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November 19, 2013

A nightmare or an opportunity to develop professionally as a teacher?

by Ourania Katsara
University of Patras

The concept of professionalism is a very important but complex issue in an academic environment. Many researchers have tried to define professionalism indicating that it has varying meanings and uses. Hargreaves and Goodson (1996:4) described the concept of professionalism as "something which defines and particulates the quality of character of people's actions within that group". Similarly Day (1999:4) argued that professionalism is a "consensus of the norms, which may apply to being and behaving as a professional within personal organisational and broader political conditions". In addition, Day and Gu (2007) state that teachers' professionalism is related to educational policy reform, which can decrease teachers' professionalism when teachers' vocational needs are ignored. It is implied therefore that it is important to take into account teachers' voices and needs in order to redefine the sense of professionalism in the workplace.

My experience as an English for Specific Academic Purposes tutor in university settings
I have been teaching English as an English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) tutor in university settings for eleven years. My first position was at University of the Aegean where I taught for a year four courses in the ESAP domain. My next position was at University of Patras (Agrinio campus) where I a have been teaching specialised English courses for ten years. During all these years what I realised is that Greek students in particular seem to get stressed during examinations. It is obvious that my students' triggers indicate that the more work mounts up, the more they worry. A usual reaction is having large numbers coming to my office to ask for clarifications. In some cases students who do not live in Agrinio email me asking for my help. In the Greek university system, it is not compulsory for students to attend courses and due to economic crisis some students choose not to live in Agrinio but commute from their home town when the distance is reasonable. In this case, my endeavour is challenging since tutoring needs to be done through email messages.

Frequently asked questions during tutoring
It is interesting to note that most of the students' enquiries involve basic information about examinations. The majority of students need further explanation regarding the type of the exam and the range of questions that might come up in the exam paper. Their worries seem to be closely related to examination criteria. Some of them are asking for strategies on how to avoid common pitfalls in exams. However, it seems that students set unrealistic goals. A large number of them come to my office or email me just a few days before the exam. Their behaviour indicates that they expect me to give them exact instructions on how to study for the exam showing lenience when it comes to marking. This reflects the impact of the cultural perspective in teaching and learning. According to Hofstede (1986, 1996) the Greek culture has strong uncertainty avoidance (UAI: 112) implying that in the Greek educational situation students prefer explicit instruction and are frustrated by the concept of independent learning. Moreover, the Greek culture is characterized by masculinity (MAS: 57), which implies that teacher’s academic reputation and students’ academic performance and excellence are dominant factors.

Some ideas on being professional
This situation of course is time consuming, while it is not easy to explain basic issues via email messaging. Taking into consideration that language teachers are engaged in other activities such as research and course material production, this scenario is like the incubus of exams on the teachers' part. Mindful of this problem I developed a website in 2011 with specific information about the course and offered sections on academic regulations including information about examinations, tips for study, time management and coping with stress.

This website is available online in the site of the Department of Business Administration of Food and Agricultural Enterprises in University of Patras (Agrinio campus). However, this site does not include back links to past exam papers and exam strategy techniques since it was decided to keep informational sections succinct whilst ensuring the reader understands fully the relevance to the whole content of the site. This is in line with results by Shneiderman's survey (1998) who found that www structure has an effect on the concept of semantic structures. In an experiment in Maryland university participants were asked to locate answers in a series of questions in two web versions of articles. ( 46 short articles with 4-83 lines and long articles with 104-150 lines). Participants who worked with the short articles answered more questions correctly and took less time to answer the questions. In addition, it was decided that more specific information should be imparted to students during tutorials where interaction and critical thinking is enhanced.

Offering a series of tutorials of this kind, however, needs careful planning and willingness to work on campus many hours a day since tutorials take place after classes. The popularity of such facilitating dialogues indicates that a series of seminars might be useful to be offered on a set day and time at university where all students could come and attend. It would be easier that way for the teacher to present a systematic set of advice to students and at the same time answer any queries in class. All these enquires could be gathered in a portfolio for further analysis allowing the teacher to modify his/her teaching accordingly.

However, since the number of students who are not attending courses for various reasons is increasing, there is a need to devise a way to support those students. A useful tool could be to offer an online seminar on examination strategies. This seminar could be announced on the university's main site giving the chance to students who are unable to attend in person. This strategy moreover has interesting implications for distance learning and university administrators might include such issues on their agenda for future development of support services for students.


  • Day, C. (1999). Developing teachers: The challenges of lifelong learning. London: Falmer.
  • Day, C. & Gu, Q. (2007). Variations in the conditions for teachers' professional learning and development. Sustaining commitment and effectiveness over a career. Oxford Review of Education, 33(4), 423-443.
  • Hargreaves, A. & Goodson, I. (1996). Teachers' professional lives: Aspirations and actualities. In I. Goodson& A. Hargreaves (Eds.) Teachers' professional lives (pp1-27) London: Falmer.
  • Hofstede, G. (1986). Cultural differences in teaching and learning. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 10, 301-320.
  • Hofstede, G. (1996). Differences and danger: cultural profiles at nations and limits to tolerance. Higher Education in Europe 21(1), 73-94.
  • Shneiderman, B. (1998) Designing the user Interface: Strategies for Effective Human- Computer Interaction. London: Addison Wesley Longman.

rania-katsara.jpgDr Ourania Katsara is an ESP/EAP tutor at the University of Patras. She gained a BA in English language and English and European Literature from the University of Essex, UK, an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Essex, UK and a PhD in International Education from the University of Brighton, UK. Her research interests are intercultural communication in education and cultural responsive pedagogy.

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