I was looking at yet another CV of an ELT teacher applying to work with us as a part-time educational consultant. This teacher had a degree in English Literature, quite a few years of experience and an impressive two pages of “Seminars attended”. The “seminars attended” included, almost exclusively, items like the following:
- Preparing students for [exam A]
- Using [coursebook B] with young learners
- Making the most of [brand C] interactive whiteboards
- The assessment of writing skills in [exam D]
- Teaching adults with [publisher E’s] brand new course
I scanned through the long list looking for courses or workshops that this teacher had attended that actually focused on teacher development rather than promoting educational products and services; there were none. And yet, when I interviewed the teacher in question, she said “I am very interested in professional development and, as you can see from my CV, I have attended a very large number of seminars; I understand the need to keep abreast of current developments in our field!”
Fair enough! It was evidently true that this teacher had, in fact, given up quite a few free mornings, especially at weekends, to “attend” these “seminars,” and it was also evidently true that she devoted time and energy to collecting certificates that the “seminar” organisers produced and it was also evidently true that she actually believed these activities to constitute teacher development.
While I agree that such informative, or even commercial, events can indeed contribute to a teacher’s professional development, as they can potentially give teachers useful information on products and services that they might find useful in their profession, it does bother me that a lot of teachers seem to think that such free seminars and workshops sponsored by publishers, examination bodies and other organisations primarily interested in promoting their products are in fact equivalent to teacher training / teacher development courses that other teachers invest in, both in terms of time (often quite considerable) and in terms of hard-earned money! Some of these teachers are even more unaware than the teacher I have described here; you ask them “have you completed any teacher training courses?” and they respond “oh, absolutely, lots! I go to seminars all the time” meaning, of course, that they routinely attend those free promotional events.
It is true that some of these commercially driven “seminar” providers do occasionally make an effort to offer teachers workshops and talks that do, indeed, focus on teacher development or methodology issues which are quite unrelated to the products and/or services they promote. I have organised a number of such events myself and in the “seminars” the organisation I work with (PeopleCert, which represents the City & Guilds English language exams in Greece) offers, I always make sure that we include one talk that directly relates to the exams we promote and at least one workshop that focuses on a topic in methodology that has nothing to do with our exams. Over the last three years, we have covered in such workshops topics like developing speaking skills, using dictionaries, using a genre-based approach to teaching writing, teaching listening, classroom management, and using Web 2.0 tools in the classroom. And yet, I would not dream of pretending that these workshops and seminars can do anything more than give participants a taster of how much more there is to learn about their profession.
It is clear that such events are by definition limited and that attending a talk or workshop on a Saturday morning cannot really, by itself, support a teacher’s effort for professional development. It is also clear that any certificates of attendance teachers collect from such events have a rather limited value: at best, they certify that the teacher was physically present in a room where something to do with ELT was being talked about.
This is one more example of the term “teacher development” being misused and applied to what is in fact lack of development. As I have argued elsewhere, teacher development presupposes teacher education, and teacher education is a long, often painful, and usually expensive process. The kind of awareness that can enable teachers to question their current practices, to improve their teaching and ultimately to improve their students’ chances of learning, learning faster and learning more enjoyably is an awareness that can only be developed through a teacher educational process that is far more demanding, and therefore far more far-reaching, than the free seminars we can attend at publishers’ events, conferences and ELT book exhibitions.
Once you have completed a course or two that involve critically examining your current practices, planning lessons, teaching, and getting feedback on your teaching so that you can confront and re-evaluate your assumptions about teaching and learning, the free workshops and seminars can indeed help you develop further; and so can blogging, interacting with other teachers on the web, attending conferences, and so on. The difference is, of course, that you know and understand more about what you are talking about and you are, actually, in a position to process what you are being told by the various “presenters,” to evaluate it, to relate it to your own practice, and to reject it if it deserves to be rejected!