Best Practices for Foreign-Language
Teacher Training in the USA –
Reflections and Suggestions on the Basis of a
Frédérique Grim (Fort Collins, USA)
The teaching profession is a difficult one, as in the USA, retention numbers drop drastically in the early years of teaching, including the teaching of foreign languages. The factors are numerous, but predominantly, teachers are not aware of the truths of the job. However, giving practical and realistic tools from the start might prepare pre-service teachers for facing the responsibilities and realities of the job, possibly helping them emerge successfully. This article offers suggestions for better preparing future teachers of foreign languages, all offered via foreign-language-teaching methodology courses: awareness to current practices and national standards, meetings with experienced teachers, hands-on teaching opportunities, professional development and networking, and linguistic training.
Keywords: Teacher training, standards, teacher retention
Die Schwierigkeiten des Lehrerberufs werden in den USA von einer hohen Anzahl an Berufsabbrechern in den ersten Unterrichtsjahren widergespiegelt, die nicht zuletzt Fremdsprachenlehrer betrifft. Die für diese Entwicklung verantwortlichen Faktoren sind zahlreich, jedoch zugleich darauf zurückzuführen, dass angehende Lehrer und Lehrerinnen nicht hinreichend über die Implikationen ihres Berufes informiert sind. Vor diesem Hintergrund ist es von besonderer Bedeutung, angehenden Lehrern praktische und handhabbare Werkzeuge an die Hand zu geben, die ihnen dabei helfen, die Realität ihres Berufs und die mit diesem verbundene Verantwortung zu realisieren und ihnen auf diese Weise einen erfolgreichen Berufseinstieg ermöglichen. In dem vorliegenden Aufsatz werden Vorschläge für eine verbesserte Ausbildung künftiger Fremdsprachenlehrer unterbreitet, die allesamt im Rahmen universitärer Veranstaltungen zur Fremdsprachendidaktik umsetzbar sind, als da wären: eine gewisse Bewusstheit hinsichtlich der gegenwärtigen Unterrichtspraxis und nationaler Standards, Begegnungen mit erfahrenen Lehrern, Möglichkeiten praktischen Unterrichtens, berufliche Weiterentwicklung sowie Networking und schließlich die sprachpraktische Ausbildung.
Stichwörter: Lehrerbildung, Standards, langfristige Bindung an den Lehrerberuf
Teaching requires passion. However, across the United States and across subject matters, school districts are struggling in retaining their young teachers, whose enthusiasm might quickly subside. Many of them change schools or just drop out of the teaching profession to find a new career. The statistics of young teachers leaving their job in the United States are revealing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2010: 3), the most recent Teacher Follow-up Survey from 2007-2008 indicates that 9% of public school teachers left the profession between their 1st and 3rd year and 8% between their 4th and 9th year, for reasons such as personal life, school environment and other factors. Although these data combine all subject areas, they likely represent a similar trend of the foreign languages profession. In Europe, Ulvik, Smith & Helleve (2009) have found that some new teachers have difficulties developing their identity as teachers and, in turn, decide to leave the profession. However, according to Lindqvist, Nordänger & Carlsson (2014), this situation is not as serious as it appears to be, as teachers only seem to take temporary or sabbatical leaves, possibly due to the nature of job security. What can be done to prevent such a turn-around or the need to escape for a period of time? What are we missing when preparing teachers? Regardless of compensations, how can a teacher be motivated or equipped to face the struggles of teaching and view the rewards and blessings that are inherent to the profession, if fully embraced? Some teachers quickly realize that teaching is not their true calling, despite their best efforts. In this case, they might be best looking for other professional goals. However, a significant number of our young colleagues, feeling overwhelmed, decide to leave a year or two after they start, and we know that they are good teachers. All they might need is clear directions and support.
