Somewhere on the Path
My friend Anne Hendler recently wrote:
“As a teacher, I am somewhere on the path of my professional journey. I don’t know if I’m closer to where I started or to where I’ll end up. I don’t know if the road is straight or winding. Sometimes I am convinced I am walking backwards. I have seen others in places on their own path that I recognize as places I’ve passed. And I have seen many more people in places I do not recognize at all, but I guess when I get there, I will understand. I try not to make assumptions about any of these people in spite of my own beliefs because I know them not to be engraved in granite.”
(quoted from the comment thread here)
I find that if I keep my ears perked, someone somewhere is beautifully articulating exactly how I feel. Sometimes I want to paint my own picture; other times it feels better to paste others’ words on my canvas – words which represent my experience and affirm that so much experience is shared.
Emptying the Room
I’m sitting here in my 95% emptied-out office wanting to write some reflections on my experience as a teacher trainer (thus far) and related things. Gosh, I do like the minimalism in here right now! I’m going to try to take this comfort with less with me where I go. I will admit that I built some impressive piles o’ papers and managed to overfill some document draws so that when you pulled the drawer out far enough, it just fell down to the floor. My colleague here even referred to me as a “hoarder”! Somewhere between two and seven times over the final 12-month period! This was a first. And a clear message to be, perhaps, just a bit more like your Japanese shrine cat in its natural habitat, giving zero fucks.
*As I pop back up to the beginning here later and insert/expand (which I do throughout this post, but without necessarily signal it with these asterisks)* I can say that this post turns out to be just as much about reflection itself and especially my experience, over the same span of time I’ve been a teacher-trainer, as a person very actively engaged with an online ELT PLN and how that has been (it’s been great). Thinking about it now, it’s clear that these two things – training work and active PLNing – really have played out en parallèle.
So…[sighing]…here I am at this largely cleared off desk with its largely cleared out drawers (I couldn’t find a pen to write with at one point yesterday) just bloggin’ it out with all these changes and movement going on in lil’ newbie’s lil’ life. The central change I wrote about a week and a half ago: my current position as a full-time CELTA tutor here in Seattle, WA is coming to an end. There be domino numero uno. I wrote about being in a transitional state professionally and geographically and kinda sorta spiritually, too. I also weirdly confessed the age at which I lost my virginity [DEAD LINK]. But yeah, I really don’t know if I’ll continue as a CELTA tutor moving into the future. If you asked me how I felt about that, I might say something like:
“Well…part of me would like nothing more than to carry on doing precisely what I’ve been doing here in some new location. It’s been so. much. fun. But…but other parts of me really do yearn for some pattern changes and energy shifts. This is how it’s always been with me, you know. I’m not the type to cut one deep groove; for better and for worse, I tend to cut winding paths out and around and sometimes back in. It’s not that I don’t put my heart into what I’m doing – not at all. But something new – even just the potential for it – is what, for me, enlivens what’s here. The call, whether I answer it or not, echoes in me. But without the fade. It’s like that cup of morning coffee. It makes the second-hand tick a bit louder. It makes momentum. Even if you’re just sitting there, watching the wind blow. Oh…hold up…are you still recording this? Now I’m rambling a bit – I’ll stop now.”
I might be just a teeny tiny bit like Calvin.
Whatever my next steps (or cliff falls) may be, it’s times like these that I’m impelled towards reflection.
Probing a Post
As I count it, I began this phase as a person-who-works-with-teachers-for-work on January 26th, 2014.
There are websites that tell you EXACTLY how long ago past points in time were. I put that date into one of them and got:
Which is when I posted “Five weeks ’til CELTA” to open up my my previous blog:
I think it’s pretty unlikely that this will be my last blogpost as a CELTA tutor, and definitely not as a teacher trainer in some way, but if it is or isn’t, I think it’s an act of what people go around calling “closure”. Maybe not like a regular door closing – more like a swinging door wagging down to stillness. Tump-tump-tump.
The idea is simple: connect back to my first blogpost on the topic and see where the lines and loop(s) between take me.
