By Leticia Sales
As with most schools in Brazil, the one where I am a pedagogical coordinator has a teacher’s meeting (or branch) meeting at the beginning of every semester, and this term was no different. This month, my team of stars – as I like to call them – and I had our meeting, and judging by the hugs, or occasional handshakes, for those who were a bit more timid, and beautiful words of gratitude, it was quite a hit.
From a trainer’s perspective, it’s a tad hard for us to gauge the success of events of this sort unlike in a teacher/student situation, where the response is immediate and the honesty in it is, most of the time, clearly noticeable. Unfortunately the same doesn’t apply to CPD (Continuous Professional Development) sessions. That is because, in most teaching contexts in Brazil, students are your clients, and as clients they feel more comfortable voicing their opinions about aspects of their education.
In our educational system, coordinators or managers are in a relative position of power and for this reason, many teachers feel reluctant to give any frank feedback, which delays progress and restricts valuable debate and discussion.
But aren’t teachers in a way our clients as well? The way I see it, things are really simple and straightforward: happy teachers equal happy students who talk to other students and parents about how great their school is, which as a consequence may make these learners’ friends become our students, too. In a world where schools compete for students because it is a business, these things count.
Even if you do not work in a private language institute, but a public school instead, high teacher morale does lead to increased rates of student achievement and a better learning environment – and I say this from both experience and research¹.
When teachers are given the support and attention they deserve, they feel valued and are more prone to take a more active role in school-related matters other than teaching itself, such as school events, festivities for students, and extracurricular projects. I’ve also learnt this has a positive impact on managerial aspects of teaching, too. If you have difficulty convincing your teachers to embrace the whole school system not just their speciality, show them some appreciation and see how it goes.
Letting them know that they are doing the right things and that they are on the right track can work wonders.
Not only does teacher empowerment make teachers more confident in their practices, it also allows them to take risks in class and think outside the box. It is only when you’re in your element and comfortable in your own skin that you start stepping out of your comfort zone. And if we’re striving for more personalized, communication-aimed, goal-oriented lessons, providing your team with proper assistance and a solid – even if simple – continuous professional development program will, in the long run, put an end to those lifeless, coursebook bound, pasteurized classes.
Your team will then experience, as Thornbury² puts it, the unbearable lightness of teaching. However, that only happens after some time of confidence building, planning, training, and feedback. These reflections raise two questions: when and how. In regards to the former, in all honesty, there’s no time like the present. Any time is CPD time. However, I’ve found that having a teachers’ meeting or seminar at the beginning of the term starts things off on the right note, which is why I put so much effort (and care) in designing activities suitable for an entire day of sharing and learning.
Having taught in various contexts and institutes, I’ve had my fair share of attending start-of-term meetings. Much to my dismay, they would mostly boil down to long hours of notice-giving, graph-analysing, and quotations and advice from the most popular self-help management 101 bestsellers. In one such tedious gathering, if I remember it correctly, the whole staff were shown how many students each teacher had missed, in a very colourful pie chart stating how productive (or unproductive) we had been that term. Definitely, a day to forget.
If we want CPD meetings to be memorable, we must first and foremost take our team’s needs into consideration. It has to be relevant, specific, valuable and enhancing and most of all it has to relate to whatever problems the teachers are facing in class, with students and even with parents. We also have to create an atmosphere within the meeting which encourages teachers to speak openly and freely without an fear of consequences.
How to prepare a teachers’ meeting fit for success
As stated previously, catering to your team’s needs is a must. In addition to that, here are other points to be taken into account, as well as some practical advice on putting together a professional development day your teachers will take full advantage of:
1. Inform dates and times in advance
This may seem obvious, but teachers are human beings with commitments and possibly even a social life! As soon as the semester starts, give teachers an indication as to when the meeting may take place and how long it may last, and a week before it happens send them a friendly reminder to confirm their presence. You’ll be amazed at how many people forget this simple, yet pivotal step in planning meetings.
2. Start the session with yourself (and they’ll follow your lead)
I usually start seminars by referring to what I’ve been up to since we last spoke. This breaks the ice and makes them feel more comfortable sharing something about themselves.
In my last meeting, as the first activity of the day, I showed my team some pictures to illustrate what recess had been like for me.I didn’t give any further information but invited them to form small groups in which they had to guess what the pictures represented.
This was fun and after a couple of minutes discussion, they reported their guesses. After welcoming their contributions, I finally told them what those pictures meant. I asked them to do the same individually using Google images to select up to three pictures that best summarized their recess. They then had to work in small groups and guess what the pictures their peers had chosen represented.
By the end of this activity, there was a relaxed atmosphere in the room and I felt that some inhibitions had already been removed. As the session progressed, I did a similar activity focusing on goals for the term ahead. This proved to be a great source of information as to what their expectations and objectives were, and having that knowledge enabled me to work with them to achieve these goals throughout the coming year.