When and in what form does this direction and support come into play? The training of in-service teachers is often emphasized through conferences such as the Saarbrücken Conference on Foreign Language Teaching1, or in the U.S., the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) conferences and workshops, for instance, and this is crucial for professional and personal development. However, most teachers who benefit from such training are teachers who come from larger and more supportive districts. It is often young teachers who are marginalized in rural settings or work in at-risk schools that do not receive adequate support, and feel discouraged in their location. This is why we suggest that the pre-service period is essential for exceptional and robust preparation. As pre-service teachers, university students dream of changing the world by being a positive influence to teens, by sharing their own passion for the language and culture, or by exerting the role of mentors to students in need. In most university programs, their true training starts the semester prior to student teaching (or in Europe, the teaching internship), in a methodology class that is supposed to point them to all the secrets of teaching in 15 weeks. Although this reality might not be exactly representative of European teacher training, it does reflect similar practices. Once they complete student teaching, they have invested so much time, studies, money and planning that, in most cases, they start a teaching job on the onset of graduation. Many of these teachers will drop out as their dream of changing the world falls apart. How can we remediate to this situation? What keys can we provide to them? The present article offers suggestions to be implemented in teaching methodology courses in order to improve pre-service teachers’ preparation and success.
2 Opportunities to Learn about the Most Recent Teaching Practices and National Standards
In the US, students interested in becoming a teacher in elementary and / or secondary schools have to generally take a 2-year program of study with courses focused on education and teaching. Often times, one or two of the courses are focused on their area of teaching (e.g. Foreign Languages, Math, English, Social Studies, etc.). In this case and at Colorado State University in particular, students take a teaching methodology course called Methods and Assessment in Teaching Languages. Such courses are mandated by each state and need to meet accreditation through a specific national organization (Teacher Education Accreditation Council – TEAC), in order to deliver an official public school teacher license to individuals. The whole teaching program covers four subsequent semesters, with the last one dedicated to the student teaching practicum (i.e. teaching internship). Those four semesters are taken during the last two years of a Bachelor’s degree (junior and senior year). The Methods and Assessment in Teaching Languages is typically taken during the third semester, therefore right before the student teaching practicum, in order to keep the methodological concepts fresh in mind. Students are in their last year of university. At our university, the attendance ranges from four to twelve students, depending on the year, and the course is offered once a year (during the fall semester). It is taught over 15 weeks, twice a week for 1 hour and 45 minutes. Almost every class brings a new topic to attention. Assessment of the course is based on a multitude of small assignments (on national standards, different learning styles, the three modes of communication, games, technology, textbook selection, assessment), e-portfolio (with a teaching philosophy to create), micro-teaching practices (i.e. practice of teaching very specific mini sessions), observations of experienced teachers, journaling practices based on theoretical concepts, involvement in the community, and final projects with a presentation. The role of the course is two-fold. First of all, it provides a theoretical background of the learning and teaching of languages. Second, and most importantly to students, it teaches them:
- what the components of teaching a foreign language are:
- methodologies and approaches
- national and state standards for foreign language teaching
- proficiency-based learning
- theme-based unit and daily lesson planning,
- backward design
- class activities
- diverse learners and multiple intelligences
- classroom management
- which standards to learn so as to implement:
- district standards
- state standards
- national standards
- European standards
- and what materials or techniques to include:
- presentational, interpersonal and interpretive communications
- technological tools
- authentic materials with products, practices and perspectives
- textbook selection
The critical description of this methods-and-assessment course is the object of the present article.
In the United States, we abide by five national standards that are reflected in all states’ foreign language teaching outcomes. They provide overarching goals to attain in foreign language classes, regardless of languages and levels. They are called The Five Cs (Communication, Culture, Comparisons, Connections, Communities), and they are prescribed by the U.S. World-Readiness Standards for Language Learning (2015). The primary teaching philosophy is based on the communicative approach, meaning that learners should be taught a foreign language with the leading goal of communicating with authentic interlocutors. Pre-service teachers need to understand this concept as they will need to strive to reach those objectives. Among many other concepts, they need to understand the four modalities (speaking, writing, listening and reading) and the learning styles and differences to address in order to meet all of their students’ needs. Many of these teachers might be attracted to teach the way they learn best, but pushing them to look at other learning preferences is crucial to make their classes inclusive and effective. The particular course described here is the foundation for a clear understanding of what is to come. Among some of the better U.S. resources for methods courses in teaching foreign languages, and that we have used in our methodology course, are:
- Teacher’s Handbook – Contextualized Language Instruction by Judith Shrum & Eileen Glisan (2010): A good overview of the national standards and theories behind second language acquisition.
- Languages and Children – Making the Match: New Languages for Young Learners, Grades K-8 written by Helena Curtain & Carol Ann Dahlberg (2010): a strong resource if the teacher licensure of the state offers a Kindergarten through Grade 12 (Elementary through High school) training, as Kindergarten through Grade 8 (Elementary and Middle school) is often not covered in methods textbooks.
