We had a plan for our chat with Rasha Halat, but ended up discussing more ideas. This is the second part of our conversation. You can read part 1 (with Rasha’s bio blurb at the end) here, and about the idea for Trainer Conversation series here. This time we talk about teaching and training beliefs, developing professionally (PD, CPD) and our reasons to stay in teaching.
Z: Why do you like teaching? Why are you in it?
R: I told you at the beginning that some questions were harder to answer, and that’s one of them.
Z: Then I am even more curious!
R: I had to think back and recall why I made that decision in my life. I asked myself the same question I always ask my students “Why do you want to be a teacher?” I remember a quote that helps me answer that question: ‘Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.’ (Colleen Wilcox)
I really agree with it. Whenever I think about teaching, I think it gives us hope. There is always the feeling that by teaching, we are building the future. That’s my genuine belief. Plus I feel I am a very ‘interpersonal’ person, so I like meeting people all the time. In teaching, you are always meeting new people who are mostly young, and young people give you hope. You feel you are building the future and you are young at heart. Their bright eyes, their eagerness to learn give me motivation to go on. I fully agree that TEACHING is an act of optimism.
Z: That’s so beautiful.
R: Yes, this is what keeps me going these days [in the pandemic teaching times], energizes me, gives me something to look forward to. The days I don’t have a class are never the same.
Z: ‘The way you do your job is your way to show your love to the world, and/or to life itself’. I don’t remember who said these wise words, but they seem to be so true about you and your style of work… What are your (2-3) most important teaching beliefs? What shaped them?
R: Just recently I was talking to a colleague and her harsh reaction/response about her students was ‘they don’t care’, and we talked about having empathy. I feel what makes me the teacher I am is feeling with my students. I try to put myself in their place/shoes, I try to understand where they are coming from. Not all people have the same drive, the same ambition, the same motives, or even the same energy level. I think as teachers, we need to have empathy.
May be because I have been through several experiences in my life, I try to feel with my students, Instead of being harsh on them, I try to understand their needs. As a teacher, I don’t want my students to change the world; maybe all they need is some hope to carry on, and I try to give them that spark of hope to go on. This is a humanistic part of teaching, and it is number 1 priority for me.
The second belief is something you know about me: I always have high standards. After I understand my students and make them trust me, I start to push them forward. I usually prefer to reach for higher goals in life. But it is only after you make students feel secure and safe that you can push them forward. If you begin with rigorous standards right from the start, I think you may demotivate them. You need to build trust, hope, and then move towards the academic goals. I think these two work together. But first one first, and then the other.
Z: That’s like stages of working with people in a team, in a company: getting to know each other on a ‘human’, more personal level, and then the academic or professional?
R: True. Another thing I think we need to work on everywhere, but especially in our context in Lebanon, is Critical Thinking. We need not to accept anything at its face value, which is a problem in many cultures. People get trained to accept everything, never to question what you get. So it is about the skill of questioning things, about not accepting them at face value; to me this is the most critical factor that will help us change the world to the better. It is what we need to work on as teachers.
If we start working on this as teachers (with our students), it can spread further. That’s how we can make the difference.
Z: I think if this habit or awareness is acquired early [in people’s career] they would not mindlessly go up the ladder. When you are up there, it is scarier to fall down. If you look down, the height scares you, so you prefer not to. You prefer to stay up and please others.
R: Actually the older you are and the higher your position is, the harder it would be for you to change. You get stuck and it gets easier to say “yes”!
Z: Less creativity, less flexibility, fewer choices…
R: Yes. It needs to start earlier in the process. As kids and young people, it is easier to start thinking critically, and this shift gets harder (with age). The earlier it starts, the better.
Z: What about teacher education: is becoming a trainer a vertical step up (the career ladder) or is it something else?
