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How do teachers learn to be teachers?


Many things play a part in how teachers learn to be teachers. In this article
Peter Watkins, author of the popular Learning to Teach English, now in its
second edition, looks at some of the key factors that can impact on teachers
as they learn about teaching.
Training and development
For many teachers the first conscious learning about teaching comes in the form of teacher
training courses. These may be short and intensive, such as the Cambridge English CELTA
(Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course, but can also be
much longer in state education systems. Mann (2005, p.104) summarizes the aims of the
training process as introducing the methodological choices available and to familiarize the
trainees with the range of terms and concepts that are the common currency of language
teachers and states that there is widespread agreement that some sort of training or
initial preparation to be a teacher is necessary.
Teacher training is usually distinguished from teacher development, with development
being characterized as an ongoing process, involving life-long learning. Whereas the agenda
of a training course is externally imposed (as in the case of a syllabus of a CELTA course, for
example), development is seen as essentially self-directed, with the teacher identifying their
own needs and following their own interests. However, initial teacher training courses try to
prepare teachers for their journey of future development and therefore promote both
technical competence in teaching (Richards, 2002, p.25) and the skills necessary for
ongoing development. Introducing these skills that promote autonomous learning for
teachers is particularly important as novice teachers frequently receive little support when
they start their careers (Senior, 2006, p.57).

Skills for developing as a teacher


Perhaps the key model of teacher learning for practising teachers is that of reflection.
Marcel Proust, in his masterpiece In Search of Lost Time, says that:
We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey no
one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.
So, according to Proust, true learning happens through making sense of our own
experiences and that requires great effort this is the essence of reflective practice.

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However, while there may be general agreement that reflection is a good thing, precisely
how reflective practice is interpreted and implemented varies considerably (Farrell, 2012)
and it certainly is not a new idea. Dewey (1938), for example, distinguished between routine
action (that which was guided by physical impulse, taught behaviour, tradition, and
authority) and reflective action (that driven by active and critical consideration of both the
motives for, and consequences of, ones own action in a given context, at a given time).
Much research on teachers and teaching (for example, McIntyre, 1980 and Brown &
McIntyre, 1993) suggests if teachers were not able to be reflective on their action they
would not be able to deal with the problems they encounter within their daily practice. In
other words, no amount of training can give teachers all the answers they need to find
unique solutions to unique problems by critically drawing on their experience.
Reflection is a very empowering model of teacher learning. It sees the teacher as an
autonomous professional, an expert, who understands the complexities of their own
classroom better than any external authority. However, with such empowerment comes
great responsibility, and this can be daunting for a new, inexperienced, teacher. We should
also remember that teachers, just like learners, have their own preferred learning styles and
therefore reflection may come more naturally and easily to some people than others.
So, new teachers sometimes get little support when they arrive in a school, and yet they
need to follow this journey of discovery which requires great effort. Is there a way in which
they can be helped in this daunting task? One way is to have access to material that
structures and supports their learning. Here is one example of such material, taken from the
second edition of Learning to Teach English, focusing on how teachers use questions:
Try it Out!
Make a recording of one of your lessons.
After the lesson, listen to the recording and make a note of all the questions you ask.
Decide if each question is a real question or a display question.
How effective are your questions? Did they elicit the responses you expected?
Are they directed at the whole group or individuals?
Does the same learner answer a disproportionate number?
What have you learned from this experience?

Learning to teach by teaching


There is little doubt that the highly practical nature of teaching means that a lot of teacher
learning happens in the classroom. Put simply, to a very great extent, we learn to teach by
teaching. Of course, we may want to add some caveats to this, such as the need to reflect
on the experience gained, but learning through doing seems to be the case for most
teachers.
This creates what might be termed a beginners paradox. If we learn from experience,
what sustains us through the process of initially gaining experience? For many new

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teachers, coping and indeed thriving, comes from developing a small set of teaching
routines with which they are confident and then gradually expanding that range. These
routines may cover things such as setting up particular types of activity, giving feedback and
opening and closing lessons effectively. Along with developing routines such as these, new
teachers need access to a range of pedagogically sound activities that are both flexible (in
that they can be adapted to suit various classes) and easy to use. Familiarity with such
activities can support lesson planning, build confidence and helps the teacher to gain the
experience needed for reflective learning to take place.

Watching others
While new teachers are often observed frequently as part of a quality control
programme, with all the associations of judgement that that may bring they have far
fewer opportunities to watch more experienced teachers. But seeing how expert teachers
go about engaging learners, managing the class and structuring lessons can be hugely
beneficial. This is not to say that new teachers should attempt to slavishly follow what
others do, but watching more experienced others will provide additional opportunities to
learn through seeing alternative strategies and techniques.

Teacher cognitions
Whether input on teaching comes from a course, from reflection, from watching others,
from talking about teaching, or indeed any other source, evidence suggests that new
teachers will interpret it in the light of their existing cognitions. Borg (2006, p.1) defines
teacher cognition as what language teachers think, know and believe about teaching. And
of course, nobody comes into teaching without ideas of what makes a good teacher and
good teaching. Lortie (1975) argued that our apprenticeship of observation begins when
our own schooling starts, as from that point we build our ideas of what good teachers do.
Borg (2009) highlights that failure to take existing teacher cognitions into account will
hinder development, particularly where prior understandings are inappropriate,
unrealistic, or naive (p.164).
But how can these cognitions be made explicit and open to questioning and reflection? One
way, is for teachers to begin each new learning episode by discussing what they already
know and believe. This can be done by using simple statements and a scale, such as the
examples below again taken from the second edition of Learning to Teach English.

The most important thing to learn in a new language is the grammar.


strongly disagree
1
2
3
4
5
strongly agree
Only English should be used in an English class.
strongly disagree
1
2
3

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strongly agree

A final word
Of course, there are plenty of additional ways in which people may develop as teachers, as
well as those discussed here. The important thing is that new teachers get the support they
require on entering the profession and then embrace the career-long journey of learning.

References
Borg, S. (2006). Teacher Cognition and Language Education: Research and Practice. London:
Continuum.
Borg, S. (2009). Language teacher cognition. In A. Burns, & J.C. Richards (Eds.), The
Cambridge Guide to Second Language Teacher Education (pp.163-171). New York:
Cambridge University Press.
Brown, S. and McIntyre, D. (1993). Making Sense of Teaching. Buckingham: Open University
Press.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Collier.
Farrell, T. (2012). Reflective practice for language teachers. In T. Pattison (Ed.), IATEFL 2011
Brighton Conference Selections (pp.34-43). Canterbury: IATEFL Publications.
Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. London: Chicago University Press.
Mann, S. (2005). The language teachers development. Language Teaching, 38(3), 103-118.
McIntyre, D (1980). The contribution of research to quality in teacher education. In E.
Hoyle & J. Megarry (eds.) World Yearbook of Education: Professional Development of
Teachers. London: Kogan Page.
Richards, J.C. (2002). Theories of teaching in language teaching. In J.C. Richards, & W.
Renandya (Eds.), Methodology in Language Teaching (pp.19-25). New York: Cambridge
University Press.
Senior, R. (2006). The experience of Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press.
Watkins, P. (2014). Learning to Teach English (2nd ed.). Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

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