What’s your PD story?

When I first started studying English, it was in an environment that shunned the use of L1 in the classroom and favoured native English speaking teachers (NESTs) to Non-NESTs (NNESTs). In my very first class, the teacher did not speak a word of Portuguese. To be honest, as far as I remember, the teacher couldn’t speak Portuguese – he was a NEST. There’s only one thing that I remember from that teacher in particular – when he was trying to turn on the tape-recorder but was holding the power cord in his hand. It is only this goofy moment that I can remember from that particular teacher. Later on, I remember I had only NNEST as teachers, but the same restriction held true: no L1 in class!

Some people even fool themselves by telling other they keep their eyes open for new ideas. Do you know anyone like that? / Photo by DerrickT

As this was the experience I had when I was a language learner, it was what I believed in when I started teaching. I felt that I could never be a good teacher if I were ever to use L1 in the classroom. How often do we reproduce what we’ve lived? Many people I know claim to only “learn” how to do something if someone else shows them how to do it. They them start simply repeating the processes that they’d witnessed and that’s how the cogs of the machine kept moving. Every now and them, though, someone would look at the process and come up with a different way to make things move. If it worked, they’d be regarded as very creative people who had an awesome idea to make things simpler, while a whole lot of other people would look at the proposed solution and wonder how they could have missed such a simple thing. If, however, things didn’t work, that soon to be acclaimed creative fellow would then be called a crazy man whose far-fetched ideas were to be laughed at.

I honestly think that creativity is under-rated in our schools, but I just can’t help hearing a line from Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk whenever I see people praising every different and strange idea. Creativity is not the same thing as being wrong, and it’s not the same thing as having different ideas that might, once in a blue moon, work. What I believe in is that we need to know a lot about something if we want to be able to think about it more creatively. I’m not saying that knowledge and creativity are the same, but I certainly believe that the more you know about something, the easier it is for you to find creative solutions for the problems you have.

In the first year of my teaching career, I simply refused to hear about language classes that welcomed L1 in the classroom. It was, based on my experience and the kind of training I had, wrong in just so many ways that I couldn’t even fathom the possibility. I would attend seminars just to get practical ideas that I could implement in my very next class, and, looking back right now, I thought, after being in the classroom for a very short time, that I knew all that I needed to know. I thought that learning about the history of ELT, the myriad approaches and methods, and different things that people were doing was just a waste of time. What is funny is that this is something that I usually think about anytime I talk to a teacher who hasn’t been teaching long and who is reluctant to adopting a new approach to teaching based on his or her “vast” experience after being in the classroom for 3 years or so.

It was only after I attended my first large conference in ELT that I started looking at things from a different perspective. It was then that I first heard of the terms NESTs and NNESTs. It was the first time that it hit me: what I was doing in class was simply what I thought to be right based on what my teachers did in their classes. I had no clue whatsoever to why I was doing such things. Little did I know that there were people trying to find out different ways to help learners. Never before had I heard that there could be a reasonable way for people to use L1 in the classroom. It was during this conference that I also found out how passionate I truly was about being a teacher, on a very special session to me.

The conference I’m talking about is the National Braz-TESOL, in 2000 in São Paulo. To be fair, I was also fortunate enough to have, by then, two bosses who helped me immensely in this eye-opening process I had to go through, and one that I personally think all teachers need to go through themselves. It was in 2000 that I had the chance to attend a 3-day workshop on the use of Drama in the classroom by Ken Wilson. It was the first time I realized that, yes, it was possible to teach English in many different ways. It was on the very same conference that I first heard about the IPA and that there was a way for me to work on my pronunciation without having to live abroad. This and many other workshops have totally reshaped the way I looked at ELT. It wasn’t something done simply by repeating what had been done to me in my language classes – there was a whole world outside and all I had to do was look for more opportunities. It was only then that I started valuing the texts that those two bosses I had made available to us and that were not merely about grammar.

It was only after learning more about language teaching and learning that I understood how little I knew – something we are always told in our philosophy classes at school but we never really grasp it until reality hits. It was then that I realized that I didn’t have to fear using L1 in class as long as I knew when and how to use it. It was then I realized that I could learn many more practical ideas to implement immediately in class by learning more about theory than by just reading about practical ideas. The more we learn, the easier it is for us to find creative ways to better cater for our learners. The more we know, the easier it is for us to innovate. It’s the turning point anyone who wants to walk the extra mile should look for – use the right R: REFLECT, don’t simply repeat. And never ever wait for others to do it for you. If you want it, you have to get it yourself. Teacher development is easier than ever these days with all the online possibilities. My concern, however, is that there’s a new generation of teachers simply repeating what they’ve read online without thinking about how it could help their learners. Not everyone will be a trendsetter, but not everyone has to be a blind follower either. How many teachers do you know who had been teaching for longer than 5, 6, 7 (or more) years but who still think like teachers who have jus started teaching but truly believe they’ve already learned it all? And how many teachers who have just started teaching but are aware of the fact that they have to go beyond what their first employer has taught them? And, finally, what was your real eye-opener in your career? What’s your professional development story?

