Thursday, 25 July 2013



Alain de Botton is widely quoted as saying “You become an English teacher when your life has gone wrong”. (Gulp. I wish he hadn’t said that.) I first contemplated teaching English overseas not because my life had gone wrong, but because I felt my life could be improved considerably. Here I was in a nice, safe, secure position in the printing trade, with my life all mapped out before me. I was looking at just 35 more years as a printer, and then I could retire, collect my superannuation, and join the local bowling club. Like I say, nice, safe, and secure. The problem was that I was assailed by these nagging thoughts that my life was just too nice, too safe, too comfortable. What I needed was to get out into the big wide world, take a few risks, meet a lot of interesting foreigners, maybe fall in love with one of them, and experience life to the full.

So, how to go about it? In my case, I went about it rather foolishly. I took a plane to Indonesia, looked up the address of Jakarta’s biggest English school, presented myself at the front office and announced that I was a well-qualified, widely experienced teacher of English, and when can I start? The school took me at my word, and I started work the following week. It didn’t take long for me to realize that as a teacher I was unprepared, ill-equipped, and hopeless at the task. So then it was decision time: should I toss in the pretence that I could teach and go back to my nice, secure printing job, or should I devise some way of actually becoming an effective, successful teacher? I chose the latter option, and have spent the forty years since devising ways to teach effectively.

I had no teacher training (silly me) so I was forced to resort to trial and error in order to achieve my transformation from classroom failure to classroom whiz-kid. Lots of trial, lots of error, and the occasional eureka moment when I thought “Yes, so that’s how it should be done!”

My first school was big (80 classrooms) and not very well organized. Teachers were not observed, nor their performances monitored, so it was the ideal place for me to make a million mistakes and get away with them. There were just four native-speaking teachers among a teaching staff of 65 Indonesian teachers, and we were thinly spread around classes in order to justify the school’s claim “Every class taught by Indonesian and Native-Speaking Teachers”. My role was to go into room six, give the students 15 minutes of “free conversation” related to the topic or grammar they were studying, say goodbye, come out of room six and go into room seven and give them 15 minutes’ free conversation, then go into room eight, nine, ten…. This doesn’t give the teacher much opportunity to memorise students’ names, or to learn individual students’ strengths or weaknesses, but it does give the teacher ample opportunity to foul up a lesson, briefly analyse what went wrong, then walk into the next class and do it over, this time (hopefully) with fewer foul-ups. And it did teach me how to time a lesson, how to engage students within the first few minutes, and how to draw them out and get them speaking. And it gave me a valuable lesson in crowd control, too.

Probably the main thing I learnt in those five years of free conversation sessions was that there is no such thing as free conversation for lower level students. They don’t have the vocabularies for it, they don’t have the sentence patterns, they don’t have the confidence, and very often they don’t have the ideas. And in the developing world, they could well be actively discouraged from voicing their own opinions, anyway.

So what the teacher must do is feed the words, sentence patterns and ideas to the class, then have them regurgitate those words over and over. Boring? It could be, unless you employ a range of regurgitation methods. Unison repetition, pair work, milling exercises, games, memorization drills, more unison repetition with some changes of key words or verbs, and so on. All done at a brisk pace.

The second most important thing my initial years of teaching taught me: Shut up! It’s the students who need the speaking practice; not you. When the teacher’s mouth is open and the students’ mouths are closed, there’s not much learning taking place.

So that’s it; the essence of my first five years of trying to become a real English teacher. I’m still at it 40 years later (Hell, is it that long?) I’m still making stupid mistakes, but I think they are becoming fewer. And who knows, give me another 40 years in the classroom and I might well become The Perfect English Teacher. Here’s hoping.


In my book EFL minus the B.S. there are chapters on Teaching Methodologies, Linguistics, Students I Have Met, and Bosses I Have Met, along with teaching tips for different age levels.

No comments:

Post a Comment