F is for Forty years on

29 03 2015
IH Shaftesbury Avenue - where it all started

IH Shaftesbury Avenue – where it all started

It came as a slight shock today to realize that I started my career in TEFL forty years ago last month. So, forgive the somewhat indulgently autobiographical nature of this post.

February 1975: newly arrived in London and eager to return to Greece under whose spell I had fallen en route from the dominions, I enrolled in a four-week course at IH London — in those days housed in its quaintly labyrinthine headquarters in Soho. It cost £65 – probably the best £65 I ever spent.

I was instantly captivated by the ‘IH method’, a Direct Method derivative, where ‘grammar points’ were presented using ingeniously contrived situations, and vocabulary was taught through mime, realia, visual aids – anything, of course, but translation. The fact that we were plunged into teaching practice from day one made perfect sense, but ratcheted up the intensity of the experience to a degree that might have been insupportable had I not had a background in children’s theatre.

The Monday after the course finished I was already teaching – at the International House affiliate in Hastings. I still cringe when I remember some of those first lessons: presenting countable and uncountable nouns using a painstakingly assembled bag of groceries, drilling the present simple instead of the present continuous to narrate a picture story, being challenged (and failing) to explain the grammar of ‘I wish’ to a group of insolent Iranian naval cadets, walking my class through Hastings old town in order to reinforce the learning of those same countable and uncountable nouns…

Hastings 1975 - writing my application for a job in Cairo

Hastings 1975 – writing my application for a job in Cairo

Four months on, with my visa due to expire, I applied to join the teaching staff of a new IH affiliate in Cairo. I’d wanted to go to Greece, but Egypt seemed close enough. My original teacher trainer, who happened to be in Hastings at the time, urged me on: ‘It’s a new school and expanding rapidly. Stick it out and in a year’s time you’ll be assistant Director of Studies. And then … who knows?’

Which is more or less what happened.

So, looking back, what has happened to TEFL in those forty years?

Only a year into teaching and the first waves of the communicative approach started breaking on the methodological shore. I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I won’t say more now, except that its advent was perfectly timed to provide a humane alternative to the ‘drill-and-repeat’ methodology I had been trained in and which, I have to say, I had perfected to the point that my classes had an almost military rigour.

This trend was reinforced by serendipitously coming across a book by Earl Stevick, which – like Chapman’s Homer – opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about teaching – in fact, not thinking about teaching at all, but about learning.

This undercurrent of early CLT and humanistic principles permeated my subsequent teacher training career at IH Barcelona, reinforced by my reading on task-based instruction, along with a heavy dose of Krashen – all of which bubbled to the surface as Dogme ELT (aka Teaching Unplugged) – a rearguard action to salvage communicative principles in the face of a grammar-driven materials tsunami.

By now I was starting to go to conferences, where my thinking was further moulded by luminaries too numerous to mention. The first major conference I dared to speak at myself was at IATEFL in, uniquely, Lille, France – on the subject of reflection, which had been the focus of my MA dissertation at the University of Reading.

Teacher training, IH Barcelona 1986

Teacher training, IH Barcelona 1986

It was at one of these early conferences that I was approached and invited to submit a proposal for a book of language awareness tasks, which became About Language – now in the process of being re-written for its long overdue second edition. The rest is not exactly history, but it is of perhaps less consequence in terms of my overall development.

So, what is different in TEFL now compared to 1975? For a start, the very notion of EFL itself has succumbed to the complexity and diversity of globalized English, where the distinctions between English as a foreign, or second, or international language are blurring to the point of illegibility.

And those who confidently and even imperiously ‘owned’ EFL in those days – the (mainly white) inner circle native speakers like myself – are slowly relinquishing their authority to the majority outer and expanding circle non-natives – although not without a struggle. And, of course, technology has radically changed the way that language is used and learned – although its benefits for teaching, and its unintended consequences, have yet to be fully understood.

But that’s enough of me. What’s changed since you started teaching?