Originally from Brighton, UK, I have taught English as a foreign language to adults in Brazil, South Korea and Belgium. Currently based in San Jose, Costa Rica, I teach adults at Centro Cultural Britanico (http://ccbritanico.com/). I am the current President and a co-founder of BELTA, the Belgian English Language Teachers Association (www.beltabelgium.com/). You can also find me moderating #ELTchat, a weekly discussion on Twitter with teachers from around the world, presenting the #ELTchat podcast, mentoring teachers for iTDi, and taking photographs. My blog is www.theteacherjames.com | September interviewer: Isabela Villas Boas
1) Thank you for accepting our invitation. Could you please tell us about your academic and professional background and what led you to become an educator? Are you an “accidental teacher”, or did you intend to be a teacher at an early age?
I studied Media Studies at university, and it was my intention to work in television or film after I graduated, but the truth is I didn’t have the personality or the ambition to succeed in that world. I then did odd jobs for a few years while I was trying to work out what to do with myself.
In that time, I never considered becoming a teacher, until the time came when I didn’t really have any other choice. I moved to Brazil in my late twenties and it was pretty obvious that becoming an English teacher was my only option. Fortunately for me, I really enjoyed it and a couple of years later after taking my CELTA, I was hooked and haven’t looked back since.
2) You have a strong online presence, your own blog, and a large PLN (Professional Learning Network). How did you build such relationships and how have they helped you develop personally and professionally?
It all started when I joined Twitter back in September 2009. I started to look around for people to follow, and for some reason, I wondered if that Scott Thornbury chap who’d written my CELTA handbook was there, and luckily for me he was. Through following him I discovered a whole world of language teaching professionals and the incredible community they were building. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had stumbled in right near the beginning of this new scene, so as I began to play an increased role and eventually start my own blog, I became more and more involved.
This network has taken years to build, and is now extremely rewarding, in fact I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it’s changed my life. I have had numerous professional opportunities that would never have happened without the network, including getting a job at the school where I currently work and the chance to speak at the Pecha Kucha night at IATEFL this year.
3) Please talk about your leading role both in the #ELTchat and BELTA (Belgium English Language Teachers Association) and explain why you invest specifically in these types of professional development opportunities and what you have learned from this experience.
#ELTchat has been absolutely key for me in the process I described above. I discovered it just after it started in late 2010 and I’ve been involved ever since. For those of you who don’t know, #ELTchat is a Twitter based discussion that takes place every Wednesday (see eltchat.org for more information). To have taken part in the hundreds of conversations that cover the full spectrum of ELT has been extremely rewarding and I’m proud to be one of the moderators. From very young learners to business English, from the four skills to the political ramifications of being an English teacher today, everything has been covered and it’s given me and countless other teachers an opportunity to learn from their peers in a way that that I don’t think anything else has ever managed.
BELTA was formed because of two things, a love of teaching associations and the connections that social media made possible. We formed BELTA from scratch because there was no local teaching association in Belgium, an anomaly in Europe, and together with a couple of teachers I met on Twitter, Mieke Kenis and Guido Europeaantje, we decided to do something about it. Three years on from the time when we first met and made that decision, and two conferences, a journal, a dozen webinars, and a blog (and an upcoming web conference) later, I can honestly say BELTA is the thing that I’m most proud of in my professional life, and it’s just the beginning.
4) What motivated me to interview you for this specific blog was your post in the TEFL Equity Advocates blog entitled Why I Wish I was a Non-Native Teacher. What led you to want to write such post? Could you briefly summarize here your main ideas in the post?
My initial motivation was to support my former colleague Marek Kiczkowiak. I was fully behind the campaign he started and really enjoyed his presentation on the subject (with Chris Holmes) at the BELTA Day earlier this year. It’s a subject that I feel strongly about, as I consider any discrimination against NNESTs a form of prejudice, and I think any prejudice is worth fighting against.
As I pointed out in the article, I was speaking from a position of undeserved privilege, so I was very aware that I had to make sure that I treated it sensitively. I wanted to get my message, that NNEST’s have several advantages in teaching a language over NEST’s and this makes the discrimination against them groundless and damaging, across clearly and unambiguously.
In the post, I posited that there are several areas where NNESTs are actually better situated then NESTs. For me the main one is that they provide a superb role model for the learner. The simple fact is that the non-native teacher has had to learn the English language to the point where they are capable of teaching it. They can provide their students with insights, techniques and first-hand experience that if the student pays attention to could help them massively. No matter what I do, I’ll never be able to say that.
5) There were some strong reactions to your post, more positive than negative, leading you to write a comment in your blog about it – TEFL Equity: A Reaction. Did you expect such reaction from the readers? Do you think you contributed to maintaining the NEST – NNEST dichotomy (as some said) by, in a way, suggesting that the NNEST has an advantage over the NEST?
To be honest, my hope was to provoke a reaction from readers. There was no other reason to choose that title, and then to begin by immediately stating that I was lying (if you read the article, that will make sense!) was a provocative move, I’ll admit. I was hoping that it would draw some attention towards Marek’s cause as, as you stated above, I have developed a pretty big network in the last few years and I was hoping to make some of those people aware of his work. On that score, I think I was unequivocally successful!
But once I’d got people interested, my hope was that they would see that this was a serious and honest article about a situation that needs to be addressed more openly in the ELT community. From the discussion that followed in the comments on the blog and on Facebook, most notably on the British Council – Teaching English page, it was clear that the post had touched a nerve, mainly for good, I was relieved to see. In my years of blogging, I’d never had a reaction like it before. For a few days I had to come home from work and spend a couple of hours catching up with the comments and messages. It was quite an experience.
