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Interview with Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy I borrowed the subtitle of this interview from a famous quote by George Bernard Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I hope the subject for our first ELT News interview since we “went global” won’t mind my calling him unreasonable…

His course books will be familiar to English students worldwide, he has expanded the horizons of hundreds (thousands?) of university students in Japan, and he has presented at countless conferences and events across the globe. When I last interviewed him back in 2003, he spoke about his origins and philosophy as an educator. In recent years he has invested himself in such forward-thinking global initiatives as Design for Change and International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi).

A true agent for change; an educator on the global stage; it is my pleasure as always to speak with Chuck Sandy. Chuck answered my questions as he globe-totted between Europe and the United States in mid-June 2013. -- Mark McBennett, ELT News Editor

“…The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Mark McBennett:
Chuck, do you have any favourite quotes about change?
Chuck Sandy:
Three favorites that hang together rather well are Tolstoy’s "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself" added to William James's "Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does" combined with Margaret Mead’s advice "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." Though I have always understood that all change begins within one’s own heart, I’ve only recently come to understand that the most powerful tool we have to create for others a willingness to effect change in their lives and their world is the living example of our own life lived with honesty. When we live this way openly enough there is no need to approach others and encourage them to band together. It just happens.
Mark McBennett:
When I last interviewed you back in 2003, you spoke about your origins and philosophy as an educator. Ten years on, what excites you most about the world of education that you inhabit today?
Chuck Sandy:
It’s exciting to see how much easier it is today for both students and teachers to share ideas and work collaboratively than it was ten years ago. I see some amazingly innovative uses of social media tools and low-tech technologies to spread ideas and offer others a way to learn, grow, and change. Several powerful initiatives that use low-tech technologies to very far reaching ends include the Design For Change movement, the Teachmeet International program, regular gatherings on Twitter such as ELTChat, the Students Connected group on Facebook and of course the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi) – which I am very proud to have cofounded with Steven Herder, Gareth Knight, Scott Thornbury, Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto and others.

Initiatives such as these are not only using simple technologies to connect others, but are doing so in ways that create caring, ethical communities of practice and practical learning that allow anyone who’d like to participate the chance to have a voice and learn together.
Mark McBennett:
Education is of course greatly influenced by the society around it. In these turbulent times the many social and political changes we see around us are by no means all changes for the better. As an educational activist, do you see things in particular that worry you?
Chuck Sandy:
I’m very concerned about the ways that the data derived from corporately produced and funded standardized testing programs around the world is being used to not only somehow measure student learning, but also shape curricula, warp teaching practices, gauge teacher effectiveness, and determine which schools and communities are worthy of future funding and development.

Even as the corporations behind all this standardization use the authoritative language of eduspeak to seduce the public into believing that their data is meaningful and their motives sound and true, I fear that the real aim is to produce an easily controllable pool of knowledge workers for a 21st century labor class. I see this industrialization of education as a coordinated reactionary movement designed to disempower and illegitimatize the humanist pedagogies of the late 20th century that put an emphasis on personal growth and critical thinking. Although this might sound alarmist, I’m happy to sound the alarm.

Still, there are bright lights in all of this and those are the many teachers around the world who continue, despite it all, to teach in ways that matter. So although I am very concerned, because of these great teachers, I remain hopeful.
Mark McBennett:
We’ve all had teachers that we liked or disliked, who inspired us or turned us off a subject entirely. To a certain extent that’s subjective, but there are some teachers who just have the ability to inspire and bring out the best in their students. How would you define what makes someone a good teacher?
Chuck Sandy:
A good teacher is a connector -- someone who’s able to form deep connections with students while helping them connect meaningfully with each other and their world in a way that opens up a circle of possibilities in which learners can grow and become who they need to be.

Though good teachers construct this circle of possibility by creating a classroom environment that’s characterized by mutual trust and respect while providing challenging, relevant work to do, such teachers understand they are never the circle’s center. Instead, they work to make sure that everyone has a chance to be in the center. Meanwhile, good teachers work to expand the circle in ways that allow for further connectivity and possibility every single day.

Truly great teachers know that the real learning that takes place in a classroom usually happens in spaces outside the lesson plan, somewhere within the connections between people those truly great teachers make possible. Therefore, they do not hide behind their textbooks and their methodologies and preconceived ideas. When new ideas appear and new possibilities emerge, they throw the circle open to bring those things inside.

The effect of working with such a teacher ripples on throughout a person’s life. Thirty or more years later, I am still learning how the ideas and people the great teachers from my own schooling connected me with connect now to the things I’m currently doing, thinking, and learning.
Mark McBennett:
What the teacher as a person brings to the table is paramount, but there is also the teaching environment. From that perspective, how important is teacher autonomy?
Chuck Sandy:
While the term “teacher autonomy” is something we hear about a lot these days, it’s really just a fancy combination of words for “teachers doing their very best to teach in ways that matter despite whatever curriculum structure they work in, no matter what textbook or materials they’re asked to teach, and no matter how rigid their school heads might be. No matter what, all teachers have some degree of freedom and always the responsibility to make their classes engaging, interesting, and relevant.”

It’s always possible.

Nonetheless, when good teachers are forced to constantly fight “the system” every single day in order to defend their autonomy, they eventually become exhausted and end up moving either out of education altogether or into a teaching context that’s more welcoming.

