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The changing world of English teaching

Five ways the ELT industry is evolving, according to Beatrice Segura Harvey

If you had been asked five years ago what you thought the EFL industry would look like today, would you have said: “The English language will have changed dramatically”, or “Mental health in the workplace will be a bedrock”? Or, even, “The teacher of today is not the teacher of yesterday”? Probably not. But then, who could have guessed the world would have gone into a lockdown (sorry to mention it!).

As a Director of Studies, I witnessed unprecedented levels of change in a few short months and found myself asking: How can I support my teachers when so much is changing? What do my teachers need to empower them for the future? So I embarked on a research project that focused on teacher development, particularly teacher competencies, with an aim at answering a difficult question: What constitutes an effective teacher, post-pandemic?

The research collected data from managers, teacher educators, policymakers and industry experts. The findings revealed 13 key areas of change. Here are just five of those insights from the research that I feel we urgently need to talk about as a community, and which might help us and our institutions make decisions for a better future:

1. The English language is changing.

This isn’t about adding a few new words to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s about how entire dialogues and conversations are taking place online. The pandemic propelled online mediated communication into the consciousness of almost everyone. How many of us struggle with those awkward Zoom moments when the flow of dialogue is interrupted by several people trying to get a word in?

With more communication online, there is inevitably a shift in how we communicate, not just verbally, but non-verbally too. This linguistic and behavioural change brings sociocultural implications. ‘Global English’, as we know it, is becoming more blurred and so starts a new chapter with more people meeting online and the geographical barriers becoming even less finite.

What impact does this have on the teacher?

A transformation in communication (and language) will be felt in many areas of teaching as it will create a domino effect. For example, changing the CEFR to accommodate this new form of communication will impact on learner measurement and assessment, which will then influence syllabi, material development and course content. Ultimately, the teacher of today needs to understand this if they are to unlock the potential in their students. And this is only one example.

Thankfully, the CEFR has updated its descriptors for online communication since the pandemic, but now it’s time to follow the trickle-down effect that it will have on teachers and students.

2. Modes of teaching are expanding.

Online learning, in its many forms, has been steadily growing over the years, but since the global crisis, it has been catapulted into the lap of almost every student around the world. Students have more options than ever before and more is expected of our teachers as a consequence.

The research highlighted that prior to the crisis, there were common negative attitudes among teachers towards technology, such as “it can’t be done” or “I can’t do that”. And then institutions all over the world woke up one morning and said to their teachers, “We are going online”. But from those surveyed, 57% of teachers had zero training for online teaching and 0% were considered extensively trained for the new settings. This is hardly surprising, as digital training prior to the pandemic was focused on in-class technology.

In response to these new demands, there has been a noticeable shift in the attitudes from teachers, who are more ‘flexible’, ‘adaptable’ and ‘willing’ to try new things. But are we asking too much of our teachers?

There needs to be a concerted effort from teacher trainers and educators to ensure that teachers are better prepared for this. To deprive the industry of fine teachers, based on their digital competencies, would be profoundly detrimental.

3. Digital competency needs integrating.

Most, if not all of us, have been familiar with the traditional classroom since childhood. During our formative years we spent most of our waking lives in this setting, and then for the lucky few, we have continued our education primarily in these four-walled spaces.

Contrast this with the digital classroom. This virtual space has continuously evolved since the birth of the internet but, for many of us, this has not been our predominant academic setting. So we, the teachers, teacher educators and managers, have limited experience within this environment when compared to our experience in a traditional four-walled classroom.

Digital competency within a framework, prior to the pandemic, would outline the skills and knowledge needed in a simplistic and generic way, for example, being able to use digital display, audio and video in lessons. The competencies often describe ‘know-how’ and skills, which is a far cry from other competency descriptors.

The participants surveyed prior to the pandemic suggested that only 12% of their CPD for teachers was focused on technology. But post-crisis, this rose to 46% of CPD sessions having a technological theme. When managers and directors were asked what they would look for in new teachers, 64% of the responses were related to technological themes that covered skills, knowledge and attitudes of the teacher, including ‘willingness’ and ‘ability to feel comfortable and confident’ when navigating this new multimodal form of teaching.

Digital competency is now completely intertwined within the role and identity of the teacher, and this needs to be reflected in the framework. Our very values and attitudes are not fully developed yet. And then if we add in the fast-paced change the digital world moves at, it possibly requires an entirely new perspective that is forward looking and prevents us playing catch-up.

A shift in values is evident, demand is there, but where is the integration with pedagogy? What should that look like? Is reforming policy enough or are we to embark on something bigger, a revolution of sorts?

4. Mental health awareness is growing.

In recent years, mental health awareness has been gaining traction in the workplace and quite rightly too. However, in the ELT world, this accelerated exponentially when the industry went online.

Unfortunately, it was hard to find any literature, or even an insinuation, that mental health needs to be considered within teacher competency frameworks pre-pandemic. And it still appears this area is mostly left up to each institution to set policy and support.

One of the emerging topics from my research was mental health, particularly with a focus on online fatigue, and issues resulting from learners and colleagues not being in the same physical space. These included feelings of anxiety, loneliness and alienation.

This topic needs more attention, but not just from within the ELT industry. By simply looking to new policy and practices found in other industries, some positive changes could be made quickly..

5. Teacher education is changing fast.

This is possibly the biggest area of interest for me in my research, as how we teach our teachers is a fundamental, fascinating and (sometimes) frustrating topic. Since the take up of teacher competency frameworks in the 80s until present day, teacher education has been moulded around key competency areas to create standardised teaching practices and internationally recognised courses we can access today.

But now the teacher is changing and so too must the training. The traditional CELTA technology input session, for example, is a minor part of the CELTA course, but could be the trainee teacher’s entire future career.

Also, the traditional career pathway for an EFL teacher (CELTA > work for institution > DELTA) is no longer realistic. This is not to say that teachers will not want to complete CELTAs and DELTAs and work for institutions, but there will be more teachers than before looking to work for themselves through online tutoring companies or creating asynchronous digital lessons, to give just a couple of examples. Today we have terms such as the ‘teacher entrepreneur’ and ‘gig teacher’, which are becoming established careers in their own right.

Due to time spent (or forced to spend) learning how to teach online, it now appears that teachers may be more experienced than teacher trainers themselves. Those who have spent considerable time teaching online have most likely been able to integrate their knowledge, but that is not to say the experience has led everyone to become an expert. In many cases it appears teachers were often autonomous in decision-making when it came to planning for digital learning, not because of experience and training, but because they had no choice.

This leads to a radical question which needs consideration. Does the top-down teacher education model need to change? This approach has its uses and needs to exist in certain areas, but now the current cohort of teachers has had considerably more hours of online teaching than their trainers. Could this be an opportunity to look at new models for teacher education? Something that is co-constructed, peer-to-peer and bottom-up?

These few ideas are big. We need to discuss. As a community. As institutions. As managers. As teacher educators. As teachers.

The reset button has been pressed, and while we are rebooting, we have an opportunity to install new programmes, ideas and opportunities that are better at supporting our teachers as we move to a bigger world, a vaster array of contexts and a new type of teacher. You may already have started a conversation, but if you haven’t, let’s start now. Ask a question, join the conversation: eltspecialist.com

Beatrice Segura Harvey is a freelance ELT specialist based in sunny Brighton, England. Her eclectic experience includes DoS, materials writer, teacher trainer, conference speaker, researcher, mentor and consultant. By day she is an ELT consultant and plate-spinning mum, and by night she is an avid reader and researcher who wants to support teachers globally.

Images courtesy of PHOTO SHUTTERSTOCK and Library
Beatrice Segura Harvey
Beatrice Segura Harvey
Beatrice Segura Harvey is a freelance ELT specialist based in sunny Brighton, England. Her eclectic experience includes DoS, materials writer, teacher trainer, conference speaker, researcher, mentor and consultant. By day she is an ELT consultant and plate- spinning mum, and by night she is an avid reader and researcher who wants to support teachers globally.
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