Anna Loseva earned her MA in TEFL from Moscow City Pedagogical University in 2008. In Russia, Anna taught English in various contexts to different age groups and language levels before moving to Japan in 2015. She is currently employed by Rikkyo University, where she delivers English discussion classes to students of all majors. Since 2011, Anna has been involved with International Teacher Development Institute as an Associate, Blogger, and Editor of iTDi Blog. Her professional interests include extensive reading, developing cultural awareness, social media in education, mentoring and reflective practice for professional development.
Interviewed by: Hami Suzuki
1.Could you tell us about your educational and professional background? What led you to becoming an EFL teacher in Japan?
I got my teaching degree from Moscow City Pedagogical University in 2008, and by the time I got my diploma I had already been working as a full-time school teacher for almost two years. Before I stepped into the classroom the first time when I was 20, I had never really seen myself as a teacher. I guess it was the magic of it and the energy that sixteen unruly but incredible 12-year-olds shared with me that first month of my teaching practice. It’s fair to say they got me hooked! In the nine years that followed, like probably many other English teachers in Russia, I got to teach students of all levels in a variety of contexts, ranging from General English for secondary school kids to EAP (English for Academic Purposes) and ESP (English for Specific Purposes) for would-be physicists at Moscow State University. The biggest changes in my professional life followed creating my Twitter account in 2011. That action would soon turn my life upside down. It was on Twitter that I met Chuck Sandy and Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, probably two of the most influential people among hundreds of other ELT contacts that I made, and got involved with International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi). My life was never the same again. Three years later I came to Japan for the first time to present at one of the biggest conferences in the country, organized by Japanese Association of Language Teachers (JALT). The country and the whole experience made an impression so powerful that I felt no other alternative but to find a job in Japan and return. And as it happens, when dreams are turned into goals, they eventually come true. In April 2015, I started my first job in Tokyo.
2. One of your recent research interests have been around reflective practice for teacher development. In your opinion, what makes reflective practices valuable? Also, what goes into “being a reflective teacher”? What are some of the practices that reflective teachers engage in?
Each time I talk about reflective practice, I can’t help but go down the memory lane, so I’ll do the same here. It all goes back to the fateful year 2011, when through Twitter I found out about the world of ELT blogs, and especially reflective blogs (such as those by Josette LeBlanc, Michael Griffin, Anne Hendler, Kevin Stein). To me, reading blog posts that those thoughtful teachers shared and leaving my comments whenever I felt brave enough, and thought I had something to contribute – that was the initiation into reflective practice, without calling it so. The definition of a reflective teacher that I have at this moment, after a few years of blogging myself, might be surprising, and it is my own. I believe a reflective teacher is one who is not content with what’s happening in the classroom, and who wants to analyze why things are happening the way they do and how they can be changed. A reflective teacher cannot say “I have no problems!” I also believe that a teacher who possesses the tendency to reflect cannot stop being reflective. In other words, reflective practice is a way of life, a way of thinking, an attitude to the world around. If you find it more valuable to ask yourself questions rather than blame yourself or students or environment, you are likely a reflective teacher. If you want to understand the reasons behind students’ (and your own) actions and behaviors, you are probably a reflective teacher. “Understanding” to me is a crucial aspect of reflective practice and maybe even a bigger goal than bringing change to what doesn’t work.
Returning to your questions about the ways to reflect, other common ways (except the aforementioned blogging) would be keeping a journal, observing your own or your colleague’s classes, and most importantly to me engaging in productive discussions that don’t have it as their aim to blame, judge, or complain. Action research, making small changes and analyzing the results, choosing to talk at conferences and talk to other teachers – all those can also be reflective activities.
3. Some teachers might mention the lack of time to reflect on their teaching with their busy schedules. What would your advice be for them?
I’d say it only takes as much time as you are ready to give it. For example, if you’re able to meet with a colleague over lunch once a week and talk in a thoughtful manner about what’s bothering you in one particular class you’re teaching, trying to understand why that is and what little steps can be made to change the situation, that could be a good place to start. I know that many teachers would choose to have a dialogue to taking the time to scrupulously write in a journal. Whatever works for you! It would be great, of course, to start a long-term project, journal daily, record and transcribe your classes, read any relevant theories, and overall be very thorough and detailed about reflection. That’s time-consuming and luckily is not the only way. I’d say if you’re thinking critically about teaching and learning at all, that’s reflection for you. That’s the bud that will definitely bloom once watered! What you need to start with is not the thought of having or not having time, but the desire to seek the answers. You’ll make the time, believe me.
