By Li-Shih Huang
[Article reprinted from the Fall 2015 BC TEAL Newsletter]
“The best professional development is participatory and connectivist.” — Lee Bessette
The invitation to contribute a piece about professional development in this issue could not have been more opportune. Since taking the position of an elected director of professional development for TESL Canada this July, I have noticed I am looking at the professional development of teachers with renewed interest and a different perspective. In my own work as an ELT professional on the one hand, and as a trainer of future ELT professionals on the other, my approach to professional development has been mainly through connecting at professional gatherings with like-minded researchers and practitioners who also have a strong interest in linking research to practice; engaging in practitioner research; attending webinars and conducting workshops; and devoting a portion of my writing to practitioners’ interests. But what about the majority of ELT professionals, who work in various institutions, schools, and cultural contexts where resources and opportunities might pose greater challenges for development?
For any ELT professional interested in professional development, a quick Google search of terms like “teacher training,” “teacher education,” “teacher development,” “professional development,” and “professional self-development,” to list just a few, will turn up an overwhelming number of articles and resources and amount of information on professional development, both within the context of ELT and in the broader field of education. Recent articles, such as “Do- It-Yourself ELT Professional Development” (from TESOL Connections’ special issue dedicated to professional development), “3 Ways for Teachers to Use Social Networks for PD,” and “3 More Ideas for PD on Social Networks,” have appeared just in July of this year alone. The 2012 handbook put together by the British Council, although situated in the U.K. context, contains applicable ideas about a wide range of continuing professional development activities, including conferences, groups, magazines, materials, membership, mentoring, observations, reflection, training, workshops, and so on. Also, not a day goes by without mention on Twitter or Facebook of free or at-cost webinars, face-to-face workshops, or courses offered locally or across the globe. These sharings of highly practical tips about ways for practitioners to engage in professional self- development further highlight the need and importance of this aspect of our professional careers, no matter our career stage. Using social media such as Twitter, Google Hangouts, Facebook, webblogs, and the like to build PLNs (personal/professional/personalized learning networks), hold regular chats (common hashtags include #AusELT, #KELTChat, #ELTChat, #ELLChat, #LINCchat) moderated and participated in by practitioners, and create teacher inquiry groups has also become a great means for practitioners to connect professionally in ways that transcend time and geographical boundaries.
Take one of the most commonly chosen PD activities—attending a free webinar. If you have attended one of these webinars in the last six months, let’s sit back a moment and take stock of what you have been doing PD-wise. Ask: To what extent did the content have an impact on your own day-to-day teaching practices? How transferable, with or without the facilitator’s help, have been those insights, whether from research or real-world teaching, to your own teaching contexts? As synthesized by Avalos (2011), at the core of PD “is the understanding that professional development is about teachers learning, learning how to learn, and transforming their knowledge into practice for the benefit of their students’ growth” (p. 10; emphasis mine). The thing is, professional development, like anything worth pursuing in life, is personal and situated, complex and difficult to do well.
Rather than developing this piece as another article collecting a list of resources or ever-changing tools for PD (refer to the suggested open-access readings section for some recent coverage), I want instead to focus on a few personal reflections that have been percolating in my mind since they delve into the heart of issues about teachers’ professional self-development. In approaching my own professional development, I have asked myself: Do I have a PD plan that carefully considers what I get out of any PD activity in which I choose to participate? When I do decide to participate in a PD webinar or workshop, do I have a clear intent as to how the session will match my needs and, in turn, the follow-up action(s) I will need to take? Have I been able to sustain my PD endeavours consistently? If, like me, you have answered “no” to any one or all of these questions, then I invite you to read on.
