A teachers’ newsletter that supports teacher development
The TESOL Greece Newsletter is, as the name suggests, the newsletter of TESOL Greece, one of the first professional associations of teachers of English in Greece and an affiliate of both TESOL and IATEFL. It is not a newsletter in the strict sense of the word, as it has always published, in addition to the news of the association (letter from the chair, calendar of events, meet the board, etc), practical articles on methodology, teaching ideas and suggestions, reports on conferences, etc; in short, the TESOL Greece Newsletter (from now on, TGNL) publishes the sort of material that one might expect to find in a practical magazine for teachers of English as well as newsletter material. In this respect it is not unlike other association newsletters like IATEFL Voices or the now discontinued Essential Teacher, which was published by TESOL; indeed, at least some of the articles in TGNL have, as a matter of fact, in recent years, been reprinted from IATEFL Voices and from the newsletters of other TESOL affiliates.
The main function of this type of publication seems to be to allow teachers to share ideas and exchange views on issues of professional concern, as well as to disseminate information on the latest developments in the field of English Language Teaching. Many of the articles are written by practising teachers, who do not necessarily have (or need!) an academic background. The idea is that the periodical will contribute to what must be one of the main aims of a professional teachers’ association: to foster and support teachers’ professional development. Indeed, the TESOL Greece website clearly states with reference to writing for the TGNL:
Many of the best teachers develop their skills by interacting with other teachers and hearing about their teaching practices. We also develop ourselves professionally by writing about and reflecting on our experiences as teachers.
The Newsletter caters for the needs of diverse target groups ranging from students and young teachers to experienced teachers and people working in the publishing field. In all likelihood, there is an audience out there waiting for your contribution.
It is clear that those seeking a scholarly journal to which to submit their research reports or research articles should look elsewhere. The envisaged readership of the TGNL is not academics, the TGNL is not a refereed journal, submissions are not peer-reviewed and, consequently, having an article published in the TGNL does not have the kind of value that forces academics all over the world to continually publish (sometimes articles based on mundane or insignificant, yet “original” reasearch) so that they do not perish. Those members of TESOL Greece that are, indeed, academics will submit their research papers to journals such as Applied Linguistics, TESOL Quartely, Language Learning and the like, i.e. journals which do, in fact, have an established gate-keeping function within the disourse communities of the academic disciplines to which they relate. Thus, publishing a piece in, for example, TESOL Quarterly is not about sharing your ideas with colleagues, it is about being accepted into an academic discourse community, whose gate-keepers are the academics who blindly review submissions and the journal editors; these gate-keepers are necessarily respected, senior members of the academic discourse community, who have had a number of articles of their own published in such journals.
TESOL Greece has always, as far as I know (and I have been a member since 1987, so I really ought to know), been aware of the main function of its newsletter as one more tool for supporting teacher development. It has always encouraged teachers to contribute articles and teaching ideas, it has always published articles written by teachers for teachers and the editors of the TGNL (who are unpaid volunteer members of the association, as are the members of the elected board) have always encouraged teachers to write, even if they are unsure of their writing style or the relevance of their ideas. The TESOL Greece website still pleads: Please DO write the article! Your contribution may be invaluable to many colleagues. And to those worried about the accuracy or appropriacy of their English it even goes so far as to patronisingly suggest: You don’t have to worry about making mistakes. All articles are proofread and edited -if necessary -by experienced teachers who are native speakers or bilingual. (Believing that the intentions behind this statement were good, i.e. to encourage more teachers to share their ideas and views, I will forgive the faux-pas of implying that native speakers are necessarily good writers and editors who do not make mistakes and whose help the nonnative speaker teacher needs and necessarily appreciates). Further, the TESOL Greece site reassures prospective writers that we ALL have something to contribute to our profession, even if we are not “experts” or ”authorities.”
When I received the latest issue of the TGNL (#106, April-June 2010), it did not look as though anything had changed. In addition to the association news and updates, it contains the kind of articles that one would expect: some on methodology and class management (e.g. on reducing teacher talking time), some on professional development (e.g. reflective blogging for teachers), some containing views on broader issues related to ELT (e.g. the relationship between theory and practice). The Editor’s Introduction (page 3) contains, among other things, the usual words of encouragement to prospective writers:
all members should take the opportunity , or challenge, to share their ideas, methods, successes (and failures, because we can all learn from our mistakes) and even just your thoughts. By sending us your work, your articles and your comments you will be making this Newsletter more truly representative of all those different areas, people and places that make TESOL Greece the organization that it is. Please contribute! (See Article Guidelines in this issue).
