Is professional development in vain?

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I bet you are all enthusiastic and full of energy now that the conference season is at its peak. I bet you feel in awe of what your colleagues do in the classroom and you are eager to try out all those new ideas you took down during the workshops you’ve recently attended. But let me tell you something, professional development and teacher training are both completely futile. Or at least that’s how some of our students see it.

Earlier today I had a lesson with a group of teenage B2 students. They were preparing for a written test – an opinion essay. The topic was: Can money buy happiness? I’d brought some material which I thought would help them get a broader picture of the issue (a 12-minute TED talk video and a handout with random excerpts from online articles related to the topic). During the speaking activity, I overheard a student say that money can definitely buy happiness. He went on to explain that you can actually buy anything you want; for example, you don’t need to be talented or hard-working because you can buy a university degree. He added that there is basically no difference between someone who has obtained the degree legally and someone who has ‘bought’ it.  I chipped in and said that I disagreed. I told him that he would probably tell that one of his teachers, for instance, had once bought a degree. Now I realize that I should have used a different example, such as a doctor because what the student then said virtually spoiled my day (which by no means was his fault, of course).

Practically anybody who speaks good enough English can enter this classroom and ask us to talk about whether money can buy happiness. And I wouldn’t tell if the person’s degree is fake or real.

First of all, now that I’ve written it down it looks more cynical than it actually sounded. He didn’t sound rude or offensive to me and I actually got his point. In fact, he is a very motivated and gentle student, who always cooperates with me as well as his peers.

Still, his remark got me thinking. It occurred to me that maybe, the more effortless our teaching appears, the less professional it looks. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that the unbearable effortlessness of our teaching is a result of many years of experience, years of teacher training and further professional development, a lifelong passion for teaching and maybe a bit of talent too. It seems that our students believe that as soon as we enter the classroom, we start throwing some random stuff at them, which anybody could do for that matter.

I think the problem is the Communicative Language Teaching. I mean, CLT simply looks suspicious because the teacher does very little while the students do a lot. Consider the following activities:

You ask your students

  1. to discuss a topic in pairs or groups and then you ‘just’ go around the classroom and monitor. Later on, you ‘just’ give collected feedback to the class, but X and Y are not really paying attention because they think it doesn’t concern them – they didn’t make this particular mistake after all.
  2. to discuss something and you don’t ‘even bother to’ correct their mistakes at all.
  3. to watch a video and take notes while listening. Later on, they ‘only’ compare and discuss the notes with their partners.
  4. to read an authentic text you found on the internet (because you thought it might be interesting for your students) and discuss the questions below the text (which, obviously, you created yourself).
  5. to play a game.
  6. to brainstorm ideas and make a mind map.
  7. to do a collaborative project on a specific topic.
  8. to revise vocabulary in pairs, i.e you ask them to test each other and give each other feedback.
  9. to create their own questions for a text you later give them.
  10. to create polls and questionnaires.
  11. to take an online personality test.
  12. to make a PowerPoint presentation.

Since sometimes I tend to be hard on myself and I care about what (I think) my students assume about me as a teacher, I asked myself this: What should I do to make my teaching look ‘more professional’ in the eyes of my students? Is it possible and/or necessary at all?

I hope I will speak on behalf of many English teachers out there if I say that all the above techniques are always chosen carefully and the choices are based on the teacher’s pedagogical beliefs and scientific research into how languages are learned. But this is something our students don’t and can’t see. Should we constantly justify our choices then? Shall we tell them why we want them to do this or that? Shall we show off from time to time and prove that we know our stuff – at the expense of student talking time, for example?

Or shall we just relax and enjoy our (seemingly) effortless way of teaching?

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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14 Responses to Is professional development in vain?

  1. geoffjordan says:

    Hi Hana,

    There’s SO much to discuss here. Good on you for bringing up this “dilemma” and expressing it so well! A 9pm Friday deadline prevents me from commenting now, but I’ hope to get back here soon and throw in my 5 cents worth.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Kamila says:

    Hi Hana,
    This is an interesting problem. It seems to me that there are two reasons for what the students said to you.
    True mastery alwas looks effortless. If we look away from languages, there are many examples in arts, painting, even films; and in sports, with which teenagers might be more familiar. Take hockey or football techniques, or the gracious movements of dance, and especially martial arts where the seemingly simple technique leads to obvious results like the opponent flying to the other end of the room; and even everyday skills such as cooking, for in fact grandma’s svíčková is best because she’s been working on it all her life. This would be very obvious to the children because we all try and fail and try again as kids, only they may not have realised it yet and if you talked about it in class, they will probably have lots of their own examples. The fact that something effortless does not mean it’s easy, in fact right the opposit – or it may be easy now because we’ve been working on it for so long.
    The second reason might be the student’s frustration and feeling that they’re not learning and here we tachers should have assessment tools to demonstrate it isn’t so; perhaps a text they wrote six months ago or a recording of their voice or a book at a level they weren’t able to read last year and can now.
    Very interesting food for thought. Let us know of the developments. I think you’re doing great by reflecting on such moments because reflecting means awareness and therefore control of the situation.
    Good luck
    Kamila

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Hi, Kamila. I agree with your possible explanations of why the boy sees things the way he does. I’d add, though, that he’s a very talented English learner and English is one of the subjects he virtually rocks in. So it’s probably not about frustration stemming from a lack of progress. To the contrary, judging by the way he gets involved in classroom activities, English is relatively easy and enjoyable for him. This leads me to an assumption that maybe teaching English seems so effortless to him that he feels anybody (even he) could do it. He obviously fails to consider all the stuff that happens outside the classroom – he only sees the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.
      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment and multifaceted perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. M. Makino says:

    I believe this is what I call “the Holliday Trap” – not only do more “developed” teachers delegate more content creation and talking time to students, but students expect more didactic teaching from more “developed” teachers. My solution is to do some heady explanation of why we do it this way at the beginning of the term.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      I agree, Mark. From time to time, I do tell my students why I do things. However, this probably doesn’t make teaching appear less effortless to them. I think it boils down to the fact that students who are less proficient or less talented will always better realize the gap between their knowledge and the teacher’s knowlege. So they will feel in awe of the math teacher’s ability to solve equations if they can’t do it themselves. On the other hand, a math genius is likely to see teaching math a piece of cake, I guess.