I wrote that I thought blogging would be both a ‘record’ and something that would be developmental. It turned out that blogging (and the tweeting, and the rest of it) did “help me through” and, I think, support my “development”. I can also say that feedback I received along the way suggested that blogging and connecting online also “provided some kind of light along the way for a fellow traveler”.
This makes me feel good! 🙂
Reason to Reflect
You know, this is, to me, a really important aspect of reflection: feeling good! Reflection often produces good feelings: pleasure, dare I say happiness. I wonder if this is even its most important product for me, and why I’ve always been so attracted to concepts and practices of reflection. Yeah, I think it is. Nevermind (I’m going with that as a single word – because Seattle) how analytical examinations of past decisions and actions and their results can supply me with actionable intel I can use in my present and future work in the classroom and courseroom; I want to feel good. Actually, I think this positive affect, this affirmative emotion might even do as much to inspire increasingly effective future action in my work as anything else.
Do that, dear reader, make sense?
I want to explore why it’s making sense to me to assert that. I think there’s a lot about this work (I mean the whole of ELT, including both language teaching and teacher learning, the career scaffolds or lack thereof, the societal perceptions, etc. all pressed into one big meatball) that is unsatisfactory. I don’t need to list all the things in this category, but they span across the spectrum from the macro to the micro, the external and internal, the professional and the personal. Here I’m reminded (as an avid reader of Buddhist texts) that my favorite English translation of the Pali term dukkha is “unsatisfactoriness” (not the usual “suffering”). This is known as the 1st of the ‘4 Noble Truths’ of Buddhism. Ok well I’m just gonna go ahead and call it The 1st Matthew Noble Truth of ELT.
Therefore, for me a big part of what’s needed – not unlike the in prescription recommended by the Buddha 2560 years ago (we’ll go with the Thai Buddhist calendar) – is some sukkha, or well-being, satisfactoriness. In Buddhism pleasure isn’t the end-all-be-all and doesn’t get you enlightened, but without it you can’t or won’t be in a place to do the other stuff that actually makes things better. Without enough of it, I feel like I don’t have a comfortable mental and emotional workspace to do the kinds of demanding intellectual work of teaching or any of the reflective exploratory practices we tend to lionize. Without really enjoying lessons myself (not just he lessons themselves, but having some functioning self-esteem for all of it), I can’t keep my head in the game enough to really sustain focused attention on what the learners specifically need when they do X. Without enough of this sukkha, what’s unsatisfying about being in ELT wins the day because I’m just not quite here for it.
Okay, now I’m sitting back and considering what I’ve written so far. Let’s see. The first thing I did when I read what I’d written – essentially to my future self – was to seek for some pleasure/satisfaction because that’s fuel for further inquiry. I was able to affirm that to a satisfactory degree the goals I had in mind (and in heart, I want to say) have been achieved. And that’s got me wanting to do more.
This does not lead me to feel pride per se. Pride feels like an ‘end state’, whereas this ‘pleasure’ in what’s been achieved is, I guess, more a ‘process state’ (is that a contradiction?). This is because, I think, I identified and wrote down those particular hopes and goals in the first place in order to set this very process in motion. I can’t reflect ‘backwards’ without having preflected ‘forward’ previously, in some way: simply by setting down in time a marker signal with an intention that I should revisit it in the future. And then my reflection on/response to this particular past marker signal here can itself become another one, for another iteration of reflective thought.
So, I’m looking at a reflection process as a cycle, just as it’s almost always illustrated…
…but with products that both feed right back into the cycle AND ones that are emitted out. I’ve learned that putting time and resources into (p)reflection helps me make and make the most of the pleasure to be found in work, as replete with unsatisfactoriness as it can be. Of course what I like about this work isn’t all the product of reflection – but some it of the best pleasures for me seem to be, well, kind of ‘secretions’ of various reflective projects (big and small, official and unofficial, concrete and only mental)…and sometimes, sometimes, it feels like reflection positively explodes with productivity when it involves layering, interconnecting, and deconstruction-reconstruction. *In fact, that’s sort of what I’m doing right now, I’ll remind you again dear reader, as I read back through my initial stream-of-consciousness draft writing here and draw links to other ‘reflective inflection points’ (i.e. these final two lines of this paragraph came later) and/or add headings, images, etc. that feel like enrichers.
