You can lead a horse to water…

This is a post that has been fermenting for a while, a lot of it coloured by long-term experience, but much of it much shorter term. The stimulus for getting it out was this great post about teacher beliefs by Mike Griffin.
Teaching EFL can be a weird thing. We look at our classes and wonder about how to make our classes better and reminisce about our students who did something notable. It’s all rather insular. To develop, often we need to see outside, if only to see the inside again but from a different perspective.
Some people don’t want to see the outside, though. Comfort zones are difficult to push through. Unfortunately for me, in one of my teaching situations, my work depends upon somebody who needs to be forcibly removed from their comfort zone.
Harsh, Marc.
Remember this blog started as a mission to make my little freelance corner of TEFL a bit more conducive to being better. Making myself better. I suppose I am lucky in that most people I work with share this orientation. Unfortunately, the one person who doesn’t has a knock-on effect on my work.
I have observed. I have been observed and team-taught. I have supplied a file full of materials and an unwanted copy of The Practice of Teaching English. Yet things have not changed.
We have a grammar syllabus with carrier topics, which I fudge by choosing ‘structure trapping’ tasks (Skehan, 1998). I wouldn’t care if my partner teacher taught PPP, Test-teach-test or even Suggestopaedia. Instead there is a 20-minute warm-up about something strange and unrelated to the topic or grammar of the lesson. It’s highly teacher focused. When the part of the lesson comes to deal with the topic/grammar it basically involves students taking notes in Japanese and resulting in poor output all round. I shall make the point that our remit is speaking and writing, but mainly the former, and all English. There is no effective monitoring of students or elicitation of correct output after error treatment. There is no rationale behind the chaos, just a smile and knowing that this has always seen them through every lesson.
When challenged, my partner gets defensive. “I’m a great teacher!”, “I’m a good person.”, and “The students like me.” have all been used to defend their position.
Myself and another colleague have attempted to engage them in conversation about teaching and learning but this has been shot down. I don’t know if the problematic colleague has any beliefs beyond ‘Students must be motivated’. I would agree to an extent, but how they are motivated by chaotic lessons unrelated to their tests or ordinary situations puzzles me.
I know that teachers have to want to develop but what about if they have to develop but just don’t want to? Help has never been requested, though offered several times. Lesson plans and materials supplied have been ignored in favour of “Which Disney princess should I fight?” and “Do I look more like a cat or a dog?” where ‘I’ is the problematic colleague.
Should I attempt to talk about teaching beliefs and philosophy? I have no idea. I only know I’ve done almost all I can.
Skehan, P. (1998). Task-Based Instruction. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 18, 268-286. doi:10.1017/S0267190500003585

39 Replies to “You can lead a horse to water…”

  1. I hold you in the greatest respect, and I don’t want to come across as mean.
    One thing that is not clear to me from your post is how this colleague’s work affects your own (other than to make you look like a stellar teacher in comparison)?
    My instinctive reaction to your post is defensive, and it’s based on my own beliefs and experience about teacher development, which also ties into my beliefs about learning. I’m not very good at articulating these things, but I’ll try to explain myself.
    Sometimes I know myself to be the one standing at the water’s edge. I look down and see my reflection, and I know that drinking the water will change the reflection I see. It’s a scary moment, and I have been known to retreat from it. Once it becomes a habit, I don’t mind so much. But those initial steps are the hardest.
    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.
    I’ve been stuck in the mud (entrenched in my comfort zone) more times than I remember. In retrospect, I didn’t always realize it when I was. One of the ways I have developed as a teacher is in my ability now to see the mud as I sink into it. But even that took time. And I am usually still too stubborn to reach out and grasp the hands that are offered to pull me out, but I am no longer offended at seeing them there.
    What I’m trying to say is, it seems unfair to judge someone as ‘problematic’ by where they are standing on their path. Even if they are stuck in the mud and don’t even know it. Even if I’ve reached out a hand and they refuse it. Learning is a process for teachers, too. No, you can’t make the horse drink the water. But one day, the princess-battling, animal-impersonating colleague might discover that they’re thirsty, and remember that you knew where water was.
    My apologies if I’ve said too much, or if I’ve failed to convey what’s in my head.

    1. Thanks Anne,
      I don’t think you’re mean at all. My first step was to try to understand how they feel and that’s why help of various levels was offered/given. I can understand not being able to do the job. I guess I am frustrated that they think their way is not just good but The Best Way™.
      I perhaps didn’t use the best choice of words. The situation is problematic. The colleague is merely annoying, to a few of us, and this is subjective, isn’t it?
      Thanks again!

