Rod Bolitho, Freelance, Chair of NILE Advisory Board
The inspiration for this conference contribution came from a number of sources. First of all it grew from my own curiosity about the way the careers of many of my colleagues and friends have unfolded over the years, and a need I felt to talk to them about the turning points they have encountered and the decisions they have taken. I was also interested to gain a clearer understanding of my own career pathway and in particular the motivations behind the choices I have made at various key moments. Finally, I believe that teachers all too seldom have the time and space to reflect on their professional development, and at ‘crunch’ moments often have no-one to turn to for guidance. For the conference presentation I solicited brief contributions from five colleagues, Alan Pulverness, Franz Mittendorfer, Maria Heron, Claudia Ferradas and Thom Kiddle, and I’d like to thank them here for helping me to shape my thinking and make my points.
When we have time to think
We are, I think, all aware of those times in our working life when we are able to stand back from what we do, if only for a short time, and think about what it all means for us. For me these times have often been on the journey between home and work, or when I hit a dilemma that requires me to understand better what it is that I am trying to do. A conference also offers a rare and valuable opportunity for us as teachers to introspect and reflect on questions that concern us, and here I decided to share some of the concerns that I have had myself or that others have shared with me, in the hope that some of them would resonate with listeners and set them thinking. These statements are all essentially authentic in provenance, though many of them are paraphrased or synthesised from conversations I have had with myself and others.
“Teaching in my country is a low status occupation. Low pay, constant criticism.... I sometimes feel really disillusioned.”
“There’s no real career structure in teaching. I’ve no idea where I’m heading and there’s no-one at school I can talk to about it.”
“I feel I’ve slipped into a rut in my teaching and I’m not sure how to get out of it. There never seems to be anything new to get me thinking.”
“I know I need to improve as a teacher but I’m not sure how.....”
“I wonder if I should take an MA or some other qualification that would help me in my career.”
“I come in in the morning, do my photocopying and teaching, then I have to get back home to meet the children from school. I never talk to anyone about my teaching and I sometimes feel really isolated and left alone with any problems that might crop up.”
“I’m looking for a post at a university. It’s more respected, and anyway there’s a limit to how long I can go on just teaching.”
“We just have to live with decisions that are taken over our heads. No-one listens to our views.”
“Sometimes I feel that teaching is eating me up. Preparation and marking takes up most of my free time and I hardly ever go out with friends or spend an evening on one of my hobbies. And my husband and children complain that I never have enough time for them.....”
“I think I have lots of experience that I could pass on to younger teachers or trainees.....”
“I just want to teach. I’m not interested in getting involved in management!”
If many of these statements have a negative ring about them, it’s because the kind of dissatisfaction that they express is often the trigger for a decision about what to do next. In short, many of them pave the way towards a transition for a teacher. They are presented here without context, which is because the conference presentation was for teachers from all over the world. However, context is inevitably a key factor for each of us when we think about our career pathway.
Why context matters: the first big transition
Research studies on teachers’ life cycles (cf Huberman 1989 and Steffy et al 2000) are set in particular contexts, and some of the papers in Darling-Hammond and Lieberman (2012) examine teacher status issues as a basis for entering the profession in a number of different countries. The table below gives a rough and ready overview, based on the literature and on my own professional experience overseas, of three key considerations which lead people to choose teaching as a career and which affect their readiness to remain in it. Where does your country fit in against these criteria?
This comment from Lee Iacocca, an American industrial executive, is often quoted:
“In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something else.”
He had a point! In many contexts, young people, no doubt influenced by the factors noted in the table above, see teaching as a ‘last resort’ choice, and this ultimately affects the quality of educational provision and the extent to which teaching is seen as a worthwhile career. With attrition rates as high as 25% in the first five years of service in parts of the USA and the UK, for example, it seems that negotiating the first major transition, from being a student to being a teacher by conviction, is the most challenging transition of all.
So, what next?
From the brief discussion above, it is clear that the decision to become a teacher is no small matter. It affects who you are, how you see yourself and how others see you. Drawing in part on earlier research, White (2008) maps out a typical career cycle (adapted here), which assumes that a novice teacher remains in the profession.
A glance at this sequence will confirm what we have already seen from the set of statements above, that teaching as a career is by no means always a smooth ride. The stages in this cycle run into each other, and regression is possible as well as chronological progression. But a teacher’s prevailing feelings during any of the stages in the cycle may trigger the energy needed to consider and act on the possibility of a career move. The enthusiasm a teacher feels as she begins to master the art of teaching may translate either into a decision to reach beyond the classroom or alternatively to strive towards greater proficiency as a teacher. But if this enthusiasm doesn’t find an outlet, it is hard to sustain and it may be eclipsed by feelings of frustration and lack of fulfilment. In turn, if mid-career frustration becomes too overwhelming, a teacher may decide on radical action to avoid lapsing into a purely routine professional existence. To some teachers, routine is a source of comfort and predictability, especially if there are other pressures in their lives, but this phase seldom passes without at least some self-doubt and self-questioning, and a teacher may need support to find a more satisfying way forward. In the sections that follow, I consider some of the more common options open to teachers and what they might mean in career terms.
