Ideas and emotions: Finding a space for sharing

Stewart GrayIdeas and emotions: Finding a space for sharing

by Stewart Gray.

 

If you ask me, I’ll tell you: the other teachers working at my current school are seasoned professionals. I believe this is true, but I must admit, I’ve intuited their professionalism from somewhat limited observations and interactions. The unfortunate reality is that the other teachers at my school teach the same chapters of the same books as I do in the classrooms next to mine, and I have no idea what they do in their classes. How do they structure their lessons? Do they have any favorite activities? You’d have to ask them. I haven’t. 

I’ve heard teaching described as the “egg-carton profession,” meaning each teacher works alone in their own niche unaware of the doings of others and not sharing what they themselves are doing. Often enough, this description has been about right for my own teaching. In retrospect, I’m horrified by the number of hours I’ve sat pondering a lesson plan in a lonely agony when someone else agonizing over the same material at the same time was a text message away. 

It’s not that my colleagues and I would necessarily refuse to discuss teaching practice with each other. It’s rather that, mostly, we just don’t. Why not? Well, on the one hand, I have to acknowledge the role of my own shyness – I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it hard to reach out. On the other hand, we aren’t encouraged to discuss. At no point in the teaching semester does our employer invite us to share ideas. Indeed, I’ve worked at a few schools, but so far never at one that provided a dedicated space for teachers to express themselves, to advise and support each other. It’s a shame, really, because whenever I have found such a space outside of work, I’ve profited tremendously by it. 

Ideas over coffee 

A good example of a space I’ve found is the Seoul reflective practice group – a small band of teachers that meets on a monthly basis. What’s wonderful about this group is that it exists for the express purpose of sharing. It represents a private space to hash out our individual professional concerns together, over coffee. We listen to each other and we share our ideas. And it’s really helpful! Over the past few years, my teaching has been shaped and reshaped by discussions I’ve had in those meetings. 

I recall, for example, talking with one of the group’s regular attendees, Brian, about difficulties I was having in teaching pronunciation. Brian possesses certain marvellous qualities: he’ll listen attentively to what you have to say, take it all in, then offer his considerable wisdom in a non-forceful manner.* On this occasion, he listened as I vocalised my vexation. I was struggling to come up with any sort of novel, engaging ways to approach pronunciation practice in my classes. As far as I could see, I’d tried everything. Brian calmly absorbed my words and then said, “You know, what I do in my class is I get my students to practice reciting dialogues from short, funny commercials.” And just like that, with that one idea, Brian kick-started a complete rethink of the way I taught pronunciation. It was a good idea. It was a simple idea. I never would have thought of it. 

*When it comes to reflective practice, people like Brian are brilliant – find them, if you haven’t already. 

Journaling together online, emotionally 

For sure, in-person discussion groups can be great. However, they aren’t always possible. Some people might have (or be able to find) compatriots willing to discuss teaching, but they live too far away to meet regularly. For people in such a position, I have a recommendation: create a shared, online Google document in which you and others can all write together. Such a document can be a shared teaching journal, in which everyone can express themselves and offer help to others. This combines the benefits of a private, purposeful, interactive discussion space with the bonus of being largely free of geographic constraints. 

I kept such a shared journal once myself with two friends, both teachers, over a period of several months. Each of us would open the journal document each week and write about our “critical incidents” for the week. Naturally, these stand-out incidents would often be challenging and distressing experiences – a conflict with students, feelings of failure at a lesson gone badly, frustration with management, and the like. I remember once after a particularly difficult week, I found myself pouring anxiety out into the journal. I had become angry in class, and though I had tried to hide it, I was certain the students had noticed. I wrote of my crushing embarrassment – I felt painfully unprofessional. And how did my two friends respond to my anxious writings? They wrote back telling me that they understood; that they’d had the same feelings and faced similar situations in their practice; and that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Reading their comments, I immediately felt profoundly relieved. I felt supported, not alone. Their empathy, it turns out, was powerful stuff, and it was just what I needed. 