Inevitably there was some criticism, some of it valid and some of it not. The most vocal critics were native speaker teachers who, for some reason, felt slighted by the article, as if I was somehow criticising them. I had to point out more than once that the article wasn’t about them and I wasn’t intending to ‘drag them down’. Rather I was trying to elevate the role of the teachers who make up the vast proportion of ELT professionals. It was interesting to observe how people find a way to generate outrage when there isn’t any.
As you point out, a more valid criticism was that my article continues the dichotomy between NNESTs and NESTs. It was argued that we would be better off trying to forget these labels and concentrate instead on moving towards a situation where we address everyone as ‘teachers’, irrespective of their background. A worthy goal and one I’m very sympathetic towards, but without wanting to come across as cynical, I find it a bit utopian at the moment. Realistically, I think we’re still a long way from that situation, and I think the NNEST banner gives people a cause to get behind and a point of unity, something that should be very useful in the years ahead.
6) You currently work in Costa Rica. Our April 2012 interviewee, Nuria Villalobos-Ulate, is a Costa Rican who experienced discrimination in her own country because she was a NNEST. In your teaching experience, both in and prior to Costa Rica, what forms of discrimination against NNESTs have you witnessed? Conversely, have you ever felt you were valued just because you were a NEST, and not because of your qualifications?
While I haven’t seen discrimination against NNESTs first hand, I’ve certainly been around it. My first teaching jobs I got without any qualifications and experience, and I can’t help but think that had I not been British, it would have been much harder for me to get started. And in South Korea this discrimination is built into the law, as only teachers from a small number of countries were (and still are, as far as I’m aware) eligible to get a teaching visa.
Here in Costa Rica I’m fortunate to work for a school that employs teachers on the basis of their qualifications, experience and personality not their place of birth, so I work with a nice mix of Brits, locals, and occasionally other nationalities. From what I hear, this is not the norm, as your interview with Nuria reveals.
7) You are also an iTDi (International Teacher Development Institute) mentor and recently wrote a post about Myths, Beliefs, and Truth in ELT. In this post, you talk about how you learned to see the world and ELT in a skeptical manner and have come to doubt claims about ELT that are not evidence-based. You also mention how difficult it is for a classroom teacher to do research and even to stay abreast of and have access to the research being done in MA programs in our field. I have two questions related to this: a) What does iTDi do to support teacher development and your role in it; b) How do you think this research could reach teachers in a practical and user-friendly way?
I became involved with iTDi almost as soon as it began. Their vision of offering affordable teacher training to those who did not have access to it easily was something I was enthusiastic to support. They offer a range of courses which teachers can sign up for from anywhere in the world and they build a community around the course, so even though the teacher may be physically isolated, they won’t feel alone.
My role is as a mentor is to support the institute and contribute however I can. So far this has mainly included writing for the blog and helping to publicise their courses, but I also took part in the free summer MOOC they organised this year by giving a presentation on dealing with issues at intermediate level and above.
Regarding evidence based teaching, as I wrote in the article for iTDi, the gap between academic research and practice in the classroom is a very difficult one to bridge. There are some people like Scott Thornbury and Philip Kerr who are very good at this, but I think the vast majority of teachers are disconnected from this world (that’s not an evidence based opinion, unfortunately!). As Russ Mayne pointed out in his response to my post, there are various barriers to prevent teachers from getting more directly involved with research themselves, including the often opaque language that is used by academics, and that second language acquisition and EFL are relatively new fields of study so we don’t have a large backlog of work to delve into. I would add that it is also very difficult to access research as it is only available in journals, if available at all, that teachers may not have the skills required to judge the quality of the research, and most of all, many of them will be hard-pressed to fit the reading into their busy lives.
I come at this from the point of view of a practitioner not an academic, so realistically what I truly hope for is that the evidence based approach will have two main effects. Firstly, I hope that materials and methodology writers, publishers, conference speakers and organisers, teacher trainers and bloggers will become more rigorous and begin to remove disproven approaches such as learning styles from their work. Secondly, I’d like to see teachers develop a more critical and less deferential relationship with published materials. Coursebooks should be under a constant state of evaluation by the people who use them, including the students. A more critical ‘partnership’ should lead to a situation where the book is seen for what it is – a tool and a resource, but not the thing that dictates the nature of the lesson, what the teachers does in that lesson, and what is best for the students who happen to be in the classroom at that time.
8) What advice would you give to novice teachers beginning their careers in ELT?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently as a new colleague of mine is just starting out, and I have to be careful about not overloading him with too many tips and too much advice! So apart from the practical stuff like never go into a classroom without a notebook (to act as your memory because you will forget things otherwise) or post-it notes (so, so useful), I would say that the most important lesson I learnt early on was to stop thinking about what I’m doing in the classroom, and start thinking about what the students are doing. At the beginning I was always worried about what I was going to do for those two hours we had together until one day I realised that I wasn’t the important one. What I should have been thinking about was what the students were doing. The students are the reason the lesson is happening, they are the ones who have paid to be there and they are the ones who have to do the work required to improve. My job is to make that happen.
It sounds simple, but that change in perspective made a huge difference to how I dealt with my lessons. It made me look at them in a new way and focus on what was really important, the students and their work. So that would be my advice: release your ego and concentrate on the real reason you are there – the students.