Monday, 2 August 2010

The TEFL Teacher as Educator

When I did my Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language in Leeds in the UK  way back in the early 1960s, having already taught for 5 years in a secondary school in the newly independent West African country of Ghana, the former Gold Coast,  I took  myself and  the subject Teaching English as a Foreign (or Second Language) very seriously indeed. I saw myself as exclusively a teacher of language and  my duty as  getting a specified number of lexical items and listed  structures into the heads and out through the mouths of as many of my learners as possible.

I often compared TEFL with the teaching of playing a musical instrument. I was teaching my learners to master their vocal equipment and be able to “play” a repertoire of tunes from a large work called: “The English language”.  I liked my pupils and was interested in their circumstances and lives, but professionally I saw myself as a technician rather than a mentor.

Picture of me outside  Earls Court, my flat in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana, 1961

Recalling my time at Leeds I recently wrote in a blog:

I did my Post Graduate Diploma in English as a Second Language at Leeds in Peter Streven's department, though he had left it by the time I got there. We did our teaching practice, in February, in Madrid. I became very friendly with the beautiful Barbara. One afternoon we were lying on the side of a mountain above Barco de Avila, near Salamanca. Barbara was interested, in I went on and on and on to her about ideas I had for my thesis. Barbara, memorably, suddenly said: "You know, Dennis. TEFL is not a religion."

I'm not sure she was right.

  Barco de Avela , Spain

After Leeds, in the  60s, and for a very long time afterwards , I still saw my duty as a   a TEFLer  as a presenter  and drill master of a gradual introduction of carefully chosen and ordered bits of the English language. lexical items – a posh but  more precise term than vocabulary – and structures or patterns. A symbol of that language-dominated view of the language teacher’s role is provided in what I still see as a classic of the orderly, systematic , though now hopelessly outdated pedagogical  approach of the language laboratory  English 900/ 901 course, published in 1964 by Macmillan, (English 900 was the original American edition, English  901 was the British  English version ).  The  Substitution Drills (pattern practice drills) and chapter summaries provide an alluring, deceptively tidy, orderly view of the business of the teaching and learning of a foreign language.

Substitution drills from English 900

Word list from English 900 

40 plus years on I see TEFL quite differently.  Of course mastering/mistressing a foreign language skills  involves learning and finally acquiring, to use Stephen Krashen’s  powerful distinction,  the core language, with the emphasis on  learning  a language for communicative purposes – which communicative purposes varies with each group of learners, even though,  sadly, powerful groups like politicians, publishers, parents – even learners themselves – often remain convinced that learning a language is more a question of learning about it and showing that they are doing so by performing well in tests and examinations that concern themselves with what can be easily tested and examined. And mere prescriptive accuracy and a study of formal grammar fit more comfortably into such approaches than working on communicative fluency and effectiveness for the real world.

And the real world?  First and foremost – didn’t we see this in the 60s? – even the TEFLer – is an educator, someone  with broad views and reasoned convictions and interests, concerned to situate  educational aims within a framework of social and economic and political parameters  but  with the people being taught and their individual overall needs and concerns as a central focal  point.  Next time people ask you what you teach, don’t say “English” say ‘children’ or’ teenagaers’ or’ university students’ or’ adults’. This simple change of perspective will sharpen your  focus. The concerned, dedicated teacher wants to  help the learners in his/her care to be happy, successful people in their day-to-day and future lives and uses his/her expertise in whatever subject to make a contribution.

But what is this real world like in 2010? Well, each teacher needs to consider the world in which he or she and his or her pupils live,  while remaining aware of what is going on in the wide world. The Green party has  an attractive motto that we can adopt: “Think globally, act locally.”. I view the world from Germany, where I live and from  the country of my origin, England.

My view of England these days is shaped by news broadcasts, local newspapers and the headlines I read on the BBC’s Twitter entries: Here is quote from today’s latest BBC tweet.

