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:

Reflective Practice in the Professional Development of Teachers of Adult English Language Learners 

Shaping the Way We Teach English: Module 14, Reflective Teaching

The language teacher’s development 

Doing action research – what’s in it for teachers and institutions? 

Towards Reflective Teaching 

Reflective action in teaching

4 thoughts on “Reflecting

  1. I wonder what many would say about the quacks and wizards that exist in medicine these days. People try to focus on the unattainable or quantifiable to push their point and unfortunately in ELT or SLA, many people are able to support their point either by wizardry or dumb luck.

    Nevetheless, I believe it is good for teachers (or doctors) to continuously develop but the current employment situation of those in our field is unlike doctors. We are not highly qualified and I would rather a doctor pull a book off a shelf than miss-diagnose me, as much as an English teacher would pull a grammar book off the shelf for consultation. There is always going to be a ‘difference’ between theoretical knowledge and practical experience, yet I believe the game changer for teachers these days is not whether a teacher is able to teach but whether a teacher is passionate enough to teach – you may have the capability but you may not have the love for the profession.

    Anyhow, your blog post considers the basic assumptions that teachers are teaching because they want to, not because they have to.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Martin. I hope I am able to reply in kind and that I haven’t misunderstood some of it.

      I love the idea of having a passionate teacher. I agree with you that this is of utmost importance, but I also think that doesn’t excuse them from growing in their profession. I believe that some are not as passionate about teaching due to the lack of support they have been given. There are a number of studies showing that mentoring teachers early on in their careers can have a really positive affect on them (see my post ‘Mentoring’). I would love to see teachers spend even 1 hour per week on learning something new about their craft. There are many accessible books readily available that can help with understanding the foundational components of language learning. Instead of just using a photocopiable resource, look at general frameworks where you can add material based on your students’ needs. You don’t have to have an MA to learn about SLA.

      Yes, I have made a bit of an assumption that teachers actually want to do a good job, but I suspect that someone reading ELT blog posts on reflections actually cares about growing as a teacher.

      I don’t want this to come across as being really negative, but I am also not willing to let people off the hook just because they love to teach. There needs to be growth.

      1. Absolutely agree Nathan. Perhaps a balance of both would be best. Mentoring teachers is as important as mentoring learners in the early days – you have few bad habits to remove. Anyhow, I’m not advocating that doctors or teachers should practice without any academic or mentoring. I always try to get the less experienced teachers being shadowed by those with more experience.

        I guess that what makes the best teacher is a combination of passion, CPD, training and keen to learn from mistakes in order to grow.

        Sorry about my comment – it might appear a little direct. Too much beer and not enough proofreading. 😉

  2. Hello Nathan,

    I feel that your blog posts raises a number of questions that could lead to some interesting discussions in relation to teaching. I’m picking up on just one of them here and that is the tension you describe in regards to theory and practice. This is also something that I have been discussing recently with teacher friends. Perhaps part of the problem lies with the way in which learning theories and research in general are disseminated. If research isn’t being translated into a language that is accessible for the purposes of teaching and translated into a form that can be implemented in the classroom, then I understand how this tension arises.

    Teachers as practitioners want practical materials. But as you mention it’s not about grabbing a quick takeaway, but reflecting first on whether it would be better to start the receipe from scratch or not. It depends on the learner and the learning context and a host of other variables.

    And I’m not inferring that we need to dumb down research results, but instead use discourses and provide resources that satisfy the needs of diverse stakeholders. It’s a complex situation and one that isn’t going to be resolved with overnight solutions, but certainly something that needs discussing.

    So thanks for posting this Nathan. It’s certainly made me reflect on what I perceive to be the current situation in ELT.

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