An excerpt from my trainer-in-training diary

I wrote the below in April 2014 towards the end of my ‘trainer-in-training’ process during which I shadowed trainers on CELTA courses (as well as between courses, performing admin duties, applicant interviews, etc.) in both Boston and New York. Part of the requirements was to submit written reflections on the experience, and what’s just below is part of the final ‘wrap-up’ portion, taking stock. I’m posting this excerpt here because in it I reflect on (and perhaps continue to embody in the process) some of my own ‘muddles’ and ‘maxims’ as I entered the professional space of the 4-week initial teacher training certificate course as a..gulp!?!…trainER! 😉 I hope it’s worth a skim. 

Note: TPFB = teaching practice feedback & GLP = guided lesson planning.

*****

Things I believed going in

I went in to my trainer-in-training program with my own experience as a CELTA trainee as part of my personal schema. I completed the CELTA course in 2005 in Bangkok, Thailand and have very clear memories of certain things from that experience:

  • It was extremely intense; it sometimes felt like I was ‘doing the impossible’. I fell ill during the 3rd week because of a lack of sleep and time/energy to eat healthfully
  • My tutors appeared extremely knowledgeable and resourceful and I had the utmost respect and admiration for them
  • TP was extremely nerve-wracking
  • Involvement in others’ TPFB was clearly very beneficial
  • One tutor was really nice; the other tutor seemed mean but also wise
  • I had very little sense of what constituted appropriate pedagogical materials for my later TP lessons
  • I was extremely enthusiastic and found most of my peers to be similarly ‘into it’
  • The trainee grouped ‘gelled’ easily – many were abroad for the first time

I drew upon this personal experience throughout my T-in-T program in order to empathize with and understand the trainees and attempt to give them the most helpful and timely advice during the course. However, I also found it necessary to hold back on saying certain things that I realized wouldn’t necessarily make sense at a particular stage of the course. As an MA TESOL graduate, I also have a strong sense of (and a certain enthusiasm about) SLA theory. Early on I found myself sometimes referring to things like interlanguage or L1 Interference when discussing something with a trainee. I quickly realized that I was speaking a foreign language and confusing the trainees rather than being helpful as I’d intended.

Because of the cognitive and affective ‘weight’ of the CELTA’s requirements on the trainees, the language that we use to guide and respond to trainees needs to well ‘graded’, similarly in some ways to how we ‘grade’ our speech for EFL classes. Otherwise we run the risk of overwhelming them. Each week and/or ‘stage’ of the course can be looked at as a distinct developmental phase, and trainers must be mindful not to push trainees too fast (or two slow). I tried to draw on my memories of being a trainee in order to gauge this myself and observe how the trainers on the course dealt with the challenges of their trainees.

My own experience of getting as much out of TPFB time as I got from any other part of the course seemed to be reflected in what I saw from trainees during my T-in-T experience. It was clear that trainees both depended on these sessions to fully process their progress and understanding of how the materials presented and practiced in input sessions could be understood in the context of their own classroom practice and the real classroom environment.

I also witnessed several different trainers interacting with trainees, and noticed a diversity in the personality and character of these different trainees’ interaction styles. Some came across as ‘good cop’ and others ‘bad cop’; some seemed particularly ‘nice’ while others more ‘tough’. I thought that amongst these different styles no one was ideal; each trainer simply brought a different brand of the same tools to the task. I found myself rejecting the simplistic ‘good cop + bad cop’ dichotomy as particularly useful. Though my memories of my two course tutors in 2005 roughly followed that narrative, the more I think of it, their particular roles were much sometimes reversed, and being ‘nice’ could go with greater challenge, while being ‘tough’ could produce ‘easier’ results.

Things that changed – how and why

Many of my thoughts and beliefs at the beginning of my T-in-T program changed or altered over the course of the four weeks. Three of the most important perceptions that experienced big shifts were 1) how much material is appropriate to present in a single input session 2) the amount of direct constructive criticism that is ideal in TPFB at different stages of the course and 3) how much explicit help to provide trainees during GLP sessions

1. The realistic and limited scope of single input sessions:

My first of three input sessions was on error correction. I over planned this session with multiple unnecessary stages which resulted in far less time at the end of practice and a focus on how the trainees can apply the skills in their TP lessons. I realized that input sessions need to be limited in scope in order to be more effective. Trainees are building skills and knowledge relatively slowly and deliberately with each passing day of the course. No one input session will produce a paradigm shift all by itself. I think my view of what a single input session could be grew both more realistic and more focused as I did my second and third observed inputs (and I believe this is reflected in the feedback from my trainer).