Other resources are available, but the author of this article finds those two quite helpful and well-organized for an American undergraduate-level methods course, integrated in a teacher licensure program. More adequate resources might be more suitable for a European context, but those above could also provide some interesting ideas.
Because of its value, this course is also the venue for much to happen. As mentioned above, knowing the standards, or any other principles established by an educational system, and how to integrate them practically in a lesson is very important. According to Byrd, Cummings Hlas, Watzke and Montes Valencia (2011), pre-service teacher training might lack depth in clearly showing how to deal with some aspects of language teaching, such as culture, one of the national standards in the United States. They noticed that teacher educators viewed the training they delivered differently than the pre-service teachers who received it. Teacher educators valued culture as the highest dimension in the preparatory course, while teachers believed it was the least presented. To address this difference, assignments requiring the creation of activities should be designed to strongly reflect the core of those standards (or any set objectives) and to improve analytical skills, so that pre-service teachers are prepared for their future work. In the U.S., we also focus on the ACTFL proficiency guidelines in order to know what level language learners should attain at the end of certain classes. For example, it is not uncommon for a university program focusing on a language as a specialization to expect students to reach the level of intermediate-high or advanced-low upon graduation. This is the equivalence of B2 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). Pre-service teachers should fully be aware of those levels as well and what they encompass, not just for their personal linguistic performance, but also for that of their future students. If their students are expected to reach the level of novice-high or A2 by the end of a semester or year, teachers should know what it entails and be prepared to teach it.
In addition, in the US, many states ask their schools to take into consideration the Framework for 21st Century Learning2, instituted by a collaborative group of government offices, businesses, organizations and individuals. This framework sets students to acquire the skills for “tomorrow’s leaders, workers, and citizens”3. Those should also be clear in the eyes of a teacher because they clearly show that world languages are part of students’ education. If teachers are aware of the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations of learning a foreign language, then their students might show deeper enthusiasm and therefore be more engaged. The Framework for 21st Century Learning attributes a major role to world languages by labeling them as a fundamental subject. Besides, foreign languages also prepare students in many skills prescribed by this framework, such as life and career skills, learning and innovation skills and information, media and technology skills, all practiced within a foreign language class. If pre-service teachers are clearly aware of this framework or if they know why learning a foreign language is essential for their students, they might feel that their field is more valuable in the eyes of the education system than they thought.
3 Opportunities to Meet True Teachers
Another important event that can happen before starting a teaching career is to meet teachers who have experienced the profession for several years. In the Methods and Assessment in Teaching Languages, this opportunity has received very positive feedback from students because these are probably the best encounters pre-service teachers can make. Indeed, inviting teachers from local schools into the methodology course is invaluable, in comparison to any lecture. Those teachers are sharing information that is truly used in the students’ future profession and they give a library of information richer than any textbook can provide. They are not afraid to share the difficulties of the job, but they always seem to transpire the true passion for becoming a teacher which drives them to thrive in their careers: their love for the children or teens they teach, the impact they believe they make and their subject area. For the past four years, the Methods and Assessment in Teaching Languages course we offer at Colorado State University has been welcoming middle and high school teachers to talk with our students about an array of topics, such as national and state standards, teacher state evaluation, TPRS© (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling)4, backward design, classroom management, games, learner diversity, lesson planning, assessment and technology. These visits are highlights for pre-service students because they have the chance to interact with real teachers and listen to real-life stories.
4 Opportunities for Experiencing True Teaching
Part of a successful and meaningful training is to observe successful teachers in action. This impacts pre-service teachers throughout their career. Pre-service teachers should be observing as many teachers as possible, from their own target language but also from different languages. This can be a revealing experience, as not only they see applications of concepts learned in class, but they see realistic teaching, with successes, failures, and concrete practices on teaching, learning and classroom management. It cannot be emphasized enough that observing others, in particular good teachers, demonstrates to new and not-so-new teachers an abundance of teaching tricks and ideas. As part of my current profession, I have to observe instructors of various languages. Every time I leave a class, regardless of the language taught (Spanish, French, German, Chinese, or Japanese), I leave refreshed with new ideas. One concrete example is that although I tell my students that a foreign language class should contain as close to 90% of the foreign language, they have a difficult time believing me, until I send them to specific classes where teachers are using the foreign language 90-100% of the time. Students come back convinced that it is feasible and successful. This exercise is essential for our pre-service teachers’ preparation. In order to make this experience as valuable as possible, it is important to ask them to have a goal in their observation. They can observe with a specific task in mind, such as the use of L1 vs. L2, the presence of the standards, assessment, classroom management techniques, the four skills, technology, games, feedback, grammar teaching, etc.
