How I accidentally started my teaching career unplugged

If you are not familiar with the term ‘teaching unplugged’, you should read this, Scott Thornbury’s excellent article from 2001.

I arrived in Brazil in May 2006, and after some time waiting for my work visa, I started looking for teaching work. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Sara Walker (have a look at her CV and you see what I mean by lucky), who kindly made a couple of phone calls to help push me in the right direction. One of those phone calls led to my first contracted teaching job, which I’ll write about at some point in the future, and the second, to the boss of a language school, led more immediately to my first lesson.

After going for a meeting with a school administrator, one of her teachers called me and asked me if I would be interested in working for another school she was setting up. Obviously I was interested, and after meeting with me they decided they were prepared to completely overlook my total lack of experience and give me some private students. They would support me with coursebooks and materials that I could use, and they assured me that the students would also have their own books. As a complete novice relying only on my status as a native speaker, this was clearly important to me.

A couple of weeks later, I was still waiting for my first student when the phone rang. “We have a student for you,” I was told, “but it’s just a one off class and it starts in two hours”. When I realised that the bus journey would take around an hour and a half, as you can imagine, I was pretty frantic. The student was a business woman who was having a phone interview in English the following day and needed to practice her interview technique. So I googled ‘interview questions’ and printed out a couple of pages of typical subjects for a job interview, and off I went to my first lesson, scared of getting the wrong bus, of getting lost, of being late, and of messing up the lesson.

Now I don’t remember much of what happened in those two hours we spent sitting at her dinner table, apart from the amazing fruit smoothie her Mum made for us, but I do remember that we talked non-stop and that she had the opportunity to speak about many aspects of her life and work. Truth be told, there was almost certainly too much teacher talking time, but that aside, I think I did pretty well for a newbie who’d been dropped in it at the last minute with no preparation time or materials.

At the time, the experience boosted my confidence in my ability to ‘be a teacher’ or at least successfully pretend to be one until I could learn more about it. In the long term, I can look back on it now and see how I had inadvertently started my teaching the way I want to continue, by being able to walk into a classroom and use the material that the students generate to create dynamic, useful and enjoyable classes. The interview questions we used were just a springboard, and a natural conversation (class) followed, but it was never forced and there was definitely no strict lesson plan with a required grammar activity or a listening exercise. In other words, it was mainly student led (although this was probably because she was a very easy going, chatty person, and not because I had somehow opened up a telepathic link with Thornbury and Meddings, writers of whom I was not yet aware).

I have followed a fairly traditional path, if such a thing exists, in becoming a qualified ELT teacher by working in an institute, following their prescribed coursebooks and then taking the CELTA and learning classroom management and CCQ’s etc. As with many teachers now, who seem to be moving away from the controlling influence of the coursebook to a more cooperative and occasional relationship with the published material, I too prefer to dip in and out of coursebooks and rely more on student generated content. This leads me to wonder if I need to unlearn some of these lessons I have learned in the last few years and go back to the naive happenstance of my first class, with just a handful of interview subjects and a willingness to learn, both for the student and the teacher.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that I regret the things I’ve learned between then and now. On the contrary, those experiences are precisely what have enabled me to reflect in this way. I am also acutely aware that coincedence was a big factor, with not just the personality of the student affecting how it went, but also the fact that she was an adult, that we shared common ground for discussion and there was only one of her, as opposed to the more intimidating environment of a classroom of staring and expectant faces. I was fortunate in a number of ways, most of all in that the class wasn’t a disaster and didn’t put me off teaching for life! Furthermore, although it took me some time to realise it, it provided me with an example of the possible effectiveness of a simple, materials light approach to teaching. And yes, she did get the job.


9 thoughts on “How I accidentally started my teaching career unplugged

  1. Nice post, James. In fact, I think a lot of teachers started out a bit like this – at least a lot of NS, back-packing, teachers. There's a first-person account in Earl Stevick's “A Way and Ways” of a teacher – in Oman I think – who starts teaching a small group of women, basically through conversation. Later he gets trained up, loses that natural spontaneity and the 'joy of teaching' … not sure how the story ends!

  2. Thanks Scott, I've added A Way and Ways to my Amazon wish list!

    I think it's difficult to get the balance between having a sound methodological idea of how you want a class to go and 'feeling' your way through it with improvisation and flexibility. Too close to either extreme, then you risk being prescriptive or directionless. It takes time to learn, I think.

  3. James, if you are interested in Humanistic principles also check out Moskowitz's Caring and Sharing in the FL Class. Slightly older book like Earl Stevick's, but still a fascinating read.

  4. Insightful stroy.
    Making up “fancy” materials could be easily distracting teachers from sticking to the goal of lesson.
    I'm preparing for my open class scheduled in November. I might have to keep in mind this.

  5. Hi ya, James – a great story into teaching unplugged and I particularly loved the way you showed that once you were in the room it was obvious that you didn't have time to go through the order of a book: in order to teach your student your simply had to teach her what she needed to learn.

    I think a lot of us teachers recognize this and in particular dogme goes hand-in-hand with tailored one2one situations.

  6. @Lucy – As someone who teaches adults, I'd be interested to know how you think you could use this approach with children.

    @Karenne – I agree that dogme/teaching unplugged goes particularly well with one to one classes. In fact, I'll hopefully be having some private students soon, and I'm planning to go coursebook free for as many of them as I can (depending on their needs, of course).

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