April 2013
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Daniel Spandler-Davison, Columbia Education Network, Washington, DC, USA


As I sit in my nice air-conditioned office with a street-level window overlooking the bustling street outside, a cup of hot Sumatran coffee in one hand, a computer mouse in the other, there is an unsung hero toiling away in a dusty, hot, crowded classroom. Suu is standing at a chalkboard trying to explain to multitudinous young students the use of gerunds and infinitives. She writes out her lessons by hand, a computer being a luxury only afforded by a few in her village. She has to shout to make her tender voice heard over the noise coming from the street outside. Paper for each student to take notes comes at a high price, and textbooks are nonexistent. Splitting her class of 36 into groups small enough for conversation practice and yet large enough to be able to observe everyone is a constant challenge. Suu all too often feels alone. Her pay is poor, and she knows that with her English skills she could get a better job in the city, but to leave her ailing mother to fend for herself would be impossible. Thus she continues to work at the school in the afternoon and evenings and in the market in the early mornings. She loves her teaching job. She loves her students. She longs to do better. She just wishes there was someone to encourage her, guide her, and mentor her.

Suu cannot afford to attend professional development workshops. She cannot simply log onto one of the many teacher training websites and join a virtual webinar. The thought of abandoning everything to move to the city for a few years to earn a coveted slot in a master’s program is just a distant dream. Suu studied English at university and excelled. However, she has never met a native speaker of English in her life and is never entirely sure if her pronunciation is accurate. There are countless teachers like Suu. In fact, it may be fair to say that Suu’s experience is the norm. As populous countries all around the world, from China to Vietnam and India to Colombia, all seek to make a push for English language training, the success or failure of these drives will be determined not by teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certified expatriates but by teachers like Suu. The question is, therefore, how can teachers like Suu be trained in such a way that reflects the reality of their situation and meets the needs of their students?


I have recently become involved in training teachers like Suu through the development of a rural teacher training initiative in Colombia. There is a strong demand for teacher training in Colombia. In recognition of the need for the country to prepare well for the global marketplace, the Colombian government launched the National Bilingual Program (Guerrero, 2008). This program has been scheduled to run from 2004 to 2019. Even though the country is more than halfway through the program, it still has a long way to go in order to meet its stated target (RELO Andes, n.d.).

In 2006, the Colombian Ministry of Education made improving the quality of English teaching a core ministerial priority (Guerrero, 2008). Guerrero (2008) points out that despite the push by the central government to improve standards, many of the rural English teachers are not adequately trained or supported. There are many reasons for this that are not necessarily limited to Colombia. Rural teachers are often unmotivated because more attention is usually given to urban teachers. Rural teachers, because of inadequate access to technology, also struggle to keep up with new methodologies. Furthermore, many of the best young teachers who attain a high level of English proficiency often will leave rural areas to move to the city in order to secure higher paid employment.

The Ministry of Education has adopted the Common European Framework as the standard by which it wishes to measure the attainment of their high school graduates. Students should finish school at a B1 level of English competency. Teachers should, therefore, be at a B2 competency at a minimum. The Regional English Language Office of the U.S. Embassy in Peru claims that only 15% of current English teachers in Colombia are at B2 and just 11% of high school students have attained B1 (RELO Andes, n.d.).


It appears that the main need that exists is to effectively train teachers not only in teaching methodology but also in English proficiency. David Nunan, former president of TESOL, speaking specifically about the situation in Colombia, suggests that any teacher training initiative focused on rural teachers should have two goals:

First, to improve English language skills of teachers, and the other, to develop their skills and knowledge as practitioners in the classroom. The best way to achieve both goals is through continued professional development so that in this way the training goes hand in hand with the daily duties of teachers teaching. Thus, it can immediately apply skills and knowledge as they are acquired. (Interview With David Nunan, n.d.)

Nunan’s advice can equally be applied to contexts other than Colombia. In preparation for the project in Colombia, the Columbia Education Network (CEN) researched similar programs in other contexts The three programs surveyed seemed to back up Nunan’s assertions. The information gathered was a result of interviews with the directors and/or trainers of the programs.

A Multicountry Project Hosted by a U.S. University

One U.S. university received a grant from the U.S. State Department for the purpose of training rural teachers from 13 countries. Teachers would be selected by the local partners and then sent to the university for 4 weeks at a time. Trainers would attend classes for 2 weeks and then complete a 2-week practicum. The groups that have gone through the program have ranged from 19 to 27 participants. Twenty is considered the optimal group size.

Trainees are selected by local partners and agencies, so the university does not have a say over who comes. However, several months before participants come to the United States they are engaged in some pre-class assignments. Once they return, they also have to complete a post-class assignment.

During the time on campus, the teachers receive training developed by the trainers in communicative teaching methodology in the mornings and oral/conversation practice in the afternoons. Each afternoon, the students take part in English proficiency classes, which include reading and discussing simple novels and watching and discussing movies. These sessions are designed to help the students grow in their own use of English. Teachers remain connected through a voluntary online network when they return to their context in order to continue the conversations begun in class.

