Teacher Training courses: Money well-spent or à la researche du temps perdu (In search of lost time)?

The article discusses the main reasons why teachers attend refresher courses, seminars or summer schools as a form of in-service teacher education development. It also identifies the criteria governing their effectiveness and lasting effects on teachers’ practices, i.e. the degree to which integration of the new skills and content acquired is achieved. Furthermore, it considers the parameters influencing the evaluation of a course as satisfactory and worthwhile or a sheer waste of time.

 

By Chryssanthi Papadimitriou, State School Teacher, HOU MEd in TESOL student

 

Reasons for attending teacher training courses

The vast majority of EFL teachers will, undoubtedly, have attended numerous training courses, seminars or workshops throughout their teaching careers as part of their professional training and development. On the one hand, seasoned teachers continue to do so, wanting to keep abreast of educational innovations in the broad areas of pedagogy, ICT, curriculum and materials development. Moreover, it is an invigorating experience allowing them to explore new ideas as a means of avoiding “professional atrophy” (Freeman, 1982, p.22). On the other hand, novice teachers will also find such courses beneficial; teacher trainers and more experienced teachers are a source for hands-on advice and suggestions on strategies and techniques which are conducive to learning.

The perceived benefits of attending training courses and seminars

Whatever their reasons for attending a course and the stage in “the professional lifecycles of teachers” (this was actually the title of Tessa Woodward’s insightful plenary talk-IATEFL 2010), such events allow the exchange of views among colleagues, allowing them to voice their thoughts and discuss problems they face in their particular teaching contexts. In fact, well-informed and reflective teachers (Schön, 1983) are more likely to provide better quality education for their students, leading to increased student achievement. This claim is corroborated by Papay and Kraft (2016) whose research challenges the “myth of the performance plateau”, which is, in effect, the belief that “teachers don’t improve their effectiveness after the first several years in the classroom” (p.16).

Although their research focusses on ways that schools can promote teacher development through feedback and peer collaboration for instance, it is believed that training courses contribute to improving the quality of educators by providing a constant and on-going developmental orientation to their profession.

The particularities of teaching as a profession

Admittedly, and contrary to other professions, teaching is a lonesome act; in most contexts, learning takes place in the classroom behind closed doors, the teacher mainly interacting with one’s learners who are most often young learners and not adults. The setting is thus somewhat ‘artificial’, as opposed to a real-world context, such as working in a shop or company.

The point being made is that given this feeling of seclusion in teachers’ everyday routine, stemming from having only rushed conversations between breaks with other colleagues and school staff or parents, teachers are often eager to attend refresher courses or conferences. These will not only broaden their outlook on teaching and enhance their teaching repertoire, but also add a social dimension to their professional function both inside and outside the classroom. Furthermore, through the variety of topics touched upon, seminars may even prove to be cathartic in shedding light on common concerns we all have as foreign language teachers, for instance on how to best motivate our learners.

Training and development

Another crucial point in our discussion is the distinction between training and development. Wallace (1991) stresses that “training or education is something that can be presented or managed by others, whereas development is something that can be done only by and for oneself” (p.3). Evidently, the proliferation of many types of courses for teachers such as blended learning courses, webinars, half-day or longer training sessions reflects the inherent need for professional growth on the part of teachers. This need is not teacher-exclusive but is a necessary step for professionals in fields as diverse as medicine, architecture or hairdressing.

Achieving Integration

In order for a course to have long-lasting effects on teacher practices, its content should be made relevant to teachers’ interests and teaching context. Considering the topic of vocabulary instruction for instance, the use of experiential techniques is deemed to be more effective in instigating the process of reflection on the part of trainees. A simple example is brainstorming, which may serve as a means of investigating trainees’ prior knowledge and activating existing schemata on a given topic.

Moreover, the presence of contextualised, awareness-raising tasks may bridge the “perceived gap” (Wallace, 1991, p. 4) between a courses’s theoretical and practical components.

Another factor influencing a course’s level of integration is its adherence to the principles of adult education and adult learning styles and strategies (Rogers, 1999). Trainers should thus be aware of adult learner characteristics and adjust the learning process accordingly. Building on trainees’ experiences and values, providing immediate feedback on practice and establishing a collaborative and supportive learning environment are amongst good practices to be followed.

Although a blueprint or model for carrying out language teacher education courses does not exist, it is recognised that effective courses, however brief or intensive, manifest certain features or components relating to their planning and structuring. The table below illustrates some basic principles governing their organisation and presentation based on a combination of the frameworks for TESOL course design suggested by Wallace (1991) and Graves (1996).

Basic Principles of Effective Training Courses

1. Rationale/ Needs Assessment/Target Population/Admission requirements:

For instance: The course philosophy:

  • What kind of course is it?
  • Does the training course take account of trainees’ needs and particular teaching context?
  • Are any particular professional qualifications required for enrolling in the course?
  • Is it geared towards the private or public school sector or both?
  • Does it address the needs of primary or secondary language teachers?
  • Is its content exam-oriented or not?
  • Will a certificate of attendance be awarded?

2. Determining goals and Objectives

  • What are the course’s intended outcomes? What will trainees need to do to achieve the course’s goals?

3. Consideration of resources and constraints

  • What are the givens of the situation?
  • Classroom constraints /ways of grouping trainees in the space available
  • Time available for the course
  • What is the trainer-trainee ratio?
  • Does the course require the use of technology? (e.g. PowerPoint presentation)
  • Do trainees need to bring a laptop or tablet along or any other teaching materials (e.g. coursebooks)?

4. Methods of delivery

  • How is the course’s theoretical component presented and combined with practice? e.g. Lecture mode/ Lecturettes/Group discussion/Loop-input technique/Role-play/Microteaching

5. Course Content

  • What is the focal point or topic of the course or series of courses? E.g. Differentiated Instruction/Coursebook Evaluation/CLIL/Classroom Management and so on.

6. Assessment/Evaluation

  • Thinking of evaluation as a means of improving the learning situation and one’s practices

  • How will the effectiveness of the course be assessed?

  • Obtaining information through questionnaires or oral discussions

  • Teacher journals as a form a reflection and self-questioning of one’s practices (self-evaluation)

Conclusion

Given Greek EFL teachers’ keen interest in participating in a variety of training events being organised all over the country, the article has attempted to highlight an array of factors determining the effectiveness of language teacher education courses. It has been argued that although there is no recipe guaranteeing the success of a course, trainees and trainers alike should raise their awareness and reflect on the processes allowing them to maximize a course’s learning potential. Lastly, educating ourselves is viewed as an essential and life-long process and we should assume the responsibility for our own development.

References

Graves, K. (1996). Teachers as Course Developers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Papay, J. P. & Kraft M.A. (2016). ‘The Myth of the Performance Plateau’. ASCD, Educational Leadership, 36-42.

Rogers, A. (1996). Teaching Adults, Open University Press.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. New York City, NY: Basic Books.

Wallace, M. J. (1991). Training Foreign Language Teachers: A Reflective Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.•

 

 

 

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