Online teacher development has arrived, and the sooner you take advantage of what it has to offer, the sooner you’ll begin to see great things: your teaching satisfaction will grow, your student’s motivation will increase, and your whole teaching world will open up to unlimited opportunities for further growth.
As teachers, we all work in the learning business. We often tell our students that the best way to learn is to study hard, practice a lot, and make necessary adjustments along the way. This is very good advice for teachers as well. And, just like our students, there are two basic approaches we can take in own professional development: learning by ourselves or learning with others.
Learning by yourself
The first way is to take charge of your own learning and hope you have enough skills to teach yourself all that you need to know. First, you should read a lot, and there really are many useful books out there. You should also video your lessons, watch them and reflect on what you are doing right and what you can improve. As hard as it may be to watch yourself teaching, videos never lie. Based on what you see, you should try new things in the classroom and critique yourself. You will certainly improve. If you are diligent, and you have those skills to know all the right answers, you will improve significantly in a relatively short period of time.
On the other hand, if you are not so diligent, it may take several years to improve. I’m reminded of the person who asked, “Do you have 15 years experience or do you have one year of experience that you’ve repeated 15 times?” I tried the teach myself approach a few times. I failed miserably because I didn’t have the stamina nor nearly enough answers on my own.
In retrospect, I wasted a lot of time in my early years as a teacher. I worked by myself and shared just occasionally with one senior teacher. She was really good. It was daunting to talk teaching with her because she seemed to have all the answers already. So, I learned by experience: making mistakes in the classroom, dealing unsuccessfully with students, and planning lessons poorly. I shudder to think how many times I made the same mistakes before I eventually learned to start doing things differently. In order to avoid facing my teaching weaknesses, I always fell back on the fact that at least the students liked me.
Learning with others
Then one day, I made a decision to take my professional development seriously. I started a Masters degree in TEFL and I joined a professional teacher’s association. I promised to give it my best effort for three years. For me, this meant collaborating with other teachers, engaging with like-minded souls, and making the commitment to publicly share what I thought I knew. If at the end of three years, what I got out of it wasn’t worth the effort, I could then retreat back to my quiet life.
This collaborative approach to my own teacher development worked much better for me than studying on my own. For my MA TEFL studies, I set up a Skype study group. Five of us met online once a week, for an hour or 90 minutes, to discuss our MA readings. We explained, asked questions, shared ideas, confessed not understanding at all, argued, supported one another and bonded throughout the process. We built trust, knowledge and confidence in equal measure. I coined a few phrases that came directly out of the three years of Monday night Skype sessions,
“Anything I can do, we can do better.”
“Collaboration creates just the right amount of tension to get lots done.”
Not all study groups work, and many learning communities fail to reach their potential because they lack the proper dynamics for success. Through trial and error over a 3-year period, we learned that in order for collaborative learning to thrive, a few key ingredients are necessary:
- Structure – Without structure, it is too easy to have a bad day, get distracted, or worse, get lazy and lose all your momentum. Having readings to do, having pressure from colleagues who are expecting you to be ready, and having an online place to go regularly, all helped us to thrive in our studies.
- Leadership and commitment – There is a leader in everyone, we just need to be asked to take leadership of something (a thought from Chuck Sandy). Once you commit to improving yourself, and share that commitment with others, the good tension of others’ expectations and the rewards from accomplishing things creates the virtuous cycle that is so often discussed in motivational theory these days.
- Trust or rapport – Trust is built slowly – one small step at a time. People can sense who in the group is earnest and sincere. People are forgiving of the idiosyncrasies that we all have, if they know that we are trying our best. Once real rapport is formed between members, the work becomes more like play – because when you are hanging out with trusted friends, it doesn’t really matter if you are working or playing, it is still meaningful and fun.
- Patience – We humans are a complicated and fragile species. Until you get to that certain level of camaraderie, where you can make a mistake and not have to worry that it means the end of your relationship, you need to be extra sensitive to others’ feelings. Indeed, you always have to be aware that groups need to find their own sense of balance. You need to listen as much as you speak. You need to give as much as you take. You need to support others as much as you lean on them.
The best time to start
Whether you work alone or in collaboration with others, the time to focus on your own professional development is right now. Many professional teachers believe that, “Being a teacher means a never-ending commitment to learning”. Once you realize how much more there is to be learned, you owe it to yourself to get started immediately.
As the economy weakens in many parts of the world, we have the dual responsibility to do better for our students and to protect our own jobs as well. When times get tough, a number of curious things happen: lipstick sales increase because women want to feel good at minimal financial cost. Men buy more neckties, for roughly the same reasons. But most interesting is the fact that people spend more on improving their skills and knowledge through educational courses and workshops. This is exactly what iTDi has to offer: affordable, accessible, collaborative teacher development.
The iTDi dream
The entire faculty of iTDi came together because we share the dream of providing meaningful professional development through collaboration. Each of us has grown and succeeded with support and encouragement from other teachers. We are better teachers because we work together. We want to share that message with other teachers around the world.
“For teachers by teachers” is not just the iTDi motto. It’s our commitment to welcome you into our community, to offer you an excellent professional development opportunity and to provide you a place to connect and collaborate with like-minded teachers – all from the convenience of a computer in your home, at school or even at the local Internet cafe.
If you’re ready to become the very best teacher that you can be, I hope you will join the iTDi community. There’s a team of amazing educators just waiting to help you achieve your professional development goals.
By Steven Herder
iTDi for teachers by teachers