1 August 2010 Last updated at 09:47 GMT

Man in a serious condition after Hackney shooting
A man is in a serious condition in hospital after being shot in east London.
The 19-year-old suffered several gunshot wounds in Powell Road, Hackney, at about 1620 BST on Saturday.
And you only have to go back one day to find:
31 July 2010
Man tries to kidnap girl, 12, in Rochford, Essex
A man attempted to kidnap a 12-year-old girl at knifepoint as she was walking along a street in Essex.
The incident happened at 1200 BST on Friday in the street called Ashcombe, near its junction with Holt Farm Way in Rochford.
The girl was walking towards nearby shops when the man grabbed her, held a gloved hand over her mouth and threatened her with a knife.
Police said she was able to kick out at the man and run off.
Now, I haven’t done an academic study. I am just illustrating a subjective impression I have formed. But those two news items, so quickly and easily found, do provide a thumbnail impression of the violence that appears to be a feature of modern life in large cities in Germany and England. and in many other places around the world. (What is it like where you live and work?)
Last year the Daily Telegraph online  wrote:

Youth gangs triple child murder rate

By Jonathan Wynne-Jones and Ben Leapman

Published: 12:01AM GMT 27 Jan 2008

Gunned down: Rhys Jones, 11

Murders of children by other children have tripled in three years, as more of the nation's youth get drawn into a deadly world of guns and knives.
The number of killings in which both victim and assailant were under 18 has jumped from 12 in 2005 to 37 last year, according to a new study.

In Germany, in recent years, as in England, there have been examples of young men (always young men or boys) running amok and gunning down teachers and pupils in their former schools before turning the gun on themselves and committing suicide.
And only last week here in Germany many-headed sex raised its sinister head in a series of incidents that have shocked the nation. In a dormitory at a summer camp in Ameland, Holland, in a dormitory sleeping 40 boys mostly between the ages of 9 – 12, but with a few older boys as well, a small gang of the older boys, in their free time in the afternoon, systemically, bullied  the younger boys sexually abusing them and raping them with foreign objects. One local boy from the town where I live reported that they went for the boys who were in some way different, shy or obvious loners.

Photo of  a  local boy who witnessed the rape and sexual abuse at a German school camp in Ameland, Holland.  Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung  24 July 2010 

Sexual experimentation with peers is one thing, brutal, bullying rape is appalling, sickening, and one flounders in confusion trying to understand how young boys from good middle class German homes could have been capable of such depravity. And I find the photo of this young local boy, who managed to defend himself against being raped, somehow deeply disturbing. Although only an unwilling witness and completely innocent he has been defaced.

The image of this boy in the context of the newspaper reports has become associated in my mind with an act of aggression and rape going on as I write, and is 

 symbolised by the photo I took 24 hours ago as they demolished the building which stood next to ours, a former student pub, Merlin, to make way for the building of  a block of luxury flats.

The rape of Merlin

We have many friends and parents of children living in Osnabrueck, north Germany  from troubled parts of the world like Bosnia and Kosovo, Romania, Russia, the Sudan, to name but a few . Through personal stories we are too aware  the violent, war-torn backgrounds from which many of the young people come with the personal trauma of witnessed murders and rape and maiming by landmines. Is this violence, part of modern life?.

Is murder and rape by children and young people, especially boys, characteristic of the age in which we live and teach?

As educators, even as experts in the teaching of a modern language, must we turn away from concern with the correct use of  tenses and prepositions and focus on the overwhelming social problems our learners may be facing? Should we be social workers, councellors and therapists first and language teachers second?

The teacher in today’s world cannot possibly remain interested in his or her subject alone, cannot be as one-track minded as I was in the 60s.  Goodness knows what the teaching profession can do to counteract the fallout from rising unemployment amongst parents and gloomy prospects for future employment for all but the academically clever - and even they will not have an easy passage. But teachers are one of the few groups who are in a position to have some influence on the young.  Teachers can no longer be mere technicians, academic subject experts, they must be true educators.

Do you agree?