Introduction and editing by Uwe Pohl
What’s the buzz?!
On 5 March 2020 a unique IATEFL-Hungary event took place at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. It brought together trainee teachers, early career teachers, experienced teachers and teacher trainers in an effort to highlight the power of professional communities such as our national English teachers association. The main aim was to introduce the younger generation of teachers to the IATEFL community in the hope that they would want to become members.
There was clearly a touch of anticipation, even excitement in the air as around 60 English teacher trainees settled into their chairs. But nobody was prepared for the tour-de-force that was to unfold. Together, the twelve presenters took us on an incredible two-hour journey through their experiences of transformational moments, students and classes they’d taught, people and events that had influenced them and their challenges in becoming ELT professionals.
It is hard to tell what exactly made the experience so special. Perhaps it was the fact that these twelve stories were intensely personal accounts of professional growth resulting from overcoming uncertainties and failures and understanding successes. Seen as such, these were prime examples of “the ways in which teachers develop professionally and personally by building a personal theory of teaching based upon their own accumulated experiences – and reflection on them.” Maley (2020: 8).
Then there was the outstanding quality of the story-telling: All the presenters told their story in 5-7 minutes, speaking freely and with confidence. Their performances reminded me of TED Talk founder Chris Anderson’s words in his guide to public speaking: “Your only real job in giving a talk is to have something valuable to say, and to say it authentically in your own unique way” (Anderson 2016). That’s exactly what each of the teachers and teacher trainers did.
The interactive nature of the whole event, too, added to the atmosphere of engagement. All presenters had been asked to formulate a question that would frame the topic of their talk. Several of these questions where discussed informally over refreshments after each round of presentations.
Before the twelve stories, a final note on how teachers tend to develop in the course of their professional careers. It has been suggested that we go through some basic stages or cycles (cf. Huberman 1989), which is often conceptualised as leading from the limited competences of novices to the mastery of expert teachers. It is certainly true that, as teachers, we have the potential to improve in what we do with increased knowledge and experience. But, covering the full career spectrum, these presenters were living proof that teaching excellence can take many forms and is not the prerogative of seasoned professionals.
The future development of IATEFL-Hungary very much depends on how we manage to keep our association growing. Can we tap into the potential of all our members and especially those who are just starting out? And how can we communicate the best of this professional community in a way that attracts new members?
This IATEFL Hungary event was a step in the right direction. It was also so inspirational for me that I felt it’s worth trying to convey some of the experience and to capture the twelve transformational stories in writing. A special thanks goes to Margit Szesztay, Frank Prescott and Ádám Lajtai for organising it all.
Tony Wright, a teacher trainer friend from the U.K., put it well when in a comment on the draft of this article he wrote: “I think it tells me that the energy of a successful TA is going to come from the synergy of old and new, but that it's most creative when they are in the same room, with a large audience.”
So, perhaps, there will be another such event next year?
Transformational Moments: the stories
Quite good… for a beginner
Novák Barbara Júlia
What can you rightfully expect from teacher trainees before they do their practice teaching?
I have now studied teacher training for the better part of these last five years, having done many hours of tutoring and private classes, passing most of my exams with agreeable, if not perfect grades. I was never a semester behind – not to boast, just to illustrate how ‘into teaching’ I am. Since I was 6, I’ve had the idea of becoming a teacher, and never abandoned it for a minute.
So now, in the very beginning of my career, being the motivated and obnoxiously highbrow person that I am, the worst kind of criticism I could get was ‘Quite good’ followed by a very short pause and then the additional ‘for a beginner’. I am sure this is something most of us have experienced (at least judging by the sympathetic noises of the audience upon recalling it), but I am one that takes criticism rather badly at all times, and especially so concerning my competence as a teacher.
In my first semester of teaching practice I had two very different groups to teach. One was really lovely, fifteen young boys eager to learn the language, up to every single unorthodox idea I presented and the other group… Well, it was the kind some would describe as ‘problematic’: eighteen-year-olds generally disinterested in English, already focussing on their IT-exams – it was vocational training they did – and my mentor (their form teacher and English teacher) being a tall man full of tattoos, wearing nothing but black was the only one they trusted. I definitely did not qualify.
