Showing posts with label elt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label elt. Show all posts

Friday, March 4, 2016

How living in Taiwan has helped my career

The other day I was talking to a friend who'd relocated from Taipei to Hong Kong (a journalist). He called Taipei a "professional backwater" and for a lot of industries, I can see where he's coming from. I don't think it's right or fair - I mean the city is about the size of Chicago and is the capital of one of the most prosperous and modern-industry-heavy countries in Asia - but he's got a point that successful professionals in Taipei are underpaid, the best tend to leave for Shanghai, Beijing, Japan or the West, and that a lot of times you just have to move because, I dunno, your crappy joke rich-people-are-trolling-us newspaper has decided to close down its Taipei office because now I guess it's OK to report on Taiwan from a totally different country - China. (I'm looking at you, Wall Street Journal, though that's not where my friend worked). I do think this is in part due to bad domestic policy - this is what allowing wage stagnation to continue has wrought - and in part due to purposeful and strategic marginalization by China that the crappy joke rich-people-are-screwing-us Ma administration has let grow unchecked.

But, with a few posts in recent months that included criticisms of Taiwan as a difficult place to build a career as a foreigner, I felt that perhaps a post about how Taiwan has actually benefited my career was in order. This will mostly be useful for English teachers, of which I am one: one of the few jobs it is fairly easy for a non-Taiwanese to come here and do.

Most obviously, Taiwan gave me the chance to actually try my hand at teaching longer term and as a possible career goal. That's not something that's so easy to do in the USA or, I gather, most western countries. I am in the USA right now for a family visit (for once there's no bad news) and I reflected during my recent trip to Hong Kong, where I spoke to this friend, and this morning in my dad's house, on what my life would be like if I hadn't chosen Taipei to spend the last decade.

If I'd moved on from Taiwan to another country to teach, I can't say for sure what it'd be like but I'm not at all sure I'd have the same level of professional development (CPD) that I have gained from living in Taiwan, simply due to time and funding. More on that below. Most countries underpay English teachers, and those that don't often require long hours, are very expensive, or just don't have the technological infrastructure to do well in online classes if they don't have in-country CPD.

If I'd stayed in the USA...oh god. I know many people prefer the stability of a salaried office job, but anyone who's met me knows that sort of work just doesn't suit me. I get restless if I'm in one place too long, or have to spend very long hours there. I get bored with routine more easily than many. I don't like being expected to clock in and out at certain hours when that's just not how my best work gets done. I have a strong personality that doesn't quite fit with most office politics, where 'normal' is the new beige. It sounds very self-centered and entitled and "kids these days" although I'm in my 30s, but better that I know this about myself and act on it than put myself and others through the torture of my trying to work such a job, yes? I find most office work meaningless on a personal level, even as I acknowledge that some of it must be done and others do find meaning in it.  So, with my remarkable lack of talent at doing office work I don't find meaningful, and my penchant for saying what I think regardless of the social consequences, and my intractable inability to act 'beige', I probably wouldn't have gotten promoted very quickly and would probably still be wondering why I'm on the bottom rungs at a company that's given me a job that I could do far better at, but lack the motivation to try. I wouldn't even be able to afford training for something different, so I'd feel stuck. I'd still be taking the bus 2 hours to work and back each day and struggling to pay rent on the fringes of a major city, working a 2nd job to have any savings at all, watching my 20s melt into my 30s with little change.

Doesn't that sound lovely?

Taiwan, in short, gave me the chance to do something else. I can't imagine I would have been able to afford the path to becoming an English teacher in the USA.

Anyone who reads this blog semi-regularly knows that I'm a big proponent of teacher training. I really don't buy the argument that all you need is the right personality or talent and some classroom practice - if anything it's condescending to teachers who have worked hard to perfect their craft to imply that any reasonably extroverted upstart who isn't a total dullard could just sort of figure it all out in a few months through magic or something. But, what I haven't perhaps made clear is that I'm also a fan of experience, and getting someone fresh off the plane into a job where they can see for themselves if they like it and are suited to it as a career before committing to an expensive degree program is something I support.  After all I got my start that way. I'd only insist that such opportunities come with somewhat standardized, respectable on the job training and continuing with the job would require getting (school-funded) qualification such as CELTA after a year or two.

But you can't do that in the USA - you might be able to volunteer or get a job at an unaccredited school/institute, but you won't be able to get a real job paying a living wage teaching English in the USA unless you commit to perhaps more money than you want to spend getting certified to do something you've never even tried. Most such jobs seem to require a Master's or teaching license. I can see how promising new talent may decide to just take office jobs rather than commit to that.

So, thank you Taiwan, for making it possible for me to discover a career that suits me in a way my home country could not.

