Experiences of an English Language Teacher

December Teacher Interview: Frances Eales

Frances Eales pictured in Bulgaria

This month’s teacher interview is with Frances Eales.  I met Frances at the last BELTE conference in Brighton.  So a big thank you to Frances for agreeing to be interviewed for this Christmas Teacher Interview.  Frances Eales is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer who has worked in many countries including the UK, Hungary, Germany, Egypt, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and Thailand.

She is a co-author of the Cutting Edge series and author of three levels of Speakout, winner of the English-Speaking Union, Duke of Edinburgh 2011 English Language Book Award. She also co-wrote and was a co-ordinator of the British Council/International House Distance DELTA course for experienced teachers and regularly works on the design and assessment of teaching and training exams for Cambridge ESOL.

She is interested in all aspects of language, in task-based learning, the use of authentic video in class, giving and getting feedback, Dogme and e-learning.  She lives near Brighton, UK and loves singing, qi gong, walking, sailing, and in fact anything outdoors.  

So let’s crack on with the interview.

Tell me how you got into teaching.

I’d just finished university and was having a gap year before going on to do a further degree at Cambridge and a friend of mine invited me to his EFL class in Piccadilly Circus. After one hour I was hooked… what was not to like? Communicating with interesting people, being creative, working with language… and traveling too! I immediately jettisoned study plans, enrolled in a four week course and I have never looked back. (My main trainer was Ken Wilson, by the way. I was going to say ‘taught me everything I know’ but that’s not quite true.  Anyway, thanks, Ken!)

What has been your favourite country that you have taught in and why?

That is a really difficult one to answer. I think on a professional and personal level, probably Hungary. I was at IH in Budapest at an interesting time a few years after the fall of communism and the teaching was truly challenging. I remember 7.30 a.m. classes with people from the Ministry of the Environment, mayhem in my first teenagers’ class, struggling with teaching 6 year-olds in the kiddies’ class. Then there were difficult but rewarding language and methodology classes with teachers of Russian who were being forced to retrain as English teachers, evening courses with business people and once a week, trainees on our part-time CELTA courses. Talk about steep learning curves. 

All this was punctuated by Friday afternoons in the Turkish baths, learning my colours in Hungarian on long treks in the forests (the paths are colour-coded), skiing in Slovakia at the weekends, camping in Romania, putting on the first pantomime ever seen in Budapest (much to the bemusement of the students), coffee and cakes in the spectacular coffee shops and swimming outside amongst the chess players and surrounded by the snow in the hot pools at Széchenyi park. These and of course, the life-long friends I met, all made a deep and lasting impression.

You have teacher training experience, could you tell our readers how you got into teacher training?

I worked for many years at IH London and even as a newish teacher became very used to trainee observers in my classes. There was (and is) a fantastic culture in the school of encouraging professional development and I started by giving TD sessions, then became a teaching practice tutor and so on.  If anyone were to ask me how to get into teacher training, I’d advise joining a school that already does some training, and offering to do sessions at staff meetings and/or local conferences and/or developing an online presence, all showing that you are keen to progress into the field. 

You don’t have a blog at the moment but are you planning on blogging in the future?

Not in the foreseeable future. At the moment I don’t feel I can do proper justice to a blog and at the same time maintain a work/life balance.  I’m already in front of a screen too many hours! 

You are quite new to Twitter, aren’t you?  What are the possible benefits and any disadvantages for teachers when using Twitter?

My colleague and friend Antonia Clare had been singing the praises of Twitter for all of a year before I finally joined. I think the benefits for teachers are the exchange of ideas that’s possible, particularly in a chat room such as #ELTChat, which I’ve really enjoyed. Then there’s the chance to share interesting articles or links to blog entries about other teachers’ experiences in different contexts.  And also to meet like-minded colleagues who may then become friends and who one day you may meet up with at a conference or when travelling. 

