I am very excited to share post number ten in the Trainer Conversations series. You can read about the idea in this Introduction post, and find the links to the earlier posts at the end.
Burak and I have known each for a couple of years, in different capacities/role. First, we met at the SIT TESOL Certificate Course in Izmir we co-delivered in the summer of 2018. At that time I was formally Burak’s mentor (trainer coach) as he was in the process to obtain his training license. He later worked with David, and readers who remember that post may have already seen Burak in one of the pictures.
Along with his training licensure process, Burak was an MA student at Dokuz Eylül University and learning what was his research focus made me jump with excitement because he wrote about… Reflective Practice Group! The full title of his research says ‘Professional Development of Prep School EFL Instructors through Reflective Practice Groups’. Moreover, he started a Reflective Practice Group at the University he was working at, and shared the description, the process and the outcomes in his paper.
As you imagine, this was a total focus of our meeting. Burak kindly shared his research with me, and I had tens of questions. I sent about 20 of them to him via email, and we met on Skype to talk about his paper, and the reflective practice.
[Note: there are a couple of acronyms used throughout the post. Just in case, RP stands for Reflective Practice, RPG refers to Reflective Practice Group (
Role Play Games), and PD is for Professional Development]
Please enjoy our conversation!
Z: I read your whole paper with interest and pleasure, and I must say I loved many things about it! First of all, the way you wrote acknowledgement/dedication to your wife and son. So sweet, so warm, so personal. It feels like it is more than just a research paper. Did it feel like that to you?
B: Absolutely! It was out of my heart. My wife helped me a lot with putting the data together, as she was still pregnant. She is the co-researcher I mentioned in the paper. Such an amazing family-wide dedication 🙂 My another advantage in working on the project was having a great supervisor, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Irem Comoglu. An incredible person, and very into qualitative research. It is the way of life for her, not an instrumental tool for research. Every time she talks to you, she tries to elicit more from you. She is very open-minded and social, too. She likes the dialogue. I was actually very lucky to be working with her.
Z: The Qualitative Research method is learning from the people, and from all the conversations and interactions, and from their depth. You were reading the […] multiple times I imagine, and learning from and through that. So, what was your favorite part of the whole process?
B: I realize that a dream came true when I started listening to the teachers talking (about their lessons and experience). One can imagine something, hope it will happen, and when it turns out to be the way you expect, it is a dream! I imagined that the teachers would come together and get used to the collaborative kind of practice, become more reflective, and that the 10 meetings would be beneficial for them. Yes, it was the case!
When I started the first pre-meeting, I saw that they did not know as much [about reflection] as I’d thought they knew. A couple of teachers, as you saw from the profiles, did not have a very reflective background. They ‘knew’ it in theory but had not practiced it enough.
Z: Two of the five teachers in this group did not take the SIT TESOL Certificate Course*, right?
B: Yes. The other three remember it from the course, but some memories fade away if you don’t keep practicing a skill. In the first meeting after the pre-meeting I saw that they could reflect. It was amazing for me to see this in action. You can write about that, your literature review can be great, but actually seeing/hearing it on the recording was amazing, and it was my first favorite part.
My second favorite part was seeing that it was their personal and professional being connected. Sometimes I could hear them in the hallways talking about their previous lessons [which was not a part of PD culture before]. I mean, out of the context of the specific meetings or homework, etc. So the meetings were actually going on outside the meetings after they formally ended.
Z: You said you ran the first 2 meetings, and the others were facilitated by the others. How did you get started with the meetings?