R: I think it is the two together: it is the process of reflection, whether you are teaching or training. It is a matter of continuously reflecting on what you are doing (starting from being a student, then a teacher, and then a trainer)
Z: In some contexts (including Ukraine) a ‘teacher trainer’ position can be perceived higher than ‘just a teacher’. I don’t agree with this and work hard to promote the idea that being a trainer is not about being ‘higher up’ or better than a teacher. It is as you said an angle or lens through which you can help or serve learners/students.
R: I don’t think you can be a good trainer if you are not a good teacher. In Lebanon, for example, many teachers that I know want to become trainers early in their careers. I think you need a lot of ‘good teaching’ experience before you are able to coach others or train them.
Z: What are your (2-3) most important (core) training beliefs, or motives? What drives you as a teacher trainer?
R: I think they are similar to teaching, but at a higher level. I feel that with training the mission can get more challenging, as we are working with adults. By influencing teachers, you impact the new generations (of their students). Instead of reaching 30 students in your class, you may be reaching 130 students through the training session with the teachers. So it is a matter of higher responsibility I think.
It is also more challenging because sometimes it is hard to ‘un-teach’ what they have been practicing for too long first, and make them think again about something new.
I read a quote the other day that ‘in the new century to be literate means to know how to learn, unlearn and relearn.’ So the challenge is how to get your trainees to unlearn and relearn! And this is really critical as the teachers are the ones who will impact the lives of the many students they teach. The ripple effect, the pool is wider.
Z: When you mentioned the challenge to ‘relearn’ you were probably thinking of teachers joining PCELT courses who had had some (or lots of) previous teaching experience.
R: On many courses, it is the same thing. Usually many teachers – and part of it is cultural – want to prove their competence. Most of the time, they are trying to save face and show they are competent instead of showing their readiness to learn. So the question/challenge is how to make them feel highly appreciated and at the same time open to learning. This really requires a great skill on the part of the trainer.
Z: That’s such a fine balance to find. As Parker J. Palmer nicely put it ‘we teach who we are’, and we invest so much of ‘ourselves’ into the practice teaching lessons observed by trainers and colleagues. I don’t know about other jobs, but it seems like for us at ELT the concept is ‘my lesson is my baby’ so ‘please don’t touch/criticize it’, ‘I love each and every activity in it’, etc.
Our TESOL courses can be of two types: sometimes, it is an open course where teachers are investing their own money, time and energy into becoming better teachers, and sometimes it may be a sponsored course where teaching becomes a mandatory subject at school. Some teachers are 100% motivated and willing to be there, but some have 70%, or even 50% motivation level.
R: or 20%… (laughing) In general in Lebanon, 50% and above.
Z: The harder case to me is a combination of both in the same group on a course: people being really open and willing and trying to develop, and some who are ‘not very convinced’ that need the course. Again, we talk about adult learners. How can we help them?
R: I believe that everyone who shows up, wants to be there. It is my belief that anyone who made an effort and woke up to come to the morning class, or a training center, to any learning environment, for example, even though they may be trying to mask it, they want to be there. I don’t think anybody is pushing them or forcing them (they are adults). If someone makes a decision to drop out, it is clear they don’t want to be there. However, the others, those who keep showing up, they want to be there. The attitude they sometimes try to show (e.g. ‘we don’t care’ or ‘I am only here because of XX or YY’) is their ‘defense mechanism’. I know deep down there is some positivity, which I try to count on, in one way or another. I try to convince myself. It is a similar thing with students/learners. For example, take a teenager – who really loves to sleep in – and then just wakes up and comes to class! What makes him/her wake up at 7 am and come to school? I am sure s/he wants to be there, as at this age even parents can’t force them if they don’t really want to. So this is what I tell myself, and I think it works. Once you feel and believe that this person wants so to be there – as a student in your class or teacher being trained, it gets easier for you as a teacher or a trainer to deal with him/her. That’s a strategy that has been helpful to me. In general, people who are more motivated, are easier to deal with. I wish there were magic pills to offer people to motivate them (laughing).
It is much easier, much more pleasant… Now, a major part of our job is to motivate our students or trainees and show them the value of what we are doing. Once you present/show/teach something new, and there is always something interesting, that would push them forward. 90% of the time this attitude has worked. There were a few cases when it did not, but in general, it works.