You could say that a lot of countries provide this - you can teach English anywhere. Yes, almost anywhere, but Taiwan has the advantages of being more livable than say, China (or the Middle East for women with strong feminist beliefs), with better wages than most of South America, all of Europe, Turkey and most of Southeast Asia (I hear wages in Vietnam are pretty good but are awful and exploitative in Thailand). It's not as expensive as Japan or Europe - perhaps only in Korea can you save more as jobs there tend to provide perks such as flight reimbursement and free accommodation.

So, in Taiwan you can live fairly well and potentially save enough to pay for CPD - which schools should be paying for or helping to fund but generally don't.  That's actually pretty rare in this profession! I'm not sure if I lived in a more expensive country if I'd have been able to afford Delta at all, or if I'd had to commit to one full-time job. You may have to go abroad for CPD in Taiwan - more about that and other issues below - but at least for me, Taiwan has given me the flexibility and funds I need to get it done.

Taiwan also allowed me to become a permanent resident fairly easily - not something a lot of countries necessarily do. This allowed me to sort of 'create a job' for myself in which I work part-time in corporate training, part-time in the IELTS world, and part-time for my private clients. This is not something I could have done as easily (and legally) in, say, China where permanent residency is hard to come by, or Korea where you need a job offer and work visa to even come in, and so that job - paying for your flight and accommodation and all - is more likely to expect you to work for only them. Even in Taiwan without permanent residency schools that sponsor your work visa can and do ask you to be available for them at set hours - you lose a lot of flexibility, but the fact that I was able to get PR fairly painlessly is a big plus in favor of Taiwan. That sort of freedom has really helped my career because I've had more chances, through being free to work whenever and for whomever I like, to not only get a Delta in my spare time (something that may have been torturous at a full-time job) but also to expand into other ELT specialisms. I don't know that I'd have had the chance to do both specialized private teaching, corporate training and IELTS in a more traditional job setup, and it has been very good for me professionally.

Notably, I could not have done this in the USA either, in part because there's just less demand for English teachers (and what demand there is seems to mostly be in public schools, and I don't teach kids) but also because that sort of freelance work requires a fair amount of bouncing around the city. I do not like to drive. Other than possibly New York - and maybe not even there due to long transit times - I couldn't do the sort of all-around-town commuting that I do on a reasonable schedule without a car. It's a life goal for me to never have to own a car, so this is a big deal.

That's not to say that Taipei is a totally professional place for English teaching, or that it's necessarily the best place to start a career. Certainly about 99% of the cram school industry, where most untrained "Engrish teechers" work, is also a crappy joke, Taiwan has no important professional conferences in ELT, whether academic or professional, and even real employers don't always treat you as a professional. I've been lucky in this regard but even friends of mine who've worked at actual universities complain about treated like grunt workers. There are no good training or qualification programs in Taiwan - you have to go online or go abroad. Most jobs don't care if you're qualified or not. Those in ELT research who actually want to participate in the academic side of the field rarely publish from Taiwan, and professional development is almost never paid for or even encouraged (again I'm lucky in that for me it is encouraged, but I can't help but notice it hasn't been paid for, and that's one other reason why I freelance rather than committing to one employer. No employer has a package quite good enough to get me full-time). The idea of working at a university and having a research budget as well as funding to travel to international conferences, as my friend in the same field in Japan does, seems to simply not exist in Taiwan. So, there's room to improve. A lot of room.

But it would be unfair to slam Taiwan totally. We have a very small community of ELT professionals - I probably know the majority of Delta holders in the country - but I've found a great deal of support in that community. I met my Delta tutor randomly through an online forum post. Other professionals have allowed me to observe classes, accepted me into training programs and given me advice on my way up. Those who 'get it' really get it, and there are few enough of us that perhaps it does mean we support each other more.

And on a more personal note, I grew into my own in Taiwan. I am not the same person who got on a flight from Dulles to Taipei 10 years ago - now I know how to work hard, I know how to deliver results at work (even if I am a bit temperamental or have high expectations at times), I know what I want and I feel like I have an actual career. I discovered that career through working in Taiwan, and I'm not entirely sure the conditions would have been right for it to have happened in another country. I couldn't stay in China, I love Japan but have serious reservations about what it would be like to live there, Korea is not as laid-back, and other countries don't pay particularly well. I've had the chance to try out different types of teaching and had work opportunities I likely wouldn't have had elsewhere. I recently had the opportunity to work in a professional capacity with a public figure I happen to personally admire and respect, on a topic I am very passionate about, and I enjoyed it greatly. I never would have had that chance if I'd just stayed in the USA and worked some crappy joke office job or slogged through work at a cram school in Japan. I wouldn't even be the same person - the professional English teacher who is passionate about her field - who would have had such an opportunity.

So, while my friend has a point about Taipei as a "professional backwater", I just can't entirely sign on to that perspective. Taiwan made me the English teacher and person I am. I  have come to love Taiwan as a second home, and care about it as a nation. I had none of those things in 2006 and while I suppose I could have the same feeling about any country I'd chosen to spend these years in, I chose Taiwan, so Taiwan means something to me.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Cambridge Delta Reading List

Well, I'm finally done. I actually have been for some time, but I got bronchitis and some other stuff happened and I'm only now finally feeling like writing about my Delta experience. I've written about this before, but only from the perspective of having done one or two modules. Now that I've done the entire Delta, I feel more qualified to write holistically about my experiences.

That'll take awhile though, so I thought I'd start out with an essential Delta reading list. Sandy Millin has one going, and though I generally agree with hers, my recommendations are not quite the same.

Obviously most people are unlikely to be able to read all of these before they start a Delta, so I've starred (*) the ones that are the best choices for pre-reading

Some of these titles are only helpful for one module, some will inform your understanding and learning in all three, but all provide the essential knowledge needed to do well on Delta:

*About Language (Scott Thornbury)

This provides an essential overview of the language system of English, which will help you quite a bit on Module 1 Paper 1 Task 4 (though I've heard they've changed around the tasks, so this may now be Task 5), inform your systems assignment decisions (especially if you do a grammar assignment) and papers in Module 2, and be useful to know when figuring out what learners need in Module 3. What's more, it gives you the essential background in basic phonology that make it possible to skip a foundational phonology text (though you may want to read about connected speech and intonation elsewhere, perhaps in Field's book on listening, recommended below). All in all, an essential text as you won't pass Delta without a knowledge of systems.

Testing for Language Teachers (Arthur Hughes) - only the first few chapters are necessary

This will help you out in Paper 2 on Module 1, in the task where you analyze a test for strengths and drawbacks. It will also inform your choices of assessment methods in Module 3 and give you solid background knowledge - though nothing you can cite - for assessing progress in your Module 2 classes. Overall a working knowledge of key concepts in testing is necessary to do well on Delta.

Syllabus Design (David Nunan)
(* only for Module 3 pre-reading)

This is almost entirely for Module 3, but you can't write the paper without having read this text or something similar. I chose this text over others (e.g. Kathleen Graves' Designing Language Courses) as it's short and to the point, so it's a good book to read before you attempt to write your Module 3 paper.

*How Languages are Learned (Patty Lightbown and Nina Spada)
This is solid general background reading and will help quite a bit on Module 1, Paper 2 Task 4 (the one where you try to suss out the assumptions of other language teachers based on some sort of excerpt), as well as inform your choices in Modules 2 and 3.

Beyond The Sentence: an introduction to discourse analysis (Scott Thornbury)

Extremely useful for all three modules - obviously for a Module 2 systems lesson on discourse, but also in Module 1 for Paper 1 tasks 3 and 4 (in which you analyze lesson content and a learner's production, where a knowledge of how that lesson and how that production is organized - or not - in terms of discourse), as well as in Paper 2 tasks 2 and 3 (where you analyze coursebook materials, and being able to provide ideas taken from a fundamental knowledge of discourse will help earn marks). It will also help you in Module 3, in terms of deciding if a dip into discourse-related topics would be suitable for your group of learners. All in all I found this to be one of the more enlightening Delta books I read, as I began with zero knowledge of discourse.

How to Teach Grammar (Scott Thornbury)
(good to read as you are looking at Module 1 Paper 2 tasks 2 and 3, or Module 2 for a grammar systems assignment)

Of all the skills and systems books out there, this is the only one I'm putting in the "core list" as it is the most informative one across a range of topics. It specifically focuses on grammar, but "grammar" is such an open-ended word, and the teaching methods discussed in the book (inductive and deductive learning, guided discovery, the relationship of lexis to grammar etc.) so adaptable, that it can be used to inform a number of teaching decisions even on non-grammar topics. Plus, "teaching grammar" is such a bugbear for many language teachers, and has such a bad reputation among those who have an outdated view of what 'teaching grammar' means, that it's essential on all levels.

An A-Z of ELT (Scott Thornbury)

This is not a book to 'read', though I suppose you could do so. It will help you in the terminology sections of Module 1 (the first two tasks) but the real key is to understand the concepts that underpin the terms, which will help you through the rest of the course.

*An overview text of ELT as a profession
(Can be skipped if you have already read such a book)

If you haven't read one already (perhaps for a CELTA course), an overview of ELT would be a good book to digest before starting. Tricia Hedge's Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom or or Jeremy Harmer's The Practice of English Language Teaching are good options.

*An introductory course book in Linguistics 

(if you haven't already read one)

This would be a smart thing to read as well, as you'll be expected to be familiar with a lot of the terminology and basic concepts. Except for the syntax chapter, which I couldn't follow to save my life, I recommend Linguistics for Non-Linguists, though any decent introductory text for a Linguistics 101 course would be suitable.

* * *

That's about it for a core reading list, but of course that's not all you're going to be reading. During the course, you're going to want to read more on skills and systems - especially for Module 2, but even for Module 3 it's useful to have this knowledge as you decide what your learners would benefit from in the course you design.

With that in mind, here are the best books I've found for macroskills:

Reading: Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language (Christine Nuttall)

This is really the seminal book on reading, and is updated regularly.

Listening: Listening in the Language Classroom (John Field)

Similarly, this is the seminal book on listening and it really informed my skills essay on connected speech. Other books are out there but this is the winning choice.

Writing: How to teach writing (Jeremy Harmer)

This is a fairly easy foundational text in teaching writing. By the time I got to my Module 2 skills assignment on writing (the second-to-last thing I ever did for Delta) I found it a bit too foundational. But it's great for citations and for anyone who doesn't know how to start a skills assignment in writing - far more so than other books on teaching writing that are out there.

Speaking: How to teach speaking (Scott Thornbury)

The aim of the "How to" series really is to act as foundational texts for newbies in the profession, but for citations and a basic working knowledge, without being overly fusty or theoretical, this is your best choice.

And here are some choices - admittedly incomplete - for systems:

Pronunciation: How to teach pronunciation (Gerald Kelly)

Discourse: I haven't found a great book for this, I would say "Beyond The Sentence" (in the core list above) is the best you are going to do for now, though it's more about core ideas in the field than actually teaching them.

Lexis: I didn't do an assignment on this so I don't have a good suggestion. Anyone? I don't know how good the "How to" book is on this (not every book in that series is good - I found "How to teach with technology" to be rather useless).

Grammar: As above, "How to teach grammar" (Thornbury)

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Tale of Lance Lightning

I've sort of hesitated in writing this post because it forces me to come to terms with my past.

That sounds way creepier than it really needs to, but it probably got your attention!

Back in 2002-2003, when I was living in China, I had a coworker who was teaching at another branch of our small provincial English language center. He had a very memorable name - we'll just change his name to "Lance Lightning" - and was an retired-military Englishman with a grizzled-in-a-wiry-sort-of-way air about him.

We traveled to Kunming and Dali together - this is not as weird as it sounds - we got along quite well (I tend to get along with grizzled-Englishman types, the more sarcastic the better) and generally hung out going to tourist spots together, meeting up after breakfast because I was a poor kid staying in hostels and he could afford proper hotel rooms.

At one point, Lance mentioned something about teaching - some educational concept I hadn't heard of - and I asked him about it and where he'd learned it. It was probably something I really should have known about before embarking on a year of teaching abroad, like classroom management. He said he'd taken a CELTA course before coming and, quite offhand, that he did so because "if I was going to move abroad to do this, I thought I'd better to it right or it's not worth doing at all."

That's just the sort of person Lance was. And although I was a feckless 22-year-old at the time, that attitude appealed to me. It's a part of why we got along - he didn't suffer fools (and I suppose that because he suffered me as his weird pink-haired coworker-and-traveling-companion, that I must not have been as much of a fool as I now see myself as having been, and I probably liked the validation).

 photo jenna5_420.jpg

Me and my weird pink hair in Kunming, late 2002 - it was way pinker than this old photo makes it seem.

Anyway, I remember wishing I'd had the forethought and money to have done it that way.

In Kunming, Lance and I stopped at one of the famous temples - either Yuantong or Golden, I don't remember which. It was cool and overcast, a bit drizzly. So much for the famous Kunming weather! Leading up to it was a very long staircase of marble or granite, really onerous to climb. Being a retired army guy, Lance jogged up at a comfortable pace and met me at the top. I climbed comfortably for some time but was huffing and puffing and pushing myself forward by the end.

"Well, you made it," Lance said. "The key to getting up a long stairway like this isn't how strong you are. It's got nothing to do with muscles. It's all about the respiratory and circulatory system. If those are weak, you won't pump the oxygen you need to give you the energy to get to the top. You're not fat" (at the time I wasn't overweight, now I am), "but it looks like you've got some working out to do."

My first reaction was defensiveness - hey, I wasn't that unfit! - but I tamped that down. He was right (I mean I'm not sure about the exact physiological aspects, but generally speaking, he wasn't off base).

In later years I would look back at that moment - it wasn't just about climbing stairs. I wanted to teach as well as Lance could jog up and down those steps. Confidently, knowing what I was doing and how I should proceed, seemingly effortlessly (though it's anything but). Just as one might work out to improve respiration and circulation, I wanted to work out my mental muscles to be a competent, trained teacher.

If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.

Over the next few years I backpacked around Asia, tried to work in finance, couldn't bring myself to care enough about the field to achieve anything within it (and I did try - I just inherently wasn't interested), got an evening job teaching ESL to Korean immigrants, saved some money and moved to Taiwan where I taught English again without any sort of qualifications or credentials for a few years before finally getting my act together and getting a CELTA, then moving on to Delta and IELTS examiner training. Eventually, I will get a Master's. I need it if I ever want to work in this field in a Western country.

Fast-forward to now, and that offhand comment from Lance is quite possibly a part of why I've since swung so far in the other direction - I have the zeal of the converted. I know the CELTA course is a quality course because I've done it. It won't make you a star teacher, but it will give you the basic competency you need to move on to better performance - something you aren't going to get from experience alone.

If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right.

Here's the thing - Lance wasn't a career teacher. He wasn't a seasoned professional. What I respected - and still respect - about this worldview is that he saw a fairly affordable basic course that would allow him to do his "retirement" job with a basic degree of competency, and he shut up and took the damn course rather than construct some unrealistic narrative in which he didn't need it, a narrative that would have insulted teachers, the profession of teaching, and the generations of hard work and research in education, pedagogy and second language acquisition that people have put into the field, all to make himself feel better about not taking his new job seriously. You don't need to be a career teacher to do this. You don't need to plan to stay in it for more than a few years. Even so, you can do better than showing up and pretending your accent and face is enough.

 photo KunmingDragon.jpg

A dragon carving somewhere in the Golden or Yuantong temple, Kunming, China, late 2002.

Now, I advocate pre-service teacher training (as in, taking some sort of English teaching course before you actually begin working as an English teacher), specifically the CELTA, Trinity or equivalent, and will go so far as to say that a.) I think this, or something like it, should in fact be a legal prerequisite for employment in ELT in all countries and b.) I do not view ersatz "English teachers" who lack such qualifications as professionals.

I'll go even farther than that - not only should all English teachers have to get a basic, respected qualification (CELTA, Trinity or equivalent) but that if someone wants to open an English language center, they either need to be, or need to hire, someone with adequate credentials in ELT in order to ensure that the training, curriculum, materials, hiring etc. are all in line with sound educational practice. In short, to ensure that the school wasn't run by businesspeople whose only concern was profit and who were not concerned with the actual quality of the product being provided.

Perhaps it would be acceptable for someone to go abroad and teach English for a year or two without a CELTA if and only if the school in question had a qualified head teacher on staff who trained all new hires, and whose training was examined and approved by a higher accreditation agency or a committee within the Ministry of Education of that country. After a few years, however, it should be required that they either get a CELTA or equivalent (or take the TKT), or leave the field in that country. Government incentives to schools that help sponsor their long-term teachers to gain these credentials would be a solid step forward.

"But Jenna," you're probably thinking, "you didn't do that. You started as a backpacker-teacher! How can you then say that you don't think others should be able to do exactly what you did?"

And you'd be right. So before writing this post I had to think long and hard about why I now feel the way I do, and if it's fair to do so when I benefited from a system that allowed me to get a pretty well-paid job (by Taiwan standards) without having even remotely close to the qualifications I should have had to get it.

Here's what I've come up with: if I could do it all again, I wouldn't have started teaching without doing something like the CELTA first. In 2002, after graduating from college, deciding not to go into Peace Corps (long story), and choosing instead to spend a year in China teaching English, I would have instead delayed my trip by 6 months, saved enough to pay for the CELTA and living expenses in a relatively inexpensive country like Thailand, and done that before moving on to that first teaching job in China.

After all, the CELTA course cost a pretty packet for 2 people to do, with an apartment back home to pay rent on, along with living in a fairly expensive city like Istanbul, but it wasn't so expensive that I as a singleton couldn't have pulled it off in, say, Chiang Mai at age 22.

22-year-old me would have been pretty pissed to learn that she couldn't go teach English abroad without first laying out a few thousand dollars for a basic teaching qualification.

22-year-old me was also an entitled, spoiled idiot. An spoiled idiot who did not understand that she was not so special as to not need basic teacher training before, you know, teaching. That professional fields require, by their very nature, some sort of training to be taken seriously in. That I might have a natural knack for teaching but that's not enough to make one a professional- level teacher, or a "teacher" at all. I was playing teacher, like a kid might "play doctor" or "play firefighter" (or "play lawyer" if kids were inclined to do something that dull to kid sensibilities). That being a native speaker did not qualify me to teach English, just as being "good at math" or even "highly educated in math" does not qualify one to teach math. That being a native speaker of a language is not the same as understanding the underlying systems of that language, and even if you understand those, being able to teach them using sound pedagogy is a different skill entirely. That teaching is so much more than knowing something - knowing how to impart it is equally if not more important.