B: Actually, I did not have any idea of what to do in the very first meeting. The first meeting is about norm setting, and I should not be firm or authoritative in my way of treating people, and at the same time set the structure, the tone. I did not know what to do and how to kick off the whole process. Searching for help, I approached my CPD office colleague Margareth Huner, who is an experienced teacher trainer with solid experience with reflective practice (launched projects herself, helped pre-service teachers reflect, etc.). She helped me realize that the first thing is getting to know each other better, but getting to reflect starts with the teachers going home and writing their big puzzles. The big puzzles that are ongoing for some time already, and those they feel they need to develop/solve. These should be concrete, personal, and not some generic issues about the institution they are working in, or teaching context in Turkey – no, something simple they struggle with. Usually, they have to keep their head up, they can’t do it [with their colleagues on a daily basis]. I thought we could give it a try. I took some blank journals from our stationery supplies, put their names on them, making them personalized and gave each teacher a personal journal notebook in the very beginning.
The first thing was a getting-to-know activity, then I told them how everything works in the meetings and after giving them the manual I had prepared. I included things like how an RPG works, what it is, and what it is not, dos and don’ts, etc. I introduced it page by page, and I said “this is something you should always keep with you in the meetings as a guide/reference”, and I often addressed that manual reminding them how to interact with each other in the meetings.
Z: The Constitution of the RG Group 🙂
B: Yes, a nice word for it! So at the end of the very first meeting I gave out the journals and set them a writing task about a puzzle. So next time, in pre-meeting 2 they were really open and specific about their teaching puzzles. They came to the meeting with a whole page of notes on the issues that were/had been on their mind. We could easily talk about the specifics from that point forward. It was a great way to start.
Z: I love the way you set it up, showing that it is a serious, structured process and much more than the project for your thesis. I think they saw and felt it. What did the teachers write about as their first puzzle?
B: I asked them to write something big (as a bigger puzzle) and a couple of other issues that they were interested in or would like to reflect on/develop, etc. Generally, all the main issues were about the student’s motivation.
Z: Aha, that’s how it became the theme of the first several meetings.
B: Yes. Some of the notes were about managing time [in class, in preparation and planning], but in the end they agreed that motivation would be something to start with. I did not want to interfere with this decision-making process. They agreed that the key thing in their answers was student motivation.
Z: So you had several meetings on this topic: student motivation, then teacher motivation.
B: That’s right. The teachers firstly got lost trying to decide which type of motivation to talk about, so I suggested starting with the bigger one (Students’ motivation), moving on to Teachers’ motivation. I was actually afraid that we could have all the meetings on this topic. It is huge! It is a wide/broad and never-ending topic. You can talk about it for years!
It was a topic coming from the teachers/group members, and I believe that if something comes from the people, e.g. the problems and needs from the students, the curriculum from the teachers, etc., people adopt it more. They embrace it.
Z: Did you facilitate many meetings yourself? I think you mentioned leading the first two, correct?
B: Yes, I did the first two. Then I stepped aside from the conversations, and this was the part I was impressed with. Wow, people are picking their own topics, and getting that reflective? That was incredible.
Reflection was also feasible by the help of writing. When people write something, they always think double about it. The act of writing makes you so.
Z: They were writing during the meetings (notes and tasks) and between the meetings in the journals. The teachers were quite busy in those 10 weeks!
B: They were, but I kept ‘checking the pulse’ and was ready to reduce the number of tasks. We also did a lot of things besides the meetings for my research project, e.g. interviews, focus group meetings, reflective essays, etc., but they said “no problem, we are enjoying it!” It was easy for me to get them into this kind of writing.
Z: ‘Bottom-up PD’ in its beauty! I think you kind of touched my next question: How did you understanding of what’s RPG change (if at all) since the time we chatted about the research idea [roughly, before you started], to the time you carried the process out [during], and after you summarized the results [post]?
B: The best thing for me now, and I will keep it forever, I guess is that such meetings are emergent. My motto throughout the meetings was that “Anything can happen”, and it is all good. For example, some meetings turn out to be ‘therapeutic talk’. It is a kind of ‘wellness time’ for people, and it is okay. In such meetings, they do not have to talk about the classroom all the time. Sometimes, they feel emotional, and in this sense, anything can be talked about.