12 thoughts on “What’s your PD story?

  1. I’ve come across so many eye-openers over the years that it’s difficult to put my finger on just one or two. However, I was fortunate enough to do the ICELT course back in 2009 as I was working in a school that offered the course to its teaching staff at a discount price. Anyway, taking the ICELT truly was a turning point in my career – not just because of the qualification itself, but mainly because it helped me see my teaching from different perspectives as I was observed by my tutors, an external moderator, peers… Getting feedback from so many people helped me to see what kind of teacher I already was and what steps I would have to take to become the teacher I wanted (and still strive) to be.

    1. Hi Marcus,

      There certainly are lots of eye-openers throughout our careers, fortunately! I mean, at least for those who worry about improving, right?! 🙂
      Feedback from lesson observations are usually fantastic! If the observer is able to make what has been observed clear, even better! Surprisingly, last semester I was aghast at learning that some teachers believed that lesson observations should not exist and are pointless – and such an opinion came from teachers from different schools. As I’ve always studied and taught in schools were lesson observations have always been common practice, that came as a shock! Apparently there’s a lot to be done when it comes to spreading the word about how positive lesson observations may be! 🙂

  2. Hey Henrick-

    I loved hearing a bit more of your history. Great to know you’ve been conference-bashing since 2000 and that you’ve been bumping shoulders with the likes of Ken Wilson. I went to Ken’s IATEFL workshop this year and loved it.

    He also mentioned that if SS use L1 in class, that’s fine. That being said, I had a pretty strict policy of avoiding that for all of my years while teaching in China. It wasn’t from experience I’d had with other teachers. It was from my own language learning process and how much I believed in immersion, and letting go of “translating” and instead jumping into and owning L2.

    But… having 20 or 40 SS of the same culture, all sharing an L1 isn’t so much of immersion is it. My “rule” worked for some, and failed for other classes. In the end, I repeat the process and continued to reflect. I always come back to the same thought— it just depends. I’m open to seeing how it plays out and it’s not a black and white thing, but if students already have a good level in English, then I’d prefer them to let go of L1 while in class and really focus on jumping 100% into english.

    As with all my languages outside of french and italian, I learned to teach by experience and immersion. I actually haven’t formally studied ELT, but do have 6 years of teaching behind me, and passion that lights up most classrooms. I’m not a full-time teacher now, but before I go back to it full-time I’d like to complete a CELTA. I’d like to read a few more books (Teaching Unplugged and Jeremy Harmer’s “How to teach English” which are highly recommended by my PLN).

    With blogs like yours, Willy’s, Fiona’s, Scott’s, Jason’s, CC, Dave D’s and so many others I learn a ton every week, and am very thankful for it. Great post as always. Merci beaucoup !

    1. Hi Brad,

      L1 in the EFL classroom is usually an issue for teachers. As pretty much all students share the same L1, it’s a lot harder to explain to them the benefits of using L2 only. I, too, was once completely avert to the idea of using L1 in the classroom, but as years passed, I can certainly see that there’s time and place for it in the language classroom, and, as you said, it all depends on lots of factors. I’ve been thinking about a post on the usage of L1 in the EFL classroom for a while… hope I have the time to actually organize my thoughts and post it. It’d be great to hear what others think of it. 🙂

      Your mentioning of blogs has caught my eye. The fact that many blogs on ELT are written by teachers who are themselves in the classroom makes a huge difference! It’s been one of my favorite sources of learning these days. And don’t forget to add your own blog to the list! 🙂

  3. Hi Henrick! Loved this post, it has made me reflect about the turning point in my career. Has never thought about it seriously. I think that a real eye-opener in my career was when I was asked by my boss some years ago to prepare a blog for the institute where I used to work at the time. You may think that writing a blog is not a big deal, but it has made me realise that I could also create content, develop my own activities, that I could be as creative as I wish to be. It was a wonderful discovery, and my teaching has never been the same after that epiphanic moment. Kisses and hugs from Bs. As. As usual an inspiring read.

    1. Hi Sabrina,

      Isn’t it just great when leaders are competent enough so as to see in ourselves things that we still fail to see? I remember when I first created my blog – so much learning and reflection came after that. Another turning point in my career was when I decided to leave my old job and start my own language school. It’s been six years now, and students who started learning with us have finally taken their Cambridge Exams – all passed (CAE and CPE). It’s a great feeling to see that what we believed in in terms of teaching and learning has been proving effective. Many thanks for your comments! Kisses from Brazil! 🙂

  4. I enjoyed your reflections and your reader’s comments. Professional develoment has always been an important part of my worklife because I spent many years working and teaching in the busines world where contiuous professional development is a must in order to remin employed.
    While I was contemplating a career change, I went back to school to obtain a degree in education and a teaching certificate in ESL. These were the two best things I could have done for my professional life as they completely changed my perspective on teaching and learning. However, the more years I teach ESL, the more I believe that it is not the theory and credientials that are most important. It is the passion to teach, the concern for students as human beings, and the willingness to change and continually learn that make memorable teachers.

