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:
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:
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 :)…