Focus on the teacher: IATEFL 2019 Roundups 1



IATEFL 2019 roundups: Focus on the teacher


At conferences like IATEFL, the talks we go to see are a reflection of our personal interests, needs and preoccupations. Post-conference, you reflect on the talks and workshops you’ve chosen and identify the common threads or themes that emerge.

The first of my IATEFL summaries is obviously a reflection of my interest in teacher development, but also of the theme of teacher empowerment, which introduced the conference in Paula Rebolledo’s opening plenary. Working through my notes, I can see three possibilities for teacher-driven empowering practices:

- Research, developing a teacher’s sense of their own authority and self-efficacy.
- Peer (ideally institutional) recognition of skills and expertise.
- Collective identities and shared thought styles within communities of practice, leading to solidarity and mutual support.

The following are my summaries of a plenary, a workshop and a talk which dealt with these three threads respectively.

Opening plenary @iatefl

Opening Plenary: Paula Rebolledo - Teacher empowerment: leaving the twilight zone.

Paula pointed out that ‘empowerment’ has become an ELT buzzword in recent years, but all too often talks and workshops that claim to ‘empower’ teachers are about the latest app or how to use a certain song in class. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that but it does beg the questions:

- What exactly is teacher empowerment?
- How can we empower teachers?

Hence the reference to the Twilight Zone in the title of the talk. The concept of teacher empowerment seems to fall in the middle ground between superstition and science. We all ‘want’ it, but are not prepared to discuss or define it.

A definition of Teacher Empowerment (TE)
This is still a relatively underexplored area (only 3 studies, to Paula’s knowledge in the ELT/SLA literature, from Iran & Saudi Arabia), but these identify six dimensions:

In Paula’s survey (24 items, 2 open questions), she asked for teachers’ stories of empowerment and disempowerment. She found that teachers feel empowered when they...

-are able to innovate
-feel their students are learning

Teachers’ voices

In the qualitative analysis of the survey, stories of empowerment tend to focus on the areas of:

Autonomy, e.g.

Although I have to follow guidelines and descriptors given by the Ministry of Education in my country, in my class I choose the material to use according to the students I have (their level, interests) based on the themes in the coursebooks we use. This makes me feel autonomous and independent in my work life’. (E40)

Professional growth, e.g. 

‘Every time I take decisions for my own growth by reading and continuing studying on my own. When I participate in courses, congresses and seminars’ (E125)

Self-efficacy, e.g. 

‘Any success where I can see the results of my teaching process, my students engagement, where they show their knowledge and skills, our mutual effort to make something useful and acknowledged’

Possible causes of teacher disempowerment include:

Lack of control in the decision-making process, e.g.

‘Change in length of class, class sizes increased, decision made not to give students coursebooks – teachers never consulted even though it’s the teachers who are impacted most’ (D19)

Disregarding teachers’ experience and expertise

CPD does empower teachers when it promotes autonomy or exercise of professional judgement. However, teachers can take new ideas back to their institutions which are not listened to or implemented. Therefore institutions need to ENABLE empowerment, by allowing teachers to take part in decision making regarding

- Class size
- Schedules
- Coursebook selection
- Curriculum design

The last factor seems to have most impact on teachers’ sense of empowerment. Often, token lip-service is paid to asking teachers’ opinions: what Wedell (2018) calls ‘cosmetic consultation’

Teachers’ expertise is undervalued, and the profession as a whole seems to give excessive power to ‘gurus’ who may be out of touch with teachers’ reality. In one recent exchange on twitter, a ‘guru’ (in general education) stated that there was no excuse for a child not to be engaged in a lesson: once again the implication being that this is the teacher’s responsibility. Unsurprisingly, this provoked a flurry of responses:
In another example, a common format in conference programmes is the ‘Meet the experts’ session, which, of course, carries the implication that the teacher is not the expert!   

