You want to be a Secondary Teacher? Are you mad?
Are you mad? This is a question I have been asked many times since I committed to changing my double degree to a single, ditching Psychology and focusing solely on becoming a Secondary English and History Teacher. My answers to this question have changed over the years; ‘I love learning, so I want to work in a teaching and learning environment,’ ‘When all goes well it really is the best job’ and at times ‘I really love arguing with teenagers about phones.’
After taking myself out of my middle-class, Anglo-Saxon niche; the place where I grew up, completed both my practicums and got my first teaching job, my views about education changed dramatically. I discovered the hardships others faced in regards to access to education that I had not considered. I had always considered education a ‘right’ that everyone was granted, not a privilege. I decided to move towards a career that helps people who genuinely need extra learning support in order to access what I assumed were ‘rights’.
Identifying Identity: how we see ourselves.
Reeves (2009) describes the change in discourse that occurred when teacher identity, rather than student identity, is examined. Identity is no longer considered an entirely internal manifestation, but a process in which relationships interact with internal perceptions (p.34).
In the quantitative study conducted by Reeves (2009), certain issues relating to Teacher Identity were revealed. The examination of *Neal through the series of interviews revealed that he saw the construction of his own identity as different to other’s. He actively poised himself against other teachers, perceiving his own strategies and approaches as superior. He believed the way to eliminate educational gaps for second language speakers was to ignore educational differences, implement the same rules and deadlines and treat all of his students the same. This, according to Neal, is in the best interests of perfectly capable second language students (p. 37-39). The results of this study revealed that Neal’s approach could be ‘setting students up for failure’ (Reeves, p.39).
Messages extracted from this paper were easily applied to my own Critical Reflection. Teachers’ own misinformed opinions can work against students’ best interests despite honourable intentions. Teachers’ own self-assertions (aka. Hubris), can become a tool used to identify ones’ self as correct, despite contradictions. I too have been guilty of identifying myself in relation to others; as younger, more in-touch and all accepting. However, like Neal, I have never taken ownership of the language development of ESL students’, positioning myself as not to blame for certain students’ apparent stage of ‘arrested development’. My own reluctance to help these students for fear of misinforming them has resulted in directing those students to other people. This redirecting is something I don’t want to do anymore.
And perhaps this is way I now position myself as different to Neal.
A very critical framework; am I as accepting and progressive as I think?
Critical Reflection theory argues that the assumptions we take for granted, our moral compass and our guide that allows us to assess the ‘normality’ of situations, are part of Hegemonic ideas passed down to us (Brookfield, 2009, p.293). Such viewpoints reiterate that the experiences we hold and perceive as ‘normal’ are governed by preordained, institutionalized hegemonic systems that people rarely question, such as education. Due to the nature of these systems, those in power maintain hegemonic ideas about what is ‘normal’ in a consorted effort to maintain their positions of power. Therefore, without knowing it and with honourable intentions, we can find ourselves working within systems that systematically work against the interests of ourselves and those we are trying to help (Brookfield, p.293-296). Furthermore, it has been argued that the schooling system takes part in further marginalizing groups that hawve already been disenfranchised from the dominant culture (Thorne, 2005, p.396 & Brookfield, p.298).
This article highlighted for me the contradiction inherent in TESOL. Arrogance, or audacity, must be the best words to describe someone studying to teach someone to be more like them, while simultaneously making no efforts to learn more about others. However, teaching TESOL in Australia seems to me the best way to help people experience the fullness of Australian culture and overcome language barriers. It is undoubted that we live in a fortunate country, and why not help those who really want to acquire the skills required to fully become part of Australian society? Surely, this is more honourable than teaching native English speaking students about similes whose respond with ‘why do I need English anyway?’
Critical reflection; how critical is too critical?
Critical reflection is the process by which we try to challenge our assumptions and the assumptions that are handed to us and apply logic and open-mindedness to a situation (Seo, 2010). Thus, to challenge the hegemonic perception that people are better off conforming, and decide if one set of values should be perceived as more ‘normal’ that another. Prevailing assumptions generally serve the interests of those in power, and work in conjunction with Capitalist economic policies to keep those groups who are in power in-situ for generations to come. Brookfield (2009) argues that an ethical critical reflection should consider the outcomes for all involved, and whether or not they are moral (p. 293-297).
This process of critical reflection has once more called into question my own Teacher Identity. Studies have shown that when teaching ESL students, language acquisition will be hardest for those that are perhaps in the most need. Younger learners have higher rates of language attainment, but perhaps more poignantly those with higher education levels and language proficiency in their first language are more likely to become fluent in English (Dixon, 2012, p.44-45). It then leaves you to wonder about those who have been disenfranchised in both their native and adoptive societies.
“I’ve travelled the world, I understand what you’re going through, I’ve seen it.”
I have always identified myself as broad-minded and well-informed. Someone who is accepting of political, cultural, religious, racial and social differences that exist within society. However, upon critical reflection I can see the difference between observing, and living with these differences. As a member of what you might call the ‘dominant class’; a white, educated, Catholic (although renounced) native English speaker, it is important to consider how those who do not fall so neatly into ‘Australian society’ must feel about myself. I surmise that there must be a sense that I do not understand the plight of a second language leaner, which essentially is true, though I am trying.
