Skip to content

Lead by example.

May 2, 2012


A – We can’t train them in the same way we expect them to teach.
B – Why not?

This little conversation shows a lot about the beliefs which underpin the two speakers’ attitudes to teacher training, does it not? One of them thinks training should, at least in part, exemplify how teachers should behave with their learners. I.e. as people. The other thinks these things are unimportant, perhaps because the trainees should be expected to know this already? Or because what we do as trainers doesn’t translate into the classroom?

This is part of a conversation which was overheard at a recent conference and I think it is interesting to analyse it further.

Teacher as tester/torturer.

I believe that we should treat our trainees with the same respect and understanding as we treat our students. Dishing out huge amounts of input on grammar at the start of a course surrounded by a discourse of “difficulty” and “stress” is only going to lead trainees to the belief that language learning should be painful, that grammar is hard and is to be suffered.

Surely it is better to introduce trainees to the idea that grammar is not the be-all and end-all of language learning from Day One of their course (or perhaps even before in the pre-course material?). It took me a while to learn this lesson and I so wish I had been guided their from the start of my career, because once I had learnt that grammar is not the only path, I became a much more effective teacher.

On some pre-service courses, language awareness is measured via an assignment, whereas some use a test. Setting an assignment shows a different attitude to assessment than testing: it allows for a more open approach to learning about the grammar of the English language, I.e. not cramming for a test under high pressure conditions, but learning and analysing and learning to analyse. Surely what we, as teachers, need to do, and need to do well? I have worked on courses which use both methods, and I can happily say that I would prefer my trainees to develop their own research skills whilst writing an assignment than getting stressed about sitting a test.

When trainees who are following the testing route are planning their lessons, they will have the memory of the test in mind, and they will plan accordingly. They are likely to come out with comments in class such as “This is hard, isn’t it?” and thereby compound this belief for the learners. When they go out into teaching world once they have completed the course, they will be more likely to teach according to a grammar syllabus, whether from a course book or self-created.

This, in my opinion, is leading them in the wrong direction because Second Language Acquisition research shows that language learning is not linear, as grammar syllabuses are, and we all know that grammar is not the be all and end all of language teaching.

That is not to say that I think, sorry B thinks, that grammar knowledge and language awareness is not in the domain of a teacher, or a teacher trainee, or a teacher training programme. Of course it should be. But how we go about introducing our trainees to this area needs to be considered in light of what we know about language acquisition.

You can lead a bull to water?

So why not train how we teach? Surely leading by example is a good thing, even if the trainees don’t follow our lead, which they are entitled not to. However, acting as if we are the font of all knowledge and holder of all power, and that grammar precedes all else, at the end of the course we are not likely to end up with teachers who are student-centred and who view learning as more important than teaching. We need to view our training courses, and our explicit and implicit training strategies carefully in order to ensure that we are setting the clearest example of what language learning and teaching is all about.

B has her work cut out for her.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2012 8:54 am

    I am now on week 9 of a grammar input course and it’s just dull, unmotivating and and….but some students/maybe most do well in the exercises. I put this more down to the fact they they have learned the stuff at school though and I am ‘brushing it up’. I do stick in lots of talking and writing but they just prefer gap fills.

    What I do find interesting is that it isn’t linear at all. It seems more like the author of the course ran out of ideas after covering all the tenses in 1 lesson and is now doing whatever he can think of from nouns to mixed conditionals. As a teacher this is difficult to deal with as I have to string things together, keep them relevant and practical.

    I personally believe that we should never teach grammar classes. It should be part of language, a class, communication etc. Same with pron but schools still like to split everything up as they can sell more classes perhaps or they feel that this is the best way to teach. I don’t know!

    • May 3, 2012 11:52 am

      So much of this is about learner training, breaking the habits that so many teaching contexts or methods have made the norm over the years. I used to think grammar was everything, and then I came to my senses and have seen so much more progress from my learners since. As Chia experienced in her first day of the Teach-Off Twist, learners expect work from a course book, or grammar focus in general, to be unpersonalised and uncommunicative. W need to crack this expectation and make language learning about what it should be – real communication about real things.


  2. May 3, 2012 12:18 pm

    I completely agree with you and B 😉 To not train people in the way you want them to teach seems like a missed opportunity and feels a bit like “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”

    By leading by example shows that you genuinely believe that this is the best way to create the right conditions and opportunities for learning – whether in a language learning, teacher training, or any other learning context. It also gives the trainees the chance to experience first hand how the techniques, strategies and approaches affect their learning and that of their fellow trainees.

    • May 3, 2012 5:59 pm

      Hi Carol,

      Thanks for your comment. Exactly as you say, it is a missed opportunity. I think it’s great for trainees to experience first hand the type of learning conditions we would like them to replicate. By not giving them this option, we are depriving them of the chance of knowing this first-hand.


