The impact of social media on our field cannot be denied. The internet, even before social media, opened new paths for teachers to create their PLNs, to see samples of teaching and ideas applied in classrooms the world over and enabled educator to participate in conferences which facilitate international exchange. Unfortunately, there is always a downside and perhaps in this case it is the way teachers have ended up using groups created by other teachers.
Text by Maria Sachpazian BA education / RSA dip/tefl (hons)
This article focuses on Facebook Groups and the questions posted on these regarding specific books to be used and issues with parents and finally questions regarding specific answers in exercise items. The point of our discussion is that what these questions say about the make up of our larger professional community and why so many of our colleagues think there is no harm in asking others to advise them on crucial matters, such as choosing course books or dealing with students and their parents. Finally, suggestions will be made as to how ELF teachers can manage their digital professional identity in a way that helps them grow further as professionals.
Digital identities and Media Literacy
In a highly digital environment, boundaries between the personal and the professional are easily blurred (Mostaghimi and Crotty 2011) which can lead to a confusion about the point where the seemingly innocuous comment starts becoming a public indicator of who people are as professionals. According to the UNESCO second law of Media and Information Literacy (MIL) (iiciis 2019) ‘’every citizen is a creator of information and knowledge and has a message’’ which they must be empowered to express. The issue is whether we realise that the questions some teachers so casually post are ‘’the message’’ they create, which becomes an indicator of how they view their own professional prowess and how they want to be perceived as professionals. In Mostaghimi and Crotty (2011) there is an interesting analogy between the Internet and hospital elevators. The two writers remind us that in hospitals (abroad) there are signs reminding staff not to discuss patient’s charts in lifts because, even if no names are shared, information can become easily identified and in lifts of considerable size and traffic, one never knows who is listening. The analogy is pretty clear. Isn’t the internet the ‘’new millenium’s elevator’’, an environment which might be perceived as ‘’defined’’, ‘’safe’’, and ‘’guarded’’, but in essence is open to all and once information is shared it cannot be retrieved, even if the post is deleted?
The issue of professionalism becomes an even greater one when we think of the type of questions asked. A casual run-through any Facebook FL teachers’ group will yield quesitons of the following types.
‘’Which Course book would you suggest for a strong learner at level A2 who has just finished ‘’XXXX’’ (title of previous coursebook).’’
‘’Between ‘’XXXX’’ (title of course book / grammar / practice test) and ‘’YYYY’’ which would you advise me to use with a student who is (characteristics of students follow).
‘’Has any of my colleagues tried ‘’XXXXX’’. What’s your opinion? Should I use it with a student who is (characteristics of student follow).
‘’Has anyone else been asked to teach without a mask? I am about to lose a private student because his mother says I shouldn’t wear a mask as he cannot understand what I am saying.’’
‘’How much do you charge private lessons for Junior classes and how long are your lessons?’’
‘’ Has any of my colleagues had any parents asking to pay less for online classes? What should I tell them?’’
‘’ Why is answer A correct? Shouldn’t it be answer C?’’
‘’ How do you explain XXXX (phenomenon follows) to B1 students’’?
‘’ What grade would you give to this essay? Level B2’’ (Photo of essay follows.)
Why are these signs of a deeper pathology in our field?
On the face of it, it could be claimed that the problem is me. I see a problem where there is none! Perhaps I am exaggerating but there is a point behind this concern and I am sure I am not the only one concerned. There is practically a whole generation of ELF teachers who feel so unguided, unsupported and isolated (not to mention underqualified) that they resort to a faceless audience to seek crucial answers to important questions which they should be able to answer on their own, based on their experience and qualitifications, not to mention their common sense.
Regarding the questions in the first group, which concern course book choices I am awlays amazed by the sweeping generalisations made about ‘’strong’’ students ‘’weak’’ students and ‘’A2 challenging coursebooks’’. My counter questions would be ‘’Which skills is this student strong at?’’ ‘’Is this learner better at receptive or productive skills?’’ ‘’Is there a particular set of skills you would like to work on?’’ ‘’What is your teaching style?”’ Merely leafing through McGrath (2016), Tomlinson (2013) and Tomlinson and Masuhara (2018) it is easy to realise that evaluating and choosing materials for teaching is a matter of great precision and depth. It is a process which starts with a needs’ analysis (regarding the needs of the students and what they teacher feels they need to work on) and continues with the writing down of clear, unambiguous criteria that are transparent and specific enough to be answered with a Yes or a No when evaluating the materials. As breadth of choice usually limits depth of evaluation, educators are advised to engage in some external or first glance evaluation (McGrath 2016) first (based on what can be duduced based on the cover or the scope and sequence of the Course book) before deciding if this particular book should be shortlisted for an in-depth evaluation. Finally, both McGrath and Tomlinson take great pains to remind us that coursebook evaluation is a cyclical process and should be carried out through the time of teaching the coursebook by taking notes on its effectiveness and ought to close with the post-use evaluation.
