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My Life-Long Love of the English Language Business
by Ken Wilson

6th August 1968, training at International House, London

It was the day after my 21st birthday. I had spent the previous night sleeping on the floor of a friend's flat in West London. There had been no celebratory drink. I had spent the evening preparing my first 'extended' practice lesson on my TEFL training course. It was due to last for 20 minutes.

And now it had started. There were four practice students sitting directly in front of me. They weren't just practice students, of course. They were real people with real lives. Silvana and Massimo were an Italian couple on their honeymoon. Milan was a muscular and handsome Czech, loved by trainees and students alike. He left the school about a week later, arriving back in Prague the day before the Russians invaded the city. The fourth person was a Japanese girl called Junko. I don't remember anything about her apart from her name. I don't think I was ever successful in getting her to say anything. My fault entirely, not hers.

The four students stared at me in silence. Behind them sat seven recent graduates from British universities, my co-trainees, and next to them sat a dazzlingly beautiful woman from Sierra Leone with a clipboard on her knee, looking at me with a keen, supportive smile on her face.

It was horribly, achingly, quiet in the room. I had just asked the newly-wed Italian girl a complex opening question, which she didn't have a hope of answering. I don't think the native speaker graduates of some of Britain's finest universities who were sitting behind her had a hope of answering it, either. It was unanswerable. Silvana stared at me, my co-trainees stared at the floor and Benetta, the trainer, smiled and nodded in encouragement.

I was the third person to 'teach' that day. The first trainee, whose name was Alex, had to present and practise 'there are some …'; the second, Fiona, had to present and practise 'there aren't any …' and I drew the short straw with 'are there any …?' The three of us had agreed to base our lesson material on London itself.

Alex drilled the students into the ground, getting them to chorus-repeat: 'There are some museums in London … there are some parks in London … there are some pubs in London …' The lesson was definitely noisy and in a way the students were involved all the time. They said a lot, they shouted in chorus and they had a few laughs. The only problem was that they didn't actually say anything of their own choice.

The second lesson was much more colourful. Fiona had found dozens of photographs from magazines and stuck them on cardboard. There were pictures of camels, elephants, palm trees, samba dancers and other exotic items - none of which you could find on the streets of London.

Fiona flashed the cards at high speed in front of the students' faces. The students were required to make a sentence beginning 'There aren't any …' based on the picture. Apart from the alarming Pavlovian nature of this exercise, there was one small problem. None of the students knew the English words for camel, elephant, palm tree, samba dancer or any of the other exotic items.

Massimo was the most confident of the four and had a clever way of making the sentences that Fiona demanded. If he didn't know the English word for the exotic item, he used the Italian word and let Fiona translate it for him.

Massimo There aren't any … cammelli?
Fiona Camels.
Massimo Camel.
Fiona CamelZZZZZZ!
Massimo CamelZZZZZZ!
Fiona Go on …
Massimo … in London.
Fiona Very good!

And then it was my turn. I had planned something completely different from my energetic co-trainees. I think my opening question - the one which had stunned Silvana into silence - went something like this: 'Are there any places in London that you've never been to but would like to go to … er … if you ever get the chance?'

What upset me more than anything was the fact that I had spent two HOURS the previous evening writing the lesson plan, and most of it had been spent thinking about that first question.

Like so many trainee teachers before and since, I had wandered into the never-never land of TEFL-speak, where apparently intelligent native English speakers find themselves when they start trying to teach the language they never had to learn. It's a dark and murky place, but for some of us, the start of a lifelong interest in our own language.

From the debris of these three lessons, Benetta found aspects that she was able to praise, and offered us some thoughts about what to change. She praised us for our energy and the rapport we created with the students (I don't think she was talking about me at this point). Best of all, by clever prompting, she helped us make our own suggestions about how to improve. Alex realised that it might have been useful to let the students give some of their own examples, and Fiona expressed her horror at not thinking about pre-teaching the words for camel, elephant, palm tree etc.

Benetta thought my attempt to engage the students in a conversation was admirable. She suggested keeping it simple. I somehow knew that would be her main suggestion.

Despite my appalling performance on that particular day, I didn't actually do badly on the course as a whole, and I was offered a job at the Instituto Británico in Seville, Spain. I arrived there one beautiful autumn morning in October 1968.


Instituto Británico, Seville, Spain

By this stage in my life, I had spent 18 years in Manchester and three years at university in Reading. I was now to spend a year in one of the world's most beautiful cities. Every morning, I almost gasped with astonishment as I beheld La Giralda, the half-Moorish, half-Gothic tower of Seville Cathedral. I couldn't understand how Sevillanos could pass this magnificent edifice on a daily basis without gasping themselves.

I was also astonished by how charming and trusting the students at the school were. They really liked my lessons in spite of my lack of experience and my frankly dubious teaching method. I talked too much, I told jokes at every opportunity and I aimed my teaching at the best students in the class. The best students loved it and blossomed. Everyone else put up with it but improved only slowly.

That was the biggest lesson my year in Spain taught me. You have to work harder than I did at involving ALL the students, with all their different levels and ways of learning. I'm still working on this after 35 years in the business.


