Laura Holland is a popular LTS faculty member who teaches the LT 537 Language Teaching Practicum course and mentors the new faculty and graduate teachers at the American English Institute. She just returned from another adventure in Peru. We caught up with her as she settles back into Winter term at the University of Oregon and asked about her trip. You’ll find her responses below. Don’t miss the excellent advice she offers new teachers at the end!
What brought you to Peru?
Last summer I was in Chiclayo, Peru to give the Keynote address and several workshops at the PeruTESOL conference, which I have attended every year since 2014. While there, I was doing some student recruitment for the American English Institute at a bi-national, bi-cultural English language institute in Chicalyo, called ICPNA/Chiclayo. As it happened, they were looking to replace the person who had served as their external observer/evaluator for the last 15 years who was retiring, and when the Director looked me up before my meeting with them, he found that my areas of expertise and specialization coincided exactly with what they were looking for in a replacement. They offered me the job, which will now continue every year, with an annual visit to ICPNA Chiclayo and starting next year, two other cities in the north of Peru as well. These visits include classroom observations and follow-up feedback conversations with each teacher, professional development workshops for all, strategy planning, and activities needed for their CEA accreditation renewal.
The reason I am going into detail for how this came about is that we never know where the opportunities will come from, so while you are in school and then every year after, think about what areas of specialty you are passionate about and then grab every chance you have to develop those skills to gain hands-on experience doing them, even if it is on a volunteer basis at first, as this will give you excellent experiences and skills to add to your growing CVs making you more attractive as a candidate for jobs.
What kinds of tasks and activities were you involved in?
I completed 40 classroom observations (mostly 2 hours each, when possible) with 40 post-observation follow-up feedback sessions with each teacher I observed, in which I gave them detailed, specific feedback about everything I thought was strong in their teaching and specific suggestions for areas of focus for the coming year. Together we worked out short-term, medium range and long-term goals and objectives for the coming year, noting what things they would like to accomplish before my next visit in February 2019. I also gave suggestions for ways to bring the language and their classroom activities to life and to incorporate more genuine communication and active learning into their lessons than they have previously been encouraged to do. They asked many questions, shared their underlying pedagogical thinking and were thoroughly engaged in the process.
During the two weeks I was there I led five professional development workshops for teachers on the topics ranging from how we pose questions and call on our students, incorporating active learning models, improving lesson plans to include higher order thinking skills (their request), and creating their own in-house professional development systems (also at their request).
Additionally, I have been given the task of rewriting their new ICPNA philosophy, as the current model is in need of some updating according to “best practice” models in the field of language education. As such, we met to discuss strategy and plan our next moves. I will be rewriting the criteria for evaluating teachers and creating new rubrics based on those criteria.
Did you find anything particularly challenging?
There were two aspects that challenged me particularly. The first was the sheer number of hours a day that I was sitting in a desk chair. At UO I even have a stand-up desk, and in the classroom and around campus, I am in constant motion, walking across campus every day, walking all around, so sitting for most of each day, day after day was physically challenging! I would also say that maintaining the necessary pace was the biggest challenge, especially in the South American summer heat. I completed these observations over the course of 14 days, with only one day off in the middle, working 12-13 hours/day, filling two composition books of handwritten notes so that I would be able to give very specific, detailed feedback to each teacher and so that I would be able to write up the official reports once back home during the month of March. My trip coincided exactly with the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and I definitely felt that I was running my own Olympic event: part sprint, mostly marathon, but 100% amazing!
What were some of the highlights of your trip?
