Interview by Martina Bednarikova
Teachers often find that the students they are trying really hard to inspire are actually the ones that end up inspiring them. Alex McNish, one of the speakers at ELT Forum 2014 in Bratislava knows that the role of a good teacher is to inspire hope, ignite the imagination and instill a love of learning. After all, it is the teaching profession that creates all other professions. Therefore as Mr McNish says, long may teachers love learning!
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Alex, tell us the story behind your teaching career. Have you always wanted to teach? What do you like most about it and why?
Alex McNish (AM): Ooof, “story”?!?! It’s generally more of a blind stumble from coffee to students to coffee and back! I never, ever, ever wanted to be a teacher! 🙂 Or drink so much coffee. I know a lot of teachers enter the profession enthusiastically and then, sadly, often become disheartened and lose the excitement over the years of paperwork, etc. – and hence the very positive impact that the likes of the ELT Forum can have to ‘restore’ us! – but I seem to be suffering from just the opposite, so far! I genuinely expected to hate teaching, I found school utterly boring, and I (still) get very nervous giving presentations, etc. However, and quite to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoy my walk to work every morning designing lessons in my head, wondering what we could learn in class and how, imagining how the weather will affect the lesson, what mood the class’ll be in, whether the photocopier’ll be working, etc.
I love teaching, particularly those lessons which flow and when everybody’s surprised at the end that it’s over so soon. In fact, that mildly shocked look of disappointment and students’ glances at the clock when the lesson’s finished is probably what keeps me going and chuckling to myself, and possibly keeps the students (and me) coming back as well. It’s not, of course, and maybe can’t or shouldn’t be, every lesson, but at least it gives me a goal.
Most of all, though, I love spending my days in an environment of learning; if students are asking me questions rather than me asking them, then I consider my job done well. It’s learning that I enjoy, if I’m honest, both my own and being present at others’, not teaching. I don’t think many people get such an opportunity in life: to have to be creative and inspiring on an on-going basis. I think if it’s not in your blood, if you don’t truly care about your students and the greater goal of the education system, then it’s difficult to fake.
SCET: What exactly brought you to Bratislava?
AM: I wanted to learn a language from nothing and to observe it happening in myself so as to understand it better: what it felt like, what the difficulties were, which strategies helped and which were just logical-sounding theories. There’s also a freedom of thought and feeling in a second language that is lost in the first as it becomes tangled up in self-identity, etc., and living life in a second language is, to a certain extent, liberating, or at least more light-hearted. A couple of Slovak friends in London told me Slovak was “impossible”, and from London Slovakia seemed exotic and mysterious (!), so I took the challenge.
SCET: Tell us more about your own teachers. In what way did they help you think when you were a student? Did they influence you as a person or the way you teach? How?
AM: Not one of my teachers, but I remember Alan Maley saying that, while students might learn their lessons, more so “students learn their teachers.” That idea has really stuck with me. I don’t remember specific lessons from school, but rather the classroom atmosphere created by different teachers: Mr Bland for caring, Mme Chalen for the strict bottom line, Ms Stackhouse for the poster about people having to take risks in life or else achieve nothing, etc. So I don’t worry about creating these individual amazing lessons with all sorts of props and videos and cut-ups like a lot of teachers do; rather, I try to work towards creating a general atmosphere of open-minded and creative exploration of ideas, under a banner of “intolerance of mediocrity, and relentless optimism” as Dave Seddon said when describing his leadership theory for making a school excel. Adapting the usual course book topics to this end can be… difficult! Thankfully, though, some of the course books available now are heading in what I think is the right direction.
I hear a lot of teachers saying they’re happy because their students like them, but for me it doesn’t matter if my students like me, it matters why they like me (or not). If they like me because I let them get away with facile thinking and operating within their boundaries, then I’d rather be hated; if they like me because I challenge them to take risks in their thinking, to be able to see things differently, to have to ask rather than answer questions, to be cheeky even (if they can back it up!), etc. then I’m happy. It is probably the element of high expectations and challenge that makes me remember one teacher more than another, because they forced me not only to stay awake in their lessons, but to wake up more.
To give an example of well-justified cheekiness, I said recently (foolishly) to a teenage class, “Okay, next week you have school exams, right?, so no homework from me. You can have an extra two hours of free life to do what you want with,” to which one student replied, “You’re not giving us anything extra! Every other week we give you two hours of our already free life!” Fair point. Oops. Pedestal toppled. High horse brought to kneel. 1-0 to the students. I must remember to say thank you in future.
Steven Gray (Adyashanti) uses a lovely (?!) metaphor to describe his efforts to “wake people up”: driving down a road flicking matches out of the car window trying to start fires, seeing if something will catch. I like to walk into class with this attitude and flick a few matches about until something catches and we can get the lesson rolling, or burning… The best way, I am finding with experience, is to let the students do it, to try to pick up on what they’re discussing as they enter the class and run with it, building the learning outcomes around it. Lesson preparation is for me in this sense more about making sure I have a large enough box of matches, rather than planning something pre-determined about how to build a fire. As a colleague put it recently, it’s about teaching in chaos, responding to what works on the day rather than trying to prescribe a lesson, which is perhaps why observations rarely go well! I am preparing a lesson plan for an observation at the moment, aware that it is doomed before I even start precisely because it has to be planned so much. Mme Challen, my sixth form French teacher, was great at adapting lessons to the students as we went, and during the lesson, ignoring all calls for pre-planned lessons that then try to adapt the students to fit in to it.
SCET: Do you have your own source of energy, and what keeps you going when you have a bad day?
AM: Coffee is probably the fuel, at least in the short-term; otherwise, I don’t really seem to be having bad days at the moment, perhaps because I just keep smiling and it seems to rub off on students, even if it does bring me home evenings with an aching jaw. I hate working with teachers who teach as a ‘job’, and fortunately have not come into contact with any recently. My colleagues recently have been fantastic, and my Senior Teacher is an indispensable guide and motivation. I would like to say it’s the students who keep me going, and it certainly used to be and they still have a huge effect, but in my current workplace I would probably have to say that my colleagues and the general atmosphere of openness, sharing of ideas and materials, of trust and support, are in fact the greater sources of buoyancy. Long may teachers love learning! Or, as Haskvitz put it in his criteria for great teachers, they should be: “Unsatisfied, experimental, lifelong learners inspiring lifelong learners,” which I am currently, most gladly and gratefully, surrounded by.
Alex McNish is a British Council English teacher in Bratislava, Slovakia. Last year he completed his master’s degree in Second Language Acquisition at the University of Barcelona. He holds his degree in French from the University of London, QMW. He has been teaching in Slovakia for four years in total, as well as in England at an international private school near Oxford on and off since 2003. Alex’s main interests are preparing second-language English speakers for university entrance exams, extensive reading programmes, and trying to fathom Slovak grammar.
Workshop: THINKING: THE FIFTH SKILL
4 SKILLS /GR/VO/EXAMS – LOWER Secondary/UPPER Secondary/UNI/Adults – A1-C2 – ALL TEACHERS
SATURDAY 11:15-12:15 in WELLINGTON