About changing worlds, cores values and working at an IH school by Helga Kuipers
It´s funny to write an article for the IH Journal shortly after finding out that our school will no longer be a member of IHWO – news that affected me deeply on a personal and emotional level. Why?
“It´s not like you´ve lost your job”, some friends said the other day, “such a long time with the same organisation, maybe this means new opportunities for you – don’t you feel excited?” No, not really… Why not?
I´ve spent my whole professional teacher´s life at IH, from my initial training and a few years of teaching and training at IH London to over a decade as a teacher, teacher trainer and DoS at IH Seville and then onto my present job at (still-) IH Berlin.
And after all these years, IH is still IH. It´s not quite the same atmosphere as back in 1996 when being communicative was somehow linked to sitting on the floor in a circle, when you had the choice between preparing your classes in the smoking or non-smoking teachers´ room (or the bar downstairs…) and when you could use TV programs recorded by Jim on big videotapes in class. The times of the legendary Christmas parties on the first floor of 106 Piccadilly are long gone… International House has undergone a lot of changes since then; it is a lot more professional now, offering courses on ELT management and online training courses, with teachers and trainers using Powerpoint and IWBs.
“What does it mean to be an IH school?” was the underlying question when identifying the core values of IH. “What does it mean to work at an IH school?” is what I would like to write about, and about how the core values have an impact on IH people – students, teachers, trainers and managers.
The IHC/CELTA course is one big inspiration when you first start your job. My teacher training course at IH London with five Teaching Practice Groups, each teaching a different language, certainly changed my life. And the good thing about working at an IH school is that it does not have to stop there. We don´t agree with the fact that in a teacher´s job the majority of the work should happen behind closed doors and that´s why IH schools make a continuous effort to encourage teachers to work on their professional development through offering observations, teacher development seminars and conferences. Being open and receptive to changing worlds around us and a flexible approach to methodology means that IH is an organisation still at the forefront of development in the world of language training.
Opening classroom doors and encouraging debates amongst teachers within a positive and motivating atmosphere where we learn from each other through giving and receiving positive feedback and ideas – that’s inspirational for IH teachers. Teachers carry this inspiration into their classrooms, this positive atmosphere where making mistakes is part of the learning process and students are encouraged to learn from each other.
Understanding the processes of language learning and the people involved in them is fundamental to IH. Working at IH means speaking the same language in terms of many aspects of teaching: teaching aims, student-centredness, self-reflection, learner autonomy, TTT, PPP, ARC (sorry Mr. Scrivener, it might not have been your intention, but you did create another acronym), TBL… When moving to different countries to teach at IH schools it is quite reassuring to be able to find people who speak your “language”. When everything else around you is new: new country, new language, new flat, new people - walking into an IH staff room can be a little bit like coming home.
Turning a little language school in a flat in Córdoba into the International House World Organisation – that´s an achievement.
As an IH teacher you can accomplish a lot of things. You can travel around the world whilst earning a living, if that's what you're looking for, making use of the IH transfer system (it does help if you teach English, job offers teaching other languages are rather scarce). If teaching is your “proper job” and it's a career in language teaching you're aiming for, there are some excellent training courses at your disposal and you might even be offered a good deal by the school you work for. Learning to design materials, learning to give a Teacher Development Seminar, learning to take on senior responsibilities, learning to train teachers or run online courses… teachers looking for challenges and opportunities should be able to find plenty within IH.
Looking at a lesson plan from a CELTA course, one would think that teachers try to achieve aims all the time: lesson aims, stage aims, main aims, secondary aims, personal aims … Fortunately once you teach your own class at your own rhythm without an audience of 5 people (4 worrying about their next class, concentrating on observation tasks or wildly giving you signs to make you understand that there are 5 minutes left until the end of your 35 minute teaching slot and the fifth person frantically writing comments on every noise you make in class…) you don´t have to worry that much about achieving all your aims in one lesson anymore. Your students´ progress is in part your achievement as a teacher and it should fill you with pride if you stop and think about the number of students who learned a language with you, those who successfully passed an exam, maybe found a job because of their language skills, all those who managed to study abroad and maybe found the love of their life out there, or those who simply overcame their insecurity and managed to actually speak or that teenager who hated studying the language at school and then discovered that it can be quite fun and actually useful. Oh no, it is not just any old job we're doing, we do touch on people´s lives, don´t we? That's quite a scary thought too, if you think of those students, who… But let´s not go there.
Teaching at an IH school means that you work in a supportive environment. There is a DoS if you need help, a staff room where you find colleagues who are happy to give you a hand with finding an activity or unjamming the photocopier. There are tons of teaching materials, magazines and books on language teaching methodology where you can read up on interesting and not so interesting developments and new or not so new approaches. Maybe I have been extremely lucky with the schools I’ve worked for, but I have always found that there was more material and literature available than I could actually read or look at…
There is a very good support structure available to IH staff working in management too. I can´t recall how many times I've gone back to the DoS Handbook or the IHWO website or got in touch with colleagues doing the same job around the world, when I've had to design a course, review the appraisal system, update level tests or, lacking inspiration, plan a Teacher Development session.
Imagine you´ve just won the lottery… Imagine you´re at a dinner party … Students have to imagine situations all the time. Teachers too. If I had to write a film review in another language, what would I struggle most with? If I had to learn how to use the third conditional, what would I find most difficult? If I had to stand in front of the whole class trying to mime the sentence ‘the tap´s dripping`, how would I feel? Trying to predict students´ potential problems with a particular language point or activity is what we do all the time.
Retaining the ability to put yourself in someone else´s shoes, no matter how many students you´ve taught or teachers you´ve trained, is quite a challenge! Working in an IH school helps to keep this imagination going.
Yes, that’s our job.
In the classroom we try to encourage our students to communicate. I have actually seen teachers who were so busy creating a need for communication, pre-teaching vocabulary, setting up activities, scaffolding the way to a freer speaking activity, giving models from native speakers, that, in the end, they didn´t listen when their students actually had something to say!
Observing a teacher trainee's class the other day, I felt quite jealous of the amount and level of authentic communication happening in her classroom. The students were totally engaged in conversation trying to solve a problem one of the students had. No pre-teaching of vocabulary, no setting of a situation, no “advice” target language – and I felt for a moment that I would spoil, rather than improve things, if I tried to put any structure into her planning and teaching. Still, the good thing is that there is room at IH for such thoughts, and people to discuss them with.
My teaching has changed a lot since I first began, I´ve taken on board a lot of new ideas, tried out new approaches, gone back to old ones, using the latest materials or none at all… but my basic underlying teaching beliefs remain the same. A bit like International House, evolving and adapting itself to changing worlds, but always conserving its key values.