At the end of my fifteen-hour practice, I gave them slips of paper to give me feedback; ‘Any type of feedback’ I said, thinking at least they could finally release all the pressure and dissatisfaction they had been feeling into these little statements and that they could also provide some ideas for improvement, if not exactly in the friendliest manner. While gathering up these papers I did not only realise that they gave some very useful advice and even praised my patience and understanding, I also had a bit of a revelation. One girl who had been quite passive throughout the months, leaning back with her arms folded, as if she was telling me to leave her alone, walked up to me holding her slip of paper and smiled at me. She said she found it admirable that I had the courage to even try to teach in such an environment, especially considering that I was not much older than them.
And though it still did not feel right, I decided that I would embrace being a beginner. After all, it is the first step on the same road of professional development we are all taking. Developing expertise through experience, a compilation of renowned professionals’ very honest stories on becoming English teachers, has reassured me in this belief and provided a very comforting addition: we can all share our experiences and help each other resolve difficulties. It is immensely helpful to always have someone to turn to, or to lend a sympathetic ear, a community to fall back on; also, to be able to see my perspectives in this area of study. And with communities like IATEFL-Hungary, or smaller groups discussing thesis concerns, creative cafés and the like, I think we can achieve just that.
When our ideas actually work
What is one creative classroom idea of yours that you are proud of?
As I’m just about to finish university, it is very interesting to think back to the moment when I decided to become a teacher. I remember that the final push in this direction was a TED talk by Christopher Emdin - Teach teachers how to create magic. In this talk, the speaker states that educators can learn how to create magic in the classroom, by going to places where magic happens – to barber shops, rap concerts or the black church, to see how it is possible to really engage your audience. From this point, I wanted to become the teacher who engages students by creating a magical atmosphere in my classroom. Unfortunately, in Hungary, we are unable to experience a real American barber shop or black church atmosphere, so I had to figure out something I can create magic with in the Hungarian classrooms.
How it actually started
By the time I reached the fourth year of my university studies, I had the feeling that I’m an amazing teacher, with great lesson plan ideas and a clear vision on how I want to teach – the only problem was that I have never had a lesson with real students in a real school up to that point. Fortunately, I had a chance to participate in a university project, in which I could actually start teaching way before I had my first official practice – in the EFOP project I went to Eger every week with a good friend of mine, to hold afternoon English lessons. This turned out to be a real transformational moment for me – the opportunity to try out all of my lesson ideas in real life for the first time was an amazing experience – and what made it even better is that I could see that most of the ideas actually worked!
Breaking the fourth wall
In my yet not so long teaching career, I tried to experiment with a wide variety of exercises. If I try to summarize what is common in those that worked out best, is that exercises that “break the fourth wall“ are the ones to go for. What does this mean? In movies, actors can step out of their scene, and start speaking directly to the camera, violating how films usually work – this is how they break the fourth wall of a studio. And I believe this is what we should do in our classrooms – leave the usual classroom setting, and try do something that is way different than what students usually do at school. This can be achieved either by making them do something very realistic (like a job interview), or something that is completely crazy (like designing their own planet).
So the key here is creativity – the creativity of the teacher, who designs the exercises that students can solve creatively. Some of the ideas that I recommend using to spark creativity:
- Designing tasks – when students have to set up their own business, a popular Instagram page, or anything that is appropriate for the current lesson topic.
- Role-plays – for example students become travel agents, and they have to organize a day trip for different characters.
- Group gallery – put some thought-provoking pictures on the wall, and make students go around, discuss them in pairs, give titles to some that they liked best.
These are just my examples – the most important thing is that everybody can tap into creativity, make sure you use it! My message is dare to create, dare to try out your ideas, because it is amazing to see that your ideas actually work. And this might be the universal key to have magic in your classroom: magic happens every time, when creativity is used!
My first attempt at project work
What is fair evaluation in a heterogeneous group? Do you grade the knowledge or the effort?
This January, in the 5th year of my studies, I had the great opportunity to start teaching at ELTE Radnóti. After my two short teaching practices, it was the first time that I had my own class and I was about to teach them on the long term.
I teach 10th graders, they are 15-16 years old, and there are 17 of them in my class. As it is becoming more and more normal nowadays, the group is extremely heterogeneous concerning their level of English. There are 3 students who have a C1 language exam (there is even one with a C2 exam who lived in the US for a year). And, there are some students who are at a B1 level and sometimes even have problems with the simple past or the -s at the end of the third person singular.
