Because of the current pandemic and the pivot to online delivery, teachers around the world – and particularly language teachers like us given the nature of what we teach – have been bombarded with professional development (PD) sessions. These unprecedented number of offerings were much needed as we had to learn about new platforms, software, applications, and techniques. So, whereas there were many PD opportunities, there were certainly fewer discussions about the nature of PD. It is true that we were too busy reconceiving almost every aspect of ELT including the delivery of our classes. But now that we have become more comfortable with the many delivery possibilities and their tools, I think it is high time we talked about a less glamorous aspect of PD...
Teachers are among the most concerned and caring professionals as we are constantly trying to improve our praxis so we can be better teachers – whatever better means to each individual. I dare say that most of us welcome PD sessions with open hearts and can see the value of them, but for some of us (in my opinion) Continuous Professional Development (CPD) can have a much less talked about dark side.
Invest in yourself … a PD story
I am, for example, in a privileged position. My partner and I live a very frugal life (I live in the Sunshine State of Australia and we don’t have to pay a cent to have fun outdoors!), so without much struggle, one salary can support us both. Apart from that, I don’t have children, nor do I have to care for any family member. In other words, although I am also a victim of unemployment caused by the pandemic, I am in a comfortable position to look for other jobs, pursue other dreams and even do limitless CPD.
However, if you were to take a minute to compare my current situation with the other ELT teachers, you’ll see for others it could be different – some might be the only breadwinners of the family or they are juggling family and work life on their own… and many might be wrestling with personal issues (a number of which I covered in What was 2020 to you? A teacher’s reflection) alongside these commitments. But, what does it have to do with PD you might say? Perhaps at first not much, however, read on to find why out that’s not really the case.
Let’s face it, in a lot of industries, people are facing ever-increasing hours and often multiple jobs, and ELT is no different. Precarity is everywhere in education and in our industry this is even more noticeable. With many different classes, levels, age groups, and even workplaces, what most of us want is just to know ‘what works’ in the classroom so we can do the job in the best way we can and carry on. Believe me, I know that all too well – for over two years, every week I spent 60 hours teaching over 1,000 students! I can, therefore, see how it can be very difficult to discuss, or even consider, macro issues when you can barely keep yourself afloat.
In recent years, we have witnessed the rise of CPD frameworks from major organisations, institutions and bodies – again not just in ELT, or even Education, but across all professions. For ELT though, they have often originated though not exclusively from the inner circle countries such as the UK, the USA and Australia (the EAQUALS TD Framework notwithstanding). There is no doubt that these are all carefully crafted documents developed by groups of ELT specialists, and they have their uses – especially if they are applied in the way they were intended, to assist us all in acknowledging our learning, giving us a sense of progression within our careers and helping us develop underused or acquire and/or new skills and competences. (See how they can be used in practise in Defining successful teachers: Teacher competences and Redefining our goals: the (non) importance of passing for a native speaker.)
However, if their purpose is to sell a service: an app, a portal, a training course, a place for teachers to showcase their CPD achievements (or even overstate them at the expense of their initial teaching qualifications or lack of), then what looks on the surface to be a great idea, and certainly a very convenient one, has the potential to be quite problematic and even perhaps a source of inequality. There’s a danger that schools across all sectors end up adopting one or some of these platforms and (can) use the information about CPD to make important decisions related to hiring and promoting teachers.
But, rather than getting into that further, for now, let’s go back to my story and the average teacher… Once the pandemic eases and both of us start looking for jobs (because they will be available again), I will have presented sessions, joined countless webinars, read books and articles, and possibly even done some volunteering work, and I will proudly showcase all these activities in my preferred CPD platform. My colleague, on the other hand, may been unable to do anything similar or very little. The problem is that, on paper, the person who is going through the many CVs, and/or looking into any platform that keeps a record of the professional development activities without acknowledging the learning (see MyCPD for an alternative tool), will not know about any of my colleague’s circumstances (apart from Covid-19 which we’ve all shared). On paper, I am likely to be a much stronger candidate as I can be perceived as ‘much more committed’. This is the issue: we have commodified professional development and it has become yet another way to show privilege in some cases. In times of metrics and analytics of everything, we might be trying to quantify the unquantifiable, or at least what should not be quantified.
My point is that by using such frameworks and their accompanying platforms in this way, certain organisations, institutions or bodies, in an attempt to assist the sector and simplify a process, may have potentially widened the distance between the haves and have-nots or simply those who can and those who can’t.
What kind of CPD?
At the moment, many of the CPD frameworks or individual initiatives remind me of an assembly line where all the steps are carefully calculated, and everything has to be the same. The difference is that, unlike Ford and his mass production concept, students are not cars – as each one of them has a different story; and English is not a part – as it is not this homogeneous thing that can be used in the same way regardless of context. So I ask you, if we are neither cars nor parts, why would language education and CPD be like that?
So, what do I propose? To get rid of PD altogether? Or not to acknowledge PD at all? No, far from that – I suppose teachers genuinely like to learn and be aware of what they are doing. But what about a deeper reflection on the meaning of education and, consequently, (Continuous) Professional Development for teachers? Has language teaching been reduced to a mere set of skills that can simply be trained? I believe we should give some thought and reconsider this never-ending need of trying to teach more, better and in less time. This so-called ‘need’ can be described as the efficiency rhetoric which often masks a reduction in both the quality of education provided and attempts to reduce levels of resources invested in education.
If you have read any of my previous English Teaching professional blog posts, you might have noticed that I tend to write a lot about the broad field of the learning sciences, like in this blog about Neuroscience. Whenever I do so, my intention is to suggest techniques that might benefit both teacher and student – it is just one more thing in the ELT toolbox to draw upon – my intention is never to prescribe or demand something. For me, anything a teacher learns can potentially be used in the classroom to assist themselves and students. This is far from meaning that what we do in terms of language education in the classroom can/should be reduced to a set of techniques that work, or even a set of tick boxes in a PD Framework.
In other words, I think that what we do is a form of applied art. So, at this point, I believe it is good to reflect upon the fact that language is one of the elements that constitute our thoughts and even our own selves.
What about you? How do you view professional development, and have you ever thought about PD this way? I’d love to know your opinions in the comments below.