We all know the story: time, effort and money are invested so that a trainer can be hired to come to school and deliver a training session. Then, all horrors break out: a great amount of energy has to be spent to find a convenient date for all and teachers have to be cajoled into coming. Sometimes, the skill of the trainer and the reality of the session may exceed expectations and teachers may leave pleasantly surprised. Still, the DoS or School owner are left wondering: how has this changed our reality and improved learning in our school?
It is hardly debatable that since teacher efficacy is directly linked with the impact it has on student learning, teacher learning needs to be as much a priority for schools as is student learning (Cambridge ELT Series, April 2018, p. 7). Still, what makes training impactful is relevance and implementation. Attending a session does not guarantee implementation (Summers, 1985). Let us explore how we can take steps to stop training from failing.
Text by: Maria Sachpazian
Why does training fail?
The answers given here cannot be exhaustive enough to cover all cases but some of the most prominent ones are related to the following reasons. Firstly, training is seen as ’one-size’, therefore the teachers’ background, career and experience are not usually taken into account. The upshot of that is having teachers with vast experience attending sessions they should be leading and learning in the process. Another major issue is that there is no actual framework for training, which is just one of the steps in this process, not an end to itself. Training is voluntary and evidence-informed (Cambridge ELT Series, April 2018) which means that it emerges as a request or a common conclusion we draw as we review staff appraisals and/or after a round of mentoring sessions or observations. In this way, trainees are as much a part of the initiative, not the unwilling recipients. To address the elephant in the room, if the participants are unwilling, it is best not to organize a training session as training and the wish to move out of one’s comfort zone, expand skills and take risks are entirely voluntary and related with the professionals’ mindset (Bosson &Celtek, 2017).
Training may also fail because its impact is not measurable. Teachers listen to the trainer for about an hour or more. The trainer may or may not share a context (e.g., classroom-based teaching) with the teachers and then the session is over and everyone goes home. Next time they teach, they revert to the tried and tested ways. This does not happen because teachers are stubborn or do not want to invest in growing professionally. It is due to the fact that deeper assimilation happens when specific skills or information are transmitted in a way which is manageable and allows participants to practise the new technique and receive feedback shortly after the technique has been presented. Right now, full-frontal training (due to lack of time and funds) includes a lot of lecturing, which fails to engage audiences cognitively, and manages to transmit too much information, too quickly, in an emotionally stressful way (Loyalka et al., 2018).
Steps to ensure that training succeeds
The first step is to open up the communication channels of our school and implement peer observations or mentoring. You may have noticed that I am avoiding the dreaded observations as this tool has been abused to great extent (Bosson and Celtek, 2017) and it is fraud with negative feelings for teachers. The next step is to make meetings productive and discuss training needs. A call for papers may circulate to ask teachers if they want to present a short training session on an area they know well (e.g., using drama activities, teaching CPE writing part one). It goes without saying that teachers would be paid for this, as any other external trainer would. This type of peer-collaborative training (Cambridge ELT Series, April 2018) is a way to encourage using teachers’ pre-existing experience in the most positive way. Instead of being bored, veterans get to learn by standing before their peers in a professional context, which in turn makes them role models for younger colleagues. In this simple way, our school becomes a hub of learning.
If we opt to work with an external trainer, we need to provide the opportunity to the trainer to meet the staff. Personally, I have formed this new habit of sending to the schools where I carry out training sessions a padlet for the staff to write their opinions or questions on the topic we are going to discuss. A useful addition would be to have the profiles of the professionals to be trained. The final step is to set up a meeting with the teachers on zoom or Google meet to allow them to have an informal chat with the trainer and explain what they need. The trainer also needs to do a needs’ analysis session with the DoS/School owner and even with the entire staff if this can be arranged. This precludes the possibility of the training being calibrated at the wrong level or touching upon issues which are irrelevant to the reality of this school. During this stage of brainstorming and needs’ analysis, the role of the staff (recipients of training) is a central one. They need to create their K(now) W(ant to learn) L(earnt already) columns and research the topic to be discussed. This will guarantee that there is common ground for discussion and that the session is relevant to the needs of the trainees (Cambridge ELT Series, April 2018).
As mentioned before, attending a workshop or session does not guarantee application. In the context described above, in which training is not seen as an one-off event but a step in cyclical process, teachers may ask the trainer to use examples from the materials they use in class to exemplify the techniques and strategies used. Then, the last stage for any training should be the ‘follow up’ stage. In this, the staff meet two weeks after the training and discuss how they have implemented the new skills, techniques or strategies. The discussion should include problems anticipated or not and additional benefits. In this way, application is not left to chance. Needless to say, there should be a self-reflection questionnaire after every training session which should invite participants to discuss how this session helped them or why it did not and encourage them to make specific suggestions for the future.
For training to succeed we all need to realise that it has to stop being haphazard, unplanned and not deriving from within the recipients. Teachers need to be involved in reflecting and they need to be aware of their training needs. Only teacher initiated CPD can be successful. Imposition simply does not work. Another element of successful training is the variety in types and modes of delivery. The trainer-led mode (digital or face to face) with the trainer presenting and the teachers taking notes is on its way out. Greater collaboration, more active participation of participants and a more inclusive definition of training might be the necessary elements to make training work. Training does not have to be a session. It could be a sponsored conference participation. It could be support in action research and room to grow through it. It could be the formation of reading groups (a topic I am planning to discuss in a future article). At the end of the day, perhaps the fault lies in the fact that we see our training as a way of improving the learning of learners, when we should be focusing on improving our own learning.