- Various Articles - General/ Teachers' Belief Systems
- Connecting What We Do as Teachers With What We Believe and Who We Are
Connecting What We Do as Teachers With What We Believe and Who We Are
Rod Bolitho is a freelance teacher trainer and consultant with experience in many countries around the world. His most recent publications, both co-authored with Richard Rossner, are 'Language Education in a Changing World' (Multilingual Matters 2020) and 'Language-Sensitive Teaching and Learning' (Palgrave Macmillan 2022). He is currently working on a new book, provisionally titled 'Case Studies in Continuing Professional Development' with Amol Padwad. He enjoys reading, walking, cooking and writing creatively, and is a lifelong supporter of Liverpool FC. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan Maley has been involved in ELT for 60 years. He has worked in 10 countries worldwide, including France, Ghana, China and India. He has published over 50 books and numerous articles. He is a Past President of IATEFL, and recipient of the ELTons Lifetime Achievement Award. His main current interest is in creative writing. Email: email@example.com
The literature of language teaching has always been dominated by books and articles on aspects of language, or on methods and techniques, and by the constant quest by applied linguists for the theories that might underpin classroom practice. In English Language Teaching in particular, there have been occasional paradigm shifts based on insights from some of this literature, for example the move towards more communicative approaches, the advent of task-based learning and the (false?) dawn of the post-method era. However, underlying all these developments, there is a constant factor at play: the very human relationship between teachers and learners, and its impact on success or failure in learning. In this article, we try to address the human dimension of teaching and learning by looking at what defines us as teachers, at the teacher qualities that stand out for learners, and how these very personal aspects can be addressed in in-service teacher training and pre-service teacher education.
Part I: Teachers’ beliefs
Inevitably, all teachers have beliefs about various aspects of teaching and learning. At the start of a teacher’s career, these beliefs are likely either to have been carried over from their experience as language learners or simply borrowed or ‘espoused’ from inputs on their pre-service training course and the reading they have done. Both types of belief are sure to have an impact on their early classroom practice. However, they are often subject to change as a teacher’s experience accumulates and deepens. They will be influenced by their learners, by their colleagues, by their reading and by many other sources during their professional journey. Part of this process is about finding out what these beliefs mean in practice, and in a recent survey of some very experienced teachers of English, some very clear links between the two emerged, as this short sample reveals:
What it means in practice
Every teacher should find at least one thing to genuinely like in every student.
Make time for personal interaction and getting to know the students in every lesson.
I strongly believe that reading is a key for developing any skill in English.
I encourage my students to read as much as possible in and out of class.
I believe that mistakes are an opportunity for learners to learn.
I give learners a chance to self-correct and peer-correct in spoken language, and I give them time to review and correct the mistakes they make in writing. I encourage learners to take risks with their language in both speaking and writing.
I believe in developing empathy in my learners because as Sarah Mercer said 'it is especially relevant to language learning, with its focus on communication, cultural diversity and the centrality of social interactions'.
I find topics that get learners thinking about empathy and I also highlight examples of empathy (or lack of if relevant) that develop in the classroom.
I believe teachers must enjoy their lessons as much as their students.
I try to make sure I find interesting, thought-provoking, meaningful and/or fun all the materials I choose for my lessons so I enjoy what I use for teaching and I pay attention to how much they seem to enjoy the lessons.
However, not all teachers are fortunate enough to be able to put their beliefs into practice. In certain contexts, there may even be a clash between a teacher’s beliefs and what the system requires of them in practice, for instance when a teacher is expected to teach strictly to examination requirements rather than in ways that develop learners’ fluency and communicative skills, as is often the case in some private schools that prioritise exam success to give them a marketing edge. Sometimes, too, there are culturally-rooted clashes, as when a native English-speaking teacher starts teaching in a new country and tries to impose an unfamiliar teaching method on learners. This can happen to teachers new to Japan or China, for example, where classes are often large and there is no real tradition of developing the speaking skill. In such cases, if either the teacher or the learners are unable or unwilling to adapt, the outcome is likely to be frustration or dissatisfaction.
When there is a conflict between beliefs and actions, it may remain undisclosed for some time, leaving the teacher to struggle internally with it. In other cases, it may reveal itself at classroom level, in discussions with colleagues or the head teacher, or even in a parents’ meeting. The conflict is often initiated by top-down decisions at Ministry level, such as the introduction of new textbooks in state schools or the prescription of a particular approach to teaching, as happened in 2013 when the UK government used the revised National Curriculum to impose systematic synthetic phonics for the teaching of reading at primary level based on recommendations in the Rose Report (2006).
