Who we work with (the Coworker Issue)

When we step into a classroom, we are often entirely alone with our students. This feeling of responsibility and even isolation can be one of the hardest parts of being a teacher. But before we enter the classroom, we have the chance to connect up with teachers inside and even outside of our work place. Our coworkers help us to carry and examine our teaching experiences outside of the four walls of the classroom. In this issue, Michael Griffin and first time iTDi bloggers Laura Adele Soracco and Angelos Bollas, share stories and thoughts on coworkers, the people we work with, the people who sometimes help us become the teachers we are meant to be.

laura_profileHELPING TEACHING TO FIND ME
mike_griffin_profileON LEARNING WITH AND FROM COWORKERS
angelos_profileWHAT IS YOUR COLLEAGUE TYPE?
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Helping Teaching to Find me

laura_profileBy Laura Soracco

I did not go to college thinking I would become a teacher – teaching found me, and it kept showing up at my doorstep until I fell in love with it. As a student, I began tutoring Spanish and Italian as a way to have a bit of additional income. I remember how uncomfortable I felt when I got grammar questions, since I couldn’t really answer much beyond a “because that’s how it is said”. Learning how to teach languages was not really on my agenda. I saw myself as a political science and international relations person. But a month before getting my bachelors degree, I was offered a job training teachers in public schools all over the United States in a remedial reading program for students with reading problems. After witnessing the impact of illiteracy on so many students from different backgrounds, I started to feel differently about teaching.

The turning point in my career came after I moved to Colombia to take what I thought was a temporary job teaching English at a university while I figured out where I would go to graduate school. I joined the Foreign Languages Department a few weeks into the semester, so I was asked to work at the computer lab at first. Teachers came in with their students for an hour or two, and this gave me the chance to interact with everyone during the week. At lunch time, we often sat together and chatted. Having time outside of class to socialize made it easier to feel comfortable around my coworkers. And the way my coworkers accepted me made me want to learn more about English language teaching in general. I remember during the first few months, I was always holding on dearly to my textbook and studying the teacher’s resource book for all the advice I could get before class; fortunately my coworkers were always willing to exchange teaching ideas, tips, materials, or just listen to some of my concerns. One time I was embarrassed to admit I did not know what a clause was. I could not understand it by looking it up online either. Knowing that my coworkers could help, I asked the teacher who was known for being really good in grammar to explain what a clause was. Her non-judgmental approach was key to making me feel like I could reach out to others when I needed help. What is more important, nobody ever behaved as if my age or experience made a difference in my ability to teach well. These coworkers were a fundamental part of my training as an English teacher, even though I’m not sure they realize it.

I also made friends in other departments and faculties. We would often sit around the university’s main square after lunch, have a cup of coffee, and chat for a few minutes before going to class. Once, I even admitted to a psychology teacher that I did not feel like I could teach. I had only been teaching my own class for a few weeks and I was worried I was not doing a good job. He helped me feel like these insecurities were the rite of passage of teaching, that “nothing was wrong” with me.

Fortunately, professional development for teachers was a big part of that university. All new faculty were invited to attend sessions arranged by the school’s resource centre. The sessions helped faculty evaluate their curriculum, teaching strategies, and even how we spoke in class. I found myself enjoying the thought-provoking discussions with my colleagues at these sessions, and I knew then that I had fallen in love with teaching. These professional development opportunities were open to all faculty members, and I got to connect and form ties not only with English teachers, but also with teachers of other languages and teachers in other areas. Learning about the teaching context of faculty in other departments, like math or economics, gave me a better understanding of the challenges my students faced in their other classes.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my coworkers had not been so open to exchanging thoughts about learning and teaching English. What would have happened if I had been surrounded by coworkers who disliked their jobs, and did not feel proud of teaching English? What if my coworkers had not been willing to collaborate? I may have turned away from teaching. Instead, I can say that teaching found a way to my heart thanks to the enthusiasm and trust of all those teachers around me. Their camaraderie, their mentorship, and the love for what they do were the final push I needed to finally realize that teaching English language learners is what I truly want to do in life, and I will be forever grateful to them. What seemed like a temporary job turned into a life-long passion which has led me to an MA in TESOL and unforgettable teacher friends.

