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Editorial NRInglês

The Importance of Going Beyond your Institution

“Hello! My name is Mabel Castro. I am an EFL teacher and a teacher trainer. I have been working as an EFL professional for a long time, and am presently working as a pedagogic coordinator at a private school in Rio de Janeiro.”

This is a somewhat predictable, perhaps obvious introduction, such as the ones you are asked to do at a conference, at a teachers’ meeting, or when assuming a new post at a workplace, for instance. However, is it really an accurate description of who you are, of your main professional strengths or even of your main interests and abilities?

More often than not, teachers are defined by the place where they work. I mean, once you have joined a school or an institution, you become part and parcel of the place, which might mean having to turn a blind eye to the latest trends, or to innovative practices that may be taking place in the TEFL field. Why is that so? Teachers get so overwhelmed by their daily routine, which includes long clerical in-service training, endless staff meetings, bureaucratic issues (which actually abound, eating up precious thinking time) that they sometimes forget to look outside the window, in order to see what’s happening beyond their neck of the woods. As a result, they become hostages of their tough routine and the innumerable demands from their place of work, thus failing to identify new opportunities for career growth and professional development.

One might wonder if the suggestion would then be to quit one’s job, so as to pursue individual goals and venture on a solo career, leaving behind the practical side of life, such as your mortgage, health insurance, supermarket bills, and other mundane commitments. Well, exciting though this option may seem, I am well aware that one cannot always adopt such a romantic stance in life, which might mean putting a solid, stable job (at times even two) at risk. In fact, what I would like to suggest instead is that teachers should try and constantly seek to further their professional knowledge in order to be updated, so as to avoid having a biased view of their practice. In other words, the in-service courses and training sessions offered by your employer, regardless of how interesting or useful they may look, might be appropriate and effective for immediate purposes, but they do not necessarily meet your own interests or cater for your individual needs. And what’s more, the toolbox you will be equipped with at your current job mightnot be desirable or even valued by other schools or institutions.

At this point, dear reader, you might be thinking: easier said than done. In other words, you might be wondering: how can I juggle the demands of my current job and make my own career decisions at the same time? Does one path exclude the other? Well, nobody said it would be easy, but personally, I do not believe one option excludes the other. On the contrary, the way I see it, one should take full advantage of all the courses and opportunities offered by their employers, yet always being in contact with other professionals, besides being aware of the latest findings and current studies in the field. In my long career as an EFL professional, I must say I have taken several different paths, and yet always tried to keep my eyes wide open to the market demands and to available learning opportunities, besides being in constant pursuit of acquiring new knowledge and relevant experience in the field. So, here are a few tips you might find useful for your career development; consider them as my two cents, if you are willing to grab them.

To begin with, remain curious. Try to remember the initial years of your learning experience as a language learner, when everything was new, when you were excited about new findings and forever inquisitive about new words or structures; or perhaps recall the time when you enjoyed the feeling of making progress in a certain skill, after making endless assumptions, silly mistakes and finally improving. Try and import this feeling to the classroom, and start observing what happens, actively taking notes while implementing each lesson stage, and, at the same time, monitoring students’ reactions. Ask yourself: Why did this stage work (or not)? What was the students’ response like? Why wasn’t the result quite as I expected? Asking questions, devising a research puzzle about an area which you would like to explore and then looking into your practice will bring about a better understanding of your teaching skills and (hopefully) promote better language teaching and learning. These are actually two principles which underlie Exploratory Practice (Dick Allwright, 2006), which provides a systematic framework for classroom investigations, and that can be easily implemented. According to Dr. D. Allwright,

“Exploratory Practice is the name we have given to a sustainable way of carrying out classroom investigations which provides language teachers (and potentially learners also) with a systematic framework within which to define the areas of language teaching and learning that they wish to explore, to refine their thinking about them, and to investigate them further using familiar classroom activities, rather than ‘academic’ research techniques, as the investigative tools”. (Allwright, D. , 2003)

But how can one begin the process of actively investigating what happens in the classroom? Teachers’ heavy workload and long everyday journeys, which at times means rushing from one school to another to make ends meet, might result in their feeling lonely and fatigued. This feeling may affect their motivation to study and to seek information; consequently, the desire to improve and develop their teaching skills may lose strength, which is quite understandable. So here goes another tip: being part of a community may ease the process. The concept of community of practice was put forward by E. Wenger, in 2020. He claimed that

“Communities of Practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger, E., 2020)

Through collaboration and sharing, professionals can partake in their anxieties and also successes, with a view of broadening their repertoire, thus improving their teaching skills. The idea here is to join a community of practice which can assume different characteristics and have specific goals, all being, however, beneficial in their own way: teachers can, for instance, connect and help each other with everyday work demands, besides developing and disseminating good practices. Also, members of a community can organise and manage a body of shared knowledge (and maybe use it as seed material to carry out studies), reflect upon their practice and create breakthrough ideas. Being a member of National and International Associations such as Braz TESOL, TESOL, IATEFL or joining a community such as BrELT or Troika (to name but a few communities) may be a good start, and in my opinion, mandatory if you wish to invest in your career.