1. What are the key modes of learning/PD in your plan? Help make your individualized plan more concrete with ingredients that meet your personal needs, career stage, and goals. Clearly, the multi-faceted, inter-related individual and contextual factors involved in PD mean that no single approach, method, or tool can determine what constitutes effective PD. Evaluate how each mode of learning helps you develop professionally, and be mindfully selective of tools that duplicate or serve the same or similar functions. Whether formal or informal, institution or teacher initiated, whether oriented to learning collaboratively or independently, each learning activity possesses affordances and constraints, and each takes place through different configurations of time, space, and people. What area of PD does the workshop attend to? Subject-matter knowledge related to English and language teaching? Pedagogical expertise? Self-awareness as a teacher? Understanding learners or curriculum and materials? Career advancement? (See Richards & Farrell, 2005, pp. 9-10; Farrell, 2014, pp. 18-19 for more.) The key is to figure out a combination of modes of learning or PD that will overcome relative constraints and create possibilities.
The following chart lists some examples:
2. What do I hope to get out of a workshop I decide to attend? It’s important to attend workshops with a clear intent. Perhaps the most commonly chosen PD action is attending a one-time workshop, webinar, or conference to learn a new tool (or list of tools) or a new teaching method, but, as we all know well, impact beyond the session is often limited. Unless the tool or session is solving a specific problem that you can personally relate to in your teaching to make a difference to learner outcomes (Timperley, 2011), ownership of learning and subsumption and integration of what one has learned into one’s practical knowledge or teaching repertoire rarely occur. Upon reflection, is there one insight gained from attending the workshop that you could transfer to your own teaching and experiment with? If you are selecting from self-directed online workshops or courses, think about what you want to improve in your own classroom, and make a conscious effort to link what you are learning with practice through real-life experimenting that will help transform knowledge into practice. As Timperley (2011) put forward, for teachers to develop professionally requires a transformative, rather than an additive, change to teaching practice. Unlike teachers-in-training, for practicing professionals, Freeman’s questioning of how well a one-off workshop transfers still rings true more than two decades later: “Teaching is a social practice … where one cannot learn about it; one must learn through it” (Freeman, 1992, p. 16; emphasis mine). Individually and collectively working to examine our own practices, reflecting on outcomes, and articulating our experiences and learning to others can further provide the catalysis for transformative professional growth (Mezirow, 2000).
3. How do I sustain PD endeavours? Sustaining PD efforts is one of the greatest challenges in teachers’ professional self-development, especially while operating or competing against individual-, resource-, and context-related constraints. Look for inspiration within your unit and beyond by joining or forming professional learning networks tailored to your own needs or to shared needs and interests. PLNs are plentiful; the key is to find one where you feel a true sense of a community of learners (Rogoff, 1994), or a self-initiated, professional learning community with non-judgmental, shared support of each other’s professional development (Falk & Drayton, 2009; Kelly & Cherkowski, 2015) and where development is conceived “as transformation of participation rather than … either a product of transmission of knowledge from others or of acquisition or discovery of knowledge by oneself” (Rogoff, 1994, p. 209). Typically we board a bus because of where it is headed, but the path can often be unpredictable, and a change of direction can easily end a sense of belonging. If we get on a bus by first paying attention to who is on the bus, then the problem of fueling the bus to keep moving forward becomes less of an issue. Once you have carefully selected a network, take turns assuming a leadership role in your chosen network at the group, school, or association level, and find a framework for how and what the group wishes to develop in helping teachers come together to talk about and reflect on their work.
Taking the initiative to assume a leadership role in promoting a culture of professional inquiry will transform your own participation and empower you through empowering others. Many board members in our professional teaching associations are fine examples of practitioners who have taken on leadership roles to become agents of change. Within a professional learning community, one may draw on Reilly, Vartabedian, Felt, and Jenkins’s (2012) work about key principles that sustain a participatory culture: providing opportunities for (a) the exercise of creativity using a variety of tools, (b) co-learning where those involved pool their skills and knowledge, (c) heightened motivation and engagement through meaningful pedagogical experimentation, (d) learning that is deemed relevant to the interests of those involved, and (e) creation of a so-called “learning ecosystem”—that is, an “integrated learning system” that builds connections between home, school, community, and beyond (p. 5).
