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February 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Digressions of a Tentative Teacher Trainer…

 

Sandra Pitronaci is Director of Studies at ILSC Sydney, and has been on the ELICOS scene for over 14 years as a teacher, teacher trainer and academic manager. She holds a Master of Applied Linguistics in TESOL and Language Programs Management, and recently completed the IDLTM. She is an avid supporter of ELT communities of practice such as English Australia NSW AMSIG, IATEFL LAMSIG and #AusELT, and is Reviews Editor of the English Australia Journal. Email: sandra.pitronaci@ilsc.com.au

 

Affordances. One of my favourite terms, both linguistic and non. I first came across this term in a linguistic sense via the unparalleled Diane Larsen-Freeman. I’m aware that I’ve harped on about DLF with many colleagues (and a few unlucky passers-by) a little too often, but, well, the first cut is the deepest…

So back to my main digression: affordances. Our ELT professional lives are full of affordances. And I am keen to share this newfound understanding with all you ELTers. Sometimes they may not seem like affordances at first glance, but every forwards, backwards, sideways and diagonal ELT step we take, if taken consciously and reflectively, while leaving at least a smidgen of room for some terrifyingly carefree abandon, is a solid step towards our own professional development.

Such an affordance came my way mid-2019 in the guise of a teacher trainer role, and it saw me clumsily take the reins mid-gallop, hands sweaty and trembling, from the immeasurably capable and experienced Janice Ford. It also meant I’d have the privilege to be working alongside robust fellow ELTers Phil Chappell, Peter Roger and Agi Bodis. In fact, now that I reflect on it, it was Peter who nudged me (Clare McGrath, would that make us a ‘nudge unit’?) into happening upon a chaos/complexity article in an SLA lecture many years back, so it is in fact to him I gratefully owe my Larsen-Freeman obsession.

So, teacher training. Was it for me? Or perhaps more pointedly, was I for it? Even with Janice’s careful and continued handover, how could I ever hope to live up to the standards of the experienced teacher trainers I knew? I had never trained pre-service teachers from scratch before. I was an academic manager. I helped recruit, mentor and develop new teachers, and I was used to observing other teachers and giving feedback on how they might improve their teaching practice. Now, I would need to somehow flawlessly embody all I had been agitating for over the years. I even dreamt of Silvana Richardson observing my meta lessons with that silent, thoughtful gaze of hers, and it had me cringing my way into the depths of imposterdom.

So, what perked me up? Well, I guess it was exactly the same thing that perks all of you ELTers up every day: I had a class to teach.

Teaching on the Grad Cert TESOL brought me into contact with a very diverse range of trainee EAL/D teachers: smiling newbies fresh out of an undergrad degree; qualified and experienced primary and high school classroom teachers who were changing discipline or upgrading their skills; international students who would try their hand at teaching in Australia and then head back to classrooms in their own countries; local students heading overseas or already teaching overseas and signing in to our LMS from the other side of the globe; volunteer-minded people who were keen to help empower refugees and adult migrants; and the mid-career change people who are often hesitant about stepping into a classroom yet always able to offer so much depth through their previous professional and life experiences.

And teaching how to teach, where my very existence was meta, was one of the best professional development sessions I have ever been put through. I (re)discovered that my whiteboard writing was atrocious, and that as much as I required my students to provide a PowerPoint wrap-up slide with a summary at the end of their lessons, I loathed the thought of pinning myself down to providing one for them. I mean, what if a beautifully unplanned learning and teaching moment came up and I needed to Scott Thornbur-ily unplug from my lesson plan?

I learnt that fearlessly teaching on the edge of chaos (someone else’s brilliant idea), was possibly culturally inappropriate if done while languidly leaning on the edge of a desk; that teaching unplugged was far easier to embrace and demonstrate when I inadvertently forgot my lectern swipecard or USB; and that classroom layout experimentation was a barrel of laughs in our triangle-shaped classroom. (Hyperbol[a]e unashamedly intended).

The program also threw me back to my high school teaching roots, and school visits to observe practicum students were fascinating reminders of how some things just haven’t changed. Oh, those good old graffiti-ridden wooden desks and sweaty plastic chairs of the Australian public high school…

Yet the rigorous approach taken by the Australian schools sector is still awe-inspiring, and the micro-teaching videos of some of my prac students teaching Kindergarten EAL/D withdrawal groups melted my new-found teacher trainer heart. To witness gentleness, a sense of safety and inclusion, and linguistic learning outcome rigour all artfully combined in a short lesson geared towards tiny humans with chirpy little voices is truly a privilege, and I recommend the observation of primary EAL/D teaching to all.

I also highly recommend a refresher of the ESL Scales and a deep dive into the ACARA EAL/D Learning Progressions regardless of the levels/contexts in which you are currently teaching – there is much to learn from the schools sector, and these documents, which provide very granular detail on learner characteristics at different phases of language development, can be extremely useful in helping teachers improve their ability to observe and monitor learner proficiency levels and progression. Here are the links for those interested:

If you are keen to hear more about the vagaries of teacher training, feel free to PM me on Facebook or LinkedIn, and I’ll happily digress with you. Or if you prefer more rigorous professional development in building your skills and confidence in teacher training, then PD opportunities could be developed through relevant groups. I’d also recommend peer observations with teacher colleagues you would be happy to engage with in reflective practice – even if only one of you is interested in teacher training, the benefits of building observation and feedback skills could still be mutual. And don’t forget to check out and consider joining the IATEFL Teacher Trainer and Education SIG and Facebook group: https://ttedsig.iatefl.org/

If you’re wondering where you might sit skills-wise, try plotting yourself on this handy teacher trainer framework provided by Cambridge: https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/teaching-english/professional-development/cambridge-english-trainer-framework/

As for interesting reference texts, there are the oldies but goodies that I used in the program I was teaching that would be helpful to refamiliarise yourself with, such as Jim Scrivener’s Classroom Management Techniques (2012), Jeremy Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching (2015), and Richards & Farrell’s Practice Teaching: A reflective approach (2011). Also keep your eye out for new publications – where possible, reviews of teacher training texts may be (and have been) published in the English Australia Journal – free access to current and past issues here: https://www.englishaustralia.com.au/professional-development/current-and-past-issues

While ‘flawless’ is not exactly how I would describe my stint as a teacher trainer (and it was quite possibly a classic case of me learning more from my students than they did from me… shhh…), I hope to at least be able to claim that the student teachers I worked with feel better prepared to begin or continue their own professional and reflective practice journeys, and that my own teaching skills have improved.

In signing off, I’d like to send my thanks to the Macquarie University Department of Linguistics and all my fine former colleagues there. And a very, very big shout-out to all the mentor teachers out there in Australian primary schools, high schools, ELICOS colleges, TAFEs, university English language centres, adult community colleges and more. Without your generous mentorship and encouragement, and your own recognition of affordances, none of us would be teaching in ELT classrooms in the first place.

 

Please check the The Art and Skills of the Humanistic Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website

  • The Pencil Case Challenge
    Anna Hasper, Australia;Sarah Chamberlain, Australia

  • Digressions of a Tentative Teacher Trainer…
    Sandra Pitronaci, Australia