Image courtesy of Katie Sayer
A little over a year ago, I went to a medical clinic in the city I was living in at the time as a follow up to a test that I had done six months earlier at the hospital. The situation was pretty routine in my mind. Go to the clinic, get the doctor to request a test, get the test done, and review the results together. The problem was that I had only been the in city for a short while and I didn’t have family doctor as of yet. That is why I was sitting in a walk-in clinic on a Sunday afternoon waiting approximately three hours to just get the call to go to one of the rooms where I could wait another 30 minutes for the doctor.
So, here I was sitting in the room, waiting (im)patiently. Looking around the room, I started to notice something strange. There wasn’t a single piece of current medical equipment to be found. The baby scale was a balance with a set of weights. There wasn’t a computer or screen around, only binders and clipboards. I started to wonder who was going to step through that door next. Then, with some struggle with the door first, entered the oldest doctor I had seen in a long while. He shuffled (literally) over to the nearest chair and plopped down. He took a moment to catch his breath while I looked on with a stunned expression. He lifted his glasses and pulled my chart within a nose length of his eyes and scanned the page. We talked for a bit about what I needed and he rose to open the door and bellowed to the nurse to bring him a form.
Supplied with the form, the doctor started to work his way down the paper. It went something like this:
“Do you have any allergies?”
“Are you on any prescription medication?”
“Are you pregnant?”
“Uhhhhh. Not to my knowledge.”
I have to say, that is the first time in my life that anyone, let alone a doctor, has asked me, a man, if I was pregnant. What was more surprising is that he didn’t miss a beat and continued his way down the form as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Needless to say, I was happy to get out of there, get the test done, and not have to return to the office since they found nothing wrong.
This situation is not unlike what I see with in the teaching field today. Teachers get their certification, do their practicum, and then go on their merry way, teaching and teaching and teaching without every giving a thought about what they are doing and why they are doing it. Many are content to just be spoon fed what to do and don’t reflect on what it is they are doing. Take a look at the most popular websites for ELT. Most of them are nothing more than handouts and games to do with your class. Sure, some of that material can be quite good, but you still need to look around and see who you are teaching. Do adult students really want to play another board game with questions such as “Who’s your favourite pop singer?”, or refugees who are asked to role play a situation where they are on vacation at a resort and their room doesn’t have a view of the beach as promised by the travel agent?
Being a reflective teacher forces us to stop and think about what we are doing, questioning every part of our teaching. It bothers me when I read the ongoing debate about what is better: an MA TESOL or Delta. The main arguments most people give about not doing an Master’s degree in Teaching English is that it is “too theoretical” as if this is something nasty and dangerous. Doing a quick search on this debate brought up a number of interesting comments such as:
“You can gain a masters (sic) and be a poor classroom teacher. You cannot gain a DELTA and be a poor classroom teacher.”
“Lets face it, is a study of chomsky’s (sic) aspect of syntax theory (sic) going to help you deal with young learners in a classroom more than the practical lessons learnt on a DELTA course.(sic)”
My goal here is not to debate the two streams of learning, but to look at the argument against taking the MA as being too theoretical. Practice and theory go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. Just learning something to know it, but never applying it is not that helpful. Learning to do something without stopping to think about why you do it is like the doctor who asks his male patients if they are pregnant. Those how dismiss theory as something unnecessary are setting themselves and their students up for disaster. Yes, learning will happen in the classroom, but you can also drive to work on a farm tractor. It might work, but it doesn’t mean it should be your everyday vehicle. It just isn’t practical in all situations. Isn’t the goal of teaching to help our students as much as we can? To do that, you need to be able to adapt and change to what is needed.
Things in this world change because people question how things are done. Going back to medicine for a minute, I would rather have a doctor who questioned what he or she does instead of doing things the way they were taught in their initial training. Again, I am not saying that Delta or MA TESOL do it better than the other, what I am fighting against is the mentality that understanding the theoretical underpinnings of our field is a waste of time. You might be a newly trained certificate teacher or you may be someone who has been working in language teaching your whole life. Either way, stop standing in the middle of the raging river and start swimming!
If you would like to explore this idea of reflective teaching further, I would recommend the book Language teaching awareness: A guide to exploring beliefs and practices by Jerry G. Gebhard and Robert Oprandy. If you can’t get a copy of that, here are some websites I would recommend as starting points: