This is the 6th post in the Trainer Conversations series. The idea for the series was introduced here, and the links to all the earlier posts can be seen as pingbacks.
I first met with Ron on a pilot training program for elementary school teachers in Daegu, Korea, in 2009, and we have run several intensive courses together since then. We have had occasional chats on Skype about our current (and potential) projects, exchange e-mails with ideas and activities, challenges and solutions, asked for a piece of advice when working with new trainers, and many more.
Z: Ron, it is always great to get in touch and talk! Where are you based now? What’s your current teaching or training project?
R: I am currently based, with my wife Ellen, in Grand Junction, Colorado. We are currently both training an FHI/SIT online two-month course for a group of 25 teachers all from different countries. The course is titled Teaching Grammar Communicatively.
[Note: and delivered by World Learning – SIT Graduate Institute as a part of OPEN courses (Online Professional English Network), former AE E-Teacher programs. You can learn more about the course here]
The Colorado National Monument with Grand Junction in the background.
Z: Why do you like teaching?
R: You know, it’s interesting, because although I earned a B.A. degree in Music Education, I never wanted to teach music. It was just a back up plan in case I couldn’t make it as a professional musician. But after returning from an Army stint in South Korea, where besides playing music, I had the opportunity to teach English off base to Korean families, I found it quite satisfying. This was how, along with experiencing Korean culture up close, I fell in love with the idea of working with various countries and cultures to help improve their pronunciation. This, in turn, led upon my discharge from the Army to go back to school to study linguistics, which then led to attending SIT for their new MAT ESOL degree, then just one year old.
That was a decision I will never regret. I had had enough theoretical linguistics at UC Berkeley, so the timing was perfect, to move on the something new, exciting, and practical.
Now to the question, why do I like teaching, in this case ESL/EFL and teacher training? First of all, I love the interaction with the various cultures around the world; Korea and SIT gave me this appreciation. I think primarily seeing my students light up when they are learning something new. I love teaching in a way that engages the students’ learning process, which means I much prefer using an inductive, collaborative discovery approach. I love being a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’. Teaching for me is about observed learning. When you think about it, a teacher needs to have students to be a teacher, but students do not need a teacher to be students; they can learn on their own from any variety of resources.
Z: What are your (2-3) most important teaching beliefs?
R: Three of mine are
To foster a safe learning environment where students are having fun learning, and where it is expected that they will make mistakes in the process. I love humor, mostly making fun of myself as the ‘dumb’ teacher.
And then, as I said above, students must be engaged in the learning process—lots to consider here. Finding out what they already know is essential to meeting them where they are and then using an inductive discovery approach, learning new concepts, especially grammar, but then being able to use their new learning by the end of the class is so satisfying. It’s interesting, because new teachers want to be liked. Sometimes when I ask a teacher how the class went, they will often respond, with, “It was great.” Then I’ll ask, “What was great and how do you know?” The answer that comes back is, “They participated in the activities and were having fun.” I’ll say, ‘That’s great! and it’s important that they enjoyed the class.” Then I’ll ask, “What did they learn to do by the end of the lesson, they couldn’t do before?” SILENCE. So, yes, it’s really gratifying to see the students’ progress in their ability to use the language to communicate effectively.
As every student learns differently, it’s important to address their various learning styles. For me this is done by building in a good deal of variety in the activities—some visual, some kinesthetic, etc. I feel that the best way to do this is to choose activities that include as many modalities as possible. A ball toss, for example, can easily include all four modalities—auditory, visual, kinesthetic and tactile.
Z: Ball toss makes me feel nostalgic (one of those ‘physical’ aspects of a live lesson that are next to impossible to do in a class online) How did you become a trainer?
R: In 1999, while I was still involved in running our school in Colorado and during a time that our school was floundering from the Asian financial crisis, where most of our students came from, Ellen and I decided to join the new trainer of trainer’s course being offered at SIT, titled the “SIT TESOL Certificate Course”. There were only 5 of us in that first course. Having this course under our belt allowed us to use an existing non-profit to become a training site at Sonoma State University in California, Grand Junction, Colorado, and DePaul University, Chicago, and for a couple of courses in Boston. These ran from 2002 to 2013. In 2002, I became a trainer of trainers (TOT).
Z: Yes, Chicago and DePaul University site is the place I remember so well! (was my very first course abroad in 2008, and first time in the States).
R: Having these skills early on led to some very exciting training opportunities—the first to be taught in Thailand and Oaxaca, Mexico, the training of 32 teachers from Turkey for the State Department, as mentioned above, and multiple trainings in South Korea and Costa Rica. And then as an English Language Specialist for the US State Department to be chosen to do analyses and trainings in Albania and Angola at a time when I thought my career might be over. It’s been a wonderful almost 50-year career.
Z: What are your (2-3) most important (core) training beliefs? What shaped them?
R: These are much the same as for the most important teaching beliefs. Again, the new teacher needs to be engaged in the learning process. I try not to lecture—too much anyway. I am a strong believer in ‘loop input’, that is training in a manner that models effective teaching practices. For example, teaching a session on how to give effective instructions is all about engaging the teachers in what these actually look like by modeling them, and then having the teachers experience them in their practice teaching sessions. Then this must be followed by rigorous reflection, which, of course is the essence of the SIT TESOL Certificate course, using the Experiential Learning Cycle—describing, analyzing, generalizing, and planning for the future. I feel that it is rare that a teacher completes the course with a high proficiency of effective teaching, but if they can reflect effectively, their professional growth after the course has a better chance of continuing. I have seen this first-hand while observing teachers some 10 years after completing the course. It’s so satisfying to see their progress!
Z: What kind of courses or sessions for teachers do you usually run?