So yeah, 34-year-old me would tell 22-year-old me to suck it up, save up the extra money and do the damn course. Then she could bum around for a bit, but eventually, if she were to get serious about the job, she'd have to find a job under a real director of studies and improve her craft before moving on to higher qualifications.

With that in mind, reading articles like this bring me back around to that thing about my past that I don't like to admit: that I took the easy route, and that I regret it. I should not have been allowed in front of a class of students who were paying (or whose parents were paying) for the experience. It was one giant facepalm, and I didn't get better until I got some decent pre-CELTA training. My entire professional existence was probably one huge facepalm, in fact, until approximately 2009 when my experience finally caught up with my training. I was doing alright by the time I did the CELTA, but I was not a professional:

"It can easily be the case that native speaking teachers working abroad, in large part because they do not speak the local language, are excluded from the decision making process at their schools. This leads to the native-speakers feeling frustrated because they are not being taken seriously as professionals, while the non-native teachers sit quietly thinking, “Well, you’re not really professionals, are you? You were only hired because you’re a native speaker.”

And that's exactly it. If you're only hired because you happen to speak a language (or in many cases, simply look like you do), then how are you a professional? Professional work requires training and development. It needn't be a teaching license if you're not working with kids. It needn't be a Master's, just as you can be a financial professional with Series 7 and 66 certifications but don't necessarily need an MBA or degree in Finance.

As such, no, I don't think that what makes a good teacher is necessarily the piece of paper to say that they did this or that course - although the content of the courses themselves help. It could be done through more informal on-the-job training, but, honestly, most schools don't even offer that and those who do offer training of such varying quality that it simply cannot be the basis of "professionalism" unless it's either standardized by an accredited authority, or there is a way to show measurable outcomes (in much the same way that a business professional may start out with an unrelated degree but proves themselves through measurable outcomes that lead to promotion). The only way I see this happening in teaching is for everyone, at some point, to take a similar training course just as, say, financial advisors have to do with those Series 7/66 licenses.

22-year-old me would have been butthurt to hear that she was not a "professional". 22-year-old me was an idiot. 34-year-old me accepts it, and is still worried that, not yet having a full Delta, she is not quite professional enough. Incidentally, the end of that conversation with Lance about some aspect of teaching practice entailed me admitting I had no training whatosever, and Lance saying "you're pretty smart. You'll be fine." I see no reason why others can't be "pretty smart" too, and have no problem with kicking those who aren't out of the field.

What worries me is that a lot of these "native speakers hired as teachers" isn't just that they aren't qualified, as I wasn't (and so I can only imagine that in the classroom a large number of them are variations of the walking facepalm that I once was), it's that, like 22-year-old me, they get super butthurt if you say so. They don't like to hear that they aren't professionals, that perhaps their opinions aren't as valid as teachers with training, that there is a reason employers view them as replaceable and interchangeable and don't take them seriously (although I also get the feeling that employers purposely look for "teachers" they don't take seriously as native speakers without qualifications are much easier to "manage". If you are some rando businessman who started a school to make money but you don't know jack about teaching, then it can be quite inconvenient indeed to have a teacher with some training challenging your decisions, most of which are pedagogically crap).

They want to construct a narrative in which one learns to teach by doing it - forgetting first of all that "doing" doesn't mean much if it's not augmented by training and feedback from a professional who can point out where you're going wrong better than you can, and so if you learn by doing without that meaningful feedback (which most teachers at these schools don't get, as most schools don't have a competent, qualified head teacher or Director of Studies), you'll just pick up a bunch of bad habits that you won't even know you have (and will get very defensive about being called out on). Second of all that if you try to "learn to teach by teaching", along your path to learning you've just stepped on a whole bunch of people who've paid you to learn how to do something, and not even gotten a quality product out of their investment. How is that fair?

A system like the ones I proposed above - force English centers to have some modicum of professionalism before they open or to maintain their business, and force teachers to either come in with a qualification or only allow them to work for businesses that can provide training, and even then only for a specified period of time - would not be onerous. The regulations would be quite manageable for any business that takes itself seriously - any business you'd want to have around, in fact. It would get rid of the bottom-feeders and barrel-scrapers, and free up a saturated market so that better quality schools could open, hiring better quality teachers. It would be a net win. Sure, some schools would go out of business but as I see it, good riddance. And sure, some foreigners would find the CELTA/Trinity requirement too onerous and not choose to teach English. Again, I'm fine with that. We could use fewer "native speaker backpacker-"teachers". Open up the market to higher quality. And it would be a definitive step towards improving the profession and maybe those of us who take ELT seriously getting a little respect as teachers for once.

And, come on, all you "native speaker teachers" with no credentials? You can be better than whiny-ass 22-year-old me. Almost anyone can. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Delta Module One: The Grand Finale

Well, our Delta Module One course finished last month, and I figured I really should say a bit more about it for those out there who might take it someday, or who are just curious.

Before I get into how the test itself was, I want to note a few things.

  1. It's important to separate Cambridge ESOL (which runs the Delta Modules) with The Distance Delta (who offers the online course through International House and British Council). The Distance Delta did a great job preparing us, especially considering the fact that it was entirely online. The course was well-structured, well-planned and well-run with solid tutors giving great feedback. I occasionally disagreed with the feedback (for example, I didn't get a point because I called some text 'engaging' - I was supposed to say 'creative, for the purposes of engaging the reader' - wouldn't that text then also be engaging? Dunno, I don't understand at all why not), but my overall impression was very positive. Occasionally I disagreed with feedback, but not because I disagreed with the tutor, but because I disagreed with the guideline answers for the exam - that's Cambridge's issue, not The Distance Delta's. I would recommend Distance Delta Module One in a heartbeat to anyone interested in doing the modular Delta.
  2. The test is too damn short, at least the first paper is. More on that below. Paper 1, in order to be a true, fair exam (if done in an outdated way), really needs to be more like 2 hours. As a result I feel the test - especially Paper 1 - lacks some construct validity. It's constructed so that getting too focused or "in the zone" or being the sort of person who needs to write out their bad ideas before they come to good ones (and can then go back and edit the bad ideas out), or the sort of person who knows a lot and wants to show all of it are all things that can be punished by not having enough time, and therefore not getting all the points they're capable of. It tests your ability to speed-write and have a specific kind of test-taking personality, not your knowledge of the concepts ostensibly tested. If that's not lacking construct validity, I don't know what is. And because I was a taker of that test and I have my doubts, it also lacks face validity! I don't think the score I will get is an accurate reflection of my ability...not at all. 
  3. I, however, understand why there are time limits: otherwise people would write whole theses in an attempt to get perfect scores, and the markers would have to go through all that, and discard probably quite a bit of faff. I just feel the time limits on Paper 1 are too short, to the point that they ruin the validity of the test.
  4. In the end I learned a lot, as well as having prepared for the exam, so I'd recommend this module to anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of past ideas, concepts and research as well as current theories, trends and debates in ELT. That's part of why I'm disappointed that we probably won't be able to do Module Two this year.
  5. The test is not as scary as you may think when you begin to prepare - in the beginning it seems like those evil folks at Cambridge could test you on anything, and there's just no way to know what will pop up or how difficult it will be. In reality, they don't expect you to know everything, and there are limits on how difficult they will make each task. There are limits on how deep they expect you to go, or how deeply the tasks given will let you go. If they give you a task, there must be relevant things there to find and write about. Think of it this way: if you're playing Legend of Zelda, and Link is running all over the level board, looking behind trees or rocks or in rivers, the game creators are going to put things in that landscape for him to find. There will be coins and swords and clues and doorways and whatnot. They won't stick you in a little game-forest with nothing to find, and let you wander around looking behind bushes when there's nothing there. Like that, the exam creators left things for you to "find" as you do these specific tasks. Your job is not to fret that there's nothing to say, nor is it to re-invent the wheel (to use an old cliche), but it's to be Link and to find the things they want you to talk about, and why. If you look at it that way, it's really not that hard at all.
As for the test itself, it goes something like this:

Paper 1:

Part 1 - name five ELT terms from definitions provided

Part 2 - define four out of six given ELT terms
Part 3 - look at a class activity and list five things the students will need to know before they do it (taking their level into account)
Part 4 - some discourse analysis (relevant features of the text) followed by "grammar salad" - lots and lots of language analysis (too much, in my opinion)
Part 5 - authentic student-produced text (written or spoken) - write 3 key strengths and weaknesses of the student from the text and choose one to focus on, giving three reasons why (considering the student's level etc)

The test was not that hard, but the first part was rough. Not because it was difficult, though! I raced through the first and second part (where you have to list or define terminology), skipped part 3 because I wanted to take a good hard look at part 4 (BIG MISTAKE), and got so into part 4 - with so much to say about it even as I cut down my word count to bullet points and sentence fragments - that I lost track of time.

