TESOL Greece March 1990 An Interview With John Morgan
I: You were saying before that your main interest at the moment is Teacher Development.
JM: That’s the jargon phrase. I don’t know whether I like the phrase Teacher Development, but I would like to use something other than Teacher Training because both for me, and I think historically, Teacher Training has seen teaching as a skill where techniques and methods, together with the subject matter of whatever the teacher is expected to teach, are controlled by the course. That is necessary, but it is not sufficient. A teacher needs to discover quite a lot about herself and needs to not just have experience, but needs to analyse and work on that experience to see whether her teaching is something which fits her, which gives her satisfaction and which enables her to behave naturally when she is in the classroom situation. Sometimes that disturbs me, for example, is that many teachers change dramatically at the point where they enter or leave the classroom. I don’t say that this is in itself a bad thing, but that it’s very likely to be so dramatic out of discomfort and insecurity or frustration within the teacher, and these negative feelings can affect her teaching, can communicate themselves to the student, can build up over the years. I think, now, it is possible to catch teachers when they’re young, or to work with teachers who have been working for a long time, on Teacher Development courses which are asking the questions: How are you in the classroom? What are your models? How did you arrive at these models? It may be necessary to look at the experience that the teacher had when SHE was a child. When she was a learner, and to consider the memories, the pictures that she has of teachers, which together form her idea of what a good teacher ought to be. Can I give an example?
I: Please do.
JM: I was on an in-service training course in July in Czechoslovakia. I was working with a group of Czech secondary school teachers. At the end of a session in which I was demonstrating and asking teachers actually to work through certain classroom techniques - it was drama work, in fact - one of the teachers said to me, “ I enjoyed the session, but I can’t use this way of working with my students.”
I said, “Why?”
“Because the conditions are wrong.”
We had time so I got her to talk more about it. “The conditions are wrong because there are too many students, because we don’t have space to move, because other colleagues would think I was not teaching…” and a set of reasons I’m sure are familiar to you. They are to me. This is an example but it’s happened many times. I asked her, “What is it about the classroom and the number of students that would prevent you doing activities of the type that I’ve just been showing you?”, and she said, “ I think it would get out of control. Once things begin like that, I don’t know how they’re going to end.”
We had a long conversation the burden of which was that she felt insecure in the classroom, that she was not confident of her ability to relate to other people. She spoke to me about her friends, her sister, about her family and it seemed to me to be clear that in the classroom she was able to create a world over which she had more control than in her own life.
Normally I am not in a position to ask people questions like that, none-the-less, I think it should be possible for teachers to explore themselves in that way, because the real answer to the question “How can I do this in the classroom?” doesn’t lie in the classroom. The answer lies in the teacher, in the teacher’s own personality. I think that’s important.
I: What advice can you give teachers about where to begin working on this area themselves?
JM: Well, I don’t think I can give advice. I don’t think that that’s what’s needed. But the question which constantly I ask myself in my work is, “What are my reasons for doing a particular thing in the session I have animated or the class I have given?” I answer the questions in terms of what I get out of it, and that’s not a selfish question because, ultimately, the motives for behaving in a certain way in the classroom are to do with my own particular personal needs.
Now, one of MY personal needs is to give confidence and help to the weak and insecure students, and in my Teacher Training work, the teachers who lack confidence, who have weaknesses either in behaviour or in language. The first answer would be that I did such a thing in order to assist that student or that teacher, but underneath that is the question, “Why did I, John Morgan, address myself to these particular people?”. the answer has got to lie in my own experience, that I believe myself to gave been a fairly unsuccessful language learner. I identify with the weak ones. My own reasons for coming into English teaching are not very honourable ones. I’m an English teacher because I wasn’t good enough to be a German teacher. Not that I didn’t have the qualities to be a teacher, that wasn’t known. Simply that my spoken German wasn’t good enough. It was my intention to go and spend a year in Germany to improve my German and become a German teacher. Instead I got married, I had children, and I actually found that the second best job, which was as a teacher in a language school in Cambridge, was very absorbing and I loved it. That doesn’t let me escape from my own weakness….
There is no way that a teacher can look at a group of learners and exert equal influence or feel equal responsibility towards the whole group. I think we must recognize that our attention is going to be diverted and we need to understand why our attention focuses on particular types of students. Once we realise that, we can compensate for it or we can understand ourselves better and change perhaps our views of what we do. Does that make sense to you?
I: Yes. The whole idea, then, is that by discovering things about yourself you become better at teaching others.
JM: I don’t think we can make a simple equation: because I understand myself I am a better teacher. I don’t think that’s correct, but I think that in order to be a better teacher I have to know why I’m teaching in the way I am, and I can’t understand why I’m teaching the way I am until I’ve understood myself better.
I: I think a lot of people go to conferences or even read the newsletter and they want some kind of recipe for good teaching, things they can take away with them and directly apply in their teaching situation. Am I right in saying that what you’re indicating is that you should concentrate not so much on the activities but on how YOU can do the activities?
JM: I think the recipe, the activities, the designs for activities that we learn at conferences like these are very important, but I don’t think it’s sufficient. I think we need to discover ways of transforming these activities so that they become our own. A case in point was today when Marissa was giving her ‘Story Machine’. the format of the machine appealed to me strongly, the way in which she used it didn’t. I enjoyed it as a surrogate student, but I couldn’t look at Marissa and see John Morgan working in that way. John Morgan would work in a different way. Now what I have to do is take that activity which I recognize as valuable and incorporate it into my own way of teaching.
I: To go back to something you talked about earlier to do with teachers feeling insecure in the classroom. you mentioned specifically insecurity about language. Now I think a lot of Greek teachers are in a situation where they are teaching something which is not their native language, and they quite possibly feel some of this insecurity. How would you help a teacher like that to try and overcome that insecurity?
JM: That would depend on the teacher. One thing I might say is, "What are your aims in teaching English to this particular group of students? What quality, performance, use, context of English would you expect from them at the end of your teaching them?"
If the answer is to give them the ability to communicate with other people for whom English is a world language, then your use of English, providing it is within certain limits acceptable and accurate, IS the English language. The English that is spoken by a Greek to a French person, to a German, a Greek to an English person even is whatever that person chooses to make of it, providing it is accessible to the other. You are not yourself British or North American or whatever. You are not trying to impersonate a native speaker, and neither will your students be. If you have a Greek accent when you speak English, you have a Greek accent because you ARE Greek. There is no reason to consider this inferior for this purpose. But on the other hand, if you are trying to turn your students into copies of British people, if they're going to be spies or actresses or something, then your English is insufficient, and that is a job that should be done in another context by somebody else.
That would be one way. It would depend on the person I was speaking to. Another way would be to say, "In what respect is your English inferior, inadequate? How do you fall short of the goals you set yourself?" They might say "Well, I make mistakes in grammar."
"In what areas of grammar do you make mistakes?" and we might talk about that and discover that these are pseudo-problems, distinctions that the teacher is trying to make that, in fact, native speakers wouldn't make, or they are problems at a very remote, esoteric level that don't affect the language they are teaching. They might say, "Well, my English is narrow. Where I feel British people have a choice of a dozen things to say, I can only find two ways so that at least they have some way of saying it in English." On the other hand, a teacher may actually be performing in English at a level which objectively is insufficient to the job. I think one has to be very honest and say, "Your limitations are very grave, and perhaps you need to work much more on your English."
There's no point in building somebody's confidence up falsely. Is that a good answer to your question?
I: That's a very good answer, thank you.
Please check the From Teaching to Training course at Pilgrims website.