R: These included over 40 SIT TESOL Certificate courses, and then Best Practices courses in Korea especially and for the Turkish educators. I must say that probably my most exciting career experience was in 2014 training 32 Turkish educators at the University of Massachusetts with Ellen, Brian Long and David Donaldson. These educators were engaged in re-training some 48,000 teachers in Turkey at the time.
Z: How do you keep your training skills up between the courses?
R: As I am not currently doing any face-to-face training, I don’t have the advantage of observing teachers first-hand. I would like to find ways to do so, perhaps using Zoom, etc. As mentioned above, I have conducted a number of webinars to Yemenis teachers using PowerPoint presentations on a wide variety of topics, including reflective practice, teaching grammar inductively, giving effective instructions, interaction dynamics, designing units of study, to name a few. My current, work training on the Teaching Grammar Communicatively course, offers ongoing engagement with up-to-date practices and engagement with numbers of teachers around the world. In January 2020, I gave a presentation at the regional EnglishUSA conference in San Francisco titled “Dictogloss: A New Approach.”
Z: Like you, I have also been working with teachers online ‘asynchronously’, without ‘live meetings’ or real-time lesson observation. In this case, teachers learn how to plan lessons, and how to reflect on them in-depth. They can get feedback from colleagues who either work in a similar type of context, or have a very different perspective (which can lead to ‘thinking outside the box’, asking great questions, having completely fresh ideas, etc.)
Now, asynchronous training format does not help with the ‘teaching’ itself, as we don’t see the teachers in their classroom. In your opinion, what roles does observing participant lesson play in teacher training and teacher learning? Can teacher learning happen effectively without it?
R: I do think it is important to observe an on-going class– in this case it would need to be by video–that shows evidence that new knowledge is being applied in observable skills. In this regard, to be effective, it is important to see both the teacher AND the students, to observe the whole picture. After all, what is important is student learning and how the teacher interacts with the students.
In my trainings I like to use the example of the students taking a class on how to fold a parachute that will be used the next day to jump out of an airplane. The students tell me “It was a wonderful class—the teacher explained and showed how to fold the chute step by step. Then the camera moves to the students and they are taking notes—very engaged in the lecture. They all pass the written test. The question is, will they now be able to successfully fold their parachutes in a way that they will have a successful jump? What would you suggest that the teacher did differently? I have always loved Michael Jerald’s (my SIT TESOL Cert trainer) question(s), “What did they learn and how do you know they learned it?” Now we are talking about skills, not knowledge—and effective communication is a skill. The parachute teacher had no way of knowing that they would be successful, even though they had aced the written test. So, whether or not face-to-face or by way of video, the nature of student engagement is the most important issue. It needs to be observed!
Tandem parachuting: jumping with the learner? Photo by Balakrishnan Raman on Pexels.com
Z: I love the parachute example! While searching for a relevant image, I realized how tandem parachuting can be used as a metaphor for coaching new trainers, aka training of trainers (ToT), which we both do. My next question will be about this part of your work. In what way(s) do you see the process of becoming a trainer is similar to or different from the process of learning to be a teacher? For example, a similarity may be the need and habit to reflect on their classroom and training experience and act on the feedback from others.
Did we bring our parachutes? Slide from Ron’s presentation.
R: The most important issue for me as to the similarity and at the same time difference lies in the level of expertise the teacher brings to the table—and it’s not necessarily about the amount of experience. The more “qualified” the teacher is as to manifesting effective teaching practices, the easier it is to guide them in the process of becoming an effective trainer, as many of the basic teaching skills are inherently brought to the table.
Z: Great one: indeed, attitude defines the learning process! One difference (to me) is that the teachers on the course are ‘practicing with/on’ the language learners who know they are new teachers who need to practice, but a new trainer is not learning the new skills with a group of ‘practice teachers’: he or she joins to either observe and ‘shadow’ or co-deliver a course with the ToT. This often results in their faster learning curve but a bit less comfortable pace.
R: Good point!
What questions about teaching or training (or trainer training!) have you always wanted to be asked about?
R: As TOTs, how can we help our TbT (and course participants, too) write a rich, detailed description of a specific teaching moment without mixing it with other stages? (Note: in the SIT TESOL Certificate Courses we are practicing rigorous reflection on the lessons taught using the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) as a model, where a description of a teaching moment is followed through logically in the other stages—analysis, generalization, and plan for future action)
It is important to describe, as a fly on the wall, what the teacher did and what the student(s) did in response— ’cause – effect’ relationship, in other words. I also remind teachers and trainers about the language structures, e.g. the tense of description is past, since we talk about something that already happened. The next stage of the ELC, Analysis, should then explore a variety of reasons for the success or failure of the moment, but based on observed evidence in the description.
Z: Love the fly on the wall metaphor. To me, the Analysis can have lots of ‘may’-s and ‘could’-s and ‘could have-s’, since we don’t always see in what specific way an action or decision helped or hindered student learning in that lesson, in relation to the aim/objective for students.
R: Yes. This Analysis then leads to Generalizations about what works or doesn’t work and should be formulated in the present tense (what is generally true and possible, not only in the lesson we focus on). And finally, based on all of the above, Plans for future action—say in the next lesson—are stated as ‘will’ statements, or ‘going to’/future. “The next time I [give instructions, choose a reading text, create a breakout room, etc.] I will….”
Z: I love talking, thinking and writing about the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) and how to use it for reflection and feedback. Ron, you have just made the most concise summary of how to use it for reflection on teaching or training. Thank you very much for this conversation, and… hope there will be more of them soon!
By the way, it was not the first conversation with Ron on this blog: readers have already met him in the guest post: Your Feedback Method Does Not Work. Check out that post if you are interested in talking/thinking about feedback. Besides, you can read Ron’s brief bio blurb there.