Teacher Development: Walking your own path

Reflections on teacher development from Richard Whiteside (@nutrich) in the first of a series of guest blogs. Thanks very much Richard and welcome to SGI: it’s great to have you on board.

I recently gave a talk at the TESOL Spain conference in Spain about using Twitter a self-constructed PLE (Personal Learning Environment) to access development opportunities online. As an introduction to the talk, I outlined a range of values and philosophies about teacher education to identify where I was coming from. I always appreciate an introduction to a talk that identifies some beliefs that the speaker holds, so it’s possible to locate what they say in the wider scheme of things. I also think it is of value, in general, to discuss the philosophies that inform one’s teaching and development. This post is a summary of this thinking, plus a few added musings. I hope that I can prompt some reflective comments!

One quote regarding teacher development to which I often refer is from Julian Edge, who was a great influence on me during my MA last year at the University of Manchester. I enjoyed the teacher education module tutored by him immensely, and much of the reason for that was the opportunity to engage in some deep thought beard stroking (if you haven’t got one, you can always get a false one) and engage in some philosophical discussion. He wrote that: “You can train me and you can educate me, but you can’t develop me. I develop.”

Another golden nugget the aforementioned Mr. Edge introduced us to, which he attributed to Spanish poet Antonio Machado (though I believe it is a quote with an unknown origin, possibly with origins in Tao), was this one:

“Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.” 

Translated into English as:

Wayfarer, there is no way. The way is made by walking.

The idea of which, as far as I see it, suggests that teacher development cannot be set out by others, everybody has to discover their own route to educational enlightenment, as it were. Also, I think these quotes suggest that waiting for some big opportunity to develop or waiting to ‘receive’ development (i.e. shelling out cash for a course), is certainly not a particularly good the only way of looking at things. Perhaps online portfolios demonstrating knowledge and continuous development will one day replace CVs and expensive ‘accredited’ certificates?

If you are involved in teacher education, it is perhaps not a reasonable thing to be looking at developing teachers in a particular way, but to guide them towards discovering their own path. In some contexts this might be quite a subversive activity, as not all teachers are allowed to think about how they would like to do things; they merely have to deliver the education that is expected, by society or the institution.

Another belief that informs my thinking is that teachers should always keep learning. I have followed Harold Jarche’s blog for a while, the wonderfully named “Life in Perpetual Beta”* (I recently discovered that this is taken from a documentary film). His blog is not directly related to education, but regularly provides some great thoughts to ponder regarding workplace structures as well as professional development.

As far as I see it, these philosophies connect with the idea of reflective practice, which Schön (1983) refers to as “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.”**

I don’t think it is particularly outlandish to suggest that we teachers should endeavour to provide the best education we can to our students. Which, I suggest, requires us to consider our situation and try to identify what exactly ‘best-practice’ is for us in our context. This thinking encourages me to be extremely wary of anybody insisting that there is one method or approach above all others, which I discuss here, for example. There is no best way, there is only what is plausible for you, in your context, at any given time, according to Prabhu (1990).

In fact, regular discoveries of ‘GREAT NEW METHODS’ seem to have been rolled out across the world throughout the modern age of TEFL (since Grammar Translation became extinct); usually emanating from the West. I think this is an important area to consider for many of us in EFL, particularly those of us who are travelling NESTs (native English speaker teachers) living in a context that is not ‘our own’. I have personal experience of teaching at a school where there was a clash between the local teachers and the presiding (NEST) management with regard to the ‘correct’ techniques and methods. I’m sure that many others have had these experiences as well.

In a nutshell, self-directed personal and professional development (two things that can probably not be separated) is how you can go about improving, developing and becoming the best teacher you can be. Teachers are adult learners, and therefore should be able to identify goals and the methods by which they need to learn; having the motivation to do this, of course, is another kettle of slippery fish. Furthermore, as we are talking about teachers, all the better prepared than the average person these learners should be to engage in self-directed learning.

Research suggests that a phenomenal amount of learning is informal and I suppose most online engagement can be referred to as informal, as well as staffroom chat and suchlike. Teachers do not only learn from weekly workshops or other organised development sessions, but informally all the time. Are these weekly or fortnightly sessions are worth the hassle that many schools have in trying to persuade teachers to attend? Informal learning is generally not recognised institutionally in development records or things like that, which is perhaps something to think about if you are involved in teacher-training or school management.

