Read Hugo Dart's personal reflections of NILE's 25th birthday celebrations: on marking 25 years in teacher development in the middle of a pandemic.
It was supposed to be perfect. Three days in Norwich, listening to some of the greatest authorities in language education and celebrating the 25th birthday of the most welcoming and professional teacher development institute anywhere, with the bonus of meeting dear friends who have been inspiring me for over eight years now. I had my plane ticket and also a five-minute speech I would get to deliver on how NILE changed my life.
Then the pandemic came. Courses and conferences were postponed or cancelled all over the globe, while seemingly thousands of webinars on teaching online were offered on screens everywhere. Suddenly, all our professional acquaintances were either utterly desperate or claiming to be experts in remote classes. Lots of emergency training took place, some of it good. I am lucky enough to work at a place where the academic team was more than up to the task, but it was clear most teachers just had to improvise as they went along.
The amazing NILE team came up with a plan - not for some massive one-or-two-day event, but for nine consecutive weeks of conversations with specialists in as many aspects of our profession. Entirely free of charge for its global audience, NILE Insights would allow us to listen to a variety of points of view. It would give us a real opportunity to reflect on why and how we do what we do, both in simpler times and in this crazy COVID-19 context. It would be a time to just sit back for one hour a week and prepare for whatever is to come. Finally, it would make it possible for us to celebrate NILE’s birthday by somehow looking at the faces and listening to the voices of our friends in Norwich. It was perfect.
It is truly impossible to summarize in one modest article those nine hours of insights, except from a very personal perspective. Therefore, aiming simply to share some of the ideas that got me to reevaluate my own practice, I hope that all who make up this ever-growing NILE community can find a moment to consider how they might also have been transformed.
As we started our journey, Martyn Clarke talked about the importance of compassion in these times of uncertainty, as managers should try to make sure teachers and students don’t feel overwhelmed (ELT Management Insights, June 30), which is certainly a wonderful point of which we sometimes need to remind ourselves.
Speakers did not always agree on all issues. One example was the discussion of whether any teacher can become a teacher trainer, as Simon Smith pointed out that people will sometimes be mistakenly promoted from the former to the latter position just because of how long they’ve had the job, without necessarily having the required attitude, skills, or language level (Teacher Training and Development Insights, July 7).
Then there were times when I found myself disagreeing with a point of view expressed by a majority of panelists, such as when it was said that having competitive games in the classroom is a positive thing (Teaching Young Learners Insights, July 14). However, the same session would include observations with which I agreed wholeheartedly - that was the case when Sarah Hillyard said that teachers have been forced to learn how to use a number of technological tools that will continue to be very valuable when we return to face-to-face classes.
In one of the sessions that dealt most closely to my own area of research, it was delightful to hear Alan Pulverness explain how journeying into a foreign language or culture allows one to reflect on their own background, and then hear from Claudia Ferradas about the importance of not forgetting all we have learned about online learning when we get out of the health crisis (Culture, Arts, and Creativity in Language Teaching Insights, July 21).
One week later, Brian Tomlinson referred to what I describe as the tension between market requirements and students’ actual needs when he pointed out that coursebooks underestimate learners, although students need to be challenged, and that “what we need are not coursebooks but resource books (...) but that doesn’t sell” (Materials Development for Language Teaching Insights, July 28).
Reflecting specifically on the current situation, Rod Bolitho said that it is a lot harder to establish actual connections with students in remote classes, while Margit Szesztay noted that principles such as starting from students’ interests and creativity - and building on them - apply to online as well as face-to-face teaching, and Jeremy Harmer declared that the current forced move to online teaching has demonstrated clearly that the notion of digital natives/immigrants is absurd, as how technologically sophisticated one is does not depend on their age (Teaching Methodologies Insights, August 4).
That was one of the sessions that I wanted to watch over and over again.
Nicky Hockly made me consider the challenge of designing tasks that can be carried out by students in face-to-face classes and by students in online classes who may be attending the same class (Digital Technologies in Language Teaching Insights, August 11). She also explored the intriguing notion that the desirability of either asynchronous or synchronous online classes depends on the aim of the class.
The following week, we got to see as one of the panelists NILE founder Dave Allan himself, who observed that one reason why assessment is so challenging is that teachers are not properly trained to do it, and that one area which deserves particular attention at this time is the interactive dimension of both teaching and testing (Language Assessment Insights, August 18).
In the ninth and last week, my experience as a CLIL teacher over the past four years had me paying very close attention to the session, when I heard Jon Wright discuss how good teachers in that context need to be especially good in motivating learners and in giving feedback to them (Teaching Subject Content Through English Insights, August 25). Something else I found quite profound was Phil Ball’s observation that language teachers who move into CLIL can learn from content teachers to dedicate a significant amount of time at the end of each class to dealing with the resolution of issues which may have come up for students.
Finally, a word about NILE’s online birthday celebration, which took place on August 4, right after the Insights session.
It is true that nothing could ever replace an actual birthday party - the wonderful dinner at NILE@21 remains a uniquely beautiful occasion - but it felt truly magical to be able to see and hear so many of the people who have made that place so much more than a place of learning. The speeches, the stories, the improvised comments, the joyful tears, the poetry, the love - there was time for all of it, and for so much smiling. I will be forever grateful for the chance to join the celebration and raise a glass to the Norwich Institute for Language Education. It has changed my life more than once, and will do it again.
August 25, 2020