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John Potts - On becoming a teacher trainer

INSIGHTS: ETAS Journal Volume 31 No 3 Summer 2014

On becoming a teacher trainer: Could you have what it takes?

An interview with John Potts

John Potts is a well-known teacher trainer, who has helped thousands of teachers develop and enhance their classroom skills. In this interview, John shares his experience of over three decades, in particular, why a teacher might embark on the journey of becoming a teacher trainer and ideally, what qualities they would possess. 

John, thanks so much for agreeing to meet up. We last heard from you in the ETAS Journal Spring 2011 edition and we are sure you have been up to a lot since then.

Perhaps one has been teaching for quite some time and they’re wondering, what’s next. Maybe they’ve been considering the idea of becoming a teacher trainer. What would you advise them?

People should think about why they want to become a teacher trainer: What can I do? What can I give? It shouldn’t just be seen as automatic—well, I’ve been teaching for five years now, I should be a trainer. Teacher trainers need a lot of qualities. First of all, they need wide experience – small groups, big groups, in-house, business, classroom, Cambridge exams, General English, and so on. It doesn’t mean they should have taught everything, as no one can have taught everything.

Secondly, they need to have personal qualities. Teacher training can be very difficult, not only in terms of competencies and proficiencies that they as trainers need, but also handling tricky situations with other teachers. Teachers are sometimes difficult groups to work with: for example, if they are new to teaching and have no experience, they have problems because it is all so new to them. But working with experienced teachers can also be difficult – it can be like teaching an advanced or proficiency class. They know a lot already and sometimes you will find one or two teachers in a group who may have some issues with their own experience. For example, working with a teacher who feels that the training isn’t necessary for her or him. You know – ‘Why do I have to do this?’ Or, ‘I’ve been doing this for years – what’s he or she got to say to me?’ Not every teacher going to a workshop, whether it’s mandatory or voluntary, is going necessarily with an open mind. There can be some resistance.

Could you elaborate on some of the personal qualities needed to be a teacher trainer?

You need a lot of patience, first of all. You need to be a very good listener. You also need to be very honest and say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that. Does anybody else know the answer to that?’ It’s a bit like being in the classroom. A teacher can’t know the meaning of every word or grammar point, so sometimes she has to say, ‘I’ll look it up’. But you can’t say it all the time. And it’s the same when you are a trainer – sometimes you can say, ‘I’ve never met that situation’, or ‘I don’t really know what the answer is’. But of course, that can’t be your standard answer. Most of the time, you’ve got to have practical suggestions and ideas, while being willing to admit that you’re not sure about something, or that something’s outside your area of competence.

I think a sense of humor is really important, because sometimes you can just diffuse difficult situations by being funny. But you shouldn’t be flippant and trivialize things. Teacher trainers also need to be very humanistic in the sense that they not only need a humanistic approach, like listening and validating other people’s ideas, but also being generally part of a humanistic tradition of having wide knowledge and bringing that knowledge to their own teaching.

Also, I think you need to be very practical and pragmatic. And willing to be tolerant of ambiguity – in other words, you can live with the fact that you don’t know everything right now. A teacher trainer needs to be tolerant of complex situations and propose that there may be different ways of looking at this, and that these solutions or suggestions need not be mutually exclusive. It may be a question of deciding which one to take at which point – in other words, a kind of pluralistic, very flexible, pragmatic approach.

I feel that a teacher trainer should not be dogmatic. But s/he shouldn’t be wishy-washy, anything goes. Teacher trainers do need to have a set of beliefs, but those beliefs are not dogmas and they’re willing to say: ‘Okay – yes, there are other approaches and other ways of doing it’. Or, ‘I can see the benefit of the other ones – I’m proposing this, but I’m not imposing this’.

What are some of the major rewards and challenges of teacher training?

One reward with teacher training is in seeing that you are making a difference in people’s competencies. When they go out of the session, they go out with more than they came in with. Secondly, it is a different kind of discourse. You’re not focusing on language as much, although language does come into it. You are also thinking about ideas. It has a more philosophical aspect to it, or at least some kind of conceptual aspect, such as talking about beliefs and methodologies and bigger ideas, which can be very rewarding as well. As teachers, we sometimes tend to neglect those things. Focused on teaching the present perfect with for or since, which is understandable, we forget to think about the bigger things.