Hands down the highlight was working directly with the teachers and the mentors, having both group and private time with each person. I came over excited, because I genuinely love teaching and teachers, and to me, classroom observation is one of the great luxuries of my job; I learn something new from every single observation I ever do, so having this opportunity to do it marathon-style gave me so much food for thought—in addition to the writer’s bump I developed on my right thumb. But I had no idea before the experience the depth of impact I would be able to have. Because these teachers have been rather restricted in the past about how they deliver the curriculum, oftentimes rather terrorized by the summative observation process and told that the communicative activities their teaching instincts were desperate to employ were not allowed, and because I was this new person coming in, they had no idea what to expect from me, and as such, were all extremely nervous about the observations before meeting me, especially the ones first up during that first morning, before the workshops began, and before they began to see “my style.” Over the two weeks, 100% of the teachers, the mentors included, confessed to being so wildly nervous that they hardly slept the night before and many reported terrible “teaching nightmares” before their turn. However, nearly all found that when teachers engage in productive, positively-oriented conversations, where the observing teacher, begins the highly specific feedback session with all the activities and approaches and tools we think they are doing really well, they are open then, to hearing the suggestions. As mentors and supervisors, we can give critique and suggestions framed in the most positive, empathetic way possible, from the perspective of another teacher who also faces these challenges, rather than from some expert voice coming down from on high, and when we take
the time to carefully craft our language and present any “areas to improve” as a challenge we might all face, most teachers turn out to be hungry for this sort of feedback, and eager to experiment with new approaches and tools we might be able to recommend. Of course, it helped that I was usually telling them that what their teaching instincts were screaming at them is considered “best practices” here in the US, and that we would now be moving toward a more active learning approach model throughout the institute. So, it was incredibly gratifying to receive a thousand heartfelt “thank yous” after almost every feedback session and to know that I am contributing to an institutional change that will make the teachers’ work with their students even more inspiring and successful.
Throughout the two weeks, I was amazed and impressed with how teachers were incorporating tools and practices from my workshops into their summative observations, a brave thing to do, to experiment with the unknown when we’re being evaluated. I think it worked in almost all cases because this is what these teachers have been wanting to do all along, less mindless repetition and choral drill, and more meaningful communicative tasks that get students using the language to tell their stories and express their ideas, while practicing the grammatical structures of the day. A moment I will treasure forever came in my last feedback session after my last observation on my last night at ICPNA (10:30pm Saturday night), the very last teacher told me that yes, she had been somewhat nervous before the observation, but more so, that she had never been as excited to “teach-for-evaluation” as she was that night and that she felt she had been “released and freed” to teach in the way she always dreamed she could. Her class had been a blast to observe and filled from start to finish with meaningful activities that put the language into action.
Oh, another highlight: The food in Peru is outrageously delicious and Chiclayo is particularly famous for their regional and national cuisine.
Do you have any specific tips or advice to share with new or future teachers based on your experiences there?
- As you study and teach, reflect on where your passions lie and invest time developing those areas of expertise; you will have more energy for these areas you feel enthusiastic about and many opportunities will come from them as a result of your growing expertise
- Every few years (or more often), put yourself in the position of our learners, learning some new skill or language or topic, so that you remember what It feels like to be in the learners’ shoes, to not know exactly what’s going on; this will create more empathy for your learners and the struggles they may be facing
- Create a language learning community in your classroom and another one with your colleagues; our first languages are learned in communities and we should try to create as much of that in the language classroom as we possibly can; everyone has something to teach and something to learn
- Ask questions you don’t know the answer to and watch how much space it opens up for our students to teach us
- When you find yourself in a restrictive system that may be at odds with your training and instincts, bend the rules if you safely can, while still working to achieve the objectives of the school, and always reflect on the rationale for why and how you are putting any given approach into practice
- Be a “reflective” learner/teacher as described by Kolb, Fanselow, and others, and try something out, see what happens, reflect and make small changes and try it again
- “Leaders aren’t born, they are developed” is a popular saying in leadership training; every leader was once a “newbie” but took the risks to step up and go beyond expectations, a step at a time. Every personality style has the possibility of leadership. Take the excellent education and training you have gotten here at UO and make things happen!
- Be a lifelong learner
Thank you, Laura–it’s great to have you back in Eugene!!!