Creating a Conference-like Spirit Every Day
Nearly 20 years in the ESL profession have shown me that three main factors work together to establish the group dynamic among teachers at any given school. During this presentation I would like us to think about the answers to three questions. First, "As a teacher, when I need help figuring out a teaching problem, the first thing I do is ___________." Second, fill in the blank in this sentence: "My relationship with the ESL staff at my school is _____________." Third, "How much autonomy do the teachers at my school generally exercise?"
You are invited to participate in a brief survey answering these three questions.
Carla Chamberlain ("Perceptions of Trust in Supervisors," TESOL QUARTERLY, Winter 2000) studied the role of trust within the context of something called "reflective supervision." According to Chamberlain, traditional models of supervision were usually based on a checklist approach to class observation:
a. observe the teacher;
The main problem with this rating approach, according to Chamberlain, is that it reduces teaching to a "technical act that can be measured by a predescribed criteria." She promotes a more reflective model of supervision, in which the supervisor changes from detached observer to participating colleague, guiding teachers through a process of learning, reflection and exploration to become more aware of their own beliefs and behaviors.
Chamberlain's "reflective supervision" reminds me of a course in teacher observation with Prof. John Fanselow at Teachers College. He always encouraged us to redirect our focus away from obvious areas, in order to more clearly observe what is actually happening--instead of simply imposing our mental models, preconceptions and assumptions onto the phenomena we are observing.
Chamberlain goes further, though, suggesting that in reflective supervision, teachers and supervisors...
"...engage in talk and collaborative activities such as observations and analysis, as a means of exploring beliefs and developing awareness about teaching."
For some hints on how to go about doing this, she refers to an article by Don Freeman, "Intervening in Practice Teaching" (1990, Cambridge University Press). Freeman says that the relationship between a student teacher and teacher educator should:
a) allow the student teacher to sort through the practice teaching experience without interference or direction, allowing the teacher to find an individual solution; and
b) allow the teacher to participate in this process and contribute from their own knowledge and experience--not directing the teacher to specific conclusions or actions.
Inserted note: One participant in the presentation at NYS TESOL 2001 suggested that these mentoring principles might not be entirely transferable from the student/practice teaching model to a new model of the relationship between professional ESL teachers and their supervisors. Another way to look at the same difference would be to wonder if--in a more reflective approach to ESL supervision--there ought to be more of a mentoring and less of a detached administrative role. The ultimate question is how would such a change influence the quality of teaching and learning in ESL classrooms?
For this reflective, mentoring approach to work, there must be trust built and maintained between the supervisor and his/her teachers, according to Chamberlain. She lists a series of opposing terms from "The Measurement of Trust and Its Relationship to Self-Disclosure," by L.R. Wheeless and J. Grotz, 1977:
Copyright 1977, International Communication Association
Supervision, in Chamberlain's reflective model, is a learning process. Teachers need to feel safe trying new things. Trust lets the teacher know that risk-taking and reflection are important, vital components of learning to teach, a process of growth and awareness that never ends.
If we look again at the three questions from my opening statement, we can see the rough outline of where a relationship of trust and reflective supervision will take an ESL program. Where do teachers look when they need help figuring out a problem? Are they (as several participants in my session suggested) afraid of seeking out their supervisor? Do ESL supervisors interpret requests for assistance as a sign of weakness or strength? Do teachers feel safe confiding in supervisors? Are they both colleagues focused on the learning process, or does the supervisor have a checklist in hand?
What kind of rapport exists among members of the teaching staff? Do they (as one participant at my NYS TESOL 2001 session confided) see each other as competitors for a dwindling number of teaching posts in the aftermath of September 11th? Is there a pecking order of native-speakers vs. non-native speakers? Does the supervisor encourage these feelings of competitiveness and favoritism in an effort to maintain his or her own power?
Finally, what degree of autonomy do the teachers in your school exercise? Do they choose their own materials? Does the supervisor support or undercut their authority in the classroom? Do your teachers get a chance to exercise their judgment, experiment with new activities and learn from their experiences? How can a supervisor encourage greater autonomy? Do you want your teachers to have more autonomy?
I'd like to close with my vision of an ESL program where every day is like part of an ongoing professional conference. What happens at a conference? There are a number of different rooms and booths where participants can go to learn about new ideas, new approaches, new activities; where our spirits are refreshed and we gird ourselves for the next round of challenges.
At a conference, how do we decide which talk to attend? One important source of information is the program book, with summaries and affiliations of the presenters. Another place to look is at the signs posted throughout the convention hall. Finally, there is word-of-mouth, as we promote certain individuals and activities to our colleagues.
That is what I would like to see going on at my school. I want to do a better job of promoting the new ideas of the teachers, via newsletters, posters, comments at teachers' meetings, announcements, etc... I want teachers to see each other as valuable resources--which means I have to help get the word out among them as to the special backgrounds, experiences and skills the different members of our staff bring to the table.
Green River Community College in Kanuma, Japan, only existed for about a year. But for those of us who participated in creating and implementing the ESL curriculum at that school, it was a valuable experience. There were clashes of ideas, intense debates about what works and what doesn't, and we had enough time--a month--to figure a lot of it out before any students arrived.
Most schools, however, are not new. And curriculum revision has to take place while the current curriculum is still being delivered to students. By generating a conference-like atmosphere within a relationship of trust and reflective, collaborative supervision, an ESL administrator is giving his/her teachers hope, something to look forward to: a sense of belonging to a community of professionals engaged in more than just their individual tasks.
One debate at Green River was over the difference between individual effort vs. team effort. One teacher suggested that when people work on their own they get more done than when they work on teams. My response now, as it was then, is that working alone, a person exerts more effort, but working on a team there is a greater chance of coming closer to reaching a nearly impossible goal.
If we want to establish a new direction in our ESL programs, towards a more shared vision within a reflective model of administration, one first step may be to use the word "team" more often.
This is a revised version of a paper presented on Friday, October 19, 2001, at the New York State Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages convention in Rye Brook, New York.
By Robb Scott