Hmm, I thought, they have even included article guidelines in an effort to get more people to contribute to the newsletter! I knew, from my experience of serving on the TESOL Greece board and working closely with the newsletter editors, that it can be difficult to get enough contributions to fill the 36 pages of a quarterly newsletter with material that will be relevant to the readership and worth reading. And things, I thought, must be even more difficult now that teachers are forced to work more and get paid less, therefore have less, if any, time to devote to any kind of personal or professional development; not to mention the fact that those who do feel like writing about their professional lives and sharing their ideas with the world have, in the era of Web 2.0., far more and far more convenient publishing platforms at their disposal and can easily reach audiences far larger than the few hundred members of TESOL Greece who might read the TGNL a few times a year. When I looked at the contents of the issue, my suspicion was, unfortunately, confirmed: 40% of the content was actually reprinted from other newsletters (mainly IATEFL Voices).
This apparent reluctance of teachers to write for the TGNL explained, I thought, the recurring “please send us your contributions” leitmotiv in the “Editor’s Letter” in the last few issues as well as the friendly suasive (to the point of being patronising) tone of the Newsletter FAQs on the web: the TGNL, I thought, may be in danger of not getting any contributions at all in the near future if the current trend continues.
A teachers’ association that encourages submission
I quickly turned to page 12, where the article guidelines referred to in the Editor’s Introduction were to be found, mainly out of curiosity to see what ideas the Editor and the Board of TESOL Greece had come up with this time to persuade, coerce or inveigle the members of the association into writing something for the newsletter. What I found on page 12, however, was very different from what I was expecting: far from encouraging people to contribute articles to the newsletter, the supposed guidelines positively discourage people from contributing anything and might even discourage certain people (me, for one) from ever reading this publication again.
The first thing that struck me was the tone of the guidelines. This was no longer the friendly pat on the back that said “don’t worry, even if you make mistakes in your writing, we’ll fix them,” nor was it the plea “please contribute” that I had seen on the website and in the Editor’s letter. The title on page 12 is actually “TESOL Greece Newsletter Submission Guidelines,” while the style of the whole text is clearly formal and distant, characterised by the following:
- high lexical density, containing a large number of latinate words (such as, concision, construed, elucidate, endorsement, indicate, significance)
- high incidence of nominalisations (e.g. encourages submission of articles, under consideration for publication, having the endorsement of)
- total lack of personal subjects (I, we, you)
- high incidence of passive voice constructions
- circumlocutions aiming to increase the distance between reader and writer (e.g. individuals concerned with English language teaching and learning)
The second, even more surprising, feature of these guidelines is that they have nothing to do with either the actual content of the TGNL or what is explicitly stated about this content in the editor’s letter and on the TESOL Greece site. In fact, according to the “Submission Guidelines,” it appears that articles about ideas that worked in class or just the members’ thoughts will most definitely not be accepted for publication, as the factors that are considered (significantly, we are not told by whom) when evaluating a submission for publication include the following:
- the submission elucidates the relationship between theory and practice: practical articles must be anchored in theory […]
- the submission offers a new, original insight or interpretation and not just a restatement of others’ ideas and views.
- the submission makes a significant (practical, useful, plausible) contribution to the field and reflects sound scholarship and research design with appropriate, correctly interpreted references to other authors and works
Moreover, according to these guidelines, the areas in which the TGNL accepts submissions include topics like the psychology and sociology of language learning and teaching, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, research and research methodology, but not topics like class management or reflection on practice (which is, oddly, claimed to be the main theme of this issue).
On the basis of these guidelines, assuming no prior knowledge of what kind of publication they refer to, I do not think there is any doubt that one would have thought this is, indeed, a refereed journal. Which, clearly, the TGNL is not. And has never been. These formidable guidelines contradict all previous TGNL guidelines, misrepresent the content of the publication and positively discourage the average teacher from considering writing for the TGNL. What is worse, if they were to be followed, and if the TGNL did in fact publish only articles that were in accordance with these guidelines, the majority of the readers of the TGNL would simply find it irrelevant; it might, however, if it managed to establish itself as a scholarly journal, gain a new following in academic circles and a new life on the shelves of tertiary institution libraries – but even if that were possible, which it is not, for reasons that I will try to explain below, the TGNL as TGNL would need to cease to exist: it could no longer be the newsletter of a professional association that is, as the cover advertises, distributed free to all members, it would have to turn into a subscription journal available to all academics who are interested in it, whether they chose to be members of a teachers’ association or not.
