After the summer-ish break, I am back to writing. Please welcome the seventh post in the Trainer Conversations series (visit the Introduction post to the idea with the links/pingbacks to all the earlier posts).
This time I had a chance to have a conversation with my colleague and friend Marbella Trejo. Marbella and I ‘met’ online in 2017 and worked ‘virtually’ on several modules for an online course English for Communicative Language Teaching for teacher assistants. Then our paths crossed again in 2019 with a strategy planning project, and we were also in touch with each other every now and then when we had questions about the courses we were working on. We finally met in person in March of 2020 at the TESOL Center Manager Summit (yes, before ‘the’ date of the year!). The image below is a proud proof of this meeting! (Marbella will introduce herself formally at the end of the post).
We exchanged a number of e-mails and messages while working on this post, and kept the same format to organize our thoughts: the questions are asked by me, and marked (Z), and the answers are from Marbella (M). Now, let’s have some fantastic Guatemalan coffee and begin…
Z: Where are you based now? What is your current project or workplace?
M: I am currently working as an Academic Coordinator for the Adults’ Program at IGA, the binational center in Guatemala City. My work entails curriculum design for our different English language programs, designing courses for children, teenagers and adults, and a lot of teacher support through in-service workshops, material revision/feedback and observation of face-to-face and online classes. At the moment, everything is being done remotely because of the current situation and it has provided challenges to adapting to online teaching quickly. It hasn’t been easy, but I am so grateful for the learning that has taken place and for the team that I work with.
I also work as a freelance teacher trainer and curriculum designer/content developer creating materials to be used in online formats. I’ve been able to work on some of these resources intended for English language learning and teacher professional development.
Z: And we worked on some of them together! Do you teach at the moment (language classes, other classes)?
M: Unfortunately, I am not currently teaching – my work is mainly in the teacher training field of pre-service and in-service teachers within the institution and around the region, and it also involves curriculum design as I mentioned above.
Teaching will always be one of my passions, and some of the reasons I enjoyed teaching were because it was an opportunity to witness growth in others – throughout my courses I was able to notice new language, skills and strategies constantly being developed. I was able to see the real impact this had on my students’ lives since they were able to apply to have new experiences, apply to job and study opportunities – I just felt very fortunate to be able to see that happening and to be part of it. I also really enjoy the challenge of trying to set up learning opportunities for others – I find it refreshing and exhilarating! The whole process of planning it out and then noticing what worked and what can be worked on for later always keeps it interesting.
Z: I am with you on this feeling: not having the actual teaching experience but being able to design/construct it for/with others is a different kind of work. Sometimes I see teacher training as a kind of teaching, too (but of a different subject…) What are your (2-3) most important teacher beliefs? What shaped them?
M: Some of my main teaching beliefs relate to the importance of scaffolding and supporting all types of learners. I find that in both contexts, for language learners and for teachers, it’s essential to work towards independence, but to also think about the support that they may need in order to be more successful and confident as they learn and develop language and skills. By being aware of the support that learners need students become more engaged and willing to venture outside of their comfort zone. This has been a quest I’ve been on both as a teacher and as a teacher trainer – finding the best ways of scaffolding learning and not only thinking about it in terms of language proficiency, but also from the perspective of disabilities or special educational needs there may be, different personalities that may exist in the classroom as well as there being multi-aged and multi-levels within a classroom. I am by no means an expert, but this question guides me in the exploration of new strategies and approaches for myself as a teacher and trainer.
Another teacher belief that strongly dictates what I do in the classroom both as a teacher and trainer is trying to relate what is being learned to real-life contexts so that learners can always establish connections and applications the language or skills may have to their own lives. Many times things can be approached from a very theoretical perspective, but I have found that some students can be off-put by this, and we can contribute much more when their own interests and needs are taken into consideration.
I also strongly believe that through support and the design of guiding tasks, students can be led to discover key concepts and ideas for themselves. I think of myself more as a designer of those experiences vs. a traditional trainer or teacher. The key aspects are related to how these are designed, since without the adequate support learners may become very frustrated, discouraged and lost. So I do go back to scaffolding these as necessary.