I started wondering: How am I going to create a fair grading system? If I grade them based on their knowledge, I can practically give all the end-of-term grades right at the beginning… I already know who is going to get a 5, a 4 and a 3. Can that be motivating to anyone? To those who have a C1 level, definitely not – they ‘don’t have to lift a finger’ and still receive their 5s. It’s definitely not motivating for those who are on a lower level – there is no way they can become as good as their C1 level peers in any unit we learn together.
That didn’t make much sense to me. I wanted something different. I decided that I want to grade the energy and effort they put into their studies and I decided that I want them to try project work. This was something I talked over with them in class because I wanted them to understand the idea behind my grading system and also understand that the only person responsible for their own learning are themselves.
I came up with project ideas that were most probably going to be useful and hopefully even fun, can be different for every single student according to their own interests and might help them realize how much they can do on their own for the development of their English. The first project (the one that we have already finished) was about reading articles. For the future I planned listening to podcasts, watching movies, reading English literature, mostly short stories, and oral presentations. The different projects were meant to focus on different skills.
This is how I planned it all: There were 5 parts of our first article-reading project and they received separate points for each one:
- Post the 3 articles they chose to read on a forum in Canvas.
- Write a 100-word-long summary of each text.
- Do some personalized vocabulary building: they had to choose at least 10 words that were new to them (or weren’t part of their active knowledge) and create a word list. They were encouraged to define the words in English instead of translating them into Hungarian.
- Design a vocabulary test with the new words. I printed the 17 different vocabulary tests and they all had to complete their own in class.
- The last part was to fill in a feedback form. This was more for me to see how the project went, if it was useful and fun for them.
Obviously, after having finished the first project there are hundreds of things that I would do differently. But that is okay! That’s the way we learn. All in all, I would say that our first project was a success! The feedback was really positive. Most students gave 9/10 or 10/10 on how useful they found the project. In class, when we talked about the whys of project work and I explained that I want to grade their effort and not their knowledge, there was a student who came up to me after class because he was so interested in it. At one point he said: “Miss… I think this is a great method.” This other student raised a hand high asking “Miss, Miss! What is going to be the next project?” I told them that it most probably was going to be listening to a few podcasts. His reaction was “Oh, that’s really good, I listen to many already, I can’t wait to start the project!”. I was shocked. Obviously, there always will be students who are less enthusiastic. But I really doubt that I ever would hear someone saying “Miss… I think this workbook exercise was really great.” or “I can’t wait to do the next listening task in the book!” in the classroom.
All in all, there is a lot I can still learn about planning and conducting projects, but I am really glad that I tried these projects and this is definitely something I want to keep experimenting with in the future.
My first flight
Csapó József Péter
How to cope with the difficulties of teaching at the very beginning of your career?
As a teacher trainee, I have encountered a lot of difficulties and I often make mistakes that more seasoned teachers would not make. The failures I faced broke my spirit multiple times, and I am certain that there are other trainees who sometimes feel discouraged and disappointed. And yet…. even though we might feel that teaching is like sitting on a roller coaster with all its uplifting and disheartening moments, it is still one of the most beautiful occupations of them all. Through teaching, one can support students and families alike and make a difference. To stay firm on this path, I realised that I had to develop survival strategies to rise above the challenges of being a young and inexperienced teacher trainee.
I learnt my first survival strategy during my first time in the role of a teacher when I was working in the EFOP project at ELTE. One of my best friends at university and I decided to apply together, and we were given a group in a school in Eger. We prepared a lesson plan, and upon revising our ideas, we discussed that I could start with a warmer and my partner could continue with something else. I wanted my first time to go flawlessly. I wanted to be as professional and determined as my university, high school and primary school teachers, not to mention all the superheroes I know. When the time came and we started the lesson, I felt as prepared as ever, so I stepped forward, took a deep breath, and completely froze. I muttered something but calling it giving instructions would be a huge stretch. Fortunately, my partner jumped in and helped me out. At that moment, I realised that I had to give up on my dream of a flawless lesson: For the rest of the occasion, I focused on the job and tried to be relaxed and patient, not only towards the students but also towards myself. The rest of the class went smoothly, and my partner and I concluded a nice lesson. I learnt an extremely useful survival technique that day: patience.
