How/Why did you get into teaching?
I admit I am one of those people who got into ELT partly out of a desire to live and work in foreign countries and (try to) learn foreign languages. The thing I wanted most after college was to travel, but I couldn’t because of my student debt. So I did volunteer ESL teaching at a local literacy center and loved it. Then finally with loans paid off, I did my CertTESOL in Prague in 2005 and have enjoyed teaching EFL in various countries ever since.
How have your post-CertTESOL academic studies shaped your teaching?
Doing the DipTESOL, I got into task-based teaching and learner autonomy. Planning lessons, the question became, what real-life task are the students going to do? What do they need to learn in order to do this task, and how can I support their autonomous learning?
With my Master’s degree I’ve engaged with some of the big questions in applied linguistics– how exactly do adults learn languages? What exactly is effective English lingua franca communication comprised of? And many others. I think the more background we have in these ideas, the more exciting the classroom becomes and the better equipped we are to shape and respond to what happens in this magical place.
You have been involved a lot with promoting freelancers’ working rights, have you seen much progress in this field?
This is a long-term struggle that will take patience, greater commitment and innovative tactics. If there’s been progress, it’s with teachers/trainers realizing that our problems are not incidental and that we need to address them together at the level of the education system and economic system, not just as individuals trying to do a bit better for ourselves.
For example, the BKSL (Bundeskonferenz der Sprachlehrbeauftragten) works hard for freelance teachers in state-funded institutions. The core demand is for secure positions with social insurance and compensation that teachers can live on independently. They point out that precarious work is not fair. See their blog: BKSL: https://sprachlehrbeauftragte.wordpress.com/
The GEW (Gewerkscharf Erziehung und Wissenschaft Ladesverband Berlin) also addresses the issues of Honorarlehrkräfte (see: https://www.gew-berlin.de/185.php)
Ver.di also has a special division for freelance music teachers and with enough interested, energized freelance English teachers, we could probably set up a similar division. TaWSIG collects and shares information for all the countries where there are members, including Germany.
Internationally, there is TaWSIG: Teachers as Workers Special Interest Group, which provides a platform for language teachers to support each other and push for better working conditions. TaWSIG has run reading groups and there may be an international conference in the works, so it’s worth getting involved! (http://www.teachersasworkers.org/)
Finally, a Women in ELT group was founded on Facebook for women (only) to network, support each other and address issues like the gender pay gap– for anyone who is still in doubt about this, even the German Parliament has just taken up this issue.
How has working behind the scenes of a language school affected your views on teachers’ rights/working conditions?
It hasn’t. Getting to know the challenges faced by small schools has shown me that the system here today makes it difficult for small businesses to survive. At the same time, there’s been a shift in public universities in Germany, the US and other places toward relying on low-paid freelance and adjunct teaching staff. We also have to look at the (relatively short) history of ELT and the assumptions behind the ELT industry– assumptions such as a 4-week intensive course is adequate to qualify someone as a teacher or that course books are acceptable sources of syllabuses. It adds up to a perfect storm.
You are also the hiring manager at a language school. What tips would you give trainers when applying for work? Is there a "typical mistake" teachers make in the application/interview process, in your opinion?
I think a great trainer is curious about teaching and learning and always has something about their teaching practice that they are working on improving. This comes through in the interview when they can talk about classroom activities and methods with critical awareness. They have ideas beyond “I use the book”– seriously. Please never say this in an interview: “I would teach grammar point X by using those pages in the book.” Also, from my own recent mistakes in job applications, I would say, come with good, concrete teaching ideas, relevant to the institution, and convey them with confidence.
You did a workshop on testing for ELTABB a year ago, what part of testing do you find most fascinating?
In a nutshell, rating scales. When it comes to performance tests, the rating scale is where it all comes together– the test construct, the theories about language and language learning at the heart of the test, and perhaps most importantly, how the rater, usually a teacher, interprets and implements all of this. I started asking myself, where do assessment criteria and descriptors come from? And I got interested in indigenous criteria for ESP tests. In other words, we are starting to ask, if this is a test of English for Business purposes, then why don’t we consult business people to help determine assessment criteria. This is what my Master’s dissertation was about.
What do you think of standardised tests?
They have to be judged according to how suitable they are for the test purpose and the quality of information about test-takers that they deliver. The controversy around standardised tests is often about their impact on test-takers, on learning and teaching, and on society as a whole. I would urge everyone to become better test ‘consumers’ by demanding transparency from testing agencies, knowing the nuts and bolts of assessment and test design so that you can critically evaluate tests.
Do you have any secret tips on preparing our students for tests (Academic/CAE…)?
Help learners understand what the test is really looking for. With speaking and writing, help them to use the assessment criteria to evaluate their own and their classmates’ work. This also makes them more autonomous learners. Also, this site is great: http://www.flo-joe.com
Tell us about a really great class you have taught. What made the group work so well?
I did a lesson with an A2 group comprised of students from many countries in which students drew simple “life-lines”, shared them with their partners, and changed partners, until all the students had talked to each other. They also had a chance to ask me about my own life-line. After each round, I did corrective feedback and short, ‘guerilla’ language instruction. What made it work so well was the spirit of openness, curiosity and empathy that the students had toward each other. This motivated them to improve their language each round.
Who would you like to nominate as ELTABBer of the month for April?
Yasin Khan, a new ELTABB member and talented trainer who teaches both English and German.
Questions and editing by Mandy Welfare