Doubting

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Image courtesy of Roo Reynolds

Hi. It’s been a while since we’ve chatted. I’ve missed you. I hope you are all doing well. Me? I’ve been busy with new jobs, none of which are in the classroom. I’ve also joined the board of my local association for English language teachers and I’m co-chairing the next annual conference. But even in all of that busyness, I haven’t forgotten about you. Alas, you’ve probably moved on though.

Not being in the classroom for the past six months has been, well, interesting. I miss it. A lot. So if I miss it that much, how come I’m not teaching? Well, it has a lot to do with seniority and available positions. Needless to say, I’m itching to get back in there. Sort of.

To be honest, I’m going through one of THOSE times. You know, self-doubt and all. I hear from teachers in person and online and I begin to doubt my abilities. Those little whispers in my brain attempting to convince me that I’m not good enough, not smart enough for the job.

This may sound like a pity party. But it isn’t. Stick with me here.

Doubt happens to all of us. More times than not, that uncertainty is unfounded when it comes to viewing ourselves. We are usually our own worst enemy in that way. To compensate, we tend to go in two directions: puffing ourselves up to look more important than we really are, or tear ourselves down until we begin to act out those doubts. Most people fall somewhere in-between. For myself, I tend to head in the downward direction for a while before something happens to help me correct my course and get me back to something that resembles more of a reality. To do that, I need others.

We make a lot out of our independence and self-reliance. Heck, we’ve made a multi-billion dollar business out of it from books, to DVDs, to workshops and  conferences. What’s missing out of this picture are others. I’m not afraid to say that I need the help of others. I can do a lot of things, but for those things I can’t, I look to my friends, family, and colleagues for help.

So, is doubt bad? No. Not at all. I believe that doubt plays a vital role in helping us realize what is missing and gives us the incredible opportunity to seek out that which is missing. Let me give you an example. If you were to ask me one of the weakest areas of my teaching, it would be in teaching pronunciation. I look at others around me talk about what they do in class and I start to doubt my ability to help my students overcome their pronunciation issues. What makes it worse, is I’m often afraid to admit it in a conversation with my colleagues for fear that I’ll look stupid. You know those conversations. Someone starts talking about something that you only have a surface knowledge of and then they ask you your opinion. Oh boy. Now what? If you attempt to sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’ll likely bury yourself in no time. If you say what you DO know about that topic, there is the fear that they will scoff and go on to tell you about how outdated that idea is and how research and teaching has moved on from that back when bell bottoms and Communicative Language Teaching were in style.

So, there are some areas I am stronger in (although doubt slips into those areas from time to time) and areas I need to work on. What do I do about it? Do I just shrug my shoulders and continue on my way, or do I dig in and continue to shine a light on this area of weakness? The obvious answer when it is put that way is to put on your learner hat and look for answers. But when you start to look at what you DON’T know, you will start to become overwhelmed. At least that is how it is for me. There is so much I WANT to know, but I can’t know everything. Where do I start and how to keep this up?

This is the crux of continuous professional development (CPD). It isn’t about levels, answers, or a set objective, it is all about the process. I can’t know everything there is to know about teaching pronunciation, but I can know MORE. I can learn something about everything. This means I need three things: access, time, and a desire to learn. There are going to be times I don’t want to do it, to just settle. I think it is good to take a breather from time to time, but don’t let that become the norm.

Access means more than just books, webinars, and research papers. It means we need to engage in meaningful discussions, opening ourselves up in a way that involves exposing ourselves in our weakest state. I think if we do that, we will find it is reciprocated. That person you think knows everything and is SO much smarter than you? Yeah, they have weaknesses as well. How do I know? You may be surprised to know that some people have thought that about me. I know! Crazy. I certainly thought so. Don’t worry, I set them straight.

Time is a tricky one. I don’t want to take away from the needed down time, especially when it involves those closest to me. I think those should come first. But I am surprised by some people who say they don’t have time to learn something new. Do you have five minutes? You know, those five minutes you stood in line for your morning coffee? Yeah, that can be CPD time. Don’t get me wrong, we are overwhelmed as teachers, but without growth, things only get more difficult. We NEED to take time to earn time. What I mean by that is that by learning something new, we can actually reap a knowledge that will save us much more time in the future. Five minutes. That’s all it takes.

