Focus on Professional Development: Group Interviews
By Lara Panzini
In this article, I will explain the reasons for choosing to experiment with Group Professional Development Interviews (PDIs) and the results collected to date, specifically working with academic staff.
As an academic manager, I run PDIs with my teachers, teacher trainers and administrators. As part of my studies at Birkbeck University of London, I am researching its effectiveness from managers, teachers and administrators’ perspective. However, my interest in this topic started a few years back: as a critical receiver of the PDI, I often questioned its effectiveness and value. For this reason, I set myself onto an exploratory journey to find some answers.
Modern Languages at IH London offers a variety of courses like part-time evening group classes, weekend classes, one to one and in-company training for general and specific purposes. We have approximately 50 to 60 teachers of several different languages; their level of experience varies from post-CELTA to highly experienced teacher trainers. My teachers also work for a number of other institutions, including renowned universities and private institutions: this means they are observed and receive PDI a number of times a year. Do they benefit from this process? Is an individual meeting the most efficient and effective approach in this context?
In 2015, I set up this project for two main reasons:
- Operational: I manage 50 language teachers and teacher trainers (more when demand requires).
- The one to one meeting did not give me, the manager, the opportunity to celebrate publically teachers’ achievements and learning, and share their experiences across the Modern Languages Department.
Having identified the problem, I focused on specific questions to guide my quest:
- What is recommended by academic literature?
- What is recommended by awarding bodies as an alternative to the individual meeting?
- What were other institutions doing?
- Was anyone doing anything different?
My research found no other models I could study, analyse or adapt. The only word that caught my attention was “group” because recurring in several articles about the NHS. So I thought “This is the answer: group PDI.”
Developing Group PDI required establishing a number of criteria to ensure that the process was fair and fit for purpose, that professional development could be facilitated and that its benefits could be evidenced. Therefore, after consulting informally with my team of teachers and discussing the idea of a Group PDI, focused on specific teaching techniques, the enthusiasm was visible and I treasured some of their suggestions. Claudia Cerbino, one of our experienced teachers, identified similarities between the Group PDI and vertical grouping (Montessori, 2013) a concept from Montessori (and other theorists); Maria Montessori used this term to explain how children of mixed ages benefit more from working together than if they work in age divided classrooms. Although these theories were discussed having children in mind, they can easily apply to adults as well, in this case, changing ‘age’ for ‘experience’. If teachers are given the time and space to share their experiences on specific topics (‘instructions’, ‘cultural aspects’, ‘group activities for higher levels’, etc.), they can leap into each other’s discoveries and grow quicker.
The consultation stage resulted in agreeing our method:
- The main focus of this process is the individual teacher/trainer.
- Groups were mixed, not monolingual, to encourage cross-departmental cooperation. Teachers book their group meeting using a share document on Google Drive.
- Each round of PDIs would focus on a particular topic, selected from inspections’ recommendations, students’ feedback or teachers’ needs.
- Each round would produce a product: a report, a list of specific recommendations, reflection on practice, through tasks pre or post PDI.
- Each round of PDIs would be followed by specific training sessions, individual or group, depending on relevance.
- Teachers and trainers would be required to evidence their learning in the subsequent PDI.
- The PDI form would belong to the teacher, not the manager, shifting the ownership of the document and the process on the individual specific professional needs.
For the very first round, I selected 22 language teachers (new and experienced ones); they were observed for 10-15 minutes, focusing on just one aspect of their teaching. The selected aspects of teaching were taken from the last IHWO and EAQUALS inspection report: giving instructions, clarifying meaning, pronunciation, correction and use of English in class. 18 students were also interviewed on the same topics. Before the PDI, meeting teachers received their PDI form with some short observation feedback. Specific parts of the form had to be completed by the teacher prior to the meeting:
- evidence of past objectives been achieved
- general overview of performance
- review of training undertaken
Every Group PDI meeting started with a short presentation of the project. After that, each teacher described to the group their main achievements. Individually they draw their Personal Work Plan and then shared it and discussed it with the rest of the group. We concluded the meeting with general feedback on the entire process. After the meeting, every teacher received a personal email with any additional comment or action to be taken. One very important aspect of the post meeting process was that each teacher sent feedback on it, reflecting on for and against of this process. One teacher wrote: “In my opinion, this process is being very rewarding and engaging, since it’s been the first reflective exercise on the work done at IH.”
Impact of Group PDI and further development
It seemed evident from the start that this approach was giving a rhythm and purpose to PDIs in general and that working in groups was amplifying its effects. As a team, we decided to continue with Group PDI. In 2016, we focused on teachers’ activity through flash observations: this proved to be a success, especially for those who have limited contact with colleagues; less so for very experienced teacher trainers. The findings were summarised and shared with the team: all teachers received a document describing every activity I observed like, for example, concept checking, controlled oral practice, monitoring, etc., alongside what is considered best practice. Both the meetings and the final document received very positive feedback. Teacher M. wrote: “The group meeting is interesting and useful in order to share experiences and to learn about others teachers’ methods, ideas… The form which summarizes all the « flash observations » is meaningful, as based on concrete examples. Thank you!” However, it became more evident that, although the Group PDI was extremely useful to teachers with little experience, the others were not finding this more beneficial than an individual PDI.
In 2017 we tried a different approach, something more developmental to make this process more relevant to experienced teachers: peer observations:
- Each language team selected one classroom activity, for example analytical reading
- Each teacher filmed the activity
- All teachers watched the videos (minimum 2)
- All teachers wrote a reflection on the experience
- This was followed by group PDI in mixed languages, as teachers find this more useful.
- This format proved to be much more engaging and developmental for all teachers, no matter how experienced: they all benefited from reflecting on their own practice and observing their colleagues.
Being able to evaluate each round of PDI and respond to teachers’ needs had a positive impact on all stakeholders: as a manager I did not lose contact with my teaching staff, enabling me to respond to their needs in a practical way; teachers are now the owners of the process and therefore the developmental objective are relevant and achievable; students are aware that the school promotes experimentation and development and benefit from better teaching. A high retention rate/repeat customers could be considered evidence of the improved customers’ experience.
Group PDIs does not mean that Individual PDIs are “dead”: teachers have the option to request them whenever they need one or want one. Group PDIs started as an experiment and have now become the preferred option. These meetings are something to look forward to, not to dread or fear. The teaching team drives the process thus making every step relevant to further improving their practice. As a manager, I need to keep listening to their needs and suggestions so to insure PDIs are genuinely about teachers’ development, not a tick box exercise. I need to invest in the process just as much as they need to for this to make a real difference.
Author's Bio: Lara works as Director of Modern Languages at IH London. She has taught and trained teachers in the UK and Italy since 1992. She has extensive experience in the private sector and holds the RSA DTEFLA. Lara works on course design, materials provision, and teaching methodology. She mentors IH London trainers to make sure that they are fully supported and able to both meet and exceed client needs and expectations.
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