On learning with and from coworkers

mike_griffin_profileby Michael Griffin

In a recent blog post over on my blog I gave some advice to my younger teacher self. One area I mostly skipped and glossed over somehow was co-workers. I did write in the post, “on occasion you will meet people who grate on your very last nerve,” but I think this is relatively rare. In my fifteen years teaching EFL in Northeast Asia I can honestly say, with some notable exceptions, most of the people I have worked with have been helpful, kind, and easy enough to get along with. I can surely say there were lessons to be learned from all of them.

220px-6-Pack-Chicken-Eggs

[“6-Pack-Chicken-Eggs” by Evan-Amos.]

 In my current teaching situation at a university in Seoul there are only two people at the university I am in regular contact with about teaching and education related matters. Maybe this is not so surprising. After all, teaching is sometimes known as the egg crate profession. While my current teaching context is somewhat isolated, I am lucky enough to have colleagues all around the world beamed in through the internet(s). My teaching life would be far less rich, fulfilling, happy, and productive without such connections.

When thinking about my teaching career up to now, I sometimes wish I’d been more prepared or willing to seize the moment and learn all the lessons I could from every single co-worker I encountered in my previous teaching contexts. I feel a tinge of regret over not making the most of the opportunities I was presented with. I taught with people from all over with a huge range of experiences, attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, and manner of teaching. Perhaps at times I was a bit too caught up in what I was doing and my own immediate concerns which caused me to miss out on the learning opportunities the cosmos placed right in front of me.

There are a few things I wish I’d done as a newer teacher when blessed with the opportunity to work with large groups of co-workers. The first is undoubtedly to observe other teachers as much as possible. I don’t necessarily mean observe in the official or formal sense (though I wish I did more of this as well), I mean simply seeing how other teachers did their jobs and watching teachers in class as much as possible. In one of my previous positions, all teachers were expected to observe other teachers 3-4 times when we first started teaching at the institution. But this expectation evaporated when we were no longer new teachers. There are still some teachers I wish I’d seen! I also wish I’d taken the requirement more seriously and had observed far more than the minimum required.

I spent lots of time chatting with co-workers in my previous jobs and lots of good times occurred. If I could do it all over again I’d probably exchange 10-15% of the conversations about sports, politics, the economy, the weather, and other topics not suitable for a family or professional blog for more talk about teaching. I feel like I learned so much just talking shop with other teachers after classes were finished for the day. It was incredibly helpful to learn about materials, methods and beliefs. Yet, I think I could have gotten even more out of the experience if I considered this to be professional development and not simply killing time and procrastinating and avoiding preparing for the next day’s lessons. Looking back, I wish I’d realized how valuable such conversations were and could be and took advantage of them.

I also wish I’d tried harder in staffroom conversations to focus more on what was actually happening in classes rather than simply superficial and immediate impressions. I wish I’d focused more on student learning and what made us as teachers believe this was happening rather than relying on our gut instincts or our previous years of experience as students.  If my memory serves, a lot of the conversations were like, “That lesson sucked, and wow they are really not into it today” or “That lesson rocked, what a great topic choice for that group.” I also wish I’d been better about uncovering and articulating beliefs about teaching and learning rather than sticking with the obvious and simple. In short, I wish I’d done better to foster and participate in more productive and reflective conversations when the topic was recent lessons and teaching.

I will stop here with the nostalgic regrets and I will hope there is something you can take from these thoughts, regardless of the size of your staffroom. The good news, if for whatever reason your coworkers are unable to give you the support and learning you need, iTDi is here to fill a lot of these needs in a collegial way. We look forward to connecting with you.

What Is Your Colleague Type?

angelos_profileBy Angelos Bollas

Many things have been said about the importance of understanding our learners and how this can positively affect our teaching. What about understanding our colleagues? Will knowing our colleagues’ type – or our own type for that matter -affect our job?  Having spent 9 years in various hallways, staff-rooms, FB groups, and Twitter discussions, I have come across some broad categories of coworkers, all of whom had and still have something to teach me. So, here is my list:

Newbie Type A: 

This type of teacher currently has no experience and no training. The boss hired them because they will not claim a high (well, as high as a teacher can claim) hourly rate. They spend much time in the staff-room and they do everything they can to get on well with their coworkers.  They often develop a special relationship with Helper Types (see: Helper Types).

Possible effect on others: They offer a great chance for other staff members to refresh their skills and revisit important issues of language learning and teaching. Usually, Newbie Type A teachers ask to observe lessons and are open to a wide range of suggestions. Having a Newbie Type A in the school provides opportunities for more experienced teachers to mentor and develop their teacher training skills.