Teachers tend to feel lonely in their classrooms, and sharing their ideas with peers can ease the burden of preparing lessons alone. Collaborative work can actually serve as a springboard for an academic study in your area of interest. Specializing in one area in the TEFL realm will certainly be a differential in your curriculum and advantageous when seeking professional growth. Once again, I would like to suggest collaborative work rather than solo attempts. Perhaps joining a study group will provide teachers with a theoretical framework with which they can then investigate the teaching and learning phenomenon from a scientific point of view. As a result, when teachers become protagonists of their careers, making their own choices and exploring new ways of achieving even more effective results in the classroom, the whole community will be better informed in their decisions, thus becoming stronger among other players in the TEFL realm. It is adamant that teachers assume a leading role in their paths so that they can transform not only students’ lives, but first and foremost, their own.

At this point, it must be clarified that I do not mean to regard the teacher as a flat slate, as if they were not aware of their role in their professional development. Nor do I wish to diminish the quality of the training programmes offered by employers at which teachers embark. What I would like to claim instead is that teachers should attempt to tread their own paths, making their own decisions in terms of career growth and development, rather than just comfortably going with the flow, so to speak. Yet, in the pursuit of their individual goals, teachers might fall into the trap of consuming innumerable online courses, webinars, webcasting, online instant tips (to name but a few) which have been brought about by the advent of technology, but which will not necessarily meet their own personal needs. Besides, the digital content available may be fragmented and may lack accuracy and quality, leading to frustration and ineffective learning outcomes.

In order to guide teachers’ choices, one could adopt a framework for self-reflection. That might be useful for the teacher to identify where he or she stands so that they can then define relevant, context-based goals for their own career development.

D. Maggioli’s (2004) suggested framework for employers to use as a tool to diagnose teachers’ learning needs while devising a continuous professional development programme can actually serve as a starting point for teachers’ self-awareness and evaluation of their practice. The framework comprises four quadrants, defined by two variables: how updated a teacher’s knowledge base is and how aware the teacher is of their knowledge base. Roughly speaking, by analysing teachers’ base knowledge within the framework, teacher trainers or institutions would be better informed and quipped to devise a relevant and effective development programme for each individual teacher.

The image below illustrates the tool:

I actually believe this tool can be adapted and used by teachers themselves in order to help them reflect upon their level of expertise, thus informing future steps to be taken in their career development. It is true that it seems much easier and more straightforward to identify whether one’s teaching knowledge needs updating than detecting one’s level of awareness towards teaching practice. At this strand, why not work with a peer, or even, a group of colleagues from your workplace (or from a community of learning, as previously discussed) with whom you feel comfortable and whom you can trust? Two or more colleagues can be involved in the process and work collaboratively, helping each other detect each others’ current status, assisting in the development of individual plans of action, and selecting areas for development and activities to undertake. Working hand in hand with other professionals might facilitate the process, besides making it less stressful, less demanding (without the fear of being formally evaluated) and in fact, turn it into a more meaningful, sustainable and even more fun experience.

Finally, I firmly believe teachers should be in the driving seat of their professional learning and should definitely manage their careers, establishing personal goals and aiming at continuous professional growth and development. I am well aware that juggling with institutions’ demands and one’s personal goals is no easy task, but that should not be used as an excuse for teachers to lose heart and feel discouraged to further their expertise. Long sustainable career goals require teacher choice, autonomy, focus and resilience. I suppose one should find their own voice, however arduous the path might be. As an EFL professional forever in the pursuit of acquiring new knowledge and perfecting techniques, I have always tried to push myself a little further, never ceasing to inquire, to experiment, to try new things out, to work collaboratively and to share findings with peers. Sometimes it worked, others it didn’t, but that’s part of the game, I guess. After all, my dear reader, during the many years on the EFL path, there were (at least) two roads, and my choice was always to take the less traveled by. I like to think that this has made all the difference in my career, and I hope it does for you, too.

About author

Mabel holds an MA in Applied Linguistics (Universidade Federal Fluminense) and an MBA in Management (Coppead, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro). She has had a wide experience in TEFL and teacher training, including Celta and Delta programmes. Her main interests are: bilingualism and new trends in TEFL. She is currently working as a pedagogic coordinator for the Middle and High School English programmes, at Colégio A. Liessin, in Rio de Janeiro.
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