Development, blogs, books and Japan- An interview with Darren Elliott of Lives of Teachers blog

We all seem to be seeing your name around a lot recently. A masterplan to become the next Thornbury/ trying to keep yourself busy while your wife watches Japanese television/ sleep disorder/ other?

I think it takes more than a few blog posts to be a Thornbury. I’m not even an Alex Case yet. I just like being part of a community.

You’ve written for ETP and (more importantly!) TEFL.net, you’ve got the popular blog, probably plenty of other things in publications that are too serious for me… what’s next?

I’m working on a book chapter about learner / teacher autonomy and blogging, which should be out in 2011. I’ve written and presented quite a bit on technology and teacher development in the last couple of years, but I’d like to set up a couple of little research projects on other areas. I’m just coming to the end of the academic year and I really want to focus on making my classes next year as good as they can be. And brush up my Japanese.

Do those kinds of things count as publications for your university?

To be honest, they aren’t especially worried. They give us a little financial support for books and conferences, and there are a couple of ethical committees to go through if we want to use student data in research, but we are employed as language teachers rather than academics or researchers. I think that’s how it should be – although research can improve or complement classroom practice, language teaching is not like, say, history or physics… a knowledge transfer subject. There is always a danger that you end up in a paper chase which distracts from the welfare of the students. No shame in being ‘just’ a teacher.

Are Eikaiwa (language schools in Japan) unfairly slagged off?

Yes and no. I think it depends on the people, and in the larger chains it’s a bit of a lottery. If the school manager is good, and you get a teacher who knows what they are doing, you can improve your English and have a good time. The chain I worked for was sound enough in it’s methodology, and didn’t con the students or teachers (too much). But with a couple of years I was the head trainer for about 50 schools with 100 teachers, with just a CELTA …. and that was considered highly qualified! You can draw your own conclusions about the industry from that….

It’s certainly getting tougher. Salaries have been stagnant or dropping for about a decade, and conditions getting worse. Students are more savvy, and know that they can find a private teacher who is more flexible, more reliable and cheaper than an Eikaiwa.

I think you’ve said that you started as the typical no training Eikaiwa teacher. Was it beneficial in the long term to be able to work things out for yourself before you got taught “the CELTA way”, or is it better to get the CELTA right off?

For me, I like to try things out myself first. I don’t think it was totally horrible for the students, either, looking back. As long as you have some cultural sensitivity and patience, and don’t forget to do up your flies, you can get by.

As someone who went into the CELTA with teaching experience and can now look back on it after doing a DELTA and MA, what do you think of it as a qualification?

It’s a good start, for a certain kind of teaching. Communicative, European, oral, ‘grammar mcnuggets’. I did my star lesson on the past perfect – the most useless tense known to humanity.

Does studying for a Masters improving your teaching much?

Compared to the DELTA, no… at least, not directly. If I was hiring, and I had to choose, I think I’d go for the DELTA qualified teacher in most cases. But I enjoyed the Masters more, and I am still benefiting from the slow release of learning. I considered doing an online course, but I’m so glad I went back to the UK and did it face to face. I loved teaching at a British University – one of the best courses I ever worked on was a bridging course for six very smart women starting postgrad courses at the Art and Design school. We went on gallery visits, we set up seminar sessions, we went to the pub. I also got to meet other trainee teachers from all over the world and learn about their contexts. And I lived above a pub for a while, with a kebab shop next door.

How was the concept behind your first blog different from your present one? Why did you decide to change?

The first one was very specific. I really wanted to set up a collaborative development group in a particular way. However, I soon realised that these things can’t be forced… they have to grow organically. It was a worthwhile experiment, but ultimately failed. This one is more relaxed!

Can you give us a top three favourite blog posts from your old blog or new blog?

I like this one because it came out of class preparation, and the beauty of teaching language is that you can use anything as a vehicle. I am always considering ways of getting students to think around corners. http://www.livesofteachers.com/2009/10/31/urban-legends-and-critical-thinking /

This one is a favourite because I am very interested in researching it further… I am sure there is a correlation between learners’ metaphors for teaching and learning and learner autonomy. http://www.livesofteachers.com/2009/11/07/a-gift-from-a-flower-to-a-garden*/

And I like this interview because it gives an insight into an area of the teaching field I know little about. Some of the people I have interviewed have been bigger names than others, but I think they are all worth hearing. Miles gave a great talk in Kyoto a couple of years back, and he was on my wish list of interviewees when I started thinking about the blog. I also like this one because he isn’t a member of the twitterati… it’s nice to hear a voice from outside the elt blogging community. http://www.livesofteachers.com/2009/11/28/an-interview-with-miles-craven/

How did you come up with the idea of video interviews? Has it worked out as you expected?

I did a lot of narrative interviews for my dissertation study. I was researching teacher development, and the ways in which teachers re-established themselves when switching contexts, and everyone I interviewed had a unique story. We can learn by learning how other learn. But people are just interesting, don’t you think?

It is actually supposed to be a podcast, when I can figure out a couple of little bugs. I’d been thinking about it for ages but when I saw Paul Nation was coming to town it spurred me to action.

So far, they haven’t gone quite as I had envisioned, as each person has been fairly well known for something and the interviews have stuck to that… of course you would talk to Paul Nation about vocabulary and Scott Thornbury about Dogme and grammar, right? As I get more comfortable, I think they will broaden out a bit… plus I’m hoping to interview a wider variety of people. Anyone out there who wants to tell their story, get in touch! I’m doing them on skype now, too. I especially want to talk to non-native speakers, and people working in developing countries.