4 years and 7 months ago, I also wrote that I thought I’d find working as a CELTA tutor to be “extremely challenging and complex”. That turned out to be true. You know who amazes me? Trainers who can tell you off the top of their heads what criteria point 1c or 4n or 5d is. Not only that, lucidly explain what each one means in just a way that fits the situation wherein explication is necessary. Who can finish written running feedback commentary on TP lessons 10 minutes before the last one ends. Who serve energetically as main course tutors through chemo treatments, showing up in Week 4 of a course with a brand new (and rather fabulous) wig like its nothing, ready for input. Who in 15 years have never use the same ‘find someone who’ fact twice and every one is a surprise. Who run excellent courses AND expertly train-up hapless newbies…
Well then. It’s happening here, as it happens quite often: reflection is leading to appreciation.
I always loved the word appreciation. I have a slightly odd anecdote about this: when I was a moody, rather pensive freshman in high school, I took the anarchy ‘A’ symbol and I claimed it for my own fledgling philosophy I called, simply, “Appreciation”.
Influenced primarily by Jack Kerouac’s ethos in ‘On the Road’ (which I read over and over again), the Tao of Pooh, and Chögyam Trungpa’s concept of “basic goodness” (which I was introduced to joining in my best friend’s family’s Buddhist traditions) among other things, I reasoned that no political or cultural revolution could be successful if people didn’t fully appreciate what was good about present conditions. And there was a kind of personal ethic to it – essentially, ‘accentuate the positive’ (did you know that the oft referenced, seemingly frivolous tune actually begins, “Gather ’round me while I preach some/Feel a sermon comin’ on me/The topic will be sin/And that’s what I’m agin/If you want to hear my story/Then settle back and just sit tight/While I start reviewing/The attitude of doing right”?).
I also liked how the word’s secondary meanings (see below) added much more depth. I’m pretty sure I wrote, in my teen-philospher’s journal, something about how the external ‘appreciation’ of wealth so central to the capitalist system made way for the internal appreciation of value. Or if I didn’t, I should have.
So, I want to express my Appreciation for the teachers and trainers I’ve met over the last few years. I could write another long blogpost just writing about each one and what I appreciate about them. The list would be long. And some (many?) of them, if they saw such a post, would likely have no idea how or why they made my list because they might simply be teachers in the same building who taught with their doors open in a hallway I frequently walked down, and so got regular second-long snapshots of a classroom in action. Those snapshots are great, but it’s also that the students who peeped me walking by, perhaps, saw the look in my fleeting but watchful eye that said, “there’s something valuable going on in there”, so some of those instances of distraction could have been instances of positive affirmation, too.
If I operate under the assumption that I’m always somehow influencing something and being influenced by something in some way or another, I can keep that ‘morning coffee’ mindfulness going more. An open classroom door. Micro-eye contact. Laughter through a classroom wall.
So, yes – very small things can (and should) get you on the list. 🙂
Listen up, read up, feel good
As I read that old inaugural blogpost above yet further, I see me mentioning reading (on blogs) and listening to other teachers (in person) as being part of what led me to where I was at that point, and something would continue to feed the cycle of action in my anticipated future of teacher training. Well, reading other teacher’s blogs recently is certainly what made me want to get back to posting a bit more right now. Listening to teacher-talk in a staffroom is why I’ve been occasionally but regularly eating my lunch in the teacher’s space of the language center where my CELTA program is housed. So it seems that’s still a thing.
I’m realizing the amount of study and interest I took in Buddhism during my 20s in particular just can’t be shaken off, dammit, because now I’m reminded of something from that particular wellspring yet again. I guess it’s kind of like my personal ‘Aesop’s Fables’; there’s one for everything. Here’s something the scholar-monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote in a piece called ‘Humility’:
Which in turn connects me to what Marc wrote about a couple of days ago at the end of a blogpost called “You can lead a horse to water…”:
Should I attempt to talk about teaching beliefs and philosophy? I have no idea. I only know I’ve done almost all I can.