But, as teachers, we can never learn enough, and I have developed a lot of coping mechanisms since then. I learnt another one just two weeks ago. Just like in the previous story, it all started with a terrible lesson. One of my students, in the school where I am doing my long teaching practice, behaved awfully and challenged my authority numerous times. I was furious after the lesson, and it wasn’t hard for my mentor teacher to notice, so she asked me what was wrong. I told her the full story with all its details, and while she was trying to calm me down, she asked the following question: “Did you know that her parents are divorcing?” I didn’t. This piece of information helped me understand the source of the student’s behaviour and taught me yet another important lesson. Even if I am in the centre of attention in the classroom as a teacher, the world does not revolve around me. Many other things can go on in a student’s life, and sometimes, for understandable reasons, learning English is not the most important issue.
In conclusion, I believe that hardened and rookie teachers alike have to develop techniques and strategies to cope with the difficulties of this profession. Regardless of all the hard times, working as a teacher is an uplifting and rewarding experience. I usually perceive the job of a teacher as the quest of superheroes. I have heard a powerful saying in a Spider-man movie once: “With great power comes great responsibility!”
Without doubt, this saying is true for teachers as well. They have chosen a line of work not many people would, and they help other people selflessly as much as they can, thus making a difference in our society. Even though I am an adult now, perceiving myself as a superhero after each rainy day is probably my favourite survival strategy. I think all teachers can easily find the superhero within themselves and build on this inner strength to get through challenging times. At the end of the day, we have to rise above our problems and continue our work, as we have great responsibilities.
Ideal School – Dream School?
If you could create your own ideal school, what one fundamental feature would it have?
This is my third year as a secondary school teacher in Budapest, Hungary. Three years… well, in a romantic relationship this would be the time that one realises that their partner is not always ideal… leaves the socks on the floor and the like. Frankly, these are the years that the beginner teacher’s feet touch the ground of reality. I decided to utilize this exhilarating momentum to ask my students about their view on the current school system and how they feel about it. What would they change if they could modify anything?
I am extremely lucky to say that my students are motivated (most of the time) and critical (almost all the time). There is nothing wrong with this – I love how honest they can be. When we approached the topic of Schooling in our course book, their eyes rolled a bit, so I felt the need to step up. They were asked to work in groups of three-four and come up with the ideal school. Money, time, facilities were not an issue concerning these ideal schools. This meant that basically without any restrictions, they had to design their own schools alongside these main topics:
- exams / testing
- building / facilities
- study groups / classes
- materials (online / course book)
- recreational / extracurricular activities
- field trips
- anything else
Finding out about the task was followed by some mixed feelings of shock, excitement and confusion. Little had I expected that the following few lessons would be about heated debates, compelling arguments, and the juxtaposition of realistic and idealistic ideas. My students challenged each other; they were trying to find mutually functional solutions for all participants in this system. My heart was filled with pride and joy.
This is a short list of their ideas:
- students should have a given number of lessons that they can opt for
- elective classes should be combined with only a few compulsory ones
- teachers should not grade students: the point system (gamification) is the way to go
- lunch breaks should be about 30 minutes long
- students should start their first lesson around 9:00 am and finish around 14:00 pm
- there is no need for coursebooks in a 3D format anymore -> let’s use laptops
- free and fast Wi-Fi
- jacuzzi / swimming pool -> to cool down or warm up after a challenging lesson
- better pay and more respect for educators
- better teacher training: not only do future teachers need to be proficient in their subject, but also in personal mentoring and emotional intelligence
- students should have the opportunity to rate teachers, give feedback about their work
- field trips and practical methods of teaching should be preferred (i.e.: experiments)
- working in groups, project method
These are just some of their ideas. I truly feel that we should all consider them. Let’s ask those who are the most involved in this system and value their insights. Their views mirror the ideal school – but let’s hope this dream, at least partly, can come true one day.
When they don't seem to care
What if your subject is ranked among the least important classes and what lies behind it?
As a teacher of English, I never thought that my subject was ever going to be seen as a not-so-important subject... and I was right: ever since I started teaching, English has been a pretty popular class among my students. My other major, German, is also quite an important language and to be honest, I never thought that it was ever going to be an unimportant subject, either. But for my 12th grader group, it now really is one of those classes that they could do without, and dealing with this situation has not been easy. To help you get to know the students a little, let me provide you with a brief group profile. Below is a table with two lists: one showing the things the students have and the other highlighting the things they don’t.
|They have...||They don’t have...|
In other words, as of this moment, they don’t have the vested interest to put the time and energy into learning German, as in the short run, they won’t get anything from it as far as their future studies are concerned.
