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English Language Teaching Global Blog


How good a teacher are you?

Teacher writing on blackboardRobert McLarty, Head of Professional Development at OUP, gives a brief introduction to the European Profiling Grid (EPG) project to help improve the quality and effectiveness of language training.

I play golf in the most average way possible.  I have been at the same level of golf since I left school around forty years ago. If I were learning English, my teacher would already have placed me right in the middle of the intermediate plateau. Luckily, golf is only a hobby so I don’t have to justify my level to anyone but myself.

Language teachers, on the other hand, have always found it hard to assess themselves. For a long time we have had the debate about native speakers as opposed to non-native speakers. Then there have been disputes as to whether knowledge of the language or ability to illustrate that knowledge and pass it on is the more important skill.

There are a number of initial teaching qualifications for language teachers, others for more experienced ones, and then a wide range of post-graduate qualifications. But how much do they improve the quality of someone’s teaching? Experience seems valued until the teacher has been somewhere too long; inexperience is valued because it is usually added to with zest and vigour. But there is always a question mark over the rookie teacher, despite the fact that they innovate without meaning to and often bring genuine passion to the classroom.

Within teaching establishments there is usually a wide range of teacher profiles with a completely individual mix of talents and qualities, strengths and occasional weaknesses. That is what’s so engaging about language teaching – but it also brings its own risk. Other professions can increase the value and the price of their service simply by having a linear progression of qualifications. This will never work for education. There are too many other factors to take into consideration.

So, when a school claims that their teaching staff is qualified and experienced, what does this mean? Does it necessarily add value? Why are they better than the competition or better than the new school, which is lowering its prices but offering the same level of service?

EPG Project logo

Image courtesy of EPG

Against this backdrop, a very exciting project has been run by a group of institutions from across Europe who have developed the European Profiling Grid. This is a framework of competences for language teachers available as an online assessment tool. The same tool can be used by the teachers themselves, their trainers or their managers.

By plotting your level to a range of descriptors in four main areas, you arrive at a profile (often jagged) of your teaching as it is today. You are encouraged to assess your training and experience, including observed teaching, your teaching skills along with other life skills such as intercultural competence, your digital literacy, and your professionalism.

Discussing it with a group of managers, trainers and teachers at the recent IATEFL BESIG conference, a number of conclusions were drawn. There was consensus that it will be a useful tool for professional development in that it shows where a teacher needs further training; it will act as a good starting point for an appraisal conversation; it is a useful official document confirming a teacher’s competence at any given time, and; as a collection of records it will give an accurate profile of an institution’s professional knowhow and experience – very useful when bidding for new business or preparing for inspections.

The same discussion raised doubts about the lack of personal skills areas in the grid – communication, collaboration, charisma, creativity and so on – and it’s hoped that these will be addressed at some stage. It was also noted that schools could misuse the grid in a judgmental way, which might actually be damaging for a particular teacher.

As part of a professional development portfolio, however, the grid got a big welcome. In much the same way as the CEFR was greeted with caution and grew into a vital benchmarking system for language learners, I expect the EPG will be in common parlance in the teaching world within a short space of time.

The first iteration is now available on the EPG Project website. Try it out and submit feedback to the project team.

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Oxford Teachers’ Academy 2012 – Reflections

Teachers working togetherMirjana Podvorac, an attendee of the Oxford Teachers’ Academy: Teaching English for Adults course in July 2012, talks about this life-changing experience.

I feel really privileged to have been a part of the Oxford Teachers’ Academy course Teaching English to Adults 2012. Being able to meet people from all over Europe and beyond, who are in the same profession of teaching, who are really dedicated to what they do and are experts in their area of interest, is inspiring and makes me personally want to learn more and push my own limits.

These few days in Oxford have really been rewarding in many ways; famous Oxford University and prominent Keble College provided a perfect setting for the course, stirring our imagination and taking us back to the times of Tolkien, C.S Lewis and other prominent Oxford scholars.

The course consisted of 18 hours of intensive teacher training divided into 9 sessions over the course of three days. Tim Ward, the tutor, professionally covered all language skills providing lots of useful tips, techniques and ready-to-use activities to make our teaching more efficient, varied and fun. Personally, I admired his calm, friendly, and engaging attitude. At the end of each day there was some time left for reflection, going through our notes and handouts, summing it all up, which have proved to be very useful now that I want to use the activities and ideas in my class.

We were also given the opportunity to meet the editors of Oxford University Press Adult course book classics, English File and Headway, which enriched with the new, inventive iTutor and iTools digital features, continue to be teachers’ favourites worldwide. Being able to convey our opinion to people who are engaged in the process of the development of new courses and to assist with the usability testing of the online test project was really rewarding. The OUP team have proved once again to be trustworthy ELT partners who truly value teachers’ feedback encouraging all the participants to continue working together and contribute to future projects.

Meeting fellow colleagues from different countries was another benefit; 36 enthusiastic people who like this tricky, yet wonderful profession. We spent most of our free time together as well, sightseeing, taking photos, buying souvenirs and getting to know each other over dinner and a pint in famous Oxford pubs or, again thanks to the OUP, enjoying fabulous Lebanese food. We continue to keep in touch exchanging ideas, useful books and links. Hopefully, the OUP OTA 2012 will result in some inspiring international partnerships as well.

In conclusion, although Oxford is known as the City of Dreaming Spires suggesting the melancholy, poetic echo of the rich history, we have found the City and the University itself to be vibrant, stimulating and fully awake.