Many teachers find it difficult to adapt to new materials or methods after years of doing things differently. In other words, the depth of the beliefs that teachers hold is likely to be in inverse proportion to the speed at which they are likely to change their ways. Borg (2017), in a research-based paper, examines this relationship and identifies ways in which beliefs influence practice and vice versa.
This kind of mismatch is, of course, not restricted to educational contexts. Festinger (1957) invented the term ‘cognitive dissonance’, describing it as ‘an uncomfortable internal state occurring when new information conflicts with commonly held beliefs’. Building on Festinger’s theory and focussing on teaching and learning, Adcock (2012) describes how cognitive dissonance can be a first step towards accommodating or even assimilating new ideas, which is clearly an option open to teachers and learners alike. But this doesn’t happen automatically, and, left untreated or unnoticed, it can fester like a sore and lead to disillusionment or even a decision to leave teaching.
Teaching can be a lonely and isolated profession, and support in schools, or through in-service training, may not always be available for a teacher dealing with cognitive dissonance. However, when a teacher does enrol for an in-service course, there ought to be an opportunity for beliefs to be aired and conflicts between beliefs and practice to be brought to the surface. Lamb (1995) writes persuasively about this on the basis of his experience of working on an INSET programme with teachers in Indonesia. After a discussion of different reactions among teacher participants to the content of the course, he sums up as follows:
“The focus of the short INSET course, where experienced teachers already have well-developed mental constructs of teaching, should be the teachers' beliefs themselves. These need first to be articulated, and then analysed for potential contradictions with each other, the teaching circumstances, and the beliefs of learners. Only then will teachers be able to accommodate new ideas—to appreciate the theory underlying them, understand their practical realization, and evaluate their usefulness.” (1995:79)
Lamb’s position is similar to the one articulated by Bolitho and Wright in a 1995 paper in which they state:
“One of the main challenges we face as trainers is to find ways of engaging with course participants’ previous knowledge, experience and beliefs. Without this engagement (……) we believe it is difficult to enable participants to make sense of any new input on a training course.” (1995: 53)
The question that remains is how best to access these beliefs, some of which may be hitherto unarticulated by teachers. Here are three examples of activities which can help to do this:
- ‘What makes a good lesson?’ Ask participants to get into groups and to produce a poster showing the main features of a good lesson. Give them plenty of time as they will need to sound each other out and to make compromise in order to arrive at an agreement. Each group should present their poster and be ready to answer questions about their decisions. In this way, beliefs will come to the surface. The trainer should remain non-judgmental and should simply facilitate the process.
- Metaphors. For example, ask participants to come up with their metaphor for a textbook, a classroom or a language test, for example. Allow some thinking time. Then invite them to call out their metaphors and sketch each of them on the board or a flipchart. A collage gradually emerges. Then ask questions e.g. ‘If the classroom is a marketplace, who are the learners and who is the teacher?’ As participants offer their suggestions, beliefs are revealed. Once again, the trainer should focus on listening, learning and facilitating the process.
- In groups, tell each other about a technique or a procedure you often use in your classes and explain why you think it is effective. Ask a rapporteur to make a list of the beliefs that underlie these practices. Rapporteurs report back to the whole group and everyone is invited to comment on similarities and differences. Again, this is valuable intelligence for the trainer who may facilitate and summarise without judging.
We have looked at the importance of beliefs as essential to the way we define ourselves as teachers, and we now turn to another aspect of teacher identity: personal qualities.
Part II: 1 Teachers’ personal qualities
This involves us in moving from our own perspective and understanding of our beliefs and behaviours to the way we are perceived by those we are teaching. Clearly, the way we perceive our teachers is a major factor in the effectiveness of their teaching. As Stevick remarks, ‘Success depends less on materials, techniques, and linguistic analysis, and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom’ (Stevick 1990)
To test this assertion, Alan ran a simple survey in 2010 with 78 respondents from 18 countries. And to confirm his findings he re-ran the same survey in 2022 with 43 respondents from 20 countries. A majority of those he surveyed were teachers with relatively long experience of teaching. The questions were elementary:
- Can you recall a particular teacher (or teachers) from your past that you remember with particular affection, appreciation, respect or gratitude?
- Can you sum up the key personal qualities of this teacher in 5 to 10 keywords?
Please try to give a brief example to substantiate your choice of each keyword. e.g. Fair: She never had favourites and never victimised anyone. Anecdotes and specific memories are welcome.
- Is there one ‘critical incident’ involving this teacher that still sticks in your memory? Perhaps something they said or did which changed you?
- Can you describe what effect or influence this teacher has had on you as a person, and on your beliefs and practices as a teacher?