The disadvantage is pretty evident after even a few hours. It’s the sheer number of tweets; I felt like I was drowning and then found myself becoming anxious because I couldn’t catch them all. So thank you @antoniaclare for pointing me in the direction of tweetdeck to organize the tweets; to @AnthonyGaughan for his advice to bookmark or favourite anything that catches your attention so you can read it at your leisure and to @sandymillin, whose blog entry was so helpful.

You were one of the writers on Cutting Edge and Speakout.  How would you suggest readers to get into materials and coursebook writing?

I think things are changing significantly as publishers adapt to a rapidly digitalised world.  To answer this one, I can’t do better than refer you to a fantastic resource by Lindsay Clandfield where he has put together a number of links and articles on how to get started in writing.

What is the most memorable or unexpected thing that occurred in the classroom?

That’s another impossible question so I’ll give just one memory that has stayed with me because it was a wake-up call and very significant for a naïve and brash young teacher who prided herself on her rapport.
It was in a multi-cultural class in the UK and there was a mature Arabic speaking man in an elementary class – I think he was from the UAE. 

We were talking about families and he said he had two wives and fifteen children.  Cue exaggerated interest and a kind of humorous amazement from me the teacher, ‘What, fifteen children!’  Then pulling the rest of the class into the ‘wow how amazing/strange is that?’ kind of feeling. Even now I cringe when I think of it.  Cultural sensitivity zilch!  

At the end of the lesson this extremely nice man stayed behind and explained to me slowly and seriously in his elementary English that his brother had been killed and so it was his duty to take responsibility and care for his brother’s family, which included marrying the widow and looking after her children.  I felt really ashamed of myself.  It taught me a valuable lesson about respecting other cultures and the disrespect of making assumptions about any other person.  

What are your future plans for the next twelve months?

It looks as if there’s more writing connected with Speakout on the cards. If so, it will be heads down 24/7 for several months and not so much teaching or training. However, I’m also spending time with teachers who’ve been using the books to see if I can help with any issues that have arisen and to listen to how people are finding them in class. This may mean a trip to Argentina and Peru in the spring.  I’m continuing DELTA-related work with Cambridge ESOL. 

At the same time, there’s my family, singing, sailing, qi gong, and a plan to walk the coast-to-coast trail (309 km) across England in late summer. And, of course, Twitter!  Also, I was inspired by Claire Hunter at IATEFL to listen to this.

I thought it was a great idea and in the last few months I’ve joined Facebook, taken up sailing again, joined Twitter, and this month I am currently exploring the whole area of ‘mindfulness’. The next twelve months will be another twelve fresh experiences. Watch this space!

Finally, what advice would you give another teacher that has just completed their CELTA?

Go for whatever experience you can as soon after the course as possible so that you can get some teaching under your belt.  I think each person has to find their own way through that first year of teaching; as in any job, everything’s new and it can be a real roller-coaster. It takes time to begin to feel more confident about language issues, for example.  So ask for help and ideas. ELT staffrooms are usually great places, with teachers who are generous in sharing their experiences and ideas and if you have a Director of Studies, then go to them for help and to check out any problems.

If you’re in a new country, find out about the language, the culture, the students.  You’re bound to make mistakes (I remember my first class sending a deputation to the Director of Studies at the end of my first week complaining that they didn’t understand what was going on!) but you’ll survive and learn from them.

Remember that the people in front of you are people not just students, prepare your content in a professional way but be alert and responsive to what comes up in class. Often that’s when the best learning happens.    And it’s up to you, if you’re that kind of person and feel able, go the extra mile and get involved in the social programme or the clubs or even a pantomime, but look after your own health and well-being too. And enjoy yourself! It’s an amazing job!

Thank you ever so much for the interview (with all the wonderful links) Frances and we wish you a very happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.  I am sure some of the readers will have some questions which they can leave below.