  3. May 3, 2012 1:36 pm

    I like the sound of this “B” person. They may have their work cut out for them, but I imagine they will do it the way they know is the right way and tell “A” to stick their grammar test where the sun doesn’t shine. Well, at least until they have done the getting to know you activity.
    Your last couple of posts have been really insightful and at the same time scary. I have been lucky enough to work at a school that not only encourages experimentation with teaching, but also has a DoS at the helm that thinks like B and encourages the other teachers to think the same way. The scary thing is that not all schools, trainers, teachers and directors think this way and I will have to perhaps go through the same battles as yourself. On the one hand it will be exciting and challenging, on the other it could just take the fun and excitement out of teaching.
    Send my best wishes to B and tell her good luck. Don’t back down!


    • May 3, 2012 6:31 pm

      Hi Adam,

      I am also very lucky to work at a school where we are given freedom and support, and the most supportive DOS I have ever had. And the chances we are given for professional development and helping the school develop are great. It’s the main reason I went to work there.

      The conversation that sparked this blog post came from a teacher trainer who I know is effective and who has a lot more experience than I do. His comments just hit me yesterday and I had to write about it. The teacher training department are looking to make some changes, and are open to new ideas. Another reason why I wanted to work there.

      I think the thing is that the line of work we are in is so centred on people and therefore human behaviour, and sometimes it is easy to forget that everything we do has an impact. If unhelpful behaviour is not recognised, it can become the norm and that’s when the problems start.

      It takes dialogue to create change, and I am looking forward to continuing this dialogue.


  4. May 3, 2012 3:58 pm

    Reminds me of the doctors who smoke and say “do I what I say and not what I do!”
    Your title hits the nail on the head!

    • May 3, 2012 6:34 pm

      Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for your comment. We’re all guilty of a little hypocrisy now and then eh?! As long as this is challenged, it can promote change and development.

      Hope you are well. Really liked your last post.


  5. Anthony Gaughan permalink
    May 3, 2012 10:16 pm

    This post raises lots of questions (as per usual!) Not least:

    To what degree (if indeed at all) are learning a language and learning to teach (anything, but in this case, a language), and teaching learners to teach (anything, but here: language) similar processes?

    Perhaps they are very similar, but perhaps they are not as similar as all that. After all, language learning seems to be an innate human capacity, although the precise nature of that capacity and its actual process are unclear and disputed (with theories from cognitivists, connectivists, modularists, etc…) but one could expect there to be basically one underlying universal at play, whatever it was, but that it would not be subject to debate. Nature would have the last word there.

    Now, learning to teach would seem to be quite different in kind, as we are talking about a culturally specific convention. Note I have italicised teachabove: teaching is a social convention and as such is a social construct – and is therefore defined by its social setting. In other words, it is subject to change and is therefore not universal. Therefore, there is likely to be a variety of realisations of the practice, any one of which is likely to concord with how humans learn, and how they learn languages. But the degree to which they concord with how humans learn to teach would seem to depend on the human in question, the social setting they served their apprenticeship of observation in during school, and the pedagogic presumptions embodied by the theory of teaching implicit in the given approach to >em>teaching learners to teach, which would seem to be something else again.

    If you’ve followed my rambling so far: you’re a better reader than I am! I suppose all I am suggesting in order to spark further thought is this: is it really as easy as all that to make such a close correlation between learning a language and learning to teach, and teaching to teach?

    For me, the jury is definitely out on this question, but I’ll be very interested to read any examples you all can give for the close concrete parallels you see (either anecdotally or in the literature) which would support the case that training teachers using ELT classroom methodology is valid and not doing so is invalid.

    • May 6, 2012 2:02 pm

      I just spent ages writing a reply to this and then it disappeared…. Grrr…!!

      Let’s try again.

      Hi Anthony,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Over the years I have heard from many colleagues, including those alongside me on my celta years ago, the they hate being part of demos in teacher training. But I’ve also heard the complete opposite, too. Some seem to find it beneficial to be an active part of an activity, whilst others would prefer to learn about it from a more theoretical viewpoint. This seems to be down to learner preference then, perhaps. So, just as we should include a range of activities for learners in our classrooms, so we should in our training rooms. Sometimes demoing, sometimes telling, sometimes more inductive methods, etc…

      Personally though, I think that we should set and example in line with more current theories behind learning and teaching which are less top-down, include more student participation and mean, perhaps, saying hello before administering a test.

      I remember one conversation with a group of trainees after they had observed me teach. They commented that I didn’t really change my behaviour with the learners compared with how I was with them, and that they thought this was important in order to build an adult working relationship within the classroom, just as in the training room,

      I don’t know if this is the right way, but it feels right to me. I can imagine what you will say to this Anthony, but until I get the funding I need to set up my research study into the effects of both schools of thought, it will have to do!


  6. May 4, 2012 4:49 am


    Thank you for this post – the first question that popped into my head was “is there really any other (effective) ways to lead?” – the second was “what are the implications of teachers and teacher educators NOT leading by example themselves?”

