Advancing learning for teachers: Start with yourself and the rest will follow

20 February 2019

In my last blog I wrote about the future and looking forward with regards to my personal and professional development. I am sticking to some of this and I will update you later in the year on my progress. For this month’s blog however I’d like to look back but by doing so hopefully provide you with ideas that you can take forward yourself and advance your own learning.

Here at Macmillan we are embarking on a year of Advancing Learning. I like to think that my whole career has been a learning process and after 23 years in English language teaching I certainly don’t think I know everything. Meeting new teachers and discussing ideas always provides a freshness and food for thought and I am grateful I have a chance to do this. After 23 years I thought this would be a good time to reflect on where I have come and some professional development (PD) avenues I have been down. By doing so it will allow me to ask questions of you, in order for you to use some of the ideas for yourself.


So let me start by taking you back to 1996. I was a fresh-faced teacher who after having about 3 lessons of experience was fortunately asked if I wanted to do a CELTA course. (I used to believe that fortune played a big role lot in my career although as I’ve got older I subscribe more to the ‘you make your own luck’ model of thinking.) Anyway back to the story. The course was run by ECC a large private language school and training centre in Bangkok. I had a friend who worked there and a person who was supposed to do the course had dropped out at the last minute. I was asked through my friend if I was interested in doing it and I jumped at the chance. This was my first experience of training and PD and although it was a long time ago I still remember it with one eye laughing and the other crying. That is to say it was enjoyable but very stressful. As I hadn’t really taught before, I had to learn everything from scratch (and I mean everything). Being from the north of England I speak English pretty well but I had never learned the grammar in terms of the construction of sentences, names of tenses etc. Nor did I have any idea of the nuance of vocabulary and of pronunciation. Additionally planning, classroom management, timing etc. were all new to me. At the start this was a bit overwhelming and I found it tough but speaking to my tutor I was relieved. She said that I should feel lucky that I had not much experience as I wouldn’t have any bad habits to undo and relearn. Having thought about this and observed the other teachers I could see what she was saying. So I put my head down in the books and started to enjoy the learning process. I passed the CELTA and started on my journey.

The CELTA course was a huge learning curve and provided me with the tools I needed to start my career. The mentoring from my tutor stayed with me and I am now more aware of this factor of ‘unlearning’ things in my teaching and in training. It also made me look at dealing with challenges in a different way. I now try to see problems as not just something that needs to be solved, but also what can be learned on reflection from overcoming the challenge.

Question 1: What strategies do you use when faced with challenges in your work? Has this changed over the years?

The early years

So after a year of work in Thailand I then moved to Indonesia and then on to Poland. I worked during this period for a private language school and had an opportunity to teach all ages and levels. Teaching different levels and courses, as well as different nationalities, helped me understand the need to vary teaching techniques and as a result I started to get better and find my voice as a teacher. I was becoming more confident and enjoyed professional development sessions. During this period I was fortunate (that word again) to have a dedicated Director of Studies (DOS). He observed teachers regularly and provided excellent feedback which helped me grow. He was also instrumental in developing teachers and starting a scheme that sponsored teachers to complete the Trinity diploma course. I didn’t take the course at this time as I felt I needed more experience under my belt, but as a result of this training we had regular INSETT delivered by the DOS and by teachers who were completing the diploma course. I started to gain more insight into teaching EFL and the different methodologies available. It was here I learned about suggestopedia, the lexical approach and dogme, but more importantly it was here I was encouraged to try these different approaches and see how they worked. This was my first experience with classroom-based research and its helpfulness in reflective teaching. I started to become more experimental and as a result the job continued to interest me.

Question 2: Have you been fortunate enough to be able to experiment with and in your classes? If so, what effect has this had on your teaching and your students? Have you conducted any classroom-based research?

Back to Thailand

So after spending an excellent year in Poland it was time to move on again. Although beautiful, the winter in Poland can chill the warmest man to his bones, it was time for me to go back to the warm weather and people of Thailand. I started working initially for inlingua, a private language school as head of centre. My role was to set up a new branch in Bangkok. This was a wonderful opportunity for me to understand how a teaching centre is run and I learned a lot from this experience. Fortunately, I had a very supportive managing director. I had to recruit, timetable and manage teachers as well as buy teaching resources for the centre. This was particularly useful as it forced me to look in detail at the material available to support teaching. I gained a good understanding of resource books and still have favourites to this day. I would say the most enduring resource packs are the Reward supplementary books by Sue Kay. These are based on the excellent series of coursebooks by Simon Greenall. Packed with great ideas that always work and stand the test of time.

