An Interview with ... Alan Marsh
Alan Marsh was a founding member of MATEFL and has been its President since 1995. Before coming to Malta at the beginning of 1993 he worked for International House, Rome for 12 years, the last 5 years of which he was involved in intensive teacher training. He has been a full-time EFL teacher for 21 years, and an EFL teacher trainer for ten years. Currently he is the Director of Teacher Training at the NSTS E.L.I. International Teacher Training Centre. He is accredited by the Royal Society of Arts/University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate as a main tutor on RSA UCLES CELTA teacher training courses, and is also an Assessor for CELTA courses throughout the world.
How and why did you choose to go into EFL teaching?
While I was at University I did some on-and-off teaching (there were no stipends or grants then!) to help me to survive financially. When I finished University I fancied living and working in Southern Europe. I was a British citizen (I only acquired Maltese citizenship in 1998) and the only south European countries in the EU where I could work legally were Spain, Italy and Greece, if I remember rightly. In Malta I had made some Italian friends and so in 1978 I headed for there. There was – and still is- an immense market for EFL teachers and I soon found a job in Milan. However, I realised that I really lacked professional training and so did what is now called the RSA Cambridge CELTA. And I haven’t looked back since.
You are involved in various aspects of the EFL business: teaching; course and materials design; teacher training; trainer training; CELTA course assessment; lecturing; managing. If you had to choose just one of these, which would you choose and why?
Difficult one! I actually enjoy all of them. However, what I enjoy most is interacting with other people, trying to understand what makes them tick and seeing how that can best be exploited. All of the areas you mention contain this element, so the larger the role it plays, the better! Linked to that is the ‘buzz’ that I feel whenever I can see tangible evidence that I am managing to help somebody to develop and be better at whatever they are trying to do, whether it be a learner studying English, a teacher, or an administrator. I think that I need to feel that whatever I am doing is useful. Otherwise, I seem to lose interest rather quickly.
Over the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of work with teachers, both here in Malta and abroad, and so that is perhaps my greatest enthusiasm at the moment. There is so much that we don’t know about what is called ‘teacher thinking” – how and why teachers arrive at the decisions they make in and out of class, what they believe and don’t believe both consciously and unconsciously, how they develop, how they feel about themselves, their students, their colleagues and their job. It’s a fascinating area, and I think the more that we know about these things the more we can understand about the complex world of the classroom.
Which is your favourite area of language teaching?
Another difficult one! However, I suppose one possible answer is linked to what I said earlier. Whenever I can discover what makes a learner tick, and what she or he really feels, believes and is concerned about, then I feel that I can help them so much more. So getting students to use English to communicate about the things that are really important to them, or things that really animate them, is something I try to aim for. I also like to think that I am helping students to become independent learners, that is, providing them with the tools - and that includes the confidence - to go on with their learning once their course is over.
So I suppose one answer to your question is that I enjoy helping learners to use English to express meanings that are important to them and also to help them become as independent as possible of a teacher.
Another answer is that I get a little kick out of being a bit of an iconoclast. Whenever there is an item of received wisdom flying about regarding what works or doesn’t work in the classroom, I like to experiment with ways of going against the current, so to speak. So, for example, if orthodoxy claims that we should only use English in the classroom, I like to experiment with ways of using translations! And when received wisdom says that the students should be doing all the speaking and Teacher Talking Time should be reduced, I like to experiment with telling stories, anecdotes and jokes. Every orthodoxy that exists is really only a reaction to and a questioning of whatever orthodoxy prevailed earlier, and so, really, we need to understand what current ideas are really saying and then to see how the ‘rules’ can be bent so that, in effect, new ideas can emerge. This kind of playful challenging of ideas, of course, helps to keep you out of the dreaded rut, and often makes teaching into a really interesting experiment.
..and your least favourite area?
Dealing with people (students, managers or teachers) who think you are stupid and who try to pull one over on you. I think mutual respect is so important, and if there is respect, then dialogue can be initiated. Once dialogue is initiated, solutions to even the most seemingly intractable problems can almost always be found. But the essential pre-requisite is respect, and a genuine desire to see things from the other’s point of view.
Do you have a preferred level when teaching?
I enjoy them all. Teaching Beginners gives you immense satisfaction, as progress is tangible. Teaching intermediate to advanced is often more intellectually stimulating, as you can share ideas beliefs and opinions.
You are learning to speak Maltese; has this experience given you any tips on teaching EFL?
If you are teaching a language, there are few things that give you more insight into what you are doing than actually taking a language course yourself at the same time. As an adult learner, I am aware of what I want to learn and conversely what I don’t want or need to spend time on. I am also aware of how I learn best - for example, I desperately need to write things down and I always want to understand why something works as it does. I realise as a pre-intermediate speaker of Maltese that I want to speak as much as possible and to talk about things that I feel strongly about. At the same time I realise that I don’t have the vocabulary I need, nor the grammatical competence to say some of the more complex things I wish to express. In short, I actually feel that to a large extent I am capable of directing my own learning.
