In our context, we often hear that inexperienced novice teachers should work with young learners because it is an easier job and they do not need so much experience, language proficiency or knowledge about the teaching and learning process. This deep-rooted paradigm has been underlying our practice for a long time. Too long, in our opinion. We believe that teaching, no matter who, should be deemed a serious and responsible profession. Moreover, the complexity and peculiarities that come with teaching young learners cannot be overlooked. One of the sad consequences of assuming that teaching young learners is a minor professional activity is the negative impact on the quality of education that many children might receive. We understand that the first step to change education involves acknowledging the difficulties which pervade teaching young learners and considering how educators (including language teachers) can be better prepared to help them develop as whole learners.
Given that the world has been changing at an incredibly rapid pace, being a skillful and efficient young learners teacher requires a set of new competences and constant learning. Thornbury (2011), for instance, says that "language teaching, being highly skilled, requires (or should require) extensive training." and reinforces the idea that bringing into the classroom the same old beliefs you have had for a long time may not result in new or better outcomes. Although keeping up with the ongoing changes in the world while pursuing all the necessary competences to teach young learners might be a long uphill battle, continuous professional development is still the most important strategy to ensure effectiveness in education. Continuous Professional Development, carried out in a responsible and robust manner, is of paramount importance to help young learners teachers become more and more aware of how 'absolute old beliefs' may not be the best strategy to promote learning.
Stepanek (2015) illustrates how the changes in the world might be impacting the role of the teacher by stating that "language learners tend to be less and less seen as mere objects of teaching. Increasingly, they become active partners in individualized and interactive learning processes. Similarly, teachers tend to be less and less seen as authoritative 'truth-tellers'. Increasingly, they become guides, advisers and facilitators of those learning processes.". This shift of paradigm (going from the source of knowledge to a facilitator of learning), for example, has been discussed for some time but, in our experience, is still rarely translated into actual classroom practice.
Nonetheless, being conscious of how important it is for a teacher to keep learning may not be enough. Developing an individual and systematized development plan to organize and prioritize steps and actions towards professional growth can be tricky sometimes. Freeman (1989) suggested a framework for teachers’ professional development, which we find particularly helpful and can be quite eye-opening, and we believe it can be applied to inform the young learners teachers who no longer wish their own growth to be taken for granted. Freeman used the acronym KASA to explain his rationale, which stands for Knowledge, Awareness, Skills and Attitude. In the next paragraphs we are going to explain how we understand these four pillars can inform the areas that the teacher of young learners can focus on nowadays.
Developing knowledge goes beyond the teachers' knowledge about class-oriented techniques or the language, and also permeates other contexts. Freeman explains that knowledge "includes what is being taught (the subject matter); to whom it is being taught (the students–their backgrounds, learning styles, language levels, and so on); and where it is being taught (the sociocultural, institutional, and situational contexts).". In the context of young learners, one of the most relevant areas of knowledge to be developed relates to the specific characteristics of each age group, their affective, cognitive and physical needs, as well as their biological development and social context. There are a number of ways in which a teacher can develop this competence, amongst them you might find academic literature, workshops, group discussions, peer observation, mentoring and other courses that focus on the stages of development of children. A lot can also be learned by observing the children closely and talking to their parents to know more about who they are as individuals.
Developing awareness has a lot to do with self-reflection upon how effective your practice has been in your particular context. An environment where children feel safe is likely to be more conducive to learning and creativity, so teachers need to develop an awareness of how students might be feeling about their learning experience even if they do not verbalize or express it openly. Having a well-developed sense of awareness of what is going on and how the young learners relate to each other, to the lessons, to the school and to the teacher may serve as a solid stepping-stone to monitoring both students' progress and your own. Teachers also need to develop an awareness of the role of multi-literacies and trans-languaging. Chong (2018) explains how teachers need to encourage learners to use their own languages to avoid subtractive bilingualism, and goes on to say that strict English-only classrooms are becoming a thing of the past.
