Gary Barkhuizen: Language Teacher Educator Identity

When I wrote my post on social media, I made positive comments about Twitter. Not only can this social network help you connect with like-minded individuals, but you can also find out about some interesting offers. This tweet caught my attention a couple of months ago. Gary Barkhuizen, a professor at the University of Auckland, announced that his brand new book was available for free for a limited period of time. Since I like collecting useful resources, I took advantage of that option and downloaded the book. To my delight, I found out that Language Teacher Educator Identity is based on the author’s interviews with English teacher educators based in Colombia.

Gary Barkhuizen: Language Teacher Educator Identity

At the beginning of the book, Barkhuizen lists fourteen types of language teacher educators, ranging from academic leaders to teachers of English for specific purposes. He also differentiates between continuous professional development, which focuses on developing a knowledge base, and intervention-based teacher training. I am particularly interested in the latter because even though you can learn a lot from reading books and academic articles, I feel that I have made a lot of progress as a teacher thanks to my CELTA and Delta Module Two tutors. A simple comment from an experienced teacher trainer who has observed your lesson can lead to positive changes in your teaching practice. Of course, many teachers eventually figure out a lot of things by themselves, but quality teacher training can considerably speed up the process.

By the way, it was quite amusing to see the usual Colombia vs. Columbia mix-up in the book. This is a touchy subject because Colombians usually aren’t happy to see their country’s name misspelled. The good news is that this is the first time I have seen someone make the mistake the other way round! It seems Barkhuizen (or possibly his editors) decided to join the good fight by referring to the place of his doctoral studies in the US as ‘Teachers College, Colombia University’. Twice. I for one approve of this change in spelling conventions!

The main body of the book refers to a study that was conducted with seven teacher educators enrolled in a doctoral programme at a Colombian university. Barkhuizen interviewed them twice, and the book includes their biographical information and key comments from the interview. This is very valuable data and I really enjoyed reading it. I was particularly intrigued by mentions of decolonial pedagogy and social justice in some of the respondents’ answers.

As its name implies, Language Teacher Educator Identity deals with who teacher educators are, what they do, and how they feel about their role. Barkhuizen points out that the transition from being a language teacher to working as a teacher educator often leads to experiencing identity tensions because teaching students is not the same as training teachers. I hadn’t really thought of this before, but since I would like to become a teacher trainer in the future, this is something I need to be aware of.

The author also makes several recommendations relevant to language teacher education pedagogy. I agree that is important to take the context of teacher education and language teaching into account, and that teacher educators should make their goals explicitly clear. It is also necessary to pay attention to the teachers’ needs. Not doing so may result in delivering ineffective workshops serving only as a box-ticking exercise with no practical use. Another crucial point is keeping in touch with new knowledge and not relying on outdated ideas.

After describing what roles teacher educators usually fulfil, Barkhuizen focuses again on Colombia. He references Viáfara and Largo’s article Colombian English Teachers’ Professional Development: The Case of Master Programs, which is worth reading. Among other things, the authors mention ineffective policies, lack of support, unfavourable job conditions and other issues that MA candidates and graduates have to face, which won’t surprise anybody working in education. Barkhuizen then refers to his interviews with the group of Colombian teacher educators again, this time presenting their reasons for pursuing their PhD degree. It was nice to read their honest answers, and many teachers who are in the same situation will undoubtedly sympathise with them.

The final section includes forty questions encouraging research into teacher educator identities. I appreciate the fact that the author doesn’t shy away from topics such as opposing or resisting the existing system and its practices, which is something that deserves to be researched. There are quite a few thought-provoking topics that I would like to find out more about. I would definitely be interested in reading experienced teacher trainers’ answers to some of the questions.

Language Teacher Educator Identity is a book that focuses on an area that doesn’t usually receive much attention. Barkhuizen refers to relevant research and his own study conducted with Colombian teacher educators. What I really like is that the book is interspersed with the author’s personal stories relevant to each area, which is perfectly appropriate for a text dealing with identity. I am glad that the Twitter post promoting Language Teacher Educator Identity appeared in my feed because this book provided me with plenty of food for thought, and I will definitely read it again if I become a teacher trainer at some point in the future.

No Spanish in the classroom?

Being a reflective teacher is an important element of professional development because it makes you think about your teaching practice. It’s quite useful to ask yourself why you are teaching the way you are teaching. Reflecting on your work isn’t always a pleasant process because it can lead to opening a can of worms. However, I think that admitting that you got something wrong can help you improve as a teacher even if it means denting your ego.

I spent eighteen months after completing my CELTA oblivious of any real professional development. I just kept doing what I thought was correct at the time. Fortunately, I decided to study for Delta Module One, and reading ELT books made me question things for the first time in my teaching career. For example, when I was tasked with assessing students’ speaking skills, it involved asking them to draw a card with a random topic and giving them a minute to prepare a monologue. When I read Testing for Language Teachers by Arthur Hughes, I found out that this is not a recommended procedure because it makes learners unnecessarily stressed. The book helped me explore some more considerate and effective ways of assessing speaking.

No Spanish in the classroom?

All teachers makes mistakes, particularly at the beginning of their careers. My biggest one was persisting with the No Spanish! policy for quite a long time. In my defence, I taught a multilingual group of students during my CELTA course, so it was necessary to rely only on English. It took me a while to realise that penalising Colombian students for using their native language wasn’t a good strategy. Everyone else seemed to be doing that as well, so I didn’t see any problem with enforcing the rule.

Again, I needed an intervention from the outside to show me that there are other perspectives on the topic of L1 use in the classroom. When I decided to focus on teaching monolingual classes in Colombia for my Delta Module Three assignment, I needed to research the area. The role of learners’ native language is a key issue, so I started reading more about it, and Vivian Cook’s article Using the First Language in the Classroom proved to be a game changer in this regard.

There are solid arguments for using only L2 in the classroom, and I completely understand how the direct method came about. However, it doesn’t seem to be the best options for monolingual environments such as Colombia. Cook says that the interaction between L1 and L2 is a fact of life and fighting against it doesn’t make much sense. He suggests treating learners’ mother tongue as a useful resource and taking advantage of it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean promoting unrestricted use of the native language in the classroom because that would be taking things to the other extreme. If possible, L1 should be used in a more principled way. For example, there are a lot of cognates between English and Spanish, and it’s pretty useful to expose students to them. In fact, that’s what I relied on when I moved to Colombia with limited knowledge of the Spanish language. This inevitably means exploring the area of false friends to avoid misunderstanding. I don’t see any harm in looking at similarities and differences in some grammar structures either. 

I also think that using L1 when it comes to lexical chunks can help you save valuable class time. Let’s use the expression it’s worth it as an example. When you encounter it in a text, you can spend a couple of minutes trying to clarify its meaning using some contrived examples, and there is still no guarantee that it will be fully understood by everyone in the classroom. Using its Spanish equivalent vale la pena will immediately resolve that issue. L1 can be very useful in terms of class management too, particularly with beginners. I see no point in torturing students who have just started learning the language with English-only instructions when you can help them out using their mother tongue in case they are struggling with a task.

In addition, I have no qualms about using translation activities in my lessons. I am not advocating for the return of the outdated grammar-translation method that doesn’t pay any attention of speaking. Asking my students to translate a hoax message I had received through WhatsApp can help kick-start a discussion about fake information on the internet, and I see no issue with including fun stuff like that in my lessons from time to time. I recommend watching Philip Kerr’s webinar The return of translation for more information on the topic.

When I look back at the beginning of my teaching career, there are a few memories that now make me say to myself That was a bit daft, wasn’t it? and banning the use of L1 in the classroom was undoubtedly one of them. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources that can help us address various misconceptions. I think it’s really important for us teachers to be open-minded and willing to change our stance in case we encounter evidence suggesting that our students may not benefit from our actions.