Monday, October 31, 2005

Professional Development for EFL Teachers: How to be competitive in today's world

INTRODUCTION

In our current age, when English has become the global language and the official language of APEC countries, EFL teachers more than ever need to prepare themselves on a regular basis in order to better respond to the ever-changing conditions of society, and particularly those relating to education, which definitely affect our teaching methods and educational results. Teaching English today is not the same as having taught it some decades ago. Therefore, there is a great need for well-trained and well-informed EFL teachers and, in this context, the professional development for EFL teachers has become a critical success factor, taking into account that today schools are not the same, students are much more informed, there are increasingly more spaces for teachers’ discussions and, additionally, the Chilean Ministry of Education has encouraged using English more intensively in the schools. In a word, this means that EFL teachers have to be always on the alert, preparing themselves, attending courses and seminars, creating links with the local, national and international EFL community, etc. As can be seen, the EFL profession is very demanding and time-consuming, but at the same time very rewarding.

In this paper I will explain how how EFL teachers can develop their professional competences on their own, and how they can become more efficient and effective in their research strategies and teaching methods. I will also present the results of a survey on Professional Development for EFL Teachers, I conducted in Rancagua with the participation of 40 teachers from the Primary and Secondary School sectors. For this purpose, various procedures and activities are presented as a way of showing that working collaboratively increases teachers’ potential and creativeness and makes them more proactive when it comes to facing new curriculum challenges. This paper also seeks to show the state of the art of teaching and learning of English in Chile and the importance of improving the current position of the profession at a national level.

1. The State of the Art

In this context of competition, “All for one, one for all” should be the motto of EFL teachers today, although several could count against it. For example, there is a severe shortage of certified teachers of English in our country’s primary school sector, where this responsibility has been assumed mainly by non-specialist teachers who do not actually have sufficient initial teacher training; by translators who have studied the language, but for other professional purposes; or by people who simply speak the language because they have lived in an English-speaking country, but who do not necessarily manage methodological resources.

In addition, most English Pedagogy programs d not completely serve the needs of modern EFL curriculum, although many Chilean universities are reforming their curricula, but changes are still too slow. Moreover, there is still no full agreement on how to approach the receptive and productive linguistic skills, or if teaching of English as a foreign language makes sense in a country like Chile whose neighboring countries use Spanish as a first language. All these aspects may naturally affect teachers who may find it difficult to choose which methodological road to take.

English language teaching requires thorough preparation in relation to core subjects, such as grammar, phonetics, methodology, literature and culture, and currently in relation to support subjects, such as technology and management, but most importantly, in relation to pedagogical praxis, which should provide constructive models for helping students learn from experience. Pedagogical praxis1 should begin by linking aspects such as theory, reflective practice, meaningful learning, community and society.

Furthermore, English language teaching also requires professionals with capabilities to work, at times, with a great diversity of students, and with special capabilities to adjust to different educational settings and understand that education is a social phenomenon, which everyday poses new challenges to teachers.

2. How do EFL teachers usually work?

Firstly, in most Chilean schools, it is very likely to find EFL teachers who exert great effort in carrying out a lesson plan or applying a brand-new teaching strategy, which is great. The downside is that EFL teachers do not always have a Department of English through which they can organize and unify classroom activities and teaching methods. From a qualitative and quantitative point of view, this may result in students with unbalanced levels of knowledge and performance. Now then, there are even some teachers who do not simply share classroom experiences, as they may feel better working alone or simply because they were not assigned enough hours for planning work. Now then, this situation may be even worse if there is just one EFL teacher in the school. In education, being self-referent is definitely not advisable. So, this analysis leads us to the question of “team work”.

Secondly, most teachers do not use systematic observation as a tool to improve pedagogical praxis. Observation should be a key component in all teachers’ work. Moreover, some teachers do not keep track of their lessons systematically and lose the opportunity to learn from experience. Keeping track of what we do in our classes is essential in that we can see whether or not our students are engaged in their learning process, or whether or not our students are actually applying new knowledge. So, this second analysis leads us to the question of “pedagogical research”.