2. How much feedback is enough and not too much feedback?:

My mentor-trainer also focused on how I approached giving trainees feedback during TPFB. One of the key pieces of advice was avoiding past modals like ‘could’ve’ and ‘should’ve’ in TPFB so as to shift from a focus on past-oriented evaluation to future possibilities. I noticed immediately how I’d been framing my comments with this kind of language. Instead, she explained, frame feedback in terms of future action: ‘You can…’ and ‘You’ll be able to…’. It took a few days, but eventually I was able to mold how I framed my advice to maintain that orientation. Of course, that was the perspective I’d been intending all along, but my ‘default’ language of facing backwards while thinking forwards was blurring it. I found this extremely helpful, and have been constantly experimenting with ever more explicitly shaping the types of words and phrasings I use in feedback to make it do what I want it do to.

3. Inspiring effective lesson planning in GLP without ‘overhelping’:

The way I interacted with trainees during GLP also shifted over the four weeks. Some of my initial ‘overhelping’ impulse likely stemmed from simply being enthused about the chance to assist. I’ve always liked getting and receiving help and cooperation around lesson planning in staff rooms and with colleagues. This enthusiasm led me to sit down with some trainees and rush a bit, not patiently prompting them to bounce their own ideas around more and flesh out what they were planning while only giving minimal explicit ideas or correction. I started sentences with things like “Well, what I would do is….” and “An even better idea would be to…” which I would later catch myself and stop myself from saying. Additionally, I found that trainees often got quite far along in their planning without listening to their audio materials or reading through a text carefully. I began to use some of this GLP time to prompt trainees to do this – sometimes we did it together. I’d also suggest trainees ‘complete’ the lesson materials themselves and ‘watch themselves’ as they did it, thinking of anticipated problems of different types, including procedural. Many trainees were unaware that they could adapt and modify the TP materials they were working with for specific purposes and to enhance the effectiveness of the materials in their specific classroom context.

Things I believed coming out

I felt that I had a much more grounded perspective on both the typical trainee’s behavior and feelings over the course of the four weeks (and lots of feelings expressed in cooperative kidding, in-jokes, and ongoing dialogues between trainee groups that seemed to work as coping strategies) and the ways in which experienced trainers meet the trainees’ needs at different stages of the course. I’d like to highlight three of my major ‘takeaways’ from my T-in-T experience here:

  • Input sessions should typically include some kind of direct, applicable teaching and/or process practice time. For example, in an input session on Grammar and the LA sheet, trainees should have at the opportunity to work together (or alone) to take a grammar point and work through a language analysis process.
  • Trainees should exploit humor and similar social strategies as much as possible to help trainees cope with affective aspects of the intensive course experience.
  • The more trainers are aware of the content and focus of the other trainers’ input sessions and feedback, the better.

Key areas to work on

First, I need to continue to work on drawing from my knowledge of SLA, etc. while finding effective ways of ‘translating’ concepts for beginning-level teachers in training and containing my advice more exclusively to actionable techniques within the scope of the nine TP lessons the trainees do over the course of the four CELTA weeks.

Second, I need to make sure I survey and review as much existing input session materials on each subject as thoroughly as possible. There are so many good models and well-developed materials on my center’s trainer’s room shelves.

Thirdly, I need to become more familiar with the TP Points sets that we use. So I can better anticipate more of the particular issues that the trainees come up against when planning for specific TP lessons.

Fourthly, it will help if I continue to hone my approach to TP to be all the more constructive and productive for my TP group. It will help to continue to talk to other trainers about their own approach to TPFB and also continue to fill-out reflective forms on my FB like I did during my training program.

Finally, I know that I am sometimes so enthusiastic that I wear myself a bit thin. I need to wisely contain and direct my energy so that I don’t experience ‘burnout’ as a trainer and stay balanced and consistent as I grow into my job and role with Teaching House.

What I’d tell a future trainer-in-training

Five things: be highly flexible over the course of the trainer training itself, don’t be shy to ask questions of your supervising trainer(s), pay attention to the moments ‘in between’ official sessions to learn how both trainers and trainees think and feel on the job, be honest about your challenges and help your trainers help you where you need it more, and finally, enjoy it! You only get to train up once.

*****

Thus ends the excerpt. Dear reader, I hope you found reading that in some way interesting. How, I wonder, does the excerpt as a whole and/or any specific part of it connect to something in your experience, either as a trainer or a teacher or just a person?  Please do leave a comment with any thoughts, questions, or prompts…and I’ll be sure (and thrilled) to read and respond!

