I have had intriguing tidings from some of my final year learners recently. They are currently engaged in their second semester of “school experience,” where they spend one day a week under the tutelage of their mentor educators in local high schools. In theory they are supposed to watch their mentors in the first term, and gradually be allowed to assume responsibility for teaching their classes in the second. In the end they are asked to teach one, perhaps two entire classes on their own.
The idea sounds a practical one – it’s often best to learn the rudiments of teaching from a professional. In practice what has happened is this: learners spend most of their time sitting at the back of the classroom watching their mentors undertake a series of repetitive exercises involving little or no language practice – gap-filling, cloze procedure and the like. They are easy to mark and require the educator to undertake little or no extra-curricular activity. It’s an easy way to pass the time in class.
Consequently many learners have complained of wasting their time on “school experience.” Not only do they have little or no involvement in classroom activity, but they are introduced to the jobsworth mentality in which educators do the minimum amount necessary to keep their learners amused and collect their salaries at the end of the week. When the learners are given the space to teach their own classes, they are told to do the same gap-filling activities, as their mentors cannot be bothered to think up anything new.
I am not in any way suggesting that this state of affairs prevails at every high school; I have encountered many enthusiastic educators willing to challenge existing approaches to pedagogy. But what proves particularly disconcerting is that this jobsworth mentality is allowed to prevail at any institution. It suggests that all the teacher training initiatives spearheaded by the British Council, the book publishers and other institutions have little or no influence on the way in which educators handle the day-to-day business of working with their learners. Resources are spent to little effect – except, perhaps, to encourage institutions to spend more money on glossy textbooks and thereby increase author royalties.
Is there any possibility for change, or at least create the conditions for change? Institutionally speaking, the prospect is a pessimistic one: many educators are so imbued with the jobsworth mentality that they perceive little or no reason to change their methods. Even if they wanted to change, there is little or no incentive to do so. Personal development assumes less significance than the monthly pay-check. Even if individuals want to change, they will have to negotiate with their superiors, who might disagree with their views entirely. Why rock the boat when things are going fine?
Perhaps the only workable solution is to begin from the ground up: to find ways outside the institution to set up initiatives dedicated not to teacher training per se, but to investigate methods of learning, both virtual as well as face-to-face. This might require us to rethink the way institutions work – perhaps technology needs to assume a more important role in facilitating communication between educators and learners. Much of the teacher training I’ve encountered has been fundamentally top-down in approach; follow the example of the trainer (like the mentor educator), and you too can learn how to work in class. I’d favor a flipped approach, in which educators tried to listen to their learners and reshaped their classroom strategies accordingly. Undergraduate learners could be made part of the collaborative process; the insights they have acquired in the three years of their university curricula might prove invaluable in creating new learning strategies. While jobsworth educators are difficult to shift, there are still opportunities available to create new generations of educators with a genuine and lasting commitment to listening to and learning from their learners. Who knows – even the learners might want to become educators in the future.
Yet time is running out: frustrations increase. My fourth-year learners have a disillusioned view of their chosen profession. For them it is not a matter of learning about the way people think and react, but simply a matter of rehearsing time-honored drills practiced by their mentors. Perhaps the teacher training institutions and the publishers need to rethink their approach to working with institutions; rather than trying to foist their products on their so-called ‘customers,’ they might be better advised to take a lengthy time out and listen to what people want, especially those at the lowest end of the pedagogical scale. Otherwise we are simply reinventing an educational wheel which will very soon come off the axle that drives it.
Ankara, Turkey – 27 Apr. 2015