An interview by Martina Bednáriková
The job of a teacher is to teach the students in front of them, not the ones they would like to have, not even the ones they used to have… but those they have right now. Steve Taylore-Knowles has learnt to veer off the lesson plan and follow his students’ lead. And the day he started learning with his students was the day he believes he became a teacher.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Tell us about your beginnings as an English teacher. How did you get into education?
Steve Taylore-Knowles (STK): When I was five years old, I was given the task of helping a newly-arrived immigrant boy in my class learn to read in English. I guess that was my first teaching post! I hope I didn’t do too much damage – which is something every teacher should hope. About twenty years later, after completing my MA in English Literature and getting a place to do a PhD but no funding, I got a phone call offering me a job teaching English in Greece. Two weeks later, I walked into the classroom, loved it and decided to stay. After a couple of years, I realised that this was going to become the profession I committed myself to so I did a DipTESOL. I think that doing it that way round (diving into teaching and then doing a formal qualification in teaching later) gave me valuable insights into what life is like for many teachers, who perhaps need and welcome the kind of support that well-designed courses provide. I try to bear those teachers in mind when I’m designing courses now.
SCET: You served on the Executive Board of TESOL Greece. Why did you decide to be a part of it? Can you tell us what your role was and what you liked about it, and what was the most challenging part of it?
STK: I think national TESOL organisations play a very important role in the ELT life of many countries. I decided to stand for election to the Executive Board of TESOL Greece because I wanted to be a part of providing professional development and networking opportunities for teachers. I was involved in organising the annual convention, as well as organising and providing teacher training sessions throughout the rest of the year. One of the things that anyone involved in teacher associations soon realises is that there is no better way of developing professionally than to jump in and become a part of other teachers’ professional development by sharing your classroom practices, your insights, your frustrations and your triumphs.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was that TESOL Greece was based in Athens and at the time I lived in Volos, which is four hours away by bus, and five by train! Getting to meetings was an ongoing challenge, but I felt it was important for people outside the capital to also be represented in the organisation.
SCET: How did you get started in materials writing? We would like to know more about where you find inspiration and ideas for the materials you write. Which part of writing do you enjoy the most?
STK: My very first work in ELT publishing involved doing some illustrations for a book published in Greece! I also wrote a couple of skills books for a small publisher, but my real breakthrough came when I was commissioned by Macmillan to work on a secondary series called English Tree, back in 2000. I wrote one level of the series. It was a huge amount of fun and I worked with some great people. When people saw the job I’d done on that series, other commissions flowed from there.
Right now, I’m in the brainstorming phase of a new project, so I’m very much in the business of looking for inspiration and ideas. It’s one of the phases I love, because you can dream about all those wonderful features you’d love to see in a course – often before many of them are ditched for being impractical, or too expensive! One source of inspiration is the time I spend with other teachers, either in their classrooms, where I’m privileged to observe them at work with their students, or at conferences and other events. Right now, I’m writing this at the bi-annual BrazTESOL convention, which is taking place in João Pessoa, in the north-east of Brazil. The plenaries, the other talks and workshops, and the conversations in corridors or over lunch all prompt ideas and possible directions for future work.
SCET: Can you tell us more about your most recent projects?
STK: My most recent project is a series called Open Mind, for young adults (and in some cases, older teenagers), published by Macmillan. This is a very exciting time for the course because we recently produced the second edition of the American English version and the first edition of the British English version. That means we’ve had a fantastic opportunity to get lots of feedback from people using the course, to ask people all around the world for their take on the challenges of teaching these students, and for us to refine our thinking and make sure the materials are as good as we can possibly make them.
As we put the course together, we realised that there was a very important area that we felt we had to include: life skills. Our young adult students often lack the key skills they need to use their English effectively in their professional lives, in their social lives and in their academic lives. I’m thinking of skills such as working together well in teams, planning and giving clear, effective presentations and persuading others of your point of view, to name but a few. As well as all the tasks in Open Mind which are designed to develop students’ language skills, we’ve integrated work on life skills, developing those abilities that will give your students the edge in the world outside the classroom.
The tag line for the course is ‘Language is a life skill’. What we mean by that is that we need to look at the role knowing a language plays in a learner’s life. A language isn’t developed in isolation but alongside other skills that the learner possesses or acquires. Of course, we still need a solid grounding in grammar, a broad vocabulary, and language skills in the traditional sense of being able to read, write, speak and listen, and Open Mind provides all that. At the same time, though, there’s a host of thinking skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, which students need to be effective. I’m really enjoying travelling around at the moment, talking to teachers about this whole area and explaining how we can best bring these ideas into our classrooms.
SCET: What do you personally think about institutional testing? Do you think that testing supports learning? How? In what way does the preparation beforehand help students develop better language skills?
STK: Tests can be a force for good – or a force for evil! And yes, I do think that testing can support learning when it’s done in the right way. I’ve been thinking recently about how we forget language items that we’ve apparently learned. Over time, we suffer from language attrition – we forget items that we don’t revisit, revise and reuse at the right time. Use it or lose it! And it’s very difficult to create situations in the classroom where students actually need to use a lot of the vocabulary they’ve learned in the past, particularly at higher levels, partly because we’ve moved on to a different topic and so students are in the midst of learning a new set of items. I think testing has a role to play in helping to keep items fresh and available in students’ minds.
