January Teacher Interview: Adam Simpson

I hope my readers had a wonderful Christmas and all the best for the New Year.  I made a few resolutions for this year which I will save writing about for another blog post.  Nevertheless, the first blog post of this month is for the monthly Teacher Interview.  The interview is with Adam Simpson who some may notice from Twitter, Facebook or his wonderful blog “Teach Them English“.  There is some information about Adam below:

Adam has been fortunate enough to spend the last twelve years of his journey as a life long learner working with others in what some call the ‘language classroom’. He is currently privileged to have the opportunity to help young adults meet their educational goals at Sabanci University in Istanbul. His professional interests include flexibility within the curriculum and the considered use of technology in the classroom. He occasionally finds time to blog about his life: www.teachthemenglish.com

So … let’s start off the year with the very first Teacher Interview for 2013.

Tell me how you got into teaching.
A couple of factors got me into the game. Firstly I got into ELT by following what could be called the traditional rite of passage: I was traveling around and it seemed like a good way to start earning some money. Actually, I don’t want to come across as one of those backpackers who ended up getting stuck doing this job. Basically, I was in Istanbul and decided I wanted to stay on a fairly permanent basis. My degree was only going to get me a very poor entry level position if that, so teaching English was the only viable option for a liveable wage.
 
Which countries have you taught in and which has been your favourite so far?
I’ve only ever taught in Turkey. Twelve years and counting…
 
You are quite prominent on Twitter and also run quite a successful blog.  What do you see are the benefits, as well as the drawbacks, for teachers who try to gain presence online?
Blogging has totally reinvigorated my career. By having to write something worthwhile for my blog, I had to do something good in class. By doing new things in class I had more opportunities for reflection. These reflections fed into classroom research which led to conference presentations, better lessons and a greater involvement in my students’ learning. These in turn have led to more blog posts, and so on. It has been one giant virtuous circle, which has seen my teaching improve through the action of regularly share my teaching with the wider community.
 
What is the most memorable thing that has occurred in your teaching career within the classroom?
On the last day of every class I write each person’s name – mine included – on a piece of A4. I tape these to the walls and then require every person in the room to write something nice about each other. Please consider doing this, as it’s a magical experience. The papers I’ve collected with students comments about me are my prized possessions. 
 
It is now 2013, so Happy New Year.  Do you have any classroom or teacher related New Year resolutions or plans for the next twelve months?
How many do you want! Let me try and focus on a few that might get your readers thinking about what they intend to do with their teaching in the coming year. I set myself a number of targets for this year back in September.
  1. Present at local conferences
  2. Consider specific aspects of my teaching and how I might develop them
  3. Interact with my colleagues more with regards sharing ideas about teaching
  4. Learn new stuff
1) Last year I was fortunate enough to go to both TESOL Arabia and IATEFL in Glasgow, so this year I’ve decided to stick to Turkey and aim to go to five or 6 conferences over the course of the year. So, how am I going to realise this ‘dream’? Firstly, I joined ELT related Facebook groups. There are loads of them now and you can hardly avoid them; many post conference announcements from time to time. Secondly, I signed up to Conference Alerts, an excellent website which enables you to receive a monthly email detailing conferences tailored to the keyword criteria you choose. If you’re planning on doing something similar, think about when you have enough time and where you want to go. Do you want to present? If so, remember that calls for submissions are often many months before the actual event. 
 
2) During last summer I looked through everything I’d written on my blog and noticed that I wasn’t actually talking about what was going on in my classes as often as I’d planned to when starting it. This is something I hope to remedy this year. You can’t possibly hope to examine every aspect of your teaching constantly, so what I suggest is to think about one thing you want to look at each year. For the next two semesters, I hope to think a bit more critically about how I use technology in the classroom; with specific reference to the TPaCK model (I talked about this in a post on my blog a short while ago).
 
3) One thing that saddens me is how little time I have to talk to my colleagues about teaching. This might sound like a ridiculous notion, but it’s a surprisingly commonplace phenomenon among teachers. Basically, I just don’t see this changing unless I make a concerted effort to give workshops to my peers. If I’m going to create a forum for idea sharing I’m going to have to do it through workshops. I’ve started this in earnest, just short fifteen minute idea exchanges and it’s going well. My advice would be to always consider sharing what you’re doing in class. OK, some people won’t have the slightest interest in either what you’re doing or in professional development as a whole. Don’t worry about them, do this for those colleagues who will appreciate it. They’ll learn from you and you’ll also get new ideas from them. Oh, and keep it short: don’t feel that you have to have this immaculately planned out 90-minute session. A quick demo of an activity followed by a discussion can work a treat.
 
4) As part of my reflection on my teaching, I’ve decided to try and up my content knowledge in certain areas. Should I have to? Damn right! As an EAP instructor, I have to know the subjects I’m dealing with, and this includes everything from philosophy through to space exploration and history. Saying, ‘I’m a language teacher; I shouldn’t be expected to know that much about any of these subjects’ isn’t good enough. I’ve decided this year to take advantage in the explosion of MOOCs to develop my knowledge in a number of subject areas. A MOOC, for those not familiar with the term, is a Massive Online Open Course, and they are becoming increasingly available from the world’s top universities. I recently completed my first course via the excellent and highly recommended the Coursera website, an 8-week ‘Introduction to Sustainability’. While this might seem like a strange choice for a language teacher, it actually covers a lot of subjects that I have to teach language through. Consequently, it has built up my background knowledge and thus facilitated a better understanding of what the main issues are. Knowing more means I can teach it better: simple as that. I plan to write up my experiences on my blog some time soon, so that’s all I’ll say on the subject of MOOCs, for now!
 
Do you think there is something considered as the best method for teaching English for second language learners?
Yes. The best method for teaching is that method that works best with whatever particular class you are teaching. If that sounds like I’m avoiding the question, I’m not. To exemplify, I’d like to mention the two situations I’m working in at present. During the day, I teach teenagers who are in class after three or four hours sleep and so don’t always see the need for learner centeredness. In the evening, I teach adults who want to talk, talk and talk some more. Trying to suggest there is some perfect methodology for these two groups is just crazy. Some would call this principled eclecticism; I’d agree, it the principle is, ‘base your eclecticism on the people you’re teaching and not your personal preferences’.
 
How would you describe your perfect classroom?
I’ll have to split my answer into the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’ if that’s ok!
 
The physical: I’ve recently finished a series of posts looking into what makes the perfect physical setting for teaching. If you’re interested, you can find them here.
 
The spiritual: As a teacher who strives for a positive classroom environment, I tend to focus on a number of elements which include good relationships between all members of the class, deliver lessons inspire all students to learn and grow, set classroom routines that are consistent and clear, and have high expectations for learning. 
 
Classrooms in which all students feel respected and valued as people and learners will have a positive atmosphere; teachers who set a good example and have high expectations for positive social interactions seem more likely to develop a classroom environment where students feel safe and confident. As far as I’m concerned, we absolutely need to be active in the spiritual sense of the classroom, supervising learning and giving constructive feedback, so that students know that we are a constant positive presence. A teacher with authentic passion for teaching will inspire learners, while teachers who show belief in their learners’ abilities to learn will be rewarded with students who are willing to try harder.
 
Another fundamental to developing the spiritual classroom is cooperative learning, i.e. those lessons where students work in pairs or small groups to accomplish a learning goal. Each learner should have specific tasks to complete in tandem with the others in the group. However, learners need mentoring in how to work together and encourage each other to reach their goals. We have an important role to play in facilitating effective cooperative learning. 
 
To create a spiritual classroom environment, we nevertheless need procedures for dealing with classroom activities as well as behaviour issues. Learners need to know what the classroom routines and rules are and what the consequences are for not respecting these. Your structure must be clear and fair. Also, a stepped system of consequences allows learners to adjust their own behavior before the consequences progress to more serious levels. Such systems enable learners to take control of their own behaviour and minimize negative behaviors that lead to a stressful classroom atmosphere.
 
Finally, what advice would you give to new teachers that have just completed the CELTA or equivalent?
  • Don’t panic and don’t expect too much of yourself. You will go through a learning curve at a fast and frantic pace. Accept the fact that you might give some crap lessons and don’t beat yourself up about it. 
  • Be honest about your experience and don’t be frightened to say you don’t know. As long as you try to find out, people will understand. 
  • Treat the learners as humans and respect their rights as individuals. When they have something on their mind(s), discuss it. However, don’t go over the top trying to be friends with them.
  • Teach the person and not the book. If they suggest something or ask a question, roll with it. Engaging with people is more important than covering material. Nevertheless, be aware that you still have to work according to the requirements of your employer.
  • Don’t make any vows to teach according to a certain ethos or particular method. Remember: you can only really know how a class is going to go when you walk into it. Sometimes people are energetic and motivated, the next day they might not want to do anything: always gauge the class and don’t push on ahead regardless.
  • Don’t take indifference or worse personally. It’s almost certainly not aimed at you.
  • Enjoy it: this job is great.
If you want more advice, check out my Hippocratic Oath for the teachers of the world.

0 thoughts on “January Teacher Interview: Adam Simpson”

  1. Some great gems here, but old hats like us tend to either be stuffy fellows or worth listening to. Have to back you up on the blog as a tool for reinvigoration, also makes sure you keep your writing craft honed. Likewise the spiritual and physical qualities of the classroom. After reading Scrivener and getting qualifications many established teachers after awhile ignore this aspect. But just like any working environment, the learning one needs to be considered carefully. It is far from just about content of your classes, which is usually the only planning we teachers do, but much more. A student of mine had an internship at BMW and said they had a policy of people being responsible for the atmosphere of the conference/meeting room. This meant the interior changed and was always in a good condition because of the sense of ownership, something I wish a lot of schools would consider implementing.

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