Seriously, though, I do not believe that these submission guidelines mean that the TGNL has changed into a scholarly journal overnight. I would very much like to think that the people who came up with these pseudo-guidelines were misguided or simply mistaken, or that the pseudo-guidelines were put together as a joke that accidentally found its way to page 12 of the TGNL. After all, the TGNL does not have an editorial board and does not use a peer review system, and there is simply no way on earth any volunteer TESOL Greece member that takes on the responsibility of the TGNL Editor can have the necessary authoritative expertise and academic prestige required in all of the areas that the TGNL accepts submissions in so as to act as the sole reviewer; but even if such a person existed, it is doubtful that they would agree to do this kind of work for free; and even if that mythical creature existed and consented, the academics would never come forward that would even consider submitting their work to a journal that had no reputation in academic circles, no editorial board, no expert advisors, and merely one, albeit omniscient, volunteer editor to review their work.
An identity crisis?
The people who came up with these pseudo-guidelines are, in fact, named in a note at the bottom of the page. The note reads: These Guidelines have been adapted from those in use by TESOL Inc. and have been approved by the TESOL Greece Executive Board. This then, one might innocently think, explains some of the confusion: the TESOL Greece elected board members simply adapted some of the guidelines that another teachers’ association uses; the fact that this other association is one of the longest-standing and most respected associations in the world, and that TESOL Greece has almost always been an affiliate of this association would seem to further justify the decision made by the TESOL Greece board.
The problem is that the guidelines were in fact adapted from the guidelines of TESOL Quarterly, a professional, refereed journal that happens to be published by TESOL Inc. Indeed, the most objectionable of the guidelines seem to have been lifted verbatim from the TESOL Quarterly General Submission Guidelines. TESOL Inc does not, of course, use these formidable guidelines for any of its other publications, and did not use them for its own newsletter/practical teachers’ magazine, Essential Teacher, which ceased publication last year. Neither TESOL Inc nor any other teachers’ association would ever dream (or has ever dreamed) of using the submission guidelines of a refereed journal for its members’ newsletter.
I really find it difficult to believe that the TESOL Greece members who comprise the elected board of the association could have made such an embarrassing mistake. Most of them evidently know what a refereed journal is and does and in what ways it differs from the TGNL and I am sure they know that TESOL Quarterly is a refereed journal, not just because it says so on the web page from which they lifted most of the guidelines they approved, but also because many of the TESOL Greece board members, according to their bios published in the very same issue of the TGNL, have completed post-graduate studies in ELT, so must be very familiar with the genres publishable in TESOL Quarterly.
Nor do I believe that the board of the teachers’ association I have been a member of for 23 years suffered a collective identity crisis, spiced with a massive dose of folie de grandeur, which led them to the delusion that, by virtue of having been elected to a volunteer association’s board, they now form the academic editorial committee of a non-existent refereed journal that used to be TGNL.
There is no doubt, I hope, that these guidelines are a mistake, regardless of the facts that I think led to their publication (more on which below). They are a mistake for which I think the elected board of TESOL Greece owe the members an apology, because these guidelines misrepresent the content and function of the TGNL and discourage members from contributing to it. They are also a mistake because they misrepresent the TESOL Greece Board members, who thus falsely appear to have assumed the roles of gatekeepers rather than facilitators.
A few explanatory facts
It is still not clear, however, how and why the board suddenly decided, out of the blue, that they needed to publish these new submission guidelines. And in fact, the publication of the new TGNL submission guidelines cannot be fully accounted for unless certain facts are taken into account that are not, yet, public knowledge.
Some time ago, a friend and colleague, Marisa Constantinides, told me she was writing an article for the TESOL Greece Newsletter. Marisa is a very well-known teacher educator, Director of CELT Athens, a teacher education centre that, among other activities, runs Cambridge CELTA and DELTA courses. She is also one of the founding members of TESOL Greece and has, like myself, repeatedly served on the board of the association. The article, she explained, was about what it takes to be a teacher educator and she was very excited to be writing about this topic. I, too, was very excited and told her I was looking forward to reading it.
A few weeks later, Marisa told me her article had been rejected by TGNL on the grounds that it did not fit with the theme of the issue that was being put together. We both felt this was rather strange, as this was an article that she had been asked to write, not an unsolicited contribution. In fact, I thought it was rather shocking that Marisa’s article was rejected, not just because it had been solicited, but because I believe she is a very good writer and was writing about a topic that she knows better than most, having had over 25 of experience as a teacher educator.
The article in question was then published as a guest post in the extremely popular TEFL blog Kalinago English and you can read it here. Later, Marisa’s post was nominated for the category of “most influential post” in the Edublogs Awards 2009. In retrospect, I think Marisa should be thankful that her article ended up being published in Karenne Sylvester’s blog, read by thousands of people, and nominated for this award, rather than having been published in a print newsletter with very limited readership.