Only after we have examined the idea of this cyclical process of in-depth analysis and evaluation of teaching material can we understand the gross miscomprehensions that lie behind such questions as the ones in Group 1. It is painfully clear that all B1 learners are not at the same B1 level. All ‘’challenging’’ or ‘’demanding’’ coursebooks are not challenging or demadning in the same way and what has become apparent in the meantime is the gap in the teacher’s professional knowledge. It could be argued that parents are not members in these groups, but school owners, DoS and various other stakeholders are and the fact that any teacher thinks ‘’a group’’ can ‘’advise’’ him/her on what teaching material s/he can choose better than his/ her educational experience and knowledge, frankly scares me. This goes beyond any open, professional exchange, which is encouraged and considered an advantage of our digital culture. This is asking others to run our classes. It does not share any similarities with getting updates or information about current books one may not have seen yet. There is plenty of room for that in all the exhibitions (and there are quite of few of them twice a year in all major cities) where there are representatives of publishers who are trained to guide teachers make such choices. Whether or not all or most teachers attend those exhibitions also speaks volumes about their commitment and professionalism. At the end of the day, would any of us trust a doctor who uses a Facebook group to check with his/her colleagues about which antibiotics to prescribe? Isn’t that physician a different type of ‘’professional’’ from those who attend conferences to get updates on current pharmaceutical developments and hold regular meetings with reps of companies who sell medicines?
The questions in the second and third group open the huge topic of whether or not it is fair to our students to share online, in an environment only perceived as safe, what goes on between us and their parents and whether it is wise to share online the details of financial transactions, which 9 times out of 10 are black and ‘’under the table’’. Once again, the sweeping generalisations and the lack of common sense are the two most upsetting factors. The internet is ‘’open’’ by nature (Mostaghimi and Crotty 2011) and our digital footprint is still visible even after we change ideas, progress in the field or delete certain posts. Just because we cannot see it, it does not mean that it doesn’t exist.
How can teachers manage their professional, digital identity?
Facebook groups are ideal as agents of networking or as PLNs which enable educators to share teaching ideas, activities and materials. Problems start when teachers forget who the professional is and invite others, whose professional experience and qualifications they ignore, to suggest how they should manage their educational choices, their finances or how to deal with and handle the parents of their learners. Teachers need to remember that creating content is not done simply by providing answers. The questions professionals pose determine the extent of their professionalism and the reverberate long after the post has been posted, answered or deleted. Therefore, any sort of choice affecting teaching should be done in private or at least offline and should be discussed with other professionals who actually have a face and are trained for this. Before posting any question on any group, teachers should anticipate how this question will make them be perceived as professionals by their own community and whether they can answer their own question if they use their common sense (e.g. your health is above any kind of financial gain, so, no you should not teach without a mask). Finally, when posting questions related with grammar or vocabulary, teachers need to consider their own gaps in knowledge as well as their inability to access the right professional tools (such as specific grammar books for teachers or dictionaries) to find out why C is the right anwer indeed. Once they do that they also need to decide if they are truly equipped to teach these levels or if they should first engage in some teacher training which will give them a lot more than a simple answer: the professional confidence to be the ones who not only give the answers but also pose meaningful questions.
iiciis.,(©2019). Institute for Information Competence and Information Infrastructure. [Viewed 29th December 2020]. Available from: https://iiciis.org/international/
McGrath, I., (2016). Materials Evaluation and Design for Language Teaching. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Mostaghimi, A., and Crotty, H.B.,(2011). Professionalism in the digital age in Annals of
International Medicine. [online]. 154 (8), 560-562. [Viewed on 29th December 2020]
Tomlinson, B. ed., (2013). Developing Materials for Language Teaching. 2nd ed. London: Bloomsbury.
Tomlinson, B. and Masuhara, H., (2018). The Complete Guide to the Theory and Practice of Materials Development for Language Learning. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons Inc.