Cultural me, Cultural you // Third Edition// 04.04.2010// Interview Transcripts

Celebration hour with Alina Alens

on Easter Sunday, April 4th, from 9 pm (GMT+1)!

Explore the world of education with an exclusive

John Marshall interview!
Tune in for novelties, new music and

a Romanian-English touch!

 

PLAYLIST

April 4th 2010

  1. Richard Bona: ESOKA (Trust your Heart) – Reverence (2001)
  2. ALENS: MAINE – upcoming CD Back To Myself (2010)
  3. A Perfect Circle: VANISHING – Thirteenth Step (2003)
  4. Richard Bona: MUTO (Bye Bye) – Munia: The Tale (2003)
  5. Gathering: SATURNINE – Sleepy Buildings – A Semi Acoustic Evening (2004)
  6. ALENS: SEND YOUR ANGELS – upcoming CD Back To Myself (2010)

INTERVIEW QUESTIONS

Are you a teacher? Here are some questions for you that I used in my interview with John Marshall, a British born published author  currently living, writing & teaching English in Krakow. Send in your own answers to alina.alens@gmail.com and your contribution will be notified, put to good use & highly appreciated!

1. I would like you to offer the listeners a few words about your background in teaching English. How did you first get into teaching and why are you a teacher?
2. Do you find your experience of being a student having an influence on the way you teach today?
3. What is your attitude toward teaching? Has it changed over time since you started teaching?
4. Does your job as a teacher blend in with your life and other interests?
5. Did you have moments of doubt about your career as an English teacher? What triggered these doubts?
6. What is your students’ attitude towards you and, generally, towards the learning process?
Has it always been the same?
7. What is your opinion about the role of improvisation in teaching? During a class that I visited last year a student answered “I don’t have a written answer to this question, but I can improvise.” How would you react to this response?
8. Are there any ideal students? Have you had any?
9. How is your satisfaction level with the classes you are teaching this year?
Has it always been the same?
10. Do elements like the environment, the culture of the country you live in, or your professional relationships influence you as a teaching professional in any way?
11. How can you tell if your students are satisfied with what they experience during your English class?
12. How would you describe your own learning curve as a teaching professional? Does it have an end?
13. Do you have a favourite teaching topic, subject or activity?
14. If you were given the opportunity of introducing and/or co-organising additional events to teaching at your work place, what would they be?
15. Where or who do you turn to when you experience difficulties in teaching or are uncertain about something related to teaching?
16. Is teaching an easy job?
17. Have other teachers told you that teaching seems easy?
18. What are the particular ingredients that make a class great? From your experience.
19. Give us an example of the best feedback, comment or opinion that you have received as a teacher.
_____________________________________________

Interview Transcript

AA: I would like you to offer the listeners a few words about your background in teaching English. How did you first get into teaching and why are you a teacher?

JM: Before I came to Poland I was teaching English to foreigners, in fact, people coming to England who needed to improve their skills there. That was part of the British government’s basic skills drive, to improve everybody’s skills in Maths, English and English as a foreign language. So I was teaching English there for a couple of years.

I got to that, in fact, because previously I was in computer training. So I’d go around and install training systems for private companies, teach everybody corporately how to use computers and then when I’d left the job I’m driving back down the motorway and I’m thinking, “Yeah, I feel very satisfied, I had a good time teaching these people.” And then I thought, teaching, that’s the word! It’s not that they know how to use computers better or they can do fancy things with spreadsheets, I don’t care about computers. It was teaching. So, I thought, “Drop the computers, get yourself a teaching degree, and change your life!” So that’s what I did: I moved from computer training to teaching English. And then a couple of foreign people started coming to my classes in England, I changed from teaching locals to teaching foreigners, and then I thought, “Hey, why not teach these lovely foreign people in their own country? It’s a big world, let’s go and see some of it!” 🙂

AA: And that is how you came to Krakow…

JM: That is it, yes, via, you know, a couple of friends, now, one of them is a girl – 🙂 oh, yeah, it’s the usual story, we don’t need to get into. I have been here, in Krakow, for four and a half years now. I love teaching people. I love the independence of it, for example. I love seeing people learn.  It’s a simple answer.

