Can a leopard change its spots?

It was one of the first few times I was interviewing candidates for a teacher training course. I remember being quite nervous myself trying to make complete strangers feel comfortable enough to maybe get a glimpse of their motives by asking for their reasons for taking the course and their expectations. And there was that young confident teacher, ticking all the right boxes, up until she looked straight at me and declared in brutal honesty: “I don’t think I’ll become a better teacher or a good teacher. I only care about getting a better job”. Hm. Sure. Fine. A good qualification helps in that direction I said, smiled, and moved on. 

By Elisavet Kostaki-Psoma

It got me thinking, though. The part about becoming a good teacher was perplexing. It was said in a way that made it look like being a good teacher is an unattainable goal and good teachers are only short of mythical creatures. Surely, there is no simple answer to the question 'what makes a good teacher'. I was more concerned, though, with this teacher's attitude towards the course, which I fear is shared by many others: almost convict-like, being resigned to do the time; keeping their heads down, avoiding trouble, reading and doing what they are told, and then finally being released into the world of ELT with a professional competitive qualification. But why take for granted that no substantial change will come of it? Why not challenge existing beliefs about teaching and learning? There are of course some valid reasons for the whys that started piling up. But still, I kept missing the point. The real question, the one that really mattered from where I was sitting, was how these beliefs could be challenged on a teacher training course. 

A new set of questions 

So, a new set of questions arose with the first thing to clarify being what beliefs are in the teaching training context.

There has been a lot of work from psychological and philosophical perspectives aiming to define beliefs in general. Borg (2011), based on that work, describes beliefs in our teaching training context as ideas or opinions individuals hold to be true, often tacit, with a strong evaluative and affective component, used as a basis for action and resistant to change (pp. 370 -371). Beliefs then affect teachers’ learning and their practices; so much so that the importance attributed to them in teacher education has reached the point of describing them as possibly "the clearest measure of a teacher’s professional growth" (Kagan, 1992, p. 85).

That much is clear then. For teacher education to have an impact on what teachers do it has to impact their beliefs, too. Obviously, the tricky part is how to impact those beliefs which are resistant to change. For us teachers the part of resistance is even more difficult to challenge because our initial beliefs about second language teaching (the ideas that we come to teacher education courses with) are to a great extent based on our previous experiences as language learners, or what Borg (2003) calls the “apprenticeship of observation”. This apprenticeship is a powerful thing that has been found to withstand training and not to waver even as teaching experience accumulates (Junqueira & Kim, 2013). The cards are stuck against us right from the start, it seems. 

Research to the rescue 

The good news is that research into the matter, and there has been plenty since the 1970s (see Borg 2009 for a comprehensive account), points to the direction that not only are there changes in the behaviours of trainee teachers but also changes in their thinking and beliefs as a result of teacher education courses (Borg, 2009). Research has also had an impact on the design of teacher training courses which acknowledge the importance of teachers’ beliefs, such as for example the DELTA, which aims at developing “candidates’ ability to reflect critically on their own beliefs about teaching and learning” (Delta Syllabus specifications, 2019, p.4). 

Some suggestions

Reflecting critically on one's beliefs is no easy task, though, especially for many teachers for whom it can be a novel experience that requires support and examples of how to start this process by asking the right questions. Teachers need to be able to distinguish beliefs from practices and theoretical knowledge; they also need to be given an explanation as to why they are encouraged to examine their beliefs. Providing a safe space, ways, and opportunities to make their beliefs explicit, is as important as it is to be able to share this process with peers. For some, questioning their beliefs about learning and teaching leads to the verification of pre-existing beliefs, for others it opens new prospects. Either way, teachers have been introduced to a roadmap of how to reflect upon their praxis (knowledge enacted into a practical and active process), an integral part of which is to challenge their beliefs, to view them as fluid rather than set in stone.

Conclusion

Teacher training courses are so much more than a welcome addition to a resumé. On top of everything else, a training course is a transformative time that equips us with tools to reflect on our practice and our beliefs. Learning how to challenge our beliefs is perhaps the secret to becoming a unicorn, the mythical unattainable creature, a good teacher. As Prodromou (2020) eloquently frames it “Good teachers are not experts with answers; they are practitioners who ask questions”

(p. 309). So, keep on asking. The teacher from the interview certainly did.  

References 

Borg, S. (2003). Teacher cognition in language teaching: A review of research on what language teachers think, know, believe, and do. Language Teaching36(2), 81-109. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0261444803001903

Borg, S. (2009). Teacher cognition and language education: Research and practice. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Borg, S. (2011). The impact of in-service teacher education on language teachers’ beliefs. System39(3), 370-380. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2011.07.009

DELTA Syllabus specifications. (2019). Cambridge English. https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/Images/22096-delta-syllabus.pdf

Junqueira, L., & Kim, Y. (2013). Exploring the relationship between training, beliefs, and teachers’ corrective feedback practices: A case study of a novice and an experienced ESL teacher. Canadian Modern Language Review69(2), 181-206. https://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr.1536

Kagan, D.M., 1992. Implications of research on teacher belief. Educational Psychologist, 27, 65-90. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep2701_6

Prodromou, L. (2020). Epilogue. Good Language Teachers – What Do They Do? What Do They Know? In C. Griffiths & Z. Tajeddin (Eds.), Lessons from Good Language Teachers (pp. 309-312). Cambridge University Press.

 

*Elisavet has been involved in various aspects of TESOL for more than two decades as a teacher, examiner, mentor and teacher trainer. For the last two years she has also worked on various CELTA courses as an approved tutor. She cooperates with ACE TEFL.