Fire in the Kitchen or: The Importance of Modeling in Teacher Education

Many years ago, fresh out of college, I entered my MATESOL program under the direction of a famed and inspiring methodologist, with high hopes. I didn’t know what to expect – I had never set foot in an ESL classroom – but I was confident that my program would show me the way.

I learned a lot about theories of second language acquisition, about phonology, grammar and skills but what I didn’t see was actual classroom activities. It turned out that the director of the program had a strong belief that showing activities to us teachers-in-training would be doing us a disservice.  His favorite analogy was, “If I teach you a specific recipe, you will only be able to make that one dish, but if I teach you about some basic ingredients – he used the example of oil, garlic and tomato – you will be able to use them in different combinations and with other ingredients to make an infinite variety of delicious dishes – pizza, pasta, lasagna, etc.”

On the face of it, this seemed like a profoundly true analogy. His was a sincere and principled call for creativity and adaptability in teaching. After over 30 years in the field, I have seen slavish adherence to various methods come and go, and in the end, the best teachers I have known are those who are most nimble and adaptable–creative in the kitchen, to stick with our analogy.

But these creative cooks are seasoned, experienced teachers. Here I was, about to go into my practicum, having never taught before and with access to actual tried and tested activities being deliberately withheld from me–ostensibly for my own good.

This brilliant professor, in my estimation, either forgot what it is like to be a novice teacher, or perhaps he was just a naturally creative teacher from the get-go. These people do exist–I have seen and worked with some of these natural-born teachers. Returning to the kitchen analogy, my ex-husband (perhaps because he was from Italy), would take whatever he found in the kitchen and somehow, come up with a delicious dish (which, by the way, he would never be able to repeat again, to my regret!)I don’t think he ever looked at a recipe in his life, and no one ever explicitly taught him how to cook anything. These types of natural cooks are few and far between, though.

I, on the other hand, am fairly representative of an average home cook. I have had to learn from recipes and from others. In my teenage years and young adulthood, several people explicitly taught me some techniques and recipes. However, I do put my own unique spin on the dishes I make, and I am regarded as a pretty good cook in my own right.

Here we come to the first problem with the professor’s analogy. For most of us, if we have never set foot in the kitchen, there is a great likelihood we will set everything on fire!

That is exactly what happened to me and my cohort that particular year in the practicum. Our practicum teacher was a devoted follower of the director of the program, so in his class we rarely saw or experienced any actual learning activities.

Another philosophy the director of the program fervently believed was that trainers need to strive to be “non-judgmental” when observing what goes on in the classroom. By this he meant being as scientific as possible, and not labeling anything as “good” or “bad” practice, just observing and describing and encouraging trainees to come up with as many alternatives as possible.At all costs, when speaking about teaching, we were to avoid any language that could sound like an opinion. I believe he was trying to teach us that there is rarely a right way and a wrong way to do things. There is a place for just about everything, as long as we are conscious of why we are doing it, what it is we are trying to achieve. Once we consider all of this, we can decide whether or not the particular technique or activity is the best way to achieve that aim. I wholeheartedly agree with this and think that the director was completely sincere in his beliefs.

However, I discovered some dangers in this way of treating teachers in training. To use another analogy, the disciples of great spiritual leaders often twist or innocently misinterpret their guru’s ideas. Thus, others in the program charged with observing us and giving feedback often hid behind the guise of “non-judgmental” feedback while coming across as extremely judgmental, which could be hurtful and confusing.  Saying, “Is there another way you could have done that?” can make one feel as criticized and judged as much as, “That is not a good way to do it” depending on how it is said, with what facial expressions, and in what context. I had the feeling of being judged all the time, but no one would ever admit that they were judging us, which made me feel confused and insecure.

Others used the “non-judgmental”language to avoid expressing their honest opinions about anything. Our practicum teacher fell into the latter category. When asked a direct question, he was reluctant to voice an opinion, not wanting to seem judgmental or limit our ideas in any way. Between his very tentative guidance and our lack of exposure to actual, practical activities, we were all sort of thrashing around in the dark, trying to find our way.