This is a tremendously important discovery for me, as I realise that as a teacher I tend to direct my learners’ learning – I decide what they are going to learn and how they are going to learn it. The insight that I want to contribute to the input in my learning has led me to be more aware that my learners, too, probably have plenty to say about what and how we do what we do in class, and I now tend to consult and negotiate with them a lot more than I tended to do in the past.
You spent a long time working in TEFL in Italy. How would you say that compares with Malta?
Well, first of all courses tend to be all-year-round courses, and so you need to plan for a whole academic year. One of the advantages of this is of course that you are more likely to see the progress your learners make .. hopefully!.. than is normally the case in a two/three-week course. The learners also tend to be more demanding, as they are unlikely to put up with a dissatisfying course for a whole academic year. However, although it can sometimes be more demanding, there are also rewards. For example, it is possible to develop deeper relationships with your students, and often you will be able to share certain aspects of their lives – for example, going out for meals together, going skiing together, and sharing other hobbies and interests. In the end, you become a citizen of their town, just as they are, and that allows you to develop a rapport which is slightly different to that developed over a two-three week stay here in Malta.
As learners usually live and work in the area, they also have the possibility of leaving your school and choosing an alternative school in the area. This is not so easy to do here in Malta, as usually they will have booked everything through an agency and they therefore deal with the agency rather than the school. In other words, I would say that the more direct client-school relationship means that you probably feel constrained to work that bit harder at guaranteeing client satisfaction in order to keep your students and to ensure that they enroll again the following year. The teacher has a much more important role to play in this equation than is often the case in Malta (or the UK, for that matter), where the client books a whole package – accommodation, extra-curricular components, transfers and the language course.
There is also often a lot of company work, where you go out to company headquarters (for example IBM, Alitalia, FIAT, AGIP, RAI etc) and teach English to employees.
Another difference is that although there are a lot of rather shady outfits, there are also a lot of highly professional schools in which it is possible to follow professional career paths. Although the more respectable schools will require rigorous EFL qualifications (for example the RSA CELTA or DELTA), they will also offer full-time salaried contracts with guaranteed holiday pay (I used to have three months paid holiday!), sickness leave and benefits, severance pay and a commitment to supporting ongoing teacher development.
What have been the highpoints in your career so far?
There have been several, I’m happy to say. Helping to set up the RSA Cambridge CELTA in Malta at NSTS is something I’m particularly proud of. The existence of this high-quality training course here in Malta has given the opportunity to Maltese teachers to gain a teaching qualification that many regard as unparalleled in the world. It is an extremely expensive course to run and actually only just covers its costs, and I must thank Louis Grech and Francis Stivala at NSTS for their professional commitment and vision in providing resources at NSTS for what is essentially a service to the Maltese TEFL industry as a whole.
The continued growth of MATEFL has also been a highpoint of my career here in Malta. When we started six years ago many assured us that such an initiative would have no chance here in Malta – “we Maltese are just not into the idea of sharing our ideas and materials” was a common refrain. Well, the organisation now has about 150 fully paid-up members, all of them teachers who give up their free time to share and discuss practical ideas. It’s been a small success story, not least due to the magnificent work put in by several constant committee members over the years.
Outside Malta, I remember the elation I felt back in 1980 when I landed a job with International House in Rome. International House, or IH as it is known, is widely considered to be the creme de la crème of EFL organisations in terms of its being at the cutting edge of modern language teaching, its state-of-the art teaching resources and opportunities for development, its array of famous EFL names including so many published authors, and last but not least its excellent employment conditions. When I was offered the job it was like a dream come true.
Other highpoints have included being invited to hold a seminar at the British Council National Conference in Italy (there were 2000 teachers at the conference!) and being elected by my peers to be President of the International House co-operative I worked with in Rome. I was President for 5 years, and believe you me, running a co-operative is one of the most demanding management-cum-administrative posts I’ve ever been involved in! But that’s another story!
And finally … being told ‘thank you’ whenever a student or fellow teacher is satisfied with what I’ve been able to do to help them.
And the low points?
Perhaps I've been very lucky, but there have been very few low points. What has made me rather unhappy in the past is working in a school in which there is an absence of dialogue, either between management and teachers or amongst teachers themselves. In such contexts divisiveness creeps in, and the school can become a very unhappy place to work in. It's so essential to keep channels of dialogue open, and to maintain mutual professional and personal respect. When respect goes, and the doors to dialogue shut, then there is very little chance of moving forward. I've found myself in this scenario twice in my career, and on both occasions I felt that I had no alternative but to move on to seek pastures new. They were sad occasions.
What is the most interesting thing that has happened to you in your career?
Well, I met both my wives through teaching EFL![laughs] The first was as student, and the second, my present wife, was a colleague.