AA: Great! Do you find your experience of being a student having an influence on the way you teach today?
JM: Yes, definitely. I advise any language teacher in any country in the world to be a student, which means, obviously, try to learn the local language – it’s always good, but for the teaching profession it’s very good, because what happens is that, being a student, you are on the other side, of course. You’re looking at, for example, a Polish teacher trying to talk to you Polish, and then you see how it is. And then you think, “Oh, dear, that didn’t work very well! Oh, I do the same thing, don’t I?” or “Oh, that was good! I do that!, That was interesting! I could learn a thing or two out of that,” or “Alright, OK, I must be careful, I must be careful not to do that because I’m not learning very much.”:)

It’s good to be on the other side. It makes you realise again, and remember how the process of learning actually happens, how a teacher should give you new information, what exercises they should use, because you know, when you go home, did you learn that Polish or did you not learn it?

AA: So this is a good testing ground.

JM: Definitely! I’ve got a friend of mine. He’s a new teacher and after a while he says, “Oh, John,  it didn’t work very well. What do I do the next time?” And I said, “Well,  just simply  imagine you sat there instead of standing up talking to them, how would you feel? Were you  too overbearing, were you too forceful, or were you too loose? Try to imagine it the other way around.” And he said, “Yeah, great, I’ll do that!”

AA: What is your attitude toward teaching? Has it changed over time since you started your job?

JM: I love teaching! I’m very lucky; I’m one of those people that  really loves  their job, whether it’s teaching or anything else, so I don’t really feel that it’s work.  I approach it professionally. I’m very lucky and I think I’ve always felt that, since the beginning, when I was teaching English people English language skills, before that, when I was training people in computing. I love teaching, I think it is a very worthwhile career, of course. Of course, it is much undervalued, please, if you’re listening, ministers, government, send me more money :), and all teachers, particularly the Polish school teachers.

AA: I subscribe to that!

JM: Yes, definitely undervalued across the world, as we know. The education of young people particularly like, say, in state schools, is of paramount importance. I’ve always felt that, and, in fact, when I first decided to become a teacher and got my degree I tried working at British state schools – primary schools, junior schools – working just for a few weeks with children with special needs, and I’m afraid I couldn’t hack it. I couldn’t do it, there were too many skills involved. I’m not a father, maybe I’m lacking some skills there, but I have got great respect for teachers across the board, whether they are private, public, children, adults. It’s a great profession, and I’m really pleased to be involved in it.


AA: Does your job as a teacher blend in with your life and other interests?

JM: It does for me. I think, like a lot of other EFL teachers, let’s say, working abroad, a lot of us have got part time contracts or maybe no contracts at all, we just work by the hour. Our days are different, our weeks are different, each of us has a different schedule, we’re running around, crossing each other on trams :), and meeting at photocopiers, and that’s how it is. It works for me because I do some writing, as well, I’m writing fiction, newspaper articles, theatre, whatever, and I build that around. We all do bits of proofreading, bits of translation work. Maybe a lot of us teachers are the kind of independent people that don’t fit in certain boxes, we don’t like to be in the offices 9 to 5, bosses, all that regime, so it’s good that you can build your own life, really, around your teaching hours.

AA: Extremely interesting opinion! Did you have moments of doubt about your career as an English teacher and what triggered these doubts?

JM: I’m quite self-critical, a little bit lacking in self-confidence, I suppose. 🙂 I shouldn’t be, because I’ve been doing this job long enough now, well, most students come back, so it can’t be too bad… 🙂 So I think the only times of self-doubt, really, just like little ones, maybe, where something’s not quite going well in the classroom, or …

AA: Everybody’s got a bad day, so they say.
JM: Exactly. Or, sometimes, you know, you’ll get a certain dynamic in a certain class. To be honest, somehow, these things are gonna happen. You have great classes, everybody clicks, and they all want to come to class, they have a laugh, and they all go for drinks together. You know the classes are going well, and it’s a joy to teach them. Other times,  it might be the fact they don’t want to do the last class on Monday night or the first class on Monday morning, but some of them just don’t want to talk together, it’s hard to teach them, and you think, “Am I doing something wrong here?” And you talk to your co-teacher, to the Polish teacher who teaches them on Wednesday, and he says, “No, they’re the same with me. How do you get them to talk? They’re shy, they’re nervous. One of them has got a nasty look on his face;” whatever  it is, there is a dynamic sometimes, and when that happens, I can be self-critical in thinking that I’m doing something wrong. You just have to keep pushing on, knowing that you’re doing a good job. People are people, students are different.

AA: What is your students’ general attitude towards you and, generally, towards learning, here in Poland?

JM: No false modesty, I think I’m pretty good. I’ve been here a few years, haven’t been deported yet :D, things are looking pretty good!

