Community of practice

#NATECLA Day 2, Vol. 1: guilt, games and gambits

The trouble I have during conferences is that I don’t always sleep well. It’s not a reflection on the place or quality of the accommodation, so I always feel a little spaced out first thing in the morning, and need some rather epic mounts of caffeine to survive. However, this year’s coffee consumption has been a little less than normal, which I think is a fairly positive reflection.

IIn the morning, feeling buoyed up by the first cup of coffee and a plentiful breakfast, was keynote #2 from Rachael Roberts on the theme of guilty secrets of the ELT classroom. Like Russ Mayne a couple of years ago, to was a session more or less geared to make me happy: starting with zombie learning theories and truthiness (the notion that something sounds like it’s right, even though it’s deeply spurious) and then a review of things which people feel bad about. Now, I’ve got to be honest and say I don’t generally feel too guilty about things like dictation, or a little bit of translation, and have had some new ideas and reminders to try abandoned older ideas in these area which is always a good thing.

However, I’m not convinced by reading aloud as a practice, and I enjoyed Rachael’s skewering of the usual justifications, but was interested to think about reading aloud after the students have understood the text so that they are focusing on pronunciation and sound-symbol relationships, and not on understanding the text. She also took on the notionn of sharing learning outcomes on the board, and WALT and WILF: all apparently uncontroversial and pretty much standard practice, but critically viewed from surprising range of quarters, including the originator of WALT and WILF.  I sometimes worry that in post-compulsory education we are too often half a leg behind school education in these things, with a remarkable propensity to start adopting stuff just as schools are beginning to abandon them: we are not good at resisting zombies.

The rest of the day was spent in practical workshops: I’m wary of passing on ideas that belong to others, particularly where those ideas have been freely shared: it feels somehow cheeky and a little disrespectful, so instead here, in purely chronological order, are a few of the things I’m going to be taking away.

In the first session of the day, I went to Michael Fennel’s session on “Set Phrase English”. Like some of the dictation ideas that Rachael mentioned, there was a lot here which reminded me of older ideas, and put a new spin on them – drilling, back-chaining, and some simple yet effective ideas on how to embed some useful conversation gambits (remember the book?) into classes. The idea which stuck with me most was the first one we explored. Michael elicited from us the various question words (and reminded me that I always forget “whose” when I cover this language). Each question word is then turned into full questions about personal things. Michael invited us to ask him the questions first three times each, and each time answered with some slightly different information, before asking the “class” (i.e. us) to summarise what he had said. Thus a handful of simple questions became an opportunity to practice listening and then forming fairly comolex sentences and utterances, and the whole activity was definitely something I could see myself using in a lesson next year.

The second session was on using Socratic Dialogue in teaching. This was, perhaps, a little more esoteric, less obviously groundable in simple classroom activities, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The core notion, if I have this right, is that a small group starts by identifying a global issue (“Is first language in the classroom good?”) then identifying individual, first person examples and issues. These first person examples are then discussed and analysed respectfully, before being used to inform the main issue. This reminded me in many ways of the community of enquiry concept, where participants think of questions around a specific theme, and then decided which of the questions should be discussed. I’ve taken part in these and found them to be very useful. In terms of practical applications, I think that there is a lot of use in an ESOL class around things like class rules, for example, or even, for a suitably mature and high level group, negotiating a syllabus. It also has some interesting possible uses from a teacher development perspective – having a group of teachers discuss and analyse, say stretch and challenge or learning outcomes in order to get a better understanding of what it means and come up with useful solutions and ideas.

After lunch I was worried. I was full of good sandwiches and I could feel the ghost of sleeplessness leaning on my eyelids. Luckily, however, the session I attended was practical, energetic and did a grand job of exorcising the ghost until I could get ten minutes nap in the sunshine before the NATECLA agm. This was around ideas for using phones in class, and even though it covered familiar ground (QR codes, Kahoot) it was still good, as it always is, to kick ideas around with different colleagues, and to properly get to grips with some newer ideas, like Quizlet. Certainly QR codes are something I’d forgotten about a little, and the idea of getting students up and scanning them with their phones is something which has languished in the depths of my memory for a bit too long. It was also nice to be reminded that I MUST go and investigate Plickers.

There is much, much more to be written about what happened after my doze in the sun, but that may have to wait until later, particularly as it involved lots of thought provoking thinking about citizenship and the role of the ESOL teacher as servant of the state, which is a topic I could spend hours writing about. And right now, it’s sunny, and I have a dog who needs walking.

