May 02 2010
Training on the Tagus: Becoming a teacher trainer and a better teacher trainer
I’ve just returned to Budapest from Lisbon after spending four intensive days on an Oxford University Press training session. It was the first time in my life that I had spent 4 days with 20 other trainers and potential trainers for the Oxford Teachers Academy programme (OTA) , a unique initiative in the world of ELT publishing to go beyond the traditional book promotion model and give teachers real methodological support to using materials. I had already taught 4 OTA courses in Serbia and Hungary but this was the first time I had been together with other trainers on a course specifically designed to share best practice in teacher training, be familiarised with new course material, be given clear guidelines on how to run OTA sessions and be given the opportunity to deliver and give feedback on other trainers giving sessions.
I loved every minute of it and our course raised many questions about what it means to be a trainer and which models of training might be appropriate in different contexts.
In this blogpost I’d like to share my own route into teacher training, look at one particular moment on the course which I found particulary exciting and then also invite people to comment on their experiences of becoming a trainer and how one becomes a better trainer. Much in the same way that many of us “fell” into teaching, or did it to escape arranged marriages, many of us also “fell” into teacher training not always with systematic training in how to do the job well.
How I fell into teacher training
For me the whole experience in Lisbon was one of coming full circle. It was in Lisbon 25 years earlier that I had trained to be a teacher. On the Manchester Diploma in the Teaching of English Overseas P.G.C.E (a one year full-time Post Graduate Certificate in Education course in ELT) I did my Teaching Practice in a Secondary School in Lisbon. We spent five weeks teaching and observing classes after which I thankfully passed the practical side of our course. I have specific memories of being told that my blackboard work was very chaotic but that I had worked well with 15/16-year-olds teaching conditional structures in my exam lesson!
Last week I found myself in a similar position doing a training session in order to be approved not as a teacher but as an OTA teacher trainer. Much has happened in my biography of being a teacher and teacher trainer in the subsequent 25 years since that initial teacher training in Lisbon and I will now try and highlight some of the key moments in the unravelling of that biography.
Freelance teacher training with no qualification or relevant experience
Only two years after officially qualifying as a teacher I spent one year in East Berlin doing freelance in-service teacher training with no knowledge or experience of teacher training whatsoever. It was a strange experience. I was approached by a person who worked for a local pedagogical institute to do in-service sessions for teachers based on somebody who had seen me teaching at the university and had recommended me. I was fairly nervous at the prospect but suddenly found that the techniques I had been taught in Manchester, working mainly from the first edition of Jeremy Harmer’s Practice of English Language Teaching, were relatively progressive in the field of ELT in the GDR.
Basic information gap activities to promote speaking skills were considered to be modern state of the art techniques and were embraced wholeheartedly by the teachers. I was in fact teacher training 24 years ago but with zero knowledge and zero reading about how to actually do teacher training sessions.
Peer feedback on my teaching with the use of video
In 1987 I returned to England and worked as a regular teacher in a language school in Brighton. The Director of Studies singled me out as somebody who should be given time off to develop materials for optional afternoon courses and I soon found myself sharing new ideas in staff development sessions with my colleagues which led to the first time I was ever videoed as a teacher. We followed this up with a session watching me on the video. Jeremy Harmer has championed being videoed as a very effective way of becoming a better teacher, see the video here. It may be that being videoed doing a teacher training session may also be one route to becoming a better trainer. It was as a result of sharing teaching experiences with other colleagues that I decided to borrow a lot of money and do an MA in ELT which I postponed for 2 years after getting a job in “Eastern Europe”.
