I work (mostly) with high school English teachers in Japan. These teachers are Japanese native speakers whose proficiency with English ranges from good to native-like. My group has been doing this training for two years now and we are starting to get a better idea of the needs of teachers and the benefits and limitations of training programs. EFL teacher education is both important and challenging. Compared to many other countries, the number of required courses and the amount of pre-service training in Japan is remarkably low. There are almost no graduate teachers college programs, and for example, English literature majors who take only a couple of supplementary courses at university and complete a three-week in-school training session can and do become licensed teachers. As long as such teachers stick to the textbook, they usually have enough subject matter expertise to suffice (with a little preparation). But many such teachers have never experienced communicative language lessons themselves, have not really received much TESOL training (if any) and are likely not confident at all about their own English skills.To reiterate, many, many teachers have limited experience, limited training, and limited subject matter knowledge and skills.
There are structural and logistical problems associated with providing in-service training. At present in public schools, there is often little coordination, sharing, or in-school mentoring or training for English teachers. But that is another topic. Instead, let’s look at what is done in training programs. In looking at teacher training in general, we find three main approaches are being used in Japan (probably everywhere): providing models that also motivate (super teachers!) to demonstrate activities; working on the language proficiency of the teachers themselves (subject matter expertise); and getting teachers to engage in action research. I’d like to talk a little about the benefits and limitations of each one and then talk about our flagship program, which makes use of all three. I don’t mean to suggest that we have managed to figure out the absolute best way of training teachers where others have not, but I think it should become clear that deploying only one approach is unlikely to produce significant improvement.
Motivating models. Common at conferences or on DVD, super teachers (and yes, they are actually called Super Teachers), demonstrate activities that usually illustrate new approaches. There are several goals but the basic idea–in addition to raising awareness about or teaching techniques or approaches usually connected to some pedagogy–is to get around the isolation of the teaching profession. Teachers generally work alone. If they are lucky, they can regularly observe and discuss lessons with colleagues, but often there are few opportunities to do so, and they may not be surrounded by teachers overflowing with innovations. Super teachers are trusted near-peer role models who show concrete examples of activities. But there is another benefit of observing these super peer models. Through them, teachers can see possibilities that exist beyond the walls of their own schools. Most change happens as a result of individuals taking risks. Very, very few schools have more than one or two of these individuals. Individual risk-takers or potential risk-takers almost always feel isolated. Motivating models on DVD or in books or at very infrequent conferences can feel like a lifeline. There is a strong motivational feel-good aura that accompanies super teachers. But if we consider using them for training, limitations emerge. One problem with these models is that schools in Japan are at different levels of academic ability in addition to having different school cultures, and so wholesale transfer of techniques and approaches is often just not possible. And in the case of many super teachers, although their performance is impressive and inspiring, it often feels more like it is the result of their personality rather than pedagogy. In other words, what they demonstrate is often perceived as not replicable. And in any case, it is usually just one part of a lesson. Very often it is the most impressive part, the part that makes them look like super teachers. It’s impressive, but it leaves you with questions about what has led up to this point. Super teachers are important as models, but without detailed explanation (and discussion) about the process and the approach, they often generate more heat than light.