Another technique of experiencing early field experiment and authentic teaching is to make use of service-learning, as a required component of the methods course. Service-learning is an integration of “curricular concepts with ‘real-life’ situations” and equips learners with analytical, evaluative, critical-thinking, synthesizing, and problem-solving skills (Alliance for Service-Learning in Education Reform, 1995: 2). Indeed, though most teacher preparation programs send students to classrooms to observe, assist and sometimes teach, they are seldom responsible for truly teaching a class or even a unit. Their role is minimal (understandably since they often lack experience). Huhn (2012) and Grim (forthcoming) encourage pre-service students to experiment teaching as much as possible prior to their final practicum, as service-learning is an opportunity for giving authentic teaching responsibilities with little curriculum impact on the children. In a service-learning program, a student, alone or with a partner, will become a teacher of a language at a preschool or elementary school (most often, it will be at an after-school program). They are in charge of their teaching as they have to present the language and cultures to real learners, they prepare lesson plans, they have to meet a variety of learning styles, they have to create games and activities that are interactive and appropriate to a given age group, they have to assess their students, they learn to apply classroom management techniques, and they play the role of leaders. Through this experience, students are asked to reflect on the knowledge they have acquired in class and its impact in the learning of their own students. Service-learning can become an early training to student teaching, or the teaching internship, with a minimum of consequences. It also provides an elementary-school experience for those who receive a state certification that allows them to teach from preschool to high school (as is the case of Colorado) and a quasi-professional experience that enriches their résumé. In Europe, this could be easily implemented by asking if elementary-school teachers would welcome a foreign language university student to teach a 30-minute weekly lesson. If a future teacher has shown to have volunteered in his / her community, potential hiring schools might find this very meaningful.
5 Opportunities in Professional Development and Networking with Current Teachers
Another essential part of becoming a successful teacher is finding the right support. If a teacher is alone, he or she might struggle and feel overwhelmed due to an overload of work, difficulties with class management and administrative duties, pressure for testing and assessing, incorporation of the standards, and so on. It is crucial to give the opportunity to provide a mentor to new teachers. Research shows that teachers who are given proper mentorship and opportunities for collaboration are more likely to thrive and remain in the profession (Delaney 2012, Kissau & Tosky King 2014). The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and the Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers (CFFLT) both provide a Mentorship program to pair a teacher with a mentor.
ACTFL notes that the goal of their program is to:
help early career language teachers succeed in their current assignments and learn the skills to be successful long-term in their careers. Mentoring will be conducted virtually. Mentors and mentees will be matched by needs, skills, and experiences. (ACTFL, Mentoring Program5)
CCFLT has similar goals as they want:
to offer collegial support, guidance, and expertise to help with professional growth, to provide a confidential environment where the mentor and mentee can carry on discussions about a personal nature, to identify goals which will enable a mentee to stretch his / her teaching abilities in a safe environment with the support of a more experienced colleague. (CCFLT, Mentor Program6)
The mentors are trained and available for any starting teachers, who might have questions or struggles. Such programs need to be offered to all pre-service and new teachers, as early as their student teaching practicum: the mental, physical and instructional support they need is fundamental for success.
Another opportunity for support is to attend the local, state and national teacher conferences that are focused on foreign languages. At such conferences, teachers receive concrete teaching ideas, support from teachers in the same profession, and networking with experienced and resourceful educators. As dedicated educators know, those conferences are invigorating even to well-experienced teachers. In Colorado, a few local meetings or workshops take place, either at universities nearby or organized by local teachers. Our pre-service students should be made aware of those events and be invited as “colleagues”. For example, in Colorado, our state organization is CCFLT (Colorado Congress of Foreign Language Teachers) and meets twice a year, our regional organizations are SWCOLT (Southwest Conference on Language Teaching) and CSCTFL (Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages). Most states and regions have an organization serving the foreign language teachers of the area. ACTFL represents all language teachers on the national level. In addition, each language or language group has their respective association with annual conferences and local chapters (American Association of Teachers of French (AATF), American Association of Teachers of German (AATG), American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese (AATSP), etc.). The Third Saarbrücken Conference on Foreign Language Teaching or the Congrès Mondial de la Fédération Internationale des Professeurs de Français are great examples of meetings occurring in Europe that pre-service, new or experienced teachers ought to attend. This abundance of resources needs to be clearly shared and always made available to new teachers. Because these conferences often ask for a minimum fee for pre-service teachers, it might be worth asking if volunteering could be an option for free admittance.