      Liked by 1 person

      • M. Makino says:

        Interesting. I don’t really have the experience nowadays of higher-level students not being impressed with my knowledge – it’s usually the grammar-focused ones. The ones who could feasibly also conduct a class in English seem more amenable to directions.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. paulwalsh says:

    I think you definitely have a point here Hana. I’ve been talking about a related problem for some time – and that’s the over-emphasis on the ‘lesson’. We make ‘lesson’ plans; we get observed on our ‘lessons’; we devour books with ‘lessons’ in them from guru teachers.

    This is the problem. If our only skill is the ability to stitch together a good lesson – then why are we surprised we don’t get any professional respect? We’ve handed over many of the professional tasks and competences to coursebook designers and exam boards.

    Your student is right in that almost anybody can walk into a classroom and get students talking about something (which might be the primary aim of the CELTA qualification). But that’s not pedagogy. Pedagogy is theoretically-informed practice. And your student will probably recognise a badly-designed course, a badly-designed test, an aimless task, or a blundering grammar explanation.

    Until we reclaim aspects of our profession that have been given away nothing will change. And those aspects lie outside the borders of the one-shot lesson.

    Liked by 4 people

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  6. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Paul,

    I think you are right about the over-emphasis on the ‘lesson’. We all know that when we are observed, our lesson should consist of several ‘compulsory components’, such as the final recap. When I observe my colleagues, I myself remind them of this during the feedback session. But my teaching alter-ego tells me that I’ve just seen one single lesson, which, in fact, is just one in the series of many lessons that constitute a course. Why couldn’t they just stop in the middle of the sentence when the bell rings and tell their students that next time they will pick up where they last left off? They can, of course, but this minor imperfection will definitely appear in their observation sheet. Not all boxes will be ticked and once again, they will feel they are not good enough.

    I think Robert Taylor was right after all about the bad influence the market driven ELT industry has on our teaching. Regardless of what country or teaching context we come from or what qualifications we have, we all read the same books and we all know the same ELT ‘gurus’ after all. Even our methodology course at university was taught by CELTA and DELTA qualified teacher trainers and their methods and requirements, as I later realized, drew on the content of the CELTA training.

    Thanks for commenting and making me think out of the box for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. paulwalsh says:

    No problem Hana – thanks for making me think too. This made me think of a further question:

    What if teachers were taught to design and manage their own courses (incl. assessment) – using course planning frameworks – rather than merely carry out ‘lessons’?

    Like

  8. Hana Tichá says:

    This would probably raise the prestige of our profession. Artists who write their own music are held in higher esteem than those who only perform it. But more importantly, it would solve many problems related to one-size-fits-all coursebook content and the quality would go up too. And I’d be in; I’ve been creating more and more content of my own lately anyway. Of course, there are many arguments against this, which I’ve already discussed here on my blog before.

    Like

  9. Lina says:

    Hi Hana,

    I think first of all we need to check what do our students mean by being professional. What do they expect from a professional teacher? Then we can relate to our own teaching and find some similarities and differences.
    But somehow I’m almost 100% sure that their answers will be something like ‘kind’, ‘cheerful’, and ‘making me interested/engaged’. I don’t think many of them will reflect on educational background and teaching techniques. At least, that was the result of one of the research projects I read about a couple of months ago 🙂
    So should we care about it if students want us to be just humans in the first place?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. ven_vve says:

    In addition to my comment on this post over on twitter, I wanted to address the questions you ask at the end: “Should we constantly justify our choices then? Shall we tell them why we want them to do this or that? Shall we show off from time to time and prove that we know our stuff?”
    I don’t think I’ve actually had students openly doubt this before in the sense that you describe – I mean, I’m sure there have been situations where they might have been wondering why we were doing a particular activity but not a case of “I’m sure I couldn’t say if she just walked in off the street and decided to teach us English”. Maybe they were just too polite to say so, of course. 🙂
    I would go into detail re the questions you ask depending on the class and how interested they seem in (the effectiveness of) teaching. Personally, I try to give a brief rationale for most of the stuff we do, and I certainly do this more consciously in an asynchronous online environment. If someone wants to take the discussion further, I think I would be okay with that and wouldn’t see it as taking up STT, for instance.
    Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This was a thought-provoking post, so thanks. Like some of the other commenters, I think your student would soon notice the difference if he saw a lesson taught by a new or untrained teacher.
    I’ve sometimes pondered on what it is that a language teacher is actually for, particularly after observing teachers who didn’t bring very much to their lessons. (E.g. one who went through a series of coursebook activities just telling students to ‘do exercise 2’ and then confirming the answers with no further discussion; or another one who decided it was a clever idea to ‘outsource’ the presentation of grammar by just playing a YouTube video explaining it. In both cases I felt the students might be better off just forming a study group to work through the coursebook together, checking answers with a key, without a teacher at all, and saving the money.) I tend to feel it’s in the interstices of the lesson, the ‘in-between’ bits, where we can contribute by setting the context, giving detailed feedback, clarifying the lexis that none of the students know. We try to get as much as we can from the students these days, and I’m all for that, but there are times when something really is new to them and you can’t elicit it, and then we can, you know ‘teach’ something!
    Cathy

    Liked by 1 person

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