After three decades of teacher training and development work on primary ELT projects in diverse contexts, I’ve found that the impact of teacher education is often challenging to establish. Despite receiving lots of positive feedback from participants, if our goal is real, sustainable change, a major rethink of the commonly used ‘copy me’ shadowing type of approaches to teacher training and development is urgently needed.
Genuine professional growth for primary English teachers is very much an ongoing process which needs to continue long after a teacher development project or training course ends. As teacher educators, we can only facilitate this, as ultimately, it is the teachers themselves who can bring about long-lasting change. In recent years, I’ve modified my approaches to teacher education by enabling teachers to find their own paths to development and by guiding them to continuously upskill. This blog post shares the principles I see as key to facilitating such autonomous upskilling in primary English teacher education.
Principle 1: Walk in their shoes
Understand teachers’ challenges and accept their lived realities
In my experience, primary English language teacher educators have often moved into their roles because they were effective classroom practitioners. Maybe we were lucky, and it came naturally, or we were fortunate enough to have the time, motivation, opportunities or finances to seek out opportunities. However, this might not necessarily be the case for the teachers we work with.
Some teachers may have moved into primary ELT due to circumstances, rather than by choice. They may face challenges, such as being early career teachers with little support and/or limited resources, large class sizes, behaviour issues and learners who have experienced trauma. Some teachers may have been in primary ELT for decades and are comfortable with the way they do things and feel there is no need to change. It’s important to try to put ourselves in their shoes, to understand the challenges they may face when developing as teachers. This helps to create a working relationship centred on empathy.
Encourage teachers in honest and open dialogue
I try to generate an open and honest dialogue between colleagues, encouraging primary English teachers to share their feelings about what is not working or what may be preventing them from doing things differently – is it a fear of failure, a lack of time or perhaps not knowing how to do things differently?
Monitor language choices and uses
The language we choose and use during pedagogical dialogues with teachers is crucial. Try to choose language which conveys your support and not judgement. For example, “It was interesting to see you do X, please tell me more about the reasons for your choice?” may encourage a primary English teacher to open up more about their classroom decisions than “Why did you do X?”
Principle 2: Be a guide, not a guru
Avoid giving the impression of having all the answers
While it might be tempting to show that you are an ELT expert, it can be disempowering for teachers to feel that someone else has all the answers. My own development as a primary ELT practitioner is actually the result of experimenting, making mistakes and having the opportunity to learn from them. I try to incorporate this into my training and development work with teachers.
I make clear that I’ve learned what works by seeing what happens when you don’t do X, Y and Z and share anecdotes about my mistakes, showing that I’ve experienced several of the challenges they are also experiencing. I consider myself a more experienced primary ELT colleague rather than an expert and make it clear that we all start as inexperienced teachers.
Enable teachers to find their own paths
The danger of being a ‘guru’ is that doesn’t encourage teachers to find their own paths. Teacher education shouldn’t be about imitation, but instead should focus on teachers finding their own ways to incorporate best practice principles into their primary English lessons. I find that enabling teachers to identify the challenges they would have using an approach or technique with primary-aged English learners in their contexts and guiding them to generate their own strategies is far more empowering than relying on an external source for ‘the answers’.
Know your audience
Working with teachers from a diverse range of contexts has shown me that there is not a single approach that suits everyone. It’s important to start with the needs of the teachers and the realities of their contexts and vary our training approaches accordingly. Many things need to be taken into account when designing a teacher education programme to ensure its relevance – the teachers’ English language levels, their methodological awareness and skills, their expectations and daily classroom realities and constraints.
Principle 3: Develop teachers’ inner cheerleader
Encourage teachers to believe in themselves
While primary English teachers may lack confidence in their ability to change their classroom practices, the belief that others think we can succeed may give them the motivation to try.
Foster a ‘can-do’ mindset
I encourage a willingness to experiment and learn from experiences using my own primary English teaching as an example. I believe all lessons are a work in progress and there’s always room for reflection and learning from what worked well and what didn’t go so well, even after many years in the classroom. I remind primary English teachers that we often learn more from a lesson that doesn’t go according to plan because it gives us the opportunity to reflect and devise action plans for the future.
Genuinely celebrate successes
Removing the fear of being ‘judged’ or evaluated, which is so often associated with lesson observations, is key. I encourage primary English teachers to share their successes as well as their perceived failures and make a point of being generous and authentic in the way that I respond. I’ve found that my genuine pleasure at their success can help motivate teachers to continue with the cycle of experimentation. I also encourage English teachers to see any perceived failures as a natural part of the learning process rather something to feel negative about.
Principle 4: Take it one step at a time
Be realistic about the process of change
The process of teacher development is long and it’s important to establish realistic expectations from the outset. However, even a journey of 10,000 miles begins with one step – so an important point of departure for trainers is to encourage primary English teachers to take that initial step.
Focus on a limited number of areas to work on
When observing primary English lessons, there are lots of ways that things could be done differently but sharing all of these with a teacher can be overwhelming. I try to prioritise by choosing one or two areas so that addressing them feels achievable. To guide my selection, I decide which are most likely to produce tangible success and relate these to aspects of the teacher’s work they have been working on recently.
Provide a record of feedback
It’s really beneficial during pedagogical discussions to encourage primary English teachers to make notes or use their smartphones or tablets to make a recording, which they can listen to again when preparing their lessons. This enables teachers to focus on listening to the suggestions and thinking how to implement them, rather than trying to remember what you said!
Principle 5: Less is more
Show rather than tell
It’s tempting when planning a workshop to include many new activities, but this can be overwhelming for teachers and these activities might be forgotten quickly. To increase takeaways, I limit the number of activity types or procedures and choose ones which can easily be used in primary English teachers’ contexts. It can sometimes be difficult for teachers to conceptualise how activities work in the classroom, so I find that demonstrating is more effective than explaining and it’s also more memorable.
Signal roles explicitly
If a training session includes practical demonstrations, teachers are often asked to adopt the roles of the children but may struggle to wear two hats at the same time. They need to notice how an activity is set up as well as the instructions and gestures to be able to use such techniques in their own classrooms. I explicitly tell teachers the role I want them to adopt before starting and also give them time to adjust when switching roles.
Build in time for reflection
After demonstrating an activity or procedure, I include a reflection stage where primary English teachers identify the objectives and how they apply to their contexts. I also encourage teachers to consider how it can be adapted for other primary ages and/or English language levels. To increase take up, I provide a poster summary for teachers to refer to post-session. This can be particularly useful for primary teachers who are developing their own English language proficiency as well as their ELT methodological repertoires.
I would love to read about your guiding principles for primary teacher education. It would be great if you could share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.
All images from Unsplash.com