  2. What if the horse doesn’t enjoy being led? Or perhaps that horse is not looking for water, but for something else?
    Comfort zones can be dangerous, I agree; for both the educators and the learners trusted in them. Some educators take the steps out of the zone and some do not. Ideally, everyone should challenge themselves, learn and train forward – but, practically, those steps are taken individually and the responsibility lies with each person (not educator, person).
    I’ll ask you the same question I have asked myself Marc: Can (or do) you make someone else’s choices for them?
    My own answer is no, in the sense that I do not wish to do so – we can certainly influence others, but that is not the point here. Even if we consider ourselves to have achieved something greater, we have no place in telling others what to do. The point, in my view, is not staying idle, especially when we feel uncomfortable in ourselves in such an experience – we should modify this somehow. The point is sharing our experience with the colleague(s), the setting we are placed in, the world. Basically, sharing our example with the purpose to make them see and understand, not follow.
    To connect a little to Mike Griffin’s post you mentioned in the beginning (which I’ve seen all over but have yet to sit down and give it the attention it deserves), our teacher beliefs must be challenged, yes, primarily by ourselves and usually, if we have learned to listen, through a universe of practices.
    I think that many teachers have felt the same as you (I know I have, more often than I would like) and very few share it out, exactly because it is a little delicate of a subject to touch, even when you feel directly affected by it. In my school-employed days, such demands and discussions were out of the question. In later, freelancing years I’m just mostly seen as a weirdo who does a billion things, which from the outside seem unrelated but which, essentially, bring out my very own educator views. I’m happy when colleagues come asking and sad when they turn away withought second thought – but I’m in no position to judge this or alter it. I can, however, keep going on what I believe and welcome what comes. And I do.
    Maybe what you’re looking for is in the outcomes.
    Maybe the horse is not a horse, or any cartoon character; maybe it is simply a teacher in need of examples and time and personal attempts to grow.
    In any case, Marc, you have definitely achieved something here and it’s equally philosophical and practical: this is a discussion forward.
    ps to Anne: you make perfect sense.

    1. Thanks do much, Christina,
      I think you nailed it. I am anxious about the outcomes. I don’t think they’re even being considered and instead the suddenness get a lottery syllabus.
      I also agree about the leading. I can’t lead them. I have shown, and maybe I have to consider that as enough.
      Thanks again!

      1. So perhaps that’s an answer 🙂
        Have goals been set? Are they being met?
        Could that “problematic” one (I don’t like that term, hence the inverted nightmare) be leading in this instead of actually implementing?
        As for leading per se, it is definitely trouble to me – I’m more at home with underlying and quiet forces.
        Thank you for sharing!

        1. External goals have been set, agreed to but ignored. Perhaps I need to stop feeling responsible for everything and everyone.

          1. In my humble opinion, that is a great start. Do stop feeling like this, because you are definitely not responsible for everyhting and everyone. Just keep doing what Marc does and speak out when it gets overwhelming.

      1. Nice to read you here and thank you ? I’ve always been called this and, on my part, that’s a good thing. If what seems first and then proves effective is weird, I’m a proud weirdo all the way.

  3. I think there’s a bit of the “I wouldn’t start from here” about how you feel with this – but if you want to help effect change, you’ve got to start from where the other person is.
    I think the easiest thing you could work on would be feedback/correction. Most teachers will accept that unless students get feedback on what they are doing well and how to improve those things they aren’t, they won’t improve. (of course you need to dress that idea up so it appeals to them.. “have you noticed how they always make the same mistakes with X.. ?”
    Maybe if you put it to them that you would like to develop a standardised (between the two of you) approach to correction/feedback (e.g. a weekly report on each student / a checklist of things they can/can’t do etc..) they would be happy to work on it.
    The idea being that this will help them with the realisation that maybe their learners aren’t developing the way they expect – potentially resulting in the “but I taught them that!” moment, which is normally where conversations about “how do I make what I’m doing more effective?” come from..
    Good luck with it!

    1. Cheers Liam. I think ‘what they would be happy to work on’ is the unknown quantity here. It’s not planning, but I have asked to see plans.
      Correction is a tough one because I honestly don’t think they have been provided with adequate education in this area and now are too stubborn to change.

      1. I’m too stubborn to change my ways too. I hated having to work with teachers who thought differently from me but I did it with a smile after I realised it was me that was suffering and not them.

        1. I am going to let your website speak for you and provide evidence that you actually know how to teach, though. As for them, I haven’t seen enough evidence of actual teaching, just strangeness.