I think my students like me – I’m sure they do, I know they do. I’m good at what I do. I can say that because I know that I’ve  got better. You have to get better, of course you do! You can still learn things. The class is very communicative, and that’s always a good sign, apart from that Monday class or whatever it is :). Generally the classes are communicative, they are happy with the teacher, they feel relaxed, they feel they are learning, and they keep coming. When I first started in teaching I said to an old hand, “How do you know your students are not happy?” And he said, “Well, they don’t come back!” – talking about adult students. They just don’t come back on a Monday night at the community centre. Why should they? So, this is a quite simple test: they’re there, they turn up. Especially in these times. We don’t have a big crisis in Poland, but there are many crises and people are losing jobs and corporate training budgets are being cut back. But if in your classes into that second semester, where we are now, you  still got the same number of students you had in the first one, then you and your school are doing something well. So I have, generally, a very good relationship with my students, they like me and we both learn, let’s just say, not just them but I continue to learn from them, as well.

AA: And your school’s name is…

JM: Advertising? OK 🙂 If you’re listening, Jaciek,  you’re gonna pay me for this! Inter Lang, in Krakow.

AA: What is your opinion about the role of improvisation in teaching? During a class that I visited last year a student answered “I don’t have a written answer to this question, but I can improvise.” How would you react to this response?

JM: If the students decided to improvise I’d think that was great! It shows first, that you’ve got interesting, laid-back students, which I always like, and they’re prepared to have a laugh with you. It shows, second, that they are willing to learn, and try learning in different ways. Improvising… They haven’t improvised very much, I must say, though they work hard. I don’t really find the Poles are the kind of people that are gonna stand up and start jumping on  tables, not unless there are a few vodkas involved – but bosses don’t like that very much :). Of course, you can improvise as a teacher. You have to do that. Things are not going very well, so you’ve got to change the plan, go down another direction.

AA: Are there any ideal students? Have you had any?
JM: Quite a few! 🙂 Seriously speaking, an ideal language student is intelligent, inquisitive, hard-working, curious, communicative. That’s good for them for learning, it makes it easier and more interesting for you as an educator, it’s better for the group, they’re learning more.

AA: How is your satisfaction level with the classes you are teaching this year? Has it always been the same?
JM: The satisfaction level is very high at the moment. Like I said, good student numbers. I’m at a very good school. I’ve only been there for a couple of years. I continue, as you have to, I continue to learn as a teacher what works, what doesn’t. I’m getting better at assessing my abilities because I’ve been doing it for longer, quite simply, and you gotta know, just take another minute or two, maybe, at the end of the lesson and say, “Well, what worked, what didn’t work?”, “How am I gonna do that better next time?” I’m very pleased with things at the moment.

AA: How do you keep track of that? Do you keep learning notes or you just keep it in your mind?
JM: I keep it in my mind, to be honest. It does not happen so often now, but maybe in the first year or two, you think, “Oh, no, I was teaching these relative clauses or these cleft sentences and I looked a bit silly at one point.” If that happens, of course, then you’ve got to set things straight right away, look at the books, look at the notes, make sure that you know what you are doing and that it’s not gonna happen again. But, generally, just in terms of, “OK, these students like these kinds of exercises,”  “That wasn’t so good,” or “I need to be a little bit less or a little bit more…,” that’s just a kind of unofficial note to self, I think, for next time.

AA: Thank you for your honesty, actually! I think some people might choose to keep such thoughts exclusively to themselves! An opinion that I have encountered among teachers in Poland and Romania is that showing any of your weaknesses as a professional, even to other teachers’ benefit, might harm your reputation in your colleagues’ eyes or might make you come across as unprepared, which is even worse. I disagree, because we all learn from our mistakes. No one is flaw free.
JM: Definitely! If you are in some kind of less than friendly environment where your boss is over your shoulder, I understand you’re gonna be like that, you’re gonna keep that to yourself. Generally, for everybody to be learning and feel comfortable, of course, a nice environment encourages you to do that, to self-reflect; similarly, a little interview now and then with the boss is quite nice.
I don’t know if there’s a difference between English nationals teaching the language and Polish people. It seems to me that maybe Poles teaching English here are a little bit more guarded, perhaps, because of the culture, perhaps, because of the way things have been, generally, in the work place.

