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"Do-It-Yourself" Teacher Training
Be Open to Learning Opportunities Where You Are, Says Gabriel Skop

Gabriel SkopGabriel Skop received his Masters degree from the School for International Training and has taught on both coasts, as well as in the United Arab Emirates. His most recent teaching assignment was with the College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California, and he is also a radio disc jockey at KCLA FM, playing everything "from Arab dance music to the Sonic Youth to Quebecois hip-hop to Nat King Cole," in his words. In the following article, Mr. Skop offers practical suggestions for how we as teachers can continually improve.

A colleague says, “Most of us teach the way we did in our second year of teaching, no matter how long we’ve been doing it.” Our first year in the classroom was where we learned the nuts and bolts of the job, and if we felt relatively comfortable by our second year, our teaching became formulaic. Certainly, educators find conferences provide new ideas, but one can be so overwhelmed by all the ideas and materials collected that it is hard to know where to begin.

When teaching, I try to foster an environment in which all of my students are teachers as well, on the premise that you never learn more thoroughly than when you have to explain what you know to someone else. In that same spirit, I believe that all teachers are, in fact, teacher trainers. With that idea in mind, I offer the following low-tech, low-red tape strategies for developing your own teaching.

1. Journaling

Writing about our teaching can help us understand what works and what doesn’t. To be most effective, choose just one class for journal-keeping. It is best if this class is followed by a break, so you can start writing immediately, while everything is fresh in your mind. Initially, choose a finite period of time for journal-keeping (e.g., two weeks). When that ends, re-read what you have written, to get an overview of what is taking place in your classroom.

Consider responding to these questions in your teaching journal:

-What was successful in my class today? How do I measure success in my class? (high test scores? student laughter? feedback after class?) How can I build upon the success we experienced today?
-What did not go well? What were the individual steps in that activity? What changes could I make to bring about an improved result?
-How do I communicate my goals to the students? To what extent are students involved in determining these goals? What kinds of formal and informal student assessment did I engage in today? How does this assessment relate to the learning goals the students have?
-Think about the practical aspects: How do the seating arrangements, wall displays, and lighting serve the teaching and learning? Are changes in order?

2. Brown Bag Meetings

We may read professional journals, but it is not always easy to incorporate this new information into our lesson plans. Meet with colleagues once a month, to translate this knowledge into action.

Suggestions for structuring the meetings:

-Have everyone read the same article beforehand, and come with strategies for implementing new techniques.
-Distribute a particular challenge you are experiencing in the classroom, and all come prepared with problem-solving ideas.
-Turn meetings into mini-workshops; colleagues rotate the responsibility for demonstrating a new method or explaining recent research.

3. “Can you teach this for me?”

Most of us have one area we enjoy teaching less than others (pronunciation? paragraph organization?). Take that lesson you are struggling with, and ask a trusted colleague to teach it so you can observe, either with her students or with yours. Think of this as watching a TV cook preparing something familiar in a new way.

4. Virtual colleagues

With Internet access, thousands of fellow teachers are nearby. Websites such as Dave’s ESL Café (www.eslcafe.com) have discussion threads on all aspects of teaching. In addition, your alma mater should have an e-mail list you can join, where you can post teaching questions and get replies from all over the world.

5. Walk a mile in their shoes

Nothing shook up my teaching like the four-week intensive Arabic-language course I took in Tunis. Prior to the course, I had thought of myself as a strong language learner, but here I was falling behind rapidly, not understanding the instructor, and frustrated by her technique, which included the introduction of a couple of hundred new vocabulary words daily, and little or no review the following day. I kept hoping to have things repeated, but it never happened. This gave me tremendous insight into my own teaching, the frustrations my students experience, and ways to improve that I might not have learned in a teacher training course. Register for a foreign language class, especially one you have not studied before, and one with a non-Roman script, so you can experience a fuller range of difficulties your students routinely encounter.

Make your teaching more effective. Take the first step now. You will have both a more productive classroom and a new community of teacher educators.

Story by Gabriel Skop
Los Angeles, California

2002 ESL MiniConference Online