1 Comment

  1. Anna Morvern

    Dear Frances Eales and ELT experiences,

    I am currently completing the intensive CELTA with a well-established London provider.

    I have been really taken aback at the way in which this course is taught and my first impressions of the Speak Out textbook were very poor because of what I perceived as an approach antithetical to recognising diversity, inclusion, etc. When I saw this interview with the author, I was surprised that she does seem aware of diversity, inclusion issues etc. so I decided to comment here and I would love to receive a reply.

    Firstly, I was asked for my first Teaching Practice to use the reading exercise on page 10 of Speak Out Pre-Int 1st Edition. The topic is “True Love” and it features two newspaper stories about two different heterosexual couples. One is a story about an exceptionally tall man finding love. The second is an odd story about a couple who divorced and remarried more than once. The first story infers that finding love when you have a disability is a curiosity or an oddity and is therefore antithetical to promoting the equality and inclusion of people with disabilities. Both stories focus on heterosexual love and fail even to countenance diversity under the topic of true love. Why, in this day and age, would a textbook writer of an English manual be so ignorant of these issues? I hated using this material in my first class as I place great emphasis on promoting equality, inclusion and welcoming diversity.
    Secondly, I notice that Frances Eales and her colleague Steve Oakes promote the technique of CCQs in their books and we are being taught this method. This method seems to be nothing but authoritarian and again, antithetical to inclusion and good rapport with students. For example, yesterday, an example of this approach would be for the word “kettle” (the teacher did not mention this explicitly, but made it clear from speaking that she meant the word as a noun not the verb). The guided CCQs were:
    “Do you boil water in it?” Yes! “Do you use it to make tea?” Yes! “Do you put tea in it?” No! “Does it have a lid?” Yes!
    I see many problems with this approach.
    Firstly, the teacher is essentially defining cultural knowledge (rather than meaning). Some English speakers do put tea in their kettle, the fact that they do so does not mean the word “kettle” does not apply. There are issues here with cultural sensitivity because in a whole-class drilling exercise an individual student, for example, from an ethnic minority or minority community that does things differently with kettles, could hesitate to speak up to dissent from “No!” for question 3 and will become excluded.
    Secondly, the teacher’s answers to the questions might be wrong. E.g. “Does it have a lid?” Not always. Camping kettles, often known as “kelly kettles” don’t. Again, it doesn’t mean the word “kettle” to describe the object is wrong. Rather, it means the CCQ approach is wrong when answered with “Yes” and “No” answers as taught.
    Thirdly, and overall, because of the lack of contextualising in this teaching and because of the failure of collaboration to produce meaning by the “groupthink” drilling with “right”/”wrong” answers, this is a highly authoritarian approach. The teacher is placed in the impossible position of having perfect knowledge of what the word “kettle” denotes in the English language and the learner is to defer to her knowledge, which is presented as group (class) knowledge. When I raised these questions in class, I was told, “Just focus on the meaning, Anna!”. But I hope it is clear from the above that that is exactly what I was doing.
    Besides its failure to teach language effectively in a world where meaning is co-created, I feel more than uncomfortable with the authoritarian structure of this approach, it is clear that it perpetuates a colonial model of British education from which I wish, personally, to distance myself entirely. It goes without saying that this kind of model can be used to control, force assimilation, defend the myth of a “British” way of doing things that is anachronistic and undesirable.
    As far as possible, I have raised these questions in class by indicating, for example, that I am experiencing high resistance to aligning myself with their teaching model based on conformity and obedience and am therefore suffering severe motivational problems. The motivational problems really are severe—despite being someone who has loved teaching English online without these models since early 2020 and having an interest in linguistics nurtured during my first degree at Oxford University.
    I would like to hear your thoughts on this and, indeed, to be signposted to any EFL teaching communities thinking more critically about these issues. I use alternative approaches in my teaching, try to be critical and self-reflective so as not to perpetuate harm, and will continue doing so.
    Yours sincerely


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