Newbie Type B:

This type of teacher has just completed a teacher training course. Bless them. They are usually in a state of shock and view all classrooms as a whirlwind of chaos. They are trying to put into practice everything they have learnt in training. At the same time, though, they sometimes have a hard time asking for help as they have been trained and feel that there should be an answer somewhere and given enough effort, they will be able to find it.

Possible effect on others: usually, Newbie Type B teachers do not interact a lot with other teachers. In addition, a few Newbie Types B’s believe that the training course they went through, for whatever reason, is superior to other trainings. this special sub-type of Newbie Type B teachers might end up spending their time exclusively with Post-Newbie Type B Types. In general, when asked for help, Newbie Type B’s can often blossom, happy to share the information and ideas that they have worked so hard to learn.

Newbie Type C:

Very similar to Newbie Type Bs… and yet something is also very different. During their training course, they were taught (or somehow leaned) that sharing means caring; that real learning requires more than one person to be involved to happen.

Possible effect on others: extremely pleasant type to work with, sociable, caring, interested in their job, sharing good and bad experiences. Even more experienced teachers learn a lot from colleagues of this type, especially when it comes to using new tools or techniques. Bless them!

Experienced Type A, The Mentor

Experienced teachers who continuously share their experience and knowledge with anyone belong to this category. They are usually well networked and connected to a wide PLN (Professional Learning Network). They often jump at the chance to present at any local and/or global conference.

Possible effect on others: They are a pleasure to work with. Novice teachers use them as a point of reference. Experienced teachers rely on them for in-depth discussions, chances to reflect on their own teaching, and even the occasional simple teaching tip or trick. And senior staff members or DOSs appreciate them because as long as ‘The Mentor’ is around, there is one less colleague to worry about.

Experienced Type B, The Anti-Mentor:

Not completely the opposite of ‘The Mentor’.  The Experienced Type B teacher is skilful and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, they are also extremely unapproachable. Typically, these colleagues started teaching as a means of earning a living until they could find a real job; yet, because of their natural skill set and abilities, they succeeded at teaching up until the point where it became their career, without ever realising that it was, in fact, a career. Anti-Mentors don’t share their experience because they do not realise that there is anything to share; they do not realise that teaching is a difficult profession and that they have valuable insights which could help make it less difficult for the people they work with.

Possible effect on others: This type does not often cause problems for others. They check in right on time, do their lessons, and go back home. However, occasionally an Anti-Mentor might feel some loss over having missed out on what they believe to have been their ‘real career’. This can occasionally lead to withdraw and a lack of desire to actively participate in trainings.

Experienced Type C, The Helper:

This is perhaps the rarest type of colleague, and has not been photographed in the wild since 1997 in a small school in Barcelona. The Helper shares many characteristics with Experienced Type A Teachers. The main difference, though, is that The Helper is always around (although rarely photographed). They work 12 hours per day – although the word work in this context means staying in the staff-room in a semi-on-duty mode, perpetually willing to cover for absent colleagues or do extra lessons and/or tutorials.

Possible effects on others: Other than spoiling the people lucky enough to work with them – who doesn’t want a colleague like this – they also spoil our bosses, too. It can get to the point where some school owners begin to ‘demand’ that all teachers have this always-on attitude.

The above list is not conclusive and, while a list of ‘types’, it is not written with the intent of promoting categorisation. Instead, I hope that it can help us take a moment think about or coworkers. They, like us, are teachers. They are not just the people with whom we share our staff-rooms, but the people with whom we share similar passions, questions, and insecurities. And I also hope that as we think about our coworkers, we can also begin to think about ourselves. Do we make the lives of our colleagues better or worse?

Feel free to share your own experiences with your colleagues, or even better, ask them to describe you as a colleague and think of what you can do to become a better colleague, person, and, ultimately, teacher.

Assessment is…

Assessment is no longer, if it ever truly was, paper and pencil tests focused on language knowledge. From oral interviews, open ended questions, portfolio work, and student generated exams, assessment has grown to better meet the needs of individual language learners in specific contexts. And yet, assessment is still filled with stories of heartbreak and missed opportunities. In this issue, iTDi members carry on the discussion of what assessment often is, what it can be, and where it might be moving.

The ‘Why’ of Testing by Kevin Stein
Naomi EpsteinAssessment is Sometimes Heartbreak
Dave DodgsonReassessing assessment
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