The need for sharing 

As teachers, we all face challenges. Some of those challenges are practical and might be tackled with some timely advice and inspiration from a peer. Other challenges are emotional. We may experience frustration, self-doubt, fear, and embarrassment in the course of our practice. In such cases, caring responses might be just the remedy. Whatever the nature of the issues at hand, talking things out with other teachers can be helpful and healthy. The alternative, the “egg carton” approach, may mean struggling alone and suffering in silence. It would be lovely if more employers would take it on themselves to provide a space for teachers to talk, share, and support each other. In the meantime, to teachers, I recommend finding or creating such a space wherever, however possible. 

So, is it Imposter or Impostor?

Steven HerderSo, is it Imposter or Impostor?

by Steven Herder.

 

Teaching for years in Japan without a recognized teaching qualification or teaching license from Canada always left me feeling somewhat insecure, with a sizeable “gap” in my overall identity as a teacher. Even though I was amassing thousands of contact hours in the classroom, had very good communication skills, continually learned from my many mistakes, and could always fall back on my natural enthusiasm to get students to work with me more than work against me, I always carried a doubt that maybe all of those teachers who earned an actual education degree knew a secret that I, the imposter, would never discover. 

At this point in my career, however, I am now well and truly cured of that imposter syndrome, happy to discuss or debate education with anyone and firmly established within myself as an educator. In the past 10 years, I have become a seasoned conference presenter, a busy teacher trainer, and an EFL teacherpreneur through my work with iTDi. I feel “cured” because I am often re-invited to lead teacher training workshops at numerous boards of education around Japan, have been leading popular publisher teacher trainings from Hokkaido to Kyushu for the past 6 years, and receive all kinds of appreciation from teachers around the world as a facilitator of The Teachers’ Room at iTDi and as a tutor on the iTDi TESOL Certificate. However, in order to be a better teacher trainer, I recently realized that I have a new “chicken and egg” question that I really need to better understand if I want to help more teachers. 

“Which came first for me, building my teaching credentials in order to be able to talk to teachers, or talking to teachers in order to define my teacher identity?” 

From my perspective, a whole teacher needs a balance of these three components: 

For so long, I thought that doing my MA in TEFL/TESL at the University of Birmingham offered the educational theory that I needed to become whole as a teacher. I had taught myself the skills needed to teach, and I had gained a lot of experience, what I was missing was the theory. 

However, recently, I am meeting a great number of teachers who don’t have any kind of MA in TESL/TEFL/TESOL or Applied Linguistics, who have shown themselves to be just as whole as me or any of my learned colleagues.  

What appears to be the difference between WHOLE teachers and those teachers with a HOLE remaining is mostly a case of the above-mentioned impostor syndrome or a general lack of confidence in themselves.

“I want to tell some teachers that they are already WHOLE and tell some other teachers that filling the HOLE that they may perceive to be in their teaching lives is, in fact, much easier than they would ever imagine.” 

To illustrate, I want to share an anecdote from The Teachers’ Room recently:

“Last week, I was talking with a teacher about him feeling like a fake teacher compared to others in our context because of his sense of having Impostor Syndrome. He said he spent a great deal of time avoiding discussions and hiding his real views from others. Even though he occasionally did presentations, he believed it was just a matter of time before people knew he was a fake. He explained how this sense of himself as a teacher kept him from growing any further as a teacher.  

