An interview by Martina Bednarikova
Are you used to following the textbook? Barbi Bujtás, one of the ELT Forum speakers, definitely isn’t. Some people may say what she does is sometimes a wee bit insane, but she often follows her students instead of any textbook. She knows that what happens as a result is actually teaching and real learning… because it is not the way things have always been done, but the way things work.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Please share your story with us: how did you become an English teacher, and what do you like most about teaching?
Barbi Bujtás (BB): I never wanted to be a teacher, it was an accident. My early plan ‘A’ was to become a fine artist, later a guitarist. EFL teacher was my plan ‘F’ or ‘X’.
English was the only subject I was good at (without much effort) at secondary school, so I had a B2 language exam, and a friend asked me if I could teach him. I said yes, why not, it must be quite simple. No, it wasn’t. I had to face the fact that not everyone has the same learning style as I do, I saw a profession in front of me to be trained for. This made my college years especially joyful and meaningful. unlike some of my peers, I knew why I was there and what I wanted to know.
I chose the nearest college, where I got infected with humanistic pedagogy, to put the learners and their needs first, and during my teaching practice weeks I had the most wonderful mentor-teacher I’m grateful to forever.
And I’m lucky it all turned out like this, I’m in love with teaching English, the best part is perhaps the feeling that I’ll never know everything about how to do it, it’s a series of an eternal number of challenges. It also gives me the opportunity to get rather close to my students, I can often see the beyond their facade and I’m witness to their growth in many respects, not only their foreign language development. It feels like I have a garden with various kinds of plans with various needs and preferences, each growing differently, I can contribute to their growth, but mostly I am the admirer of this beauty.
SCET: You work as a freelance teacher. Teaching in various teaching contexts, could you compare the advantages of each of them from the teacher’s perspective? Which age group and level is your favourite and why?
BB: I couldn’t choose an age group or a level. I love teaching adults because I don’t have to carry around all those teddy bears and stuff. No, just kidding 🙂 You know, I work in the small town of Balatonfüred, a tiny but varied market. One year there are many teens seeking exam training, sometimes struggling kids who need extra help, there are waves of students who are leaving the for English speaking countries. Currently I have many young and very young learners, and there are my in-company lessons with the very best, super-intelligent and hyper-fun adult learners you can imagine … I can’t choose a favourite field or age group.
What I love about this is variety, of course. And it gives me an insight into what happens till someone’s English ripens. When I teach two-year-olds I can see what skills they will need when they are teens, also it makes it easy for me to deal with secondary groups if I know they used to be cutie pie kindergartners a couple of years ago. I have the chance to get deep insight into it and challenges.
I have another job I adore, I write light exercises based on authentic stories found online. These are offered to learners by a language exam firm for free. Besides this they provide immense assistance to learn English and German. This model (free online materials, transparency, the promotion of learner autonomy and finally charging for the exam) especially appeals to me, I believe your learning is yours. And this is my favourite hobby. Don’t tell anyone, I’d gladly do it for free. Oh no, actually now I’m a constant hunt for more jobs where I could sell a sort of product or idea, rather than my time.
SCET: One of your areas of interest is teaching unplugged. Can you please tell us more about this “unplugged“ approach? How did you find out about it?
BB: I started college in 1997. In 1998 I felt I was a teacher, so I embarked on teaching one to one. By my graduation (2000) I was quite fed up with certain mainstream coursebook series. They seemed so awkwardly irrelevant to my students’ lives and I also developed an allergy to Seumas McSporran (a character of one of the coursebooks). When asked my students real-life questions like ‘How are you?’ or ‘What’s happening?’, I wasn’t sure what to do with the language points they wanted to use in their answer but hadn’t learned yet. (I had no idea of the term emergent language.) I felt frustrated and bitterly stuck in a rut.
Later I worked in a primary school, using nice coursebooks with contents alien to Hungarian kids. Their favourite dish was NOT fish and chips or hot dog, they liked fried cheese and Wiener schnitzel. These were NOT in the book.
I was desperate, the whole thing started to feel clumsy. I kept searching the internet for relevant materials, then I found articles on methodology, this is how I found Scott Thurnbury’s legendary article A Dogma for EFL. That was partly a relief, partly a source of further frustration, I had no idea who Scott was, I thought perhaps some weirdo teacher unable to keep rules. (No, that was me. :)))
Over a decade later I met Luke Meddings in Kosice, then I had the chance to be a participant of the very first SOLE Devon Unplugged Course with you in Barnstaple, those 10 days with Luke and Mark Andrews gave me the license to fell free to abandon certain irrelevant aspects of traditional ELT practices.