Moving into training
This is quite a common move in the field of English Language Teaching. It offers a way of staying closely involved in practice while at the same time giving something back to the next generation of teachers. In most contexts around the world, working in pre-service training (PRESETT) has different prerequisites from those needed to work in in-service training (INSETT). This is mainly because PRESETT takes place in higher education institutions and is extensive in nature, whereas INSETT provision is typically shorter and may take place in different locations and for different reasons. It is often easier to start out as a trainer by working in INSETT while still teaching on a day to day basis, while a move into PRESETT is likely to require a major career shift to a post in higher education. Here are some typical quotes from people who have made this transition:
“It made me think about everything I do when I teach, and understand why I do these things.”
“I had to stand back from my practice and consider how to make best use of my experience.”
“I had to start putting into words things that I had always done instinctively in the classroom.”
“For me, working with adults after years of working with children was the biggest challenge.”
These remarks, and others like them, touch on themes such as the importance of self-awareness, the ability to articulate experience, and a view of teachers as principled practitioners In all the cases that I have encountered, the transition has brought immense developmental benefits to those who have made it, albeit sometimes at the cost of quite a bit of introspection and sometimes even self-doubt. Incidentally, I don’t buy the often-expressed view that training is ‘just’ another form of teaching; there is clearly some common ground, but the thought patterns involved in training, and consequently its discourse patterns, are necessarily different from those of teaching. This part of the transition is not always easy for new trainers to negotiate.
This transition is most often a gradual one. Most teachers realise quite early in their careers that the textbook they are working with doesn’t meet all the needs of their class, and they start adapting and supplementing it. The logical next step is to start writing more and more of their own material, all the time gaining in confidence and expertise, and evaluating the impact on their learners. If learner feedback is good, the teacher-writer may consider putting in a proposal for publication This was how I came to write course books for ESP I felt the benefits in my teaching and in my self-confidence as a professional. Writing material raises almost every issue related to teaching and learning: methodological choices, the need to understand how different aspects of language work, thinking about how learners learn, to mention just a few. In addition, the discipline of writing to a brief, with limited space and the need to meet specific syllabus requirements, was in itself developmental.
Clearly there is massive competition in the publishing market, and non-native speakers find it particularly hard to get published. However, some of the most satisfying experiences in my career have been working on national projects in Romania, Belarus and Russia, in which I helped local authors to write textbook series for their own contexts. Almost all those I worked with have told me how greatly the experience of writing for publication boosted their development and raised their self-esteem.
Taking on wider responsibilities
If this category sounds a bit vague, it is because ‘wider responsibilities’ can be defined in many different ways. Within an institution, for example, a teacher may be asked to chair a task group on test development or on textbook selection. Reaching more widely, there may be opportunities to take a leading role in a teacher’s association regionally or nationally, or even to play a part in a project or reform initiative at national level. Teachers who have taken on challenges like these have reported to me that they have welcomed and learned from them, despite the extra workload that they inevitably involve. Here is what an Argentinian teacher told me about the benefits of becoming a committee member of her national teachers’ association:
“I have gained better knowledge of different ideas coming from people from all over our big country and from foreign professionals as well. I could get in touch with famous writers, teachers and with the latest trend in teaching, in developing materials, etc. I also learnt how a big congress is organised from the very beginning and the great importance of sharing; the more you share the more you learn, in my opinion.”
This next quotation comes from an Uzbek teacher and teacher educator, reflecting on taking responsibility in projects:
“I believe my involvement in ELT projects has made huge lasting impact on my professional development. Before working in the projects, I was sure that my academic qualifications contributed to my professional development, but later I realised that being an excellent student is far from being a good teacher. As a student I was ego-centred (in a good meaning of this word, if it exists), willing to get better results, to earn praise. And this feeling lingered until I started working in projects, from small-scale to national, regional ones, from being a team member to a coordinator. Projects helped me to work towards a common goal with other colleagues and consultants, feel the responsibility of influencing others’ (students’, teachers’, parents’…) lives.”
I have collected many accounts of transitions like these and they all have a life-changing or career-changing dimension to them.
Going for a higher qualification
There are plenty of higher qualifications that English teachers can go for, either part-time, in-service, or full-time, taking a break from teaching. Readers of this article will be familiar with most of the options and so I won’t list them here. Instead I will mention some of the benefits and some of the possible drawbacks. But to begin with, here is a view from one of my colleagues at NILE:
“A big influence was doing the DELTA, 18 months after CELTA, and learning the theory that underpinned my practices.”
This kind of view is common among teachers who have started out by taking a short, practice-oriented initial training course, and it also represents a commitment to a longer-term career than may have been initially envisaged.
Masters Courses are another option for teachers. They are often taken up by teachers in mid-career who want to challenge themselves and add dimensions to their professional ‘armoury’. While many who embark on this kind of postgraduate study relish the challenge and gain enormously from it, for others it may turn out to be a bridge too far. They struggle with the demands of theorising from their practice, with the reading load, and with the kind of academic writing that most MA programmes demand, though there are exceptions: some MA courses such as the one offered by NILE, are specifically designed for practising teachers, with assignments and dissertation aimed at researching classroom practice. Despite this, in over 25 years of tutoring at MA level, I have become aware of the difficulty that some teachers experience through having to conform to a new and different set of rules and requirements, and yet this doesn’t mean that they are worth any less as teachers. They just don’t cope with being pushed out of their comfort zone and into the world of academia.
