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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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