However, I do think we have to be very careful about how we test students’ language skills. Tests tend to use a very narrow range of task types, and students can become very good at doing those task types, rather than very good at using their English effectively, which surely is the aim. I’m sure many readers will be familiar with students who do well on tests, who ‘know’ the language in an academic sense, but who find it difficult to carry on a natural conversation in English. I think that’s partly a consequence of the kinds of test we administer to students and the kind of teaching that works towards those tests. Testing can create a vicious circle. If your teaching involves a lot of gap-filling, say, and then you test that using gap-filling tasks, you shouldn’t be surprised if you produce students who are very good at doing gap-fill tasks but little else.
SCET: You do many presentations at various conferences. How does this commercial side influence and change your teaching? Or does it?
STK: Most of the presentations I do are not commercial, in the sense of going through the features of a particular course I’ve written with the aim of persuading an institution to adopt it. That’s part of what I do, but in fact most of what I do at conferences and other events involves plenary talks or other presentations which are based on my ideas – although of course those ideas feed into the courses I create in all kinds of ways. I love the interaction with audiences and I learn a huge amount from people’s questions and responses to my talks. That interaction is one of the reasons I much prefer live sessions to webinars. In webinars, it’s possible to create a certain kind of interactivity, but messages in a chat box are no substitute for face-to-face interaction. What I learn from teachers and others involved in education at conferences is less about me presenting and more about me listening, trying to understand more about the range of teaching situations around the world, and reflecting on how best to give teachers tools that will enable them and their students to progress. I strongly believe that any course designer should start from where a class is, rather than start from whatever ideas are currently fashionable in the world of ELT. A top-down approach, based on ideas about what teaching ‘should’ be, runs the risk of being irrelevant to the reality of most classrooms. I want to understand that reality, while at the same time opening the door to further possibilities. Attending and presenting at conferences is, for me, all a part of developing my understanding of the points of similarity and of difference between different classrooms.
SCET: Your job involves a lot of travel. What is your favourite destination and why?
STK: As I said earlier, I’m writing this at BrazTESOL in João Pessoa, which is the most easterly point of Brazil, the bit that sticks out the most into the Atlantic Ocean. The sun is shining, people are lying on the beach and it’s all very tropical and exotic. And it’s easy to forget that most of the travel I do is nothing like that! Usually, I get to go to places in the winter (when schools are open and teachers are around), and I get to go to a lot of places that tourists haven’t heard of and wouldn’t dream of visiting – whether it’s a small town in the mountains in Italy or a large, snow-swept city in Siberia or Kazakhstan. And I love it – I feel privileged to be a part of teachers’ everyday lives, to meet them and talk to them in the schools that they work in and to see inside their classrooms.
It would be churlish to single out any one place as my favourite destination when I’ve enjoyed so much hospitality from so many people around the world. So I’m going to choose a place that I didn’t visit on a work trip: New York. I was there for a few days a few years ago and I loved it. New York is so much itself – all the images you have in your head from seeing it in movies and on TV are right there in front of you. I would love to go back and spend a bit more time there and get to know it better.
SCET: What was the most memorable experience you’ve had while teaching abroad – the one that has made a long-lasting impact on you?
STK: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think for any teacher who reflects on their own practice, their working life is made up of memorable moments. And no doubt a number that they would rather forget!
I’m going to choose two moments. The first is an example of how to get it wrong, and the second is an example of what can happen when we get it right.
When I first started teaching in Greece, I would ask my students if they understood what I had just explained. And they would all nod. And I thought that maybe I’d misjudged the level and that they all thought that what I was trying to teach them was trivially easy. And yet, in practice, they struggled to get it right. So I explained again, and again they all nodded when I asked if they understood it. But still they couldn’t do it. Eventually, after a couple of days of this, I realised that in Greece tilting your head up and back (which to the untrained eye looks a lot like nodding) actually means ‘No’, or in this case, it meant: ‘No, sorry, I know you’re trying your best, but I don’t understand a blind word you’re saying, Sir.’ I took two lessons away from that: find ways of getting your students to demonstrate their understanding, rather than just asking them if they have understood, and always research the common gestures of a country you’re planning to go to before you get there!
The second memorable moment comes from a conversation with a small group of students outside the classroom. We were talking about their future career plans, and one of them said that she wanted to become an English teacher. It had been a long, hard day, and I don’t think things had gone particularly well in one or two lessons, so I wasn’t feeling my most enthusiastic for the profession and I said ‘Why?’, as if to say ‘Why would anyone want to do this thankless, badly paid job?’ Her reply was: ‘Because of you. You’re so good with us and we learn so much. I want to do the same one day with my own students.’ Needless to say, I’ve never thought of it as a thankless job since then – often badly paid, yes, but never thankless!
Steve Taylore-Knowles has spent almost two decades in ELT as a writer, a trainer, an examiner and a teacher. He has written a number of internationally-successful courses, including the Laser series for teenagers and the Destination grammar and vocabulary series, both for Macmillan. His most recent course to be launched globally is Open Mind, a ground-breaking series for young adults. He regularly lectures throughout the world on various aspects of ELT and speaking engagements have taken him to many countries in Europe, Asia, North and South America and the Middle East.