Critical reflection: practicing my practice the sociocultural way.
Sociocultural Theory stresses the importance of social interactions for learning development. Although there are differences with the way theorists interpret Vygotsky’s theory of Sociocultural Development, there are several common currents that permeate each. Learners develop new skills through social interactions. These skills become internalized; learners now have a tool that they can mediate and bring to the fore when needed. These tools can amplify a person’s natural ability for memory retention and organise and communicate knowledge (Lantolf, 2006, p.70 & Turuk, 2008, p.245). In support of this theoretical underpinning is the concept of zone of proximity development (Vygotsky, 1978, as cited in Scott & Palincsar, 2009) examines the relationship between the actual developmental capabilities of a student and the potential development that can occur when a learner is given appropriate assistance. Thus, individual development, even higher order thinking, has its origins in social interaction (Scott & Palincsar).
Sociocultural influences on the study of language acquisition have given rise to innovative ways to teach language, stressing the important of the teacher-learner relationships (Dixon, 2012, p.45). Teaching principals emphasize the paramount importance of openness, collaborative learning, professional development and technology that can be used to help students from a variety of language groups and levels (Dixon; Weimer, 2012; Cheng & Milnes, 2008; Thorne, 2005).
Within the sociocultural theoretical framework, tools become a heightened commodity. Student participation in learning activities enables what Scott & Palincsar (2009) refer to as ‘transformation’; the internalization of cognitive processes that can be organized and employed when necessary. Thus, teachers should be focused on the way people learn, not the outcome. Learning can be scaffolded so that students are able to develop new skills and can be achieved through open-ended research tasks, flexible language presentations and collaborative units that encourage peer mentoring and group problem solving. This is in line with the pedagogy I already employ in the classroom.
Effective use of ICT in language learning has been identified as increasingly important. Thorne (2005) suggests that students should be given the opportunity to speak with people overseas to aid language learning (p.396). Case studies have shown how materials provided in students’ native language; such as Spanish language print materials and videos for Mexican students in the US, helped students language learning and instilled a sense of trust between themselves and their teacher (Dixon, 2012, pg 42). This approach is consistent with the focus on ‘talk’ as a learning tool. This use of ICT is aligned with my own practice; having used Ipads as bilingual dictionaries and interpretation devices, providing subtitles for movies, bilingual classroom posters and learning a few key phrases in students’ native language. I could however strengthen connections between the classroom and the wider world by connecting with other classrooms via social media.
Strengthening teacher-student relationships is another pivotal tool in teaching language through the sociocultural framework. Moves towards socio-cognitive psychology emphasise the importance of a greater focus on the learners and the learning process, while recognising and celebrating diversity and incorporating attempts to engage with the wider world (Farrell & Jacobs, 2010, pg 5-6). This changed dynamic between teachers and students makes learning a more collaborative affair. Enabling students to express and explore their own identity within the classroom, in my experience, increases engagement and provides better outcomes. Students learn better when they feel they are able to take some control over how and what they learn.
The send off…
My teacher identity is still evolving. I have been teaching for three years now, and in three different contexts. Each school I have worked in has had its own challenges, and my teacher identity changed as a response. Over the course of this assignment my teacher identity has evolved further.
Ironically, without knowledge of it, I have been working within sociocultural theoretical frameworks. Hopefully I can use this approach to teach more than appropriate times to use one’s phone.
Brookfield, S. (2009). The concept of critical reflection: promises and contradictions. European Journal of Social Work, 12(3), 293-304. doi: 10.1080/13691450902945215
Cheng, L., & Milnes, T. (2008). Teachers’ Assessment of ESL Students in Mainstream Classes: Challenges, Strategies, and Decision-Making. TESL Canada Journal, 25(2), 49-65.
Dixon, L.Q. (2012). What We Know About Second Language Acquisition: A Synthesis From Four Perspectives. Review of Educational Research, 82(1), 5-60. DOI: 10.3102/003465311433587
Farrell, T. S. C., & Jacobs, G. M. (2010). Essentials for Successful English Language Teaching. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/hRGJeH
Lantolf, J. P. (2006). Sociocultural Theory and L2: State of the Art. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 28(01), 67-109. doi: 10.1017/S0272263106060037
Reeves, J. (2009). Teachers investment in leaner identity. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(1), 34-41. Doi: 10.1016/j.tate.2008.06.003
Scott, S., & Palincsar, A. (2009). Sociocultural Theory Retrieved February 14, 2012, from http://www.education.com/reference/article/sociocultural-theory/
Seo, C. (2010). Return to Critical Thinking. Retrieved from http://catherineaseo.blogspot.com.au/2010/04/return-to-critical-thinking.html 02/04/2015
Thorne, S.L. (2005). Epistemology, Politics, and Ethics in Sociocultural Theory. Modern Language Journal, 89 (3), 393-409.
Turuk, M. C. (2008). The Relevance and Implications of Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory in the Second Language Classroom. Annual Review of Education, Communication, and Language Sciences, 5, 244-262.
Weimer, M. (2012, 23 February). Using Reading Prompts to Encourage Critical Thinking. Effective Teaching Strategies. Retreived February 23, 2012, from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/using-reading-prompts-to-encourage-critical-thinking