EFL Teacher (by day)
Novelist (by night)
Sinéad and I first met in 2011 when working at a summer school set in the beautiful grounds of the Royal Holloway University, where we spent our evenings planning our lessons and encouraging each other to make it to the next day! We soon discovered we shared the same passion for the English language and teaching, as well as other interests. Resilience, dedication and humour are at the core of day-to-day EFL teaching. With these features, Sinéad brings effective lessons and an engaging learning atmosphere to her classroom. No wonder she has been awarded Teacher of the Year at her current school!
Can you give us an overview of your ELT career?
Sure. I took my first ELT job aged 30, after working in a series of deeply unfulfilling admin jobs throughout my 20s, and figuring it was time for a job where the risks of falling asleep after lunch were fewer. My first jobs were in Italy, working through language schools, where your typical day could involve teaching a bank manager at 8am, an in-company class of engineers at 1pm, a 4-year-old at his home at 5pm, and a teenage exam class at 7pm.
I also worked at a lot of UK summer schools, or as they are otherwise known, intensive endurance tests on your capacity to work until you drop! Surprisingly, they were also a lot of fun.
Returning to the UK, I worked for several language schools in London, which I love due to the international and eclectic mix of learners, and the real practical help you can give them in their day-to-day lives, careers and exams. The learners are almost all mature teens and adults, so they have real motivation to work with you to make their experience the best it can possibly be.
You have taught both monolingual classes in Italy and multilingual classes in the UK. What are the advantages and disadvantages of teaching in a non-English speaking country?
Well, let’s be positive and put the advantages first: the shared mother tongue and cultural experience of the students can give them a strong bond, and if teaching in a smaller town, the students are likely to have friendships among themselves too. They are able to help each other with translations. (Although a lot of schools still frown on the practice of translation in class, it is now considered to be a really useful element of learning, and there are lots of resources and ideas to help you get the most out of translation exercises in a monolingual class. To be honest: your students are going to do this anyway so you might as well work with it!)
Their shared mother tongue can of course also cause headaches for the teacher, especially if, like me, your grasp of their native language is not that advanced; if one student “helpfully” mistranslates a word or concept for the whole class, the teacher may not be able to correct them. And it can be hard to get them speaking in English when their native language is so much easier to use. It can also be harder to provide that “immersive” classroom experience, or at least it was when I was teaching in a small town; but use of authentic materials has become so much easier since more schools are starting to provide interactive whiteboards and other forms of access to online resources!
What advice would you give to those teaching monolingual classes for the first time?
Rejoice in the resource of their shared cultural markers, which make it so much easier for you to pick topics you know they will engage with! Enjoy the opportunity to learn more about their country and culture.
Try not to stress too much about the use of their mother tongue in the classroom. It’s natural for students to help each other by communicating instructions, practical questions etc, in their own language. Use the opportunity to start recognising how they prefer to communicate and with time, if you stick to speaking English only and don’t react to questions in their native language, they’ll start to speak to you in English, and gradually with each other. Having adult students makes this a lot easier, as you can gently remind them how much money they are spending to speak English, and focusing them on their own study goals and the ways they will improve their lives!
And with teens or kids? Rely on the 2 Bs – bribery and blackmail. Speak English all through the class? Get something you want. Speak your own language constantly? Remove something you want. I’m only half-joking, there. Try it – it works!
With the current situation putting a stop to classroom lessons, how did you find adjusting to online teaching?
Nerve-racking for the first week, while I adjusted to how it worked, but eventually I found it to have a lot of advantages. You have to find alternative ways to work with lots of activities and exercises, but with so many resources online, this is not such a hardship. I’ve found and worked with so much great new stuff that I plan to keep using even after I return to the classroom; especially for younger students, who are so comfortable with online platforms, these resources will make a great addition to more traditional classroom environments.
Honestly the worst part of it is those days when your wifi is dodgy- but even then, you can work around that.
Plus – when you don’t have to commute to work, you get a morning lie-in. And you really can’t argue with that.