Ana Wu: Would you tell us your background and why you decided to become an educator?
Dr. Curtis: Originally, I was scheduled to become a medical doctor, not an English teacher! This was partly because my parents – who left Guyana and went to England in the 1950s as part of what I call “the colonially choreographed migration”, when the Great British Empire was moving its subjects around as needed – had the typical aspirations of so many new immigrants at that time (and possibly today as well). They wanted their children to “do well”, which meant obtaining high-income jobs and occupying prestigious positions in society. My dad worked in a chemical plant and my mum in the local hospital, so adding all those factors together, myself, my brother and my sister were all funneled towards the Sciences. But we all left the Sciences eventually. Needless to say, my parents, who had dreams of being able one day to say “my son the doctor” were understandably very upset when I gave up a generous medical scholarship to become – of all things – a teacher?! One reason I left the Sciences was a growing suspicion of the “objectivity” of the Western Scientific Method, and one of the reasons I went into Education was because teaching and learning are not objective and not scientific, whatever some proponents of the scientific approach to language teaching-learning may still claim. But because of my traditional scientific upbringing, I did initially think that teaching and learning were primarily head-level, cognitive, intellectual events. After some time, I realized that teaching and learning – especially language teaching and learning – are, for me at least, primarily heart-level, affective, emotional events. As for language teaching rather than science teaching, which would’ve been more in-line with my background and educational upbringing, one of my professors pointed out that my assignments and papers were becoming more and more focused on the language of science rather than the methods. This came about because I noticed that there appeared to be an interesting and important analogy between a patient and a doctor communicating, and a native speaker of a target language and a non-native speaker communicating. I know that probably sounds odd to many ears, but I believe that a situation in which a patient is trying to understand what is happening to them and what the doctor is saying has many similarities to a communicative event between a native and a non-native speaker, especially if the doctor is using a lot of technical language, not understood by the patient, though they are both using “the same language”. So, although it certainly was not a typical career path – entering the field of TESOL via Medicine – it made sense to me, if not to many others, including my family and friends at the time.
Ana Wu: You were a TESOL Leadership Mentoring Program Award recipient. How important was this recognition? How did it help you in your career?
Dr. Curtis: I think I was one of the first TESOL Leadership Mentoring Program Award recipients, and it had an extremely important influence on my career in TESOL. In fact, looking back, I would say I did not really realize how important it was at the time, and only later fully realized the great difference that receiving that award made. I must, though, confess that I failed the first time. My initial application to the LMP program, put forward in 1998, was turned down, and I remember being very disappointed. But I was extremely fortunate to have Kathleen Bailey, a TESOL Past President, as the person supporting my application. So, much as I wanted to just forget about the LMP award after being rejected, Kathi would not let me give up, and insisted that I apply again the following year. So, that was one of the first of a great many life-changing lessons I have learned from her over the ten years since 1999 when I received the LMP award.
If it had not been for Kathi and for the LMP award, I might have left the TESOL, Inc. not because of my disappointment at being unsuccessful my first time around , but more because, having been born and raised in England, the IATEFL association seemed like a more natural or logical choice. But the TESOL LMP award, which I think was started during David Nunan’s term as TESOL President, helped me stop and think about my role in TESOL – the field and the association. Kathi, David and I went on to write a book on professional development together, called Pursuing Professional Development: The self as source (Heinle, 2001) and to collaborate on many projects over the years. I am extremely grateful to both of them for their encouragement and support over the years, and I appreciate this opportunity, in this interview, to share with your readers just how grateful I am to both of them, as well as to other TESOL Past Presidents from that time, including MaryAnn Christison and Denise Murray, who have recently co-edited a book titled Leadership in Language Education (Routledge, 2009) to which I contributed a chapter on Leading from the Periphery. This idea, of leading from the edge, has become an important part of my work in the area of leadership and management in language education, which I now realize started with the LMP award.
Ana Wu: In the beginning of your career, you taught academic writing in Hong Kong. In your book Colour, Race and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning (2006), you describe the expectations and attitude of some of your students on the first day of class.
a. How did those incidents affect you in lesson planning?
b. What advice would you give new teachers who may be in the same situation as you were, not conforming to the native speaker image in language and appearance?
Dr. Curtis: There was not really a one-to-one correlation between the incidents I describe in my Dark Matter chapter in Colour, Race and English Language Teaching: Shades of Meaning (Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006) which I co-edited with Mary Romney, and my lesson planning. But the experience of some students being so surprised to find that their English teacher was not a white, male Englishman certainly did have an impact on me, as it helped me realize the power of the images that still exist in some countries about what it means to be an English teacher. Although we have come a long way since the incidents I describe in Hong Kong more than a decade ago, we still have some way to go in this area to fully move past what I call the Aryan Super Race Model of ELT.
The Aryan Super Race Model of ELT is a fairly controversial term, and as such it has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. But one of the reasons I left Medicine and became an language teacher and learner was because of my awareness of the power of words, and a phrase like The Aryan Super Race Model of ELT certainly does get people’s attention and provokes thought and discussion of questions such as: Why is it that in some places still all you need to be an English teacher is to be tall, blonde-haired and blue-eyed and you’re in? And how much longer will we need to wait before the Native Speaker Myth finally dies its long-overdue and inevitable death?
