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My Professional Learning Pathway

Reading through a lot of literature about the professional development or professional learning of teachers has inspired me to reflect on my participation and beliefs concerning my own professional learning.  Before I do this, I'd like to distinguish between the two terms: professional development and professional learning.  According to Gibson and Brooks (2013), professional development is a deficit model implying that teachers need to develop in order for their students to meet certain achievement scores and institutional goals.  It fits the narrative that teachers are what is wrong with the schools and education system.  Professional learning implies ongoing growth and is part of the narrative of the growth mindset popularized (at least among educators) by Carol Dweck.  For most people, the terms are interchangeable and "professional development" is still more widely recognized.

Professional Learning as a Newbie ELT

I became an English language teacher after graduating from college and without taking any courses in education, so I had no idea what professional learning was about.  My first job was teaching English conversation skills at Japan's largest and most successful eikaiwa gakko at the time.  The closest I had to professional learning was probationary training during my first few months followed by meetings ever few months about a teaching technique that the corporate office wanted its teachers to incorporate into our lessons.  I assumed that the teacher trainers working in the corporate office in Tokyo were busy researching the most effective strategies to help Japanese students of all ages learn conversation English. 

During my whole time in Japan, I had no awareness that there were professional English language teaching organizations, such as the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) and even TESOL, the latter which I now assume most English language teachers know about, but perhaps that's my experienced American teacher bias coming out.  If I had known they existed, I may have sought them out and perhaps joined their organizations during my second year in Japan.

The goal of my first year was to teach exactly the way the school wanted me to teach.  I was more motivated by fear than anything else because the only teaching experience I had prior to this job was tutoring at the local library.  Also, if I wanted to learn anything in Japan, it was Japanese culture, which is much more fascinating to learn than pedagogy.  However, my goal was not to become an expert in Japanese culture, it was in fact to become a competent English teacher.

In my second year, I realized that I was too focused on mastering the institutional methodology than meeting the needs of the students.  This was my biggest professional learning moment as a newbie.  Once I changed to this perspective, my lessons and my students were livelier.  I saw a greater increase in my student and personal satisfaction, and that's what gave me the confidence to pursue my master's degree.

Professional Learning as a Graduate Student, Part 1

Enrolling in a graduate program in ESOL/Bilingual education is professional learning in and of itself.  However, I learned about many other ways to engage and connect with other English language teachers outside of our MA program, through the professional teaching organizations I mentioned earlier.  This is when I first learned about TESOL, which I badly wanted to attend but could not, and its local affiliation, Maryland TESOL, which I was able to attend as a volunteer vending assistant.  Both my graduate program and my attendance to the Maryland TESOL conference helped provide me with the feeling of belonging to a community of professional learners.  These brief two years in Maryland established my professional identity and sense of community to this day.

Professional Learning as a Teacher Educator

For the next several years, I was a teacher educator in South Korea and Russia, where I taught in-service and pre-service English language teachers about pedagogy.  During these years, I spent a lot of my time outside of the classroom engaged in professional learning activities.  In Korea, because book prices are relatively cheaper than they are in the States, I began consuming, wisely for the most part, English language teaching resources from leading publishers.  Seoul has many bookstores with sections for English language learners and teachers, but my favorite was the Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanghwamun.  At the end of every semester, I stopped by the bookstore and perused the shelves for materials to improve myself and the curriculum for the following semester.  Each semester, I would focus on a different area in improve.  I specifically remember spending a lot of time browsing through all books pertaining to teaching and learning writing skills one semester.  Another semester I focused on reading strategies.  It may reveal a lot about me in that I look back on those days fondly.

As for conferences, I went to KOTESOL's International Conference my first year mainly because my wife played a role in organizing it.  Because it was my first one, I made poor choices and didn't get much out of it.  However, my second conference was better.  And I presented for the first time at my third KOTESOL Conference.  My third year, I had the confidence, experience, and results to share my success with overhauling the practicum courses at my school.  Not only did I present this success with KOTESOL but I also presented at Asia-TEFL in Beijing to get a new perspective on English language teaching.

In Russia, I seemed to be at the center of all professional learning activities because I was the Senior English Language Fellow for the Greater Volga Region.  During my year there, I felt as if I were the United States' leading expert in English language teaching and learning.  Many conferences were built around my availability, and I found them to be extraordinary experiences.  As an English language teacher, my time in Russia was clearly the pinnacle of my professional learning experiences.

Professional Learning Back in the United States

Taking the advice of my mentor from Maryland, I wanted to go back into teaching after being a teacher trainer for so long overseas.  I felt that I may be growing out of touch with teaching English directly.  I taught and observed so many Korean and Russian English teachers that I thought were better than me, so I wanted to go back and teach English in the United States.  Another reason for going back is that many of my Korean and Russian students would ask me about English language teaching in the United States and I felt that I couldn't provide them the answers they needed.

While I was teaching ESL in La Crosse, Wisconsin I was able to attend my first TESOL International Convention all the way.  (I briefly attended a conference in Tampa in 2006 but I didn't have enough time or money to attend everyday.)  It was in New York City, and I attended as many sessions as possible, which nearly wiped me out.  I learned never to approach a four-day conference like that ever again.  Too much input, and not enough time to process it all.

Professional Learning as a Graduate Student, Part 2

I started off my first few years as PhD student running.  I had my proposals accepted to my first TESOL International Convention and to the first two MIDTESOL Conferences in Missouri and Iowa.  Although those experiences were very rewarding at the time, it began to feel like they were taking away from my professional learning at the university.  I say this because this was the first time I noticed that these professional teaching conferences are more oriented towards practice than theory and research.  I was not able to take as much back with me and apply it to my studies and dissertation.  My advisors agreed that it would be better for me to take a year or two off from attending these conferences, at least until I completed my comprehensive exams.

Professional Learning Now

Professional learning is now the centerpiece of my job at Kirkwood Community College and it is also a part of my research agenda.  My dissertation has informed my current job of the growing use and importance of professional learning through social media and professional learning networks (PLNs).  I have been immersed in researching and participating in PLNs for over a year now.  It is now that I am beginning to combine the research element with the participation element.  Earlier, I was doing more researching (for my dissertation) which stifled my participation.  I still need to find a balance between two types (although overlapping sometimes) of PLNs.  One is work-related and not as relevant to this blog.  The other is relevant to this blog as I'm interested in the professional learning of English language teachers.  The best evidence of this is my other blog at, which is mainly about English language teachers abroad.  But I am more generally interested in the professional learning of all English language teachers, especially as education is globalizing.

That's my professional learning story so far.  Is yours similar?  I'd be surprised if it were.  What intrinsically motivates you to learn more about your field?  Do you enjoy being a member of a professional learning network or community?  Do you just like attending conferences for a fresh outlook and a break from your normal routine?  Do you notice any improvement in your pedagogy or your students' learning based on your professional learning? 


Gibson, S. & Brooks, C.  (2013).  Rethinking 21st century professional development. Literacy Information and Computer Education Journal, 4(2), 973-982.


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