How much time does blogging and related stuff like reading others’ blogs and twittering take up?

Probably more than it should. But I have a lot of train time for thinking, reading and writing. To be honest though, I am trying to unplug a little more regularly.

Why do you think practical teaching ideas are taking more and more of a backseat in the TEFL blogosphere?

I don’t think they are, but they tend to be a certain type of practical teaching idea… fifty things you can do with flickr, all that techie stuff. But a lot of people in the blogosphere have been doing this for a while and I think they enjoy talking about the bigger picture. It’s very hard to evaluate how much my online teacher development activities improve my classroom practice (if at all). But I know they keep me engaged and interested in the profession, which at this stage of my career is what I need.

Do you think it is still worth getting published on paper?

Absolutely. But I’m a dying breed. I still remember a time when there was no internet (or video recorders!) I still subscribe to the print editions of journals I really like, and I would rather go to do research in the library than online. No doubt that will change though, as kids grow up with smart phones and kindles. And some of the intelligent, stylish writing out there (like Sara Hannam or Diarmuid Fogarty’s blogs) beats what’s on paper into a cocked hat. There are some more ‘traditional’ free journals online, too, of good quality.

What is your favourite TEFL book ever and why?

I really love ‘Language Teacher Education’ by Jon Roberts. It was one of the first more challenging books I read when I started studying, and introduced me to ideas like social constructivism and reflective practice. My copy is well annotated and highlighted, like most of my favourites.

I also have to add ‘The Phonology of English as an International Language’ by Jennifer Jenkins… it made a huge impression on me when I came across it, not least because it made a topic I found slightly painful and tiresome (phonology) seem vital and relevant.

What’s the most recent TEFL book you liked and why?

Rose Senior’s ‘The Experience of Language Teaching’ and ‘Lessons from Good Language Learners’ edited by Carol Griffiths were both excellent. Just go and read them.

And all time and recent best TEFL workshops and presentations?

I saw Ken Wilson a couple of years ago when he was in Japan and I recommend his presentations to anyone. I don’t know that I learnt anything in particular, but it was hugely entertaining and invigorating. I hope he takes that the right way if he reads this!

Last year, I saw James Lantolf give a plenary. I’d been struggling through a book of his on sociolinguistics, but hearing him talk everything fell into place. It turns out I actually don’t really like some of his ideas, but at least I understand them a bit better now….

Any non-TEFL books or persons who have influenced your teaching?

My blog is named after Michael Huberman’s book, which I will get around to reviewing soon. It’s such an ambitious study, and the career trajectories he charts are enlightening. In a similar way, Frances Fuller’s theories about the concerns of teachers made a big impact on me, as did Donald Schon’s ‘The Reflective Practitioner’. If you want it boiled down to practical terms, teachers need to understand themselves, and accept that ‘expertise’ is not always stable. Peaks, troughs and slumps are part of teaching…

But the biggest influences on my teaching are the people around me. I’m very lucky to work with some extremely good people at the moment, and I’m trying to be a magpie and pinch all their good bits. My wife’s teaching put me through university, too…. she always has a direct and simple solution when I start over-thinking things.

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This entry was posted in Cambridge Delta, CELTA, Critical Mass ELT, Eikaiwa, Experience of Language Teaching, first TEFL job, MA TESOL, Teacher training, Teaching English in Japan, TEFL, TEFL blogs, TEFL conferences, TEFL heroes- Rose M Senior, TEFL heroes- Scott Thornbury, TEFL qualifications, TEFL reviews, TEFL villains- Jennifer Jenkins, TEFL workshops and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Development, blogs, books and Japan- An interview with Darren Elliott of Lives of Teachers blog

  1. SandyM says:

    Darren Elliott? Who?? Never heard of him…

  2. Sara Hannam says:

    Thx for the mention Darren. I really get a lot out of your blog postings and value the perspective from Japan that you bring the blog world. It has given me a lot of food for thought on how important local knowledge is and that ideas need to be fine tuned and developed within local contexts to be relevant to teachers and learners there. Keep up your great work. Wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading this interview. Great work Alex and Darren : ) Happy New Year!

  3. Alex Case says:

    Thanks for visiting again Sara. Glad you liked the interview- should be yours up next!

  4. Sputnik says:

    An excellent interview – one of your best, in fact – although I’m not sure about some of the facts – was there really a time before the internet?

  5. Imagine….

    Glad you all liked it, except Sandy (who I prefer to think is joking ALL the time. Otherwise, he’s just horribly offensive)

    And try as I might, I can’t see a link to my blog in the sidebar anywhere….

  6. Alex Case says:

    Ah, you’ll be talking about the bit of TEFL history that is my blogroll. Until last week it lived on another page and was NEVER visited, so not updated for a loooooooooong time. It’s number 24 of my list of things to do (really!)

  7. You should move it down, too. I want to read the ‘latest comments’ box but that’s tucked away at the bottom now.

    Look at me – three months in and I’m telling Alex Case how to run a blog……

  8. Alex Case says:

    That could go in the motto post above

    TEFLtastic with Alex Case- “Knowing nothing about blogging never did ‘im and ‘arm”

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