On the basis of the responses received, the following groupings of keywords emerged under the headings of: Ethics, Professionalism, Humanity, Presence and Charisma, though it is clear that some keywords could have been placed in more than one category.
Here are the results:
honest treated us all equally
knowledgeable love of subject
never wastes time well-organised
not lazy grasp of subject
energetic good explanations
Trusts in us
Gives us time/ ‘sees us’
Makes us feel safe
Brought things alive
Learning by doing
Piqued our curiosity
Gave us chance to try
Open to new ideas
It should come as no surprise that, apart from the keywords associated with professionalism, the overwhelming majority of the keywords characterising the most memorable teachers had to do with their personal qualities. As Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying, ‘They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.’
Yet, despite these findings, most teacher training programmes continue to focus on knowledge and on pedagogical skills. These are, of course, important. They are the necessary components of a teacher’s training. No one would deny that. But they are not, alone, sufficient. For teachers to be optimally effective, they need to develop the kinds of personal qualities referred to above. The question then arises, as to how, if at all, such qualities might be developed. Traditionally, the line has been to abdicate any responsibility for developing such qualities. Instead, it has been asserted that experience will take care of it – or not, as the case may be! In any event, the consensus view seems to have been that such qualities cannot be developed; they must be allowed to emerge.
This seems to be an unduly pessimistic view. We would like to argue that, while such qualities cannot be taught, as such, in a direct way, there are many things we can do to sensitize trainee teachers to them. And in this process of sensitization, trainees can gradually, and indirectly, develop a mind-set favourable to becoming a more ‘humanistic’ teacher. As Leo van Lier pointed out ‘Intangibles are often more influential than tangibles. If you can’t see it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. If you can’t count it, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t count.’ So what are these actions we can take to promote the development of desirable teacher qualities?
II. 2 Awareness-raising
Awareness can e triggered in a number of ways, for example through discussion of critical incidents based on non-technical and critical books about teaching and learning.
A number of possible sources of critical incidents are listed in the references below. Short passages including incidents which spark discussion are key to this activity. Trainees or teachers are encouraged to reflect on the significance of the incident, to relate it to their own educational experiences and to suggest ways they might adapt their own teaching behaviours in the light of it. Of course, trainees may also draw on their own critical incidents as teachers or learners to reflect on and discuss.
i. Using Wisdom Stories to spark discussion.
Wisdom stories include folk tales, urban myths, fables and other texts which tell a story which reveals something about human behaviour and which are open to interpretation. For a full description of how they can be used to generate divergent thinking about education issues, see Maley, A. (2021) Wisdom Stories for Teacher Education. HLT Mag, Oct 2021, Year 23, Issue 5. accessible at: https://www.hltmag.co.uk/oct21/wisdom-stories-for-teacher-education )
ii Using quotations and poems to engage trainees or teachers in discussion of fundamental issues in education.
It is worth building up a resource bank of provocative quotations and poems. Brian Patten’s, The Minister for Exams, is a good example of one such poem. See also Gervase Phinn: It takes one to know one – poems about teaching, available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1381641.It_Takes_One_to_Know_One
Trainees/teachers can be asked to compile a list of quotations for sharing in class. Here are some examples of quotations
I never let my schooling come in the way of my education. Mark Twain.
Which question should we ask? How intelligent are you? or How are you intelligent? Ken Robinson.
Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only what he (sic) is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of the formation of enduring attitudes…may be…more important than the lesson in geography or history (or language? Author’s addition). For these attitudes are fundamentally what count for the future. John Dewey
Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten. B.F. Skinner.
Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one. Malcolm Forbes.
Don’t just play the notes: play the music. Arturo Toscanini.
Don’t tell me what I’m doing. I don’t want to know. Federico Fellini.
iii Metaphors for education.
Trainees are given some sample metaphors for an aspect of learning – for example, A classroom is … a herd of sheep? a beehive? a can of worms? a seedbed? an oasis? a desert?
They then invent more metaphors to be used as input for discussion. Other keywords for generating metaphors might include: A teacher is …, Testing is …, Reading is …, etc.
iv Mini-case studies of anti-models.
The trainees are invited to provide examples of counter-productive teacher behaviour from their own or others’ experiences. What went wrong? How might it have gone right?
v Re-run the My Teacher questionnaire (above) with the trainee group.
This will provide ample material for discussion. Results can then be compared with those listed above in the original study.
II. 3 Hands on activities
- Reflective journals. Trainees keep a journal with daily entries as a way of documenting and reflecting on their own learning – and teaching experiences. For more information on reflection, see Farrell, T. (2014).