Z: Agree: people bring what/who they are into the meetings. Besides, you had those meetings weekly, which was quite often, and in a way, this frequency may have been like a therapeutic set up (those groups may also meet every week!) They have probably constructed themselves and each other into their [professional and even personal?] lives.
B: Quoting one of the teachers:
“I have never realized how teaching and emotions are interconnected. Normally, if I cry, I would be embarrassed. Now, I think I can cry in this group/room.”
Z: That brings another (cultural) issue in Turkey/Ukraine where we teachers try their best to look and act professional, and not inviting emotional connections, or very close friendships ‘at work’. Perhaps an RP group can be seen as a bridge between personal and professional aspects of our lives.
B: That’s what we experienced with you as well, working together as a team of trainers on an intensive course. We sometimes went out after the course day ended, and we talked about our personal lives (or lives outside the course!) This creates that bond and inspires people.
Z: It also helps in creating team spirit, and community that lasts longer than a project (e.g. ours was 4 weeks, but now we keep in touch as colleagues). Can you say more about the Timeline of the project: were all the meetings in the classroom/ face-to-face format?
B: All the meetings were face-to-face and took place from December 2019 to March 2020. In fact on 11 March 2020 we had our last meeting, and it was the day when the very first covid case was detected in the country. Only the final focus group meeting, where I collected the last set of data for research, was online. Other than that all RPG meetings were face to face.
Z: Now it is about roughly a year since it started. Do you know how the teachers are doing now, in their ‘life after project’?
B: I love these people! I loved working together with them! Now [after the project] we are even closer. One gave birth (and the child is the same age as my son) and is on maternity leave. Her reflection focus is now being a parent, and on child development for sure. One teacher started working in the Testing Office so she teaches less and administers students’ tests, having lots of duties, especially in the challenging context of online/remote/pandemic teaching. She might not have the time to reflect in-depth. One other teacher moved to another university in Istanbul and would like to start her own RPG there. I told her to go for it, and to use the manual, and go with the flow, and to get in touch when help or advice may be needed. She can also invite others, as the meetings are now all online. I think Teacher J and G (pseudonyms preferred as in the paper) keep being reflective and have time for enjoying reflection with less distraction.
Z: Now the group is not a ‘group’ any longer, it seems, but are they perhaps considering starting their own groups in the future?
B: Each of them now is really empowered to start their own RPGs. Each of them can lead/coordinate an RPG easily. It is dealing with 2020 that is not easy [for teachers, for everyone]: people are losing jobs, and have to change places. After things get normal or calm, they will get back to the idea of RP.
By the way, I am now writing a chapter for Thomas Farrell’s new book, and I am using my study as a basis for the chapter.He is running a project for the RP studies conducted in Turkey and I am planning to send our RPG work to be published. So excited about it.
Z: Exciting! Tell me more about the project! How did you two get together?
B: Though TESOL Turkey. The president of the association, Asst. Prof. Dr. Bahar Gun was in my thesis jury and she is really into RP. It is a way of life for her. She said it was one of the good dissertations she read on/about the RP, so she suggested turning it into a chapter for the book, along with some other RP studies conducted in our country. Coincidentally, she had already started working with TF about a possible contribution about RP in Turkey. So now I am working in collaboration with my supervisor and drafting the chapter.
Z: I am so happy to hear that you are turning the paper into a chapter for wider audiences!
B: I am learning a lot from this experience, and relying on my supervisor in the main writing decisions.
Z: Sure, you are doing it for the 1st time! I really hope you will be presenting about it in international events, sharing with the trainer community, etc.
B: Yes, about RP, and about RPG.
Z: I so appreciate how this type of PD is about the specific humans/teachers in the group, and how voluntary it is. Nobody can force people to go on that thinking/reflective depth.