Finally, I give my appreciation to the Croatian OUP team in Zagreb, who have been reliable partners for more than thirteen years, for their support and this memorable experience.

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What do teachers find most valuable about intensive refresher courses?

Tim Herdon is a Senior Teacher Trainer at Oxford University Press and runs the Oxford Teachers’ Academy. In this article, he explores some of the benefits of intensive teacher training refresher courses.

Every year in July a unique teacher training event takes place in Oxford. Approximately thirty-five non-native teachers come from all parts of Europe – and this year also Latin America and the Middle East – to spend three days discussing approaches to language teaching, trying out new ideas and activities and reflecting on their own practice.

The Oxford Teachers’ Academy (OTA) is an 18 hour refresher course for language teachers and is divided up into three 90-minute workshops per day for three days, interspersed with periods of reflection and feedback.

Normally these courses take place outside the UK, and the participating teachers tend to be mainly the same nationality, have similar educational backgrounds and in some cases all work in the same institution. The difference with the OTA held annually in Oxford is that teachers are all from different countries and have a wide range of different attitudes and experiences to bring to the course. Inevitably, these ingredients make for a highly stimulating course, and from the morning of day one the atmosphere is buzzing as teachers realise that despite the wonderful diversity of the group they experience very similar challenges, frustrations and rewards on a daily basis in the classroom.

What do teachers value most about OTA, (and I refer to OTA in general, regardless of whether the course is held in Oxford or elsewhere)? Well, before joining Oxford University Press (OUP) as a Senior Teacher Trainer with responsibility for OTA, I was a freelance teacher trainer and was lucky enough to lead several OTA courses in Brazil and one in Kazakhstan, as well as being involved in OTA trainer training in Russia – so I have the advantage of two different perspectives. I’ve read hundreds of feedback forms as part of my current role and the value of this kind of training is perceived in many different ways. For some it’s the course content; for others it’s the professionalism and resourcefulness of the trainers; and for others it’s the opportunity to take a step back and have a think about what good teaching and good learning means.

After last year’s Oxford OTA course, one of the participants, Erika Osváth, posted a wonderful article on this blog in which she pointed out the special benefits of a course that is face-to-face and, moreover, face-to-face in an attractive, inspiring location steeped in history and tradition. This sparked some interesting comments on the blog in which teachers discussed the merits of face-to-face versus online training. As OTA will be offered in an online version as well as face-to-face from 2013 onwards, I have a particular interest in this issue, and am always interested to hear what teachers think. Although from the OTA point of view this is still uncharted territory, my general feeling is that it’s not so much that one model is better than the other, but rather that each mode offers different advantages.

Erika’s enjoyment of all the educational discussions she got involved in is a good example of this. In face-to-face mode, discussions (both inside and outside the course) are hugely enlivened by the immediacy of direct personal contact, and online mode is weaker in this respect. However online discussions have the advantage of being more representative of the whole group: as a participant you have access to what all discussion contributors think about a given issue, whereas in face-to-face discussions between different groups spread out across the room, you are physically limited to the group you’re actually working with. So, different advantages for different modes.

Beyond that, however – and this aspect is rarely alluded to directly but is there nevertheless – I think there is great value attached to the fact that OTA courses are not assessed, but are certificated. Not being assessed means that participants have the freedom to experiment with new ideas without the pressure of knowing that their participation and output may be evaluated and therefore count towards assessment in some form. At the same time most teachers are also keen to have an official piece of paper to show for their time and efforts, and the OTA does lead to a certificate, based on participants being able to demonstrate written evidence of learning during the course. The certificate shows that the teacher has successfully participated in a course jointly designed by OUP and Oxford University, and whilst it is primarily a certificate of attendance, in some countries it counts towards the formal professional development requirements of teachers working in state education. So this ‘best of both worlds’ aspect gives the course the right balance of flexibility and concrete value.

Have you taken part recently in an OTA course, or a similar short refresher training course for teachers? If so, what was the most valuable aspect of the course for you? I’d be very interested to hear your comments and thoughts on this topic.

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Dream or reality? – reflections on the Oxford Teachers’ Academy course

Having attended the Oxford Teachers’ Academy summer course on Teaching English to Teenagers, Erika Osváth shares her reflections of the three day course, what she learned, and the people she connected with.

Oxford Teachers' Academy Summer 2011 Group

Oxford Teachers’ Academy Summer 2011 Group, courtesy of Alice Abrahamova

Have you ever experienced this?  Getting home from a teacher training course or a conference abroad, where you’d had the opportunity to meet colleagues from a lot of countries from around the world, you feel so inspired by the whole experience that you seem to be living in two worlds at the same time for several days after the event? I’m sure that a lot of you have and know exactly what such an experience is like.

A few days after participating in the Oxford Teachers’ Academy three-day-course on Teaching English to Teenagers I have this pleasantly odd feeling: half of me is still wandering the streets of Oxford, staring at the façades, quads, libraries and churches of the unbelievable number of colleges, some dating back to the mid-thirteenth century. All of them so gorgeous that I’m left speechless. Though, I must admit, I didn’t have any problems chatting in the evenings in the pubs, which were just as old as the colleges.

This same half of me is also taking part in vibrant discussions on what the teens we teach are like in the countries we come from, having lots of fun trying out some useful activities, discussing how they’d work within our own teaching contexts and getting interesting insights into the different cultures.

My physical self, meanwhile, is back in Hungary, surrounded by buildings and objects I can’t really focus on as I find myself constantly thinking about how to take ideas from the OTA sessions further in my own teaching, material development and training.

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