February 2017
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Patrick T. Randolph, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA

The field of ESL is all too often considered the “unwanted stepchild” of American institutions of higher learning (Randolph, Jones, Porter-Sucs, Arokiasamy, & Dunsmore, 2016). The focus, then, of this article is to show how promoting professional development can help break the “unwanted stepchild curse.” Through involvement in professional development, professionals in the field can help strengthen and legitimize the unique and ever-important institution of ESL.

Murphey (2003) claims “[p]rofessional development is the raison d’être of professional associations like TESOL, and thus we need to think more consciously about how we do it and challenge ourselves to seek better and more effective ways to develop ourselves” (p. v).

The primary reason we intrinsically want to enhance our craft of teaching through professional development inevitably comes down to our desire to improve our classroom performance, help our students learn, and inspire them to learn on their own. For ultimately, involvement in professional development creates better teachers, and it offers more learning possibilities for our students; consequently, both students and faculty benefit from professional development (American Council of Learned Societies, 2007).

This, I would argue, is the most significant impact of professional development. However, for the purpose of our mission in elevating the image of ESL, I would also argue that involvement in professional development helps strengthen the image of our ESL departments across American campuses of higher learning through highlighting the work and contributions of professionals in the field.

The Need for Administrative Support

In many, if not most, ESL programs across the country, faculty can participate in professional development, but they feel that they are not encouraged to do so. In addition, very few receive the financial means needed to attend or present at conferences, and an even smaller number of professionals are paid for their time devoted to professional development. While this might not ring true for all ESL departments, the majority of lecturers feel that they are not fully supported in the quest to enhance their craft (see also Shreve, 2005).

Current data support this concern. I recently reviewed 10 ESL lecturer job postings for American universities and colleges. Only three out of 10 required their applicants to do some kind of professional development while under contract. If the job requirements do not promote professional development, then how will the ESL profession ever elevate its image? The obvious upshot of this situation is to encourage all ESL program administrators and directors to openly support and promote professional development among their current faculty members and make it an essential requirement for their future job applicants.

Eight Professional Development Activities That Work

In order to help everyone understand and appreciate the benefits of professional development, I have included eight effective activities that I’ve seen work over the years, many of which will not cost a cent but will bring a lifetime of positive and insightful returns to students, faculty, and administrators.

1. Presentations

Giving presentations at local, regional, national, and international conferences is a surefire way to elevate the image of ESL professionals, promote the institutions they represent, and add a sense of belonging to the profession. Moreover, giving presentations helps teachers refine their public speaking skills, collect valuable feedback and constructive criticism from the presentation participants, and legitimize what is being done in the classroom.

2. Webinars

Submitting a proposal and giving a webinar for either TESOL or one of its affiliates is also an effective way to break the unwanted stepchild curse. Webinars are essentially like conference presentations in that they give exposure to the speaker and highlight his or her contributions to a wide audience. Moreover, webinars help develop the professional skills of writing and speaking articulately about topics in the field.

3. Professional Development Conference Days

These are fantastic opportunities to bring members of ESL departments together for a day of exchanging ideas and classroom reflections. Professional Development Conference Days (PDCDs) can easily be set up as an in-house mini-conference. ESL programs can also invite presenters and participants from other departments within their respective college or university, or they can even invite presenters and participants from area or regional ESL programs. PDCDs are especially attractive because they cost participants a minimal amount of money. For instance, I just organized and hosted a PDCD in the fall of 2016 and invited English language teachers from a neighboring state. Their expenses for the day did not exceed 15 dollars. We enjoyed an insightful one-day conference with nine sessions on a number of topics (see PDCD Program).

4. Professional Development Study Groups

Creating professional development study groups of three to four colleagues to focus on research topics or action research (e.g., implementing concepts of embodied cognition in reading classes), discuss classroom management (e.g., how to successfully use cell phones in class), or examine a language skill and how to teach it (e.g., how to improve logical flow in paragraphs) is a great way to bring colleagues together to exchange ideas and discuss exciting topics. Discussion results from these groups will almost always generate ideas for a conference presentation or an article for a TESOL-based journal or newsletter.