- Impro and Clowning. Poynton’s book DO Impro (2013) offers some simple improvisation activities. These essentially put the trainee in the position of having to react to the unpredictable – an essential part of thinking on your feet. For more advanced work on improvisation, trainees can be trained in theatre clowning. (In the tradition of Lecocq with its three basic principles of Play, Shared understanding and Openness). There is an excellent introduction to clowning by Catherine Bryden in HLT Magazine 25/2 April 2023, available at: https://www.hltmag.co.uk/apr23/thinking-with-our-heart
- Introducing the unexpected. The trainer introduces a number of events which defy the expectations of trainees and require them to react instantly. For example, trainees prepare a PPT presentation but on the day, the trainer de-activates the projector. What does the trainee do?
- Voice training. One of the teacher’s prime resources is their voice, and the voice makes up a large part of our relationship with learners. It is largely neglected. There are plenty of practical, simple activities for voice training in Maley (2000), Martin & Darnley (2004) and Rodenburg (2007).
II. 4 Things to do alone
- Meditation/ Quiet time. Meditation sounds like a highly esoteric activity. In fact, it can be done by anyone, anywhere and almost at any time. The main practical purpose of meditation, leaving aside any spiritual elements, is to clear the busy, monkey-mind of all the garbage it accumulates. To do this as a regular daily practice can be immensely helpful – it only needs 30 minutes of quiet time each day. There are plenty of readable, accessible accounts about how to get started. (Campbell 1989, Hanh 2008, LeShan 1989, Wilson 1995)
- Do something physical every day. Even a 30 minute walk, preferably in a natural environment does wonders for our feelings of well-being. But almost anything will do – a workout in the gym, Tai Chi, yoga … We are not just heads on sticks – our bodies and how we feel about them and use them are a key part of how we come across to our learners.
- Learn a new skill. This could be drawing (Edwards 2001), or learning to play a musical instrument, or learning a new language. The main point it carefully observe our own feelings, difficulties, strategies etc. as we engage with the new learning experience in order to give us better insights into what our learners may be experiencing.
- Keep a personal journal. It is important to keep a record of our own journey as we develop new skills and aptitudes. This is a private record, for our own consumption (unlike the teaching / reflection journal above). It is a way of talking to ourselves. Very often we do not realise what we think until we start to write it down.
II. 5 Options involving support
- Mentoring. Giving individual support through regular mentoring sessions can provide both psychological and pedagogical help to trainees in good times as well as in bad. (Malderez 2023)
- Study-buddies or critical friends. Trainees work in pairs, sharing preparation, readings, feedback on classes they have taught. Having someone they can trust to give critical feedback in a positive way, and being able to share difficulties has inestimable value.
- Reading / Discussion circles. Trainees meet regularly in small groups and base discussion on a book chapter or article they have all read. (Aoki 2002) Alternatively, they all research a particular teaching issue and discuss that.
- Join a professional association. Most countries have a national language teachers’ association, which offers up to date advice and commentary through a newsletter or journal, and runs seminars, workshops and conferences for teachers. There are also international associations such as TESOL and IATEFL. This can be an invaluable way of development and support for novice as well as experienced teachers.
These suggestions may seem fanciful and impractical to some. ‘What’s all this stuff about meditation and clowning and all that? What’s the point of it all?’ The point of it is that these are just some of the very practical ways in which we can attempt to develop the personal qualities which emerged as central to what it means to be an effective teacher. Not all of the activities will appeal to everybody, but they offer a range to choose from and experiment with. That seems to be worth the effort.
We have tried to examine the complex issue of what makes a good teacher. We have done this from two angles: teachers’ beliefs and actions, and teachers’ personal qualities. It is our contention that these are two areas which deserve greater attention both in pre- and in-service teacher education. At the very least, we hope to have interested you in thinking further about the issues we have raised.
References for Part I
Adcock, A. (2012). Cognitive Dissonance in the Learning Processes. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Boston, MA: Springer
Bolitho, R. and Wright, T. (1995) “Starting from where they’re at”. Towards an appropriate methodology in training in The Journal of TESOL France 2/1
Borg, S. (2017) Teachers’ Beliefs and Classroom Practices in The Routledge Book of Language Awareness. London: Routledge
Department for Education (2013). ‘The national curriculum in England. Framework document, September 2013’ London: Department for Education 2
Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford University Press
Lamb, M. (1995) The Consequences of INSET in ELT Journal 49/1
Rose, J. (2006) Independent review of the teaching of early reading: Final Report Department for Education and Skills, UK
References for Part II
II. 2 Awareness Raising
Ashton-Warner, S. (1963) Teacher. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books
Clanchy, K. (2020) Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. London: Picador.