    1. Passion can be a great booster, for sure! As I’ve been teaching mainly teens for the last couple of years, this is one thing I usually tell them – always do something you really enjoy doing. If you do so, it’ll never feel like work, and you’ll certainly be among the best professionals in your area. If you do something just for money’s sake, you are likely to end up being a mediocre professional. I myself have changed courses at university twice before I finally realized that being an English teacher is what I wanted to be. I can spend my free time discussing teaching and learning any time. I really don’t think I’d be able to talk about laws all the time had I not dropped out of law school.

      There’s just one thing I’d slightly disagree with – I don’t think credentials are as important as society paints them, but I do feel that a sound theoretical background can make a huge difference. But, hey, isn’t this something you end up pursuing after a couple of years in the classroom? 🙂

  5. I think, like you, it was attending my first ELT conference that opened my eyes in a way they hadn’t before. I’d taught for 6 years in Korea at a private language school and university. I’d taught for a few years in Toronto. I didn’t know that there were enough professional language teachers out there to warrant a conference. I didn’t know that there were many others like me and a colleague here and there that cared about growing and learning as language teachers. I didn’t know that people did this as a real career. It always seemed to be populated by the young, the traveler, the person needing a second income.

    When I went to my first conference, I saw people in their 40s, 50s and older! I went to workshops led by enthusiastic educators. I didn’t learn a whole lot that I hadn’t thought of before, but just to be among others who were invested in language teaching and had made a successful career out of it burst the sheltered private language school cocoon I’d built around myself for so long. It didn’t hurt that the presenters shared teaching ideas I’d thought I’d come up with on my own. My eyes opened wide with excitement about my future.

    1. Hi Tyson,

      Oh, the exhilarating moment when you realize that there are so many teachers in one place who are there to learn more. It’s an overwhelming feeling when you see that there are so many of us, isn’t it?! 🙂
      Conferences seem to be a life-changer for many – and these days I can also add twitter and blogs to that! I just hope one day I can get to meet F2F all the friends I met through twitter and the blogosphere! 🙂

  6. Hi Henrick,

    I think your blog post raises so many issues and questions, but I’ll only focus on two points you’ve raised.

    Unlike teacher training, professional development, has to come from within. It´s something that emanates from deep within us and when we’re least aware, we notice: “Gosh, something has changed in me….”. So, I think I can read a degree of anguish (perhaps) in your question of how long it takes for a new teacher to understand s/he needs to “reflect” & not just “repeat” things they’ve read somewhere. Yes, the www, and more specifically web 2.0, is a wondrous thing. Frankly, I can only see how it has helped my own professional development in the last few years. But l can also see how we are treading a amazingly thin line of alternating between being “content/information hoarders” and “content/information thinkers”. To see/read all is not to know all. We need time to digest content: savour the flavours, sip a glass of wine to see if the combination improves and brings out the spice, alternate between hot and cold, clean the palate with a good glass of fresh water. In short, sit down for the full four-course meal and not just a bit-sized morsel of pre-packed food. So, yes critical thinking as well as creative thinking need to walk hand in hand. And I think that with some people the understanding that PD requires classroom experience and reflection also takes time.

    But if we think of how children learn, which is initially by imitation and then they add reflection and logical reasoning to this, maybe repetition is also an important first stage? We, as more experienced teachers can show, by example and by sharing (such as your blog post) how there is another side to the coin, which will generate insecurity and uncertainty,which is largely based on questions without “correct” answers, but this is a fundamental process in any learning experience.,

    Like you, my path in PD began largely due to my school boss who encouraged me to go to my first ever ELT conference in 1993, which was the LABCI conference in Buenos Aires and then in 1994 I actually went and presented for the 1st time at IATEFL. Both were two completely different learning experiences for me, but I became certain of one thing back then: I would always have something new to learn and I loved the idea of belonging to a community in which people from all over the world were asking a variety of questions and tackling different puzzles, all of which basically centred around one major aspect: how to enhance the learner’s learning experience. But my moment of professional epiphany didn´t just come with the conferences, it came with the DELTA and two brilliant course tutors: Jeff Stranks and Ralph Ings Bannell, who always made me critically re-think everything I wrote and did, but who allowed me free-reign to test and try things out. That´s how my path in the world of learning/teaching was set up.

    Thanks for sharing this blog post and I will share this with our teachers so they have the chance to reflect and find their own answers.


    1. Hi Valéria,

      As usual, I absolutely love your comment! I can’t even think of what to reply to it, as it is a self-contained post by itself. All I can do is agree with you. One of the things that I reflected upon after reading your words is how big a role teacher trainers and mentors play, and how often we may be unaware of the importance of such a role due to all the other responsibilities we may have. Rising up to this challenge is not something easy, but it’s something that we end up having to do sooner or later if we ever expect to grow in our profession, and it’s just great that we have the opportunity to share and keep learning from those who are not even working with us physically, but are just as committed to the profession of teachers. Many thanks for sharing this post disguised as a comment! And thanks for sharing it with your teachers as well. I hope they enjoy reading it! 🙂

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