What is interesting, though, is that Marisa found out later, in informal conversation with one of the members of the (elected) board of TESOL Greece, that the reason she had been given earlier for the rejection of her article was not true, the real reason being that the board had felt the article was self-promotional (!) and could therefore not allow it to be published! If this version of the story is true, the fact that Marisa did not need to promote herself to any of the five hundred members of TESOL Greece, as they already know her and her school, did not, apparently, cross their minds. That it is impossible to talk about your professional experience without talking about… well, your professional experience did not cross their minds either. But the most frightening thing is that they felt they had the right to act as gatekeepers of the TESOL Greece member community and that they did, in fact, prevent an article from being published for reasons that have more to do with their personal beliefs, ideology and preferences than with the job they were elected to do.
We have no way of knowing whether this version of the events is what truly happened. However, Marisa tells me she wrote to the TESOL Greece board a few months ago requesting an explanation, but has so far not even received an acknowledgement.
An original guideline
I suspect that it was instead of replying to Marisa that the TESOL Greece board decided to publish the Submission Guidelines which I have been discussing in this post. What I saved for last is the only guideline that was not, in fact, lifted from the TESOL Quarterly guidelines but must have been composed by the elected members of the board themselves. It reads as follows: Submissions promoting commercial or personal interests will not be published.
How it can be determined that a particular “submission” promotes commercial or personal interests is not clear. For example, could an article on the construct validity of the TOEFL be claimed to promote the TOEFL? Could an article about the revisions to the Cambridge DELTA scheme be claimed to promote the Cambridge DELTA? Could an article about the use of Fidel charts in the Silent Way be claimed to promote Educational Solutions, Inc? My answer to all three questions is no. Others might think that the answer to any or all of these questions should be yes. In any case, these three questions could all be claimed to make reference to actual commercial products, regardless of the fact that these products are actually part of the everyday reality of many English language teachers!
But when it comes to personal interests and their promotion in a teachers’ association’s newsletter, which explicitly invites teachers to share their experience with the readers, it is even more difficult to define what constitutes “promotion”. I have been a teacher educator for almost twenty years, a materials writer for ten and an academic manager for seven. If you ask me to share my experience with you, I might tell you about the DELTA and CELTA courses that I have taught on, the rewards and the challenges, the things I have learnt and the things that I am still finding it difficult to learn; I might also tell you about the City & Guilds ESOL exams which I am now working with and the Cambridge ESOL exams for which I have worked in the past; I might also tell you about the challenges of designing the syllabuses and training and assessing the teachers and the Directors of Studies at the Eurognosi language school chain, of which I was Academic Director; and I might also tell you about Action, my first coursebook series, Lift off, my second, and Code, the most recent coursebook I worked on and what I learnt from my experience as a coursebook author. Does this mean that I am promoting DELTA, CELTA, City & Guilds, Cambridge ESOL, Eurognosi, Action, Lift off or Code? Does it mean that I am promoting myself? And if the latter, what exactly am I promoting myself as? And for what? And to whom?
There are, I think, some very good reasons why publications like TESOL Quarterly, but also IATEFL Voices and the various teachers’ associations newsletters do not include, in their notes to contributors, any clauses like the one that TGNL came up with regarding the promotion of personal or commercial interests:
- It is not always possible to define what constitutes promotion, especially of personal interests. As a result, this criterion can easily be used to conceal the hidden agendas and personal interests (or likes and dislikes) of those who make the editorial decisions.
- When talking about teaching it is often necessary to refer to specific examples from your experience, which would immediately rule your contribution out as it might be taken to be promoting yourself.
- When talking about research you have conducted (in case TGNL seriously wants to become a scholarly journal!) it is essential to refer to your specific context; not to mention that the whole point of submitting an article to a refereed journal is indeed to promote yourself in the academic world (publish or perish)!
Self-appointed (and self-accountable?) gatekeepers
If, then, the motivation behind the rushed and misguided decision made by the elected members of the board of TESOL Greece was, as I suspect, not to prevent teachers from contributing to the TGNL, but to secure an alibi, a retrospective, fool-proof justification for rejecting articles contributed to the TGNL, then the situation is much worse than it would have been if the publication of these submission guidelines were merely a matter of ignorance and confusion. In any case, the questions that remain open are the following:
- What should be the criteria used by the editor of a teachers’ association’s newsletter in accepting or rejecting an article that has been submitted or, worse still, one that has been solicited?
- What is the role and function of the elected board of the association with regard to the association’s newsletter? Do they act as a collective editorial board? If so, does this apply to all submitted articles? Are the members of the association who elected them aware of this function? Are the members of the board competent to make such decisions? And, most importantly, are the criteria and the process used transparent?