How did you get started and how long have you been involved in ELT?

Just over 25 years ago, I was offered a job in Japan for a year teaching English. I was graduating in Environmental Science from Stirling University way before the world was thinking about going green, so there were very few decent jobs available in the field. I thought I was going to be a year or two in Japan, but fate had other things planned for me. After 15 years in Japan, ending up in universities and teaching on the Teachers College Columbia Masters programme in Tokyo, I moved to Thailand as a teacher trainer and project manager. For the last ten years I have worked with education ministries and institutions on large-scale development projects across East Asia, in the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, India and Pakistan before arriving here at NILE. This is my first job in the UK since university!

Was there anyone in particular who inspired you in your early days in ELT?

Ted Quock (now at Keisen University in Japan) saw potential in me from the start and I thank him for giving me a job in Simul Academy Tokyo with very little experience and no qualifications. I later went on to write courses for Simul based on CNN and BBC news videos and newspaper articles. The six years I spent at Simul gave me a firm grounding in communicative language teaching and content- and skills-based learning. 

Many of the books I read on my MA course were inspiring: David Nunan’s work on learner autonomy and The Self-directed Teacher were seminal texts for me. I also loved the systems approach Rod Ellis took in Second Language Acquisition. What would we all do without Alan Maley’s Oxford Resource Books for Teachers? And Jill Hadfield’s Classroom Dynamics made me think a lot about how I was organising learning. Jane and Dave Willis' work on task-based learning and Michael Lewis’s Lexical Approach all stimulated me tremendously.

My mentor, though, and dear friend was Nanci Graves (not the famous one) with whom I co-developed a teacher development website called Wild-e. It was about taking alternative approaches to teacher development, having fun while doing it, and looking at the spiritual side of change and our profession. Nanci and I used to spend hours on the telephone and in person discussing teaching and teacher development, using films and songs as inspiration for language and teacher development activities. Sadly, she died last year, but she is still with me in spirit. I also recently discovered an archived version of Wild-e recently so our mad project lives on.

Have you worked in any other areas?

At university and through high school I was a post boy for an opticians, fresh produce assistant at a supermarket, camera and jeans salesman, night and breakfast porter, barman and function waiter, door-to-door salesperson and pool attendant. I also worked in a bingo hall for one night. NILE is my first ever full-time job in the UK.

Can you suggest a life-changing book / film / experience? 

Books: Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman for perspectives on change and time. The Tao of Teaching by Greta K. Nagel to stimulate deep thought on what you do and why you do it. China Mieville and Salman Rushdie to expand your imagination and for the sheer poetry of their language. Anything by Maya Angelou to humble you and make you laugh.

Films: Gandhi: the scope of the film and achievements of the man are still astounding and inspiring. The Elephant Man and The Colour Purple to explore your humanity and make you cry. Babette’s Feast and The Cook the Thief, his Wife and her Lover to make you hungry and focus on relationships, Trainspotting to explore your darker side.

Experiences: Sunrise over Bagan in Bhurma for reflection, outdoor hotsprings at the base of Mount Fuji for relaxation, Christmas in the Philippines for fun, walking along a beach on Tiree for timeless beauty.

It's Desert Island Discs time! Name 5 albums you would take with you. 

  1. Phillip Glass: 1000 aeroplanes on the roof (or any of his operas)
  2. Soundgarden: Superunknown
  3. Cocteau Twins: Bluebell Knoll
  4. Folk ‘n Hell: Scottish folk/rock compilation album
  5. Happy Daze: Madchester sound compilation album

And books?

  1. The complete works (cheating, I know, but technically within the question remit and I like bending rules) of Oscar Wilde
  2. Alastair Gray: Every Short Story
  3. The complete works of Edgar Allan Poe
  4. Salman Rushdie: Haroon and the Sea of Stories
  5. The complete works of Norman McCaig

Websites?

http://castroller.com/podcasts/CrankyMiddleManager for everything you ever wanted to know, (…and some things you didn’t) about managing anything or anyone. All teachers are managers.

http://chinamieville.net/ The rejectamentalist manifesto is a curious take on this and other worlds.

For anything I have written that is available online: http://alansmackenzie.wordpress.com/

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Pilot, sailor, zookeeper, explorer. I outsourced the transportation and doesn’t zookeeper + explorer = teacher?

What has been your worst teaching moment (so far…)?

Walking into a class in a women’s university in Japan to find I had a blind student. Sheer panic. At the same time, this was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I ever had. It really made me think carefully about what I was doing and how I did it. Simple things like body language, writing on the board or using pictures become problematic until you work out that she needs a buddy that will tell her what is going on in class. I also scared her quite a bit by monitoring her from behind and suddenly asking a question, making her jump out of her boots! Luckily we had a braille printer on campus so I could print out worksheets but had to wait until class to check that they made sense as nobody else read brail in the school. Do you know how big a bilingual dictionary is in brail? It takes up a whole room! Re-analysing your lesson plan from the perspective of the visually impaired and acting on the hoof to deal with situations in class really makes the brain cells work.

Are there any other questions you would like to be asked, or that you would like to ask other NILE trainers (and were always afraid to ask!). Would you like to ask them generally or are they directed at specific colleagues?

I would like to ask Gavin Dudeney how he gets that perfect sheen to his head. As a fellow baldy, I never manage to shine quite as brightly as he does!

Also, 'What rules of language teaching would you bend or break?'

To which I might reply …

Lots of possible answers here, but my faves are

  • Never start a sentence with a conjunction. But it happens all the time in newspapers!
  • Always use a topic sentence to start a paragraph: Have you ever tried finding a real text that does this? They do not exist unless specifically written for the purpose of illustrating this rule
  • Most pronunciation rules in Headway. As a non-standard English speaker (Scottish), I have trouble reproducing most sounds the way they say they should be
  • Never say ‘no’. Nonsense. Why are so many teachers/ trainers so scared of straight answers
0 comments | 13 May 2014 | | The NILE Team
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