It also happened to be the era when Krashen was very much in vogue, so the message we thought we were hearing was, “Just do comprehensible input, no error correction, no explicit teaching, just lower the affective filter and they will be fine.”

We went into our classes and played games and read stories and had conversations and everyone was having a grand old time. However, I was unsatisfied. This was not what I expected from grad school. I didn’t feel effective at all. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had theories and technical knowledge, but I didn’t know how to implement them. I felt like I was wasting the students’ time. And all along, I sensed disapproval from the practicum teacher. I thought maybe he just didn’t like me.

One day, after weeks and weeks of this, our practicum teacher suddenly exploded (albeit in a mild-mannered way), saying, “You are not supposed to just be playing games with them – you are supposed to be teaching them!” Our cohort, was upset that this man, who had until then been so accepting of everything we did, now expressed disapproval, and their feelings were hurt. There were even some tears.

I remember that in the following class session we had to do an “active listening” exercise, where he sat in one chair and one of the upset students sat in the other, and she expressed how she felt, and he mirrored it back. The atmosphere was very serious and sad, but I remember feeling relieved – he had finally expressed an opinion! Now we knew where he stood. Perhaps now he would begin sharing his real thoughts about what we were doing! Plus, he had actually demonstrated an activity – how to do active listening – which I had never seen before. I thought it was interesting and might come in handy some day in the classroom!

Towards the end of my program, I discovered “recipe” books–that is, resource books for teachers, like the ones Cambridge, Oxford and others published, and my teaching really took off. The recipes in these books were not a strait-jacket at all for me. I could see endless ways to adapt and build on them, and they even inspired me to create my own “recipes.” It was the missing piece of the puzzle for me, and suddenly the theory and the research I had been studying made sense.

Reflecting back on the program, I feel that the teaching training approach did not consider several important points:

  1. Trainees should not be required to completely reinvent the wheel. There is a lot of wisdom out there, and many tried-and-true activities. Why not share them?
  2. Trainees should be treated like intelligent beings. Just because they are shown one way to do something, it does not mean that they will slavishly follow that one way forever and ever (particularly if they are shown a varied diet of activities). Withholding activities to “protect” them is almost insulting and implies that they cannot think for themselves. In my case, seeing and reading about activities was a springboard to creativity.
  3. There is value to imitating. Picasso worked his way through several different styles before inventing his own style. Jazz musicians imitate their heroes until they find their own voices. We take inspiration from others.
  4. Just as we recognize that students learn in different ways, we need to recognize that this is true of teachers as well. Some will be great improvisers in the kitchen, and some will become great chefs only after working closely with a master chef.
  5. It does no one any good to pretend to be neutral all the time. Like language teaching itself, teacher training involves human beings in some kind of relationship. How can this relationship exist if people are never honest? Trainers do not need to withhold their opinions and preferences, as long as they do not try to impose them on trainees.
  6. Just as we are concerned about lowering the affective filter so that our language students can learn, we ought to consider the feelings of trainees. It can be very anxiety-producing to be thrown into a classroom without any idea of what you are doing. Giving teachers some activities to try out can help lower the affective filter, I believe, and perhaps better allow trainees to learn.

I am not in the “kitchen” too much nowadays, as I am in a more administrative role. Still, I have the opportunity to interact with developing teachers, many who have graduated from our MATESOL program, and I am constantly impressed with the amazing creativity of these “cooks.” If you talk to them about how they got their ideas, it instantly becomes clear that the kernel of the idea was almost always a tried-and-true recipe handed down from chef to chef, each with their own improvements and variations.

Author’s biography:
Jackie Smith, MATESOL, has been in the field for over 30 years.  She worked in Italy for 8 years, teaching mainly at the University of Pisa and editing and writing for several publications, including The Reporter and Teaching English in Italy. She also co-authored Wordflo, Your Personal English Organizer with Steve Smith (1998, Longman). She is currently Assistant Director of the English Language Studies Department at The New School.