By Matt Ellman

04 February 2016 - 08:25

'A digital staffroom is as good as the real thing, you just have to provide your own teabags!'
'A digital staffroom is as good as the real thing, you just have to provide your own teabags!' Photo ©

David Mulder, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.


Staffrooms, including digital ones, can be a rich source of professional development, argues British Council teacher Matt Ellman.

How do teachers develop? I don’t mean how can they develop; I'm asking what actually happens in real life. Teachers who write blogs, publish articles, and present at conferences form a tiny minority of the English language teaching (ELT) profession, so what is everyone else up to?

My first teaching job was in a tiny school in West London, inauspiciously perched on top of a supermarket. The classrooms were tiny, resources were minimal, the photocopier clearly didn't realise it was meant to be working full-time like the rest of us, and the CD players we used were so quiet, the students would have to huddle round them to do their listening activities. It was probably unsuitable for human habitation, and, not surprisingly, it has since closed.

And yet, in nine months at that school, I learned more about teaching than in any nine-month period since. It had the single most overlooked element in teacher development: a thriving staffroom.

Don’t get me wrong – it was filthy, cramped, freezing cold in winter and like a greenhouse in summer. There was one ripped, tea-stained (I hope it was tea!) sofa, and there was a battle to get a chair if you weren't first in. But my colleagues and I spent an hour at every lunch, and at least as much again at the end of the day, talking about our classes and sharing ideas.

Unfortunately though, not all of us have access to a grubby sofa, free teabags, and the developmental chats that can accompany them. Many teachers work offsite, or freelance, or in a school where staff don’t get on quite so well. So how can they avoid missing out on all the development activity that successful staffrooms provide?

The answer is to get online, where there is more going on than you could ever need. For example, the British Council's TeachingEnglish Facebook page has 3.5 million fans and posts daily articles, resources and teaching ideas. If you’re on Twitter, #ELTchat is a live teaching discussion that runs every Wednesday, and caters to teachers at all levels of experience.

But perhaps the ideal solution is to join a free massive open online course (MOOC) like the British Council’s Professional Practices for English Language Teaching (PPELT). It provides a readymade ‘digital staffroom’ of tens of thousands of teachers, covering every teaching context imaginable. Whether you have access to a real-life staffroom or not, a course like PPELT lets you connect with thousands of teachers from all over the world, at any time and from anywhere. It offers a guided path for development through videos, articles and accompanying tasks, and a place to share tips and ask for help with classroom issues. It ensures that discussions benefit from the guidance of experienced teacher educators and lays a foundation for further training and professional development. Course participants form lasting communities, so the benefits continue long after the course has ended.

Not all staffrooms are a rich source of development opportunities, but on balance they probably have far more impact on teacher development than formal training, simply because we spend more time there. As teacher trainer Duncan Foord writes, 'the atmosphere in the staffroom, and the relationships you form with colleagues, can provide the confidence, support and motivation to inspire development'. So don’t miss out – a digital staffroom is as good as the real thing, you just have to provide your own teabags!

Advantages of staffrooms for professional development

A supportive environment for seeking help and advice

Advantages of MOOCs for professional development

A supportive online environment for seeking help and advice

They continuously supply ideas for your teaching, unlike one-off events such as in-service training (INSETT) sessions. They continuously supply ideas for your teaching, unlike one-off events such as INSETT sessions.
There’s the opportunity for peer observation and discussion afterwards. There’s the opportunity to gain insights from a huge range of teaching contexts.
Training is guided by your peers, who have detailed knowledge of your teaching context. Training is guided by experienced teacher educators.
Tea, coffee and biscuits! You can develop professionally while you sit in your pyjamas!

Teachers, join our free online course Professional Practices for English Language Teaching today.

Visit our TeachingEnglish website to find out more about teacher training and development.

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