B:Yes, it is different from the idea of a one-off PD event for teachers. Such events can bring momentary insight or inspiration, but can be less meaningful in the longer-term. Then, me presenting about RPG in a one-shot event can be contradictory to the idea. I am thinking that when I do present, I will keep an eye on that group of teachers, and get their reflections after some time (if they start RPG meetings)
Z: What were your own personal insights about teaching, training, learning, PD (any other aspect)? Sometimes, these do not ‘fit’ into the paper, but can be quite powerful.
B: Two big things reconstructed my beliefs about teacher training and teaching. The first one is minding emotions. Be careful about the emotions. If people (students, trainers, teachers) do not feel like doing something, don’t try to get them started on that. In my research I saw that affect can be a driving force. I did not expect that. People in Turkey are really emotional (have you watched our national football matches, for example?) The fans go crazy, they cry, and may even leave the stadium. I know that. I just did not expect that to happen in the professional setting. I now see that the first thing is always Teacher Wellbeing. Emotions matter. It is the first step. Sometimes, when I deliver a seminar, I know that some people do not want to be there, do not want to attend. If something is compulsory, it does not work. It is a waste of everyone’s time.
The second thing: when you want to learn something, articulate it! Tell someone about it. Share it. It is another motto/mantra for me now. RPGs can serve for this, through cascading purposes, which means discussing the ideas teachers bring from a webinar they all (most of them) attend. It can even be as short as 15 minutes. A kind of ‘coffee time reflection’. What did you learn? What did you (not) like, and why? What do you think would (not) work for your teaching style? Just like that! Thinking that you ‘know’ something may not necessarily mean you actually know it. You have to say that, share with someone else.
Just recently in a personal group seminar I saw a good idea, and the trainer said “When you have a target, you need to let someone know about that so you are now responsible for it”’.
B: You can now report to that person, so that you are on track. In the end, when you accomplish something, you share with this person, you articulate it, and you say what you learned. This is what I believe now.
Z: By the way, did you have weekly goal sharing as a part of your meeting plan?
B: Yes, just like in our TESOL course, I asked everyone to articulate their reflective goals/targets for the following week. If they could not think of their own goal, they could agree with others and join someone else in a reflective goal. They did not have to create a novel idea.
Z: And I imagine the same point/target could be used more than once.
B: Yes, and 2-3 people could be working on something together, share lesson recordings, for example, observe each other’s lessons, share journal entries, if they choose, etc.
Z: Which ‘normally’ could be quite a hard task to motivate teachers to be doing in their own time! Imagine, if you (as a manager/coordinator) just approach 2-3 teachers as a manager and offer this idea…
B: You don’t always need to learn something from scratch. Whatever you know can be brushed up in a reflective session/meeting. You may be doing something very well (in class) but you are not aware about it. If you hear people talking about it, you may think ‘A-ha, this is how it can be done!’. I like how it can be ‘in the moment’ insight. Either learning or ‘refreshing’ an idea.
Z: For some of the teachers in your group, you had been their supervisor, observed their lessons before this project. Imagine if you could now join their lesson and have a post-observation feedback: do you think the level of depth in that conversation would be different?
B: One big difference for sure would be them having a reflective notebook on their desk. They would all have it. They all told me they would carry it with them at all times. It is hard to be writing all the time, but it is a great tool. And they will be autonomous. I know that. I will do less.
Z: You will do less but they will have more questions to you about the teaching/planning process, decisions made, etc., as opposed to the attitude ‘let me listen to your feedback and explain what you see in a ‘wrong’ way’ 🙂 These conversations make me miss the time at the school and observing real lessons.
B: We are ‘people persons’, and that’s why we do the job we do.
Z: In your opinion, what can the implications be for a teacher trainer/educator, promoting/advocating for RPG as a PD tool?
B: Giving ideas in loop input. I mean practice what you preach. For example, if you talk about a dialogue, your session needs to be in a dialogical format. If your session is about writing, teachers need to write a piece in the process. That’s what I think about when I imagine how I disseminate the ideas about RPG. I will surely offer some tasks for teachers, e.g. journal about one of your class, then share it with someone who attended the session. Therefore, my big idea about the practitioners would be “be real practitioners” and adopt the idea fully yourself in the first place.
