Plenary speaker Harry Kuchah Kuchah

Plenary Speaker Harry Kuchah Kuchah

Harry Kuchah Kuchah is a Lecturer in TESOL at The University of Bath, UK. Previously, he worked in the field of English language education for 16 years as a teacher, teacher trainer, and policy maker in his home country Cameroon and later, as a teaching fellow at the Universities of Warwick and Sheffield in the UK. His professional experience also includes school-based literacy support with young learners as well as in-service teacher education and material development in Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. Harry has served as a consultant with the Council of Europe, developing a foreign language country profile for Albania. He is one of TESOL International Association’s '30 upcoming leaders’ in ELT and a member of the TESOL Summit Select Committee on the future of the TESOL profession.Harry is interested in teaching English to young learners, English Medium Instruction, context-appropriate pedagogy and teacher development, but these are not as central to his life as are his interest and expertise in drumming and traditional African dance!

We asked our plenary speakers seven questions. Here are Harry's answers.

1.      What are you working on right now?

At the moment I am involved in two research and teacher development projects in Cameroon. One of these has to do with English Medium instruction in the French speaking parts of Cameroon. Cameroon has 286 native languages and tribes but the languages of schooling are English or French because of our colonial relationship with France and England. In fact in primary schools, native languages are banned. The popularity of English language has meant that more and more parents from the French speaking parts of Cameroon prefer to send their children to English medium schools and this is posing problems especially for children from poor homes whose parents cannot afford textbooks, home teachers or other learning resources. I have therefore been investigating the strategies and resources which successful children use to develop their English language and navigate the curriculum in English which to most children is at least a third language.

The other project is a Teacher Association Research project with a small group of members of the Cameroon English Language Teachers Association (CAMELTA). In August 2013 at the CAMELTA annual conference, we asked about 200 members to each write down up to three research questions which they would love to investigate around their teaching if they had the time, skills and means to do classroom based research. A major problem with initial teacher education in Cameroon is that a huge amount of the research trainees are familiar with is based on analyses of literary texts or language and linguistics; ideas about reflective practice, exploratory practice, action research are unfortunately not part of the teacher education curriculum. So we thought instead of asking teachers to do research they were not familiar with, it might be helpful to collect research questions from them in order to identify research priorities within the membership of the association. In addition to collecting and categorising these research questions, we also developed an initial open ended questionnaire aimed at collecting stories of successful classroom practice. 502 teachers responded to this questionnaire and we were able to collate these stories and share with other teachers. Last year, I set up the CAMELTA Research group made up of 26 members who are interested in doing collaborative research with the aim of sharing their research with the wider membership of the association at regional and national workshops and conferences. The group identified three main research areas from the bank of research priorities identified in 2013. This year they have focused on student motivation (next year the research focus will be on teaching under-resourced classrooms) and have been designing and experimenting different ways of motivating students in the English classrooms. Key activities have been joint-preparation of lessons, peer observation, interviews with students, analyses of video episodes from lessons and article analysis. I am particularly delighted that these teachers with no previous experience of classroom based research or conference presentation are now able to develop an informed understanding of their classroom practices and to articulate these confidently. Three of our group members have now completed their articles which we will be publishing via international outlets so if IATEFL Hungary is interested in publishing accounts of classroom practice from Cameroon, that will help build the confidence of our teachers.

 2.      What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

'The most valid perspective on learning is that of the learner, not the teacher.' Very often we, teachers, develop all these fantastic ideas about what will work in the classroom and when things don't go as planned, we are quick to condemn learners. Imagine a trader condemning a buyer for not being interested in their merchandise! It doesn't work that way in business; it can't work in education. In my country, we say the customer is King; in the school system, the customer is the learner. As a teacher educator, I have found this very useful when dealing with the teachers I train; I see them as kings in all things concerning their job and do make sure that whatever I tell them is consistent with their fundamental beliefs and experiences of practice. We can only hope to transform teachers if we value what they bring to their own learning experience and help them examine this critically.

 3.      What is the biggest challenge for you at the moment professionally?

As an academic, my biggest challenge is to stay relevant to the ELT profession. Being an academic comes with demands to publish academic articles in high impact journals, but the teachers whose experiences and practices we theorise from do not often have access to these journals and even if they had access to these, the language is not often practitioner friendly. My challenge has been how to strike a balance between being the boring academic I am, and an inspiring teacher and teacher trainer at the same time. I'd very much appreciate advice from those of your members who have been through this dilemma.

4.      What do you consider to be the most urgent need in education today?

I can think of a thousand and one! As a young learner professional, I would say Values education. Our world is getting busier, faster and inhuman and those core values that unite us as human beings and make us different from other species are rapidly being eroded by the quest for survival. How do we learn to love and respect people who are different from us? How do we learn to tolerate people's weaknesses and help them grow? How do we learn to accept that we are not perfect and that we can also learn from people who may not be as privileged as we are? If education focuses only on the intellect, on the grammar of English, for example, and does not address things like how we can use English language to build world peace, then education will finally lose its value.

 5.      What does it mean for you to live in the present? (How do you interpret the "POWER OF NOW"?)

That's a hard one! Well for me, today is the outcome of yesterday and the precursor of tomorrow. I don't live today as if it were my last day, I live it because it gives me an opportunity to shape tomorrow, both for my benefit and for the benefit of others around me. The Now is only as powerful as what it learns from the past and what it provides for the future. Having said that, I do not leave for tomorrow the beer I could drink today, so if you were thinking of offering me a beer, please do so before you change your mind tomorrow!

 6.      What sources do you use to recharge your energy?

Aha, that's my best question so far. Like many teachers, I am always at risk of burnout, so it is important for me to go back to the basics from time to time. Being with family is my first battery, being with friends is the second; the cable that connects both batteries is music and dance. If you follow me on Facebook or on YouTube, you will find that I play drums and dance African traditional music a lot.

7.       What’s on your desk now?

Two things. First, I've got a book I am reading; it contains stories recounted by people who survived the genocide in Rwanda. As you'd know, I just returned from Rwanda and what I learned from that country and from the stories I am reading is that Love is more powerful than hate. I won't comment further on the book; you've got to read it to see how people can transcend hatred. The second thing is my forthcoming edited book 'International Perspectives on Teaching English in Difficult Circumstances: Contexts, challenges and possibilities', which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year. I am excited about it because of the variety of contributions from authors working in different challenging contexts around the world.

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