AA: Do elements like the environment, the culture of the country you live in influence you as a teaching professional in any way?
JM: I’ve only taught in two countries: England, and, now, Poland, so I won’t talk too much about the cultural differences. I think everyone listening has their own knowledge about cultural differences, generally. But let’s say the environment of the classroom, the environment of the school. These things do make big differences. Small, oblong-shaped rooms with chairs squashed against the wall in a U-shape, with a narrow little catwalk for the teacher don’t necessarily encourage  students to relax and move around. Different students need different spaces, different dynamics, to open up, to relax. In my school the rooms are big, bright, they are well equipped, which, all in all, allows you to stand up, sit down, walk around, get close to the students and for the students to move around in different groups, twos, threes, whatever they need for a mingling exercise, for example. The classroom environment is very important. If you are serious about your teaching, improving and job satisfaction, get out of that school you don’t like, and check out other possibilities.

AA: How can you tell if your students are satisfied with what they experience during your English class?
JM: They keep coming back! Quite simply! These are adult people who are paying what is quite a considerable sum of money to some people here.
AA: So they are quite motivated.
JM: They’ve got to be motivated, yes. If they are happy they come back. If not, they will vote with their feet and you don’t see them in the next semester. In fact, the school where I work is very confident of what it does, of what it teaches, because it is one of the only schools I’ve heard of that still allows people to drop out. If they want to give up on a Monday night, “I’m not going back to that class or teacher,” the boss says, “Fine, you can have the rest of your money back for the semester.” This is a kind of “money-back”  guarantee, which is very good. From class to class, of course, you have to keep your eyes open. Again, I said to an old hand at the beginning, “What do you do when you’re actually  not speaking or teaching?” – strange, naive questions. 🙂 He said, “You’re observing all the time, seeing if learning takes place, seeing if people are happy, motivated. Are they awake? Are they playing with their mobile phone? If they are doing that sort of thing, then they are not interested, so you change what you do, you take a different approach.”

AA: How would you describe your own learning curve as a teaching professional? Does it have an end?
JM: I hope it never has an end, cause, you know, then I will start getting bored, and I will start looking at my mobile phone during class. My learning curve as a graph in these last seven years was very sharp, I suppose, in the first two or three years, particularly as I was teaching those basic skills. Of course, in Poland, as in many other countries, we have these language books, student books, the unit-to-unit courses. If you’re not slavish about it, then generally it is a good thing. People like to get their money’s worth. They bought a book and want to go through it, generally, but when I was teaching in England for the first two years I had to make my own lessons up. I was doing this all the time, preparing for hours and hours. Not because I didn’t know this stuff, but this was the nature of the basic skills government drive. I might be teaching someone in a probation centre, who was trying to keep out of prison by signing on to some English courses. Or it might be some little old ladies at a community centre, and then in the morning I was teaching little old ladies from the Chinese restaurant, all kinds of people. Then a private one to one with a dyslexic 70-year-old who suddenly has to learn to read and write, because his wife died, and he doesn’t know that that’s an electricity bill and he’s gonna get cut off next week. So, putting all these different things together, it was a very sharp learning curve for the couple or three years. Now it’s much more gradual. I can rest like many people who’ve been doing the same thing for a few years. Or, I can say, “Alright, I know that, so now I have time to make it even more interesting. Let’s bring in a bit of audio-video material,” or “Can I find something interesting on Youtube?” So you’re adding your bells and whistles now, at this stage, I think.
AA: So the truth is it never ends. It is an ongoing process.
JM: Definitely.

AA: Do you have a favourite teaching topic, subject or activity?
JM: I suppose we’re all interested in certain things in life. I like to talk about green issues and other topics relevant to me, current affairs, a little bit of politics, what happens in the world. I like challenging people. If I’ve got students who can really bang out a discussion, then I’m very interested. Private lessons, I really like to have people who really
get involved and passionate about something, and then they learn a lot of language because they’re striving to express themselves in the right way.
AA: They say you really learn a language when you can argue or make a point in a language.
JM: That is it! To those students who can take it, and have the language  I like to provoke them, be a kind of a devil’s advocate, you know, asking, for example, someone in  Poland, “What about the in vitro fertilisation? That’s a good idea, isn’t it?” or “Catholic church? Do you think that’s gonna catch you on?” – with a wink in your eye to some students. 🙂

AA: If you were given the opportunity of introducing additional events to teaching at your work place, what would they be?
JM: At my workplace right now they have a lot of facilities, technologies, interactive white boards, lots of AV stuff, which we have the opportunity of including in our classes.
There is one thing that might seem strange for some. Seriously, I think a teacher should take his students out for a drink! Sometimes teachers do that at the end of a semester or at the end of the year, when everybody knows each other a bit more. But, I thought to myself, “Well that was very good! People who didn’t really talk to each other very much and always sat at the other end of the classroom were chatting – maybe in Polish – and getting along very nicely, finding out that they have a lot of things in common!”
AA: This makes it a good ice-breaker.
JM: Yes! We should do that at the beginning of the semester. I am not only saying that because I want to have an hour in a coffee shop. No, I’ve got enough of that, anyway. Seriously, it would be great to do that, because then the students would relax with each other very quickly,
AA: and take the language out of the classroom, and introduce it to life
JM: which means that they talk more in English during the classes. Yes, we should do that. Ask your boss: “Can I do this after the first couple of weeks?”

