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Issue 40 Editorial - One Teacher Trainer to Define Them All?

Trainer: a person who teaches skills to people or animals and prepares them for a job, activity, or sport”1

Editorial issue 40Welcome to the 40th Edition of the International House Journal! It’s summer for most of the world as I write, and with the sunshine comes a busy period in teacher training. With many private language schools and public institutions enjoying a well-earned break from regular course provision or the stresses of the school year, the number of CELTA courses on offer throughout the world increases significantly. And of course, the more courses that run, the more trainers that are required. As a trainer myself, this editorial looks at some thoughts I’ve had about what a teacher trainer actually is, based on conversations over the years with colleagues.

Who Do You Think You Are?

I am often asked how to become a teacher trainer and my first response sometimes takes the form of replying with a question: what do you mean by “teacher trainer” (hereafter, TT)? I’m not being facetious in asking this and I invite you to reflect on that question now. Is a TT any of the following?

  • Someone who gives workshops/INSETs in their school
  • A senior teacher helping with lesson planning
  • A DoS doing observations in their school
  • Someone supporting teachers with bilingual education in a local context
  • A CELTA tutor
  • Someone teaching on an MA TESOL programme

The answer is ‘yes’ to all of these, to some extent, but importantly there is more to consider than simply ‘CELTA tutor’ (note how in the opening paragraph CELTA and teacher training were conflated). This exercise also demonstrates how slippery the term TT actually is. Indeed, in his recent book, A Practical Introduction to Teacher Training in ELT, John Hughes does not actually define a TT. Rather more sensibly, he discusses different contexts and skills a TT might work in and have/need, but there is no simple definition.  In a more entertaining take on the difficulty of definition, the new Cambridge English Trainer Framework notes that in “some situations, trainers may not be called trainers” (2016:3). The Framework does allow us to include some of the people above by continuing to say that “there may be a training element to their job role” (2016: 3) but, like Hughes, does not actually define the term “trainer”.

To make matters more complicated, other terms are often used in this field. Some people discuss the difference between Teacher Training and Teacher Development (cf. Ur, 1997 for an example3); others call themselves Teacher Educators. Some people believe they work in the area of Teacher Learning and others describe their job as ‘teaching teachers’, which would surely make them teachers themselves. Tessa Woodward (2008) notes she was a “Professional Development Coordinator”4. So just who are we?

I Am a TT. I Have a Profile. Ergo, All TTs Have this Profile

Even with all this seeming over-complexity, we can perhaps pin down a TT through looking at a typical profile. Surely there would be general agreement that a TT is a Delta-qualified and experienced native-speaker teacher who can teach well. They have probably worked in different schools in different countries and taught a wide-range of class types. They might blog, may have been published and probably attend conferences. They will also have followed a training programme themselves to become a trainer in the first place. It’s likely they work on CELTA (or equivalent) courses. This typical trainer profile seems easy enough to establish.

Except that it isn’t accurate at all. In fact, not only isn’t it accurate, but it is also deeply troubling if read as ‘typical’. To start, why would a TT be a native speaker and why would they have Delta? Why would they have worked in a number of different countries with a wide-variety of learners instead of having been in one monolingual context for their entire careers (and therefore very valuably experienced in it)? Being published is no prerequisite, blogging even less so and who said anything about conferences? With there being no clear pathway to becoming a trainer, even experience as a requirement is problematic. Not only this, but such a profile suggests someone from a background in private language training providers, rather than the state sector. There’s nothing wrong with this profile in and of itself in a certain context, but the bigger picture is much wider than simply a typical CELTA tutor. So just who is a TT?


Maybe instead of taking a macro-level view in our search for a definition, we can start small and build up. The idea of role is as important in training as it is teaching. Just as “teacher” can be deconstructed to include a number of different micro roles, from counsellor through resource to facilitator, so can a “trainer”. A TT, then, is an actor of roles and not a unified whole.

Such an understanding can help clarify the common misconception that occurs when the role of “expert” and job title of “trainer” are conflated (something that can lead to one becoming erroneously synonymous with the other). This is particularly important when thinking about the typical CELTA tutor profile above and the relationship that person has with experienced candidates in a monolingual setting, for example. A TT here is not simply there to share their fantastic insight and considered wisdom with the teachers they ‘train’, but must surely work with those teachers to help them develop what they can do in their classrooms in their context.