So, over the years, I have learned to make use of my experiences of not being what people expect, to help them challenge the stereotypes, distorted images and colorful expectation they have of who is a Native Speaker of English and who should be a Teacher of English. One of the ways I have been doing this is to deliberately use material in my language teaching that highlight the fact that the majority of users of English in the world today are not native speakers of the language, and the fact that the majority of teachers of English today are not native speakers of the language either. So, native speakers of English are, by definition, a minority, making the linguistic norms for English, then, logically, non-native.
It is difficult to give to new teachers who may be in the same situation as I was, not conforming to the native speaker image in language and appearance, without lapsing into clichés. But I do strongly encourage teachers in that situation not to fall into the trap of trying to be someone else to meet the expectations of others. If you are not a native speaker of English and you are not white-skinned, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, there is no need to apologize for not being those things! We are not the ones who need to change in those situations – it is the expectations of the others that need to change.
Ana Wu: Besides being the director of the Language Teaching Unit (ELTU) at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a consultant working with Prof. Kathleen Bailey, and a workshop facilitator, you have written books and served on many committees. In your career, is there any unfulfilled dream? How do you balance your career with family?
Dr. Curtis: I recently asked some local colleagues in Hong Kong if there is a Cantonese expression for “work-life balance”. Not surprisingly, we found there is no such phrase, because here Work Is Life, so the notion of balance makes no sense! Consequently, one of my difficulties with balancing career and family is the nature of work in Hong Kong – but it’s not fair to blame it all on Hong Kong. As one of my friends here pointed out sometime ago “It’s not Hong Kong, Andy. It’s you!” Like most people I know who have achieved some degree of professional success over time, including the TESOL Past Presidents I thanked above, professional success can sometimes come at the price of success in our personal lives, if we always prioritize our work-life over all the other aspects of our life. So, I am now trying to learn how to be better at balancing work life and real life, the professional and the personal, which really means working less and living more. Spending a little less time at the computer, working on texts, and a little more time talking with family and friends. It’s been noted by many others that nobody on their death-bed says: “If only I’d spent more time in the office”. But many people do say the opposite, “If only I’d spent more time with family and friends”.
This brings me to the other part of your question about whether or not there are any unfulfilled dreams in my career. The short answer is that I have, at this point, barely scratched the surface of what I had hoped to achieve in my career! In terms of quantity, I recently saw my one hundredth publication come out, a chapter in another book on leadership in our field (edited by Neil Anderson, Mary Lou McCloskey, also TESOL Past Presidents, and Christine Coombe and Lauren Stephenson) published last year (2008) by Michigan University Press. Although 100 hundred of anything is a fairly arbitrary number, it represented a milestone for me. But it also made me stop and think about quantity versus quality and the impact of the work that we do. Most of us became educators because wanted to have a positive impact on the world, to help make things better, in the case of language teachers, by enabling better communication between people from different places, using different languages and drawing on different cultures. But I believe that my most important work may still be ahead of me, as there is still so much that I would like to do as a language educator, to help make a real difference in what appears to be an increasingly fractured and divided world. I’ve been told that I’m over-optimistic to the point of romantic naïveté, but I still believe that language teachers do more to improve the quantity and quality of communication globally than so-called world leaders or multinational corporations.
Ana Wu: You have worked with thousands of language teaching professionals in dozens of countries and territories, and given hundreds of presentations worldwide. Would you share some of your most vivid experiences, positive or negative? As a Brazilian I needed to ask this question: What was your impression of Brazil and the TESOL professionals?
Dr. Curtis: My most recent experience was presenting in Penang, Malaysia at the local TESOL PELLTA affiliate conference, and it was a very positive experience of coming full circle (if you’ll forgive the cliché!) in the sense that the conference was attended by fewer than 200 participants and presenters, but representing nearly 20 countries, which is the kind of relatively small conference that I used to attend when I first became active as a presenter. But with the big annual TESOL Association Convention in the US, attended by thousands and thousands of people, and some of the big conferences here in this part of the world, such as Cambodia TESOL, which now attracts around a 1,000 people each year, it’s hard to find conferences of a couple of hundred. So in Penang, I was reminded of how much I enjoy that, and how much easier it is to get to know the participants and presenters with these relatively small numbers. I should also add that the reputation for Malaysian hospitality and great food were both absolutely true in my experience of being there, so I was grateful to the TESOL Executive Committee for asking me to go to the conference, to represent the TESOL Association.
But many of my most positive experiences as a presenter have been in South and Central America. Maybe it’s because my parents come from that part of the world, so I have some special affection for the languages, cultures and peoples in that part of the world. Plus, because of my skin (color), I am usually mistaken for a local person at some point during my time in Brazil, Peru, Mexico, etc. And interestingly, if I am not all dressed up as a conference presenter or participant, and if I am mistaken for a local person, the assumption is usually that I am a local worker, probably working outdoors, on the land and in the fields, because in most of those countries – and in my experience, in most countries of the world – the darker the skin, the poorer the person, as dark skin is associated with physical work outdoors, laboring under the sun, whereas fair skin is often associated with more professional work indoors, in offices, etc. But I am always happy to be taken for a local, as I believe that that is an important part of experiencing another language and culture.
And as for your question about my impressions of Brazil and the TESOL professionals there, I am going to risk upsetting some people in some other countries and say that Brazil is one of my favourite countries of all that I’ve spent time in! I have not been there recently, as it takes up to 40 hours to get there from here in Hong Kong, but I have many very fond memories of working with enthusiastic, energetic and interactive TESOL professionals at different Brazil TESOL conventions and others conferences there. So, I hope to be heading back that way again this year, if possible!
Ana Wu: Thank you for this delightful interview!