Well, so many interesting things have happened. Like living in a gay house in Milan for a year. Now that taught me a lot! [laughs] Seriously, it helped me to understand and respect a certain lifestyle which up to that point, I'm ashamed to say, I had only seen as a target for jokes and sniggers.
Whilst working in Italy I learnt a lot about pluralism in politics, and opinions in general, and I think I learnt that it is possible to agree to disagree without losing respect for those you might not agree with. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I hope I got there in the end. Actually, that reminds me of an anecdote, if I may, which incorporates two or three interesting incidents. When I first went to Italy I met up with my girlfriend at the time, who was from Naples. I didn't speak a word of Italian and nor did I know anything about the Italian musical scene. Which was unforunate, as Rosanna, my girlfriend, was the manager of Eduardo Bennato, a well-known Italian singer-songwriter. Anyway, I got to Naples and the next day Rosanna and I and several members of Eduardo's band drove to Modena, where we were going to meet up with Eduardo, who was due to appear on the last night of the Festa dell'Unita, a two-week long jambouree organised by the Italian Communist Party. Well, as we drove into Modena in our car with our Naples number plates, our entourage was recognised by many of the fans making their way to the stadium for the concert. And people started mobbing me, shaking my hand, hugging me and treating me like a pop star! It just so happened that I apparently resembled Eduardo Bennato, people saw our car and put two and two together and got me! Actually, I quite enjoyed the experience!
Anyway, the concert that evening closed the Festa dell'Unita by following on from a closing speech to the Communist Party faithful by the party Secretary, Enrico Berlinguer. I think that Berlinguer was one of the leading figures of the twentieth century, especially because of his courage in leading the Italian Communist Party away from its ideological dependence on the Soviet Union. He actually criticised the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and set in motionthe process that led to Eurocommunism and the present reorientation of the European left. So that evening I was enthralled as I listened to the man (and was given a simultaneous translation by Rosanna) on the possibility and desirability of a Communist Party working and thriving within a parliamentary democracy.
Berlinguer died some years later, and it was estimated that a million people attended his funeral in Rome. His daughter, Bianca, who was a student of mine, told me that she was approached by a Soviet Communist Party official who was attending the funeral. With tears in his eyes, the official told her "Signorina, your father is a great man. What is happening here today is a dream that I have in my heart for my own country." "What do you mean?" asked Bianca, perplexed. The official replied "Today one million people have come out onto the streets to shed tears for a Communist. And not a single one of them was coerced to come. Perhaps one day my country will know this kind of freedom." The man's name was Mikhael Gorbaciov, the man who started the process of perestrojka, the road to reform, and glasnost, 'transparency' in the Soviet Union.
and the most amusing thing?
Sitting in my gay house in Milan with my housemates and some of their friends, looking at record sleeves, picking up one by a singer called Lucio Dalla who apparently was just about the most famous singer in Italy and saying to one of the friends in my half French, half broken Italian, “Gosh, this bloke doesn’t half look like you.” “Carissimo,” replied the friend, “It is me!”Oops. Well there have been many more clangers like that, but I’ll only embarrass myself further, so let’s just leave it at that!
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Read. Watch football ... sorry, but it’s stronger than me... And share my life with those who are closest to me. Not necessarily in that order.
Finally, what are your thoughts on the future of EFL in general …
I think learners will become increasingly demanding about ‘the product they are buying’. They will want to know more about what is on offer and demand more rigorous course descriptions, syllabus details, and information about how progress is assessed and evaluated. They will probably also expect to have access to information technology as part of their learning course. They will also continue to take it for granted that their teachers are experts in what they do - nobody buys a language course if they think their teachers are anything less than highly-trained, experienced professionals.
...and in Malta specifically?
There will be an increased demand for younger learner courses (8-14) which are held in safe, tightly controlled residential colleges. This is a booming sector in the UK, and can take off in Malta if premises and specifically-trained personnel (both educational and custodial) can be guaranteed.
The teenager market must be seriously addressed. One European country – a major source of EFL teenagers for Malta - has already expressed grave concern at ministerial level about the wisdom of sending teenagers for EFL courses to Malta. If teenagers are to continue coming to Malta for English language courses, those responsible for course provision must ensure that quality teaching is provided. The whole host family arena also needs to be carefully regulated, as it is this sector which receives most complaints.
The adult market may well decrease in numbers but become more highly-specialised, with an increased demand for ESP courses.
What seems very clear to me is that as clients become more demanding, increased pressures will be put on teachers. It is therefore up to the schools themselves to ensure that their teachers are highly-dedicated professionals. Teachers need to keep themselves constantly updated, and to be supported in this - financially, too - by their schools. However, unless interested, qualified teachers are offered career paths with salaried posts and institutional developmental support, it is difficult to see how schools can guarantee the necessary commitment and dedication required of their teachers.
[This article appeared in the Winter 2000 newsletter]