          1. Thanks, Marc, for the kind words about my blog. I’d be very happy to work with you (and several other teachers I’ve met on Twitter). No flattery intended, just stating a fact.

          2. What a lovely thing to say. I would love to have you in Japan and mentoring teachers. Unfortunately I am just a teacher, not the scion of the Berlitz family. But one can dream!

  4. This is a tough one Marc but surely student outcomes need to be the yardstick, regardless of teaching beliefs or philosophy. If your colleague’s approach is ineffective in terms of learning, how can you demonstrate that to him? Just a thought, and easier said than done!

    1. Thanks Matthew,
      It’s a tricky one. Basically, if they aren’t teaching what’s on the syllabus, the students don’t get input based on the topic to do their tests well. I don’t mind if other stuff is taught as long as the main syllabus is taught as a priority. That it isn’t even paid lip service is probably the most infuriating thing because it’s straightforward.
      Thanks again!

  5. Why do you feel responsible for this other teacher? Sure it’s more comfortable to work with colleagues who share your fundamental principles but if they don’t or won’t, can’t you live with it? It’s sad for the students who could be making more progress but hopefully they won’t have that teacher for ever.
    You can’t convince people by rational argument when they’re emotionally attached to their convictions.
    Maybe you should ask them to help you teach the way they do???

    1. Thanks Glenys,
      I am responsible for making the speaking and writing tests for the students, and it is supposed to be related to the syllabus (grammar/notional functional – not my choice but that’s another story). If one of us is teaching the stuff from the syllabus and the other is not, then whoever is not is disadvantaging their students by not teaching (showing language, allowing practice of the language) but wasting time with stuff that doesn’t matter.
      Now, I know that students don’t necessarily learn what is taught in a linear order, but they have a fighting chance if they have at least had a crack at it a few weeks before their tests.
      (As a footnote, this is largely academic as the individual this is about has decided to quit.)
      As for teaching their style, I believe I may have been told this was a good way when I started teaching but was quickly given to find this was not true at all. I *could* but I *wouldn’t*.
      Anyway, thanks once again. Cheers!

      1. Ah, you’re doing test preparation. I was lucky I did very little of that because I always felt my hands were tied – usually to a test preparation coursebook. I’m only an efficient teacher when I feel free to respond to students’ needs “here and now”.
        (I hadn’t received your previous reply when I wrote mine.)

        1. I wish it were, test prep. No, it’s formative assessment by means of a written piece under test conditions and two speaking tests. Not decided by me but I aim to have the students:
          1. Able to perform communicative tasks in English (or perform, understand and respond to speech acts, or whichever lenses we choose to use).
          2. Acquire some language and be able to use the language already acquired with more accuracy, or at least convey meaning more accurately.
          3. Show the ability to do these things in the tests.
          Thanks again,
          I don’t teach to the tests, I test to the teaching, which is dictated by the syllabus. I am unwilling to add in highly culturally-specific trivia that I haven’t taught just because the other teacher has gone so far outside the syllabus it seems they haven’t seen it.

  6. I’m not sure why what you describe is called “formative assessment”. Does it lead to improvement in student performance? If not I’d call it summative – it tells the teacher/institution/student what the student knows.
    I found formative assessment only leads to improvement if it’s given very rapidly after a student’s production – a few seconds as regards speaking and 24 hours in the case of writing. I mean while the student is still present to the ideas and emotions they wanted to express.

    1. I am a touch busy now but if I am ever in a position to be picking conference speakers I shall definitely pick your brains (or have you on Skype)!

  7. Oh BOY!
    I think the best way to go might be to get the teacher to critique their own lesson plan methodology without showing that it was one of theirs. It could start with some language teaching belief statements on a continuum and then perhaps selecting a “best” lessons structure from a group of structures and giving reasons why X is better than Y. Perhaps with a final activity to critique to their own “style” of structure (as well as perhaps the alternative of a highly organised “by the book” type lesson plan if you want to disguise the purpose a bit further).
    Hopefully this teacher would want to show their knowledge of methodology they have, after all, they are a “good teacher” and if they identify issues with their own teaching, they’d have to listen to their own knowledge.
    Of course this would require them to go to a training session and if they really are that oblivious it might require a follow up session where the co-ordinator shows how the teacher in question’s own criticism would relate to their own lesson plans.
    Just an idea,

    1. Yeah, there are two lunchtimes where this is possible and then they are leaving (a new development) so it’s not going to happen. But I don’t know if I will be in the same situation again. Thanks Chris.

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