“I don’t know who I am anymore!” - A shared existential crisis (video post)

The other day on Twitter, I saw this message from my MA colleague Ed Russell:

ed in crisis

After requesting some clarification, it turned out Ed was not, as I initially thought, thinking about his online PLN presence but his general place in the world of ELT..:

ed in crisis 2

...to which one of my other MA colleagues, Isil Boy, replied…:

Isil not in crisis

…an idea that I liked as I had been grappling with the same issue as Ed:

dave in crisis

I was going to type up the post upon coming home from work today but it was such a lovely sunny evening that I decided to sit out on the balcony for a while. However, my mind was still on the issue so, having not done a video post for a while, I reached for my Galaxy Tab and produced the following:

Do you know who this man is? :p

So what do you think? As we become more experienced, pursue further study and start to present at conferences, do we need an area of specialisation? Or is it all just another form of labelling? As ever, comments are welcome and appreciated!


  1. Hi Dave,
    I've wondered about this, although I'm a way away from getting to the post-DELTA, post-MA stage. I always thought it was slightly strange that you can't specialise in General English (I know that sounds like an oxymoron) compared to Business English, YL etc - it's definitely what I prefer at the moment. But I can see that it might be interesting/useful to pursue one area of research. I say go with what feels interesting to you at any one time...you can specialise in being a great teacher ;) (which you are!)

  2. Wow Sandy! That was fast. :)

    It seems being defined as a 'general English' teacher doesn't carry as much weight as some form of specialisation. Granted, some forms of ESP require a high degree of knowledge or experience in a particular area but I'm sure most ESP teachers discover their specialisation by chance more than design.

    I also wonder about this from the conference angle. Is it better to be known for your sessions on one particular area (e.g. pronunciation, edtech, drama) or to do a variety of sessions? Still not sure about that one.

  3. :)
    That's kind of what I mean. 'General English' teacher doesn't carry as much weight, because we're always pushed towards becoming more specialized. To me it seems like you could be specialized as a general English teacher if you can somehow show that your skills help your general learners (not sure if that makes sense!). But then maybe you would still need to specialize in e.g. pronunciation or writing...
    Not sure!

  4. I guess it all comes back to the old quandry "is it better to be a jack of all trades or a master of one?"

    And in reference to your first comment, it would be tough to speacialise in being a great teacher as there are too many of them out there (yourself included) for it to be classed as a 'specialisation' ;)

  5. I can definitely see where you (and others) are coming from. For me, it wasn't really until the last year or so and my most recent position in the International Foundation Program (content-driven EAP model) at University of Toronto that I've been really inspired to specialise in one area. Maybe it's time for a change in jobs?

  6. Too late for me to change jobs at present as I've signed my contract for next year already (actually, due to school administration and government work permit regulations, I had to sign up for the forthcoming academic year in March!)

  7. Dave!

    what a wonderful heart-felt and honest presentation. As you were listing the areas you modestly claimed to know a little bit about, I was thinking exactly what you concluded - how important it is NOT to be a specialist, if specialization leads you down a one-subject cul de sac.

    Having said that, I think all ELT people, particularly NESTs, must have a similar identity crisis at some point in their professional lives. The fact that your non-teaching friends and acquaintances presume that anyone who speaks English could do what you do doesn't help.

    When it comes to research topics and conference presentation ideas, that's a different matter. I'll let other people advise you on research, as I've only ever done research prior to writing a book.

    In terms of conference presentations, I think you should always challenge yourself by offering a topic outside your comfort zone and then researching it before the conference. Once I was asked by a publisher to do a workshop on mixed ability, which I thought I knew very little about. I did some reading, modified some activities and did one of the best workshops I can remember. A very cathartic experience.

    As someone who has been where you were (and a very long time ago), all I can say is you are absolutely the right kind of person to be in ELT, so stick with it.


  8. Hi Ken,

    Thanks for the comment and words of encouragement. I think it's important to always be open to new or different ideas and be willing to explore them - my main two things this year have been dogme and drama and both have brought about improvements in my teaching.

    Thganks also for your words of wisdom regarding presentations - appreciated from such a well-known name on the conference circuit as yourself. What you said reminded me of my first experience of giving a workshop when I used to teach adults. We had a series of in-house sessions run by a different teacher every week who got a randomly assigned topic. Mine was pronounciation - something I had largely ignored in my teaching up until that point. Preparing the workshop gave me some useful insight into why I should pay more attention to it in class. Now that I've done a few more workshops at diffeent conferences, I generally go for whatever interests me at the time of submitting abstracts. This year alone, I've done sessions on using Wordle, feedback and error correction and professional development through Twitter - good to have some variety. :)

    And I'm defintiely sticking with ELT, whichever 'specialist' path I end up going down!

  9. Hi Dave - take two!

    You ask: 'Isn't enough to just be a teacher? And be a teacher who reflects and who engages with other teachers and who always looks for ways to improve and thinks about how things could be done better next time and could have been done better?'

    That's a big 'just' at the start of your thought there Dave - any teacher who does all that definitely isn't 'just' a teacher. And teaching isn't a 'just' job - it has too much impact on people's lives, even if this isn't always given the respect it deserves.

    I think we often categorise too readily - of course the categories are embedded in our choice of MA course, our choice of SIG and so on - and this can cause problems. For example I used to feel self-doubt because almost all my experience is with multilingual classes of adult learners. But I've met teachers who feel the same because most of their experience is with monolingual classes of young learners! And the more teachers I meet in different contexts, the more I think that - if we think about our work in the way you describe - there's far more that unites than divides. We just have to keep learning from each other, which is what your blog is all about.