AA: Where or who do you turn to when you experience difficulties in teaching or are uncertain about something related to teaching? Do you have your own resources or do
you ask a colleague for an opinion?
JM: I might ask a colleague, “Do You teach that student, also? How is he with you? I’m not sure he’s responding very much.” I might get a bit of advice like that. Or I would say to a Polish co-teacher, “I always have a problem teaching this piece of grammar. Why is that? Is it a problem in Polish?”
AA: And then it clicks, “So, that’s why Polish students say, for example,  ‘you have right’ instead of ‘you are right’ – because of the Polish ‘miec racje.'”
JM: Yes, those kinds of grammatical issues from all kind of levels up and down the language. But, generally, in terms of doing my job, I think I have a pretty good handle on that, to be honest.

AA: Is teaching an easy job for you?
JM: The answer, of course, has got to be yes, because, first of all, I like it. I’ve been doing it for so many years, and like anything, you get pretty good at it, so it is easy. Then again, as a problem on this learning curve, comes complacency. You don’t want to be too complacent, because you just go in there, week after week, you’ve taught that book so many times, you’ve taught that level so many times, and then that’s not fair to the students in the next semester. You can get a little bit lazy. You know you’ve got your tried and tested methods. You know that, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna stick in a work sheet here on relative clauses” and “Oh, I have an interesting article I always give them at this point of the year.” That’s fine, but you should never let it rest. You should be adding, and chopping, and changing. It’s possible to get complacent, I think.
When we say, “Is teaching an easy  job?” the answer is “Yes it is, and it is easy to get complacent, which it makes it a little bit boring for you and your students.”

AA: Have other teachers told you that teaching seems easy?
JM: Seems strange, but I don’t really have these kinds of conversations with other teachers, just because we’re so busy running in and out of staff rooms with different schedules and things like that. We need to do more of socialising to find out what our colleagues really feel. I think, to be honest, for the Poles, of course, because for them English is a second language, when they teach English they have to do a bit more preparation, just to be sure about what it is, for the exceptions to the grammar rules, etc. That’s natural, of course it is, it’s a second language, and I think there might be a cultural difference between Polish people coming from their Polish culture and foreigners, say, English or Americans teaching English here. I think we, as foreigners might be a little bit more informal, a little bit more relaxed, because that’s the kind of culture that we have, and the Polish teachers, coming from their backgrounds, sometimes might to feel that they need to tick all the boxes, might feel, somehow, that there is a boss looking over their shoulder all the time, even if there isn’t in this industry, maybe they feel a little bit more nervous, I just see them being a little bit uptight sometimes, even if I know they are experienced professionals. Except for them maybe it’s not quite so easy, for that reason.

AA: What are the particular ingredients that make a class great? From your experience.
JM: A great class is definitely a communicative one. If you’re standing  outside a classroom thinking, “Oh, that’s a good one!” it’s because you hear a lot of talking – obviously at the right time, not if they’re doing a listening exercise 🙂 – maybe a little bit of laughter from time to time – although we don’t want teachers to be jokers, you know there’s plenty of people that come over to a country for 6 months a year just to get some back pack money and they tell all their great stories, “Ha, ha ha,” but we know that doesn’t always mean that people are learning. A great class is a communicative class with a variety of exercises, people interacting in different ways, or working on their own, twos, threes, depending on how large the group is, sometimes teacher-focused, sometimes student-focused. You must always be aware of, for example, how much you have to pre-teach, how much do you need to spoon feed some students, but then with others you don’t need to do that, just get them do the exercise without giving them the language and you’re often surprised at what they actually already know. They’ll appreciate that. You can go a little bit fast, rather than slow, aim high, rather than lower.

AA: Give us an example of the best feedback, comment or opinion that you received as a teacher.
JM: I suppose it’s quite recently, actually. A student wrote to me because she wanted me to get her a reference on email and I said, “Oh yeah, here’s the reference and you owe me a beer,” only joking. She said, “Don’t worry, Iwill buy you a beer because you’re a very good, inspiring, and motivating teacher. Seeing what you asked, that’s what she said.

AA: Thank you very much, John Marshall!
JM: Thank you!
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