Where am I in all this, you might wonder. Well, I am that very thin line between the two columns of the table. One of my biggest challenges lately has been to merge those two columns and find the golden midway where I can utilise their great group dynamics, their aptitude for foreign languages, and their need to have fun but also take it into account that they simply have more important things to focus on than my German lessons. But how?
Unfortunately, I still don’t have The ultimate guidebook to students who don’t seem to care, but I do have four basic lessons I’ve learnt so far:
- School leavers = school starters. By that I mean that as they leave adolescence and reach 12th grade, students start getting excited again about the tiniest things, such as getting a stamp on a test that went well or a piece of chocolate when they finally say more than 3 words in German.
- The cheesier, the better. There also comes a point when, at the age of 18, all they want is watch Peppa Pig in German, which is a cartoon aimed at 3-year-olds, and sing cheesy German songs. Let me tell you, Helene Fischer does the trick.
- You have to get them out of the school building. In the past 2,5 years, we’ve been to Vienna and Munich on one-day trips and what these excursions have done to their language use is simply amazing. In Austria, I was astonished to see that even the least motivated students went up to random locals asking about the Vienna Opera House, for instance. In Munich, I asked them to vlog about their experiences, and not only did they record hilarious videos in German, but they also shot an extra video as a thank you, completely on their own initiative.
- You have to let certain things go. This sounds a lot easier said than done, but I had to come to terms with the fact that right now they have more important things to do, more important subjects to prepare for. I can only hope that in the future, they will remember their positive experiences of using the language and build on them.
So do they not care? Well, our current lessons might say otherwise, but on the basis of our experiences, I feel positive that these are the kids who, when it comes to real language use, are not going to be afraid of using the language, even if it’s far from perfect, who are going to use it for communication, and who are going to enjoy it. And if that happens, it will prove one thing to me: they cared.
The power of age
Is it a good thing to be close in age to our students? How can it be an advantage and how might it become a hindrance?
I started teaching two years ago, right after graduation. Soon after, I had a memorable experience with a group which had difficulties as individuals and as a group, as well. We had a lot of problems together: various discipline issues and disrespect towards me and each other. I was quite angry and frustrated because I’d tried a lot of things, including the ideas of my colleagues and my own, but nothing seemed to work.
And this is when I decided to have a truly honest conversation about it with my students.
A few of the students from this class attended an extracurricular lesson of mine, where we were preparing for language exams. After one of these occasions I asked what they thought the problem was with our regular lessons. One of the students had an honest and straightforward answer I remember to this day.
‘Well, Miss, you’re just not the middle-aged, male teacher we’re used to. You just don’t have that kind of authority.’
At first, I felt sad and hurt and frustrated. ‘Why did he have to say that?’ I thought. ‘I can’t change that! Why didn’t he say I should bring more interesting worksheets to class or we should watch more movies together?!’
But then I realised, I truly can't change this. Not right now, anyway. And it’s not necessarily a problem. So instead of feeling hurt, I soon started focusing on how I could use my age to an advantage. I realised that although I may not have the authority of more experienced teachers, I can have a sort of authority of my own, even as a young teacher. I mean, I like the same music and television series as many of my students. We can talk about a lot of things that they are interested in, in a way that they can make their voices heard. We can be partners working towards the same goal, and, as such, I can still have a certain authority because of my education and my position within the community, but we must have respect and a feeling of equality towards each other, which could be helped by my young age.
Slowly but steadily, through some conversations with the group I mentioned, the situation improved. Although our relationship is still rough sometimes, a lot has changed since the beginning. I think that if we are ready to let go of some of the authority we think we should possess, we can be of great help to our students, and we can facilitate their learning much more easily than if we try to be someone who we are not.
So my advice is: go and be proud of who you are now – and make good use of it.
A story from beyond the line
Have you ever fallen in love with a student of yours?
How close are we supposed to get to our students? How close should we let them get to us?