First of all, I assured him that I knew exactly how he felt. I had felt many of the same things literally for years! However, I said that after years of talking with teachers face-to-face and online, I have come to see a pattern in professional development: 

Almost every whole teacher I know, including me, has gone through these 3 stages of professional development:  

  1. First, “There’s no way I’ll stand up in front of a group of teachers I don’t know and talk about what I know about teaching” (impostor syndrome).
  1. If we are able to stumble into a learning community, then we begin to trust those around us, and we take our first tiny steps – offering our opinions and sharing our teaching experiences, both good and bad. Unfortunately, only talking about our teaching is never enough. From my perspective, you need to build up your educational theory through a balance of input and output. This means reading and listening to a lot of what the experts know about teaching and learning. It also means having a place to discuss ideas, and preferably an opportunity to write about your ideas as they form into your own personal theory of learning (how people learn a language) and theory of practice (how you choose to teach). 
  1. Finally, and much sooner that most people would imagine, we are able to reach a comfort level, which is supported by positive feedback, and then we really begin to grow. Once you get into stage 3, then the real fun begins – collaborating, innovating, and inspiring others.

Right now, iTDi offers three invaluble veues to become a WHOLE teacher: 

  1.  Advanced Skills Courses (Online month-long courses or self-study units) 
  2.  The Teachers’ Room (Online live weekly sessions) 
  3.  The iTDi TESOL Certificate (Online 130-hour personally-tailored and interactively tutored course) 

We are a niche business, small but mighty, and owe our success to the exemplary quality of our faculty. We work well together because we share a vision, we agree on our mission, and we genuinely respect each other’s work. 

As highly-experienced, passionate teachers, we know what helps teachers to reach their potential as educators. We formed iTDi in order to offer opportunities to teachers that we wish had been available when we needed them most. We look forward to meeting all like-minded teachers who both want more for themselves and believe that they deserve more for themselves as teachers. 

By the way, I learned today that either spelling – imposter and impostor – is accepted as correct. I’m relieved that I won’t need to know that fact any longer in my teaching. 

Two Conversations About Teaching

Bryan HaleTwo Conversations About Teaching

by Bryan Hale.

 

Mina

Mina (not her real name) and I are both sitting on a brightly colored and comically large chair in the reception area of the hagwon we work in. A “hagwon” is a private language academy in Korea. Actually, our work day should be over already, but we’re waiting for the hagwon owner to arrive with guests for some kind of promotional event. The hagwon is sinking and neither of us has been paid for some time.

We’re not quite sitting next to each other, but at a kind of perpendicular angle, almost back to back. Despite the awkward position, we’re suddenly having a vivid conversation about one of our kindergarten classes, sharing a rush of details and observations over our shoulders. The students’ English levels have been getting more and more divergent. Are we doing enough for all of them?

Mina says something. “You never check if they’ve really learned.”

Wow. I’m stung. I’ve been babbling but suddenly don’t know what to say.

I also kind of want to cling to Mina and beg her to tell me everything behind that comment: all the little details she took in that led to it, all the little changes she would prefer to see.

It’s been a steep learning curve, this job. Learning how to make sure the parents are kept happy. Learning how to make sure the owner has the impression the parents are being kept happy. Learning how to do two pages of the textbook each lesson, no matter what, and learning how to make sure it’s visible we did the two pages. But here, where we’ve collapsed into this whirlpool of an honest talk, what Mina wants to let me know is that among all that, real learning also matters. And she can see that I’m not getting real learning to happen as much as I could.

Mina was my head teacher in this, my first teaching position. The conversation this day wasn’t the only one like it. The hagwon’s troubles accelerated things, washing away assumptions that had kept us from talking more honestly, and helping me to realize the value in really learning from Mina, beyond the prescriptions and roles of our official relationship. There was a lot to learn. She knew her students so well. She knew what they had learned and how they had learned it. And she knew how that connected to their emotional experiences. She knew her students as a whole, like a detailed landscape, full of continuities and breaks. In the middle of chaotic afternoon comings-and-goings here in the reception area, she could stand in the middle of it all and help three very different students have three different learning experiences, in a single breath. Perhaps I learned more from Mina than any other single colleague, and a part of me still wants to cling to her and ask a million questions.