The colleague he describes in that post (which you really should read if you haven’t already!) demonstrated a kind of superstubborness in regards to effortful development and clearly isn’t in touch with that sense of humility along with which comes a sincere “willingness to learn from the little things, no matter where they show themselves”.
It’s clear Marc has done a heck of a lot to assist this person; this is where the things that would help have shown themselves. But it seems fruitless, and Marc was feeling a bit deflated. There are some wonderful replies in the comments on that post. I guess for my part I’d want to suggest to Marc that he try to find his own pleasure and satisfaction in those extended efforts to assist this teacher, no matter what the ultimate outcome is…not only because he likely deserves a nice little pat on the back and all that, but also because (as above) I think that the pleasure-satisfaction sometimes opens more/new spaces for thinking and acting. Reading that post, what’s made clear is how perceptive, empathetic, and knowledgable Marc is. Also, because he’s reflective, failed attempts at X can inform future attempts at X (or Y, or Z) just as much as successful ones.
Heh. I wonder if the advice above – not to ‘settle’ so much as ‘regroup’ – could almost be described as a psychological ‘survival tactic’ of the full-time CELTA trainer who experiences this kind of thing ‘in bulk’ as mostly willing trainees pile in and out of our lives one month at a time, the next group here shortly after the previous one departs, and you just can’t stay hung up on the ‘ones that got away’ despite everything telling you there’s this one more thing to try. 🙂
Facilitating the Feeling
There’s a research paper on “Gender and Optimism as Predictors of Novice ESOL Teaching Performance” and I don’t know if it’s the greatest piece of research or not but I like it, especially in regards to the functions of optimism:
That stuff rings so true. The fear of isolation – and indeed the experience of it – was what made me post over 20,000 times to my first ‘PLN’, the AjarnForum discussion board, during my first several years of teaching. My constant struggle with feelings of inadequacy (ask my wife how often I said anything good about my job performance. She’ll let you know: ไม่เคย!/never!) and “being overwhelmed” where the hallmarks the early days.
(Therefore?) that’s part of what has driven my attempts at a particularly emotionally supportive mentoring style on CELTA courses. I think what I’ve been trying to do matches what article suggests in the 2nd except below: engaging in focused, future-oriented practical problem solving as a coping tool while clearly acknowledging the negative feelings that arise situationally. I’ll never forgot my trainer-trainer asking me to compare the verb tenses, etc. she used with the ones I was using in my first shot at post-lesson feedback. And what I noticed about the differences between “You could have done…” and “You can do…”.
Also, hey – when was the last time you DIDN’T encounter “unique situations” as an ELT operator? Novelty is so common around here as to lose it’s meaning. If you’re tuned in and ready for it, yay. If/when you’re not….I neglected to highlight the sentence about burnout above but…my god sometimes it sure as hell has felt like EFCRBACSB up in here!
…Oh, you aren’t familiar with that particular acronym?
It stands for: Everything Follows from the Constant and Relentless Battle Against Creeping and then of course Sudden Burnout.
But: O is for Optimism:
I bet the 3 shillings which are my day’s takehome portion that humor factors into it, too. I’d say an important part of being ’emotionally supportive’ as mentioned above is offering the space of humor in the face of big stresses and doubts, things CELTA-takers are famously excellent at.
Also, I’d like to take a sentence from that excerpt and insert my words into it: “optimism could lead to more pleasure taken from teaching performance”.
I certainly think all that ‘negative stressor’ talk in the article applies nearly as much (hopefully not exactly as much, but maybe sometimes more than as much) to us non-novice teachers, and trainers, and well everyone really. But luckily my co-trainers in Boston and here in Seattle have been optimism-inspiring and supportive (and fun!). I’m actually thinking about this a lot right now as a potential job decision hinges mainly on the fact that there seems to be a certain factor that might spoil that environment’s “healthy manner”. So far, I think I’ve been lucky. Go go coastal states US CELTA scene! 🙂
Be a Maker
For me (and I think for a good number of people involved) the whole social media-based PLN is also absolutely a “social supportive resource” that can sometimes be difficult to fully maintain IRL. But if and when it is maintained IRL, the ‘virtual’ (but real indeed) side can add to and enrich it. And break the barrier between, as at conference tweetups and whoknowswhats (“meme-parties”, etc.!)…
As a teacher from 2004-2013 the discussion forum I mentioned was my ‘augmented-reality’ support. As a trainer from then until now, my social media ELT PLN has been.
