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Guruism can be detrimental to your professional health

After the initial feeling of awe over an inspiring idea, Paula Rebolledo says we need to think how it can be adapted rather than adopted

We buy their books, read their articles, attend their talks, follow them in social networks, and if our admiration turns dangerously into idolisation, we kindly ask them for a picture when we bump into them in a conference. Whether we refer to them as ELT gurus, big names or celebrities, their common denominator is their high-profile, influence and status in our field.

Who are they? Well, the list varies depending on our areas of interest and contexts, but it usually includes well-known speakers, writers, researchers or bloggers who for one reason or another have become highly influential in ELT.

In fact, there have been some interesting discussions questioning why someone becomes a guru, raising concerns regarding their gender, race, age and even merit. Although such discussion deserves attention (Steve Brown’s blog post provides a stimulating debate on this), the impact they can have has remained greatly unchallenged.

We usually assume that the role of well- known figures that have advanced the profession and contributed so much to its development could only have a positive effect. I think that – although acknowledging their contribution – their influence can also be disadvantageous for our profession if unexamined and unacknowledged, thus having a potential disempowering and stagnating effect rather than a developmental one.

Hence, I would argue ‘guruism’ may:

a) inhibit our criticality by becoming complacent rather than inquisitive over some of the propositions offered by some influential figures in the field;

b) reduce our autonomy by making us dependent on external expertise instead of nurturing our own;

c) neglect local knowledge by disregarding theories emerging in classrooms from colleagues and ourselves, particularly in less-represented contexts;

d) trigger feelings of anxiety and frustration, as some ideas proposed by our gurus may involve a long list of unreachable goals;

e) maintain hierarchical structures by keeping us outside of influential positions and decision-making processes.

“Guruism may... neglect local knowledge by disregarding theories 
emerging in classrooms from colleagues and ourselves, particularly in 
less-represented contexts.”

I know this looks very negative, but not everything is doom and gloom. As I suggested above, the existence of gurus and their influence may be prejudicial if unexamined, unacknowledged and now I would add, unactionable.

Thus, and in order to avoid some of the disempowering effects mentioned above, I propose three key recommendations (as a starting point):

Dare to question

Well-known speakers and writers can certainly inspire us and influence our teaching practices a great deal. They can help us refresh our teaching with a new idea, encourage us to look at a situation from a different perspective or even assure us we are on the right track.

However, after the initial feeling of awe over a new or inspiring idea, we need to think about whether it actually serves us and our students. Here is where adapt rather than adopt comes to play.

In order to do this, we can ask ourselves: Are the learners for which this new method/strategy/perspective has been proposed similar to mine? Are the materials suggested accessible to me and my learners? Does my syllabus allow for adaptations that make this possible? Basically, are the ideas proposed possible in my context at all?

Even more importantly, do the ideas proposed contravene my views of teaching and learning? If the answer is a resounding ‘no’ then it is OK to reject the guru’s ideas. Yes, it is OK! (and it is OK to say so, too!).

Also, quite rightly or not, an ELT figure may propose a new set of ideas to promote a book or a course. Many of them make this transparent in their talks, but our job here is to be cognisant of this and assess their propositions accordingly.

Capitalize on your own and other colleagues’ expertise

Above, I suggest reasons why we may reject ideas coming from a ‘big name’ if they seem inapplicable to our particular classroom situation. Still, we may benefit from them if we apply them more critically through a process of evaluation (again, dare to question!).

The idea here is to give the new ideas – or a part of them – a try and assess their result. In doing so, we would be carrying out our own analysis and subsequent adaptations, thus tapping into our own knowledge and experience. Additionally, you can also use your colleagues’ expertise as a resource. Sharing ideas with someone who works in a similar context is always a good starting point.

Become your own guru!

Sometimes we are so comfortable following other people’s theories and ideas that we forget we may have our own. Throughout our years of teaching, we develop our own way of doing things, sometimes unknowingly.

By keeping a diary, writing down what we do or any idea we may come up with, we can become aware of the richness and diversity of our own teaching repertoire. Gurus did not make themselves only by listening to what others had to say. They got busy observing, trying, documenting, proposing new ideas and sharing them. We can all do the same.

To sum up, an uncritical dependency on ELT experts, gurus, big names or celebrities could have harmful effects for our development and that of our field, unless we examine, acknowledge and act on them. An initial but important step in this direction may involve stopping seeing gurus, experts, big names, celebrities, etc. as authoritative but as informing voices instead, along with ours!

REFERENCE

Brown, S. (2015). He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!. The Steve Brown blog. https://stevebrown70.wordpress.com/2015/0 4/15/hes-not-the-messiah-hes-a-very- naughty-boy/

Image courtesy of FOTOGESTOEBER / SHUTTERSTOCK
Paula Rebolledo
Paula Rebolledo
Paula has taught at primary, secondary, undergraduate and postgraduate levels and in INSETT programmes in various countries. Her research interests include teacher education, professional development and teacher-research. She has led teacher- research initiatives such as the Champion Teachers programme and the APTIS Action Research Award Scheme. She is co-founder of RICELT, the network of ELT research in Chile.
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