SCET: What are the aims of teaching unplugged? What does this style of teaching involve and what are its advantages? Is there anything you do differently as an unplugged teacher?
BB: Now this will be very subjective. As a one to one teacher often working with struggling students catch up with their English classes at school (to improve grades), I often see that overburdening teachers by public schools often results in their burnout or near-burnout, then they are not always aware of what and why they are doing, they follow the coursebooks and make sure they produce enough grades, they often test grammar, vocabulary and writing exclusively. Learners learn the rules, do written grammar drills (without meaning) and hardly ever speak. Sometimes they rote learn a paragraph, that’s all. I don’t sense any link to the English language as a means of communication that has anything to do with them as humans. No wonder I keep in mind the three main principles unplugged teaching (a.k.a. DOGME): for me a good lesson is conversation-driven, materials light (true that I use a lot of technology and authentic things I find online, mainly as some inspiring stimulus), such a lesson focuses on emergent language, language that comes up naturally in the course of the conversation.
So I always leave space for spontaneous and current things, I love to use what is in the air, and I feel it does work.
SCET: Your presentation is going to be about using magic tricks in the EFL classroom with young learners. Do you have any personal magic tricks that keep you going outside of the classroom?
BB: Yes. You know, there is no such thing as magic. Tricks use the phenomenon that our brain is susceptible to illusion. We see only the part of the trick that the magician manipulates us to see. We don’t pay attention to certain (seemingly unimportant, otherwise crucial) details.
Actually what keeps me going outside the classroom is what I see inside the classroom (and everywhere): people. I tend to see only the good parts that create the illusion of good people. My friend keeps saying I see only the better side of people. Which is true. And I interact with their better side, so I (hope) I make them use and improve that better side, finally their better side grows like a muscle, and I end up being surrounded with better and better people. This sounds quite glittery-rainbow-flower-power-pony-pegasus-unicorn, but this is it. I can focus on certain parts of life and let myself be tricked and I enjoy it.
SCET: Being an active blogger, can you tell us more about your blogs? When did you start writing and why? Where do you get ideas for your posts and how and when do you usually write best?
BB: I have more than enough blogs, I am the messy type, I start a new blog for each new project but write quite rarely. (I wish I had a slightly less tight schedule and I could write a reflective blog.)
It was Marisa Constantinides who launched my blogging ‘career’ in 2010. I tried to cram my criticism of certain education related issues into 140-character tweets, she drew my attention to the fact that those tweets are incomprehensible and somewhat negative and suggested that I start a blog.
I did so. Later that year Ken Wilson came to the IATEFL hungary conference. We didn’t meet in person, yet somehow he spotted my blog and very generously offered me the opportunity to write a guest post on his own blog! After a couple of heart and panic attacks of all kinds and intensities, I wrote something. It was published and since then I have been a grateful and quite stuck up blogger who actually doesn’t write too much, khmmm…
I can write easily though either when something I see infuriates or moves me. Then it’s easy and fast, a relief. Otherwise, I admit, I am a timid blogger struggling with my other self (monkey brain) who is whispering ‘You can’t even write, you’re a NNEST (non-native speaker), how dare you, …’, but 40% of the time this one is beaten.
Barbara Bujtás is a freelance EFL teacher with 15 years of experience in the beautiful town of Balatonfüred, Hungary. Her teaching context is the most colorful caleidoscope you can imagine, ranging from in-company courses to teaching two-year olds. She believes in engagement as the key to learning. She is an avid user of ICT, a believer of DOGME and online professional development (a.k.a. the virtual staffroom). She belongs to iTDi. Cats are her enemies and cheese is her best friend. You can find her online: http://barbyorama.wordpress.com/author/barbyorama/; https://www.facebook.com/BarbisClasses; http://rbie.blogspot.hu/
Workshop: MAGIC TRICKS
SPK – vYL/PRIM /LOWER S– A1-A2 – ALL
SATURDAY 13:15-14:15 in WELLINGTON
Presentation with Sasha Chistyakova: BETTER TOGETHER: DEVELOPING, MAINTAINING & NURTURING A PERSONAL LEARNING NETWORK
CPD – FOR ALL TEACHERS
SATURDAY 9-9:30 in DUBLIN