Question 3: What resources have influenced your teaching throughout your career? It could be a coursebook, resource pack, methodology book or website. What do you find yourself going back to time and again? Share with a colleague and tell them why you like this resource.

After a year at inlinuga I moved to work for Bell Education in Thailand.  They had a centre in a boys’ school called St Gabriel’s College. I worked here for 6 years and really started to ‘cut my teeth’ as a teacher.

We had an excellent set up where group planning and professional development was integrated into the ethos of the centre. Teachers discussed their work regularly and I quickly built upon my teaching skills. Seeing students every day in a high stakes environment made me realise the importance of providing quality and care and the need for continual development in order to achieve this. One thing that really helped in this setting was the requirement of all teachers to deliver one INSETT per term. This could be on any topic of your choosing and was a wonderful way to research a topic you were not familiar with, or wanted to learn more about, and then share this with supportive colleagues. The topics were always varied and interesting and a great deal was achieved from this scheme for presenters and participants.

Question 4: Is there an area of teaching that is really interesting or even challenging for you? If so, why not do some more research and then plan an INSETT session for your colleagues to learn more.

Getting into management

I worked for Bell and St Gabriel’s for 6 years and it was with a heavy heart but great excitement that I said goodbye and made another move to the British Council in Bangkok. In my last year at Bell I started my Trinity Diploma and enjoyed the course immensely. I worked for a year by distance on the theory side of the course and then went off to Sheffield Hallam in the UK to complete my practical teaching practice and face to face phonology viva. This was nerve racking but I got through it and then sat the theoretical exam in Bangkok on my return. I passed the exam and with new knowledge and more confidence started working at the British Council. After spending a year of study I was eager to continue and followed a natural progression and started a Master’s degree in TESOL. This took two years and in that time I also volunteered for extra responsibilities and became a kid’s coordinator, teen coordinator and ICT coordinator.  After graduating and then spending around 2 more years as a teacher I was promoted to senior teacher and held this position on and off for 6 years.  I had a variety of roles from managing a partner school to recruitment of teachers. Throughout the time, I was responsible for managing a team of around 6 teachers and helping them with their development as teachers. I completed a certificate in management which provided some theory but most of my skills were developed by ‘doing’ the job and listening. Every teacher has different needs and with a yearly turnover of different teachers to manage I had to learn different techniques every year on how to get the best out of the team. I was also fortunate to work for an organisation that helps their employees develop and throughout this time I was given training on coaching, mentoring and teacher observation which provided useful tools to help me succeed. I continued during this time to look for opportunities to develop and completed a course with Roehampton University on assessment and continued also to provide training to both teachers and senior teachers during INSETT.

Question 5: I consider finishing my Masters as one of my greatest career achievements. What is yours?


Question 6: If you have managed teachers in the past, what was your biggest challenge and how did you overcome this? If you are a teacher, what do you wish your manager would do but they don’t?

And finally

During my last year with the British Council I was asked by Macmillan Education if I would be interested in doing any freelance training for them. I saw this as a great opportunity to expand my training skills and do something a bit different. I was also very interested in leaving Bangkok to visit other provinces and meet teachers on the ground to share ideas and discuss challenges. Fortunately, a full-time position became available which I successfully applied for and here I am today. After a period of adjustment and some learning of the ropes, I feel confident in my role and am again advancing my learning and enjoying my work. Again I am working for a company that values and encourages professional development. In the nearly two years I have been here, I have completed a Trainer Development course and a Drama Games course with NILE and have also written blogs here and a produced podcasts with John Cruft which you can listen to here.

So that’s about it. There is I am sure lots I’ve missed out but I am sure you agree that advancing learning really is the key to happiness and fulfilment in work and it never ever ever stops!

Lastly, a suggestion. Look at your CV and rather than write down milestones or achievements think about learning points. These may be the same of course but what moments in your teaching careers have moulded you as a teacher. Why not write a blog and share with others.

Del Spafford is the Regional teacher trainer and academic consultant for Macmillan Education, Asia. He has been working in ELT for over 20 years. His experience includes 11 years with the British Council in Thailand, where he has planned and delivered teacher professional development in a variety of contexts including both private and public schools.

He is a passionate educator and publisher and thrives on integrating research-based methods and ideas into courses and supporting teachers to implement effective learning strategies in the classroom.