4. You mentioned in your blog that you “want to participate in programs to help teachers in developing countries”. In March 2018, you went on a trip with Teachers Helping Teachers SIG (THT) to Vietnam. Could you tell us about the purpose of this trip/SIG? What kind of NNEST-related topics did you see or encounter through this professional development opportunity?
It was an amazing experience and the one that might just change the course of my future career! A group of teachers from Japan and the US travelled to two cities in South and Central Vietnam and participated in a few days of workshops, organized jointly by THT SIG and the university contacts in those cities (Can Tho and Hue). The events were free to attend for the Vietnamese teachers. I was stunned to meet some teachers and school administrators who had travelled 600 km by bus in order to go to our sessions! I found that Vietnamese teachers, as well as students who I got to teach as part of the program of the trip, were full of enthusiasm and desire to learn! I met some amazing, open, and thoughtful young girls who had just started to study for their MA, are working part-time in language schools, and are so keen to learn new techniques they can use in class. The way teachers interacted with us “presenters” during the sessions led me to believe that they took the ideas we brought to them in a critical and even reflective way. They tried to find how what we were saying could relate or apply to their contexts. In fact, that was my biggest concern before and during the trip: Do we know their teaching situations at all to visit and give our presentations on the themes that we ourselves had chosen? Shouldn’t we all have had discussions about those contexts, learnt more about what challenges they face in Vietnam, and thought about solutions together? Maybe that would be a different sort of event altogether. As for the NNEST-related topics, one curious observation comes to mind: every time our Vietnamese organizers announced our names, or welcomed us officially on stage, or referred to us in any way, they did not care to divide native and non-native (to state the fact, I was the only teacher in the group for whom English is a foreign language). I didn’t feel any difference in how I was treated by organizers or participants, or teachers and students I met and made friends with.
5. How do you define “professional development” for language teachers? From your own experience of going through professional development and/or mentoring others, how do you think professional development can empower teachers?
That is an interesting question. If you had asked me this question three years ago, I would have told you that the core of professional development lies in our own desire to learn from each other and mostly happens through communication with other teachers. That’s how it was for me for a few years: my professional development was always in my own hands, happening because I chose for it to happen, and driving me to be more passionate about teaching tomorrow than the day before. It was because I chose to go to those conferences in France, Turkey, or Korea and pay my own expenses. Because I chose to find time to attend webinars from my iPad using unstable cafe wifi connection (I couldn’t make it home in time for the session after class). Because I chose to spend nights writing blog posts about bad or good experiences in my class. But then I got my current job, and for the first time, professional development became a requirement. It’s definitely an interesting shift! By having to comply with the ways that it’s offered, I learn in ways I hadn’t before. Systematic, organized professional development helped me personally to find the value in reading academic literature and pursue one project for a long time, in a more thorough fashion that I’d do otherwise. I can’t say how such development, inflicted on you, in a way, impacts or empowers other teachers, especially those who have not had the experience with professional development in other ways before. I’d like to think it has a positive influence, as it certainly has been that for me. I know that in my future jobs I will be willing to have some sort of a PD program, and if it does not exist, I’ll find my own ways. That is the kind of impact that my experience has had on me, and it’s the one I wish all other teachers!
6. Lastly, what are your next academic and professional goals?
In the past couple of years I feel I have matured. I’m lucky to have got a much clearer vision of what suits my personality and what jobs I’ll be willing to undertake. The biggest shift of the past years concerns the shift of focus: from seeing to my own needs to willingness to support other teachers’ professional development. I’d like to move forward on this path, whether through volunteering in programs similar to THT, or organizing small-scale events and conferences like excitELT, or through mentoring, or continuing reflective practice group meetings… I’d like to teach students in Southeast Asia and see what education is like there in general and teaching English in particular.
Thank you for this insightful interview, Anna!