beliefs are not or do not have to be postulates rigidly regulating our teaching behavior and choices for the whole length of our careers. In fact, a lot more can be learnt from the exact opposite context of what we are accustomed to than from persisting in teaching the same way for years on end.

*****

Thank you for making your way through this article to the end. What you’ve read is about 73% (also slightly edited) of my self-reflection “paper” that I was preparing myself for writing in the previous blog post. It was not easy to identify those beliefs but I can recommend anyone to sit down and do so.

And I am thinking now… it is true that we as teachers should be open to change and learning what we can from it. But we should also stay true to who we are, no matter what conditions we find ourselves working in.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

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