The director of the program stated that one of the main lessons learned has been the importance of understanding the context that the students are coming from. The director said that one of the greatest weaknesses of the program was a felt lack of credibility because the trainers had not experienced the reality of the trainees. Many of the students complained that the activities would not work in their context and that the trainers did not understand their situations because the trainers had not experienced their reality. On the whole, the participants felt incredibly fortunate to be selected for this program and felt they had professionally benefitted in many significant ways as a result of their participation. The trainers also greatly enjoyed the experience. It is fair to say, however, that this model would only address the needs of a limited number of rural teachers because of the costs involved.

A University in Southeast Asia

An initiative at a university in Southeast Asia was launched in response to the government’s Project 2020. This project mandates that all primary and middle school students should attain B2 proficiency by 2020. This mandate is very similar to the one enacted in Colombia. The university’s initiative began with a group of 14 rural teachers enrolled in a TOEFL prep course. The trainees attended classes during the summer for 3 months and lived in the college dorms. The program grew to 500 teachers in the most recent summer program. This is, therefore, a large government-sponsored program.

The program is taught over 6 days during the week with a strong focus on methodology although both methodology and English proficiency are taught. In these classes, teachers are taught the basics of teaching communicative English. For example, there is a session on how to use magazines and media to generate conversations, and teachers are put into small groups for conversation practice. According to one of the trainers interviewed, one of the biggest challenges is to get the teachers over their fears and to build confidence. Many of the teachers feel compelled to enroll in the program, and they arrive with a certain level of trepidation. The trainers have to work hard to instill confidence in them, especially when speaking and conversing with native speakers.

This model, because of the fact that it is taught in country by a mixed team of native and nonnative speakers, ensures that it is significantly more accessible than a program involving foreign travel. The curriculum is also designed in such a way to address the holistic needs of the participants. One thing that appears to be lacking, however, is ongoing support and mentoring.

A Teacher Training College in China

A U.S. educational non-government organization (NGO) runs a teacher training institute in rural China. The institute is hosted by a local college but is directed and staffed by a team of expatriates. Sixty students come to the institute for 4 weeks. Each day is divided into four sessions: methodology, culture, oral English, and enrichment.

The program director and his team developed their own curriculum. The curriculum is designed to be modular. It can, therefore, be broken down into smaller units, but there is also a relationship between each unit. Each week of the program is one unit. Each unit covers a central methodological principle. Oral English classes, connected to the methodological principle, take place in the afternoon. These classes are designed to improve a teacher’s proficiency.

The enrichment classes are taught by Chinese teachers, and topics range from dance to art. These classes are designed to enrich the lives of rural teachers and to meet their holistic needs. Furthermore, these classes are a good way to wind down after an intense day of classes taught entirely in English.

During the regular class term, the teacher trainers will go out to the villages and conduct teacher observation and mentoring. They will cluster students into groups of 10 and conduct the observations as a group. Following the observation, the trainers and the teachers sit down and evaluate the lesson.

Participants are chosen by the local education bureau. Minimum requirements are as follows:

  1. Has to be a teacher who has a certain level of English
  2. Has to be actively teaching now
  3. Has to be a teacher committed, long-term, to his or her community

The top 10 students are invited back to do the summer program (level 2). These students will become future “teacher mentors.” They are thus entrusted with helping their peers improve.

One of the main lessons the team learned was the importance of learning about the local teachers’ context. Before launching the program, the team spent time going into schools and teaching special lessons. This was critical for credibility. It allowed the trainers to say to the students that they had “walked in their shoes.” Ongoing and on-site mentoring visits have ensured that what the trainees learned during the modules was being incorporated and adapted to the teacher's specific context.


Two of the key lessons to take away from this brief study are the importance of “walking in the shoes” of the teachers you seek to train and developing a program that builds confidence. The third model really did seem to do this well. In order to develop a program that best meets Suu’s needs, I need to spend time in her classroom. A thorough needs analysis, which includes time spent in the classroom, is a necessity. Furthermore, a program should be developed that seeks to address the holistic needs of teachers such as Suu. Offering enrichment classes or activities that specifically elevate the teacher's confidence level should be an integral element of any program. Teachers such as Suu do not have to feel alone. There are models for training rural teachers that are effective and seek to meet the specific needs of teachers and their students.


Guerrero, C. (2008). Bilingual Colombia: What does it mean to be bilingual within the framework of the national plan of bilingualism? PROFILE Issues in Teacher Professional Development, 10, 27–45.

Interview with David Nunan. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.colombiaaprende.edu.co/html/productos/1685/article-255911.html

RELO Andes. (n.d.). Colombia. Retrieved from http://reloandes.com/colombia/

Daniel Spandler-Davison, who has an MA in TESOL, is the director of training and development at the Columbia Education Network (CEN), based in Washington, DC, a professional association of independent English language training centers with 15 partner centers globally. He has taught in Southeast Asia and in the United States and has run several training programs for CEN. His areas of interest are adult education, curriculum development, and English for specific purposes.

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