So…I notice that my appreciative reflection here is through-and-through suffused with other people. It’s certainly not me staring at a reflection of me; I think as convenient as the metaphor is, reflection isn’t a mirror (it’s a well-cleaned window?). Hmmm. I think the RP guy (you know, with the ‘reflective practice’ hat?) himself, Thomas Farrell has, increasingly, been emphasizing the social, dialogic nature of fruitful reflection hasn’t he? If so, I’m encouraged. Because I’m not at all in the self-constructed, self-referential echo chamber here that he and others warn against…am I?..am I?….am I?……am I?……..
Even though I’m no social butterfly, I want to get and stay in dialogue with myself AND other teacher-people via whatever network works. This is why I’m pretty always interested in attending a conference. It’s not necessarily to talk with every person or be a particularly active networker, etc. it’s something more like maintaining an already established equilibrium wherein my personal professional imagination comes pre-populated by like a thousand other people. Including guys and gals with and without cool hats.
I do feel like I mentally manage a lot of type of ‘dialogue’ I’m talking about over longer-term spans, and fed by lots of different but connected inputs. But different threads have their mental ‘hashtags’ attached, for access when and where needed, ‘clicked’. Maybe this is just a description of an ADD-internet-addled human brain in 2017. I’ve yet to finish the book ‘Deep Work‘ but the author isn’t a fan. And it resonates.
So now I can hear Farrell reminding me that reflection isn’t necessarily the greatest thing in the world forever and ever…kind of ducking and deflating any whiff of essentialism in a manner reminiscent of a zen master. Go do a case study. And I’d be reminded of what I already knew – the ideas don’t matter by themselves. What you are going to do?
I know that working on training courses has definitely helped me avoid getting stuck in what might be called “reflective ruts”. There’s something about this environment. Maybe it’s all the observation? Maybe it’s the knock-on effect of seeing and hearing and feeling new teachers changing and growing all around you? Whatever it is, this has been one of my favorite things about these last 3 years and 7 months and I’ll be sure to miss it when and if I shift away from it in the future.
The scholarly Steves of Walsh and Mann suggest a ‘way forward’ from what they view as a central dilemma inherent in how RP has often been approached which
“can be broken down into four issues that need to be addressed, namely, that RP is:
- insufficiently data-led;
- heavily focused on the individual at the expense of collaborative options;
- dominated by written forms of reflection;
- lacking in detail about the nature and purposes of reflective tools.
Maybe the provision of so much scaffolding for trainees on a course like the CELTA helps fuel things ‘forward’ and accounts for why I’ve enjoyed and been positively affected by it so much…scaffolding which does provide ‘data’ (written and oral feedback galore), at least some collaboration (in teacher-tutor guided lesson co-planning, minimally), plenty of non-written forms of reflection (though I do wish I’d already have tried giving the option to replace written post-feedback reflections with other kinds!), and detail, detail, and more for sure. Now if this aspect of an intensive one-month course like the CELTA could just be unfurled, exploded, and evenly distributed throughout an entire career path!
I suppose that’s sort of what it actually does for some people – those people who can sincerely say “the CELTA made me who I am as an ELTer”. I might even be one.
Reiterating the Point about Other People
To the extent that I’ve been able to derive satisfaction results this work and my reflections on it, it seems to be due to not only to something about the training course environment program/culture but also, as I mentioned above, just lots and lots of other people. In itself, this should be probably taken for granted. I guess what’s interesting about it is that some of these other people are or have been directly in my sphere physically, and some of them I connect to and interact with exclusively online. It seems weird, but I honestly can’t draw any direct correlation between physical proximity and level of influence. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me; I’ve read more about what say, Michael Griffin thinks and feels and experiences and does in his classroom than many of the people toiling away all day every day just next door to where I do.