Z: Speaking of ‘something new and interesting’, I guess many of those less motivated teachers have been through hours and hours of trainings where there were not necessarily many relevant things to their needs, for a number of reasons. So your attitude is about ‘look, give yourself a chance. Maybe this course is something else’
R: I agree, it is very important at the beginning (or even before the course) to learn about what they already know/have, and based on that, you can always ‘surprise’ them with something else, something new, something that would make them say ‘a-ha, now I see the value!’
Z: This possibly brings us back to the point about teaching experience and practice, or whether or not a trainer needs to be an experienced teacher. I think at this point we are reaching ‘yes’ as our answer 🙂
R: It is a big ‘YES’! (laughing)
I feel one real problem with some CPD training courses is that teachers feel they are forced to take the course or join the training session. I think schools need to start by promoting the value of the course/session. They might present it as a golden opportunity, and then trust me teachers would compete to winning that opportunity.
What happens in many schools – at least in our part of the world – is that schools assign certain teachers to a certain PD session/course without ever consulting them even saying to assigned teachers you, and you and you have to be there. This way the choice is taken away.
That lack of choice makes people feel ‘I don’t want to be doing this’. This is human nature! It reminds me of our kids! (laughs) Once you start forcing anyone, including teachers, to do something, they stop wanting to do it, even though they initially did want to do it. I think choice is generally important to teachers, to attend a course or not, to take this or that [Professional Development] session, etc. Lack of this choice may be a problem.
Z: I like that idea! A choice, a sense of decision making, having a say of what they would like to be doing, which topic/session to be a part of. This adds to being active as a participant and eventually helps more learning to take place.
Let’s now talk about teaching future teachers at University (as opposed to working on intensive courses).
R: With pre-service teachers, the course may be shorter (e.g. 45 hours) but it spreads over a period of 4 months, for example. Maybe the number of hours spent learning is the same but the time frame is wider, and it allows student-teachers to process new learning more. Once you have more time, you process deeper. With time, you can also build rapport with them, and this relationship is stronger during the face-to-face semester, for example. With many of the pre-service teachers, we continue the dialogue even after they graduate [and start teaching]. This is what I really like: I keep working/being in touch with some teachers even after 5 years. I know someone who has become a coordinator, and she still gets back to me for a piece of advice, we have discussions about what’s best to her teachers and students (as a coordinator). This is what we can’t do with intensive course participants.
Z: The point of time is very important: quality time indeed. Out of the 120 hours on an intensive course like PCELT, how many of these hours are spent being tired, worried about the coming lesson, zooming out of the input session, etc.?
R: True. And you notice with such intensive courses that the outcome is more short-term even though we would want it to continue with them -especially for the reflective practice. Unfortunately, many stop reflecting as soon as the course is over and they start focusing more on implementing the activities and practical ideas they gained out of the course instead of focusing on the “deep learning”!
Z: Which way of teacher training do you personally prefer then?
R: I like both, but with the pre-service students, the relationship is stronger, and the learning is deeper. Maybe, other/post-course components can be added to the intensive PCELT courses. Following such intensive courses up with other post-course component might help the trainers check how much is being used after one month of very intensive training. That would give the trainer the chance to check how deep the learning is or how little is being integrated into their professional practices! With more time, things may become part of their beliefs. That is something that can be researched.
Z: Can be and should be researched! I think you mentioned a research you did with the former PCELT participants in their own context.
R: Yes, that PCELT group was my golden opportunity! All the teachers I trained taught in schools in our area and I could visit them in their schools, and that definitely does not happen very often with our PCELT courses. I could observe 6 of the trained teachers in their own classrooms and what I noticed is that most of them were focusing on the surface level things; on activities! Unfortunately, the core of PCELT was not very visible! It was more about the fun/enjoyment of the activities, which I don’t think is bad after all! But we would love to see more transfer of learning!