Esquith, R. (2007) Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire. London: Penguin.
Gallwey, W. Timothy. (1975) The Inner Game of Tennis. London: Pan Books.
Gatto, John, Taylor. (2015) Weapons of Mass Instruction. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.
Hoffman, E. (1989) Lost in Translation. London:Vintage.
Holt, J. (1982 rev.) How Children Fail. New York: Da Capo.
McCourt, F. (2010) Teacher Man. London: Harper Perennial.
Maitland, S. (2008) A Book of Silence. London: Granta.
Nimehchisalem, V. & Hui Geng (2023) Tests and Us - A collection of real stories II. Kuala Lumpur: Generis.
Pearson Casenave, C. (2007) Respite for Teachers. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Pennac, D. (2010) School Blues. London: Maclehose Press.
Robinson, K. (2001) Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. Chichester: Capstone Publishing.
Robinson, K. (2016) Creative Schools. London: Penguin.
Stevick, E.W. (1980) Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.
II. 3 Hands on activities
Bryden, C. (2023) Thinking with our hearts: The art of theatre clowning. HLT Mag. April 23, Year 25, Issue 2.
Farrell, T. (2014) Promoting Teacher Reflection in Second Language Education. London: Routledge.
Maley, A. (2000) The Language Teacher’s Voice. Oxford:
Martin, S. & Darnley, L. (2004) The Teaching Voice. London: Wiley.
Poynton, R. (2013) Do Improvise – Less Push. More Pause. Better Results. London: The DO Book Company.
Rodenburg, Patsy. (2007) Presence. London: Michael Joseph.
II .4 Things to do alone
Campbell, D. (1989) The Roar of Silence. Wheaton, Ill: Theosophical Pub. House.
Edwards, B. (2001) The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Harper Collins
Hanh, Thich Nhat. (2008) The Miracle of Mindfulness. London: Rider.
LeShan, L. (1989) How to Meditate. London: Turnstone Press.
Wilson, P. (1995) Instant Calm. London: Penguin.
II. 5 Options involving support
Aoki, N. (2002) An alternative way for teachers to develop. The Teacher Trainer. 16 (2), 10-11.
Malderez, A. (2023) Mentoring Teachers: Enhancing learning, well-being and retention. London: Routledge.
Additional texts with practical activities, ideas etc.
Almond, M. (2019) Putting the Human Centre Stage. Shoreham by Sea, Sussex: Pavilion Publishing.
Aoki, N. (2002) An alternative way for teachers to develop. The Teacher Trainer. 16 (2), 10-11.
Boal, A. (1992) Games for Actors and Non-Actors. London: Routledge.
Brandes, D. & Ginnis, P. (1986) A Guide to Student-Centred Learning. London: Nelson Thornes.
Campbell,C. & Kryszewska, H. (1992) Learner-based Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fanselow, John, F. (1987) Breaking Rules. Harlow: Longman.
Fanselow, John, F. (2017) Small Changes in Teaching: Big Results in Learning. Tokyo: iTDi.
Hadfield, Jill. (1992) Classroom Dynamics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hattie, John. (2023) Free guide to Visible Learning: https://www.routledge.com/go/john-hattie-freebook-free-chapter-sample
Head, K. & Taylor, P. (1997) Readings in Teacher Development. Oxford: Heinemann.
Hodgson J.R. & Richards (1967) Improvisation. London: Methuen.
Jeffers, S. J. (2007) Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. London: Penguin/Random House.
Johnson, W. (1996) The Posture of Meditation. Boston: Shambhala Pubs.
Johnstone, K. (1999) Impro for Storytellers. London: Faber & Faber.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever You Go, There You Are. London: Piatkus Books.
Maley, A. & Duff, A.. (2005, 3rd ed.) Drama Techniques. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Meddings. L. & Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged. London: Delta.
Morgan, J. & Rinvolucri, M. (1983) Once Upon a Time. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Moskowitz, G. (1978) Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House
Nachmanovitch, S. (1990) Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. New York: Tarcher/Putnam/Penguin.
Schon, D.A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books.
Seelig, T. (2012) inGenius: A crash course on creativity. London: Hay House.
Spiro, J. (2004) Creative Poetry Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Underhill, A. (2014) Training for the unpredictable. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL. 13(2), 59-69.
Woodward, T. (2006) Headstrong: A book of thinking frames for mental exercise. Broadstairs, Kent: Tessa Woodward Pubs.
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Connecting What We Do as Teachers With What We Believe and Who We Are
Rod Bolitho, UK;Alan Maley, UK