However one chooses to define “professional development” and what that entails (see Farrell, 2014), a teacher’s professional self-development becomes increasingly important at all stages of his or her teaching career. It’s a continuous and complex process, requiring the intellectual and emotional involvement of teachers both individually and collectively. Whichever mode(s) of learning teachers choose, depending on their needs and objectives, they must be willing to examine openly where they stand and actively pursue appropriate alternatives for change that are bound within a particular institutional culture that may or may not be conducive to learning. I echo Bessette’s statements that “the best professional development is participatory and connectivist,” and that it must be “driven by the needs and interests of those [participating] and allow for collaboration [among interactants] and beyond” (p. 3).
Whether you are at the receiving or giving end of a PD activity, an approach that is goal-oriented, purpose- driven, and people-centred will guide you through navigating the terrain of PD activities, resources, and tools available to you so that you can chart a course that suits your needs in any area or combination of PD areas, as first put forward by Richards and Farrell (2005).
What do you need to do, and to whom do you need to reach out to renew your PD endeavours? Do it now, and share your PD needs, discoveries, triumphs, and challenges here so that as members of our professional community, we can continue to energize one another and grow professionally.
Avalos, B. (2011). Teacher professional development in Teaching and Teacher Education over ten years. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27, 10-20.
Bessette, L. (2015, June 30). Arrested (professional) development [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://modernlearners.com/arrested-professional-development/
Falk, J. K., & Drayton, B. (Eds.). (2009). Creating and sustaining online professional learning communities. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Farrell, T. S. C. (2014). Reflective practice in ESL teacher development groups: From practices to principles. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Freeman, D. (1992). Language teacher education, emerging discourse, and change in classroom practice. In J. Flowerdew, M. Brock, & S. Hsia (Eds.), Perspectives on language teacher education (pp. 1-21). Hong Kong: City Polytechnic of Hong Kong.
Kelley J., & Cherkowski, S. (2015). Collaboration, collegiality, and collective reflection: A case study of professional development for teachers. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 169. Retrieved from: https://journalhosting.ucalgary.ca/index.php/cjeap/article/view/42876/30733
Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as transformative: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Reilly, E., Jenkins, H., Felt, L. J., & Vartabedian, V. (2012). Shall we PLAY? Los Angeles, CA: Annenberg Innovation Lab at University of Southern California.
Richards, J.C. & Farrell, T.S.C (2005). Professional development for language teachers. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Rogoff, B. (1994). Developing understanding of the idea of communities of learners. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(4), 209-229.
Timperley, H. (2011). Realizing the power of professional learning. New York, NY: Open University Press.
Suggested Open Access Readings on PD for ELT Professionals:
Breland, T. (2015, July 1). Do-it-yourself ELT professional development. TESOL Connections: Professional Development Special Issue, July 2015. Retrieved from http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolc/issues/2015-07-01/2.html
Crowley, B. (2014, December 31). 3 steps for building a professional learning network. Education Week. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/12/31/3- steps-for-building-a-professional-learning.html
Davidson, G., Dunlop, F., Soriano, D. H., Kennedy, L., & Phillips, T. (2012). Going forward: Continuing professional development for English language teachers in the UK. The British Council. Retrieved from https://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/continuing-professional-development/cpd-managers/going-forward-managing-continuing-professional-development-english-language-teachers
Haynes, J. (2015, July 2). 3 ways for teachers to use social networks for PD [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.tesol.org/3-ways-for-teachers-to-use-social-networks-for-pd/
Haynes, J. (2015, July 16). 3 more ideas for PD on social networks [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://blog.tesol.org/3-more-ideas-for-pd-on-social-networks/
Pascucci, A. (2015, July 1). 5 easy steps for creating an online PLN. TESOL Connections. Retrieved from http://newsmanager.commpartners.com/tesolc/issues/2015-07-01/3.html
Wilden, S. (2012, Spring). What is your CPD plan? International House Journal. 32. Retrieved from http://ihjournal.com/what-is-your-cpd-plan-by-shaun-wilden
Dr. Li-Shih Huang, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, Department of Linguistics, and Learning and Teaching Scholar-in-Residence, Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria. (Twitter: @AppLingProf)