As I suggested in my talks (although I’m probably speaking to the converted here), engaging with a network of other teachers in an online environment is great way to go about this self-directed development. It isn’t a replacement for any face-to-face contact, however it is certainly something that can augment the development opportunities you get in your day to day teaching context. Perhaps if this effort was recognised somehow by institutions as work, those of us who are engaged online might not appear to be the TEFL-obsessed loonies that some of our contemporaries probably think we are.

 

Notes:

* ‘Beta’ is a term generally associated with software applications that are still in development, with the designers requesting feedback that leads to change.
**much quoted reference from Wikipedia, supposedly from the book, but I’ve never actually been able to find the page. Hmm.

References

Edge, J. (1999) Managing professionalisation or “Hey, that’s my development!” IATEFL Issues, 149, 14-16.

Prabhu, N. S. (1990) There is no best method – Why? TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 24: 2

Schon, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books.

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9 Responses to Teacher Development: Walking your own path

  1. Dolores says:

    Great post. Just wanted to say the quote is Machado’s.

  2. simon says:

    I agree that teachers are best placed to develop themselves and schools should provide something for us to work around and within. As one of my colleagues wisely and poetically said, we all develop all the time and just like flowering plants we depend on the right conditions to grow and to flower, hopefully our schools provide those conditions.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for the comment, Simon. I suppose the right conditions are crucial, because everyone will develop, but will they develop into healthy plants, or withered stumpy things?!!

  3. Dan says:

    Hi Rich,
    I’m sagely stroking my beard. One point I wanted to make is that I think you contrast ‘received development’ (in the shape of a development course) with self-directed professional development if I understand you right. Thinking of my own experience, my decision to fork out cash on a course was self-directed. I benefited enormously from doing a Dip because I recognised my need for the structure and discipline of a course, formal tasks and deadlines to motivate and the approbation of a tutor who expected things of me.

    Maybe a decision to get help can be an autonomous one. Walking your own path doesn’t have to mean walking alone, or walking unassisted. Independence is also about knowing your dependency and dealing with it.

    • Richard says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for the comment, I’m glad I encouraged you to stroke your beard.

      I have indeed contrasted the two (somewhat facetiously perhaps with my awfully clever crossed out phrase), but essentially the point I was trying to make is that the feeling that one ought to “wait for development opportunities”, i.e. taught courses, wasn’t necessary and that they aren’t the only way of going about things. Directing oneself to do a course is completely valid, and I have done this myself so I agree with your point, I have done taught courses and chose the way in which I wanted to work.

      However, contrasting the Delta course with my MA course, the latter was much more self-directed and the paths I followed were of a genuine personal interest. Although I made many of my own choices on the Delta, I know that most of those choices were strategic, in order that the assignment would be easier for me and therefore I would be more likely to excel – the backwash effect of evaluation, I suppose.

      Perhaps it depends on the course you find yourself on and whether or not adequate development is taking place, or whether one is running just to keep up with jumping through the right hoops in order to pass the course.

  4. Dan says:

    I hadn’t considered what you say about the difference between the Delta and the Dip. When I think about it, my Delta sounds quite similar to yours, in many ways just getting through the course rather than seeing it as an opportunity to develop. On the one hand, it makes me wish I’d done / want to do a Dip; but then again, would I be able to handle the independence?!

    • Richard Whiteside says:

      Do you mean Dip or MA? I was using Dip and Delta as the same thing – should have been clearer I suppose.

      Never fear the independence!! 😉

  5. Caminante, son tus huellas
    el camino, y nada más;
    caminante, no hay camino,
    se hace camino al andar.
    Al andar se hace camino,
    y al volver la vista atrás
    se ve la senda que nunca
    se ha de pisar……
    which loops nicely over to your more recent guest blog post on self-observation, doesn’t it? Machado as a teacher trainer…. nice thought. Yet:
    Caminante, no hay camino,
    sino estelas en la mar.
    Wayfarer, there is no path,
    only the sparkling of the sea.

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