Thirdly, although most EFL teachers attend workshops and seminars, they find it difficult to implement the new methodological ideas and simply prefer to continue with their own teaching methods. Now then, most EFL workshops and seminars give emphasis on aspects relating to the communicative approach, receptive skills versus productive skills, constructivism2, materials building and classroom management, which are not easy to implement because new ideas must be shared and reflected and then implemented. So, this third analysis leads us to the question of “effective implementation”.

3. How to be a competitive EFL teacher

Since Chile has entered into many Free Trade Agreements, new challenges have emerged for EFL teachers. As a consequence, competition has heated up in most Chilean schools with offerings of bilingual teaching from Quinto Básico or even from Primero Básico. So, in this kind of frenetic competition full of innovative educational proposals, what is the key to being a competitive EFL teacher? It is clear to me that EFL teachers from both the primary and secondary school sectors must focus on, at least, three factors to compete successfully: team work, pedagogical research and effective implementation.

Team work. Building team work is essential to carry out curriculum goals and objectives. And doing that consistently, and in a quality way that enhances teachers’ purposes is not easy. Studies of high-performing teams have identified the following characteristics:


- Clear Objectives / Goals
- Identity and purpose
- A code of behavior
- An understanding of the difference between task (the job to be done) and process (the group communication, leadership, decision making, etc.)
- Have clear processes to follow
- An understanding of other’s preferences, strengths and weaknesses
- Recognized roles within the team

Why team building? Schools’ English results don’t just happen! They are closely related to teachers working in teams. Team work provides a basis for understanding the school’s curriculum and for building EFL proposals with clear objectives and unified teaching methods. All for one, one for all!


Pedagogical research. Doing pedagogical research is inherent in teachers’ work. As a matter of fact, all EFL teachers should investigate from in their praxis, which implies doing action research. Teachers’ research methodology par excellence.


Sandín (2003: 102) suggests that action-research is oriented to the educational practice, i.e., it is based on careful compilation of information from a variety of different sources. In other words, it is a tool that helps EFL teachers make pedagogical decisions and introduce changes for improvement of the teaching and learning process. In general, it covers the following areas:


- Needs analysis
- Permanent teacher training
- Curriculum development
- Introduction of new teaching and learning strategies
- Program evaluation
- Institutional analysis
- Personal attitudes

An action research project may involve all or part of the teachers and is normally carried out on a small scale. An action research strategy includes, at least, four steps which are normally cyclic:
- Planning
- Action
- Observation
- Reflection

For example, EFL teachers can select a methodological problem they need to improve, choose a procedure for collection of data, analyze the collected data, develop an action plan that helps modifying said aspect and finally observe the effects of said action plan. If it is necessary, another action plan can be used. An action research project involves direct activities which lead to qualitative change. It represents a collaborative and systematic effort through which EFL teachers may identify opportunities for improvement, construct knowledge about emerging solutions and constantly generate new methodological strategies for the EFL setting.

Main characteristics of action research


The following features are some of the key aspects that characterize action research:
It implies the transformation and improvement of an educational and/or social reality. This is the most relevant aspect of action-research because it focuses on the actual practice and not on the accumulation of knowledge as it occurs in the conventional research.


- It starts from practical problems, which in the EFL field are related to teaching and learning strategies, institutional factors, teacher factors, learner factors, adoption factors, curriculum outcomes, classroom management, etc.


- It implies the collaboration of our colleagues. The solution to the problems always implies the negotiated adoption of measures. Action-research cannot be carried out independently, because it needs the participation of all teachers who have chosen to change and improve a given pedagogical situation, that is, it provides a basis for follow-up discussion and systematic reflection.

- It integrates knowledge and action. The purpose of action research is, on the one hand, to know a given reality from different sources and, on the other, to apply techniques and recommendations deducted from said knowledge.

Block (1998 cited in Richards, 2001) emphasizes the importance of action research in understanding learners’ interpretations of the language they are learning. This implies regularly interviewing learners to find out what and how they are learning and what is going on in a class.