Noticing what teachers do, listening to teachers and avoiding missionary models
It was in that revolutionary year of 1989 that I got my first job with the British Council in Czechoslovakia and found myself teaching methodology to pre-service students of English, again with no theoretical knowledge of how to do this. This went on for two years when I went back to England to do my deferred MA in ELT at Lancaster University. Lancaster was at the forefront of radical communicative language teaching and part of the MA was to prepare us to be agents of change in non British contexts as teacher trainers. We talked about what this entailed a lot but without peer evaluated practical sessions on doing actual teacher training. Many of these issues are dealt with in these two articles about training v development. by Jack Richards and Leni Dam teacher training models dam
It was only after working on the British Council ELT projects on my return to Czechoslovakia that I began reading about teacher training while actually doing it at the same time and then after taking up a job in Budapest in 1996 found myself involved in not only training teachers but training trainers and discussing with fellow colleagues about what this involved.
Theoretical and practical input on models of teacher training
As far as I know, the only MA course that exists in Britain to specificallytrain trainers is The College of St Mark and St John Masters in Education in Plymouth and one of the teachers I was with last week, Jules, actually did that course. If anyone experienced or knows of any others please add it in the comments below. 14 years ago on arriving in Budapest, I had been put in contact with the person who turned out to be my best ever colleague in ELT, Uwe Pohl, and he had also done the same course in Plymouth as Jules. We worked together for 6 years on a British Council Project and I ended up learning an enormous amount from Uwe, it was kind of doing elements of the Marjons Masters in Education course but second hand. I became familiar with the work of David Kolb , Andy Curtis
and Uwe’s partner, Szesztay Margit and suddenly found myself feeling much more competent as a teacher trainer. It also led me to the work of the two Donalds,
Donald Schön (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York, NY: Basic Books and Donald Freeman (1996). Redefining the relationship between research and what teachers know. In K, Bailey & D. Nunan (Eds), Voices from the Language Classroom: < Qualitative Research in Second Language Education (pp.88-115). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
A more sophisticated diagram of Kolb’s experimental cycle is pictured below, a popular teacher training model. Click on the image if you’d like to enlarge it.
Working with process
But what was the moment on the course in Lisbon last week that I found particulary exciting which I mentioned earlier? In a feedback session a small group I was in at the end of the second day one of our group, Peter, said that Tessa Woodward’s book on training was excellent and that we should all focus more closely on Mina’s “Teacher Training methodologies” handout based on Tessa Woodward’s book. He felt that we needed more space for processing input on our course and maybe there should be more emphasis on trainer methodology and discussions about issues such as trainer talk/ trainee talk, the relationship between new input and digesting that input and experiential hands on activities v trainer explanations.
Mina, one of the course leaders then devised an activity based on the training methodology handout and at the end of the third day we found ourselves in a very interesting discussion which went over time but which a number of course participants said was extremely useful. As examples, these were three of the 14 training styles from the training methodolgies handout which were discussed the following morning and which we tried to relate to the sessions we had seen up to that point :
1) CURRAN STYLE LECTURE
The trainer reads or talks about a topic for a few minutes, then pauses. Pre-selected or random course participants are invited to individually reflect back to the trainer what they have understood so far. The trainer then continues, repeating the process to the end.
2) BUZZ GROUPS LECTURE
The trainer reads or talks about a topic for a few minutes, then pauses. Course participants are invited to discuss in pairs or threes what they have understood and/or any thoughts or ideas which may have come to mind while they were listening. The trainer then continues, repeating the process to the end.
The trainer presents a series of classroom activities, inviting the participants to be her ‘students’. This is followed by feedback and discussion e.g. Could you use this with your classes?”; “What do you think the aim was?” etc.
Another very popular method with trainers and teachers. The only thing to be careful about here is that the trainer remembers these are in fact teachers and does not patronize them. It is also important to listen to their ideas after the activity with honesty, empathy and respect (J. Edge) for their ideas and the contexts they are familiar with. Better to see the training arena here as a marketplace for teachers to pick and choose for themselves, rather than pushing anything down their throats.
