Image courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli
One of the unique things about becoming a teenager in the Canadian province of Alberta is you can get your learner’s driving permit on your fourteenth birthday, and that is exactly what I did. Just as with most young people, the opportunity to move behind the wheel is a thrill and one that you can’t wait to do on you own. In order to obtain your learner’s permit, all you have to do is to pass the written part of the exam. I remember the first time behind the wheel. My dad took me to a remote parking lot in a empty city park and had me start and start in first gear (I learned to drive on a manual transmission car). I loved it, but I desperately wanted to get out on the road. That opportunity came weeks later and only around some residential streets. Then the big day came. My parents and I were going to be driving to another city about 3 hours away and my dad was going to let me drive the whole way. The day was overcast, but clear and the start of the journey was fairly uneventful. Slowly, my dad nodded off in the front seat while my mom clung tightly to the door handle in the back seat. Then it happened: construction. I had no idea what to do. There were people holding signs, orange cones all over the place, trucks moving in and out of traffic, and to make matters worse, gravel and rough roads. Meanwhile, my dad continued his afternoon nap. Eventually we made it through and on to our destination. Once we pulled over and stopped, I realized that my hands were cramping as I had been clinging so tightly to the steering wheel that my knuckles had turned pure white. I could hardly take my hands off of the wheel.
I learned a lot from that experience, but in hindsight, it would have been better for me to have read a bit more on the subject and possibly even practised it a bit in on a smaller scale. Also, it would have been nice to have someone with more experience guiding me along the way, pointing out potential problems along the way (sorry dad, I know you were tired and it all worked out in the end). This is what it was like for me as I was handed over my TESL certificate back in 1995. It was like someone had handed me my driver’s license without the process of a learner’s permit. Sure, I had had a practicum with an experienced trainer, but it was fairly short and couldn’t possibly have prepared me for what was to come next. Over the years, I have grown a great deal with a long way still to go. I thought I would share some of my thoughts about how I have learned to become a better teacher for my students.
So, you have your TESL certificate in hand, what’s next? To me, you are like a young tree that has been planted in the ground. Here are some things that can help you grow.
- Join a local TESL community. Wherever there are a group of teachers in the world, there is likely going to be a local association that supports their teachers and gives them an opportunity to network and grow. There is probably a membership fee, but it is usually small and if you take advantage of the things that they offer, you will get that money back and more. They do so much more than just organize conferences and send out newsletters (which are both good). They also are an advocacy group, provide network connection for future collaboration such as jobs, promote the importance of language education, and work together for causes such as scholarships for new teachers or students in need. This is a win-win for you and the community. Yes, there can be conflicts and politics can sometimes get in the way, but that is also a time to learn and grow as it helps define what you believe and what you know to be right for those situations.
- Go to conferences. This can be as small as a local one-day conference, or a bigger national or even international conferences that tend to happen annually in various places around the world. This gives you an opportunity to learn from your peers and gain from their experience and knowledge on almost any topic imaginable. Stretch yourself and don’t just attend sessions on areas of interest, target areas in which you know you are weak and seek out varied viewpoints so you can make the best possible decisions for your particular group of students. Later on in your growth, think about giving back by presenting on a subject you have been studying or in which you have gained some experience. It doesn’t have to be long or even be a formal presentation. You could always give a poster presentation which gives you the chance to talk with more people and engage in longer, more detailed discussions on the topic than a traditional lecture style of presentation.
- Read books on a variety of topics. Don’t just read books on lesson ideas or ready-to-copy activities, find books that provide more depth on pedagogical issues such as lesson planning, skills development, and areas specific themes. It is like the old adage, “Give someone a fish, you feed them for a day. Teach someone to fish, and feed them for a lifetime.” In this case, you are not just pulling out pre-made ideas from a book, you are learning the rationale behind these activities so that you can develop them on your own, making connections to your understanding about language education and your particular group of students.
- Read academic journal articles. Yes, these can seem a bit dry and boring, but in reality they are incredibly valuable to our growth as a teaching community. It is from these that we discover the ‘why’ instead of the ‘what’. Take some time on a regular basis to find articles on areas that you are interested in or are needing some help understanding the reasons why we do something. There are a lot of online journals that are freely available that can provide more than enough reading fodder to keep you going. I wrote a short primer on how to read journal articles here.
- Take part in webinars. This is one of the fastest growing areas of professional development since it gives people in areas around the world to get together to learn and share on a single topic. These are simply online seminars that usually allow a live discussion on the topic while the presenter shares their session. These are often recorded for later in case you can’t make it at the scheduled time. Tyson Seburn updates a calendar of conferences, seminars, and webinars on his ELT calendar here.
- Get involved online. For many, this involves some sort of social media such as Facebook or Twitter. I realize this isn’t for everyone, but you don’t have to sign up at first to start to get some of the benefits from what is being shared online. For instance, you can follow a hashtag on Twitter to learn more about what is happening regarding that subject. Take #eltchat for example. If you search for that hashtag on Twitter, you will find people’s comments on subjects related to English language teaching, you can find links to online resources, and you can ‘listen in on’ weekly ‘chats’ on a wide range of topics. Of course, it would be wonderful if you could join in at some time, but that is up to you. I equate it to your classroom; you don’t want to be the only one talking or having the class dominated by one or two students. No, instead you want everyone to join in since each person’s viewpoint is important and valued. When you simply ‘lurk’, you are missing out on the conversation. Take your time, find people who you want to follow, and then join in. Don’t worry, we don’t bite! Lizzie Pinard has a great introduction to Twitter for educators here.
