Welcome to the first in our series of interviews with our #ELTHeroes! This week we are featuring Alison Barrett – global Head of English for Education Systems at the British Council.
1. Tell us a little bit about your career in ELT
I always wanted to be a journalist, but after having taught English as a volunteer in Nepal before university, I decided to do a CELTA and teach English in Japan first to see a bit more of the world. I really loved working with children as an English teacher and I enjoyed the challenge of learning new languages and about diverse cultures, so I decided to make a career of it. I joined the British Council in India and soon after I completed my DELTA in the UK. I continued teaching young learners, but also taught adults at all levels and in all subjects from general English to ESP. Later I moved into teacher training. I trained as a CELTA tutor and I designed and conducted training for teachers working at the British Council and for English teachers working in government and private schools across India. At that stage I decided to do a Masters in TESOL by distance. That was incredibly challenging to do while still working full time and looking after two children, but the Institute of Education (UK) was extremely flexible and I was able to focus my papers on specific areas of interest to our English language development and continuing professional development (CPD) work in India and South Asia. I think it’s incredibly important to stay connected to the latest research evidence and thinking in ELT, but also to stay grounded in the reality of the context. Doing an MA while still working really helped me to develop a principled and pragmatic approach. Now I am responsible for our English for Education Systems programmes globally.
2. What’s your favourite type of activity to do for your own continuing professional development – and why?
There so much you can learn outside of formal training programmes – that’s what CPD is all about! My absolute favourite activity is using Twitter. I follow a range of really interesting people who tweet links to research papers and studies that have direct relevance to our work in English for Education Systems. I enjoy reading those papers, sharing them with others and discussing the implications for our work with my colleagues. I use twitter like a living bibliography – I retweet or like tweets that I think are important and then I scroll through them later, pulling out the ones I think I need at that time. It’s also a great way to network and meet like-minded people, or to search for studies that relate to specific research questions you may have, or to follow conferences virtually. You can find me on Twitter at albarrett09. As well as being an avid twitterer and taking formal courses, I have also joined a number of free MOOCs over the last year or so. Have a look at the FutureLearn website for details of a range of courses on ELT, as well as courses on general education.
3. What advice do you have for teachers when they’re developing their skills and knowledge in the professional practice ‘planning lessons and courses’?
If you don’t know where you are going you will never get there. The lesson plan helps you to identify what your destination is, and then map out the different pathways to that destination. You shouldn’t worry if you get lost on the way, it’s important to teach the students and not the plan. If you got lost in real life you wouldn’t just keep going, but you would stop, try and work out where you took a wrong turn and then map out a new route to the same destination. The same goes for teaching. Use your plan as a prop for you in the classroom, but also to stimulate reflection afterwards, and to help you come up with a new plan. Make sure your plan is in a format that works for you.
4. What do you think is the most important quality for an English language teacher to have in order to help learners to achieve learning outcomes in the classroom?
It’s very easy to obsess about your own teaching style or to worry about whether you used a particular technique well or not. That is important of course but not if that’s the only thing you worry about! As teachers we need to focus on the learning and ask ourselves what kind of reaction our teaching is having on the students. You can try a number of things to help you focus on them: keep a record of their progress in classroom assessments; identify one or two students and ask a colleague to observe them as you teach and see if they could grasp the key learning points of the lesson; ask the students themselves what kind of techniques they find the most useful, for example. There is some evidence to indicate that teachers who believe in their own ability or efficacy as teachers, but also believe in their students and give them an appropriate level of challenge in the classroom are more likely to help their students achieve more for themselves. Never stop learning yourself either: CPD is for life!