Then there is the PhD syndrome. In higher education institutions across much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, teachers of English are expected to undertake doctoral studies if they wish to keep their university teaching posts. They usually have to research topics which are suggested or even prescribed by their supervisors (usually senior philologists in their own universities), and which are seldom related to learning and teaching. Their studies take them further away from the classroom, but earn them the right to apply for an academic post, usually in the Philological Faculty of their university and eventually to supervise other doctoral students. The transition here is from teaching into academia, and it is doubtful whether PhD studies ever made anyone a better teacher.
CPD frameworks for language teachers, such as those developed by the British Council and Cambridge English, refer to specific qualifications as a key element of development, though a third framework, produced by EAQUALS does not. These frameworks are clearly helpful to teachers as well as to managers and employers. But we should remain wary of seeing qualifications as sole criteria for hiring teachers or judging the quality of an institution’s teachers. The British Council’s framework actually implies that PhDs are an indicator of quality in teaching, which is debatable to say the least. These frameworks should be seen as supportive rather than prescriptive if they are to be of developmental benefit to teachers as they make career decision.
Becoming a manager
For me personally, this was one of the most difficult of the many transitions I have gone through over the years. Exchanges with a number of colleagues bear this opinion out. In the field of ELT, relatively few teachers are adequately prepared to take on management responsibilities, and this can have unfortunate consequences. Good teachers don’t always make good managers, mainly because the skills required in management are so different. In the eighties and nineties, this was recognised, and one result was the appointment of people from outside ELT, often with an MBA or a similar qualification, to senior positions, mainly in the private sector. This trend has slowed down again, probably because it is not easy for an outsider to understand what is involved in managing a language teaching operation.
I made many mistakes as a manager, especially early on, and I would definitely have benefited from training in areas like resource management, budget management, conflict resolution, interviewing techniques, course evaluation and strategic planning. Friends in management positions have often complained to me that they ‘miss teaching’ or that ‘there’s too much paper pushing’, hinting that they don’t see the transition they have made as an unqualified success. Most of them also became managers without adequate preparation.
Recently I have been cheered by the newer views of management that have begun to emerge in the literature and in training courses. Leadership is seen as a more relevant and potentially productive way of looking at structures in education, with an emphasis on guiding rather than telling, inspiring rather than requiring, facilitating rather than insisting. It is clear that not every manager is capable of good leadership, but it is equally clear that not all good leaders are managers in a traditional sense. True leaders understand where their colleagues are, and start from there rather than simply dragging them to where the institution or the system wants them to be.
Making decisions about transitions
When we face possible turning points in our careers, we may need a simple framework to clarify our thinking. I have always found this kind of four-square model to be useful.
The headings can be changed to suit individual circumstances and priorities. In a healthy institution, advice from colleagues and managers should, of course, always be available to supplement individual teachers’ soul-searching when they are contemplating change.
This has been a critical look at some of the transitions that may occur during a teacher’s career. As I square up to the last transition, that of moving gradually into retirement, I am reminded that each career step I have taken has helped me to greater self-awareness and self-understanding, and I am conscious that we do sometimes need to face new challenges and take risks in order to discover our potential. Luft & Ingham (1955) proposed a model known popularly as the ‘Johari Window’ which also uses a four-square framework for personal awareness-raising. In simple terms it looks like this:
As we accept the uncertainties that accompany each transition in our careers, more and more of the blind and unknown areas are revealed to us. However, we need start with what we do know before we are ready to take such an important step. John Lennon put it clearly in one of his songs:
“How can I go forward if I don’t know which way I’m facing.”
from ‘How?’ 1991, source: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnlennon/how.html accessed 29.11.2016)
- British Council (2015) Continuing Professional Development Framework for Teachers available at: https://www.britishcouncil.in/sites/default/files/cpd_framework_for_teachers.pdf accessed 29.11.2016
- Darling-Hammond, L. & A. Lieberman (eds) (2012) Teacher Education around the World London: Routledge
- EAQUALS (updated 2016) The Eaquals TD Framework available at: https://www.eaquals.org/our-expertise/teacher-development/the-eaquals-framework-for-teacher-training-and-development/ accessed 29.11.2016
- Huberman, M. (1989) The Professional Life Cycle of Teachers Teachers’ College Record: 91/1
- Luft, J. & H. Ingham (1955). "The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness". Proceedings of the Western training laboratory in group development. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.
- Steffy, B.E. et al (eds) (2000) Life Cycle of the Career Teacher Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press
- UCLES (2014) Cambridge English Teaching Framework available at: available at: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/teaching-english/cambridge-english-teaching-framework/ accessed 29.11.2016
- White, R.V. (2008) Teachers’ Professional Life Cycles International House Journal of Education and Development: 28 http://ihjournal.com/teachers-professional-life-cycles accessed 8 .8.2016