    The answer to the latter is essentially that we have more people like “A” in education – “role-modelling” what learning and teaching are “suppposed” to be all about and contributing to the success (or not) of their learners. As a father – I know what type of teacher I want to be involved in my child’s learning. As a teacher trainer / educator – I know what type of teacher I want to help co-create.

    All teachers, regardless of “discipline” or the the type institution they work for, should (to borrow from Anthony above) aim to build on the innate human capacity of students to learn and create the conditions that allow students to learn long after a student leaves the classroom – or formal education. In the world of ELL, It is not just about “teaching” grammar and vocabulary and “testing” skills and knowledge – it is about helping a learner to be the best that they can be. This in turn requires that teachers be the best that they can be.

    It’s often said that students learn more by watching “who their teachers are” – than what those teachers “teach”. The same is true in teacher education and training.

    So, to go back to the first question I posed – Is there really any other alternative to leading by example? Yes, there is – if we can live with the consequences 😉

    Teachers and teacher educators like “B” are a good start – we need more of them.


    • May 6, 2012 2:15 pm

      Hi Tony,

      Thanks for commenting.

      I think you make the point I was trying to, that when we are learning something, be it a language, to teach, whatever, we pick up on so much more than the explicit content of the lesson/course. I remember so many things from my training that were not intentionally taught, but that I noticed and decided were good (or perhaps, not so good!) ways to behave. Working with people means needing to be aware of the power our behaviour has, especially when we are training others to work with people too.

      There is a difference between using the same types of activities with learners and trainees, behaving in the same way in both contexts, and using the same theories of learning with both. I think behaviour and theory can be shared across most contexts, the activities, less so.


  7. May 5, 2012 7:01 am

    Reading the blog, I was going to raise the same question as Anthony – to what degree is learning a language and learning to teach comparable? Of course, I completely agree with teacher B in this debate, but I’ve been wondering a lot lately about my training methods. To what degree should I be modelling classroom management in my sessions? How much loop input should I use? How many demonstrations are really useful?

    It seems to me that there is a difference in that there is more content/new knowledge to get across to teachers in training where as with language learners it’s more about interaction, practice, etc. and that a little input goes a long way (at least as I see it!). I suppose this is why I favour TBL or Dogme in my teaching, but more pre-prepared topics and materials in my training. At least on longer courses, while towards the start of the course I try to train as I teach and act as a model, towards the end it tends to include less ELT classroom management.

    No matter what though, there is always an emphasis on creating rapport and meaningful communication so please don’t think that I’m like teacher A!

    • May 6, 2012 2:27 pm

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks for stopping by! Have been meaning to comment on your blog, but haven’t quite got round to it yet.. Sorry.

      Your comment about changing the way you train on longer courses is interesting. I’ve seen this in myself when working even on shorter courses. In the first week, i guess I try to set a stronger example of the basic techniques involved in classroom interaction, by the end it is more often that the input sessions become discussions on the topic at hand. This is, of course, dependent upon time-tabling etc… Do you also teach on diploma level courses? I don’t yet, but would be interested to know if you, or anyone else, can add any information to this based upon in-service development, beyond the pre-service, INSET/TD workshop contexts which I work in.

      Much to think about. I have wanted for a while to conduct some research into control in the classroom/training room, maybe now’s actually the time to put something together? No idea how I would go about it though… Ideas? Anyone?


      • May 6, 2012 8:16 pm

        Research would be great. Maybe you could do something in conjunction with ‘Colleague A’ next time you run a course together since you clearly represent the two extremes? You would just need to gauge trainees preconceptions regarding training and then something towards the end? You could even give some of them his grammar test and others your assignment and have the trainees judge the merits. Not very statistical or empirical but could be interesting nonetheless.

        I don’t teach on diploma level courses at the moment, with ICELT or LAC being about as advanced as I get, but hopefully at my new post starting next month there will be chances to be a tutor on the delta courses they run.

      • May 9, 2012 8:05 pm

        Hi Ben,

        Doing some research in conjunction with my colleague could work well, especially as we work towards adapting the course. I’ll let you know what happens!

        New post? Sounds exciting…. Good luck with it, and with Deltaing once you get there.


  8. May 10, 2012 5:27 pm

    So much to think about here. Thanks, Jem, for the account.

    I reckon teachers, in general, are likely to develop an inflated sense of self-importance if not constantly revisiting their practice, and their lives. For teacher trainers, the likelihood of this happening is, like, tenfold!?

    I’m worried that there are in general very few trainer development opportunities, when compared to teacher development ones. Is it because trainers are assumed to already know everything, because they won’t show up to workshops, or because they’re neglected? Probably, none of the above 😉

    I feel, teaching how to teach, and more importantly, learning how to teach are not talked about as much as they should.

    For something truly enlightening check out:
    Second Language Teacher Education: A Sociocultural Perspective
    there’s a Kindle edition, so you can read on your new gadget


  1. Trainee See, Trainee Do? « ELT Stew

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: