Academic journal article Babel

Perceptions of Language Teaching and Learning among Sydney Secondary Principals

Academic journal article Babel

Perceptions of Language Teaching and Learning among Sydney Secondary Principals

Article excerpt


In 2005 the AFTMLA (Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers Associations) developed its Professional Standards for Accomplished Teaching of Languages and Cultures. These were published in a special edition of Babel in February 2006. Among the recommendations contained in the document, there is a section headed Program Standards that describes the conditions required for the effective implementation of language and culture programs in schools (see panel on page 13). Some teachers reading these standards will recognise the conditions under which they already teach. For others, the standards will only highlight the limitations and difficulties they face in their schools.

Ultimately, responsibility for the implementation of a school's teaching and learning program rests with its principal. This article reports on an investigation into the perceptions of 49 Sydney secondary school principals about language and culture programs. The results show that the range of perspectives held by these principals is matched by a wide variety of program standards.


Languages, secondary, principals, attitudes.


To frame this report, it is useful to cite from a widely publicised Macquarie University report (Eltis & Cooney, 1983), called Project Languages, which provides a detailed snapshot of the teaching and learning of languages in senior secondary schools in New South Wales twenty years ago. The researchers undertook a two-year survey of principals, teachers, students, parents, and experts in the languages field. Several concerns were revealed about language programs in NSW, the most important of which are set out below.

Eltis and Cooney (1983) found that language teachers in Government schools felt disadvantaged when compared to other staff members, particularly with regard to timetabling and class sizes. Furthermore, teachers believed that worse was still to come. The 'Z' (or beginners) courses provided the only hope for the future in many Government schools, where teachers feared that 'languages would disappear altogether' (p. 155). Eltis and Cooney found that the teachers' complaints with regard to equity were not always well founded--small language classes were still to be found in many schools at that time. Language teachers did, however, experience peculiar difficulties:

* When no senior classes were available, teachers' personal competence in the foreign language might be adversely affected by the gradual lack of practice in using complex language.

* Language departments were constantly required to justify the reason for their existence and 'sell' their subjects because languages were perceived to be less important than other subjects. Moreover, one teacher could have a considerable impact on a small staff(pp, 148-149)--teachers' language combinations and aptitude for teaching may be quite different, and a language can vanish from the school's curriculum.

The researchers also found that languages were taught and learned under different conditions in different schools. Some schools were 'elitist' and could choose their students. Others offered languages to all students, and in these eases teachers were expected to teach a wide range of students, regardless of their backgrounds and abilities. Furthermore, the time allocated to language programs and other timetabling considerations varied from school to school, so that students who presented at public examinations had actually run 'an unequal race', depending on the school they had attended (p. 152).

The Eltis and Cooney report raised concerns with regard to language teachers who did not benefit from the specialised support provided by a head language teacher. These teachers felt isolated in the school, their self-esteem dropped, they were rarely advised on the quality of their work, and if they were the only language teacher on the staff, they rarely interacted with other teachers in the field. …

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