3. Find balance between input and output
A seminar isn’t a lecture. Obvious as it may seem, this simple notion is disregarded by a lot of trainers, who put their team through the ordeal of having to remain sitting in silence for what seems like an eternity, mindlessly listening to monotone readymade corporate babble. Create an atmosphere of debate, and discussion where teachers feel free to voice their opinion and where they know they will not be patronised or shot down or have their opinion minimised. Good listening is also crucial here.
Make sure you are well prepared
You can only help teachers if you know them and know what makes them tick individually. If you have the habit of observing your teachers’ classes often – and if you don’t, consider doing so – you may pick up on general and individual issues and can then prepare a session based on the data collected from those moments. Pick one or two of the most recurrent issues or challenges faced by them and give a talk or workshop to make them reflect upon these aspects, and offer feasible solutions.
I have found that most of my teachers are interested in tackling more delicate subjects in class, but hardly ever do so out of fear their learners may take things the wrong way or feel like they’re being evangelized, or lectured to. I’ve also noticed that in spite of being into technology, they almost never use it in an educational way in class and to their best advantage.
You cannot cover every aspect in a one-day session but you can motivate teachers to reflect and by creating an atmosphere of cooperation teachers know that they can come for help and advice throughout the year. Another issue which came up was giving more inductive, communication-oriented classes. Having that in mind, I gave a demo lesson in which I combined the above-mentioned points to teach modal verbs. If you’re curious as to how it turned out, you can access the lesson plan and slides here.
To enrich my seminar I attempted to encourage our teachers to look at and discuss the courses offered at our institute in a more critical way. I started it with a Kahoot quiz asking basic questions about the courses offered to check their knowledge about them and see which points were more relevant for a discussion. Afterwards, we discussed some of the challenges faced when teaching those levels and courses, but always with a focus on how these obstacles could be overcome.
In small groups, teachers had to write pieces of advice on sticky notes on how to tackle the challenges aforementioned and stick them onto walls at various stations around the room. Teachers then had to go from station to station, discuss the tips and select which would be most useful to them based on the difficulties they had encountered. They could take away up to one sticky note per station. In the end, I gave them some suggestions as to how to and implement these tips in class.
Be a facilitator not a speaker
What’s important to have in mind when conducting this sort of interaction is that you remain in a position of facilitator rather than one of a speaker. This must be an opportunity for them to share and learn together, besides building a sense of community and collaboration. As a facilitator, moderate the participants’ contributions and frequency of input given by individual teachers, as some might hog the conversation. Make sure all teachers have an equal chance to speak and let more timid teachers feel more confident by giving them the opportunity to share information and opinions in pairs or small groups instead of reporting to a whole group
4. Pamper them a bit, if possible
You don’t need to splurge on fancy meeting favours or an exquisite coffee break. However, make it clear through your efforts that this is a special day created just for them. You’ll be surprised at how happy teachers can be with the simplest of things. I’m not one to tell you what would make your teachers happy, but with mine a good old raffle always lifts their spirits.
I design my seminars in a way that mimics teacher conventions, although on a much smaller scale. This is what the timetable for my last teachers’ seminar looked like:
• Session #1
• Session #2
• Coffee break
• Session #3
• Lunch break
• Session #4
• Session #5
• Lunch break
• Final session
This is a similar format to the one Braz-TESOL has for their local chapters steps..
5. Seek feedback. For real
For the same reason we give feedback when observing someone’s lesson, we must put ourselves in a position where we’re open to listening to what our team has to say about the job we perform. I see my relationship with my team as one of partnership, and I frequently revise things because of the quality as well as the quantity of the input they give me on the things I do at school. It also helps them to appreciate the importance of receiving feedback. By putting myself in a vulnerable position, it not only shows them I’m not entitled to give opinions just because I’m their boss, but also that educators we should be constantly seeking to improve.
After all, how can I ask teachers to be cool about being critiqued if I’m not?
There are multiple ways you could go about it, but my favourite is asking them to answer a short Google form with very basic, yet important questions that will help me design future meetings better. It’s also important that you allow them to comment anonymously since some of them might feel some discomfort doing so without this kind of protection.
Here’s a format you can use or adapt should you want to use it: https://goo.gl/forms/hbEZaasia1jO02zq2
Creating a start-of-term meeting that is well balanced in terms of announcement-giving, teacher input, and training input has a direct impact on how appreciated and prepared the teaching staff will be for the coming term. It boosts morale and builds a sense of community that lends itself to collaboration and trust. Good quality initial training helps your team to start the semester off on the right note, leading to elevated rates of learner achievement and profit for the school. Finally from a very personal perspective, if my teachers are happy and my students too then so am I and the effort has all been worthwhile.
¹Hindt, Lawrence A. (2012). The Effects of Principal Leadership on Teacher Morale and Student Achievement. College of Education University of Houston. https://goo.gl/QCtNYy
²Thornbury, Scott (2012). How Important Is Lesson Planning? The iTDi Blog. https://goo.gl/5hgDq7