I know this from experience, having recently finally moved on from a university department where a dehumanizing system of rules and policies had become more important to my colleagues than good teaching and real learning. After 19 years there, fighting for my right to teach in ways that made sense to me while needing to defend many of the activities I was doing with students, I found I no longer had the energy to keep up the struggle. It’s not that the battle was not worth fighting or unwinnable. It’s simply that I got tired. The problem was colleagues with a different vision than my own and a different set of priorities than I have. In the end, to regain my autonomy as a teacher and restore the teacher within me, I had to leave.

I see teacher friends around the world making similar decisions, and in every case, it’s because they need to regain their autonomy. That’s how important teacher autonomy is and why I cofounded the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi) whose mission is to offer teachers a safe haven of professional development, empowering and helping them regain their energy, motivation, and autonomy.
Mark McBennett:
You’ve said that “positive change in education happens one student, one classroom, and one school at a time.” Would you agree that for this to happen, the real starting point is “one teacher at a time”? This, after all, would seem to be the core concept of iTDi.
Chuck Sandy:
Yes, I’d agree. The true starting point for positive change in education is always one teacher bravely teaching from the heart in innovative ways that matter. Students working with such teachers begin talking with others in the school or community about what they’re experiencing and before long colleagues start asking how they can get similar things happening in their own classrooms. If teachers then share what they’re doing in ways that allow colleagues to adapt and build on the original ideas, then the original idea starts becoming something more and begins spreading organically.

I’ve seen this happen again and again, with good ideas and methodologies spreading both locally and sometimes globally. Design for Change is a good example of one teacher’s idea that’s now spread to thirty countries around the world and involves something like 24 million children a year. I’m absolutely sure Design For Change founder Kiran Bir Sethi did not have this incredible result in mind when she started out. What she started doing was good work that matters and that became, in time, the global Design For Change movement.

Another good example is iTDi, where yes, the core concept is not only that one teacher does make a difference, but also that we become better when we work together in community as equals to learn more from each other – joined by a commitment to become the best teachers we are capable of being. This simple idea has resonated so widely that iTDi now has members in over ninety countries around the world.
Mark McBennett:
What advice can you offer to someone out there with a passion for teaching but perhaps feeling that he or she lacks the resources or the support to be the best that they can be?
Chuck Sandy:
Make a change. Do something new to take your professional development into your own hands. Join iTDi. Get involved in a local teachers’ group. Start using social media for professional development. Submit a proposal to give a presentation at a local, national, or international conference and then learn what you need to learn in order to give that presentation. Stop doing whatever it is you’re doing in class that’s not working, and start trying new things. Share ideas with colleagues.

Better yet, keep a reflective online journal or blog in which you write openly about your successes and failures as a teacher and invite comments from others. Stop feeling like you’re some sort of powerless person and start acting like what you’re doing makes a difference. It does.
Mark McBennett:
You’ve talked about teacher autonomy. But then there’s learner autonomy, something we touched on back in 2003. What advice would you offer teachers on that front?
Chuck Sandy:
Just as teachers need to teach in ways that make sense to them, learners need to learn in ways that make sense and work for them as individuals. Our students are people, not cogs in the great machine. If whatever ways a teacher is teaching do not work for even one person in a class, ways must be found so that this one person can learn. I am well aware of how idealistic and otherworldly this sounds, but it’s the real work of teaching.

Of course, there are always students in our classes who seem to be refusing to learn and, in the process, wind up causing problems for everyone. Having a teacher enter into a struggle with such a student just makes things worse. Instead, when we come to understand that most often what students are telling us by refusing to learn and acting out is that they can’t learn in the way the teacher is teaching or, more broadly, in the same ways that the school system is structured.

At this point there is a choice to be made: to either recognize that there might be other ways for such students to learn and exploring those possibilities, or else to let such students go – and probably fail and wind up being a problem forever.

To explore possibilities until we find one that works for an individual student is to understand learner autonomy. To struggle with such students in order to maintain order and discipline while forcing them to learn in ways they can’t learn is to disregard the very idea of learner autonomy and true teacher authority.

Learner autonomy does not mean letting students do their own thing in ways that are harmful to themselves and others. It means -- going back to the earlier question about what good teachers do -– helping such students connect in ways that are useful and good.
Mark McBennett:
TED, Pecha Kucha, Ignite, workshops…do you have a favourite style or venue for presenting your ideas?
Chuck Sandy:
Each format has it’s own spirit and energy. I like them all, really. I love the energy it takes to give a Pecha Kucha and watching the TED clock counting down as you give a talk is a real rush.

Then, it’s always exciting to spend a more extended time doing a workshop with teachers for you just never know where it’s going to lead or what’s going to happen if you approach that from within a circle of possibility.

Still, these days I really enjoy giving plenaries – just for the chance to do them in a way that allows me the chance to share something very personal with a large group of people.

Also, I enjoy giving webinars and doing online training with teachers via the iTDi platform and at virtual conferences. It’s wonderful to be able to connect with teachers from around the world from home or from wherever I happen to be.
Mark McBennett:
One last question. In keeping with the new global focus of ELT News, I’d like to ask you: if you were starting your career over again, where in the world would you like to work?
Chuck Sandy:
Everywhere.

Chuck Sandy

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