The weekly column
Article 41, December 2000
Positively Exploiting Personality in on-site TEFL Certificate Training Courses
By Claire Woollam
Anyone who has worked as an on-site trainer on an intensive RSA or Trinity certificate course will no doubt have had some experience of the positive and negative effects of the coming together of 10 or 12 unique individuals, who have probably never set eyes on each other before. Seeing the continual development of the groups relationship and experiencing their highs and lows through the weeks are all an integral part of the teacher trainers job. More interestingly, much can be learned about the human personality and its effect upon group dynamics. In this article I would like to define, based on my own experience, some broad personality types of trainee teacher which I have often seen appear during certificate courses. I will also describe some ways in which the trainer can use character traits to bring out the best in new teachers both working as a group and individually.
Types of Trainee
The way in which trainees interact with each other and respond to trainer advice and feedback appears to play a large part in an individuals degree of success on a teaching course. Personality seems to be a very important factor. Despite first impressions, groups of trainees which I have worked with have nearly always appeared to split off into different types which I believe are closely related to individual personalities. My categories may be graphically portrayed as follows:The Organiser
Organisers usually quickly develop as group leaders. They are full of ideas, although not necessarily always good ones, and are thorough lesson planners and preparers. They listen carefully to peer and trainer suggestions and can often adapt them to come up with an even better lesson activity. Generally creative, they might be found in a corner somewhere cutting and sticking, drawing pictures or helping colleagues with their lesson preparation. Paradoxically, this may also be a weak point of the Organiser. The desire to organise, coupled with their inherent leadership qualities, sometimes means that they have a tendency to take over in a group and become frustrated if they feel that peers are not pulling their weight, especially when lessons preceed or follow on from their own. Despite this, Organisers will usually do extremely well on a course and go on to become very effective teachers.
Like Organisers, Worriers tend to be thorough planners, but rather more to ensure that nothing can go wrong. They seem to think in terms of worst case scenarios. Suggestions for lesson activities and materials may be met with "But what if ?" responses: "But what if they dont understand my instructions?", "But what if their arent enough chairs?". The often unpredictable nature of an EFL classroom does not marry well with the Worrier. S/he may be taken aback or become flustered if a student asks an unanticipated question or the class reaction to a particular topic is quite different to what might have been expected. In feedback, there is a tendency to be highly self-critical and the Worrier finds it hard to accept positive comments, usually playing down their strengths or hiding them with further self-doubts. Worriers lessons nevertheless often do benefit from their high level of concern and usually develop into very good teachers. Perhaps, however, they make their lives far more difficult than necessary by being overly-anxious about every small aspect of their lessons.
The Maverick is probably the most enigmatic kind of trainee I have come across. S/he is often extremely creative and charismatic as a teacher, and is able to deal effectively with unanticipated classroom situations. However, the Maverick can frustrate both peers and trainers by deciding to change the planned lesson format without consultation, occasionally part way through the session! Ideas are taken on board and seem to be accepted, but the Maverick really prefers to do things their own way. Occasionally, such trainees have had previous teaching experience, perhaps in the state sector, and as a result may find it hard to accept that other methods might be better or could further enrich their knowledge and technique. Due to their capricious nature, success on the course may therefore be variable for the Maverick.
Having identified several types of trainee, I am left thinking about a group of people who dont seem to fall into any particular category and may in fact be a mixture of the other personality types. The Middleground trainee works carefully through the course, completing work on time and producing reasonable, solid lessons. Middleground exerts a welcome balancing effect on the rest of the group. Not too much energy, not too argumentative, just methodical, calm and fairly quiet. Their conscientiousness is usually rewarded at the end of a course.
Positively Exploiting Trainee Personality Types
One can never really know in advance which personality types will make up a particular course group. In an environment where applicants may be interviewed and accepted onto the course both some time in advance and at the last minute, it is often impossible to know exactly who will be in each group until the first day!
Trainers need to exercise some caution when forming initial impressions about group dynamics. Trainees understandably tend to be reserved and somewhat wary of each other at first, their true personalities only slowly emerging as they grow in confidence. Once the trainers have some idea of the shape and pattern of these butterflies, they can begin tentatively to plan Teaching Practice groups, which on a practical level, tend to naturally split the group.
When forming TP groups, it is obviously a good idea to have a range of personality types, each trainee being able to balance their strengths and weaknesses with those of others. A group full of Organisers or Mavericks may quickly lead to clashes, whilst Worriers or Middlegrounds may stagnate or have problems motivating and encouraging each other - all this making the job of the trainer that bit more challenging! The ideal TP group should have a good cross-section of personalities.
Having divided members into course groups, the trainer can exploit personality types to best effect in feedback and planning sessions. By being aware of individuals strong and weak personality traits, one can deliver feedback in a sensitive and encouraging way, highlighting positive points and also making suggestions about those areas which could be improved. If the feedback is carried out in a group, other personalities may be called upon to assist and encourage colleagues, thus widening the learning circle.
Lessons learnt within TP groups may also positively influence input sessions. The mixing of trainees for group or pairwork may come as a welcome relief after the long hours involved in TP. Shaking up the balance of personalities from time to time keeps a healthy atmosphere and raises energy levels.
In writing this article I may open myself up to accusations of compartmentalising or stereotyping trainees. This is certainly not my intention. Before I began working as a teacher trainer most of these ideas had never occurred to me and I would certainly have been one of the first to comment upon the unfairness of labelling people in such a way. Experience, however, has shown me that in the often highly pressured environment of an intensive certificate course the trainer who exploits the most basic commodity at hand - people and their psychology - can help trainees to unconsciously develop as teachers by doing exactly what they do best by being themselves and making the most of the natural skills inherent in their personality.
About the Author
Claire Woollam is Director of Teacher Training at London English Language Academy in West Ealing, London. She has been involved in Certificate training courses and ELT Management in the UK for the past five years.
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