The weekly column
Article 69, August 2001
Awareness, reflection and sharing
By Graciela Miller de Arechaga
Over the present school year, as new head of the academic department at a private English language institute, I have had the opportunity of getting an overall view of teachers´ performance in this particular place. Throughout the present year we have shared staff meetings, conversations in the staff room, talks following the observation of classes and even incidental chats in corridors!
It has been noticed that more than often teachers talk about their teaching practice and their students in particular, whenever they meet their colleagues. In addition, it is quite revealing that the topics teachers touch on are frequently related to some problematic classroom situation, some negative attitudes or some difficulties students have in their learning process. Rarely do teachers speak about their student´s achievements in a spontaneous way. We often hear teachers say: “They don´t feel like studying and therefore they are getting low marks.” “They never get the initiative in oral interaction, I have to push them on all the time!” “They make too many spelling mistakes.” “Nothing seems to interest them..” “They don´t care about their homework”, etc.
Although we may agree that teachers´ complaints have become commonplace, we are inclined to think that when teachers talk to colleagues about their students´ problems, difficulties or attitudes they are expressing what they are really worried about or dissatisfied at. Such conversations draw back to struggles and disappointments which must be attended to in a reflective and professional way.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of certified English language teachers in Argentina, graduated from Teachers’ Training Colleges or Profesorados, have achieved a level of skills and knowledge about their teaching profession that turns them into initially competent professionals, we agree that “professional certification is only the starting point on the way towards professional competence. Within this perspective, professional competence is a constantly moving target, and professional development comprises those activities in which professionals are engaged for the purpose of achieving professional competence”. Banfi (1997: 15)
We believe this competence relates to what Nunan and Lamb (1996: 1) call “the effective management of teaching and learning processes in [second and] foreign language classrooms”. In other words, the competent teacher is the one who creates “a positive pedagogical environment” in the classroom and is able to make professional decisions “to ensure that learning takes place effectively”. Nunan and Lamb (1996: 1)
Professional development is perceived as a variety of activities in which teachers are involved to be able to improve their practice. Special stress is laid on teaching experience and expertise, on the convenience of attending seminars and conferences and on subscribing to professional journals and publications. Other important issues to be taken into account are individual or group reflection and interaction with colleagues.
From a humanistic and psychological point of view, Underhill (1991) defines teacher development as “one version of personal development [...] personal development as a teacher”. He says he sees “the process of development as the process of increasing our conscious choices about the way we think, feel and behave as a teacher. It is about the inner world of responses that we make to the outer world of the classroom. Development [seen] as a process of becoming increasingly aware of the quality of the learning atmosphere we create, and as a result becoming more able to make creative moment by moment choices about how we are affecting our learners through our personal behaviour” Underhill (1991).
Setting the context
Our present concern about teacher development is restricted to a private English language institute in the city of Salta, where a quality ELT program has been at the core of its mission for over forty years. Moreover, the focus on our subject of study is twofold, if seen from an inner and outer standpoint regarding our own institution. On the one hand, it is perceived that both less and more experienced classroom teachers at our institute are regularly confronted with a variety of situations and contexts where they are required to make use of professional expertise in an autonomous and self-directed way. On the other hand, there is an ever-increasing number of private English language schools and institutes in our city that must share the local demand for English language services, to put it in economic terms. Therefore, competing on the basis of sound professional teaching should be regarded as surviving tactics.
When is teacher development started?
Let us first consider some principles which are taken for granted at our institute, when considering those activities English teachers engage in to promote their professional development:
Although it is easy to agree on theoretical ground in the staff room or in staff meetings, the problem may arise when the principles mentioned above, must sustain the course of a full teaching schedule.
In order to take theory into practice, teachers should become aware that within their own teaching routine they have the main tools for personal professional progress: their own teaching experience and their reflections on it, and the interaction with other teachers in the institution. We firmly believe that “teacher development takes place when teachers, as individuals or in a group, consciously take advantage of such resources to forward their own professional learning” Ur (1999: 318). Development does not just happen with time, it happens with awareness. An awareness of a need to change. This means that awareness is the first step towards change and improvement.
Models of teacher development
There are three main models as described in Wallace (1993), namely: the Craft Model, the Applied Science Model and the Reflective Model. We adhere to this last model since we believe that reflection guides future action. This model is briefly described by Ur (1999) as follows:
The trainee teaches or observes lessons, or recalls past experience; then reflects, alone or in discussion with others, in order to work out theories about teaching; then tries these out again in practice. Such a cycle aims for continuous improvement and the development of personal theories of action.
