by Setiono Sugiharto
In the contexts of language pedagogy, it is probably less contentious to claim that teachers are the potent forces that determine the failure and success of language education.
In a survey of a child’s education in the US released by Score Newsweek in 1998, the respondents (American parents) placed the quality of the teachers as the most important aspect in their child’s education.
The availability of good textbooks and other educational resources, peer pressure about things like drug and sex, children’s safety in school, and the effectiveness of the school principle are considered as ancillary factors, which don’t concern parents too much.
Indeed in a country like ours, some of these factors are a parent’s first priority when choosing a school for the first time for their children. Also, a parent is more interested in the purported status of a school (national or international), the availability of sophisticated educational facilities and the curriculum (local or imported).
Public pressure for the quality of the teachers in the country isn’t as strong as that in the US as the survey above shows. As a consequence of this, schools don’t see an urgent need to upgrade the quality of their teachers.
It seems that efforts in upgrading teaching quality has not yet become a prime agenda in the school’s policy-making.
What becomes a concern for many schools now is the updating of the curriculum so as to have a “taste” of international curriculum.
Worse still, the screening of teachers in the recruitment process is not as strict as one would imagine.
Once an instructor in teacher training for those who failed a nationally conducted teacher certification test, I found that classroom teachers had the potential to be professional language teachers. They claimed that they had showed their strong commitment to boost their professionalism, yet often faced lots of obstacles.
The problem, as I see it, is that they are often positioned as powerless classroom teachers as the agents of change in the pursuit of scientific truth. As such, we have done a great disservice to them.
As powerless as they are, their intuition and ingenuity are hardly respected; their intellectual arteries are clogged with banal activities like regular training given by so-called “pundits”. Also, they tend to be inculcated, if not indoctrinated, by certain dogmas.
Attending teacher training in the form of workshops and seminars has become a tradition here. Workshops, for example, have become a regular “diet” for our teachers. These are done in the spirit of boosting teachers’ teaching quality. Yet, the efficacy of such training is not really clear.
It is not my intent here to disparage the significance of workshops and seminars language teachers often attend.
It is my contention, however, that training given to teachers should be given another look: aiming at empowering teachers to be discerning consumers of research in their fields.
For the sake of professionalism, teacher training is supposed to give advice on how a teacher should value their intuition, ingenuity and practical experiences as they can be significant contributions to the advancement of the theorization of language learning and teaching.
Training must also help teachers open their eyes that every dogma spoon-fed to them should not be prematurely rejected or uncritically accepted as gospel truth. They should instead be advised to develop a habit of being critical to any inquiries and empirical tests.
All these mean that a classroom teacher ought to become a teacher researcher.
A teacher must be granted the right to explore the rich contexts in classroom sites and to arrive at a theory of language and learning on their own versions.
Armed with versions of their own theory obtained from the systematic investigation of classroom contexts, a teacher researcher is prepared to be recalcitrant to any competing dogmas that may not be viable when applied in their own specific teaching contexts. And they can instead employ their own versions of theory with confidence.
The advocacy of teacher research has long been acknowledged by language teaching specialists. They subscribe to the idea that teaching is an educational enterprise that needs to be informed by mainstream educational thinking.
The following candid testimony written by Rod Ellis, once a classroom teacher and now leading expert in second language acquisition (SLA), is particularly enlightening for us classroom language teachers: “As a one-time teacher of English as a second language who subsequently became a classroom researcher and teacher educator, I have long held the conviction that teachers have much to gain from undertaking their own research.
In my own case, research in SLA has enabled me to reconceptualize the experience I gained as a teacher and to understand why many of the practical problems which I experienced arose.”
The writer is chief editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He teaches English composition at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.