I looked up at the clock one moment and thought "crap, I have ten minutes, then I have to move on". I was in the zone. I had flow. I was killing it. Thoughts were coming to me like beautifully cut diamonds, and I raced to get them on the page. I was zoomed in like I'd chugged Provigil (I hadn't).

I put my head back down and kept chugging through Part 4, looked up again after "ten minutes" only to find that 30 minutes had passed! SHIT. I didn't have enough time to finish, so I did what I could (which was terrible work, because now I was nervous and freaked out, too) and didn't finish. Parts 1, 2 and 4 were grand, beautiful things. Part 5 was a mess; I may get a few points. Part 3 didn't even get looked at (it's worth fairly little, but still).

I blame myself for this - I'm the one who didn't manage time well. It doesn't matter that I didn't manage time well because I was too focused, all that matters is that it happened.

But I also have to add that this test is meant to examine your knowledge of relevant ELT practices and concepts and your depth of understanding, it's not meant to test how quickly you can speed-write or how quickly perfectly-formed thoughts can appear in your head and be jotted down on paper in neatly-packaged summaries. Or at least, it shouldn't test that, because what does that accomplish?

I've been saying this since before we took the test - an hour and a half is not enough time for everything they ask you to do in Part 1. It's just not. It's ridiculous. And I felt that way before I screwed up.

So what ends up happening is that people who really know the concepts tested who have either tendencies to get verbiose (*ahem*), or who benefit from time to edit and re-consider, or who just get really focused and think 10 minutes have passed when it's actually been 30 get punished not because they don't know the material (in fact, they often really, really do!) but because they were in the zone.

Why would you punish someone for getting a little too focused or having too good flow, and reward someone who muddled along and kept looking at the clock because the material was hard to grapple with? If I'd found the material harder I would have looked at the clock too!

The part of the test I finished? I killed. I put a gun to its head and made me give it all its money. I twisted its arm, gave it a wet willy and made it cry for mama. I sucker-punched it like a guy in a cheap dragon costume on the original Star Trek. I was the Incredible Hulk and the test was Loki (I don't know how to embed gifs here). HULK SMASH.

And yet, while I will probably still pass, I probably won't get a distinction or a merit. I do feel, based on the work I was able to finish, that I would have deserved one. Oh well. Life is more than the grade you get - I was just disappointed is all, because I know this stuff and I don't like that I'm being punished for knowing it so well that I stopped thinking about time.

That's why I think the exam lacks construct validity - I don't feel my score will reflect my knowledge of the concepts tested, but rather the fact that I was a little too focused for 20 minutes of my life.

Then there's Paper 2:

Part 1 - you're given a test with background information on what students it is given to and why, and you talk about strengths and weaknesses of the text, using relevant testing terminology as needed
Part 2 - you're given an excerpt from a textbook and you first write about the different indicated activities and their purpose/the intentions of their creators, considering your knowledge of ELT concepts. Then you list at least 6 key assumptions about language learning the textbook authors made in creating those activities.
Part 3 - you take more excerpts from the same text and talk about how they fit together with the previous ones
Part 4 - you're given an extract of some research, article, syllabus, comments, or theory from an educator and you are asked to unpack it using your knowledge of ELT history and other relevant concepts (usually things like giving feedback, the purpose for focusing on certain skills, giving instructions, historical and current theories and practices for language learning, dealing with errors, learning styles/multiple intelligences, that sort of thing).

This is the paper everyone thinks is so hard, and frankly, I disagree. Paper 1 is easier theoretically, but there's simply too much there to do a good job on any of it. Paper 2 has less to do, so if you're rock hard on your theory, then it's really not bad at all. You have time to actually think about what's being asked. I thought Paper 2 was great, and I'm pretty sure I killed it. It's rare, or may even be impossible, to get a perfect score on these papers, but I can't think of anything I wrote that I'd change now. I will get the highest score I am capable of on that paper. It is at least possible I'll get full marks, though unlikely.

I don't have much more to say about that one, because I wrote it out, did a golden job, had 5 minutes to look it over and everything before turning it in. 15 more minutes would have been great to perfect my answers, but I'm happy with the work I did.

In the end, I will probably pass. Brendan and I felt quite differently about the test - he got through every part and gave competent-but-not-brilliant answers (his words, not mine), and will certainly pass. I gave what I think are brilliant answers to what I finished, but didn't finish. Our scores will likely be quite similar. From one perspective, that's fair, as we're of similar intelligence despite our very different personalities. From another, that sucks, because dammit, I gave brilliant answers (or at least I think I did). Why should I get a score similar to others (not just Brendan - I actually have no idea what he wrote so whatever I say about it are his words) who muddled through and did each part well enough?

Oh well. One more month and we get our scores. We'll see then.