    Don't underestimate the importance of personality when it comes to doing more at conferences. When we choose a talk or workshop it may be because the abstract appeals (an art in itself) or the name is recognised, but it's really about the speaker engages, how they interact, how they are as a person. No one comes out of a memorable talk saying 'that was a great abstract! and what a great name!' They come out saying - 'what a great speaker.'

    And - what Ken said, the last line.

    I think you have a distinctive voice in the blogosphere, and it's never occurred to me that you don't have a specialisation. Erm, I can see a nomination badge just to my right that seems to suggest the same!


  10. David - Language plants are one of the other great things I've started to experiment with this past year. :)

    Luke - thanks for the comment and for your patience after the first one vanished!

    Hmmm, when you transcribe my closing question (obviously, you didn't use YouTube's new automated transcriber for that :p), it does seem like quite a comment to have 'just' in it, doesn't it?

    Definitely agree about the over-eagerness to categorise. I see it as a comfort thing - people like to attach ideas and actions to something familiar - and as an attention thing - some people seem set on declaring themselves as an expert or authority in a particular field. I think that's why dogme is debated so much - it doesn't fit neatly into any pre-defined category and it covers such a wide range of contexts as well.

    Speaking of context, one thing I love about blogging and tweeting is the amount of stuff I've learnt from people who operate in very different contexts to my own. As you rightly say, there's so much more that unites than divides.

    As for talks/workshops, that's an area I want to do more in. I'm still learning the ropes in many ways and advice from the likes of you and Ken is invaluable.

    Thanks again for your encouraging comments, especially with regards to the blog. :)

  11. There are some very thought-provoking ideas in these comments! I want to share a little bit more about where my head is at actually.

    When I started Coursetree, I thought I was going to use it as a be-all ELT company. I wanted to do workshops on everything and push myself this way. I wanted to dip my toes into every pot, so to speak. I can't say I don't still want that exactly.

    But I also came to the conclusion that I should place some focus on particular areas of interest for me, so that I a) am trusted and credible by peers, b) know more about these fields, and c)realistically can spend my time. Through some soul-searching, I realised that technology (because I really enjoy adapting web tools for classroom use) and EAP (because it's related to the program I current teach in that I love) were the two roads to give a try.

    Having said this, in thinking of my Masters degree selection, I've asked myself if I'd be pigeonholing myself too much. Will I be able to effectively speak to the larger audience about ideas not in those two specialisations? Will I be able to participate in conversations that aren't directly related to my speciailisation with any credibility anymore? Do I really want to?

    In the end, I suppose none of us are married to whatever specialisation we choose, if we do choose one. But I think having spent more than a decade teaching in various contexts leads me to want something more concrete...

  12. The last five seconds says it all, Dave. People respond to your blog because you're an inspiration and your love for your profession is apparent in your writing. The rest is just bumf.

    Failing that, you could go for 'An alternative A-Z', '7 things' or 'Two years in the life of an English teacher'. My hope is that you'll just blog about interesting stuff as and when it happens to you, like you do now.

  13. Tyson - so would you say you found the job first and then decided to make EAP your specialist area or is the case that you were interested in EAP and that led to the job? (A chicken and egg thing maybe?!?) Much like you, after over a decade in the job, I feel like I should be moving beyond just (there's that word again) being a teacher and into something else. Still a year to go on the MA so we'll see where that takes me.

    As for the MA, I'd recommend going for something that is general but allows for specialisation. I think studying something generic with teachers from a variety of backgrounds and then making the connections to your own context makes for a powerful learning experience.

    Adam - Thanks for the kind comments. :) That's the trouble with specific titles for blogs - after a while, you may find that it doesn't fit anymore. :p

  14. Hi David,
    I liked your idea of "being just a teacher" and agree with it, because it's already enough in terms of the impact teachers have on students' lives and learning process.
    Even though I'm a complete newbey in ELT, I've been concerned with the same problem of specialisation. My Turkish teaching context included adult learners only, now I teach both adults and YL, and I feel torn between these two: I cannot manage some lessons with kids for different reasons I guess, whereas during other lessons I feel that Scott Thornbury's "flow" in the class and enjoy it.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post and for what you do in your classroom, by blogging and sharing with ELT community, I am happy to learn from you as a professional =) The kids you teach are lucky.


  15. It's a bit of a hard call on the chicken/egg debate, Dave. I'd say I've always had a particular love for advanced learners, so that's where the level preference began. Without any full-time classroom experience in EAP contexts before this position, I'm not sure I can confidently say my "decision" to specialise in EAP would have been possible.

  16. Great video, Dave.

    I've always thought that it's better to be a "jack of all trades", and a master one. :) Love the comments thread too. Cheers for always diggin a bit deeper !

  17. Hi Anastasia - Thanks for the comment. I experienced the same feelings as you when I first started working with YLs as I had only taught adults beforehand. That's why I think your specialisation finds you rather than the other around. It all depends on what opportunities come up and being in the right place at the right time.

    Tyson - Thanks for coming back to this again. ı still miss advanced & upper-int classes, even after 9 years teaching kids. I try to stay up to speed with 1-1 classes. :)

    Brad - as ever, thanks for stopping by. Glad you liked the video post - you should try one sometime. ;)


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