Can continuing professional development change lives?

This is the third article in our series which presents extracts from the British Council publication, ‘Innovations in the continuing professional development of English language teachers’. Here the author, Ann Wiseman, revisits teachers from a CPD programme that took place 12 years before, to discover if CPD changes lives.

Extract from the editor’s overview (p14)

In Wiseman's chapter we are able to see in particular the long-term impact on the people involved. Impact came not just in the intended outcomes - improved skills as trainers, for example - but also in the unintended outcomes. These were both personal and professional. Yet again, the notion of a community of practice comes to the fore.

The participants in the original project have a lifelong bond, built on shared experiences and shared understandings of practice, as one said: 'The thing is that I say something, just two or three words, with Elena and she understands. With other people, even university people who haven't been part of this group, I have to explain myself.' Beyond the professional, the personal impact was often transformative too, creating a new sense of possibilities for project participants ('I learnt to swim at 40, I learnt to drive and now I am learning Turkish') and those around them.... Of course, change may not be without tensions, an 'inside struggle', reinforcing the lesson that one cannot underestimate the time needed for significant shifts in practice to be assimilated into an individual's professional frame of reference; and, as the narratives in this chapter show, for impact of an innovation to be felt in other parts of the education system.

Extract from Chapter 13 ‘'My life changed when I saw that notice': an analysis of the long-term impact of a continuing professional development programme in Bulgaria’

Personal development and 'life-changing' events

Part of my rationale to conduct this research was to explore what lay behind the comment which I had heard from time to time that the project had changed people's lives. Interestingly, this view was articulated unprompted in a number of interviews, for example:

I underestimated myself in many ways. I wasn't ambitious to make a career. But [through the project] I realised that relationships helped you. (Sara)

Yola talks about how, because of the project, she became inspired to learn new things, and continues to do so even now:

I learned to swim at 40, I learned to drive and now I am learning Turkish.

This inspiration to continue learning even spread to her family:

This [project] changed my life. So when my husband, for example, got involved in new things, it was thanks again to the fact that I encouraged him to do this. So at some point he combined computers with language teaching and now he has a better job than me.

Gail also feels that joining the cohort of trainers changed her life:

Actually, I think a single event which happened in the university changed my life significantly. And this event is when I saw a notice on the noticeboard saying that British Council Sofia is organising a kind of teacher-training course and anybody can apply.

Career progression and professional development

As mentioned in the preceding section, many of the participants were not aware of the exact nature of the trainer training and how it might impact on their lives and professional development. These reflective comments indicate that:

I somehow didn't foresee at that time the impact ... because I just thought I was going to some kind of seminar or something, it wasn't quite clear that it would be such a big thing that would develop. (Yola)

I had really no idea about what was going to happen, and whether I would stay there, I really did it quite accidentally. It was just somebody mentioning the project and encouraging us to try. We'll see whether there's something for us there. (Sara)

For some trainers the change to what was, to all intents and purposes, a new way of thinking and behaving, was quite shocking, although the team became very supportive towards each other.

It was Maria, if you remember her [...] while we stayed at the centre she supported and helped me. And later on I appreciated the fact that I had the courage to stay on. At some point I was on the verge of giving it up because I thought it was very difficult, I couldn't understand. (Yola)

As the training progressed it was clear that not only did we need to train more trainers in terms of the methodology of training, but time also needed to be spent on other areas of professional development such as materials design, syllabus development and issues around testing. Although not initially part of the intended outcome of the project, this broad foundation proved invaluable later on for some of the trainers who moved to different areas of training. For example, Vera found that when she moved to teaching in a medical university she was able to use her previous experience to help design a new syllabus and create materials, as she explains:

This teacher-training period helped me a lot in materials design and programme design and syllabus design. When we were about to train teachers, we had to design our own materials and somehow the fact that I always was used to sitting down in front of a white sheet of paper and writing down the plan of the seminar or the plan of the course, it helped me a lot, planning the syllabus for nurses, for midwives for pharmacy students as well.

Over a period of time the new trainers became respected and were asked more and more to deliver teacher-training programmes, as Syria said:

At some point I realised that quite a few people in quite a few places all over Bulgaria, had heard about me, I was known, I became known to many people. And I felt great about it.

Others took part in research projects, while many took up lectureship and professor posts in Bulgarian universities. In some cases the enthusiasm with which some of the trainers devoted themselves to the teacher-training programme and other associated professional development programmes meant that they neglected their own academic careers. In one or two cases some very expert trainers and methodologists did not get promotion because they had not devoted their time working towards a doctorate, which was required in the system. However, all the trainers in that position felt that instead they had developed professionally, as these comments demonstrate:

I would separate professional development and career development, because in terms of promotion, getting higher in the hierarchy, there's not much, not really, very minor; in terms of professional development and development as a person who deals with other professionals - a lot. The career development is perhaps personal. Because we had the option not to become PhDs we didn't, because it was not a university where you were required to grow in the hierarchy and have a PhD almost from the start. We were encouraged to do research work and develop like that but it was not so forceful. So we focused on teaching and good professional teaching. (Syria)

I don't think I would have gone this way without the British Council, definitely. I would probably have gone on teaching probably. Think of our colleagues who did not do any teacher training when we joined the university, some of them never did any teacher training, some of them just continued lecturing. They didn't become involved in many projects. Others wrote PhD projects. I didn't. This is a very sensitive subject ... I mean academically there is probably something more to be done. (Sveti)

The immediate result from the trainer-training programme and CPD programme, when funding was gradually withdrawn, was for the trainers to take it upon themselves to continue with their own professional development. Some did this via research, others through developing new courses at universities and colleges, others via writing, following up initial contacts and getting involved in new projects, as we see here:

And actually it was this event [undertaking the trainer training] which triggered off a chain of events. After that, the first thing I did, I established some contacts, and then I applied on an individual TEMPUS project, the same place in two year's time. Again, the University of Leeds, and again ESP area. It was a very successful one. I also established some contacts there with people at the university and I managed to publish my first article on Suggestopedia. (Gail)

Yola also commented that the project enabled her to learn a new way of doing things:

First of all I learnt things from you - how to write an article, for example. Nobody before that had ever told me how to approach a piece of writing, so these things are all things that I later on used in my job. All the seminars that we had in this project were very useful because they had practical aspects so this gave me the literacy for teaching in general.

Extract from ‘Innovations in the continuing professional development of English language teachers’ (A Wiseman, p309 - 312).

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