Props to the Proto-PLN
Wait up, hold on. I keep mentioning a ‘discussion forum’. You know, one of those old-fashioned Vbulletin things. Have you even been a member of one? Are you know? I’m chuckling now, about how back in 2014 I was writing about how discussion forums allowed me to connect with an online community of practice. How quaint! 😀
As I think about my first days as a CELTA trainer, I recall that it was the very last day as a trainee on my own CELTA course in 2005 that I signed up for the primary discussion forum I would have been referring to above, AjarnForum based in Thailand where I was (it’s gone now – if social media weakened, complications due to lèse-majesté laws delivered the fatal blow). This first ‘proto-PLN’, the discovery of which came out of the final input session on the course called, shinily, “Professional Development”, was my initial source of sufficient connection with other teachers. That prepared me to use other media – Twitter, etc. – to continue to strengthen those connections and cast a much wider net being able to see a bit of what teachers in further reaches of ELT are doing and thinking and talking about. You get to ‘listen in’. That’s why I like it so much; same as it ever was.
Cringe and Carry On
Continuing to read my old blogpost, there was one ‘like’ (by Josette LeBlanc) and there this comment:
Springcait, if I remember, did stay in touch for a while and we connected over a few things. I’m interested to try to track her down now, see where she’s ended up (her nice blog ends in June 2015). I remember being so happy that someone like her found the blog within a few days. I had no idea how any of it worked…still don’t to be honest. 😉
I responded to that comment like so (let cringe begin):
Hmm. What exactly prompted me to go on about “synchronicity” I wonder, and come up with those goofy CELTA-sports analogies? I’m thinking it might be emblematic of how I talked before my training-up process and some clear directives to be straightforward. There, it sounds like I’m just grasping for a way to make sense of what I thought I was going to be doing and express my idealism about how I thought I’d do it. If I had to pick one of those images I threw out there now, it’d probably be “coach”. Definitely not a “point guard”. I think it’s evidence of me having trouble visualizing myself as an authority in the courseroom and instead of just letting that be so, coming up with these notions about being a “teammate” instead. Sort of like how people can use ‘the student-centered’ as a not-so-clever way of avoiding facing up to the responsibilities of the role of the teacher.
I go further, equating this with what I saw as a strength in my teaching. I don’t think I find the idea of teacher-learner “equality” at all valuable or even sensible now. I also seem to almost apologize for ever “facilitating and leading” a class. I sound a wee bit full of it! And maybe a wee bit full of myself.
The only I don’t mainly just cringe a bit above is the final bit. There, I’m on point. That’s the part that was real and turned out to be important. That’s the foreshadowing of what I wrote about above regarding working with emotions in mentoring.
My response ends with a return to how I tended to explain my interest in teacher training then: it being a natural outgrowth of a ‘fascination’ with teacher cognitions that came through ‘conversation with peers’.
Someone in the building keeps (!) asking me, “So, are you sad?” and I keep telling them no. Sure, it was sound to find out our program got axed. It was sad to find out that I’d no longer be working with some folks I’ve really enjoyed seeing every day. I’m certainly a bit anxious about down-to-earth money matters and life complications. But beyond that I’m not sad because, like Calvin, I welcome change. And my partner is with me in this, and we love each other now like we did before. Also, so much of what I’ve been doing doesn’t stop with this job, even if I shift away from CELTA course work. If I become a full-time instructor, I’ll try my best to be my own best tutor-mentor. If there’s a new, different blog to write about teaching this one will still be here to check back on, just as the older one is there now.
I hope can keep on cringing as I read this as an old post…but cringe with gusto and purpose! The cringe is good. The cringe is necessary. No pain no gain and all that.
What this shows me is that I have definitely matured in the last few years.
Walk Away from the Blog
At the moment I’m really looking forward to a one-month period with pretty much zero ELT in it (save for some #ELTchat moderation on Wednesdays – see you there ok!). I’ll be busy liquidating furniture etc. Maybe taking part in this so-called “gig economy” stuff everyone’s talking about around here…what are they, “side hustles”? Do things someone somewhere makes me do from their phone screen. There’s also a lot of part-time dog-walking work to be had around here, apparently. We’ll see. Then, eventually, off to the next (real) thing.
Dog walking? I’ll end up barking out an ICQ at some point.