- Find some good blogs to read and then join in by starting a blog yourself. Blogging is another thing some people don’t feel comfortable doing themselves. The flip side to this is that I have rarely heard someone say they wish they hadn’t started blogging. Sure, even I have wondered from time to time what I am doing, but that isn’t saying that I haven’t grown because of it. I am a better teacher now that I have started blogging. It forces me to articulate what I am doing and gives me a sounding board to hear from others on the topic. You don’t need to be an expert; that’s the whole point! If you know everything about that topic, you would likely be writing a book instead of a blog post on it. Share what you know or have experienced and make it personal. People can add to it by commenting, giving you an opportunity to learn from others and be encouraged that you are on the right path. Of course, you should also be reading other blogs as well. This is so incredibly valuable and a way for teachers from around the world to virtually sit together and have longer discussions on topics that relate to what we are doing on a day to day basis. Chiew Pang has a great list of ELT bloggers on his site to get you started. Of course, there are many more!
- Find a mentor. Mentoring is one of those things that people love to talk about, but few know how to do properly or even participate in. I have had a number of people mentor me along the way, most of them have become life long friends. The key to mentoring is to make it a two-way street. Yes, the person who is mentoring you has experience and knowledge in areas in which you need to grow, but you also have something to share. I remember being mentored by one lady who was a long-time ELT teacher and administrator who has since retired. I learned so much from her, and in turn, she learned some things from me as well. I was able to help her in the area of educational technology and also in ESP. She had mostly been teaching in settlement programs and had never taught an ESP class. I was able to show her how things were a bit different and she learned how to transfer what she knew from her experience into those two areas. If you can, find someone who has been doing this for a while to help be your mentor. I would suspect that they would be happy to take a bit of time out of their schedule to help someone out. Most of them understand that this can be beneficial for them as well. I blogged about mentoring here.
- Participate in peer-observing. This means getting together with another teacher to watch each other teach. It is more than just sitting down and taking notes, it is about actively watching for specific things that the other teacher has asked you to keep an eye on. Soon afterward, sit down to debrief. This should be as an observer, not a teacher. Share your perception about what has happened, but don’t give ‘solutions’ unless asked. Let them take the initiative in that area. Then, do the same in reverse with you being observed. It is amazing what others can pick up on that you simple miss in the course of teaching.
- Engage in action research. While it is highly unlikely that you are going to be involved in a major research project this early in your career, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be involved in what is referred to as action research. This is where you engage in in-class research based on something you would like to observe or test in your own classroom. It may be that you have an idea that think would help your students in their writing. Go through some steps to write down what you are going to do and what you expect to see and then implement it in your classroom, taking steps to record the results. Afterward, review and do it again. I have blogged about action research before here.
- Take time to make notes about what is happening in your classroom and with yourself. Journaling is a great way to keep track of things such as what worked and what didn’t, ideas that come up that you would like to use later on, and put into words things that are running around in your head. This is even more personal than blogging as you can vent about things that you shouldn’t share to the broader community or it may simply be things that are starting to take shape. Later on, you can blog about your experiences once you have solidified those ideas or have had time to calm down.
- Meet with your colleagues on a regular basis. At one of the places I worked at, we mostly ate our lunch in the staffroom which gave us time to shoot the breeze and also share successes and failures. Some great ideas came out of that time and also some amazing friendships. I really feel that we were working together instead of as individuals. Another place I worked at had a regular lunch PD session. The administration bought lunch once every two weeks and someone from our teaching staff shared a short session on whatever topic they wanted. It was fantastic! It didn’t cost the school hardly anything and in turn we learned something and brought us closer together (this is a hint to other administration).
- Take a training session. It could be a short certificate program or a longer course at a community college or online. By keeping yourself in the student role, you become more sympathetic to what is happening with your students. Also, it is amazing what ideas start to come out of something like this. Lastly, it looks good for potential employers. It shows that you are wanting to grow and are actively learning.
- Continue your formal education. Take some time to teach for a while, but don’t dismiss the idea of pursuing further education in the field. I ended up taking my MA TESOL later in life after teaching for a number of years, and I found it to be incredibly fruitful. I learned so much about the field and myself. Yes, it cost a good deal of money and took a lot of my time and energy, but I am reaping the rewards not just financially, but in having a deeper understanding about this field. The only real problem is that the more you learn, the more you see how much you don’t know.
I hope that gives you some ideas that can help you grow into the teacher you want to become. If you have recently finished your initial training such as a certificate program, congratulations! You are about to embark on a fantastic journey that will take you places, and not just physically, that you never could have imagined. Yes, there are some who will pull you down with their negativity, but don’t let that be the place where you dwell. Move on and remember this: your students should always be the most important reason you are in the classroom.
Okay, in the spirit of sharing, give me your ideas in the comment section below.