What has been a highlight of your career?
I’ll start with an immodest one: having Jim Scrivener come up to tell me that a talk I’d given had been “quite possibly the best talk [he’d] ever seen”, but the real highlights would have to be getting all of the students in my first ever class back in 1996 though their Cambridge C2 Proficiency (then CPE) exams, and seeing several of my former CELTA trainees going on to not only become successful teachers, but also to take on responsibilities in organizations like IATEFL, HELTA and – of course – ELTABB.
What have you learned about your own teaching style through training CELTA trainees?
Some things that I’ve been told about it include that I don’t seem to have a “classroom persona” – by which I mean I seem to respond to people in the same way, whether we are chatting in the kitchen, I am teaching them English, or I am training them to teach. I’ve also been told that I’m snappy – not only in terms of pace, but also that I snap my fingers a lot (say, when drilling to mark the stress) and this once led a group of trainees to give me an oven mitt as a parting gift! I suppose something I’ve noticed is that what I do in my regular classes is essentially the same as what I do with trainees, and what I try to encourage them to do.
What advice do you have for teachers-in-training?
- Assume that what your trainers are saying is valid and try to implement it ‘as-if’ you think it could work – I’ve seen a lot of people fail to make the progress that they might simply because they were convinced on some level that they knew better, and this stopped them from developing. Do what you’ve always done, get what you’ve always got, as they say.
- Listen to your students – really listen. And respond to what they say in ways that make you sound like a normal human being and not some kind of teaching machine, however much pressure you feel you are under while being observed.
- Don’t try to wing it – neither the lesson nor the planning sessions beforehand. Come to your guidance sessions well-prepared or the best trainer in the world can’t really help you. And no matter how much you may dream of just “being in the moment” with your students, understand that getting there takes years of practice and discipline and forethought and reflection. There are no shortcuts.
- Manage your time, and make sure that sleep and food factor strongly into that plan – it’s easy to tell by week three on a 4-week CELTA who has been taking proper care of themselves and who hasn’t.
(There are people out there who by the third week
wereare getting three hours of sleep, drinking nothing but energy drinks and eating 5-packs of doughnuts for breakfast? Discraceful! Who would do such a thing?! – Ed.)
How are teaching the teaching of English, and teaching English itself, similar? Can you use similar techniques?
There are obviously some similarities: the use of tasks, guided discovery, modelling and monitoring and feedback, and there is also a fair amount of learning about the language that needs to happen, but there are also clear differences: lecture and transmission of facts can have more of a role, and there is more talking ‘about’ the subject than would be generally useful in a language classroom. So, it’s important for teachers in training to realize that trainers don’t always appear to “practice what they preach” because these two endeavors are not the same.
What kind of issues has the TDSIG (Teacher Development Special Interest Group) faced or dealt with?
TDSIG was established by Adrian Underhill (of Phonemic Chart fame) to enable teachers to explore their own personal and professional development in a collaborative, emergent and self-directed fashion. In other words, the SIG has dealt with whatever issues related to that which its members felt like addressing. So, we’ve had workshops and conferences on the (non-) use of technology, the use of drama, the teacher’s voice, and currently the SIG is exploring gender and identity issues from the perspective of inclusion. The biggest ongoing challenge is keeping the SIG clearly distinct from the Teacher training and Education SIG (TTEDSIG) in people’s minds – sometimes including the minds of its own members!
How exactly do you apply Dogme teaching methods to online lessons?
The short answer, it seems to me, would be exactly as you would in any other setting. You find yourself in a (virtual) space with a group of other people, and you start talking, and listen, and see where it goes. The idea that Dogme is “anti-tech” was always a misunderstanding of the whole point of Dogme, which was to adopt a different, more parsimonious approach to bringing ’stuff’ into the classroom. An online environment is just a setting – and that makes it no different in principle from a regular classroom. Of course, the online nature of it allows for all kinds of work that may be less easy in regular classrooms, such as students building and collaborating on texts or other resources online, so I think the affordances that the internet has to offer allow for less “prefabricated” ELT materials to have to be brought in – you can always find material or tools to work with out there on the internet when you a) have found out an area of interest, and b) know how teaching works.
What new opportunities do you see in online teaching?
For me, I think the most obvious advantage is the ability to capture student talk or other output and work with it more flexibly than in the physical classroom – remember how unwilling your students used to be about being recorded? Now they are happily sitting in front of a camera streaming themselves into the internet. So, you can capture this interaction, this output, and use it. Or use asynchronous tools like Flipgrid, or interactive tools like Wordwall, or Padlet, to do old things in new ways. There is also the chance to have students from completely different parts of the world learning together – the limitations of commuting distance to class have broken down. And by the way the same is true for teachers and with whom they work. At the moment I am working with schools in Spain and Turkey, training teachers as far afield as Portland, Oregon to Hong Kong.
Will the rise in online teaching change how teaching is taught?
In a sense I think it must – though I am not sure yet how this will play out. There are some interesting implications for training on courses like CELTA, which was conceived as a course for face-to-face, same-room teaching. Some people are questioning, for example, whether trainees currently being trained 100% online should be allowed to use technology while teaching in ways that could not be replicated in a physical environment. From what I’ve seen, the big challenges relate to monitoring work in progress (say when breakout rooms are in use) because – unlike in a physical classroom, where when you are monitoring one pair you always have your peripheral senses scanning the room – in a setting like Zoom, when you are monitoring one breakout room, that is all you get to see. So, we as professionals have to come to terms with that. I think it’s probably the most under-considered issue with online environments, actually.
What criteria do you look at when assessing for the CELTA award?
There are 41 assessment criteria, covering (broadly) the following areas: 1) working with the learner; 2) language teaching and practice; 3) skills work; 4) planning; and 5) management. They are quite specific in one sense, but also very open, so there are many ways that a teacher-in-training might display competence in them. If you are interested, you can find the syllabus, including the assessment criteria, here: https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/Images/21816-celta-syllabus.pdf
(Editor’s note – ELTABB isn’t responsible for the content of external links, etc etc. Who knows what those ruffians at Cambridge get up to?)
You have taught in Germany for 20 years. Only 30 years ago the country was divided. Did you notice any lingering effects from the division on the country’s relationship to the English language? If so, how have these effects/this relationship changed over your time here?
I remember when I started teaching here in July 2000 that there were a lot more A1 level students than you find today – the school I worked at (and still do) would offer 8-12 Bildungsurlaub 2-week intensive courses and regularly 2-3 of those were A1, and often there were no groups above B2. Over time, as English supplanted Russian as the L2 of choice in the school system, this has more or less inverted. As for the city’s relationship to the language, I am almost glad that I arrived in Berlin speaking no German at the time when I did – when I used to go into Ostrowski (which you now perhaps know as Kamps) to buy a Fünfkornquarkbrot (you try saying that when you are A1!) I had no choice but to speak in German, as the sales assistants spoke no English and gave no quarter when it came to accommodating my bad German. These days, you sometimes have to struggle to get people to speak to you in German at all, and start-up culture is making English very much the lingua-franca. This is convenient for new arrivals, no doubt, but I suspect there is something lost in the experience as a result. But as Joachim Ringelnatz once said, Berlin wird immer mehr Berlin, so perhaps this is how it all should be.