The benefits of seminars which are devoted to reflection on what we do and how we do it are enormous. Szesztay Margit, in her hyperlinked article where her name appears earlier, quotes one participant in a teacher knowledge seminar:
“I don’t know what it was, but something really made an impact. [The seminar] provided a means for me to bring together things that happened over the past 21 years. Something really made an impact, because my teaching now feels very different to me. There is a level of calm to it that I’d never had before and I think it comes from understanding that it really is a constant cycle of experience, reflection, decision making. And there is never going to be a time when I can say OK, I got it. Because times change, the kids change, I change, it’s like waves.”
I think that, potentially, the same things can happen on a course which is focused on our development as trainers. A level of calm is a pre-condition for good training. We may be enthusiastic about new methods, new materials and new technologies but going into sessions believing that teachers will change cos we say something is great is a dangerous road to go down. We may and do enthuse some people this way but without the space for calm reflection on the practical realities of their individual contexts, the majority of teachers will always be asking themselves the question, is this relevant for me and if it is what needs to be put into place for it to become reality?
The Benefits of Working with Process Models in Teacher Training
After our extended session the day before, we agreed to start working at 8.30 on the following morning instead of 9.00 and some people ended up missing their breakfasts to attend. It was clear that there was a need to look at training styles in more detail and to have an opportunity to analyse the OTA sessions we had seen so far not only on the basis of appropriate content and what might work but also according to the training styles. It reminded me of my MA in Lancaster when a group of us decided to create an afternoon discussion group once a week where we covered areas that we felt were not given enough space on the MA. Course participants are always likely to come up with unplanned concerns and the extent to which we are able to deal with them might be reflected in the final course feedback as something positive where their specific needs had been acknowledged.
There will always be a tension between the content of a pre-planned course and working with the process that unfolds on that course, but there will always be a close relationship between good teaching and being prepared to depart from the lesson plan and work with content emerging from the participants of a lesson. Similary in a training session there may be benefits of allowing discussions to develop even though it might be at the expense of some of the content on the slides which then might not “be covered” in the linear way which powerpoint usually directs us towards. These spontaneous discussions are likely to be memorable and to lead to teachers leaving the sessions with a good feeling that some of their needs and concerns have been dealt with. However, we can never know beforehand precisely what these might be.
One of the spontaneous discussions that developed in our group was the relationship between people working on laptops and classroom dynamics. See Shaun Wilden’s blog post.
There was a huge range of teacher training experience in the room during the week and I was reminded that successful teacher training depends on the extent to which we as leaders of sessions tap into, draw on and problematise that experience in our sessions. This was our group at the end of our third day.
On a personal note, if anybody had asked me which Portuguese person I would have liked to meet when I went to Portugal it
would have been the world famous footballer Eusebio. Lo and behold he was staying in our hotel, I couldn’t believe it. Thanks Vanda for telling me about that, you don’t know how happy you made me. Remembering my teenage passion for collecting football autographs, I got him to sign the same book the teachers in the school in Lisbon gave me in 1985:
It was a truly magical moment and one I related to my acting teacher trainees at the beginning of my session the following day. I tweeted Ken Wilson my excitement and he tweeted back “Omggggggg – I’m SOOO jealous!”
As trainers we are also human beings and our personal anecdotes as well as our personal anecdotes of our own professional lives will always be a powerful tool in establishing relationships with our trainees. I hope you’ve enjoyed mine!
Thanks Sheila and Mina for making it all happen, a truly fabulous experience, thanks to all my fellow colleagues it was great to get to know you, thanks Verri for making sure we didn’t get lost and thank you Oxford University Press for bringing us all together like this. With all our skype link ups, chatrooms, twitter, NING and MSN we can link up virtually but there is no real replacement for actual face2face meeting up to build a team of OTA trainers and to ensure good co-operation in the future.
If anybody has any interesting stories about the way they “fell” into teacher training please add them in the comments. I wrote this post on May 1st and one of my tweets was “Teachers of the World Unite we have nothing to lose but our overeagerness to teach. The less we teach, the more they learn”