So, a TT is a lot more than a content expert, though of course we are experts at given times when that role is demanded (in an input session on language awareness, for example). Here, however, are some other aspects that make up the daily life of many TTs:

  • Writing reports
  • Marking an assignment submitted online by someone you have never met face-to-face
  • Giving feedback to a difficult/aggressive teacher/trainee
  • ‘Weaving’ different threads on online forums to bring together and highlight key points
  • Trying to find a sufficient number of candidates to run a paid course
  • Running an inset/workshop for a tired group of state school teachers at lunchtime

Interestingly, only one of the sample points listed above – managing with feedback – is included in Cambridge English’s new Framework. The justification for these omissions is that these are “job specific and vary considerably across situations” and thus are not a trainer’s so-called “core skills” (ibid). While this may be in keeping with the general nature of the Framework, it may be eye-opening to a number of current TTs!


 Cambridge highlights that its Framework can be localised to be made more context-specific.  If there are different types of context, then surely there are different types of TTs. What works for some in one place, may not work for all in another. Jamie King writes later in this edition of the IHJ that a potential problem for “teacher educators” is to believe that training can be a ‘one size fits all’ solution, “fuelled by a universal standard of assessment against which candidates are measured”5. Jamie is talking primarily about Cambridge courses, but there is a universal point there: if teaching can be measured, then what is good teaching? Could it possibly be wider than Cambridge’s assessment criteria?

This is important for a number of reasons, but not least because an area that newer TTs often have problems with is to be too techniques-focused (easily demonstrated, easily assessed, tick). Where do these techniques that make up ‘good practice’ come from? Largely they come from the background of the TT, their own training and/or a syllabus. The problem is that not all techniques are applicable to all contexts and that indeed one size does not fit all. How the TT might do something is not necessarily how it should be done and, if they have little experience in the context, who are they to say that the teacher is ‘wrong’?

Ideas such as these are developed by Stephen Bax (2003), discussing a Context Approach to language teaching rather than a more methodology-focused Communicative Approach or a language-driven Lexical Approach. Bax also questions situations in which teachers working in ‘backward’ and ‘traditional’ contexts can benefit from the ‘enlightenment’ that a TT working within a Communicative paradigm can helpfully dispense. Just because it works for you in-company in Madrid, does not mean it will work for me in my Junior High classroom in Japan.

TT as Threatened Species

Returning to the start, perhaps it’s nearly impossible to define what a TT is because they are a genus not a species, to borrow from biological taxonomy. Just as with the unjustifiable general status of the native-speaker teacher, the promotion of one of these species over the others has blurred the boundaries. The globally-mobile, usually native-speaker, often monolingual and CELTA-qualified TT is what many people I speak to think a TT actually is. But it is only one kind and in the future, may be the one under threat.

If we entertain a Context Approach to language teaching and training, accept that not all contexts are the same and that we need some form of context-specific pedagogy/training, look beyond the prevalence of CELTA as a measure of good teaching, and embrace ideas from newer domains such as Translanguaging, then perhaps we can open doors to teacher training to people from a wider set of more relevant backgrounds. And I’ll start looking for a new job – not before time.

With thanks to Silvana Richardson for introducing me to Translanguaging, Katy Simpson for her recent advice and Ben Naismith for reviewing this piece.




1) Definition from Cambridge Dictionary: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/trainer

2) Cambridge English Trainer Framework (2016). UCLES: Author.

http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/images/297310-cambridge-english-trainer-framework-introduction.pdf (accessed 9/7/16)

3) Ur, Penny (1997) ‘Teacher Training and Teacher Development: A Useful Dichotomy?’, The Language Teacher. JALT Publications.

http://jalt-publications.org/old_tlt/files/97/oct/ur.html (accessed 8/7/16)

4) Woodward, Tessa (2008). What are teacher trainers called in different settings?

https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/tessa-woodward/what-are-teacher-trainers-called-different-settings (accessed 8/7/16)

5) King, Jamie (forthcoming, 2016) ‘Customisation in Teacher Training Programmes’, IH Journal [online], vol. 40.

6) Bax, Stephen (2003) ‘The End of CLT: A Context Approach to Language Teaching’, ELT Journal, Vol. 57/3, Oxford: OUP.

7) Hughes, John (2015)  A Practical Guide to Teacher Training in ELT, Pavillion: Brighton

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