As I was doing my teacher practice, I came to realize that we don’t really talk about important things. We learn some history, methods and approaches in theory, and of course practical teaching tips. Yet we hardly ever discuss how to actually survive in the jungle of education. We hardly ever talk about one of the most scathing issues: how close am I supposed to go in a student-teacher relationship?
I’ve been working as a teacher of English for more than 10 years. And for the past 4 years I’ve been working in a foundation school far away from the city, in the heart of a forest. This place is nothing like a mainstream public school. We have about 120 students, and the majority have a diagnosis of some sort of special educational need. There are students with severe emotional, behavioral or cognitive deficiencies. Some of them have poor family backgrounds. Some of them come from broken families, or they have no families at all. In a school like this, with children like this, you cannot always use your traditional recipes -- sometimes you need more than that. Sometimes you need to go closer or let them come closer. But how close?
In this chaotic world in 2017, a 16-year-old girl arrived during the school year, she was in 8th grade. She was extravagant, courageous, intelligent, and meanwhile she exhibited all the symptoms of borderline personality disorder. We hit it off. We used to have long, meaningful and elevating conversations. We played games, sang together, had lots of fun, like we do with many of our students after lessons, every single day. On our way to getting to know each other, a terrible life story started to unfold, which just kept fueling my deep empathy and my childish idea of having to save everybody.
A few months passed and one day I found myself thinking of her, in a different way – I had begun to develop intimate feelings for her. I was looking in the mirror asking: now what? I wasn’t feeling guilty since I never did anything unacceptable or blameworthy. All my guilt was that I was in love with someone I was not supposed to.
Here’s my take: everybody is entitled to their feelings. We are human. We have the right to feel anger, joy, or even love. Also: love is love. Whether it arises in the classroom, in a bar, or at the entrance door of a cinema. Nonetheless, I had to take my time to contemplate what’s next. I remember sitting at the table. I sometimes sit at tables, random tables. But this time my mom was sitting there with me. After the thirteenth cigarette, I looked at her and blurted out, “listen, I know the answer!” She looked at me quizzically. I said, “Let yourself into it, embrace it, never pretend that it’s not there.”
And that’s exactly what I did. A few weeks passed and it all magically faded away. Meanwhile, nothing happened, nothing was ever said out loud, and also, she changed schools in the winter of 2019. By the end, I felt liberated and reinvigorated. I’d learned something important: you should embrace whatever feelings come your way. Be brave enough to feel anger. Be brave enough to feel joy. And be brave enough to fall in love. And that will teach you for life where to draw those lines.
And finally: be brave enough to talk about it.
Cursed or blessed? – My first tough class
J. Tóth Judit
Where do you see your weakest spot as a teacher, and what strategy can you work out to counterbalance it?
I’m going to tell you a story about my most difficult class. Well, one of actually the four most difficult classes I’ve had so far, but being the first one of these, it still proved the biggest challenge for me. I often share this story with my teacher trainees when I feel that they could benefit from it. So here it goes:
The year is 1993, I’m a fresh graduate of ELTE. I’ve taught just 15 lessons as part of my practicum. Luckily, as a student I’ve already been teaching for 3 years at LinguA School of English, a fantastic language school. This school has been absolutely formative for me as a teacher: we’ve had lots of internal training opportunities, great resources, my classes have been observed and I’ve got a lot of help as a (pre-degree) beginner teacher. Also, I’ve had amazing methodology teachers at uni, like Éva Gedeon, who has given me a rock solid foundation. So the exam lesson in my teaching practicum gets me invited to work at ELTE Radnóti, one of the best schools in town. I’m chuffed and humbled, and I prepare for the first year.
I get 4 groups: two of them are angels, cute little 10 and 11-year-olds, and I get a lot of good experience working with them. The third and oldest one poses a bigger challenge at first, as I feel that I’m hardly older than my students. After the first few weeks, however, I find my feet and we go on working well. My fourth group is a bunch of 12-year-olds, busy establishing their own positions in a newly forming class. And some of them find a great way to show off in front of their classmates… They realize that this young teacher, who hardly yet looks a teacher anyway, gets embarrassed when she doesn’t know a word they ask. The endless fun they find in asking the least expected words – it’s a temptation they cannot resist. Of course, the more I trip up the more embarrassed I get, and I get into this vicious circle that seems to overshadow my next few years. Not that I don’t learn from my mistake, but the damage is already done to my reputation in that class.
Where do I see my learning points in this story? One, of course: learn the language. Learn it as much as you can, never wait for someone to teach you, it’s your own responsibility. As a would-be teacher one obviously has to be able to manage this task to some extent. Two: build a strategy. Whatever is your weakest point, learn how you can overcome it. You will never be able to learn every single fact of the subject(s) you teach, and you should be fine with it. Three, the most basic and most difficult of tasks: build self-confidence. As long as students can easily embarrass you for any reason, you won’t have an easy life as a teacher. By the time I said good-bye to this class, I’ve learned all these lessons.
So how did the story end? Well, to add insult to injury, as a parting gift, I got a pocket dictionary from the group, duly singed by the students. I still have it today. Why? Why didn’t I throw it into the nearest rubbish bin? Well, the answer became crystal clear to me on the 10-year graduation reunion of this class. I looked at those people who had made four days a week a struggle for me for years, and what I felt was gratitude. Gratitude, because they taught me something fundamental about myself and about teaching. So that no other difficult class ever proved quite as difficult as this one. And I grew strong. And I learned how to get along. I will survive.
What likes, talents or passions do you have that you could bring into your teaching?
I’ve been an English teacher and teacher trainer for many years now. Becoming a teacher and later a trainer, I have experienced similar cycles of professional development in those roles: learning as a novice, finding my feet and voice after some time, getting better as my focus shifted from myself to my language students, teacher trainees or experienced teachers on a course. Tinkering – as Tessa Woodward called it - with new ideas or techniques was an important element of my teaching and training throughout, perhaps because it lies at the heart of what makes teaching such a creative experience.
But it took me a while to realise that, in order to truly find myself as a teacher and trainer, I actually needed to look inside rather than outside. What was I good at and what gave me joy when I wasn’t teaching or training?
Transformational moments in that development happened when I allowed my non-professional passions to seep into my work as a teacher and trainer. For example, I have always liked doodling, visualising things, singing and playing the guitar, pretending to be someone else (acting) and playing table tennis. In fact, it was working with young kids as a table tennis coach that got me first interested in teaching.
I believe using elements and insights from each of these passions has made my teaching and training richer, more engaging. Just as importantly, these realisations have helped me to find myself as a professional, to become truly authentic in what I do.
The accidental teacher - Who inspires who?
Where do you get your inspiration from and when do you know that you’re inspirational and is it actually important?
I have always been accident prone but never to such a life changing extent. I really did fall into teaching purely by chance but I’ll come back to that later.
I’ve been in ELT for over 20 years and some of the most rewarding of those years were those I spent teaching and working with refugees and asylum seekers back in London. I’ve heard stories that really would make your hair curl and I was always so inspired by those students’ tenacity and strength and their ability to keep moving forward with their lives, despite some horrific traumas and circumstances.
As the years rolled on I continued to be inspired by my students more and more, they gave me the motivation to be the best I could possibly be for them. I truly am one of the lucky ones, there have only been two periods during my career, when I really didn’t want to go into work.
Going back to how I came across this luck, well I found myself a single mum with a little crying machine, who, despite loving dearly, really did not engage in much meaningful conversation with me (why would she? She was only 3 at the time) 😊 So, I decided to take myself off to evening classes and study an additional course in the History of the English Language. One weekend I took my little crying machine to the local fair, where there was a fortune teller, who said (as she was telling my fortune) “as a teacher…….” I quickly interrupted that I wasn’t a teacher and she then told me that I should be. I didn’t think anything more of it until, one evening during our English class, someone handed me a leaflet about a CELTA course and suggested I sign up. I was thinking about leaving the UK at the time so it seemed to make sense. I enrolled.
On day one of the course I was instructed to prepare a lesson for the following day – present simple to beginners in a 10 minute (seriously) micro teaching slot. Poop! I stayed up all night, writing up my lesson plan – you would’ve thought I was teaching a 3 hour slot! The next morning I took to the stage and that was it, bam! Love at first sight! This is what they’ve all been talking about! You’ll know when you find the one! And I had! Teaching became my other half, my lifelong love affair and I love it with the same passion today as I did then, back in London. My crying machine and I didn’t travel till 2007, by which time I had a second one, as I was given a job on the back of my CELTA: I went on to study a PGCE, DELTA and Masters and then, just for the fun of it a PhD 😊
Along the way, I became a teacher trainer and the inspiration I got from my students grew ten-fold and I realised that; if you teach a student, you have the capacity to make a difference to someone’s life, however, if you teach a group of teachers, you have the capacity to influence a generation! Although I’ve learnt and been inspired by my own teachers and colleagues, it is my students, my trainee teachers that have inspired me the most. On the day I left my job in England I received a book of quotes from my trainees, one of which had written “thank you for making a life in teaching seem possible.”
