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Do Teachers Learn or Teach?

                                                                            Ramesh Prasad Ghimire*

 I was highly impressed by one idea of my respected guru, Professor Dr. Jai Raj Awasti when I was attending the Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA) conference in Kathmandu some years back. I was a master’s level student at University Campus, Kirtipur at that time. He was making a plenary presentation and the topic of his discussion was the same: Do teachers learn or teach? When I attended his session, and came out from the conference venue, my mind started germinating the germs about his major question and other sub-questions that the major question gave birth to such as ‘yes if teachers do both of the things: teaching and learning, how do they learn?’ What are the different ways that teachers adopt for their learning? What are the things that the teachers are supposed to learn? Which come first teaching or learning in teachers’ life? Why do they learn something? Is there any fundamental difference between the way students learn and the teachers learn? Do all the teachers keep the channel of their learning open once they complete their university education? Can teaching function as a powerful tool for teachers’ own learning?  What happens if the teachers do not learn and only teach and teach? and many more. When I started my career as a teaching assistant at the same University and started teaching the course entitled ‘English Language Teacher Development’, I got some insights into the nature of teacher learning. In this short article, I will try to answer some of the above questions related to teacher learning.

There is no any doubt with the fact that teachers not only teach, they also learn something.  Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary (8th edition) defines the term teacher as ‘a person whose job is teaching especially in a school’. In a laymen’s sense too, teacher means a person who teaches the students. But we should not forget the fact that a teacher should put him/herself on the side of the students. Defining teacher development Underhill (1988) says, “Keeping myself on the same side of learning fence as my students.” The teacher should be ready for learning every time. In fact every movement is a learning movement for the teachers. Similarly, Jim Scrivener (2005) opines that it’s not just students who do the learning, but you do as well. You teach you learn- and the two things are intertwined. Outside and inside the class, you live and learn. You learn throughout your teaching career.

So far as the question of how do teachers learn is concerned, the answer varies. There are multiple ways that teachers learn. In fact teachers start learning about teaching right from the point they come to school. We often note the small children pretending to teach some animals and their peers after attending school for some days. We learn about teaching by observing the way our teachers taught us when we were students. This is called appreciative of observation. Teachers learn about teaching in the colleges and universities under teacher preparation courses. They learn by attending conferences, workshops and meetings; by reading various resource materials; by writhing materials such as text books and reference materials; by self reflection on their teaching; by searching the Internet; by conducting action research; by helping the novice teachers in the schools; by teaching itself, by trying out new techniques and methods, by committing errors and correcting them, by talking to the colleagues and many more.

Basically the teachers are supposed to learn three key things: subject matter knowledge, methodological skills and pedagogical values. By subject matter knowledge I mean the contents of teaching the teachers are supposed to have a good command of. A teacher must have a sound knowledge of the subject s/he is teaching. For example, if teacher X is a language teacher, s/he must have a good knowledge of the language that s/he is going to teach. In addition, s/he should have a comparative knowledge of the target language and the first language of the learners. S/he is supposed to know the phonology, syntax, semantics, and the pragmatics of that language. However, it is not sufficient for a teacher to have a sound knowledge of the subject matter s/he is supposed to teach. In addition to the subject matter knowledge, a teacher must be methodologically tactful in delivering the subject matter to the students. A man can have a good theoretical knowledge on swimming but until and unless s/he does not involve in the practical aspect of swimming, s/he cannot understand what swimming really is. Neither can she make other people clear about swimming. There is no any guarantee that what is taught by the teacher is necessarily learnt by the students. A good teaching is the one which results in learning. In order to make teaching supportive for student learning, a teacher must have methodological skills in delivering the contents among the learners. Methodological skills encompass the things like the skills in developing and following certain methodological procedures for teaching various contents. Skills of developing and implementing various techniques and resources for teaching and many more. Furthermore, a teacher must have developed his/her own pedagogical values for teaching. By pedagogical values, I mean the guiding principles that the teacher keeps in his/her mind while planning and acting in the broad and holistic process of teaching and learning. For example, the beliefs about teaching, beliefs about learning, beliefs about the methods of teaching, beliefs about the learners and many more.

There exists some fundamental differences between the way the young students learn and the adult teachers learn something. The teachers follow the adult learning principles while learning something. Gabriel H. Díaz-Maggioli (2003) discusses the following adult learning principles:

  1. Voluntary participation: Adults will learn better in situations where they themselves choose to get involved.
  2. Mutual respect: For adults to progress in their learning, they need to feel they are valued and respected.
  3. Collaboration: Adults learn best in situations where they can share and learn from other adults.
  4. Action and reflection (praxis): To be effective, professional development opportunities have to be rooted in practices that give adults the chance to reflect on what they do and then modify their actions, if they deem it necessary.
  5. Choice and change: Professional development programs need the support of the institution, not only with funding but, more importantly, with a commitment to helping develop and sustain programs for teachers.
  6. Motivation: Adults learn best when given the chance to make their own choices and to change them if they are not successful.
  7. Organizational setting: Adults engage in learning when they see that a specific learning opportunity can help them cope better with their everyday lives.
  8. Self-direction: A one-size-fits-all approach to professional development can result in teacher frustration, but when teachers are given the chance to actively participate in the planning and implementation of the programs, the results can be impressive.

The implication of this concept of adult learning principles for teacher development activities is that we need to consider the features of adult learners while conducting development and training programmes for the teachers who are adult by age.

Teaching functions as a powerful tool for teacher learning. Frankly speaking, the kind of English language proficiency that I have today is the result of my own teaching. Head and Taylor (1994) rightly remark, “What is being taught is being learned.” Classroom is a fertile place for the teachers for learning, sharing and researching. Through teaching we modify our maxims and beliefs, deepen our subject matter knowledge and methodological skills; we become the best teacher that we aspire to be.

If a teacher does not learn and only teaches then a day will come soon when s/he becomes a useless teacher. It is said that a man who graduated yesterday if stops learning today becomes uneducated tomorrow. The teachers need to learn every moment in order to protect themselves from the possible great disaster in their career path. Learning about teaching does not stop whenever your training course finish. In fact, this is where your development as a teacher begins. In this context, it is worth quoting Scrivener (2005). He righty remarks, “Any teacher who stopped leaning— has probably also stopped being useful as a teacher.”

(*Ramesh Prasad Ghimire is a trainer of English at Educational Training Center, Surkhet. A life member of NELTA (Nepal English Teachers Association), Mr. Ghimire is also the editor of the academic journal The Profession. His area of interest includes classroom diversity, English grammar, teacher education and critical pedagogy.)

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