Z: Did you introduce the Experiential Learning Cycle to the group members explicitly? I started with it in the sessions I facilitated, but later realized it was impossible if the sessions were led by the teachers without the SIT TESOL Certificate background).
B: I was not too strict about it (not like on a course!) but there are some components that can’t be changed, e.g. starting from the specific description. In our meetings we had the philosophy of ‘data in – data out’. If you have ‘data in’, of course you describe it. You bring a recording – the others listen to it. It is a description. Teachers always had journals with them. They read the notes as a form of description. They also had the survey results from their students, which was incredible, really objective, as these were the students’ perspective more than teachers’. It was cool.
Sometimes they generalized without interpreting. Sometimes the description took most of the meeting time (e.g. 1 hour). I did not insist on following the cycle. They are all qualified teachers. They still have a reasonable pathway. I did not tell them to stop and go back. Plan of action was important. Some people were ready to formulate it earlier than the others. At the end of the meeting, some people were at the interpreting stage, and some were already planning for action. Those who had their plans were ready to help the others. So it was collaboration, collective process/behavior. By the time we had meeting 5 and 6, I did not have to interfere at all. They were comfortable with the cycle. It took some time.
Z: Yes, it does take time. To me, interpreting is especially important if there was a puzzle one teacher brought, and the teacher who brought the situation is not sure what to do about it. In this case, it is very natural that the listeners help and offer their reasons, alternative points of view, etc.
B: Sure. Sometimes you also need to interfere. Impulsive reactions to each others’ words, which I had to stop. It was very rare, by the way, just 2-3 times. In that case, I stopped the meeting, and said OK, let’s stick to the reflective state of mind instead of reactive state of mind.
Z: So you were present in the session, even though you were not leading it. You were the Big Eye overseeing the process. Now, I know you are now working at another university. What are your action plans? (laughing). In the new university, it is perhaps too early to say how you can be organizing your colleagues to reflect, but are you planning to do anything along the lines of RPG? Not exactly the same kind of group?
B: I will do it, but at this point I don’t know the school culture there yet. I give myself a year to see how things work in the new place, to step back and observe. It was a big thing I learned from David Donaldson: “Instead of ‘speaking five’, speak three and step back”. It is a big trainer quality: looking. Observing.
Z: Love this idea! Taking notes!
B: David was really cool with that, and I learned it from him and applied this idea in every area of my life, including this new Uni. I will step back and observe how people behave, their relationships. We work with people, not on content that much, but with people. People matter. Later, I am sure I will find a couple of people to initiate an RPG, because in my new workplace, people are positive about PD, and are interested in new ideas, and so the RPG idea can be one of the new things to try out.
Z: Are you planning to do anything related to teacher training/development in the new Uni?
B: Maybe, some presentations as a start. People need to see that I am ready to learn from them as much as they will learn from me. Having some sessions with them would be a good opportunity for me and for them to get to know each other in action.
Z: Burak, thank you for the chance to talk to you about the research project and the reflective practice experience. I am wishing you a wonderful 2021, full of observation and learning, professionally in your new workplace, and personally with your family.
B: My great pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity! And, surely thank you for inspiring me with the idea of RPG in the first place!
Burak Aydın is an Instructor of English and a licensed teacher trainer for SIT TESOL Certificate Course. Apart from working at a tertiary level English preparatory program, he has also worked as a member of the Continuing Professional Development office. In the field of teacher training, he has been researching and presenting in ELT conferences, INSET PD events and for various educational institutions.
Notes and links
*SIT TESOL Certificate Course is different from the other 4-week intensive courses in ELT as it has the reflective skills/competency area as a part of the program goals. Participants are practicing the skill of reflecting on their planning and teaching decisions in terms of their effect on individual student learning, and on the learning of the group of students.