Eltabber of the month: John O’Dwyer

Website:  http://letterfromberlin.blogspot.com

  • Question from Paul: Were you always an EFL teacher, and if not why not?

Thanks for nominating me and your question, Paul. No, I was not always an EFL teacher. I had a number of careers and a period at Sussex University as a ‘mature student’. I worked on projects in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan until 1987. I then started teaching in Brighton and got a teaching certificate from the University of Cambridge. I was also diagnosed with thrombosis problems and given two years to live. The doctors said I should not put off doing anything I wanted to do so I packed my bag and left the UK, and the Thatcher years, and landed in Bremen where I had friends. I worked on a library project at the university and continued teaching in a private school. I was surprised to still be alive by the end of 1989!

  • What motivated you to get involved with setting up Eltabb?

Setting up eltabb. In 1992, I lived in Lichtenberg in Berlin. I worked for the British Council and in a language project supported by a church near to Alexander Platz. Kristie Decke moved into the building and I got to know her. She had lived in Frankfurt-am-Main where she supported a teachers’ association and she brought the idea to Berlin. We talked about starting one based on the Frankfurt model so we contacted a number of teachers. The first meeting took place in my flat in Judith-Auer-Straße and the topic was about how to start an association. A number of other meetings took place and we elected the 4 members we needed by law to set up an association. We did just that and I came up with the eltabb slogan, ‘Teachers helping Teachers’. We registered the association and burst into 1993! The short answer is that teachers had no collective voice then. That is why I got involved in setting up eltabb.

  • What was Eltabb like at the beginning and how has it changed?

At the beginning, we had no computers or internet. This came later as we expanded. I remember buying one with Windows 95 and got an internet connection. The eltabb board met at my flat. Edward Tanguay was a computer specialist and taught us how to use a computer and internet in the early days of eltabb. At my flat the eltabb board sat around me watching the computer screen. I asked Edward, “What do I do now?” He said, “Put your finger on that button and turn it on!” I shall never forget that! In the beginning, we had to find places for meetings, seek support from schools, set up workshops and find someone to produce a monthly newspaper. Yes, we used paper and print in the beginning! We also worked hard at recruiting teachers in Brandenburg as well as in Berlin. Eltabb now has an inherited basic structure and series of activities that new board members move into on election. They are based on the ones activist members set up in the early days and grew by trial and error. One change is the expansion of activity posts and functions allowing for more member leadership outside the four positions required by law.  

  • John, you have no doubt seen many generations of teachers come and go in their careers. What qualities do those teachers share that survive in the long run? 

The short answer has to be an interest in people rather than metal, glass, plastic or machines. The desire to help is also a shared quality. Communication is another. A gardening metaphor may also answer the question, and that is sewing a language seed and watching it grow by regular contact to the learner, giving support and encouragement and watching the learner grow in confidence. I think these are the qualities teachers share that survive in the long run.

  • How is teaching pensioners different from teaching other adults?

Pensioners by definition have more time. Joining a senior class has a very important social function which is to get out of the house, meet other people, make new friends and even meet them at weekends for excursions. Some have family in non-German speaking countries who they visit in the summer or at Christmas. Others go on cruises or go on holiday where they need to speak English. Some do not but like to come to an English class and demand homework to keep them busy at home. Many have lost their husband/wife and this increases their need for social contacts.

  • We still see you volunteering, like taking photographs for Eltabb or helping refugees. Why do you enjoy volunteering so much?

Yes, earlier I did take photos and share with members after we set up the Ning platform. At that time, I joined a Photoshop group to learn how to improve/change images. Later I bought a better camera and used taking photos at eltabb events as a way to learn how to use the camera. I am still in the Photoshop group and now use other programmes for working on images. And yes, I have ‘adopted’ a refugee family. They are from Afghanistan. Father, mother, two teenage boys and a 10-year old daughter. The children are making good progress at school. The daughter is the best at learning German! The children call me ‘Opa John’ which always makes me smile. They live in 2 rooms and have no internet or TV connection. The children come to me and use my computer to do homework and then they like to eat crisps and watch a DVD. You asked why I enjoy volunteering so much? The answer is that it is a way of giving something back that helps or interests other people. In the process I learn something about myself, including my limitations. I still believe that humans are basically social animals based on giving and taking. That is why I do voluntary work.

  • Has the teaching scene in Berlin and have EFL teachers changed much since you started your teaching career?

The short answer is yes, but not much. The change is about technology such as internet and computers. Paper and pens and books have not changed. I do not know of any major change in teaching methods. Over the years, I have been to many eltabb workshops about teaching methods but I do not think this represents a major change. Teachers adapt how they teach to the objective, material and learners. This hasn’t changed. The ‘scene’ has not changed either. The main divisions are VHS, private schools, employment courses, business English. No change here.

  • How would you like to see Eltabb continue and develop?

I think the structure and activities of eltabb that have developed over the years are good and can continue. They will always change in some way as new teachers join and new board members decide to try something new. That is how eltabb has always changed since its foundation. I welcome such future input and changes but I cannot forecast what they will be. One thing I would welcome is more recruitment activity such as getting more members in Brandenburg. In the early years we would target towns/cities in Brandenburg and spend a Saturday handing out leaflets and talking to teachers at local schools, colleges, re-training centres. Perhaps the next eltabb board will consider this.

  • What life experiences have influenced your teaching?

Not an easy question to answer. I think the answer is not to dominate the classroom. Learners are there so less teacher talking time and more learner talking time. This is not new but still relevant and it is always in my head when I enter a classroom. This links with my life experience of opposing dominant hierarchy, be it monarchy, religious structures, military or business pyramids of power. It is no secret that I am a member of the Berlin Labour Party, the SPD and of AWO. They all support aims and projects to promote those who others want to dominate.

  • Who would you like to nominate as Eltabber of the month and what question would you like to ask them?

I would like to nominate the latest person to get eltabb membership. My question(s) would be: Have you ever been to India? If yes, why? If not, would you like to go there, why and what would you do there? 

Thanks a lot!

Edited by Mandy Welfare