Peter with a praying mantis

This month’s teacher interview is with a teacher that I currently work with at LTC Eastbourne.  Peter Clements has been teaching English since 2007 with experience in Yangsan, South Korea, as well as in the UK.  He has worked at 4 different language schools in the UK.  He is currently in the early stage of his career, but he hopes to start his next adventure abroad this coming September.

He has some very interesting takes on the language teaching and learner expectation and is a wonderful contribution to the monthly interviews. I hope Peter joins up on Twitter or starts a personal blog on his experiences in language teaching. Nevertheless, let’s start with the interview!
Tell me how you got into English language teaching.

My interest in teaching English started at university. I studied modules in language teaching and learning, and undertook an equivalent to the CELTA over the summer of 2006. TEFL started off as my summer job – I used my qualification to work at summer schools during breaks in my studies. For a while I felt that secondary school teaching might be the right career path for me. I decided to do a PGCE back in 2009, but I hated every minute of it! My experiences on that course nearly turned me off teaching forever. If I hadn’t taught at a summer school that year after dropping out of the PGCE, I’d probably be in a boring office job right now… Instead I took a job on a great summer programme based in Edinburgh (ISIS Education and Travel). I loved every minute of it, and it kick-started my career as a language teacher!

Could you tell our readers about the countries you have taught in?

I’ve worked at three different summer schools in England, and I’ve spend two years working in a high school in South Korea. I’m currently teaching at LTC in Eastbourne, which offers short courses to foreign groups all year round.

You have been teaching in the UK for a short period and could you please tell me a bit more about any advantages and/or disadvantages to this?

I’d say the biggest advantage is cultural immersion for the students. You can teach students about English history, culture or customs, and they have the chance to go and explore it for themselves outside the classroom. I find students here are often highly-motivated… but then they do pay a lot to be here! I deal with groups who stay between three days and four weeks. I’d say this has its ups and downs. For shorter courses you can’t really expect a lot of improvement in their English ability, the focus is more on encouraging students to practice their speaking and to learn about British culture. For our Young Learner classes we don’t follow a particular course book, instead we do lots of task-based or topic-based learning, which can require a lot of planning for the teacher.I’d say the biggest advantage of teaching in the UK is to have mixed nationality classes. On occasions we get groups at the school who request classes with students of the same nationality, and it’s really hard to prevent them using their L1. I love it when classes are mixed – not only does it necessitate the use of English but it is a great opportunity to develop student’s awareness of other cultures. 

Can you tell me a memorable activity or occurrence that has occurred from your classroom?

Actually, I had something happen recently that really made me chuckle. Our class were doing the ‘sinking ship’ scenario – the classic lesson where they have to choose which people they would save from a sinking ship and bring to a desert island to live with. They were a mixed nationality upper-intermediate class, with most students being either Austrian or Thai. I wish I had recorded some of the discussions that ensued – the Thai’s were advocating the need to save the Buddhist monk to preserve harmony on the island, whilst the Austrians insisted that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be a good law enforcer and, despite his high protein diet, would be happy to agree to food rationing on the island if necessary! I’m a big fan of using drama in the classroom and allowing students to be creative. I’d really recommend any teacher flicking through ‘The Minimax Teacher’ (Jon Taylor) or ‘Being Creative’ (Chaz Pugliese) for some great student-centered activities with a creative focus. I’d say that some of my most memorable lessons have been built around concepts from these books.

It’s already May but do you have any plans for the next 12 months?

I’m looking to get abroad again come September. I didn’t save any money when I lived in South Korea as I spent it all on Kimchi and bad beer. That means I need to work somewhere I can not only have a great experience, but earn a few bob too. Ideally I’d like to teach in Europe next (Germany or Spain), but I might spend another year in Asia first. I guess I have no plans really. I’m just mentioning a load of places I want to go!

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of classroom project work are?

Generally, I’d say its student centred and it involves group work which helps make things communicative. Also, with project work there can be a lot of other skills-practice apart from just learning the language – planning, problem-solving, task management, etc. You can learn a lot about your students, their characters and their learning styles by observing them during project work.A massive disadvantage to group work is that if students don’t buy into the project topic or if they aren’t interested at all in it can be like flogging a dead horse. Also, project work in groups of mixed nationality speakers can be quite a high order task for some students. You have to monitor project work well to ensure group are progressing, and support where necessary.

How would you describe your perfect student? 

That’s hard to say as every student is different. I think there are some common traits I’ve noticed in the most successful students I’ve taught. They have all been self-motivated, they have all made great use of metacognitive learning strategies and they have all seemed to be able to laugh at themselves when they make mistakes. I’m actually quite a bad language learner – I get frustrated when I can’t do or say things perfectly, I hate not being able to express myself and probably take myself a bit too seriously. I really try to discourage these traits in my own students!

What advice would you give to any budding teachers keen to gain more experience abroad?

Firstly, ignore critics of the TEFL industry. I’m always meeting people who tell me that teaching abroad is a glorified gap year, or it’s for people who can’t get a real job, so on and so forth. Sure, teaching English is a great opportunity to see the world, but that doesn’t mean it will automatically be easy. Many people underestimate how difficult it can be to live for a long period of time in another country, so just be sure to give that some thought.I’m not greatly experienced in the industry compared to others, but I’ve had a fair few teaching jobs now – some of which have been dire! The best advice I could offer anyone starting out in TEFL is try to get the best you can from any teaching experience. Don’t become someone who just plods along and takes the money that some countries will throw at you as a native English speaker. Put the effort in, focus on professional development, and it can be a really rewarding job!

How would you describe your typical Korean language learner?

Shy but very respectful. I taught high school students aged 16-18 – there is a real emphasis on respect towards teachers in Korean culture, which creates a really positive environment. Its true that Korean students like to sleep a lot, but they work so hard that they need to rest!English lessons taught by Korean teachers tend to be quite didactic, so Korean learners often lack task knowledge with regards to communicative activities. Things that we might take for granted when setting up activities (like pair work or group work) can sometimes seem like an alien concept to Korean students as they just don’t work like that too often. Also, their shyness and their anxiety over making mistakes means they can often be scared to speak English. However, as with most young learners, Korean students love a bit of competition, and using games, problem solving or lateral thinking tasks in the class can bring them out of their shell a bit.Lastly, Koreans are really proud of their country. Many Korean learners I’ve encountered seem motivated to learn English as a medium through which to share their own culture with the world. This really is something that can be exploited in the classroom.

Finally, do you think there are particular nationalities which expect different things from their teachers?

Yes. I’ve been teaching a lot of Austrian students recently and they seem to expect a more formal approach to classes. I assume that they must study a heavily grammar based syllabus in their own country, as this is often their strength. They require a lot of encouragement to extend their speaking beyond the minimum amount required to ‘complete’ a task, and the purpose of an activity must be made very explicit to them. Of course, I am generalising by saying that ‘Austrians’ are like this – really I mean that this is a trait I’ve noticed in 5 different classes of 14 Austrian students all aged between 14-19, and of course some students in a class are exceptions and don’t fit with what I say. Speaking from my experience though, I’ve found Austrian students to be a little serious, quite reserved and seem to prefer the teacher to direct a class more than the students taking control.