 

Reflective Practice

Somewhere outside it’s a rainy day in Seoul. I’m stumbling into a narrow, windowless room at the back of a cafe, guided by an invite over social media and my phone GPS. It’s my first ever Reflective Practice meeting.

I don’t think I need to keep names secret here: this meeting is facilitated by Mike Griffin and Alex Walsh. And Anne Hendler is here too! I don’t actually remember the topic of the meeting and I definitely don’t remember the words verbatim like I do with Mina. I do remember Mike setting up a discussion with a friendly suggestion that we not try to solve each other’s problems and instead help each other along with follow-up questions. Suddenly I’m talking to someone I’ve never met before, a rich and rewarding exchange about our teaching experiences flowing easily. Mike appears behind her, listening in for a moment, gently cutting in with a question that helps open up a story I’m sharing. Then he disappears again. The room stops feeling small.

While the details aren’t burned into my memory as clearly as with Mina, this feels like a part of a bigger and ultimately much more important conversation that I’m still taking part in. It connects to my present partly because I remain involved with the same Reflective Practice group, but it also extends across various professional development contexts, including KOTESOL, iTDi, excitELT, the temporary physical spaces around the edges of conferences, other online spaces. Although serendipity plays a role, and although there have been many opportunities for me to receive advice and to learn from teachers such as Mike and Alex and Anne, this is a conversation where I’m in charge of my participation. In this conversation I’m not adrift, and the need to plead or cling falls away. This conversation is collegial and collaborative and open-ended.

I’m grateful for both conversations.

I wish I’d known it was all right to let things go

Stewart Gray

I wish I’d known it was all right to let things go
by Stewart Gray.

 

Watching what happens around you and within you and not intervening, letting go of the urge to fix things and people – this is “powerful meditation” for a teacher (Farrell, 2016). When I consider my early years in the profession, there’s perhaps nothing I wish I had known more than that I could let things go. As a matter of fact, I’m still striving to internalise this. I reflect on my most troubled times in teaching, past and present, and very often they were the times I was most unwilling to let go: of control, of conceit, or of conflict (all C’s – carefully chosen words for the present writing, I must confess). This writing is a reflection on those times when I failed to let go, or when letting go turned things around for me. I hope my experiences will speak to the reader.

Control

I still remember, it was some years ago, my eyes were opened by a tweet. The tweeter was Anna Loseva. She talked about the liberating feeling of not trying to control students: “letting go helped get closer,” I believe was her wording. This was an excellent time for enlightenment to strike, as around then I happened to be agonising over a class. It was a Monday morning, 9 a.m., three-hour-long class, with undergraduate students enrolled in English class against their preferences. At the start of each week, I’d been walking into class at 9 and walking out again at 12, utterly broken, with like I’d been in a fight kind of feeling. No matter what I said or did, the class did not readily respond. They did not pair off when I told them to; they did not open their books when I told them to; worst, they did not speak or write when I told them to. Their apparent resistance filled me with a burning professional anxiety. I was becoming genuinely afraid of Monday mornings. So, one day, I gave up on telling them what to do. I wrote a few options on the board: writing, speaking, etc. I let them know they could choose the way of approaching the day’s materials for themselves. And then the most unbelievable thing happened – this class of students, whom I’d dreaded even seeing, calmly arranged themselves and set to work. I was stunned.

Conceit

Exercising control over students is, of course, not necessarily bad. As teachers, invested with power, possessing symbols of authority, we are positioned to compel students to study where they otherwise might not (Makino, 2017); and if we grant that studying is basically a good thing, then teacher authority must be a somewhat good thing, too. That said, the drive to control students contains, you could argue, certain conceit: that it is within my power to create benefits for students if they will only heed my instructions. If they do well on a test, that success is mine, in a way. If they don’t seem to get better at speaking English despite months of classes, that failure is mine, also. If these notions are believed simply, it makes sense to be quite strict with students.

