What makes a language classroom a little extra special? I think it’s the fact that so much real life demands space inside it, because language is real life.
Some of us of course find ourselves in the position of having to teach language that is disassociated from real life (for example, I heard myself saying last week “So, Guillaume, do you enjoy interacting with wildlife?” #cringe #facepalm #ihatecambridgeexamprep).
This disassociation happens due to a host of reasons from policy (which is my case) to practical choices but generally speaking, frustrations aside, a language lesson is about how people express themselves in their current worlds and their future worlds through the new identity they build by speaking another tongue.
Language and persona is one of the most fascinating observations, simply within ourselves, let alone our students. My German-speaking self is infinitely less bubbly than my English-speaking one because I lack the vocabulary set for excited jabber and am forced to communicate more efficiently.
So, given that langauge learning is identity building, I’d say language teaching is also identity building. But I often feel that our teacher identities struggle to find a voice, because there are so very many voices today that seek to impress our minds, screens and professional spaces. And these dominant (and dominating) voices come with a complex set of agendas.
I am careful when I use the word ‘complex’ with regard to teaching though because I fear that it is a word that creates distance, that is laden with theory and..complicated things ;). I say this because a big part of my journey as a researcher has been a demystification of the ivory tower I once longed to be admitted into.
Complexity is, I feel, like the layers of an onion’s peels. It’s all essentially the same stuff but each layer has a singular role to play and it is only in visualising the whole that we can truly appreciate the harmony of these layers slotting into each other. I think the reason so many people recognise the importance of complexity, is because it stops us from short-term lenses that further shorten understanding and growth. Complexity is always demanding of a bigger picture, a step back and an alignment of understanding, knowledge and evidence.
So within these complex educational agendas, we observe, voices of authority. Some win our respect, others ignite our disagreement and others yet wash over us without any effect. Many ‘authorities’ however base their authority on a simple cycle of believing something, communicating that belief and seeking agreement on that belief based on the initial fact of believing it themselves.
The flaw here is that authority is the weakest form of evidence.
Just because Teacher A believes something and publicizes that belief it doesn’t mean that Teacher B has to agree or follow suit. While this might be obvious, I feel it is very easy to slip into the “I’m right because I say so” mentality, especially when confronted with ideas that hit a nerve within us, be it positively or negatively. Social media spaces lend themselves particularly easily to interactions like this, and such discussions can leave us feeling undernourished instead of satisfying the intellectual stimulation we seek.
This is the reason I became a researcher. Because I didn’t want to stop at “because I say so”. The education world is a very complex space and the best tool we teachers have to navigate this world is our voice. This is the reason I believe so strongly in action research.
I gave a plenary at the BBELT Conference in Mexico City last week, on Pedagogy, Humanity and the Work of Teachers. I didn’t really use the words ‘action research’ but I did talk a lot about teacher voice. I met some colleagues, Rosa Maria Pelaez and Myriam Diaz, who were presenting their action research just afterwards. One of the first things they said was that action research was right there at the heart of teacher voice and that was the biggest motivation for them to keep going with it. I couldn’t agree more.
Join me on March the 8th at 4pm for an interactive webinar on Action Research with BELTA- The Belgian English Language Teachers Association. I will unpack some of the links I see between Action Research and teacher voice, outline what an AR project would look like, and describe the one I did last year. I will also suggest some reading for those of us who are still starting out as researchers and would love to hear the stories and experiences of those of you who are already researching your classroom practice. See you soon!