Teacher trainers themselves should have wide interests and they should draw on their own professional and personal experience to try to illustrate teaching. Something I share with Scott Thornbury is this idea of metaphors for teaching. As a teacher on a CELTA course, I always want to try to get the trainees to see teaching not as a set of things to be learnt and remembered, but a collection of metaphors. Things like funneling learners into something and then letting them expand outwards – like an hourglass or egg timer. If you grasp that idea, that metaphor, then it will serve you very well as a teacher more than sets of prescriptive dos and don’ts ever will.

Teacher trainers should also ideally have a willingness to draw on their own professional and academic background, their own interests, but again, like a teacher, they should not let those dominate. For instance, if you have a teacher who is keen on bird watching and who fills his or her every lesson with bird watching, then I think that’s wrong. Students didn’t come to learn bird watching – they came to learn English. The teacher is overdoing her/his personal interests. Similarly, a teacher trainer must endeavor to strike the same balance.

One difference with teacher training is that you are talking at different levels, at both micro and macro levels. So you need more meta skills – meta analysis of what are we actually doing when we say we know a word. The microanalysis would be: ‘Let’s take the word apart and see what it means’ – what actually constitutes knowing a word. So, as a teacher trainer, you tend to be working in both directions – sometimes, burrowing down into the details of things; sometimes going up to the bigger picture, like ‘What do we really mean by understanding a text?’ A teacher trainer needs to be sensitive to these opposing directions. If you get too bogged down in detail, you can lose the bigger picture. If you become too abstract and philosophical, you can lose focus.

A teacher trainer should also present a very rich range of approaches, options, and activities so that there’s plenty to choose from.  Just like a language class, there’s plenty there for people to get their teeth into. A workshop, I think, should be the same.  It should offer a lot of ideas. But it is a bit like a menu in a restaurant. If you go to a restaurant, you don’t want to eat everything on the menu. What you do want is a varied menu that has several interesting choices on it, three or four of which you would like. And it is very important that as a trainer you present a varied menu and that you encourage the participants to pick from the menu the things that they want to take away.

You also have to be prepared for negative feedback, sometimes a degree of opposition, or, in extreme cases, downright hostility from someone in the group or perhaps from one or two teachers. It doesn’t happen very often, but no words of wisdom can ever provide you with the answer as to what to do when it does because every case is different. When it comes up, even though you think you know what you will do, it is always a new situation and you have to react appropriately and somehow find a way of dealing with it.

If a teacher was interested in becoming a teacher trainer, what kinds of positions are available in Switzerland?

Freelance teacher trainers are employed on their reputations. People will ask: ‘What have you done, what’s your track record?’ Institutions that might employ trainers would be schools that are interested in those Delta and SVEB2 competencies, such as where you have a senior teacher who is in charge of training the internal staff. So that would imply a fairly big institution with a dozen or more teachers on its staff of English teachers who have some regular internal training—a Kaufmännische school for example, or private institutions like inlingua, Cambridge Institute, academia Schweiz, and so on.

John, you’ve certainly given us a lot to consider. It’s clear that teacher training isn’t going to be for everyone, and it certainly takes the right mix of qualities, experience, and qualifications. Perhaps we could finish up with a snippet of information that people might not know about you?

When I started teaching, I wanted to work in Rome. In fact, Rome was where I saw an advert for English schools. And I thought, oh, I’ll be a teacher, because I wanted to study in Rome, study architecture, and write a book about Roman churches, in fact. And I thought, well, I’ll need a job when I’m in Rome, so I’ll become an English teacher. So I went into the International House in Via Manzoni and I said, “I want to become an English teacher”. And they said, “Not so fast, are you qualified?” And I said, “What do you mean? Of course I’m qualified, I’m English!”

Thank you, John, for taking the time to share this insightful interview with us.

Valerie Safai