Conclusions: Possible ways forward

- Democratic decision-making
- Risk taking
- Collaborative action
- Teacher-led professional development

Paula concluded by suggesting that Teacher Research is one of the most empowering things a teacher can do – and that this should be called RESEARCH as calling it by another name is to undervalue its importance.

Workshop: Tessa Woodward- Been teaching and teacher training for a long time?
This workshop chimed with the theme of the opening plenary by looking at the value of older teachers’ experience and expertise. Anyone involved in developing a CPD programme for experienced teachers (as I am), will know that organising sessions on ‘How to teach reading for FCE’, etc. is met with a certain amount of eye-rolling.

Activity 1: ‘We’re not getting older, the students are getting younger’

A student entering university this year was born in 2001, which means...

- they have probably never licked a postage stamp
- they think a ´chat’ does not involve talking, and so on.

It may be useful to produce a ‘mindset list’ to help us develop an understanding of our learners’ backgrounds.

We were asked to think of three things that we do that your learners / trainees would never do, e.g. Consult a ‘real’ dictionary.

And three things that we would never do that our learners / trainees do, e.g. Answer a phone call in class.

Activity 2. ‘Doing what makes sense’

We brainstormed some ideas based on these sentence starters

1. I used to ......................................... and I still do.
2. I used to ......................................... but I don’t any more.
3. I didn’t use to ................................ but now I do.

A teacher’s experience and knowledge gives them a ‘sense of plausibility’ (Prabhu, 1987)

Activity 3. ‘Talking shop’

Teachers get a sense of community from talking about our work in a ‘light-hearted and heartfelt way’.

The idea of ‘talking shop’ is that groups (max. 10) get together regularly. As ‘good conversation can be invited, not commanded’, ground rules should be negotiated, e.g.

- No interrupting
- No unsolicited advice
- Voluntary (say ‘pass’ if you don’t want to contribute)
- Confidential

To illustrate, we were asked to discuss/describe ‘a comical experience from our teaching career’.


Prabhu, N.S. (1987) Second Language Pedagogy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Talk: Gary Barkhuizen - Language teachers negotiating collective thoughts and (imagined) identities.

This talk (part of a forum) discussed the formation of teacher identiities. As an introduction, Gary invited us to consider the following questions:

- Place yourself in your own teaching, teacher educator, research context.
- Think of your colleagues’ beliefs, values and practices.
- Think of your institutions goals and values.
- How are you like them?
- How are you not like them?

The research discussed in the presentation focussed on how a group of seven experienced teachers and trainers, doing a PhD in Colombia, formed, imagined and articulated their teacher identities.

The research design is summarised below:

The participants’ interview data were transcribed and coded, in order to identify aspects of the teachers’ identities. The definition of ‘Language Teacher Identity’ below is taken from the edited volume Reflections on Language Teacher Identity Research (Barkhuizen, 2016).

The research identified three shared aspects of identity:

- Responsibility: teachers mentioned the need for ‘decolonisation’ - breaking free from the dominance of the UK/US model in materials. This is obviously an aspect that has been emphasised in their training.

- Usefulness: the group agreed on the need to expand their knowledge beyond their micro-contexts and apply it to the wider community.

- Activism: the teacher is an agent of change and has the responsibility to transform the practices imposed upon them.

The group demonstrated a ‘thought collective’ – ‘a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction’ (Fleck & Ludwik, 1979.

There was also evidence of ‘thought style’ (shared cognition).

When there is interdependence and a shared mood, it can create over-reliance. Individuals can feel constrined by the predominant thought style, e.g. one teacher in the group expressed frustration at the emphasis on ‘decolonisation’.

A ‘collective identity’ of teachers in ELT reflects a set of cognitive frameworks, activates relationships (within and outside the group) and involves emotional investment.

These aspects of teacher identity reveal an ideological dimension to communities of practice. The next avenue to explore is how these collective thoughts and identities function as benefits or constraints for teachers.


Barhuizen, G (Ed.) (2016) Reflections on Language Teacher Identity Research. Routledge.

Fleck, L. (1979) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. T. J. Trenn & R. K. Merton (Eds.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.