PS – as I looked around the files where I found the above document (I’d almost forgotten about it and was so glad to have found it this morning!), I also found the ‘T-in-T Competencies’ list below, specific standards and expectations for the trainer-in-training process according to Cambridge ESOL:

T in T info

So we could we could view this as a list of  ‘maxims’ which underpin what is thought to make a ‘trainer’. It’s interesting to read side-by-side with this old blog post by Tony Gurr which was recently tweeted (back) out by MG:

gurr tweet

Needless to say I ‘passed’ my T-in-T program with solid assessments from my supervising trainer (or perhaps it’s not needless to say: I’ve certainly heard of folks not making it through, and/or doing it more than once before Cambridge agreed to grant them status).

Right now I’d say two of my current relative strengths are #3 on the top list: “sensitivity to trainee needs and ability to adapt the program accordingly”, as I always try to adapt my input sessions, etc. to the specific group in some way and #5 on the bottom list: “give feedback on teaching practice appropriately and sensitively (according to different personality types and stages of the course)”, as I try hard to identify how to best ‘voice’ feedback to different trainees based on both what I perceive about their personality type but also (more recently) getting them to express preferences (not just to me but to their peers) about how they receive it (extra direct, slowly so I can record it, not to much at once, etc.)

Anyway, I’m going to keep looking over my T-in-T writing above and reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m headed as a trainer. Stay tuned and don’t be shy with comments! 

Finally, two pics taken in Boston and NYC while I did my T-in-T for the CELTA (and just because I always try to include some visuals in blogposts):

..and a *BONUS* shot: a picture of a whiteboard in a room being used for DELTA Module 2 in NYC. I think it was the last day of the course and the participants had certain plans for the evening :)…

IMG_0469

8 thoughts on “An excerpt from my trainer-in-training diary

  1. Hi Matthew
    Thank you for the post — I enjoyed reading how you are reflecting at a (bigger) distance and looking back at the very first course(s) as a trainer (in training). I am actually ‘playing’ with an idea to create a course for tutors/trainers of trainers, and reading this post was though-provoking to me. My question here is what would tell your tutors if you had a chance to offer feedback (to the ‘nice’ tutor, and to the ‘wise’ one)? It might be a whole other topic though…

    Now, you asked which part of the initial post connects to something in my experience as a trainer. To me, it is the part about ‘Inspiring effective lesson planning in GLP without ‘overhelping’. From my experience of working in several different contexts/cultures, it is often an intuitive decision to be made as to when to step back and give space, and when to offer help. The sentences you gave as example ‘starters’ might be useful for me if I give more than one options/ideas, to offer a choice and to show that there are really no ‘right’ answers out there. I find the word ‘guided’ a bit misleading (if this is what ‘G’ stands for), as well as ‘assisted’ planning though, especially if there are experienced teachers on a course. Again, this is probably a good topic for another post to explore in more depth (thank you for making me think in this direction!)

    Looking forward to reading (and turning!) Muddles into Maxims posts more!
    Zhenya

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, Zhenya! Briefly (b/c it’s bedtime, but I’ll be sure to return for more): yes, the ‘G’ stands for ‘guided’. I’ve seen ‘A’ as in assisted, and also, I think, ‘MLP’ (?) but now I can’t figure what that means now! Managed lesson planning?? Hmmm…

    As for my own good cop/bad cop trainers, I really don’t think I’d change a thing…they were both effective, and while I used the word ‘mean’, I’m not sure that for ME that’s how I saw him. He was like Simon Cowell in that he simply was not interested in pretending around mediocrity, and just told you straight what you needed to hear. Not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure.

    Anyway, much more to think over and respond to here. I’ll be back!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On the topic of trainers’ personality-types, have you seen Jo Gakonga’s presentation ‘Strictly Come CELTA’? I was reminded by my own Simon Cowell reference above. The slides are here: http://www.slideshare.net/JGakonga/strictly-come-celta-iatefl-2015

    And as much as I try, I can’t pin myself down in terms of the 4 judges there. I suppose I want to be flexible, I want to be the type of trainer that different circumstances require. Of course I can’t escape my own ‘settings’ or personality type, but I can try to be mindful about acting and reacting ‘too nice’ or ‘too strict’ or ‘too mean’ or whatever.

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    1. Thank you for the link – enjoyed the presentation. Have a similar show in Ukraine (and googled Simon Cowell 😉 ) I don’t think I could find ‘my type’ in the four – well, perhaps that’s the difference between the talent show and a TT course? On another note: in the courses I deliver there is no ‘grading’ in numbers, and that has some effect on the feedback/communication with the participants on a course. I like this discussion, and the idea for this blog! Keep writing! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Matthew, I read this a while back on Sandy Millin’s -great- advice and bookmarked it to read it nearer the time of my own TinT. So after spending the summer preparing for it, today I had my first meeting with the tutors doing the course I’ll be trained on, starting tomorrow. Thank you for sharing your reflection. Here are some thoughts your writing prompted:
    – ‘good cop vs. bad cop’ is also something I experienced in my CELTA in 2008; I had great respect for them both and often wondered which I’d rather be. Still do. The again, I’m not sure it’s something we choose.
    – ‘ Strength: rapport and adapting material; bottom of the list: giving feedback appropriately’ – I can see how that could be me. Let’s see in 4 weeks!
    – Love the five things you’d tell a future trainer! Noted. Especially this, ‘be honest about your challenges and help your trainers help you where you need it more’.
    Will visit Tony Gurr’s now.
    Thanks again for all the tips!
    Hada

    Liked by 2 people

  5. “The more trainers are aware of the content and focus of the other trainers’ input sessions and feedback, the better.” Yes, yes, yes! I worked on a course once where my fellow trainer was quite protective of what they’d done in input sessions, and when I asked they were reluctant to tell me. They also got defensive when I wanted to see the handouts. This was frustrating, as it was only because I wanted to know what lesson frameworks they’d introduced to the trainees!
    Apparently I recommended this to Hada to read, but just read it again as if it was the first time. I’ve also just noticed I’d bookmarked it already, which must have been where I found it to recommend it 🙂 Glad I got to read it again though, as it comes another two CELTA courses down the line since you wrote it, and the reflection is always different!
    I’d say my strengths are good organisational and presentational skills, and enthusiasm and motivation. My weakness is still giving feedback, which I wrote a post about yesterday that I know you’ve seen!
    Thanks again for sharing this,
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for reading, Sandy! Based directly on trainee feedback (specifically quoted from a recent group, but aren’t atypical) my strengths are: “enthusiasm (about teaching, students, and linguistics)”, “spiritual maturity”, “personal investment”, and “support-giving”, “sense of humor”.

    One of my favorite trainee comments: “your references are always relevant, but also nerdy…which is great because we’re nerds too!”.

    RE: feedback..I too struggle with it. I’ll say this: I was relieved to hear Jo Gakonga, in her most recent video on ‘observation’ on teacherfeedback.org, admit that after 15 years she also still struggles! Whew…

    I’m excited to contribute to that project, by the way…all the tabs are open and ready for me to add my comments on both the main videos there. Already some really nice sharing going on. And also to the thing you proposed elsewhere today. 🙂

    In that vein: I got some nice positive feedback from an assessor recently. He commented on my “coinage” – how I used/created novel ways to describe things in my feedback. He mentioned one that stuck with him, “the fruits of monitoring”…I guess from a comment about how someone did well giving specific, responsive feedback on a certain activity (or perhaps missed the chance to) because of what they’d picked up from actively monitoring the learners during the task.

    My colleague concurred: I’m constantly describing things in novel ways on the course.

    I hadn’t really thought about it all that much, but from this feedback I realized it is something I should probably be more conscientious about. After all, I can also clearly recognize times where my ‘playing fast and loose’ with descriptive, sometimes quite playfully so, language to give feedback or explain something in input or give guidance can be confusing and vague for trainees. So it’s something that can affect my work both ways.

    So I’ve started out my inquiry wondering…what other kind of “Matthewisms” might be in play, and do they, in fact, perform a function? Upon reflection, I see that my aim is for my feedback to be as memorable, almost meme-like, as possible. I’m thinking of catchy phrases, meme-like maxims, if you will, that I’ve heard other trainers use (and have promptly stolen) such as “task before text”. Perhaps I should try to ‘capture’ more of these more conscientiously for efficient use – because beyond the ‘set’ ones I find myself repeating, they tend to just pop up…then make way for the next.

    Perhaps that’s an essential aspect of the nature of my style of feedback: there’s an element of spontaneity that can’t – shouldn’t – be routinized. I think that’s a strength: that what trainees are getting from me as “enthusiasm” and “passion” is this very ‘live’, non-routinized kind of talk I contribute. I mean, sometimes in feedback I’ll literally shed a tear over a great moment in a class, or shout out about how important something is.

    Anyway, to wrap up this little note (and I’m drafting a blogpost about it, so this is just more brainstromitude)…here’s one trainee’s response when asked to recount some specific bit of feedback from me that made an impression in a way that meant they could ‘quote’ it.

    He mentioned my saying: “the pacing problems cut off the cherry on top” referring to crunching out the time for freer practice of language in a systems lesson. He said that the “cherry on top” image helped him have a better felt sense of the ‘reward’ waiting for the students at the end of the lesson when they get to really ‘sink their teeth into’ the the language taught in a more active and/or creative way. Sweet! 😉

    Anyway, as always…so glad to be in conversation with the likes of you about this kind of stuff!

    Like

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