International House, London, UK

I then returned to London and worked at International House, a place which, like many English teaching establishments in the 1970s, was buzzing with new ideas. I worked with some great people who taught me a lot. Liz Soars, Jeremy Harmer, Doug Case, Roger Gower, Judy Garton-Sprenger, Barry Tomalin and Sue Mohamed were all involved with the organisation at that time.

At the centre of it all were IH founders John and Brita Haycraft. John was always on the look-out for new ideas and was tireless in promoting the interests of teachers who showed the slightest talent in any particular direction. Soon after my arrival, John did something which radically changed the direction of my working life.

I had an intermediate class of really great students. I was 22 years old, and most of the students were the same age as me. We were together for 15 hours a week, so there was plenty of time to experiment.

One day, I brought my guitar into class. I wasn't planning to play it, I just wanted to have it with me for safe keeping. The students asked me to play it. I wasn't sure whether the school would think this was the best use of their time. I hesitated, which made the class more insistent that I should play. I promised to bring some song words the next day and we could learn a song together.

This was the start of a long and happy association with music in language teaching. Although I was still a bit worried that we were having too much 'fun', the class clamoured for more songs, and we spent Friday mornings learning more and more songs. The Beatles were a particular favourite.

When this class finally disbanded, I was heart-broken. My next class were beginners so I couldn't use the Friday morning songs. However, by this time I was convinced that using songs was useful as well as enjoyable. With no material available that was easy enough for my beginners' class to sing, I started to write my own songs for them.


Mister Monday

One day, John Haycraft stopped me in the corridor.
'I understand that you're writing songs for your class,' he said.
I hesitated a moment before admitting it. Was he going to censure me for wasting the students' time? Not a bit of it!
'I'm going to see if I can get one of the publishers interested,' said John.

And he was as good as his word. I had an interview with a publisher a few weeks later. The result was that before my 23rd birthday, I had signed a contract to write, record and produce a collection of English teaching songs. The album Mister Monday appeared the following year. At the time, I was the youngest-ever published ELT author. I don't know if I still hold this record. Mister Monday was a huge international success and the start of my parallel career as an ELT author. (See the end of the article for a PS about Mister Monday.)


English Teaching Theatre

Another of John Haycraft's initiatives led to the establishment of the English Teaching Theatre, and because of my supposed prowess as a musician, I was offered the chance to perform with the fledgling group. It was the start of a relationship with drama and theatre which continues to this day. The ETT enjoyed international success for more than 25 years, visiting more than 50 countries.


NESTs and non-NESTs

Travelling first with the English Teaching Theatre and more recently as an author, I have been fortunate enough to meet lots of non-native speaker teachers (non-NESTs), who of course represent the vast majority of teachers worldwide. And as a writer and a trainer, these are the teachers that I am most interested in helping.

Most learners of English all over the world start their education with a teacher who speaks their own language and has learnt English as a foreign language. Personally, I think this is the best thing that could happen. I have spent a lot of my working life congratulating and supporting non-native speaker teachers in the work they do.

I believe very firmly that native speaker authors and trainers have to make the working conditions of non-native speaker teachers a priority in their writing and recommendations about methodology.

I find the difference between the working lives of NESTs and non-NESTs very interesting indeed. I often begin presentations to groups of non-NESTs with a description of the working life of the average teacher in a private language school in the UK (the working situation of most of our leading coursebook authors). Teachers at UK private language schools are favoured with the following working conditions:

  • classes of between 10 and 14 students
  • multilingual, highly-motivated students
  • contact time of up to 15 hours a week
  • well-equipped classroom with good acoustics
  • the world of English outside the classroom

No non-NEST teachers working in their own countries have anything like these working circumstances. And the implications for material, suggestions for pair work, group work, projects etc are enormous. Non-NESTs benefit greatly when authors and trainers take their classroom and working realities into consideration.


TEFL challenge

My final thought, however, is for the generations of native-speaker teachers who have worked hard at their trade all over the world. One of the problems we face is that our non-teaching friends think that teaching your native language must be easy.

Lots of non-TELFer native speakers think this. To make matters worse, there are English backpackers all over the world who make outrageous claims about their competence to teach English ('I've got an arts degree and I've worked with foreign students on a summer camp') and then go through the motions of dispensing information about English and actually teaching nothing at all.

Thankfully, openings for untrained native speakers like these are getting rarer. Those of us who train to do the work usually discover that - like most interesting work - it gets harder rather than easier. And I'm definitely in that camp.


Post-script about Mister Monday

In 1992, 21 years after the publication of Mister Monday, I attended a very enjoyable music workshop given by Dave Allen at the IATEFL conference in Lille, France. It was about using authentic songs in class. At one point, one of the participants, a native speaker teacher from the UK, asked Dave what he thought about specially-written songs like Mister Monday. Dave was non-committal, saying that he was there to talk about authentic material. The teacher persisted and offered his opinion: he thought specially-written songs were absolutely ridiculous.

When I told the man later that I was the author of Mister Monday, the teacher was astonished and apologised for his earlier criticism. 'The thing is,' he said, 'Mister Monday is so old I thought that whoever wrote it must be dead by now!'