An Interview by Martina Bednáriková
Life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change when we least expect it. Maggie Kubanyiova, one of the plenary speakers at this year’s ELT Forum knows that at such moments there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or saying that we are not ready yet. Challenges do not wait and life does not look back… Therefore let us be grateful for every opportunity we have, for life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): What do you enjoy about teaching and what do you think could be improved in today’s educational system?
Maggie Kubanyiova (MK): I think there are quite a few things, but let me give an example. After a very long and exhausting day at work, with very little energy left in me, I realized that I hadn’t given feedback to my students on their reflective journals, which is what they do as part of their class. I don’t think I can quite explain what happened, but after finishing the last journal a few hours later (well after midnight!), I felt completely ’recharged’. As I was reading through the entries and commenting on various issues they raised, I was really excited to see the way they engaged with the new material, their observations which showed a genuine sense of involvement, intellectual as well as emotional, all those light bulb moments and discoveries… I guess this is exactly what makes me tick. Being a witness of a profound change that happens to a person when they invest themselves in the learning process and to see such moments in action, be it in the classroom, in their written work or even in non-academic contexts, is what keeps me going as a teacher. And I believe that we need to think about how our educational systems enable such profound learning experiences for both students and teachers. This is, of course, a big issue that would need a lot of unpacking, but this would be my starting point for any conversation about educational improvement.
SCET: How should English teachers motivate themselves when everything seems wrong and they feel sick and tired?
MK: I’m afraid I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I am hoping to address some of these really critical issues in my presentation. I’ve come to appreciate through the many years of experience in diverse teaching contexts that conditions will probably never be ‘right’. Of course, we all need to work very hard on raising such issues and advocating for a better, more supportive and more rewarding working environment for all teachers. At the same time, however, I feel that we, as teachers, need to work on replenishing our internal resources by engaging in positive conversations with like-minded colleagues (and really following SCET’s own motto ‘Stop complaining – enjoy teaching!’ which I really like J), because these can help us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on what matters, why we wanted to become teachers in the first place and why it makes sense to keep fighting whatever the system throws at us. Attending conferences such as the ELT Forum really helps, but perhaps thinking of setting up informal networks of close colleagues who can meet over a cup of coffee and share their experiences in a safe and supportive climate is another important route to safeguarding motivation.
SCET: What are the positive aspects of working as an English teacher in a totally different culture, and why would you recommend any teacher go and teach abroad?
MK: I would strongly recommend this to anyone, probably even regardless of whether they wish to pursue the teaching career in the future. It is an important eye-opening experience which exposes you to new ideas, new mindsets, new ways of doing things, and challenges (sometimes in quite drastic ways) your taken-for- granted assumptions. When you are completely stripped of all that is known to you (and I know that I was when I faced my 75 male students of engineering in the English language classroom in the countryside in Thailand, with no textbooks, no shared language, no shared cultural knowledge and a couple of monkeys on the window sill), you are much more likely to start focusing on the ‘essence’ of what it is that really matters to you as a teacher and what you want for your students. ‘Unlearning’ what you thought you knew is part of the process and although this can make you utterly vulnerable and exposed to start with, it may be, in my experience, one of the most crucial moments in language teachers’ development.
SCET: Can you share your story about how you became a university lecturer at the University of Birmingham?
MK: The short answer to this is quite straightforward: they advertised, I applied, and I got it. Of course, the long answer would involve talking about all the different experiences, events and sacrifices leading to this, the blood, sweat and tears of my PhD research, all the wonderfully generous people I have been lucky enough to meet and work with and who enabled me to grow in my academic career and to reach that stage in my development… But that would be a very long answer indeed!
SCET: What do you do to develop your own teaching skills, and where do you get new ideas for your own teaching?
MK: From everywhere really. Sometimes, it’s a particular article I’ve read that completely changes the way I look at a specific topic, which, in turn, triggers a complete overhaul of my class or even the whole course. Or an interesting advert I’ve seen on a bus or a newspaper headline which may be an interesting illustration of what language does. I also quite often use short transcripts from the actual classroom interactions to help the students to engage with an important idea, etc. Of course, I am always inspired by listening to colleagues at presentations, workshops, my students’ stories, their microteaching ideas… the list is endless.
SCET: What kind of preparation goes into your own conference and university presentations and talks?
MK: My conference presentations are essentially related to my research, so that’s where the content comes from. Of course, I need to think about the audience very carefully and ensure that the way that content is presented speaks to them. I often visualize the actual interactions with the audience, who they are, how they may respond and try to adjust my presentation accordingly. Of course, it doesn’t always (if ever) result in flawless presentations, but it certainly helps me to think about what I want to say and how.
SCET: Tell us more about your own writing process. What are the positive aspects to writing, and what are the drawbacks, if any?
MK: With regard to writing, I really wish I could tell you how easy and straightforward the process is and how it gets better with practice. I’m afraid, however, that this is and will probably remain an extremely painful process for me, with lots of metaphorical (and sometimes not so metaphorical!) kicking and screaming involved. I think this is because writing for me, regardless of the actual type of text I’m writing, is a very personal and creative experience. And like with all nature’s creative processes – something has to die in order for something else to flourish. So I’ve just learned to accept the ‘suffering’ phase as an inevitable step because I find the ‘flourishing’ bit incredibly rewarding.
Originally from Slovakia, Maggie Kubanyiova is a university lecturer and researcher at the University of Birmingham (UK) where she directs the MA Education TEFL programme which enables English language teachers from all over the world to develop their teaching skills and expertise. She has also lived and worked as a language teacher and teacher trainer in Slovakia, Thailand and the United Kingdom. Maggie?s areas of expertise include communicative language teaching, motivation, classroom interaction and language teacher development. She?s published articles and chapters on those topics in a variety of ELT journals and books, including ET Professional, Modern Language Journal, and TESL-EJ. Her book ‘Teacher Development in Action’ (2012, Palgrave) investigates the development of English language teachers in Slovakia and the upcoming ‘Motivating language learners, motivating teachers: Building vision in the language classroom’ (2014, Cambridge University Press, with Zoltán Dörnyei) proposes new ways of looking at motivation in the language classroom.