Improving language proficiency. Research shows that the results of teacher expertise training are mixed. But proficiency with English is very much connected to the confidence EFL teachers have. This year, education boards across the country are pushing for teachers to teach English in English. There is, however, a lot of resistance. At least some of that stems from the fact that teachers are not proficient users of English themselves, either in or beyond the classroom. This is no doubt common in EFL settings. Teachers, it must be remembered, are largely products of the system they are now part of–a system that rarely if ever offered opportunities for communicative use of the language. It was almost all grammar translation and memorization in years past. But the present teachers themselves were successful at it, or they wouldn’t be teachers now. Many of them managed to develop impressive speaking, writing, and listening skills in addition to acquiring huge vocabularies and detailed knowledge of grammar, but it was almost always outside of the regular secondary school institutional English classes they experienced. Their teaching styles, however, tend to reflect the way they were taught in high school. Times have changed, but perceptions of what is appropriate for high school English classes still seem to be lagging behind. In an age where trips and studying abroad are not uncommon and the rest of the world is just an Internet click or two away, you would think that the outside world would be an ever-present entity enveloping the EFL classroom, but that is not often the case. The notion that even beginners need to start hearing and using language communicatively is surprisingly not that widely accepted. No, let me re-phrase that. It is widely acknowledged but not widely embraced. My non-native English speaking colleagues feel very strongly that improved proficiency leads to improved confidence, more communicative use of English in the classroom, more willingness to take risks, and improved status with learners.Language is a skill. It is observable. So unlike math knowledge or science knowledge, teacher expertise in language (knowledge and skill) is essential for EFL teachers. But just being proficient at English does not make you a good teacher. I have observed many teachers talking over the heads of students in English and then only really becoming comprehensible to them when they switch to Japanese. Providing good input for learners, interacting with them communicatively, and using English to activate and build schema are also important skills. They are easier if teachers are more proficient with the language, but being proficient with the language does not ensure that teachers have these skills. But as far as teacher training programs are concerned, the bigger problem is time. Improving English proficiency takes hundreds of hours. Giving a few hours of writing or presentation skills practice might make participants feel a little better, but let’s not kid ourselves about any bumps in proficiency. If language skills are going to improve, it’ll happen through a concerted effort by the individual teacher who weaves language use and learning into his or her daily life. For training programs, the best we can do is introduce language learning a practice resources and hope participants will find them worth using them for self access.
Action research. John Hattie in Visible Learning for Teachers stresses how important it is to get teachers talking and thinking about learning rather than teaching. Action research seems to facilitate this. It never ceases to amaze me how many teachers just accept the culture of teaching they grew up in and just continue doing what has always been done, never questioning whether it is effective or not. Action research challenges teachers to look critically at what they are doing in a systematic way. For many teachers, it causes a crack in the iceberg of teaching culture they are part of. It is a catalyst for change. But it is a real burden. It is hard for teachers to understand, plan, and undertake action research in their own classes. It requires experienced guidance and support and quite a lot of time. And time is always a problem. Unlike teachers in many countries, teachers in Japan have a vast array of duties beyond teaching. There are club duties, homeroom duties, event planning and coordination duties, and even sometimes locking down the building at night. Teachers come early every morning, leave late, and come in on weekends and most days during the summer. Long chunks of time for participating in professional development are an impossible dream for almost all teachers. But it’s not only the time. Action research has a narrow focus. In order to see some real improvement, more drastic approach changes are sometimes necessary. Action research is better suited to tweaking activities than comparing completely different approaches.
So which of these three approaches do we take? Well, we combine all of them. It is our view that each reinforces the others, though it is action research that is the key approach. Without it, the others are too easily ignored. Real change here in Japan can only happen if confident, competent teachers look at the current culture of English education critically, keeping what works and replacing what doesn’t with something different. This requires critically examining current practice and knowing what alternatives are out there. This mindset develops through action research, but action research by itself is probably not sufficient. In a context where one’s own learning experience is not always a good source of ideas, where insufficient pre-service training is the norm, and there is little time for in-service professional development, maximizing impact of that precious in-service training time is crucial. Just showing a video of a super teacher or just providing a few hours of English language training will not get you far, though they are fairly easy to do. It has to be the teachers themselves who make the discoveries and the changes. They have to see them, consider and discuss them and process them a little, and they have to feel confident enough to give them a try. This is a long process.
Over the last few years, I have become convinced that our training unit has rather serious limitations. We are too far away from the students. We are too detached from the schools where our teacher participants are working. Our program runs for ten days spread out over the course of a year. We video the teachers twice, near the beginning and near the end but schedule limitations mean that the process of change mostly remains hidden to us. Although we stay in touch with past participants, there is not really any follow-up. Creating a more resilient community is one of our goals. But in the present state of poor workplace collegiality, the pace of change will be slow indeed. Schools need to make it easier for teachers to share ideas and observe each other’s lessons and provide good feedback. There needs to be more focus on learning, and sharing and implementing ideas that promote learning. Without this, I’m afraid, real effective change cannot spread.
Photo credit: Okinawa Soba. Accessible online at http://www.flickr.com/photos/24443965@N08/2369860061/in/set-72157604292609458/