Reflections on Training Teachers in Sudan
30th September 2016
by Thanh Nyguyen Associate ELT-Consultant
Ever since engaging in teacher training I’ve been reflecting over the influences that my own experiences as a student teacher has had on my approach to designing and delivering training programmes. In fact, I found myself trying to impart many of the things I found beneficial during those years (especially from my DipTESOL and MA) when working as a teacher trainer for the first time in Sudan with the British Council between 2013 to 2015. A particular book which I found influential during my own CPD was Lightbown and Spada’s book ‘How Languages are Learned’ which helped me to understand learners with an emphasis on second language acquisition theory. I was extremely eager to share these insightful descriptions of language learning when I was first tasked with putting together a Training of Trainers (ToT) programme in Sudan to help prepare teacher trainers and teachers for the new English syllabus proposed for government primary schools across the country. I remember distinctly putting together input sessions inspired from Lightbown and Spada’s book with sessions such as ‘Learning through imitation’, ‘Learning through errors’ and ‘Learning through interaction’ (each one representing behaviourist, cognitivist and socio-culturalist perspectives respectively). After delivering the programme to over 200 teachers covering eleven states in Sudan and becoming more and more concerned with the local contexts of teachers – most of which being borne out from my MA thesis on teaching large classes in ‘difficult’ circumstances, I began to question the validity of ‘knowledge transfer’ approaches to teacher training. The following then contains the impact that my reflections have had on my approach to teacher training, whilst at the same time demonstrating how powerful a tool ‘reflection’ is for professional development.
As with any type of reflection a good starting point is what I felt were the successes of the ToT Programme in Sudan. Straight away I would say that teachers’ attitudes changed, and this was largely due to session focusing on helping teachers to understand their pupils better by understanding how children learn or pick up languages. A particular point that struck a chord with teachers was the notion of ‘errors’ and how if ‘errors’ are a normal process for children acquiring their first language then why do teachers sometimes have almost a zero tolerance attitude when it comes to pupils learning English as a second language? I mean you have to feel sorry for the little kids in these government schools, where teaching approaches tend to focus on accuracy, leading to constant correction of pupils’ language and in turn redirecting their thinking from communicating to just reciting sentences that are accurate to a tee (or a ‘t’). I felt this really opened up the teachers eyes to the matter and it was clear to me that teachers had different opinion when it came to expectations they had about their pupils. I remember one slide I showed the teachers stating that ‘our expectations of our pupils in their L2 can only be as high as what they are capable of in their L1’. In Sudan, if pupils struggle to write a grammatical sound prose in Arabic, then how can we expect error free sentences in English? If pupils struggle with certain phonemes in their L1, then likewise, how can we expect them to produce the English phonemes perfectly? As such it was clear to teachers that ‘errors’ should be tolerated and (contrary to the adage that accuracy means learning) pupils’ ‘errors’ should be seen as a sign of pupils trying to figure out the language, providing teachers with insights into their thought processes, their ideas and so forth about the target language.
Another area I felt resonated with teachers were input sessions drawing attention to understanding pupils’ emotional needs better, such as the manner in which teachers speak to pupils, questioning techniques, wait time whilst pupils gather their thoughts to answer etc. Although some teachers believe that ‘anxiety’ is just a myth, that such a thing is unrelated to language learning (believe me, I have met some teachers who actually believe this) I know from my own experience that I was terrified of learning Vietnamese as a kid because I was afraid that the teacher (and the other kids) would make fun of me, and this was excluding the fact that the teacher and the other kids spoke a dialect that was different to my own! Imagine if I had a teacher who was supportive, understanding and promoted a classroom that reflected this, I might be speaking Vietnamese extremely fluently now! With these points in mind, teachers spoke about how they learned a lot of new things and how their attitude towards their pupils and language teaching had changed. I remember one teacher telling me how she noticed immediate positive changes with her class when she paid more attention to their emotional needs.
At the same time teachers really showed their appreciation of the training they received, and really engaged with the more kinaesthetic elements of the course. I remember doing an input session on stirrers and settlers and teachers had to pretend to be rowdy or bored - out - of - their – minds so I could demonstrate these two types of activities. To my surprise, teachers relished the roles and really brought a sense of chaotic humour to the input sessions. Some even started jumping up and down, screwing pieces of paper up and throwing them across the room. Others began singing and clapping their hands. Stirrers and settlers really brings out the child in all of us I guess! But, on a serious note, this drew my attention to the fact that teachers sometimes come with certain expectations and aspirations, especially on programmes delivered by ‘foreigners’ where they may expect something innovative and a bit different to what they have been used to. This drove a point home to me: the importance of ensuring training programmes aim to meet teachers’ expectations whilst offering them something new (that is not too controversial of course!) and experiences they will cherish for years to come.
Another area of success was the programme’s concern for encouraging reflective practice through the use of post micro-teaching reflection tasks and reflective journals. It was great to see teachers in Sudan reflecting – a new concept for them apparently (as it was for me at one point!). Reading their reflective journals provided insights into their thought process, things they found beneficial and concerns about applying some of the programme content. Similarly, it was reassuring to observe teachers discussing their reflections during post micro – teaching sessions, stating what they thought went well, what could have been done better and setting action points for themselves (which – as you can see – is what this blog is attempting to do).
Teachers also showed appreciation of being shown procedures for using observations as a tool for professional development. What was interesting was listening to teachers sharing their observation experiences. These were border line horror stories, very scary for the teachers. Teachers in Sudan always felt threatened when being observed. Usually a no – nonsense, out of touch individual from the upper echelons of education would come, chastise teachers for making mistakes in front of the pupils or reprimanding them for using innovative practices in the classroom (and I know this from first-hand experience!). Teachers even admitted that they tended to observe their junior teachers in the same way simply because that was the way they were observed – and this is despite the fact that most of the teachers I trained actually disagreed with such an approach. But what could they do when their hands are tied and must stick to a particular way of doing things? However, it was reassuring to observe teachers during these input sessions showing greater sensitivity towards their observees, sitting quietly at the back of the room, taking notes and then providing feedback which was constructive, instilling the notion that observations should be conducted carefully in order to support teachers rather than an opportunity to ‘destroy’ teachers’ confidence and self-esteem. The amount of beginner teachers who walked out of teaching jobs in Sudan because of the way they were observed was a common story that popped up time and time again.
That said, whilst I felt teachers’ attitudes towards language learning changed during the training courses and they made use of reflective practices, whilst developing some teacher mentoring and support skills, there were many areas I felt could have been improved. For example, focusing more on the actual conditions teachers work in and gaining a better understanding of the day to day experiences of school life in Sudan. More recently, I had the pleasure of teaching at a government primary school in Khartoum for two months, something I wished I had done before delivering the ToT programme, as I gained valuable insights into the constraints teachers face when teaching English. It caused me to reflect on the fact that I had grossly underestimated the problems faced by teachers - things which I had taken for granted during my days as a trainee teacher. Examples of this are with class sizes, space, resources and time. In the main, I found that many of the theories, activities and approaches to language teaching I had used on the ToT programme were borne out of contexts which are vastly different to the contexts faced by teachers in Sudan. I was used to teaching classes of no more than 15, in modern buildings, unlimited resources with lessons that may last between two to two and half hours. And yet there I was trying to help teachers who teach English for about forty – five minutes, work in rather rudimentary buildings, with poor power supply, lighting, no air-conditioning (Sudan in the summer is not pleasant at all!), crammed conditions, basic resources (at most a chalk board – and that’s even if the pupils can see what is written on it!). Even though I had taught at a government school in Khartoum, my experience paled in comparison to most teachers who have to contend with more than a hundred (I only had fifty – seven!). So whilst teachers on the ToT programme enjoyed the course, there is no doubt in my mind that regrettably very little of it was actually applicable to the daily processes going on in their classrooms. This is a huge shame, but brings to the fore the reality of teacher training and how (from my own personal experience), I tried to emulate teacher training courses (such as CELTA, DipTESOL courses) which were designed for EFL contexts mostly found in private institutes where teachers would have luxuries not usually afforded to most primary and secondary school teachers delivering English in Sudan.
So what have I learnt, and what next? Well, for starters it is clear that I need to begin from the daily experiences of teachers within the context the training is being delivered – a bottom - up approach if we are to get technical. This would involve – if the chance presents itself – teaching at the schools, observing or shadowing teachers, speaking to pupils, head teachers etc. Also researching about the education context of the country (there are loads provided by the World Bank, UNESCO and local experts and academics). One which I recently found to be hugely beneficial was one by Muhammad Miliani on the historical, socio-cultural and religious factors influencing teachers’ approaches to teaching in Algeria, and found it a compelling read. It really showed me how training courses need to take into account the beliefs, influences and rationales behind the choices teachers make in the classroom, the types of constraints they face - things which could easily be overlooked or underestimated by teacher trainers. A fancy term for this would be ‘teacher cognition’. This may result in training programmes which do away with a complete transfer of pedagogical theories coming from outside the teachers’ context and instead examining local ‘folk’ pedagogies, the role of English in the school, pupils’ attitudes towards English (Le Van Canh’s piece on teacher training comes to mind where many pupils in Vietnam just view English as a subject which they need to pass – thus bringing up the issue regarding the influence of exams and assessment in government schools) and ways of adapting classroom textbooks to make them more ‘interesting’ (I know some teachers in Pakistan are doing this already!). I would also focus more on general classroom management techniques and ways of making language lessons less stressful and more anxiety free without compromising on space, time and resources. I found from my own personal experience that with a little classroom management, it is possible for pupils to do things like pair work, even mingle activities to promote interaction and peer support. At a more cognitive level, I could work on ways of improving teachers’ questioning techniques – important for encouraging pupils to think more critically and reflectively – yet at the same time placing no demands on resources. Also, storytelling techniques, which would help pupils with listening skills and sharing and respecting one another’s opinions – again no demands on space, time and resources - just a teacher with an excellent way of telling stories. I remember as a kid I used to love just sitting in class and listening to the teacher read a good story to us. The common theme running throughout these recent reflections on delivering training programmes is, if we were to work with what teachers have, how much learning can we really facilitate for pupils. Wouldn’t training programmes be more effective this way and ensure that what teachers pick up on training programmes would reach the classrooms more effectively? To sum up, earlier in this reflection I spoke about teachers setting expectations about their pupils’ language ability. It is clear to me now that as a teacher trainer I need to do the same about my teacher trainees and I can’t wait to deliver another teacher training programme where I can apply these reflections to ensure transformative practices in the classroom are realistic, practical and effective.
Canh, L. E. (2000) Language and Vietnamese Pedagogical Contexts, in Shaw, J., Lubelska, D. & Noullet, M. (2000) Partnerships and Interaction: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Language and Development, Hanoi, Vietnam October 13-15, 1999, Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok.
Lightbown, P. M. & Spada, N. (2013) How Languages are Learned, 4rd Edition, OUP: Oxford.
Miliani, M. (2012) Teaching in higher education institutions in Algeria: A clash of paedagogies?, in International Journal of Pedagogies and Learning, 7/3,