Who or what inspired you to teach?
To be honest, my lust for travel. When I was 18, back in South Africa, the only thing I wanted to do was get out. I grew up in a backwater. I read loads of adverts about teaching English in Japan, and that sparked my interest. Eventually I got over to Taiwan and started teaching in 1998.
It opens doors to the world. How else can you meet the world and get to know it? Really get to know it without being a tourist.
What is the most memorable lesson you’ve ever taught?
Probably early on in my career when I thought I had to know all the answers. I tried to blag my way through the class but the students could see right through me. An early lesson – if you don’t know, be honest.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve ever encountered whilst teaching, and how did you overcome it?
Overcoming my fears, or rather being comfortable with them. Sometimes you have to walk into a lesson at the drop of a hat, without having seen the materials or knowing anything about the subject matter. I had to teach an engineering course and I’m no engineer. The students have the knowledge, and I’m the English teacher. My job is to get them to communicate in English, using their knowledge. Once I had got my head around that, things went swimmingly.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Any time I win a student over is a great achievement. I find it a great challenge when students come to class with a negative attitude and end up being positive and motivated. Perhaps they’re just pretending, but at least I feel I’ve done something positive.
Do you have any tried and trusted ideas or activities for motivating students?
I wouldn’t say it was a particular activity, but when a student is your focus – focus on the student. Give them complete attention sometimes. If the student believes that you’re there to help them, sometimes they can be buoyed by that. Focus on emerging language which is relevant to the student. Make them use a vocabulary list so at the end of the week they can look at it and see they’ve studied words which have come from their experiences. It’s personalised and that’s often easier to remember. And if they remember, they think they’ve made some progress. And if they think they’re making progress, they’re motivated. A perception of progress is key.
How do you ‘keep calm and carry on’ in the classroom – and relax when you get home?
I’m generally calm in lessons, even while things fall apart. Perhaps I’m just oblivious to what’s happening around me but things can go wrong and there’s no way that I go through a week without a spanner in the works, so I just get used to those spanners. Minimise them, but like a minimised window – they’re still there. Relaxing when I get home is easy. I have hobbies which occupy my mind. Mulling over problems in the class all day is unhelpful. I do mixing when I get home – it requires a lot of focus so it really takes my mind off things.
How do you keep up-to-date with the ELT community and find new ideas to keep your teaching practise fresh?
Our school subscribes to most of the journals and I attend conferences when they’re in London. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of contact with publishers, which allows me to see new resources regularly. Our school has a great INSET programme which really helps its staff develop.
Do you have a favourite quote, mantra or philosophy to teach by?
No amount of planning can prepare you for every eventuality.
My top teaching tip:
I’d say that a trap new teachers often fall into is they feel a desire to get through all the material. What’s the use of that if they learn nothing? Focus on learning and improving, not on ticking boxes.