Z: I have been talking about this idea with my husband lately: in IT, there is a job/role of an architect (like in the Matrix movie, haha) and sometimes I see course/curriculum/task design as a kind of ‘scaffolding path’ to help learners. I firmly believe that true learner confidence comes from the initial support, where needed, and such guidance needs to be carefully built in, or structured, in the learning program, and gradually removed. In order to do that, the designer’s (previous or current) teaching experience is very important. I would love to talk more about this, one day! Something I have never asked you about: how did you become a teacher trainer?
M: I had been teaching English for a few years myself when I decided to take the SIT TESOL Certificate Course in Costa Rica (at the Institute For Collaborative Learning). This was the definitive moment that I knew I wanted to continue developing my own teaching skills and practices, and this was the life path for me. The next year, I was invited to become part of the Academic Unit at IGA – the binational center in Guatemala I still work at. Here I began my journey of learning more about how to provide support for teachers and their professional development.
Having trained in-service and pre-service teachers at IGA for a few years, I was offered to become a licensed trainer for the SIT TESOL Certificate Course. I went back to Costa Rica, but now with a new challenge of doing my Stage 1 training. Then I had the opportunity of doing my Stage 2 as a part of a best practices course in Boston – this was by far one of the largest and most diverse groups I had ever worked with, but again, there was a clear confirmation that I wanted to continue support teachers on their learning journeys.
Z: This is amazing how you ended up being a learner (course participant) and then a trainer at the same training center! No wonder that the ideas and beliefs you hold are so interconnected (from learner to teacher, from teacher to trainer, etc.) By the way, what would you say are your (2-3) most important training beliefs?
M: I truly believe in the need to create authentic relationships with teachers and participants. To care for the human that is often doing the best we can along with communicating that you are there to support them as best you can. I feel that when I have been able to connect with teachers on more than just a professional level, they show a side of themselves that is more open to exploring their teaching practices and that is more receptive to learning.
I might have said it before, but as a trainer, I feel I must never forget to be a good teacher – those effective teaching practices will actually speak much more than what words ever will. So I must remember to model the principles, to not only ‘talk the talk’, but to actually ‘walk the walk’.
Z: I love how we are getting back to this strong connection between teaching and training, and appreciate the ‘walking metaphor’: being with the teacher, taking a (similar) journey and facing similar challenges, forming solutions together, rather than offering a recipe book. What kind of courses or sessions for teachers do you usually run?
M: I run a lot of pre-service and in-service training for teachers that work at the binational center – this involves carrying out initial training courses for possible candidates that will potentially work for any one of our programs. We often focus on the lesson planning and teaching using our frameworks, as well as the basics of promoting student engagement and interaction. There are periodical (bimonthly) training sessions that are run based on the needs and requests teachers have. In addition, I am part of a national certification program in Guatemala, where we run a program that goes much deeper into understanding the field of English Language Teaching and the different approaches that can be applied.
As a SIT TESOL Certificate Course licensed trainer, I have had the opportunity of training teachers locally and abroad; some of the courses/projects I have been part of are related to running Certificate courses and training trainers-being-trained to offer their own courses, like in Monterrey, Mexico. I was also able to do the same thing for a PCELT course in Tunisia in August of 2019. I have been part of an annual teacher training event in Chicago where we are able to work with instructors that offer vocational and job training in the field of construction, offering them the tools to work with planning and teaching frameworks to make learning more student-centered and interactive.
Something else I’ve enjoyed thoroughly and that has helped me grow as a professional is participating in conferences in Latin America, working on topics related to discovery-based learning, the needs of introverted learners and professional development through communities of practice.
Z: Wow, you have been involved in such a variety of projects and programs… What are your most favorite kinds of courses/programs, and why?
M: I find that I enjoy both intensive and extensive formats for courses that are intended for both novice and more experienced teachers, in a face-to-face format. I see the benefits of both, for example, with intensive courses, we often see significant change in only one month (during a Certificate course) and participants leave invigorated to continue developing what began during this experience. For extensive courses, I enjoy having more time to explore topics further and go a little deeper, at a pace that everyone can enjoy and benefit from.