As mentioned earlier, observing teachers is an essential exercise to see realistic teaching. It is also a wonderful opportunity to network with teachers, find a mentor, a friend or a future employer. Indeed, during those observation sessions, pre-service teachers develop an affinity for some teaching styles and teaching personality. Reciprocally, in-service teachers have the chance to meet some possible student teachers prior to accepting them.
To support job placement and professionalism, an event, such as a career fair focused on teaching or on foreign languages, can provide opportunities to connect with in-service teachers, school and school districts, as well as other job types. It is also a positive recruitment tool for students who have not decided on a major. In or outside of the methodology course, university educators might think of providing mock interviews to help students prepare best for such events. Besides the job fair, the creation of an online portfolio might be a way to showcase teaching and linguistic abilities, teaching philosophy and prior experiences for future employers. Students have to think of the importance of the concepts learned in their coursework and should be able to include them in their teaching philosophy.
6 Opportunities for Linguistic Growth
It seems that the more advanced the classes taken by a foreign language student are, the more lecture-based the courses become. Indeed, many fourth-year (or last-year) courses in a foreign-language program do not provide many opportunities for linguistic improvement, in particular vis-à-vis the oral skill, as their goal is to deliver specific content. In the United States, where more and more states require teachers’ proficiency to reach an advanced-low ACTFL level, which is the equivalence of C1 in Europe, it is crucial that our university language programs need to constantly challenge students to grow in their language development. An observation is that students often do not know their level of language proficiency. A university program might have expectations, but this does not mean that students will reach the departmental standards. For pre-service teachers, it should become mandatory, or highly advisable, to take a test such as the OPI and WPT (Huhn 2012) or such as the respective language tests for the CEFR, in order to evaluate their levels of oral and written proficiency. Those tests will provide guidelines to future employers on teachers’ proficiency level as a growing number of schools look for this type of information in order to gauge teacher qualifications. Providing communicative opportunities throughout students’ training is primordial to increase proficiency. This can be done by encouraging them to study abroad (the most efficient tool to acquire authentic language and fluency), attend club activities such as conversations, book clubs or immersion weekends, or create opportunities for discussion in all classes that push them towards higher proficiency levels. Engaging in activities in the target language can only benefit pre-service and in-service teachers, who need numerous occasions to practice their own language skills (Chambless 2012, Fraga-Cañadas 2010).
Preparing language teachers does not start on the onset of their job. It starts prior to student teaching and should accompany them from the beginning of their teaching curiosity to shape them into successful and effective teachers. One challenge is to find students who have the potential of becoming good educators and who are passionate. They will need to be encouraged through their training and receive the keys for success. It is not possible to expect them to retain all information, to which they are exposed during one methods class, but if they know where to locate the necessary resources, use them and find appropriate support, they will be ready to face many difficulties when they arise. Giving them the picture that becoming a teacher means “to change the world” is not realistic and they need to be aware of the hardship of the profession (e.g. paperwork, grading, teacher expectations, parent involvement, student behavior, learning styles). However, making them aware that they can change part of their world by being a passionate, caring, and understanding teacher is important. Being a teacher is not just sharing content, it is also sharing an open ear, a love for learning and investing in future generations.
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1 For the Third Saarbrücken Conference on Foreign Language Teaching, see http://3saarbrueckerfremdsprachentagung.blogspot.de/search/label/1.2%20English; 01-09-2016. For the series of the Saarbrücken Conferences, that take place in a biannual rhythm, see https://sites.google.com/site/saarbrueckersprachentagung/; 01-09-2016).
2 http://www.p21.org/our-work/p21-framework; 07-09-2016)
3 http://www.p21.org/about-us/our-mission; 07-09-2016)
4 http://tprstories.com/ (07-09-2016): This method of teaching foreign language is based on
5 Comprehensible Input and by using Total Physical Response (TPR), storytelling and reading, it is believed to develop language proficiency.
7 gram; 07-09-2016)
8 http://ccflt.org/get-involved/mentor-program/; 07-09-2016.