5. Observing Others and Being Observed

One of the most effective ways to learn about oneself and improve the art of teaching while simultaneously participating in professional development is to observe and be observed by colleagues. “The more you observe, the more tools you will have available to you. At the same time, you can reflect upon your own skillset and begin to validate yourself and mark areas for growth” (Mares, 2015, p. 33). Observations can also lead to material for both professional development study groups and action research projects.

6. Office Hours for Colleagues

English language teachers are required to hold office hours for students, but why not also require them to hold office hours for colleagues to discuss teaching ideas, research, or ideas in other fields that can be tapped into and used in classes? These can be informal sessions held on or off campus. When I taught at my former university, I met every Thursday with a colleague, and we discussed problematic issues in our classes, teaching insights, and “hot” topics in second language acquisition research. These meetings were as productive and informative as any TESOL conference I’ve attended.

7. Writing and Publishing

The most obvious professional development activity that helps elevate our profession and promote its professionals is to write and publish articles in TESOL-related publications and/or teaching and learning journals. This may seem a daunting task for those who have never tried to write and submit for publication, but it is actually a fun and very effective way to refine concepts and continue to grow and learn about old and new ideas in the world of ESL. Authors receive constructive feedback on their work, learn to work with insightful editors, and develop their ideas and offer them to a wide audience. There are numerous outlets for publishing opportunities—from TESOL’s New Ways series to TESOL affiliate journals (e.g., MinneTESOL Journal and NYS TESOL Journal) or newsletters (e.g., CATESOL News and the ITBE Link).

8. Learn Something New for Your Sake and Your Students’ Sake

Although this activity may prove to be a bit challenging, given a demanding teaching schedule and the multitude of hours spent grading, it is a crucial aspect of professional development. Not only does learning something new keep our brain sharp and generate new neural connections, but it will help maintain a fresh, creative, and critical mind that will be able to approach a topic from multiple angles. Moreover, the notion of continual learning will keep us humble and appreciate what our students go through on a daily basis. But the most significant aspect of learning something new offers us more ideas, possibilities, and perspectives to take into the classroom to help us teach and to inspire our students to learn.

Concluding Remarks

I once had a colleague who said, “The only good that comes of professional development is it pads a person’s résumé.” I cannot think of a statement further from the truth. Professional development has countless intrinsic benefits for English language teachers, and the extrinsic benefits affect multiple parties. The inherent benefits themselves are numerous—faculty enhance their own understanding of the field and of how to analyze and communicate these ideas articulately through presentations, publications, and discussions. The extrinsic benefits include helping our students, our programs, and our profession.

But, like any great achievement, in order for it to work for the benefit of a profession, the achievements and contributions of professional development must be publicized in campus newsletters and other publications. And most important, directors must also highlight these achievements and report them to their colleagues and administrative peers within the college or university. With everyone highlighting and promoting the wonderful benefits that professional development has to offer, the unwanted stepchild curse will weaken with time.

Note: See Part 1 of this series, “Elevating the Image of ESL by Enhancing Faculty Bios on Program Websites,” in the November 2016 issue of the PAIS Newsletter.


American Council of Learned Societies. (2007, May). Student learning and faculty research: Connecting teaching and scholarship.A Teagle Foundation White Paper. Retrieved from https://www.acls.org/uploadedFiles/Publications/Programs/ACLS-Teagle_Teacher_Scholar_White_Paper.pdf

Mares, C. (2015). 50 ways to be a better teacher: Professional development techniques. Eugene, OR: Wayzgoose Press.

Murphey, T. (2003). Series editor’s preface. In J. Egbert (Ed.), Becoming contributing professionals. Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Randolph, P. T., Jones, T., Porter-Sucs, I., Arokiasamy, L., Dunsmore, C. (2016, April 6). Breaking the unwanted stepchild curse: Elevating the image of ESL. Paper presented at the meeting of TESOL International Association, Baltimore, MD.

Shreve, J. (2005, October 24). Educators are poorly prepared for ELL instruction. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/no-train-no-gain

Patrick T. Randolph specializes in creative and academic writing, speech, and debate. He continues to research current topics in neuroscience, especially studies related to exercise and learning, memory, and mirror neurons. He lives with his wife, Gamze; daughter, Aylene; and cat, Gable, in Lincoln, Nebraska. Recently, Randolph was awarded the “Best of the TESOL Affiliates–2015” for his work in vocabulary pedagogy.

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