I can say that I learn so much from teachers at all levels, teachers that still haven’t been in their own classrooms just yet, and also teachers that are eager to learn new ways of approaching things they’ve done for a while – each experience is so enriching for me too!
Z: How do you manage the stress(es) of an intensive course? What helps you stay sane?
M: I am not going to lie, it can be a very challenging and stressful experience, but I do try to make time to do other things on weekends, such as taking little walks and short trips whenever possible (especially if I am abroad). I try to set certain schedules and respect them as much as I can in order to ensure I am getting enough sleep and that I am eating properly. On some occasions I have been able to set up a workout schedule to stay active too – if this isn’t possible, I make sure to walk to the training site to get a little sun and exercise into the day.
Other things that help keep me sane are checking in with my family on a regular basis and also I’ve learned to get input from other trainers on how they managed and did things more effectively in order to help optimize my work a little further. There is no shame in asking for help!
Z: Yes, yes and yes! Actually being honest about the level of stress on an intensive course is one step towards being proactive and seeking strategies to keep balance. Sometimes I wonder if my long-distance running sessions are built into my routine in order to train myself for a ‘marathon’ of running a solo training course for 4-5 weeks? Joking! What question(s) about teacher training have you always wanted to ask other colleagues?
M: I’ve always been interested in seeing how others guide post-teaching feedback sessions, either as a group or one-to-one sessions, what tools they use to promote reflection and how much input they offer or they don’t when carrying these on their own. I’ve also been exploring potential frameworks for planning training sessions, and would be interested to hear how other trainers organize their sessions. It would be fabulous to explore how some trainers maximize their time and work more efficiently – especially when they are working with trainers-being-trained (in addition to a group of course participants). And finally, what effective training practices have they trainers found when delivering online courses?
Z: Love these questions, and would love to see what experienced trainers think about them! What kind of advice or tips would you like to share with new teacher trainers? (something you wish you had known when you were starting out)?
M: Some tips I try to offer my TBTs (trainers-being-trained) when we are working together relate to time management (some of the ideas I shared above), reflecting on their own sessions using DIGPA (using the experiential learning cycle, Describing, Interpreting, Generalizing and finally Planning Action) – in order to continue developing their own reflection skills as a practitioner, it can be important to reflect on their own sessions and training experiences. This is especially fruitful if it can be done with a co-trainer or team of trainers. Many of the lessons learned for new trainers come from these conversations with others, something they may never have had the opportunity to do before.
Some other tips I’d include would be:
- Each group of course participants will have its own personality and ways of needing support and expressing their learning. It’s important to open up channels of communication for participants to share these with you and each other.
- You are a part of a community of trainers, you should never be ashamed of reaching out to the community and asking for help and for ideas. As a trainer and as a trainer of trainers, I have learned so much from exchanging emails, messages and conversations with other trainers. It’s never too late to learn something new.
Z: So true: I personally learned a lot from these trainer professional development e-mail threads! I have the same feelings about our conversation post actually! Sorry for interrupting you: are there any more tips to add?
M: Yes, a couple more ideas:
- There are so many teachable moments for participants to expand and better understand topics covered throughout the course. Take advantage of opportunities to recycle and circle back to topics that were already covered before to help Ps make new connections to the content.
- Remember that many of the elements of effective learning experiences for Ss apply for participants as well, so it’s more about being a good model of teaching practices (beyond only sample lessons) that will help feel what student and learning-centered approaches feel like.
- Try to build in opportunities for enjoyment throughout the course, this experience is about building community and human relationships too.
Z: Fantastic tips! How do you keep your training skills up between the (intensive training) courses?
M: Fortunately, my job at the binational center offers ample opportunities for me to continue planning and carrying out workshops and training sessions on a regular basis, as well as observing teachers and carrying out feedback sessions with them. I also try to be involved in activities that relate to the trainer community, for example calibration sessions that are held at times in order to discuss procedures and beliefs about how the SIT TESOL Certificate course can be run and the alternatives there may be.