Z: Sometimes I ask teachers in informal chats (in 6 months, 1 year or more after the course): have you re-read your portfolio after the course? What did you find/notice? And not everyone does it. How much of the learning portfolio, or the course overall, become a habit and skill in the future?
R: The course is not an end product, it is more like a starting point. It can bring Ps to another level, which does not happen all the time unfortunately!
Z: To me it is also a question of what kind of educational culture they get to after the course ends. I was really lucky with the IH school I used to work in where we had a very strong academic and training focus. In such environment you don’t really stop learning and growing as a teacher, working on the same beliefs/values/practices as a team. I think ideally, Teacher Training needs to be followed by Teacher Development.
R: Oftentimes ‘Teacher Development’ (programs at schools) may be restricted to a few days here and there, and this is another area that needs to be researched deeper: what is the objective and result? Are they just filling up those hours of TD? I was reading a post about a webinar, and the question was asked about the craze/fuss about certificates. There are always questions about the certificates for the events Ts attend. What’s the value of the certificate for a webinar? The answer was that we need/want the certificate for a PD point [in our school] The question is then what makes real PD, and what’s on paper. That’s a big question to look into.
Z: What kind of school are they working in? Do they have to submit/report about the hours they spent on events? Does it help to make the wage higher? I like to think about ‘CPD’ where ‘C’ would stand for ‘Creative’ PD. When you have the ‘C’ for yourself, when you are a driver of how you develop, you can change the attitude.
Z: What questions about teaching or training have you always wanted to be asked about?
R: Is teaching different from training? Are good trainers always good teachers?
I know trainers who teach in a teacher-centered way but show interactive ‘sample lessons’ to the teachers in training. I think I should teach the way I train teachers to teach.
Z: To me, it is a lot about (personal and professional) integrity: if I believe something is a great idea, do I do the same in my teaching? Do I practice what I believe in? Do I walk the talk?
R: This is the basic question, and we are either afraid to see how things are, or take it for granted.
Z: True, it is about being holistic and authentic: doing what you believe is right. Philosophy!
R: Yes, then it becomes more convincing (to the participants or teachers-to-be). I think what we do needs to be genuine. Another question that I have been thinking a lot about lately, is how we can keep teachers motivated especially during times of adversity? I think this is something I would like to think about more!
Z: I love the question, and believe it is an important issue. We were just talking about it with our colleague based in Thailand the other day. The times of pandemic seem to only emphasize and add to what already has been a challenging task in many contexts (motivating teachers grow and develop without necessarily offering them better working conditions or support at the workplace, or pay raise, etc.)
What would you say is the meaning of our job in education?
R: Supporting teachers. Many people have the potential they need to realize. ‘Dust’ teachers who have become fossilized. Make them feel fresh. Re-skilling, energy boost. Look outside the routine, be creative, innovative.
Z: I adore energy boosting! What makes you feel that?
R: When I go to ELT conferences, I feel that way. Even when I know what the speaker is talking about, seeing it from another angle and getting the chance to talk about it with others rejuvenates me! I think that is what we need to be doing with our trainees! Let them feel fresh again.
Z: Love the re-dusting metaphor. I like to think that my ELT mission is to make teachers love the job (again). Remove dust, bringing ‘the teaching self’ to the light, seeing it differently.
R: I learn from my trainees a lot. This gives them trust and belief, and they get surprised. Once trainees feel that way, they start sharing their true colors! We can start learning from each other instead of me teaching them what to do! I think teachers many times get to surprise themselves with their own potential, and that is what I think needs to be our mission!
Z: I wish this conversation was live for the others to listen and join us.
R: We can do that later (laughing)
I heard an idea from someone that if you meet a person once, it may be by chance. However, if you meet for the second time, you may either decide to never see each other again, or… become really connected, start to be a part of each other’s lives, in this way or another. I am grateful for the chance to work with Rasha more than once, and hope and believe there will be more of these opportunities. One of the many things 2020 taught me is to be grateful for the people in my life. Thank you for the conversation, Rasha, and let’s keep it going!