Is teaching teachers much the same as teaching students?

Written by Zahra Zuhair

I would answer the question, ‘Yes indeed!’ This does not mean that one is to assume teachers know as little about pedagogy and English Language as students. Surely, they must know more. However, it does mean that just as we seek to engage , or to inspire our students when we teach them, should we not strive for the same when presenting to our colleagues and peers, rather than just present because we enjoy it, would like to include it in our CVs, or want to share what we know, although these are all valid motives? What is after all, the point of offering something to someone that is of no use to them? When planning an INSETT session, whether for delivery within my center or at a conference, I abide by the following principles:

  • Challenge,
  • Engage,
  • Inspire, and
  • Listen

Challenge

Often when addressing teachers, one faces an audience with varying years of experiences, specialisms and degrees of qualification. There is therefore the need to accommodate a large variety. I like to look at it as one would a mixed ability classroom. It is not possible to satisfactorily challenge each and every single audience member, but it is possible to try and give as many individuals as possible something to take away, and if not, then something to contribute in the way of experience and knowledge.

Choose content that gets your audience to think about their own teaching styles, and reflect upon their own performance as teachers within the classroom, and as teachers working in what should be collaborative environments. Present points that will make them question their thinking, and imagine their teaching or their lessons with something they have not tried before. This may be presenting activities for them to critically analyze and then adapt to suit their environment. It may be asking them to look at two opposing views on a subject and identifying what they can take from each. It may also be (and I do this often) having them put on the shoes of a learner, so they are reminded of the vulnerability of not knowing something, or to struggle with something in a classroom context. The best sessions I have attended are the ones that have humbled me, and reminded me that there is so much out there I do not know.

Engage

One of the many mysteries of ELT training to me has been how a presenter can expect me to be engaged and pay attention for over 20 minutes, when I have been told as a teacher that my students are unable to do the same? I attended a session recently by a gentleman who manages a creative space. One of the strengths of his session was that he had kept me motivated to listen to him throughout the entire 50 minutes, which was something I had been struggling to do in previous sessions. I have come across many very educated, qualified and talented individuals who have so much to offer and share, but have been unable to connect with their audience. I have found myself failing to connect with my audience and upon reflection I realize it is because somewhere along the lines I had been focused only on delivering everything I had, and so lost touch with what my audience really needed and would be able to use.

Within a very short period of time, it is not easy to deliver a lot of ideas and content through activities. An element of training that comes with practice is being able to identify crucial elements, and finding ways to deliver them without saying a lot. Its quite similar to what we do in the classroom.

Inspire

When choosing a topic and content for a session, identify key elements within the topic that would most benefit your audience. This may vary depending on context and the kind of mainstream education in the country. In my context I am careful not to provide an overwhelming amount of information to school teachers at a conference, without exploring the practical aspects of it, or how it can translate directly in the classroom. The fact that time is limited, and one will have only one opportunity to share their ideas, or convey their content makes it all the more important to be choosy about what one might include in their presentation or session.

I have always felt that while theory has its place in the delivery of lessons and the development of one’s teaching style, as well as the success of every day lessons, there is less importance given to translating this theory into practice. Sometimes being able to see the turning of theory into practice, in the form of flexible classroom activities, or adaptable classroom management techniques, and the results of it is what inspires teachers to become better teachers. The best sessions I have attended are the ones that have inspired me to experiment in my lessons.

Listen

One of the practices I have found most useful is knowing my audience. Having been raised in a culture where I grew up, I am fortunate to have that knowledge and understanding, and I do understand that not everyone might have this. Listening to your audience is something that should happen before, during and after the session. It means knowing their contexts, their opportunities and their threats and limitations. It means knowing what they already have in terms of qualification and experience and what they will be able to do with what you want to give them. Questions I ask myself during and after the session include:

  • Are they finding this useful?
  • How engaged are they, and what does this engagement tell me about how much they are taking from the session?
  • What are they already familiar with, and what do I need to ask them to extend their thinking?
  • How attentive are they to what I have to say when I ask them to listen to me?
  • Are they finding the little things I want them to find and take away from me and from each other?

I have not found rules set in stone about how to deliver a session to teachers, and if there were, perhaps I would bend them when they did not suit me, because I have always felt that rules constrict rather than free, and freedom leads to creativity, and creativity to much more.

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