"That was a disaster. The students knew more English before your lesson than after it."
The teacher trainer looked down pityingly at the anguished trainee. Our group circled the hapless initiate, readying more feedback. But not me. A bead of sweat formed on my forehead. It was the summer of 1990 and it was now my turn to teach...
How had I got into this? Go back another 4 years: I was 17 and known as a "literary type" having published a bunch of fanzines and magazines. Philosophy, politics and literature were regularly debated with a circle of friends. One particular discussion of Wordsworth turned into a lengthy and voluble denunciation of my opponent's position so effective that the whole pub burst into spontaneous applause at its dénouement. In revenge, my Wordsworth-loving friend introduced me to a language school owner who was looking for teachers over the forthcoming summer holidays. I was a bit young, but my friend was 23 and already teaching for the school, so the owner assumed I was the same age. The interview was held in the same pub at the same table:
"What tenses are there in English?"
"Umm...past... present... future...? Err..."
"Can you give me an example of the present perfect continuous tense?"
"I'm sorry... the present perf...?"
"Do you know the song Eleanor Rigby?"
"By the Beatles! Big fan."
And so it was that I became an English teacher at the age of 17, instructing groups of German teenagers barely younger than myself in tenses continuous and perfect. A copy of Thomson and Martinet's A Practical English Grammar had been thrust into my hands and I was away... Each summer holiday I would teach the tenses of the English language, demonstrating with great authority the difference between the past simple and the present perfect and copying out the cool explanatory diagrams from a a great new book by some chap called Raymond Murphy...Oh and we played Beatles songs and analyzed their meaning: apparently Eleanor Rigby was lonely.
The students loved me. I got flowers and sweets and cards and watches and letters from students years after. I was the most popular teacher. I was a *great* teacher.... Or so I thought. (Looking back now, I remind myself of one of those deluded American Idol hopefuls: ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED that they can sing because nobody has ever told them they can't...)
Time moved on. I'd left college and wanted to travel. I knew that reputable schools in the UK and Europe required something people in the know called the RSA Cert. A four-week, massively intensive, teacher training course.
"You've got to teach in front of 6 other people-- and then they tear you apart."
"You can't go out for even one night or you'll fail."
"People who've been teaching in state schools for years take it and fail."
"That guy last year came all the way over from South Africa and had a nervous breakdown."
"It costs £700!"
Although I knew that I had never really investigated the skill of teaching seriously (I didn't have to) I was pretty sure that I would have no problems. After all, I'd been in the classroom every day for 4 summers, now. What could a grizzled veteran like me have to learn?
The trainer motioned for me to enter the class. The observers followed and sat at the back. My hands were trembling. The bead of sweat had worked its way down my nose. Be wary of Teacher Talking Time. Don't stand up all the time. Don't point at people. Don't put your back to the class. Elicit. Ask concept questions...Pair work. Group work. Information gaps. Suggestopedia. CLL. Communicative Approach. Audio-Lingual Method. Mind maps. Accuracy vs Fluency. Correction techniques. Total Physical Response...
"You mean you don't just make a long, confusing explanation, draw a dodgy diagram, tell a few jokes and then get them to fill in the gap-fill exercises before going around the class in the same order each time asking them for answers?"
The course reminded me that when I was studying linguistics at college we had two tutors -- but never knew which one would be teaching on the day. It would have been *really* good to know. The subject was the same, of course, and I believe the topic of the lesson was decided in advance. But one tutor's lesson was completely engaging: a fascinating intellectual adventure that would compel me to stay after class and bombard her with questions, comments and theories. The other teacher? Tears of boredom would well up in my eyes within the first 15 minutes and I had no choice but slip out of the lesson at the first opportunity.
Was the difference between the two tutors just a matter of charisma? No. As I was learning how to teach on the RSA Cert course, I realized the difference was *skill*. Skill that had been obtained through training and practice. Both tutors were experts in their field, but one actually knew *how to teach*. She had a lesson plan. She was prepared. She knew what she was doing and *why*. And the end result was astonishing. (That great teacher, of course, had an ELT background.)
I survived the RSA Cert -- just. It is now known as the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) and is run by the University of Cambridge. I don't know whether it still has the army boot camp intensity, but I can tell you this:
It was without doubt the most important educational experience of my life.
I wasn't anywhere near being a perfect teacher after the course, but it gave me a frame of reference that showed me what I needed to do to become a better one. Unknown unknowns became known unknowns. And later, when I taught and was popular it was because I was teaching in ways that I believed were effective based on a good knowledge of theory and practice, not just because I could get on well with the class.
...And this all brings me back to Japan. A country where English teachers "knowing how to teach" is given scant regard. It saddens me greatly. The government sets the bar extremely low by importing JETs who (mostly) have no idea what they are doing to teach with Japanese teachers who (mostly) have no idea what they are doing. Given this, how can we blame the eikaiwa chains for low standards when they are only following the official lead?
It is my strong belief that the most effective thing that can be done to improve the standard of English in Japan is to provide proper training for teachers of English both Japanese and non-Japanese. Over the coming year, ELTNEWS.com will be looking at this issue (along with the others mentioned in the previous editorial) and will do what it can to foster positive change.
Next month: I will give more details on what I think needs to be done to bring about a teacher training revolution in Japan and why. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts on teacher training and any experiences, good or bad, you've had on training courses.