Z: In your own Professional Development as a teacher trainer, is there anything (an idea, an approach, etc.) you have been thinking about to try/would love to try in the future?
- When planning my own sessions, I often use DIGPA (the experiential learning cycle with an opportunity to have a concrete experience, describe it, make interpretations based on it – then generalize and finally plan action) to plan my training sessions throughout the course and in my own sessions. I would love to experiment with other ways of planning and organizing my sessions using Test-Teach-Test, alternative project/task-based approaches for ELT and for teacher training purposes.
- As part of this rapid transition to online teaching, I was able to experiment a little with the flipped classroom model as a trainer, and feel as if it could really go well with the SIT TESOL Certificate course and helping participants be better prepared before the course begins.
Z: And I have been considering taking this TBLT course by the trainer group in Barcelona, but have not had a chance yet. Maybe in the coming spring… What books outside of ELT have you (recently) read that helped you get new ideas for training sessions and courses?
M: This wasn’t too recently, but the book Quiet by Susan Cain helped me better understand myself personally and professionally. It centers around the need for introversion and extroversion in the world, and helped me understand the need for appreciating differences and strengths instead of judging from one perspective or another. The book offered some ideas on the need for alone time to process and work, considering a field that often focuses very much on collaboration and togetherness.
Z: I read the book, too, and loved it! I agree that we may be focusing too much on ‘group work’ as trainers (and teachers!) in ELT. And… I actually noticed how much more introverted I appear to be than I’d thought I was. Now, my last question to you: do you think one can develop as a teacher and/or teacher trainer while doing non-teaching jobs and having no access to the classroom? If yes, how?
- I feel that teaching and learning take place in almost any work environment there is. So, there are better ways of approaching job training and the offering of feedback in order to make them even more effective. This is something I have seen time and time again with the professional development sessions carried out with union instructors who offer hands-on job skills and techniques. Once these instructors have the tools to make learning (and teaching) more engaging, active and ultimately enjoyable, everyone benefits. Their trainees actually want to be there and learn what their instructors want to help them reach. It relates to keeping the principles in mind of what helps and hinders learning and applying them independently of whether we are in a traditional teaching/learning environment.
- While we might be learning something new at a job that is not part of the field, we can also help ourselves find better ways of approaching the skills and content, scaffolding it for ourselves – and in turn put us in a better position when we are teaching or training since we’ve been in these shoes, we know how it feels.
- The term “feedback/constructive feedback” can mean so many things in other fields, but it doesn’t necessarily involve reflection, so we can constantly consider ways of slowing down and considering what might be done differently, what alternatives there are, what works well and what doesn’t and why it might be happening. As a reflective practitioner, we can train others to follow this thought process without needing to be in a training environment.
Z: Yes! I have been nodding in agreement while reading the lines above. I especially agree with your last point: the idea of closer observation, pausing to think before acting (‘act, don’t react’, one of my dear colleagues and friends keeps saying), consider alternatives and choices, ask oneself ‘why’. Sometimes, these are much easier done in the classroom, or in a training situations than outside. Which means there is always room for further growth and development.
Thank you for this conversation, Marbella, and for the chance to think together about the teaching/training job that connected us. I feel so honored to have worked with you on various projects, and… can’t wait to step into a face-to-face/physical/real training room with you. I know we will. One day!
Marbella Trejo studied both Psychology and Special Education at Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala City. She has a TESOL certificate from the School for International Training (SIT/World Learning). Marbella is a Licensed Trainer and Trainer of Trainers for the SIT TESOL Certificate Course.
She started her career in the ELT field in 2005 teaching learners of all ages and levels and began training teachers in 2008. Marbella has been able to work with educators in Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, the US, Mexico and most recently Tunisia. She has also been able to develop curriculum for and facilitate online professional development courses. Marbella is currently working as an Academic Coordinator and a/the lead trainer for the World Learning center at the binational center in Guatemala City. She also loves music, podcasts, documentaries, traveling, lettering/stationery and just listening to people.