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Useful: teacher development days

At some point or another you will attend some form of staff development as a teacher. Some of this will be mandatory, uninspiring crud (pretty much anything which is policy driven and/or delivered online). Some of it will be uninspiring crud delivered through the time honoured medium of PowerPoint and poor attempts at humour and carefully sycophantic laughter. And some of it, very probably the smallest amount, will actually have a positive impact on your classroom practice. Some of the more experienced teachers out there may sneer at this, particularly after a long career of being droned at by SLT, or worse, a highly paid consultant, but I promise you it is out there, and it does happen. 
I’m one of the lucky ones. We regularly organise internal, department specific training based on aggregated observation feedback, suggestions from staff, and the occasionally “just for the sheer hell of it”. And these sessions are, by and large, well received with positive feedback. They also have impact: genuine, measurable impact as teachers go out and put some of the ideas into practice: if it wasn’t useful, it would be ignored, but it isn’t. 
So why do these things work? It’s easy to knock holes in standardised training: after all, “standardised” is pretty much a synonym for “one size fits all”. However, our departmental training works because of a number of factors.
For one, it’s almost always practical. Sure, there has to be a bit of information giving, but we’re lucky in having a department head who recognises that this needs to be kept short and to the point: we find out what we need to find out. There sometimes has to be standardisation of assessment or exam practices, but again, while not perhaps the most thrilling of activities, it’s still important and, crucially, useful. This is the crucial word: useful. For staff training to work it must be based around practical, useful stuff: more often than not, something which working teachers can take away and use, possibly in the next teaching week. Take our most recent event, for example: an introduction from the Head of Department, followed by three short, informative and useful sessions on pace and teacher talk, on assessment for learning and on stretch and challenge. Each of the sessions had something useful, whether those things were on your areas for development or not: a nifty PowerPoint task, ideas for planned and on the fly differentiation, whatever, all useful.  

It worked as well because while some of the impetus and content was top down, there was no sense of hierarchy. Ideas were shared by workshop leaders, of course, but there was a strong element of professional respect: of teachers sharing with pride but also recognising that the people you are sharing with are at least as good and as professional a teacher as you. 

There is also a sense of equality of content: rarely is there the imposition of “best practice” from above but rather just “what do you think will work?” Sometimes you simply had confirmation that your ideas are ok, other times you had new ideas or new twists on old ideas. 

This is a leadership issue: these events are generally conceived and developed by managers who are also teachers, rather than managers who are ex-teachers (if you have given up day to day teaching to become a manager, you are an ex-teacher. You have, after all, ceased to teach. You are pushing up the pedagogical daisies). 

The knock on effect of the focus on usefulness and equality is that the teachers involved want, by and large, to be there. Imagine, in teaching terms, you have students who want to be there, who want to get something from the session, and expect to get something from the session, and this is what is achieved. People come, and people learn. 

Trainers, consultants and the rest all too often forget that they are dealing with learning: somehow all the pedagogical principles that you get hauled over the coals for forgetting are conveniently abandoned. Ideas like being meaningful, having purpose, being relevant, valuable and, of course useful all get abandoned by the lazy trainer with a PowerPoint and a tacky YouTube video. If you want stuff development days to work, f you want to effect change and improvement, then you cannot afford to be a lazy teacher. You must make what you have to say have value, be applicable, be useful. And if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be telling other people how to teach, let alone observing them. 

You are not alone

It sometimes feels like you are very much on your own as a teacher. You know, even though you are teaching a whole bunch of people, there is a divide of sorts in the room between “you the teacher” and “them the students”. That divide is always going to be there because you have different roles and different responsibilities in that classroom space. So it can seem a bit of a lonely calling, even though this is, of course, one of the pleasures of the job. After all, significant chunks of the day you are left to do your own thing with little supervision and lots of freedom. Nevertheless, at pinch points, particular stressed times, you feel the need to be, well, not alone. Those times when that student is ranting at you about some random college diktat that you don’t really understand yourself; when that class of 16-18s is totally going off on one, spiralling irretrievably out of control; when the internet connection goes down in the middle of a class entirely predicated on the use of the web; when you walk into class and the students say “we did that yesterday with the other teacher”; when the meticulously planned activity for which you had such high hopes as a surefire winner takes three seconds and bombs horribly; or when that fateful email pops up in your inbox announcing the imminent arrival of graded observation. Right at those times, it feels like it is just you, and you alone.

It is also at these times that it is easiest to forget that teachers are part of a community. The cry is more often “What can Ido about this?” rather than “who can help me with this?”

There is the immediate community of your staff room, into which, if you are lucky, you can run during a class and someone will be able to give you that quick fix solution: some wise or merely convenient soul who says “try this” and who saves the day. Sometimes you mention that you are struggling with something or other, and you get enough ideas or suggestions to solve that problem ten times over. I get it that not all staff rooms are like this, and where this hasn’t been the case the community of teachers is weaker and the quality and confidence inevitably reduced. When we talk shop in social settings, this is all part of that community, sometimes sharing ideas, but more often than not simply a kind of communal psychic hug. Then there are the wider settings, Twitter, Facebook, all those things, social networks forming an extension of the staff room, up to and including the hugging. You can call it a PLN, but I call it hugs.

It’s not all lovey love-ins, mind you. I’ve worked with various people with whom I have had some fairly profound differences of opinion and approach, and this has been nothing but productive. We have had quite vocal arguments at times, but always with a sense of respect, knowing that however bonkers we think each other to be, we are all doing the best we can for out learners. My opinions and approaches have been challenged, as have theirs, and my practices, and I hope theirs, have developed for the better as a result. Challenge is important: it makes you question your practices, clarify them, or reject them. This is all good.

If we get it right our classroom practice is the tip of this huge iceberg of support. From our initial trainers to our current colleagues, to that random teacher from the other side of the world, they all inform our practices on a day to day basis. As a result, out teaching practice is an amalgam of our ideas and those of others. We are alone, yes, but we are all alone together.

You can put that last sentence on a cat poster if you like….