As far as a desire to learn, that is all on you. If you don’t see the need for CPD, any time I spend trying to push you to take time for learning will be futile. You need to WANT to learn. To be honest, I tend to find myself surrounded by those who see the value in CPD. I believe that is a natural tendency. If we take the time to immerse ourselves in something, we are naturally drawn to others who feel the same. If you aren’t sure where to begin, start with others. Find someone with whom you can chat on a regular basis, a colleague who is also interested in growing as a professional. Your talks don’t have to be deep, or even on topic really, to get something out of it. My current colleague and I often spend time just chatting about work related things and we find ourselves learning from one another in a very informal way. Those conversations often spark something that leads me to learning more about myself and often about a topic I hadn’t considered exploring. It’s that “you don’t know what you don’t know” kind of thing. Those times bring those things to light.

I could go on attempting to convince you about how important it is to learn from your doubt, but instead, I’m going to demonstrate. Here are some things I simply don’t know enough about to feel comfortable talking about at any significant level. As my dad always said, “I know enough to hurt myself.”

  • The role of behaviourism in learning. I know there are certain things we learn through repetition and training, but how much, how often, what content is still something I am learning. I have a decent surface level knowledge, but not knowing it at a deeper level is something that bothers me. I want to know more.
  • Related to that, I have this niggling doubt that Bloom’s Taxonomy is not all that it is cracked up to be. I can’t put my finger right on the spot that bothers me as of yet, but I feel I need to explore this more.
  • And in connection with that, the SAMR model also causes me to question its reliability. Again, not sure what it is, but I want to know more before passing judgment.
  • I feel that the current model of top-down / bottom-up processing in listening is flawed for some reason. Again, I don’t know enough to be able to say what is wrong and how it could be fixed, but I feel there is more there to explore.

(After putting all of those down in writing, it appears to me I need to learn more about how the brain works. This could be interesting.)

How do I end a post that is mostly about unending learning? Well, I guess I don’t.

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9 thoughts on “Doubting

  1. Hi Nathan,
    Good to read you again 🙂
    I wonder if either of the two excellent listening books which Lizzie Pinard recommended to me would help you with the final doubt on your list:
    – Listening in Language Classroom by John Field
    – Teaching Second Language Listening: A Metacognitive Approach by Vandergrift and Goh
    They might be useful.
    We all need to doubt – that why lies learning.
    Good luck!
    Sandy

    1. Ha! Just got the John Field one. Started going through it. I’ll check out the other one. I think my problem with top-down / bottom-up when it comes to listening is it doesn’t seem to connect as well with what I’ve been reading about how the brain processes information. I’m not saying it is wrong, I just think the separation isn’t as clear cut as the ELT literature is stating. Could be wrong. There are plenty of smarter people than me who seem to think it is fine, but there is no harm in exploring it a bit 🙂

      1. Hi Nathan
        I know what you mean about the top-down bottom-up thing, and we have to remember it’s just a way of thinking about how we think it happens. For how the brain works, I’m a big fan of Iain Mcgilchrist’s The Master And His Emissary. He talks about processes in the brain that sort of reflect these ideas. I heartily recommend it, and if you’ve already done so, I would love to hear what you think about it!

      2. If I remember rightly from Field, he says that both processes operate in tandem and very fast, but it’s worth training the studentts in both separately so that they can put them together themselves. Feel free to correct me if it turns out that wasn’t right 🙂

  2. Hi Nathan. I second Sandy’s recommendations and will add Michael Rost’s Teaching & Researching Listening, with the caveat he looks at learning styles but that all else in it (so far) seems useful and not ill though out.

  3. Hi Nathan!
    I can relate to a lot of what you’ve written here! What I wanted to highlight again, maybe for other readers, is the point about feeling somehow inferior.
    We’ve all got THAT friend, THAT colleague, etc. who we somehow assume is just good at everything, or at least better than us. But I’ve learnt (the hard way!) that that person is often just as insecure about certain things as we are!! And only once we open up and start talking about our doubts, insecurities, worries, etc. do we find out that others are going through the same kind of thing, and we can help each other!
    For me, it was suffering from burnout, and learning to be able to talk about burnout and depression openly, that showed me that even THAT friend was going through a very similar difficult time, and THAT colleague had always looked up to me!! Without talking openly about these things, we never would have been able to help and support each other in the way that we do now!
    So, for anyone reading this, trust Nathan!! If you’ve got doubts, don’t be afraid to openly talk about them, however informally – it really helps!!

    Thanks again for this blog post Nathan!
    Clare

    1. Thank you for your message, Clare. It is interesting you bring up the subject of burnout as this has been something that others have shared with me lately. Sadly, it seems a lot of people are feeling burned out or are heading that direction. I am part of our local English teaching association and we are working on providing help regarding teacher burnout. Hopefully, this will help others before they get there.

      Thank you once again for your comment!

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