Editorial on ELTNEWS.com
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Steve touched on the topic of this entry in his first editorial for ELT News when he reflected, “I shudder to think back to some of the meaningless hoops that I forced students to jump through while I was learning to be a teacher.” And I think that his experience is a rather common one—it reflects my own experience of learning to teach, and in many ways the experience I relive every time I start teaching in a new context. It takes at least one or two cycles of teaching—one or two semesters or years, depending on the course—before I have confidence in how I approach the course, the needs of my students, and what will work (and what won’t) with that group of learners in that context.

Yet I wonder about the efficiency of this system. I very rarely teach a new course; it’s often the case that somebody preceded me in teaching the class, and yet I feel myself starting from scratch nevertheless; there is often very little contact with my predecessor, if any, and very little information conveyed from them to me.

On a larger scale, I can count on one hand the number of teachers or administrators that have observed one of my lessons. And I can count on one hand the number of teachers whose lessons I’ve observed—and they’ve all been teachers who taught at my private language school. I’ve seen them go through the same difficulty I remember experiencing in orienting themselves toward the students and classes they teach.

The concern I have for this common experience of new teachers is twofold—for students and for teaching as a profession. Without support from fellow faculty, potentially gifted teachers may decide to give up on the craft because they aren’t confident in their abilities to go it alone in discovering effective methodologies that work for them. At the same time, it takes one bad experience to turn students off from learning, even if they have years of otherwise positive experiences. And if it’s a reality that the majority of new teachers are going to be learning by trial and error, that means most students will have at least one relatively inexperienced teacher during the course of their studies.

So what’s to be done? I’m a skeptic of calls for more time, money, or investment in teacher education. Not because I think that more resources devoted to the profession would be a bad thing, but because it gives the message that addressing this issue effectively is out of our hands as teacher practitioners. Instead, my feeling is that it’s up to individual teachers to help advance and improve the experiences of those new to the profession and their students. I think this means more experienced teachers being available for newer teachers, and for the development and maintenance of informal support groups, such as local ETJ-- or JALT chapters, where teachers can gather and share information about the craft of our profession. I also find that Twitter, as it provides a PLN, helps to fulfill some of these needs.

But I don’t think I have the space here to thoroughly answer the issue I’ve raised, nor do I think the answer is the same for any two teachers. With this in mind, I’m curious about your feelings on the topic, and look forward to your comments.

All the best,
Theron Muller

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Great topic, Theron.

One of the things that I and a number of former colleagues all agree that we benefited from at eikaiwa was classroom observation. Being observed and having time for follow up discussions were and are crucial for professional development. I also experienced this on CELTA.

However, the purpose of those observations were an evaluative assessment of our teaching as well as aimed at professional development. This could inevitably make it very stressful for teachers being observed due to concerns about passing probationary periods, having contracts renewed, or obtaining certification. Admittedly, the stress could be both positive and negative, although the latter seemed to hold true more often based on having been observed more than 20 times and having conducted over a hundred observations.

In the 3-4 years as a branch supervisor conducting observations and follow up discussions with instructors, again I found myself learning on the job with regards to how to make the experience a more positive one for those I observed and gave feedback and suggestions or recommendations to. During that time, however, I made my fair share of mistakes, even if my heart was in the right place, and it took some time for me to strike a comfortable balance between evaluating instructors and supporting their professional development.

After that, when doing my MA TEFL/TESL, I learned more about classroom observations that I wished I'd learnt about years beforehand. However, that did get me thinking more about the topic of OJT and ongoing professional development.

In discussions with a number teachers, most of us seem convinced of the value of being observed and observing ones classroom (e.g. through video), although making it happen has always been a challenge. Hence I really appreciate where this article is going. I agree that rather than waiting for it to happen, it may be much more effective to make it happen for ourselves, as indeed did one of my colleagues when he invited me to come and observe two of his classes at another university on one of my days off.

Peer-to-peer observations is one avenue that I would definitely encourage our profession to further so that we become comfortable and confident observing and being observed, sharing those observations and discussing our classrooms, teaching practices, and learning.

Great observations, Phil. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I'm glad to hear that you've actively thought about how to address some of the issues I raise in my column. I agree that even for teachers who move from teaching into teacher training it often remains a process of learning by experience and through trial and error.

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