I have been a teacher trainer/educator, town department of education methodologist, unofficial mentor and author for many years. As I came to work at school after a decade of university lecturing and some years at Columbia College - Columbia University Alumni Affairs Office, in addition to being the only Ph.D. out of a hundred staff, I was asked by the district authorities to conduct several courses for the local EL teachers during my very first year at school. Since I had my own three children at school I could not very well say “No” to any extra tasks. Fortunately I liked sharing and helping my colleagues; what might have been a chore still is one of my favorite jobs. The feedback was enormous, it helped me learn in the process. City and region teachers always accept me as one of them, but also as a person who had a lot of experience in various spheres, and whose English is very good. Here are some of the problems and the solutions I found quite effective.
Many teachers, especially the older ones, were and still are taught in their native language. Thus they have a language barrier. They find it difficult to speak spontaneously, they have a horror of making mistakes in front of others, specifically visitors from the English-speaking countries. The first time a sixty-two-year-old teacher with forty years of ELT behind her asked me how to overcome the barrier, I had no idea what to say. Partly it happened because frankly I had no idea that many teachers used primarily their own language at their lessons! At home, I played with my kids - and thought back on how I taught them to speak. Next day, I conducted a test which showed the expected results: all my listeners could read, translate and write well. Speaking and listening were at about 10%. I told them that the proof of the pudding was in its eating; in other words, if they wished to speak, they must do just that. I had to remind each group in the upcoming years that there were no grades, no shame in making mistakes; and assured them again and again that I would not tell anybody about their shortcomings.
We listened to dialogues from textbooks for beginners. First they simply repeated everything, with my help; then they constructed their own dialogues and little monologues. Practically everybody had good vocabularies, solid knowledge of grammar, and they were all eager to communicate. This has not changed in the twenty five years, we teachers are communicable by nature, sharing is what we do as professionals. I take care to praise each and every one for every little success achieved.
I believe I was very lucky because my school career started together with the amazing progress of the internet at the end of the 1990’s. When the well-known philanthropist George Soros visited our English-speaking school in Siberia and donated a fully-equipped internet class, I began learning all I could and teaching both students and teachers the new skills. I found IEARN ( International Education and Resource Network based in New York) on the web, realized that its main office was located in the very same building I used to work at while living in the USA, and contacted them. I was advised to choose a project which was interesting for me and my students and email the coordinator. Thus Judy Barr of IEARN - Australia became my own mentor. Thanks to her I completed the first international project with my students who benefited immensely both from the new technology and from communicating with the whole wide world. During my next course of lectures and seminars for the city teachers I shared the experiences, taught my colleagues the necessary technical skills, helped them establish contacts and go on to fulfill their own projects.
I met many wonderful teachers around the globe, took part in a large number of projects, eventually became my own country representative at various events. All this became new material for the new courses, for sharing and helping others.
Teachers do not only discuss the lessons, the students, the current topics. Each person has his or her own interests, hobbies and desires. One of the most fruitful and effective techniques for better training session is simple: rather than follow a strict plan I would listen to my colleagues and introduce a session on the topic they asked for. For two decades, one of the most popular requests is “Non-traditional lexis”, or four-letter-words. As a student at Moscow University I was lucky to have a very talented British instructor who taught us how to swear correctly in English; he gave us an expression for every letter of the alphabet. I can still do it forward and backwards, from A to Z and from Z to A. That is a very useful exercise, especially when you are feeling frustrated. And yes, those workshops are conducted behind closed doors.
During the same first year of my work at school, I became an unofficial mentor to my younger colleagues. It so happened that one evening as I was leaving I saw a newcomer teacher who was sitting alone in a corner sobbing. It turned out that she got severely reprimanded by a deputy headmaster; she was convinced that she would be fired. I told her quietly that nobody would fire her because, a) she was a young specialist and the school was obliged to keep her; b) at the time our salaries were delayed, people were leaving education in droves, there were no substitutes; c) I would tell the said deputy that I was going to mentor her. And so it continues. Younger colleagues often flock around me. I would say that with them, all that is needed is a kind word and moral support. They all are tech savvy, all have a good knowledge of EL and the desire to work.
When I get a professional beginner group, these are the three “whales”, the never-ending problems: discipline; motivation; how to talk with parents who are all older than the beginner teachers. To all of these questions I give the same answer. Be professional. Love what you do. Inspire by example. See every class not as a mass but as individuals. Treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.