Developing skills is, in a way, intertwined with what the knowledge competence encompasses. If you keep up-to-date with what has been going on in the education world and put the knowledge you acquire into practice, you are bound to be a more skillful professional in the classroom. General teaching skills for this age group include most of the skills any teacher needs to have (organization, interpersonal, leadership, classroom management skills, to mention a few) and some more specific ones. Today’s teacher needs to have skills to integrate content and language, for example, use story-telling in class, encourage learner independence or the competence to help students develop their own socio-emotional skills. Another skill that teachers of young learners need to have today relates to how they prepare students to deal with technology in class and in life. Herold (2016) explains how in the modern era, schools must ensure that all students understand how to use technology as a tool to engage in creative, productive lifelong learning rather than simply consuming passive content.
Developing your own attitude may be quite challenging but pivotal. According to Freeman (1989) "Attitude is an interplay of externally oriented behavior, actions, and perceptions, on the one hand, and internal intrapersonal dynamics, feelings, and reactions, on the other.". Teachers’ attitude towards both their practice and their learners is a critical factor that might begin to account for their successes and failures. The teacher of young learners, in our experience, needs to have an attitude that welcomes creativity, the unexpected, enthusiasm, passion and affection to their practice. Read (2015) suggests that an open, creative mind-set depends on frameworks and stimuli that encourage learners to explore, experiment and play with ideas. It is our belief that the teacher’s attitude is an essential component in the creation of an atmosphere of mutual respect that values divergent views.
Professional development cannot be managed by others, it is a personal choice. Alfaki (2014) says that "In the modern and ever-changing workplace, professional development is key to career longevity. Professional development is about keeping one’s skills and one’s career fresh and on top of the game." We truly believe that, however relevant this quote may be, consistent and continuous professional development opportunities are not as frequent as they should be. Teachers of young learners have a huge responsibility in their hands, helping the future generations learn how to communicate in a foreign language while developing their self-esteem, their 21st century skills and their identity. Hence an even more urgent need to invest heavily in all the knowledge, awareness, skills and attitude that can turn them into even more effective educators. It is fundamental that organizations provide opportunities for professional growth and invest in their teachers of young learners. Likewise, teachers should also analyze the context they work in, areas for improvement, the resources they have access to, their learners' profile and needs, institutional constraints and the steps they themselves can take to, little by little, become more conscious of how they can make better use of the tools they have in an autonomous and empowered fashion.
The world will never stop innovating and it has a direct link to the way children behave and learn. Thus, it is our responsibility to try to keep up with the changes so as to be better equipped and more prepared to deal with these new challenges and keep achieving our goals as educators. We can either resist to change and cling to our ‘old beliefs’ or embrace new paths that can lead us to a more responsible and serious teaching, and to an extremely rewarding experience. So… let’s promote that change.
Vinicius Nobre is a managing partner at Troika, an education start-up. He is an experienced teacher, teacher educator, course designer and education manager. Vinnie has written course books and methodology books, and is a CELTA/ICELT/DELTA tutor and past-president of BRAZ-TESOL.
Jhony Balisa has worked as an autonomous teacher, and for several language institutes, such as Fisk, Wizard and Cultura Inglesa. Currently, he works at the bilingual department of Albert Einstein School and at Troika.
Freeman, D. (1989) Teacher Training Development, and Decision-Making: A Model of Teaching and Related Strategies for Language Teacher Education. In TESOL Quarterly.
Thornbury, S. (2011) P for Profession. In An A-Z of ELT. Retrieved from: https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/01/30/p-is-for-profession/ (August 2018)
Alfaki, I (2014) Professional Development in English Language Teaching: A Teachers’ View. In British Journal of Education.
Stepanek, L. (2015) Creativity in the English language classroom: A creative approach to language teaching: a way to recognise, encourage and appreciate students' contributions to language classes. In TeachingEnglish, British Council.
Read, C (2015) Creativity in the English language classroom: Seven pillars of creativity in primary ELT. In TeachingEnglish, British Council.
Herold, B (2016) Technology in Education: An Overview. In Education Week.
Chong, C. (2018) Ten trends and innovations in English Language teaching for 2018. In Voices Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/ten-trends-innovations-english-language-teaching-2018 (August 2018)