As professional people, most teachers would accept that our expertise should progressively develop as we continue the occupation. For that development, teachers tend to use a wide variety of strategies, some formal, some informal.
One informal but very effective strategy is discussions with our colleagues on classrooms experiences or problems relating to specific students. This kind of ‘talking shop’ can have a whole range of useful functions, such as assessing useful background information, articulating possible solutions to everyday classroom problems, improving self-esteem, relieving tension and so on. A very different kind of activity, a formal activity is reading or attending courses.
It is assumed that teachers can improve their knowledge and skills by cultivating an inquiring attitude towards their own teaching contexts. As you all know, each teaching context is different and needs to take a range of factors into account, from individual students’ characteristics to those of the teacher, the classroom context and the community with its local and educational and intellectual traditions. And every language lesson is necessarily different and unique as it is jointly constructed by the teacher and the learner. So, a strategy for accelerating and enhancing that development is basically reflecting on our teaching by systematically collecting data on our everyday practice and analysing it in order to come to some decisions about what our future practice should be.
Teachers who are better informed as to the nature of their teaching are able to evaluate their stage of professional growth and what aspects of their teaching they need to change. In addition, when critical reflection is seen as an ongoing process and a routine part of teaching, it enables teachers to feel more confident in trying different options and assessing their effects on teaching. These assumptions reflect the fact that if teachers are actively involved in reflecting on what is happening in their classrooms, they are in a position to discover whether there is a gap between what they teach and what the learners learn.
The basic premise of classroom research is that teachers should use their classrooms as laboratories to study the learning process as it applies to their particular disciplines, English in our case, teachers should become skillful, systematic observers of how the students in their classroom learn. Indeed, a lot of the reflection we do on our own practice is of this purely private nature.
However, if all our professional development were of this kind, we would surely be handicapping ourselves, as well as depriving ourselves of a lot of stimulus and interest. Being aware of other colleagues’ ideas can give us a fresh slant on problems and ideas of our own research. Similarly, sharing our own ideas with others can be beneficial in many obvious ways. Sometimes, the mere necessity of having to articulate our ideas to an audience can help us to develop them in ways that might not otherwise have happened. The feedback from colleagues can be motivating and rewarding, as well as providing the basis for further reflection.
These points may seem so self-evident that they hardly need stating, but the fact remains that the amount of ‘sharing ideas’ that takes place among language teachers is probably far less than it could and should be. This may be for a number of reasons, among them, pressure of work, lack of motivation or reward for professional development, natural diffidence, professional insecurity, lack of time and so on. In other words some of the inhibiting factors are organizational and some are personal: but whatever their origin, their continuing existence must be a source of regret.
Again we run into a paradox, for one of the most effective ways of exercising our individual initiative in the context of research is through collaboration. This might seem hard to attain when we have been forced to stay farther apart. How can staying farther apart bring us closer together? All of us such as millions of dedicated educators in the world are navigating school closures and sudden shifts to new ways of learning due to this coronavirus outbreak. It is now that we need global cooperation among educators. While collaboration in virtual spaces might not happen the same way as it does in person, connecting with each other, planning around diverse student needs, and figuring out what works has become essential in our current environment. And this is our moment and opportunity for professional development.
As human beings we seem to be more vulnerable than ever before. As educators, this time we really do not have all the answers. What we do have, however, is each other. Physical distancing cannot and should not mean professional isolation. As we collaborate with colleagues, we can offer social-emotional support and lead honest conversations about what works and what doesn’t in this new learning environment. We can share everything: teacher-created materials, freely available resources, course content, successes, challenges, and even total fails. We should help teachers whose students lack the technological tools, we should help teachers who don’t have access to the technology we need today.
A shift into a collaborative mindset is absolutely necessary. Collaboration holds the promise of transforming professional relationships, with profound implications for everyone’s learning. As mentioned before, a teacher can and should advance in professional expertise and knowledge throughout their career, and such advances do not depend solely on formal courses or external input. You have within your own teaching routine the main tools for personal progress: your own experience and your reflections on it and the interactions with other teachers.
Teacher development takes place when teachers move from the individual scope to that of teacher collaborating groups and consciously take advantage of such resources to forward their own professional learning. As a teacher, you are also a learner – learning about language, methodology, people, yourself, life. I suspect the moment that you stop learning, you also stop being involved in education.