Well, my life in teaching has been a wonderful journey and the road is till long (I hope) and I have been supported by my teacher friends along the way, most of whom (here) I have met through IATEFL-Hungary. Teaching isn’t an easy job and those teacher friends and students who have picked me up when I’ve been low, made me feel great when I achieved something and kicked me in the backside whenever I thought of giving up. So, thank you, to all the teachers and all the friends who’ve inspired me along the way, your inspiration has made my life in teaching possible.
You’re the professional!
Suppose you were a school principal. Would you allow your English teachers to use any coursebook they'd like to use? Why? Why not?
My career as a teacher of English began in the late 1960s at a secondary school in Budapest. Since I found the one and only compulsory coursebook terribly boring, I supplemented it with Geoffrey Broughton’s ‘Success with English’, a much more inspiring and entertaining series. With time, I sent the compulsory book to the top shelf to gather dust, and Broughton became our staple food.
One day an elderly colleague warned me that my unlawful practice had come to the knowledge of ministry officials and, as a consequence, I might have to face disciplinary measures. After some hesitation, I decided to go to the school principal and make a clean breast of my disobedience. After listening to my report, he asked:
‘Are you sure that that British book is better than the compulsory one?’
‘Much better,’ I replied.
‘Well, you’re the professional, Péter. It’s your responsibility to decide what works best for your students – and not mine. So, feel free to use the book of your choice.’
‘But… but what about the ministry?’ I stammered.
‘That’s my responsibility. I’ll deal with it, if necessary.’
Whether it was necessary or not, I have never found out. However, emboldened by my principal’s support I continued to teach from Broughton and other excellent books for many more years. And most of my students graduated from secondary school with flying colours in English.
With hindsight, I realise that my principal let me use the book I thought was better, because he trusted my professional judgment. His advice and support strengthened my self-confidence and filled me with an overwhelming sense of freedom. However, it also made me aware that freedom comes with a price: once you are granted full rein, the burden of responsibility can no longer be shared – it is on your shoulders alone.
I often wonder how I would have responded if my school principal had been less permissive and less trustful. The more I think about it the more convinced I am that I would have left the classroom a long time ago and chosen a profession offering me more breathing space.
As a teacher and teacher trainer for many years, I have endeavoured to pass on the message I learnt as a young teacher: only free-spirited and responsible teachers are capable of turning young people into free-spirited and responsible citizens. And this is what I mean by empowerment.
Anderson, C. (2016) TED Talks. The Official TED Guide to public speaking. London: Headline Publishing Group.
Huberman, M. A. (1989). The professional life cycle of teachers. Teachers College Record, 91(1), 31-57.
Maley, A. (ed) (2020) Developing expertise through experience. The British Council. https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/developing-expertise-through…
Woodward, T. (2010) The Professional Life Cycle of Teachers, paper presented at IATEFL 2010, Harrogate, UK.
Novák Barbara Julia, OTAK trainee teacher, ELTE Budapest
Kontra Krisztián, OTAK trainee teacher, ELTE Budapest
Gay Katalin, OTAK trainee teacher, ELTE Budapest
Csapó József Péter, OTAK trainee teacher, ELTE Budapest
Kovács Vivien, ELTE Apáczai Csere János Gyakorlóiskola
Fekete Gergő, ELTE Radnóti Miklós Gyakorlóiskola
Vinkler Andrea, ELTE Apáczai Csere János Gyakorlóiskola
Váczi Zsombor, Tüskevár Iskola, Budapest
J. Tóth Judit, ELTE Radnóti Miklós Gyakorlóiskola
Uwe Pohl, Department of English Language Pedagogy, ELTE
Claudia Molnár, Pannon Egyetem, Veszprém, President of IATEFL Hungary
Medgyes Péter, Department of English Language Pedagogy, ELTE