It is interesting to note that Ur (1999) also considers that the Reflective Model can tend to over-emphasize teacher experience, with a relative neglect of external input – lectures, reading, and so on – which can make a real contribution to understanding. The same author comes to the conclusion that a fully effective Reflective Model should make room for external as well as personal input. She calls this model “enriched reflection”.
What is reflection?
Even though we are restricting the term to “reflective teaching”, it is hard to find a single definition. Farrell (1998) presents a wide range of definitions which he has taken from different authors: “Pennington (1992) defines reflective teaching as deliberating on experience, and that of mirroring experience”; “Richards (1990) sees reflection as a key component of teacher development. He says that self-inquiry and critical thinking can help teachers move from a level where they may be guided largely by impulse, intuition, or routine, to a level where their actions are guided by reflection and critical thinking”. In an interview with Farrell (1995), Richards says that critical reflection is a response to a past experience and involves conscious recall and examination of the experience as a basis for evaluation and decision-making and as a source for planning and action.
For some authors, the broader aspect of society also plays a significant role in critical reflection. Bartlett (1990) in Farrell (1998) says that in order for teachers to become critically reflective, they have to transcend the technicalities of teaching and think beyond the need to improve their instructional techniques. Thus he locates teaching in its broader social and cultural context.
Ur (1999), when talking about personal reflection, says that the first and most important basis for professional progress is simply the teacher’s own reflection on daily classroom events. But she adds that very often this reflection is quite spontaneous and informal, therefore it is helpful only up to a certain point because it is not organized and it is solitary.
Planning an in-service teacher development program
How can our language institute provide a forum for teacher improvement? First, an in-service program must be developed. The program should include opportunities for learning and sharing ideas and should be designed by the teachers in cooperation with the head of the academic department. A range of activities should be provided for teachers to reflect on their classroom practice.
Implementing the in-service development program : sharing experiences, problems and successes
Some possible activities are the following:
1. Meetings or discussions with a colleague or some colleagues which may take the form of spontaneous, informal chats, or a kind of more formal interaction. It is sometimes felt that more formally structured meetings enable everyone’s participation. Conscientious professionals are always looking for solutions to problems and most colleagues are likely to be sympathetic and suggest solutions or encourage their peers to look for their solution.
2. Individual presentation made by a member of the staff on new teaching ideas, classroom experiences, something they have read, etc.
3. Observation of other teachers’ classes. In this particular case, certain understandings need to be negotiated ahead of time since observation has always been a sensitive issue.
4. Journal writing which can be carried out alone or in groups if teachers build in some ground rules on the entries to be included.
Despite the fact that sometimes there is a feeling of rivalry between teachers which stops them from revealing professional successes to one another, the entire staff should understand that everyone can gain by learning from everyone else and that everyone loses if they cannot do so.
We believe that interaction with a colleague can contribute a lot to teacher development within the institution.
Our institute should provide opportunities for teachers to reflect and share ideas, on one’s own, with colleagues and with the head of department. A collaborative in-service development program has to be designed that reflects the needs of the institution and plans for improvement.
An important component of a teacher development program is “time”. Time availability should be negotiated by the group at the start of the process.
Constant teacher development is a necessary contributor to more efficient teaching and personal satisfaction in our profession.
1. BANFI, C. (1997) “Some thoughts on the Professional Development of Language Teachers”, in ELT News & Views Supplement 4.1 – Teacher Development, March 1997, 13-16.
2. ENGLAND, L. (1998) “Promoting Effective Professional Development in ELT”, in English Teaching Forum, Vol. 36 N° 2 Apr-Jun 1998, 18-23.
3. FARRELL, T. (1998) “Reflective Teaching”, in English Teaching Forum, Vol. 36 N° 4 Oct-Nov 1998, 10-17.
4. NUNAN, D. & LAMB, C. (1996) The Self-Directed Teacher: managing the learning process. Cambridge: CUP
5. UNDERHILL, A. (1991) in Best of British ELT. Plenary talk on Teacher Development
6. UR, P. (1999) A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and theory. Cambridge. CUP
By Graciela Miller de Arechaga. E-mail: email@example.com
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