Interview by Martina Bednarikova
Every great teacher is a great artist. Unfortunately, there are as few great teachers as there are any other great artists. John Hughes, ELT Forum 2014 workshop presenter, knows very well that in order to fulfil his potential what he does in life has to be consistent with what he teaches. That’s the only way teaching might truly become the greatest of the arts, since the medium is the human mind and spirit.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): How did you get started in materials writing? Where do you find inspiration and ideas for the materials you write?
John Hughes (JH): From the moment I started teaching I wanted to create materials. Not because I thought the course books were poor – in fact I learnt a lot from using the materials of good writers – but I liked to supplement the books and to write materials that were specific to students’ needs. Lots of my early writing was for students in specific work situations so I’d take texts from their work and make exercises out of them.
Inspiration for materials can come from anywhere. For my most recent course series called ‘Life’ (published by National Geographic Learning) I interviewed a wide range of people including photographers, explorers, artists and scientists and turned those interviews into content for the books.
SCET: Which part of writing (for instance, the ‘Life’ course book) do you enjoy the most?
JH: As I said in the previous question, I interviewed lots of real people with interesting lives so this was probably the most enjoyable aspect of the work. Also, I had access to an enormous archive of photographs and video from editions National Geographic going back over a hundred years, so researching and selecting images and texts is really satisfying.
SCET: Which has been more challenging: teaching or writing? Why?
JH: I can’t view the two things as separate. Sometimes I’m so busy with writing that I don’t have time to teach or do teacher training. But at the moment, I’m doing some teaching because I’m taking a break from full-time writing. Ironically, teaching is such a social activity but writing is quite the opposite! So it’s important to achieve a balance between the two roles. And if you’ve been writing materials for a while you need to go back into the classroom to work with students and to challenge your assumptions about what makes good material.
SCET: What new projects are you currently working on?
JH: I’m at the stage of my writing career where I’ve started working on second versions of many of my books. So for example, I’ve just written the second edition of ‘Spotlight on First’. It was called ‘Spotlight on FCE’ but the exam is being updated in 2015. Also, the book was looking old so we’ve updated many of the texts and it looks more modern.
Returning to a book you have written before is fascinating. In some parts, you look at the material and realize how much your approach to materials has changed. In other parts of the books you are pleasantly surprised to see that the materials still works with little or no adaptation.
SCET: What or who inspired you to teach English in the first place? When did you know or realize you wanted to teach?
JH: Before I was a teacher of English I had worked in theatre and had taught some drama. So when I started teaching English, it felt logical to integrate drama into my teaching. So a lot of my early interest in teaching English was related to my background in drama. In particular, I began by teaching business English and communication skills. For me, there is an obvious connection between working in business and the element of performance and the language needed. With regard to the question of inspiration, that always comes from the students and the energy that a room full of people learning can create.
SCET: How do you personally learn most effectively? Has your own learning style or strategies changed in any way over the years?
JH: I don’t think I can point to one way of learning. Over the years I’ve “learnt to learn” which means taking ideas and strategies and experimenting with them. As a result, I’m always sceptical of anyone who presents “the best way” to teach or to learn. Interestingly, the world of EFL seems to be producing a lot of new movements and approaches at the moment with people saying approach X is better than Y. Unfortunately, many of these so-called ‘best ways of learning” seems to lack of evidence to support their views. A great deal of the time the students themselves have their own strategies – our job is to suggest other ways rather than to impose on way.
SCET: Which country did you like the most as an EFL teacher? What was the most memorable experience you’ve had while teaching abroad – the one that has made a long-lasting impact on you?
JH: I began teaching EFL in 1992 and my first job was in Poland. Poland was a wonderful time for me both as a teacher and for my own personal education; I travelled widely in the region including my first to Slovakia in 1994. Later on in my career, I started training teachers in Italy and this involved lots of lesson observations. For a materials writer, observing other teachers at work is crucial because as an inexperienced materials writer you tend to write for your own situation. But once you start observing others, it helps you to write materials that will work in other people’s classes and in a much wider range of contexts.
John Hughes has worked in ELT for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer and director of studies. He regularly gives presentations and runs workshops in different parts of the world. He is also an author with over 20 ELT books. His titles for National Geographic Learning include Spotlight on FCE, Practical Grammar, Total Business and the new six-level National Geographic course for adult learners called ‘Life’.
Workshop: CRITICAL THINKING AND LANGUAGE LEARNING IN AN AGE OF SCREENAGERS
RDG/SPK/CT/VIDEO/EXAM – UPPER Secondary/UNI/Adults – A2-C2 – ALL TEACHERS
SATURDAY 13:15-14:15 in LONDON
Presentation: ADD LIFE TO YOUR LESSONS WITH VIDEO
VIDEO – UPPER Secondary/Adults – A1-C2 – ALL TEACHERS
SATURDAY 9-9:30 in NEW YORK