And indeed, I’ve been strict. I’ve chastised countless students for failing to follow my instructions; even, in the early years, outright yelled at them in front of their peers. Intellectually, I now recognise that non-compliance may be the result of unclear instructions, or activities that are too difficult, or dull. But when a participant on a teacher training course I’m leading decides to chat about her day in lieu of participation, and when my undergraduate conversation students quietly switch to their L1 when they think I’m not looking, my primal reaction has often been that they are being “disrespectful.” Frankly, with the benefit of experience, it seems doubtful to me that what I am trying to do in class will reliably yield benefits for students, that my pedagogical goals are important enough to warrant forcing students to fulfil them, or that student compliance signifies respect for me. Over the years, I’ve held on to lots of painful, tiring anxiety about respect for my authority – so far as I can say looking back, this hasn’t produced anything of value.

Conflict

What respect-anxiety has produced for me in abundance is conflict, and not just with students. It is with aching regret that I consider how relationships between me and certain of my former co-workers soured as time went by. We used to disagree a lot about the best way to teach students for whom we shared responsibility. Even I am surprised when I recall the personal, venomous nature of many of those disagreements. In retrospect, I believe that both they and I were feeling the need to be respected as professionals, but instead of respectfully compromising, we each argued for our own positions. These arguments grew and deepened, until instead of respect we heaped scorn on each other. And eventually, in some cases, we stopped talking altogether. I still carry a lot of shame about those difficult days. I suppose I felt at the time I was arguing for what I believed in, pedagogically speaking. I suppose I felt I was advocating for myself as a legitimate professional in the face of my colleagues’ oppressive behaviour. I suppose I felt I was arguing for something. In fact, I walked away from those arguments with nothing except perhaps a little wisdom and a few psychic bruises that have yet to completely heal.

Gradually, fortunately, I’ve learned to eschew conflict and yield control, to understand other teachers’ perspectives, and to compromise when needed. As yet, I’m still learning. I wish, though, I could go back and have a word with my earlier self about the peace that comes from letting things go.

 

References

  1. Farrell, T.S.C. (2016). Contemplative practice: From letting go to letting come. The English Connection, 20(1), 8-9.
  2. Makino, M. (2017). My black robes. Available from: https://futurealisreal.wordpress.com/2017/12/23/my-blackrobes/

No regrets! Just a few wishes…

Matthew Noble

No regrets! Just a few wishes…
by Matthew Noble.

 

I wish I’d known, earlier on, what a more realistic and practical lesson planning process looked like. I’m not sure if my course trainers ever really conveyed the idea that the fashion in which we were required to knock out full-on multi-section lesson plan documents, one after the other, furiously and sleeplessly, during the entirety of the one-month course, was not what would be expected of us on the job. I really wish I’d known that. And I wish it had been explained to me why we were planning the way we were planning while in training, comparing it to how we would likely plan lessons on the job. I wish I’d had chance to perhaps explore what was most and least likely transferable. Instead, I didn’t know the difference and attempted to apply the approach to planning I was trained to take during the course – and quickly burnt myself out with it. This resulted in unnecessary heartache and an enduring confusion about the nature of effective planning.

I also wish I’d known that “anticipated problems” (as they are described on the lesson plan pro forma on that initial training course) don’t really represent problems but rather very salient learning opportunities. I wish this whole area of classroom/lesson experience was not set aside as in any way “problematic,” but instead faced directly as the primary concern for us developing teachers, even if total newbies. I think that as a result I spent far too long treating students’ inevitable, natural, ultimately productive confusions as something to avoid or at best ensure. I wish I’d known – or at least had more models and evidence for recognizing – that these incidents are, in fact, ground zero for learning. Instead of spending all my time and energy preparing for a (hopefully!) smooth sail through clarification of any particular language point, I wish I knew to spend more of that time and energy preparing to give the best targeted, responsive feedback I could at the very moments my learners demonstrated that they were ready for it.

