Sarwar. Z ( 2005) “The Story of SPELT” in “School as a Learning Community” edited by I. Farah & J. Retallick , Karachi, Pakistan, OUP.
Case study 2:
Society of Pakistan English Language Teachers
The Beginnings of SPELT
In June 1984, four English Language Teachers sat together wondering how to initiate a forum that could get English Language Teachers (ELT) together. This was a long felt need since 1978, when one such attempt had been made. In that attempt, we tried to give equal representation to all provinces; the President was from Punjab, the Secretary from Karachi, Treasurer from NWFP and the Academic Secretary from Balochistan. Those were not the magic days of email. The plan never got off the ground and the committee never met again!
English teachers from all over Pakistan met at a conference in Islamabad in 1983, and again in 1984. The need for an ELT forum was voiced again. This time four teachers from Karachi decided to take the lead to meet and find a way to establish a language teachers’ association. They started with some questions: how can we establish a difference between a professional forum and teachers’ organization which work like trade unions and have a bad reputation for squandering money? What makes associations begin with a bang and fade out in a whimper? What precautions should be taken to ensure that the established forum operates on ‘professional’ standards, which are internationally accepted? What kind of academic programmes should be considered to serve the ELT teaching community and community at large? After a lot of discussion, it became clear that it would be best if we followed these principles:
- A non-hierarchical system, based on merit and actual work of office bearers, would be required so that it would not hamper work that needed to be done, despite the continued dominance and deference demanded by senior teachers within the Pakistani culture.
- Complete transparency would be needed in financial matters
- Meticulous programme planning and punctuality would be required for professional credibility
- The needs of the teaching community and community in general would have to be kept in view while addressing academic issues.
The vision of how SPELT was to conduct itself was clear, but the initiators realized that the strong support of the teaching community and schools was necessary for its success. Self- help and teamwork became the motto. Those who worked selflessly in the first year of SPELT’s inception were called the ‘founder members’ (eight in number). The policy was to network and acknowledge efforts of all those who helped in whatever little way they could. This built a trust in teacher who got to know about SPELT’s activities. A teacher coming to one of the meetings reflected, ‘On the way, I was thinking of our SPELT family…I feel lucky that as an English teacher, I have niche…poor other teachers!’
The Story of SPELT
The first SPELT activity was the ‘Academic Session’ and it has been held every last Saturday of the month. This has taken place since its inception and continues to this date without a break.
In this two-hour free workshop, teachers share their classroom experience with each other. It honours teachers’ experience and exposes novice teachers to updated choices in pedagogy. It creates linkages through networking and grooms teachers as leaders and presenters. The SPELT Academic Sessions can be considered an excellent example of a forum for peer learning and support. Moreover, they are SPELT’s window to the community. The sessions have helped to create awareness in the teaching/learning community that ELT is a specialized field. It has impacted the way schools currently view English language teaching.
The academic sessions in their first year gained a prestigious reputation for quality presentations in the field of ELT and also for their punctuality and regularity, which gave a great deal of encouragement to the founder members. To celebrate the first anniversary, two initiatives; a SPELT Newsletter and an international ELT conference were launched. By this time, The Asia Foundation, British Council, OUP, PACC and USIS were all interested in SPELT activities as the need to upgrade expertise in ELT in Pakistan was also a part of their agenda. However, SPELT only asked for material support such as venue, speakers, and conference materials rather than ‘funding’ for the international conference. The registration fee for the conference was only Rs.5 for two days of presentations, lunch and conference materials. It was held from Friday to Sunday and there was a great uncertainty about whether teachers would sacrifice their weekend to come to the first ever privately organized conference. Over 200 teachers attended and it was a great success!
The SPELT conference has now become a major ELT event in the region drawing presenters from within Pakistan and neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Singapore, Srilanka, and also Australia, UK, USA and Japan. With the passage of time it has become a ‘Traveling Chain Conference’, attended by over 1600 School, College and University teachers from across the country. It is a great source of peer learning and networking for English teachers as they come into contact with teachers from different levels and different kinds of institutions. To maximize their exposure, presenters travel to different conference sites in Pakistan to give the same presentations, tailoring it to the needs of the audience. The Conference is a strong indicator of networking, in which SPELTers use their personal resources for home hospitality of the outstation presenters during the conference and stay in homely surroundings. The visitors and the host SPELTers both get a wonderful opportunity to network which enables the sharing of issues, current ELT methodology and research findings. Personal contacts with colleagues across the country are developed. Moreover, speakers’ presentations at the conference are published in the SPELT Journal, and therefore, reach colleagues who are unable to attend the conference. The wider International Community thus comes within the reach of SPELT members.
Another outcome of the first conference was that SPELT team members (mostly from college level) for the first time met teachers from different schools from the public sector, and were able to understand the mismatch that exists between different levels. The theme of this conference was ‘Evaluation of the compulsory English course from Class 6th to the BA level’. It brought through two concrete results. One was a systematic, analytical report of the conference proceedings with recommendations about the English course from a large body of teachers. Secondly, the teachers who were contacted to work on the school level asked the SPELT team to organize a training course to meet the challenge of the English course, which had not been revised for at least four decades. This brought to existence the SPELT Practical Teacher Training Course (PTTC) in 1985, and it has since then been run every year. It has the singular distinction of being a course run by the teachers, for the teachers, in response to an identified need. It can be considered an extension of the original vision of the initiators, and also an indigenous model of teacher education suited to the Pakistani Community’s teaching /learning needs.
