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.