I wish I’d realized sooner that doing lesson planning and preparation alone all the time was a bad idea. Perhaps I should have; we didn’t do too much isolated planning on my training course and we almost always at least checked in with the trainers to review our ideas and get guidance. We were also encouraged to cooperate with our peers in our planning process. We were just never told to continue doing so on the job and we never really explored what this might look like beyond the course. I went on to approach planning as a fundamentally private affair for far too long. I wish I’d known, in those early days, to burst that bubble and engage interested colleagues in staff rooms – at the very least, talking more about general and specific challenges as I thought about what I’d be teaching the next day. It’s not as if I didn’t spend an entire month doing exactly that, day in and day out, for a full month of training!

I also wish I’d been able to better appreciate my course trainers as the models of ELT professionals they were. Having clearer, closer models of mature ELT career professionals would have helped me. There were multiple times during my early career when, despite my interest in and passion for teaching English, I doubted the feasibility of a career in ELT. I couldn’t see any obvious path onwards and upwards from being a classroom teacher forever. How did those trainers, for instance, get where they were? I certainly learned quite a few things about them during the month I was with them, and I’m pretty sure they supplied us all with their CVs. But somehow I don’t remember a sense that their professional example was an intentional object lesson for us. This was likely them being so “trainee-centered” and avoiding the spotlight, and of course that was a good thing (they were great trainers). In any event, I wish that I’d focused in more on their professional routes and roots in order to fill certain empty spaces of my professional imagination. I could have simply approached them (and any number of potentially early-career mentors in various staff rooms) and asked. From day one of my course onwards, I certainly felt that I wanted to be like them. Now as a trainer myself I make sure that I’m “trainee-centered” too, and I also make sure to highlight, in a personal way, what it’s like to surf the inevitable waves of doubt and confusion in this field and ultimately find calmer waters.

I wish I’d understood what a big, big deal listening is. Listening has been called the “Cinderella skill” because of how neglected it is but for early-career Matthew it might as well have been the “Invisible Man skill”. The only way I understood to approach it, based on my early training, was awkwardly top-down: testing general and specific comprehension of various spoken passages rather than actually teaching listening strategies or using listening work to illuminate aspects of phonology, morphology, pragmatics, etc.  Did I at least make what I could out of what I had in my newbie’s tiny toolbox? No, even my limited top-down listening comprehension exercises were managed pretty poorly. Far be it from me to give my learners even a five-second delay after the disembodied two-minute conversation they just heard from a CD in order to mentally review the eight questions they were trying to answer about it. Repeated listenings? I’d never allow for that as it would surely be “cheating” and totally unrealistic! CD player not working? Okay, we’ll just have to wait until it works then. A “live listening”? Get outta here! Sure, I was trained to build some context around what my learners were hearing: the scene would be set, the characters perhaps sketched on the whiteboard. I did that…usually. I was also trained to allow for pair-checks after each time listening. Sage counsel. Did I follow it?… Usually. But because true qualities of listening were still invisible to me then, what I did with it early in my career very rarely lead anywhere. I wish I’d known then that listening actually leads everywhere!

I also wish I’d recognized:

…that professional development needs are never satisfied passively.

…that students certainly want to be engaged and active, but there’s no reason to fear the occasional mini-lecture.

…that the whiteboard belongs to the learners as much as it does to the teacher.

…that the teacher is a perpetual learner of the very language they teach (and it really is okay for the learners to see you learning, too).

…that there’s plenty of readable research out there that offers practical insights on the whats, whys, and hows of language teaching and learning.

…that PARSNIPs aren’t poison. Rather, they’re (sometimes spicy) seasonings that, if applied carefully and thoughtfully, make otherwise bland classes flavorful.

…that I’d be able to write about just a small selection of “things I wish I’d known when I started teaching” over a decade down the road with a heartful sense of appreciation for the continuing journey of both discovery and letting go that being a teacher offers.