SPELT now runs long and short-term courses including Cambridge University’s Certificate for Overseas Teachers of English (COTE). Besides transmitting updated ELT methodology, the courses provide an excellent opportunity for trainees to network and learn from each other. They visit each other’s institutions and learn about different teaching and learning communities. They are able to see the difference in school cultures and are empowered to make considered decisions in their career choices. During the year-long courses, the isolation barriers are overcome. Sharing of problems, reflecting and finding solutions which would be acceptable to other colleagues as well, give them confidence. They also develop a network of like-minded colleagues through continued association.
Another impact of the Conference can be at the organizational level, since the training course originated through it. Most of the SPELT office bearers/volunteers are ‘harvested’ from these courses. Once they have been in contact with SPELT long enough to see the work which is being done, some of the trainees volunteer to help out. A number of our trainees have leadership roles in the SPELT Working Committee as coordinators and sub-committee members, while others with their training have changed the learning culture of their institution.
Simultaneously, on the occasion of the first conference in 1985, the first issue of the Newsletter was published in an effort to provide a wider dissemination of SPELT and its activities and gain a larger membership. The original four pages cyclostyled Newsletter has now graduated to a quarterly referred journal, adorning the library of many institutions around the world. Due to shortage of human resources, the issues sometimes get delayed, but come out nevertheless. The first editorial declared that the goal was to reach members who are unable to participate in SPELT’s activities. It is a teacher friendly journal, which makes an effort to reach out to teachers who are mostly untrained and without any exposure to modern methodology. It reaches far-flung areas, where teachers have no other support. It also grooms Pakistani teachers to view themselves as ‘writers’, and in some instances contributes to their career development as publications in professional journals is a growing requirement for promotion in many institutions. Internationally, the journal is used to affiliate interaction with sister organizations, bringing Pakistani colleagues closer to wider ELT world. Thus, the journal is a great source of networking, both nationally and internationally.
The most recent initiative of SPELT is promoting collaborative research among teachers. Professional development through classroom research has been recommended as a powerful tool for teacher growth. Recognizing its importance, SPELT has opened opportunities for teachers since 1996. Two research projects have been completed; one under the sponsorship of British Council and other through TESOL USA, undertaking to pilot the prestigious Tailor-Made Professional Development (TESOL-TMPD) in which 22 teachers from schools, colleges, and universities took part and researched a number of classroom issues and took an informed decision on the basis of their research observations. Moreover, working together on projects would make teachers agents of change, not only in their immediate surroundings but also having an impact on larger teaching and learning communities.
SPELT has spread nationally and been institutionalized in different Chapters in various cities of Pakistan. The founders of SPELT had seen the organization as a loose non-hierarchical structure, in which coordinators would work on different initiatives on their own, instead of getting bogged down under bureaucratic procedures. The same kind of vision was used for establishing Chapters in different cities. As long as the SPELT Charter and the basic structure are followed, the Chapters function independently. However, there is a strong emphasis on transparency in annual election, and yearly audit of accounts. One after the other, the Chapters started functioning in Abbottabad, Hyderabad, Lahore, Multan, Peshawar, Islamabad and Quetta, besides Karachi. They hold academic sessions every month, thus giving a chance for practitioners to gather and network with each other. The quarterly journal reaches the SPELT membership around the country, though it is published from Karachi. (A dialogue is on at this point to involve teachers from different Chapters to be included in the editorial process using e-mail). Annually, the chapters are a part of the international traveling conference, in which they are fully responsible for all local arrangements, while Karachi networks with them regarding the presenters who will speak in their city. This has two far-reaching effects. Firstly, it grooms practitioners around Pakistan for leadership roles, and secondly, a wide ELT community has come into existence on a national scale.
The journey of SPELT is a success story; creating network, providing professional development opportunities to practitioners and creating a community of teachers as learners- a true learning community. Some of its successes as can also be attributed to the positive support of the schools that view the importance of teachers’ personal development as complementary to their institutions’ own growth. However, as a grass root organization, made by the teachers, for the teachers, SPELT also faces a number of issues and challenges.
First of all, SPELT is finding it difficult to maintain its nonhierarchical structure and its strong democratic traditions in a country where the culture of democracy is very raw. Secondly, it is also a struggle to involve the general membership in the administrative work and policy making, and to inculcate a spirit of ‘ownership’ in the upcoming leadership without losing the vision for which SPELT was created, and to institutionalize structures and procedures so that its success does not depend on individuals. Thirdly, SPELT has to grapple with how to generate funds to continue its academic work while maintaining quality and still be within the financial reach of teachers. Last but not the least, how to inculcate a spirit of ‘volunteerism’ so as to retain SPELT’s academic experts and trained staff on lower rates than deserved is an issue that begs constant attention.
The challenges are daunting indeed. However, if we view a teachers’ network as an agent of change in the learning communities of educational institutions, it becomes evident that the way ahead lies within the positive cycle of outcomes resulting from teachers’ professional development. By networking and innovative use of resources, SPELT has maintained a brilliant track record of high academic achievements of teacher education through self-help for nearly two decades. However, it is easier to ascend than to maintain standards. SPELT can only sustain itself if the community of English teachers at large realizes the pivotal role being played by SPELT in the field of ELT in Pakistan, especially as there are so few avenues open for teachers to educate themselves in this field in this country. Finally, what is to be learnt from the story of SPELT? We have learnt that maintaining and sustaining a professional network is no easy matter. It requires some dedicated individuals to begin with, but requires an organization of people with a strong sense of volunteerism to continue. We have also learnt that a network must meet the changing needs of its members, if it is to continue over an extended period of time. A complementary cycle of professional development and support from the schools in which the members teach, has enabled SPELT to succeed and forge the way ahead for academic excellence which is the ultimate goal of all teaching and learning interventions.