The following questions may help teachers with this approach:

- What learning styles do slow/fast students prefer?
- Do students use English inside/outside of the classroom?
- What is more interesting, reading or listening, or both?
- What do students think about learning English?

c. Effective implementation. Implementing new teaching and learning ideas is not easy if teachers are not well-informed and organized. First of all, a well-informed teacher has an extensive knowledge not only of teaching methods but also of education as a science. This knowledge can be enhanced through subscribing to specialized magazines, attending workshops and seminars, and keeping in touch with colleagues from other schools. All this knowledge can make implementation much easier, faster and smoother.

Effective implementation might involve EFL teachers in:

- assessing the new ideas
- adapting EFL curriculum and lesson plans
- negotiating with their boss
- training teachers and students in the use of a new strategy, resource, etc.
- monitoring progress and taking measures to ensure completion
- working effectively with other team teachers
-performing support

The above list of bullet points show that implementation cannot be done overnight. It is very time-consuming and requires total teacher participation. One implication of this is that it is better for EFL teachers to go ahead with others than alone. “Setting up a small group at your workplace has its practical difficulties, but you may find a couple of other interested people. Arrange a regular time and read on” (Richards & Renandya 2002: 398).

4. The survey

This survey on Professional Development for EFL Teachers was carried out in Rancagua with the participation of 40 teachers, from the primary and secondary school sectors, who were willing to respond the questions. This experience also showed that some teachers are reluctant to give personal information relating to their professional expertise.

The information summarized in this presentation was collected by means of a questionnaire of four open questions. The informants were contacted via e-mail and were all equally considered for this small-scale study.

Here are the questions regarding our profession:

1. How would you characterize the teaching profession?
2. What changes are necessary in this profession?
3. What type of professional training is more useful?
4. What are the most rewarding aspects of teaching?

Since this was a small-scale, qualitative study, the answers to the questionnaire were classified and coded according to certain logical criteria. The table below shows what the EFL teachers surveyed think about the teaching profession.


Table 1. Teacher perception of professionalism

Question 1: How would you characterize the teaching profession?
Very challenging: 88%
Fairly challenging: 12%

Question 2: What changes are necessary in this profession
Learning to learn: 75%
Use of technology: 15%
Team work: 10%

Question 3: What type of professional training is more useful?
Technology: 25%
Methodology: 55%
Spoken English: 15%
English-speaking cultures: 5%

Question 4: What are the most rewarding aspects of teaching?
Students’ progress: 68%
Students’ motivation: 23%
Students’ affection: 9%

In general, the EFL teachers surveyed consider that the teaching profession is highly challenging, and acknowledge the importance of constructivism and methodology. These teachers also acknowledge that students’ progress in learning English is very rewarding. A small percentage of these teachers thinks that technology and team work are important. This may account for the fact that some teachers are reluctant to incorporate technology into the EFL curriculum and some prefer to work alone.


Conclusion

To conclude, although many EFL teachers enthusiastically participate in workshops and seminars, where the focus is mainly on methodology, many still find it difficult to implement new knowledge and apply new experiences acquired in said events. This situation may change if teachers adopt team work and do collaborative research. One implication of this is that education quality increases, and so does teachers’ appraisal of their profession.


In addition, EFL teachers should get organized as a learning community through team work because team work serves the different needs of an EFL curriculum very effectively, in that it allows the efforts of all to have a global pedagogical impact on our students’ learning process.


Finally, in our current age, with competition installed in our mind, EFL teachers are faced with the tremendous challenge of growing and developing professionally, and this does not only mean improving our level of English and pedagogical practice according to national or international standards, but most importantly, it means strengthening our commitment to the teaching profession.


References


Bruner, J. (1966) Constructivist Theory. Extracted on October 10, 2005 from http://www.artsined.com/teachingarts/Pedag/Constructivist.html
Richards, J and Renandya, W (2002). Methodology in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Richards, J. (2001). Curriculum Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sandín. M. Paz (2003). Investigación Cualitativa en Educación. Madrid: McGraw-Hill.


1 Pedagogical praxis is based on the premise that under the right conditions students can become active participants in meaningful learning.
2 Constructivism considers learning an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and/or past knowledge (Bruner, 1966).

Author: Fernando Vera. BA from Universidad de Chile, MA in Education Research from Universidad Central and MA in Educational Management(c) from Universidad Mayor.

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