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A look at English instruction in Egypt

One size is never going to fit all, says educationalist Abeer Okaz

For quite some time, the Egyptian Ministry of Education and Higher Education has been aware of the need to qualify teachers. While there are different types of training programmes for language teachers in almost all sectors and despite good intentions, there still continue to be challenges.

First, there are a large number of untrained, unqualified teachers in almost every sector. This is especially true in vocational schools and at the primary level, but it’s worse in English for Specific Purposes (ESP) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP). Second, changes in the curriculum also affect the quality of teacher training. And, finally, teachers of large mixed ability classes do not normally receive the tailored training they need to support their classes.

This article takes you through my personal journey in Egyptian training programmes, specifically in higher education, which covers the time before and during the pandemic.

I have been the director of the English Language Centre in a private university for the past eight years and worked on the teacher training programmes which focused on getting teachers ready for teaching general English courses to adults. Every student, irrespective of their major, must study general English courses in order to graduate from university here.

In Egypt, English language centres are a major part of private universities, though less so in national ones. These centres usually provide language classes to undergraduates as part of their credit hour system. In the one I was attached to, every student, regardless of their major is required to study general English at three levels, for two credit hours each. In other universities, students may take courses in ESP or EAP, but my journey has involved general English.

Before the pandemic

When my journey began, the same training sessions were given to staff members teaching in any discipline. It was ‘one size fits all’ continuous professional development – that was the aim back in 2013.

The focus of training was always the same: classroom management, lesson-planning engagement and participation, while the overall objective was always to prepare teachers to teach undergraduates from 11 different disciplines.

The training would always follow the same pathway. Before starting work at the centre, every new staff member would go through the same induction programme, irrespective of their own background and/or experience. During the semester, the members of our Professional Development Unit would give sessions that they thought would be beneficial. Once again, one training for all, with attendance a must. This was followed by class observations, where teachers received one-to-one feedback, but were left with only a few resources to refer back to. The main aim was to improve classroom management, with a special focus on motivation.

“Most undergraduates in Egypt do not see a reason to learn English”

Most undergraduates in Egypt do not see a reason to learn English – core courses are more important and relevant to them. They register for their English classes because they have to, not because they are intrinsically motivated to learn. Students in a few disciplines do understand the importance of learning a second language, mainly so they can understand their textbooks or to help them if they intend to travel abroad for further education.

The approach to training started to change gradually. The centre started recruiting more teachers as the university started growing, and it became evident that programmes needed to be tailored to the needs of both teachers and their students.

There were still obstacles. First, the number of students varied from one class to another and from one level to the next, often making the techniques teachers learned in training inapplicable. Second, students’ language levels were affected by which faculty they were enrolled with and thus some of the training needed to be faculty based. Mixed classes remained a problem, with lesson timetabling a never-ending challenge.

Pre-Covid, the training was planned for face-to-face, with very little attention given to online teaching. In 2019, when I trained teachers to use Google classrooms, they were overwhelmed. But when I actually started a Google classroom, things started to make sense to them.

During the pandemic

Before March 2020, teachers had some set-in-stone teaching techniques they had accumulated through the years. Then, suddenly, everything they had taken for granted changed. Lessons and classes were all moved to digital provision and thus the teacher training perspective changed.

A lot of challenges faced every member of staff and all the students. The situation was chaotic and it took the English Language Centre some time to adjust.

There were five factors that affected teaching and learning in the new context

  1. Instructors’ attitudes. Teachers were in shock and outside their comfort zone. They were under a lot of pressure, torn between their families and new work obligations. Moving online meant working longer hours to plan lessons and mark assignments. Some did not have proper connectivity or suitable devices at home.
  2. Conditions. Everyone was home, so teachers had to look after their families as well as their students. Students were under a lot of stress and struggling to cope with a situation where most of them did not have a private place to work online.
  3. Motivation. The lack of meaningful interaction and engagement between teachers and students in an online context was due to the lack of preparedness on both sides. The sudden change in the mode of delivery affected both teachers and students. They spent longer hours in front of their screens, yet felt lost at the end.
  4. Tech skills. Most teachers and students were not digitally ready. Also, some did not have the proper devices or reliable internet connection to get into the learning process.
  5. Choice of content. All the course materials were designed for face- to-face use and the time it took the English Language Centre to digitalise the material was another factor in the loss of motivation among students.

In terms of training, it was evident that management would not be able to do everything at once, so we took a bottom-up approach. We started by dividing teachers into smaller teams, each one responsible for a specific task.

The digital tools team was responsible for checking different digital tools to evaluate which ones would be suitable for online use. During training sessions, they introduced the teachers to tools they could integrate into their lessons to help get students more engaged. The training team planned a programme to help their colleagues with planning and teaching online, coordinating with the digital tool team to deliver coherent training to staff.

Meanwhile, the material designing team worked on changing the content to fit the digital classroom, which did not happen overnight. At first, the content was changed into Google forms with automated answers. Then the team helped both teachers and students to upgrade these forms to include the texts from the course books and, later, videos as well.

“Teaching through Zoom was quite a challenge, but with a lot of support, 
teachers finally managed it successfully”

Back at the training team, they were helping the teachers with live teaching. Teaching through Zoom was quite a challenge, but with a lot of support, teachers finally managed to do it successfully.

Then, a few months later, the university moved all its digital content to Blackboard, so it was important to teach both students and teachers to collaborate live. The screen-casting team helped train coordinators. Replicating the physical class helped during the times of total lockdown or when teachers went down with Covid.

The journey goes on and the training continues (we are still in the during-pandemic phase as I write this).

Training teachers will never stop as long as management and teachers believe in professional development. And as long as there is constant change in the teachers’ backgrounds, knowledge level and attitudes – not forgetting the students’ interests and attitudes as well.

The method of training will also vary, but one important thing I have learned on my journey is that the one-size-fits-all recipe never ends successfully.

Abeer Okaz is the DOS and educational consultant at Pharos University in Alexandria, Egypt. She is also a CELTA tutor and NILE consultant with over 23 years of experience in ELT, both locally and internationally.

Images courtesy of PHOTO PIXABAY and Library
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