Interviewer: Well I wonder if you could give any recommendations for teachers in terms of how to stay motivated and stay interested in the profession.
Jeremy Harmer: There’s a writer called Penny Ur who’s a methodology writer and she writes very interestingly about the difference between a teacher with fifty years’ experience and a teacher with one years’ experience repeated fifty times. And the real danger for all teachers is that they’re the second kind of teacher. That you start teaching then you just keep doing the same thing again and again and again. And it’s a killer. It’s demotivating for teachers, it’s de-motivating for students. One of the only ways I think teachers can stay on top of their game, can stay motivated and engaged with what they do is to try and ring the changes, to try and find out what’s new, to experiment, to try new things, to take risks in the classroom. And if you do all of that, there’s a chance you’ll be engaged in it all the time instead of just doing it like any other job. Because teaching isn’t like any other job; teaching is about interacting with human beings, it’s about interacting with students and tying to make it best for them. But the other person it has to be best for of course is the teacher and that’s why I say that trying out new things and taking risks is what gives the profession its lifeblood and it’s what keeps teachers alive I think.
Interviewer: I wonder if you could elaborate. Could you give me some examples of some of those new things, or those risks that you see teachers taking.
Jeremy Harmer: Well, there is a very famous book published, well twenty years ago now, from a Professor here in New York called John Fanselow; and he called his book Breaking Rules, and his essential point was what teachers should do in the classroom is break rules. They should break their own rules and see what happens. And that’s risky. If you always do something this way, try and do it a different way and see what happens. Now it may not go right. It may not go terribly well, but at least you’ll learn more about what you’re doing and about some of the things you used to do and some of the things you’re going to do. In terms of what’s happening right now for teachers; some of the big challenges that teachers face, well one of course is the arrival of more and more different kinds of information technology and how to incorporate that into teaching. Is the interactive whiteboard the future for language learning or is it actually a kind of rather, rather the past? Is it limiting or is it liberating? And teachers have to stay on top of that kind of thing, they have to stay with the developments that technology is bringing.
There’s a big debate going on at the moment in our world about the value of methodology itself. So for example people argue all the time about whether task based learning is better than communicative language teaching or whether the two are the same or different or whether you should teach a lexical approach or a grammatical approach. And all of that kind of stuff to outsiders may sound a bit like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels about dancing on the head of a pin but actually it’s really important for teachers to be engaged with those debates, to be challenged all the time, to think about what they do. Because the constant repetition of doing something without thought makes it less successful, and it’s less fun. So that’s another issue, another area of investigation that teachers need to be concerned with. How to engage with all the methodological argument that comes from the right and the left and the top and the bottom.
And another issue which is absolutely (sic) changed the face of English language teaching – in my lifetime certainly – is what English is, and what it has become. If we’d had this discussion twenty, twenty-five years ago, we might well be talking in terms of British English and American English and say Australian English or something, and seeing those as being the two or three models of English that any learner of English would aspire to. But in what seems a remarkably short time English has become a lingua franca. There are now at least two or – it depends on which authority you listen to but there are now either two or three times as many people speaking English as a second, third or fourth language as there are speaking it as a first language. And the kind of Englishes on offer around the world now make say British English or American English far less central to the whole issue of English language teaching than they once were. So that for example, Singapore English is a prestige variety of English, it has equal status as far as one can see. Pakistani English, even Mexican English, Hispanic English, there are so many Englishes out there and English is now being used in such a different way that I think that’s having a real impact on language teaching and it will have an impact soon I think on language testing because it’s going to get a lot more complex to try and say what the standards are for someone as a successful language student.
I’ve strayed slightly off the point but I think those three issues to me are absolutely central. The first is how do teachers engage with new technology? And if they don’t engage I think they’re in trouble. I think engaging with it doesn’t mean you have to instantly accept it, on the contrary you want to be mildly sceptical of every new thing that is thrown at you. But actually engaging with new technology is a way of staying fresh, a way of continuing to learn, a way of continuing to engage with the profession. Engaging with the methodological sort of tides and currents that flow backwards and forwards is absolutely vital. And trying to think very carefully about what the English language is now and who it’s for and why they’re using it is also vitally important. And if you’ll forgive me there’s one more thing I’d like to say which is…I think for me it’s critically important that teachers should somehow see themselves as students as well as being teachers and part of the time that’s learning from your students, trying things out, keeping journals and things like that. But I’ve recently started trying to learn another language and it’s an eye opener. I’m not the first. Many language teachers do it specifically to try and get a window into what it feels like. It’s a really good thing to do, it keeps you on your toes and it reminds you of how exhilarating language learning can be, how difficult it is and how language learning success and failure are so important not just for students but also for teachers.