Barriers to bridges: enabling teachers to kickstart their own development
In-depth, lasting Continuous Professional Development activity is often seen as either a luxury or a chore for public school teachers, as high workloads and lack of support from educational authorities can prevent them from having the time, energy or resources to develop to their full potential. However, CPD is actually not as difficult an undertaking as it seems. By stepping back and looking at the barriers which prevent teachers from developing, and finding simple ways in which continuous development can be worked into day-to-day routines, teachers can take control over their own journeys as professionals, making sustained, effective development activity more and more accessible.
So what are the issues which prevent development in language teachers? According to a many reports into language education, the most common barriers to participation arise from conflicts with the work schedule. At the same time, however, time set aside for CPD during regular working hours does not appear to have a positive impact on this perception. This shows the value of professional development activity, as long as it is designed according to the needs of the teachers and the features of their specific setting.
Other barriers include a lack of support from management in institutions where teachers work (after all, CPD takes time, and time is money). In many cases, CPD activity is the first thing to be cut from budgets, as there is no immediately visible reward for the extra time taken from working hours. In addition, it is perceived that sophisticated training resources and expert knowledge are required for CPD to take place. Admittedly, expert tuition, workshops and tech-based resources are valuable, but may not necessarily contribute to true development of a teachers’ specific skills as they need to be developed in the specific setting where they work, so access to technology and academic resources may not be as big a barrier as is assumed.
Perhaps the biggest factor which precludes a teacher’s development is simply lack of motivation. Teaching is a stressful job, which is hard to switch off from at the end of the day. It can be hard to muster the energy to take on more work, even if it will lead to improved knowledge and performance in future. Also, tiredness reduces retention of new information, so training seminars, lectures or presentations are often unsuccessful modes of delivery for busy teachers. The issue may not be the engagement of the teacher, but the way that the development activity is organised. Lectures and expert-led presentations are not the most engaging events for someone who is being asked to spend time on top of their working day thinking about their job. Rethinking the way in which teacher development is enacted, giving teachers more say in what they focus on and how, can empower them to break down these barriers and turn them into positive bridges for their development.
Here are some solutions for you to take more control over your own development, in a way that fits your existing schedule:
Define your own goals: Goal-setting is a fundamental part of any personal development. Think about areas of your teaching that you feel could be better. What do you feel insecure frustrated or demotivated about in your work? When do you feel your students should be doing better? Think about why you have this response, and define specific areas of your work to rethink. This requires a little reflection time, but very little in the way of resources. A teaching diary, written up a few times a week for a month or two can expose areas that you may need to focus on.
Set your own time for development: The only person who knows how much time you have available to dedicate to improvement is you. It is therefore up to you to design your own plan of action based around the time you have available. Ten minutes of lunchtime three times a week, if it is totally focused and targeted to your own goals, can be as effective as an hour a week in an extra CPD presentation that eats into planning time. Make a plan, get hold of some reading in areas that interest you, or simply make a list of things you want to work on in your classroom. These simple actions can motivate you to change what you do and increase commitment to your own development.
Integrate, don’t add: To relieve the pressure of added time and work when thinking about CPD, make a plan of what you can do during your existing classes to reflect on better ways of doing things. Collect student responses from a worksheet that you have designed, make notes on student errors as you are monitoring them work, or audio record portions of your classes. These are simple ways of gathering evidence of what happens in your classroom, which you can reflect on more objectively at a later time. This is the beginning of ‘action research’, a valuable and productive way of making your teaching better based on real evidence.
Find resources that can support your development activity. Look for supportive materials that apply to your teaching context. Adapt lesson planners, schedules and questionnaires to your needs, and use what works for you. Look at different ways that classes can be observed and discussed, find action research projects that focus on areas of teaching and learning that you want to develop and most of all, share these resources for discussion with your colleagues.
Make connections with other teachers: Making connections with likeminded, motivated teachers working in the same (or similar) environments to yours can free you up to work together on your target development areas. Finding another teacher who has a free period when you are teaching opens up the possibility of peer observation, an incredibly powerful tool for identifying and solving classroom issues. Communicating with teachers in other cities (or even countries) will help you to share ideas, resources and provides a forum to discuss your shared needs. A simple social media search, comment on an industry blog or an email to the right person can start you on your way to forming a long-lasting development community where you can all improve together.
These are just some ideas to overcome the time, resource and motivational pressures which we assume to be part of professional development activity. If you need guidance on how to start forming a community, or if you want an initial consultation to kickstart your own developmental pathway, get in touch with Language Point Teacher Education or download the Language Point Teacher Development Resource pack here.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.