teacher development

Learning Teaching: Becoming a Better Teacher Every Day

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In this comeback column, I’d like to discuss one of my favorite topics in ELT, which is that of Teacher Development (TD); or, as is often the case, the lack thereof.

Jim Scrivener, in the book I borrowed this article’s title from, says that any teacher who has stopped learning (…) has also stopped being useful as a teacher. I agree. I believe it’s indisputable that a teacher – and any professional for that matter – owes it to himself* and to his students to concern himself with his development, and to dedicate time and allocate funds to it. Teaching English as a foreign (second) language is no easy feat, and English is not ‘easy’, and I believe it’s high time our segment (school owners, coordinators and especially teachers) understood that, and realized, for instance, that an interactive whiteboard costs just about the same as a CELTA course, and that it should go without saying which one will help a school and its students reap more benefits.

I’d include the following two among the topics a language teacher should allot time and money to. Bear in mind this is not a comprehensive list; just, in my professional opinion, what a teacher’s most pressing concerns – mine included – should be:

1. English knowledge: We often complain about professionals that seem to not know what they’re doing. We may second-guess doctors, mistrust pharmacists. We (have) spent a lifetime as students challenging our teachers! It’s funny how we are – often justly so – quite often unconvinced somebody knows enough to be doing what they’re doing. However, how often do we question our knowledge of our subject matter, of English? I’ve written about 300 words so far, and have used the dictionary three times: first to check whether allot was used with to, then to ascertain that concern oneself about meant what I thought it did, and just now to check the spelling of ascertain. That’s just a very simple example. I’m a language model for my students, and 14 years after my first lesson that still terrifies me. Does it terrify you? I believe it should. English is our tool, and by not sharpening it constantly, by not devoting time to hone it, we’re failing and failing our students. It shows we don’t care.

This carelessness, as it were, seems to be so deeply ingrained in our profession, I think, that the only books at C2 – proficient user – level you’ll find in the market are those used in exams preparation, and truly good ones are not exactly the norm. There’s nothing – not a single book by any publishing house anywhere in God’s green earth, at least that I know of – that focuses on teaching English to (non- native) teachers of English. There are grammar books, there are vocabulary books that arguably can be used by teachers, there’s Scott Thornbury’s About Language, but that’s pretty much it. And to make matters worse, the very little there is goes unnoticed by most of us. In Brazil, for instance, a few schools have tried in the past few years to offer language courses at C2+ level for teachers, but, apart from exam preparation courses, have very often not had the necessary quorum to run them.  How can this be?

2. Teaching repertoire: A repertoire, according to the Cambridge dictionary, is all the music or plays, etc. that you can do or perform or that you know; for us, teachers, I use the term to mean all the different techniques, approaches, activities, course books, blogs, magazines, journals etc. that we know and use. I once read Penny Ur say that one year’s experience repeated twenty times doesn’t make you experienced – not a perfect quote, but it was something along these lines – but it still seems to me that some of us believe that’s what experience is, i.e. having done something for a number of years without critically reflecting on it. That’s not experience.

I’ve just come back from the IATEFL conference in the UK, and as is always the case for me after a conference, I come back inspired, enriched and more than a little bit saddened that there are still EFL teachers who don’t even know that the IATEFL is there for them! Or the TESOL in the US. Or, even more shockingly, our very own Braz-TESOL! On the bright side, there were more teachers than ever there this time around, and I think the Brazilian ELT was beautifully represented, in all of its diversity, by people of the caliber of Vinícius Nobre, Carla Arena, Cecilia Lemos, Eduardo Santos, Paulo Pitta, Graeme Hodgson, Cláudio Azevedo, Bruna Caltabiano and so many others. That’s truly great news!

It is, of course, a bit expensive to go to the UK for a week to take part in a conference, maybe especially so for us teachers. However, some of the best talks and events which took place in this year’s IATEFL have been made available online, and it takes nothing but curiosity and interest to access them (here’s the link: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2013). Also, our Braz-TESOL holds conferences every two years much closer to home, and there are regional events all over the country every year! Apart from conferences, there are courses, magazines, journals, YouTube videos, Twitter discussions, books and a multitude of other tools we can use to get better, to know more, to help our students further. We need to take this beautiful, important thing that we do seriously, professionally. Or quit it.

In the next columns I’ll be addressing these two topics – and others – in more detail and with practical examples. I count on fellow teachers and trainers for support and ideas, and please feel free to comment here, email me (higor@higorcavalcante.com.br) or visit my blog (www.higorcavalcante.com.br) to agree, disagree, discuss, and especially to suggest interesting forms of teacher development you have used or have seen used and which could help us all develop professionally and continuously.

Thanks for reading!

PS: www.iatefl.org / www.braztesol.org.br – Join today!

PS2: Two amazing teachers and friends have helped me immensely by commenting on this article before its publication. What now reads much better I owe in great part to them, and any mistakes are entirely my own.

*I use he, him, himself to refer to teachers for the same Penny Ur uses she, her, herself: most of my teacher friends are men.

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