Monday, March 12, 2012

A world of words, roles, and differences: Classroom Language

After Christmas I was back at uni again, doing another Classroom Language course. This training provided an opportunity for some undergraduate English literature and language students to do some of our training. They enjoyed it and some of them will go onto build from this in their professional lives; which is ultimately the aim of doing these sessions. Yet, ‘behind the scenes’, in the wings, there were a few tensions and conflict (the good kind you can learn from).

The classroom language course is quite a challenge for trainers and trainees alike. The language and pedagogical content mean that is a tasty sandwich for all to get their teeth into. I co-trained on this most recent course with a more qualified and more experienced Palestinian ELT trainer at a University, Palestine. The University is a long-standing partner and the trainer had observed some of the previous course I had led. For the bosses it seems a logical way to make this kind of course more sustainable, and at the same time keep the novelty (am I a novelty, or an experienced ELT professional?) of having a member of staff from outside of the faculty involved in the training.

The trainer and I scheduled 2 pre-meetings, but feeling confident that our professional culture would bridge our other differences, and time poor, settled for just one meeting. In this meeting we framed the upcoming course as a learning experience for both of us. In retrospect, there were a number of basic things absent from this conversation.

Although, we had had lunch on the earlier course, we didn’t know each other, we didn’t know too much about each other’s classroom experiences as teachers or trainers, our educational backgrounds in any real detail, we didn’t understand each others’ perceptions about teaching and learning: we didn’t share expectations about what this course would be like. This left a lot unspoken and meant our professional culture would bridge a 30 year age difference, among others.

My co-trainer and I hadn’t had enough time to build our professional discourse. What I mean by this is that terms like, for example, the communicative approach to teaching (or training), which we both used, were practiced in different ways. So, weirdly we spoke the same language, but the meanings of the words were different. These false friends then became more problematic as we were attempting to co-train, bringing life to these terms.

It’s important that I say that I am no chauvinist, or TEFL fascist, I am not saying that my way of understanding, or doing say, participant centred training, is the ‘right way’. In fact, I believe that there are many ways of skinning a cat when TEFL, and training, but I do try to, practice what I preach. These approaches to teaching suit me, and mesh well with my background and educational experiences (both as a teacher and student).

Feedback was another term that proved an issue. For me feedback is feedback, explicitly different from error correction, or appraisal. When I asked for feedback, I received (polite) glowing praise, great I thought… My personal feeling about this kind of feedback is that it has little value though, it’s nice to hear, (how does it help me to grow)? My feedback for him, reflected my respect for him as a professional and was questioning and critical of his practice as I am engaged with my own teaching in just this way.

I explained that my exploratory questions were, I thought, in the spirit of our learning, of (our) professional growth. Yet, it became clear, I was off target, had overstepped a boundary, or said something unexpected to a teacher and trainer who had been working for decades (possibly without much observation or appraisal). We smoothed things over before leaving, but we were both a bit off key.

The following day I felt I should apologise for my unsupportive comments, I framed this as a realisation that I needed to be more focused and forward looking in my feedback (something that I strongly adhere to in my teaching) and I made a document to focus the observing trainer. Despite this, at the end of the second day, the time short feedback session was a bit jaded (to be expected I guess).

My co-trainer was interested in the success, or failure of his performance. I was, honestly, offended by the proposition that my role was to judge him. Support him, okay, explore our practice together, fine, but judging him seemed unprofessional to me. This clash in expectations again was based on a contrasting understanding for our motivation for being there. Perhaps he felt I was there to judge him, to report on him (which I am doing now, but writing this blog wasn’t my intention then).

The key thing that I think I learnt from all this, was that giving time before training creates opportunities for relationships to seed. The professor and I have grown closer through this experience, and certainly know each other better, but having more time really would have helped. After sessions time is also an important factor allowing for trainers to de-pressurise before doing peer-feedback.

By smoothing out our expectations, and clarifying our roles, this could have been a smoother experience for us both. At the same time it is a case my co-trainer and I have eventually, been able to learn from this experience. It serves as an example of how you can learn through experiences and how a shared professional culture helped us bridge bigger differences, yet within this community of English Language Teachers (and Trainers) there is also a broad understanding of teaching and learning.

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