This article is based on an excerpt from Pursuing Professional Development: The Self as Source by Kathleen M. Bailey, Andy Curtis, and David Nunan.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the number one key to effective teaching is effective learning. As teachers, and especially as ESL teachers, we are constantly learning, problem solving, and growing as educators and linguists.
Growing as an educator can mean a lot of things. It can mean learning why we, as English speakers, say what we say. It can mean learning how to reach, engage, and teach a classroom full of incredibly diverse learners. It can mean finding ways to teach with limited resources. And it can mean learning how to teach our students how to learn, as many ESL students have limited educational experience.
As you can see, professional development is such an important part of being a teacher, but amidst all of the lesson planning and teaching it can be hard to find time to commit to this type of growth. Additionally, many teachers don’t even know where to start.
There are plenty of seminars and conferences for educators and ESL teachers, but professional development should be a balance of daily growth, collaborative learning, and self-development. So, today we’re breaking down why cooperative self-development is important and how you can begin to incorporate a routine of professional growth into your already busy schedule!
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What is Cooperative Self-Development?
“I need someone to work with, but I don’t need someone who wants to change me and make me more like the way they think I ought to be. I need someone who will help me see myself clearly. To make each person’s development remains in that person’s own hands. This type of interaction will involve some new rules for speaking, for listening, and for responding in order to cooperate in a disciplined way. This mixture of awareness-raising and disciplined cooperation is what I have called Cooperative Development.” - Julian Edge, quoted in Pursuing Professional Development
Cooperative Development is a term coined by Julian Edge to refer to professional development in which each teacher grows individually, but with the help of their colleagues, peers, or other professionals. If you’ve ever tried to improve a part of your life, I’m sure you’ve gotten to a point where you’ve realized that self-development can’t be done in isolation. That’s why we have addiction recovery groups, religious groups, and gym classes.
Professional development requires both collaboration and individual work. After all, you can’t simply attend a gym class, not participate, not work on yourself outside of class, and expect to see results. Collaboration with colleagues helps us, as teachers, to develop a better understanding and a better perspective on our own experiences, opinions, training, and classrooms.
There are three layers of development when working on cooperative self-development as a teacher: self, peer, and professional. When these three layers can work together harmoniously, professional development can become an incredibly rewarding and useful routine in your teaching life.
The Layers of Development
As important as collaboration is, self-development is equally as important. There are so many different ways that you, as an ESL teacher, can pursue professional development on your own time and in your own way. Perhaps one could argue that when you choose when, how, and why to pursue professional development, it can be more rewarding and have more of an impact on your classroom than attending mandatory school-led development workshops.
Self-development can look however you need it to look. Teaching journals are a great way to reflect on your lesson plans and take note of what worked, what didn’t work, and what/how you’d like to improve. They can also be a great resource to look back on and see a record of your own growth, mindset, challenges, and evolution as an ESL teacher.
If you think of these three layers of development as concentric circles, peer-development is the circle right in the middle. It refers to the learning and growth that happens alongside of your fellow teachers, whether they’re in your school, district, or just within the same profession. These peers certainly have experiences that you can learn from, but they’re not necessarily experts in the field.
Many times peer-development can just look like conversations in the teacher’s room or break room. However, mentoring, coaching, team teaching, and other more formal workshops can also be considered peer-development. One of the benefits to peer-development is that your peers could have experiences similar to yours that a more professional form of development may not be able to offer. We, as humans, have a natural tendency towards learning through stories, which makes peer-development increasingly helpful for problem solving in the classroom.
The outermost circle in our three layers of development is professional development. While this term is usually used as a general term for learning and growing within your profession, in this article I’m going to use it to specifically refer to learning and growing from “professionals.” Think of it as having the most distance from you, as a teacher. This form of development can take the form of seminars, conferences, books, and research.
While self- and peer- development have a close connection to what you want and need from your learning experiences, professional development is more general. When it comes to professional development, you don’t have a say in where the conversation goes.
All of that being said, it’s an integral part of becoming a better teacher. Experiences and sharing stories can be helpful to your development, but well-researched practices, methods, and strategies are far more reliable.
When self-reflection, conversations and experience-sharing with peers, and researched professional development are pursued equally, you can grow as a teacher and improve your classroom experiences drastically, which we’re going to explore further below.
How to Pursue Cooperative Self-Development
While there are a countless number of ways to pursue cooperative self-development, and not ever method will work for every teacher, I want to explore two different ways that you can begin to engage in professional development on a consistent basis. Professional development can seem really overwhelming when you’re already busy with lesson planning, classroom management, and teaching. Teachers notoriously have a busy schedule, but professional development doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time to be beneficial.
Start Conversations with Colleagues
By far, the easiest way to begin engaging in professional development is to engage in conversation with your colleagues and peers. Whether you eat lunch with your peers in the break room, have friends who teach in other schools within your district, or have found an online community of ESL teachers, beginning conversations with your colleagues can be a really quick and easy way to grow.
Ask your peers about what they’re teaching in their classrooms, what classroom management tools they’ve found helpful, and even what they’re struggling with as an ESL teacher. These conversations can develop into an opportunity to both offer advice and seek guidance on some of the issues and situations you’ve found yourself in in the classroom.
Along with these conversations or perhaps on your own, begin either keeping a journal to answer, taking time to reflect on, or asking your peers the following three questions.
What am I trying to do in my classroom?
How is it working?
What can I learn from it?
Problem Solving and Action Research
When thinking about professional development, it’s easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed trying to keep up with the latest method, guru, or coursebook. Remember that only you truly know what is happening in your classroom and with your learners. If a well-researched method isn’t working in your classroom, tweak it or ditch it.
An easy way to make sure that the research you’re doing works for you is to make it actionable. First, reflect on your classroom and think of the issues you’re having. You may want to focus your research on a specific classroom management issue, on how to help your students practice a grammar concept, or on how to increase engagement in the classroom.
Once you’ve identified the problem that you’d like to solve, do some research to specifically solve that issue. Find maybe 2-3 possible solutions to start, and commit to doing one for a week. During that week journal about what you’re trying, how your students are responding, and how you can continue to tweak that solution to better serve your students.
Professional Development doesn’t have to be a practice that is saved for a few special occasions throughout the year. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on conferences and hotels and experiences. Professional Development can be much more helpful than hours of boring workshops that don’t even apply to your classroom. The tips, tricks, and practices above are super easy to integrate into your daily routines. Plus, a few minutes spent in cooperative self-development can do wonders for your classroom experiences!
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I Want to Hear From You!
What are your strengths and weaknesses when it comes to pursuing professional development?
What is one piece of advice you’d give to a new teacher in regards to learning and growing with peers?