Friday, 18 July 2014

The Teacher as the Method?

During the five or so years for which I have worked as a Director of Studies or an Academic Manager one of the questions I have asked most commonly to teachers that I interviewed or to whom I delivered training is: "What is your teaching style?". Occasionally, I might have changed the way I phrased it and gone for something along the lines of: "How do you like to approach your classes?". However, the point of the question remained the same. I wanted to understand the philosophy that the teacher brought to the classroom.

When I ask such a question, what am I looking for? This is actually a pretty interesting question and an area worth exploring. Of course there are good and bad answers. If a teacher tells me about a love of communicative activities or task-based learning, they are likely to capture my attention – I am a sucker for activities that get students interacting and break classroom norms. Conversely, if they discuss a very regimented approach featuring lots of Grammar-Translation techniques I am likely to be far less enthused. This is not, though, the full story of my question. A philosophy that I hold in great stead is that even a bad answer is better than no answer. If the teacher does not seem to have a coherent philosophy to the class that they teach, then I am inclined to question their motivation, their commitment to teaching English and their viability as a teacher.

In recent weeks, though, I have been given cause to question my approach to the question. This has come about thanks to a conversation with a teacher who helped me look at things in a slightly different way. When I asked him to outline his approach to classes he gave what I, ordinarily, would have considered a weak answer. He told me, “I like to take a flexible approach. I like to be eclectic, to mix things up”. As soon as he said this, my inner monologue began to scream, “Show some commitment man! Surely you have a philosophy” If he had finished their, my opinion would have remained unchanged. However, he continued with his explanation and things began to get more interesting. He told me that he believed that rather than CLT or Grammar-Translation, it should be the teacher that represented the method.

I found his comment interesting, so I asked him to expand. He argued that, in his opinion at least, the methodology adopted in the classroom was secondary to the teacher being able to reach the class objectives. He continued by asserting that the class was very much a case of any means necessary. If it took some translation to get past one particular activity, then so be it. He concluded with the phrase, “I am the teacher, it is my job to teach the students and I will do that any way I can”.

I will jump out right away and state that I did not agree with him for a myriad of reasons. For example:

  1. On a pure and idealistic level, constantly changing philosophy and approach undermines the teacher's character and identity in the classroom. Ultimately, this will remove a degree of heart and commitment from the class. The teacher loses their academic identity. I am proud to take a communicative approach into the classroom and I believe it defines me as a teacher. It gives me my identity in the classroom and when I look for new teachers, I want to find those with their own identity.
  2. On a far more practical level, I objected strongly to the rather teacher-centric approach. I am a huge believer that the most important person in the classroom is the student. The idea of the teacher representing the method changes this and makes the teacher far more important, too important in my opinion. The teacher-centric approach focuses too much on how the teacher teaches rather than how the student learns. I would argue that if the teacher becomes the method, we will focus too much on teaching rather than learning.
  3. I also believe that the lack of coherence in the approach can have an impact on the students. If the students see a clear methodology from the teacher, they are likely to follow that and adopt strong study habits based around the philosophy. However, if the teacher flips between methods, the students are likely to pick up bad habits on the way and are also likely to be confused on what is the best way to approach learning. I would argue that part of the teacher's role is to be a guide for the students, not just to teach them language but to show them how to learn. This needs clarity and consistency.
  • When I worked at Wall Street English – one of the world's largest English training companies – we had an English-only policy. The students were clear on this. They knew that they would learn by speaking English. The philosophy was clear. Suddenly allowing the students to translate some vocabulary into their native language would undermine this tremendously. The teacher-centric runs the risk of undermining students study habits.
  1. On a simple level, the teacher representing the method must be exhausting. With a communicative approach, I begin to plan my classes with a clear idea on what I want to do. I want to encourage speaking and communication. If I take the teacher approach, I have scores of different techniques to consider before I can formulate my lesson plan.

I feel that I have some pretty compelling arguments against the idea that the teacher represents a teaching method in himself (herself). However, the guys kind of had a point. Or, at least, he had opened an area that my be worth discussion. He made me ponder a few questions. Can we get too bogged down in a methodological approach? Does it sometimes hurt us if we cling to a method – whatever that may be – too strongly? Are we too rigid?

Answering the above questions is not easy. However, the emergence and near-domination of CLT in recent years is an area we could look at. In my entire career in academic management, I have yet to meet an interview candidate who doesn't at some point emphasize certain aspects of CLT. Most ESL teaching courses discuss different methodologies, but there is an underlying focus on CLT. Also, most schools nowadays head in a similar direction with CLT a key component of their syllabi.

As I have stated already, I am a huge CLT disciple and I am unlikely to swayed towards translation or a strict grammatical approach any time soon. Yet, I can concede that it I not always perfect and there are times in the classroom when we could employ other areas. I would like to think that the teacher I met served an important purpose for me. By no means did he convince me that I needed to change everything, but he reminded me that there is sometimes a need for flexibility and an awareness that no method is perfect.

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