Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

Identifying Starting Points

A few weeks ago during a teacher training, I put a map on the screen and asked, “If we decide to travel during our fall holiday, what’s your first question?” The teachers quickly responded: Where are we going? A second and equally important question is: What’s our starting point?

The mentors I’ve worked with have given me a new perspective, that is to view planning for professional development as similar to planning for teaching. When planning for courses/lessons or professional development, we consider where we’re headed (goals). We’ll talk about destinations next week. However, in the same way that you first identify learners’ needs before planning, you and your (peer) mentor have to know your starting point before embarking on your journey.

How can you determine your current point on the path toward teaching excellence? Let’s talk about a tool and a missing piece.

A Tool: Benchmarks for Teachers

Similar to standards for English language learners, you can also refer to standards or competencies for English language teachers. I prefer the term benchmarks to describe the points along the path toward teaching excellence. In a mentoring relationship that is focused on development rather than assessment, benchmarks seems a good fit. Which term seems to communicate a sense of development to you?

The benchmarks tools linked here divide standards into categories or domains and describe different levels of development in each. For example, the Cambridge English Teaching Framework[1] includes “key competencies” at four stages of development—foundation, developing, proficient, and expert—in each of five categories:

  1. learning and the learner
  2. teaching, learning, and assessment
  3. language ability
  4. language knowledge and awareness
  5. professional development

In whatever way they are categorized, benchmarks provide a gauge whereby you and your mentor can determine your starting points in different domains and then begin to make decisions about where to head next. In “Try it out” below, you’ll have a chance to look at some benchmarks with your mentor and use them to identify your needs.

A Missing Piece

The mentors I’ve worked with have noticed that the existing benchmarks tools don’t necessarily suit the teaching contexts and situations of their mentees. In part, the categories don’t always go far enough. For example, the Cambridge English Teaching Framework doesn’t include benchmarks in a contextual domain which would focus on a teacher’s need to understand and maneuver culture, education, and classroom contexts. More importantly the categories do not necessarily address teachers’ whole person needs. They help to identify knowledge and skills starting points, but they often leave out affect needs and rarely address values. We could summarize these four spheres this way:

  1. knowledge: understanding within each domain
  2. skills: enacting knowledge “in the classroom through skill sets”
  3. affect: managing “emotions and attitudes toward teaching, learners and their language and culture, language learning and teaching theories, and professional development”
  4. values: reflecting on and regulating “beliefs and guiding moral principles that influence them in their profession”[2]

Click here for sample benchmarks in each of these four spheres in one domain. The values benchmarks are tweaked to fit with the beliefs and guiding moral principles of readers of this blog. “Try it out” will also give you an opportunity to consider some tweaking of your own.


[1]   “Cambridge English Teaching Framework,” Cambridge English, accessed September 25, 2017, http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/teaching-english/cambridge-english-teaching-framework/.
[2]   Melissa K. Smith and Marilyn Lewis, Supporting the Professional Development of English Language Teachers: Facilitative Mentoring, (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).

Further exploration

  • All of the posts in this professional development series draw from a forthcoming book:  Supporting the Professional Development of English Language Teachers: Facilitative Mentoring by Melissa K. Smith and Marilyn Lewis, (New York: Routledge). We’ll let you know here on Master Teaching when it’s available for purchase. (Both paper and e-versions will be published at the same time.)
  • TESOL International Association’s Advance the Field, Standards page: Advancing Excellence in English Language Teaching: Standards.
  • The Cambridge English Teaching Framework.

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • Which term do you and your mentor prefer: benchmarks, standards, or competencies? Which one seems to express a sense of development (rather than assessment?
  • Do you feel comfortable talking about affect and values starting points with your mentor? Why? How important is it for a teacher to grow in these areas?

Try it out

1. With your (peer) mentor, look at the Cambridge English Teaching Framework.

2. Together, make some decisions about where you are in your development as a teacher. Consider the benchmarks in each category and at each of the four stages of development.

3. Decide if there are any missing pieces that you need to address:

  • How would you tweak the framework to fit with your specific contexts and situations? For example, would you add a contextual domain? What benchmarks might appear there?
  • How would you tweak the framework to allow for whole person needs? The framework mostly lists knowledge and skills “competencies.” What affect or values benchmarks would you add to some of the categories?

4. Begin to consider some potential areas for growth. As you identify where you currently are on the path toward excellence in the classroom, you’re likely realizing some needs you have. Notes those areas for growth in a chart like the one linked here: Potential Areas for Growth.

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

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This entry was posted on September 27, 2017 by in benchmarks, learning teaching, Melissa K. Smith, mentoring, professional development.

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