17 Years a Teacher

It was 17 years ago to the day that I started my first ever teaching job! In mid-February, 2000 I had returned to the UK after a whirlwind few weeks taking my Trinity Cert TESOL in Barcelona. Within a week, I had been offered a position at Kent English, a school in Ankara, Turkey and by March 6th, I was there ready (?) to teach.

Not far from where it all began, part of the old walk to work...
I am not going to focus on my first experiences as a teacher, however (I have done that before). Instead, this is a look back at the expectations, belief and attitude I had at the time and how it all has (of course) changed...

From pre-career step to career

A familiar tale this one I'm sure but I (shock, horror) never planned to remain a teacher. Having graduated from university, I had not yet decided what to do with my life. I wanted to travel and I wanted a way to fund and sustain my travels. TEFL was sold to me as a way to do just that. I had some vague ideas about working for a year or so in Turkey and then, provided I was up to it, move on to South Korea or Japan in time for the 2002 World Cup.

Somewhere along the way, I morphed into a professional language teacher. Teaching became my career and I wanted to move my way up into more senior and experienced positions. And here I am now as the ICT Coordinator at the British Council Bahrain after having been a Language School Coordinator in Gabon. Ironic that when I was more traveller than teacher, I never moved on from Ankara and now that I consider my self a career teacher, I am continent-hopping!

From much to learn to still learning

In those early days, I was constantly worried about being 'found out' - what if my students ask me a tough grammar question? What if they fail the end of course test? What if they expose me as a kid who just has a UK passport and a certificate from a four-week course? However, I was confident that these were only initial hiccups. Within a short time (months? a couple of years?) I would master teaching English. I would then be entrusted with advanced classes and life would be easy.

But what did 'mastery' of teaching English entail? Becoming a grammar expert of course! Kent English was an environment where grammar thrived - the students loved it and the teachers delivered. Once I had got my head around passives, relative clauses, and inversions, I would have it made.

I soon realised there was more to it than that - I would also need to master some teaching techniques such as presenting grammar,  practising grammar and producing it... but I also saw those as things to be mastered, after which, life would be easy.

Now, I have long since accepted that 'mastery' is not what teaching is about. Reflection and development are what make me a better teacher. As I go through the cycle of develop and reflect, new targets for improvement and exploration emerge. New jobs and different teaching contexts bring with them new challenges. Indeed, each student in each class requires me to adapt my approach to find what works best for them. This is a never-ending process and... that's ok. Accepting that is a big part of becoming a better teacher (again, ironic that as I became better at teaching, I realised that mastering it was an unattainable goal).

From much being privileged to privileged to be here 

Of course, a large part of me being able to take that first job despite being a 21 year-old recent graduate with no prior teaching experience was my passport. I was a 'native speaker' and I had been recruited to a school of only Native Speaker Teachers. I recall how, before I left the UK, friends and family would ask me how I would teach people English without knowing their language. I explained how it would work - they would have no option but to speak to me in English and I, as a native speaker, would provide a perfect model of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. The fact that my first employers had (and as far as I know still do) a strict 'English only' policy, even for beginner classes, only served to reinforce the idea that this was the way to go.

Thankfully, that's all different now. My later experiences of working with some fantastic teachers, both native and non-native speakers, (as well as some far from fantastic examples from both groups) made me realise that nationality and first language are not the key factors for an effective teacher, not even close. Passion for your work and your students and a commitment to engaging in a constant cycle of development are the real key factors. I am now happy to say I work in a school where all teachers are valued (and paid) the same regardless of mother tongue. Nationality and L1 are not factors in recruitment or advertising to students. Employer attitudes to these things are factors for me, however, when looking  for work.

It is truly a privilege to work in such rich international environments. Diversity is a strength and a great way to build a language learning and teaching environment of depth and accessibility. The only common ground we need between different teachers (and students) is a desire to learn and develop. That is what I will continue to do for as long as my career lasts.