Tributes to John Soars MBE
John Soars, co-author with his wife Liz of Headway, and one of International House’s best known sons, has died at the age of 60. On an unspeakably sad day in early September several hundred people, including a substantial group from the world of ELT, joined Liz and the family in Hampstead, to say farewell.
Our friends at IHWO asked me to write a tribute to John for the Journal. Like so many, I knew John as a friend and as a professional colleague, and I was one of the many who attended the funeral. But it seemed selfish not share this opportunity with others who knew him as well or better than I did. Here are some of the tributes they sent me.
Jeff Krum is Associate Publishing Director, ELT at Cambridge University Press, New York. He writes:
I first “met” John Soars indirectly by using the first edition of Headway at International House Budapest in the 1980s. Later I had the privilege of working with John (and of course Liz) when I was the editor of the American Edition at OUP. Like Headway, John also always required me to think and expected me to be at my best. I know that working with John brought out the best in me, and I’ve been able to pass on the many lessons I learned at the big dining room table at One Day Farm to a new generation of editors.
I will remember John as completely genuine, one of the most intelligent, curious, unvarnished, blunt, and, in the end, refreshing men I’ve ever known. If there was something John didn’t like, he’d tell you. If there was something he didn’t understand, he would bluntly ask you. All that could be disconcerting, but it was also totally honest. On the other hand, when John smiled that crooked smile of his, you knew he meant it.
When I worked with John and Liz on American Headway, they generously invited me to stay at One Day Farm. I will always remember how hard we worked during the day and how in the evenings John and I would play billiards, talking about our families, our children, our fathers, about being fathers ourselves. I was staying there for work, but those evenings became all about life. I will miss John very much.
Ruth Gairns has been closely identified with International House for many years, adding to IH’s reputation for being at the leading edge of the profession with her own great success as an ELT author. She writes:
I first met John in 1978 when I was a trainee teacher at International House and was lucky enough to observe John teaching advanced students. Looking back on it, it was obvious that he was going to be a very special member of the ELT community: he was incredibly knowledgeable about language; he had a fantastic rapport with the students; and the lesson was original, absorbing and wonderfully clear. He also took the trouble to chat to us lowly trainees afterwards when he probably had plenty of more pressing needs, but as I discovered later when we became colleagues, this was typical of his huge appetite for engaging with teachers in a genuine exchange of ideas.
John soon became Director of Studies and made a brilliant job of it – always supportive to teachers; kind, flexible, and with a wonderful, dry wit. I can still picture him at his desk in the corner of the staff room, dealing calmly and assuredly with teacher and student queries while the rest of us went into pre-nine o’clock panic. He willingly shared his knowledge, creativity and wealth of ideas, and was already developing his ability to write excellent classroom materials – which of course led to the seminal ‘Headway’ which he co-authored with Liz.
It was always a pleasure to see John and Liz at IH and OUP events in later years, and I was so glad to have talked to him at the IH reunion in May. We will miss him.
Ken Wilson, another ELT writer whose name is among those most readily associated with International House, where he was co-founder of the English Teaching Theatre, wrote the eulogy for John, some of which was read out during the funeral:
Like many people in the English language business, I first met John at International House in London. It was immediately clear that he was a different type to most of the people who had become synonymous with that amazing organisation.
The previous generation of International House teachers were a rather noisy bunch, because they knew that they had discovered the secret of successful teaching and they kept telling the rest of the world about it.
John wasn’t noisy. He was thoughtful. And he knew that there probably wasn’t just one method of successful teaching. And if there was, it probably wasn’t the one that these noisy types were shouting from the rooftops.
Each succeeding generation of educators in this wonderful profession have brought new ideas. Sometimes the business has been swept along by them, as if following a new spiritual leader. Some of us follow the procession unthinkingly, because the new idea is bright and colourful.
John didn’t do that. Whatever the mainstream response to new ideas, John would examine them critically and ask some basic questions: do they work, how do they work and, most important, do they work for everyone? Not just for native speakers of the language teaching in London or Oxford, but also for non-native speaker teachers, working in challenging conditions far from the English-speaking environments that more privileged students can gravitate towards.
If you wanted to discuss an idea with John about anything, but particularly about teaching, you had to have your wits about you. You had to be prepared to have your ideas questioned and possibly torn to shreds. Because John examined and dissected everything you said, questioned you about it and laid bare the inconsistencies. Or, if you were lucky, the examination and dissection ended in agreement that the idea had some value. Either way, you knew that he was doing it from a position of fair-mindedness and rigorous impartiality.
This process of evaluation in a conversation can be unnerving. But eventually, it becomes refreshing. You came out of a work-related conversation with John Soars feeling that your thoughts and opinions had had a proper examination.
Today, we’re celebrating John’s life and work. The fact is of course that he and Liz shared the work, so finally just a thought about them as a team.
I think a fitting testament to the work that they have done over the years is this: literally all over the world, there are ELT professionals who first became enthusiastic about teaching English because of Headway, the book they themselves had used at school. John and Liz have not only helped teach English to millions of people, they have directed thousands of them onto a career path which – judging from the ones I’ve met on my travels – most of them adore.
John was a very, very special person to talk to in a one-to-one situation. At the same time, he and Liz are – possibly reluctantly, but in reality – the most influential people in our business, affecting the lives of millions of students every day.
Some people rise to the very top of their profession. John Soars was one of them. Millions of people will mourn his passing, particularly those of us whose noisy opinions he examined so thoroughly.
Georgie Raman was Director of International House London for two periods between 1974 and 1984. She writes:
I remember the day in 1976 when I reluctantly accepted you on an RSA Diploma course at International House. Reluctantly, because I felt that despite your year’s EFL teaching in Corsica you should begin with an initial training course. Of course you firmly, but quietly persuaded me that you would succeed on a Diploma level course. Liz was your trainer and she hasn’t forgotten that I warned her that you might be a “difficult” trainee. How wrong I was! You did exceptionally well on the course and as a result were employed in IH London when the course was over. We once shared a beginners class and you were very focused on making sure that the students not only learned to communicate, but understood that every language had a system which had to be mastered. In the early 80s when I was director of the school you were appointed as my director of studies. You were a natural academic manager, supporting the teachers and also supporting me. That time working together was a great joy and your skills as a materials writer began to develop, although at the time I never dreamt you would contribute so much to our world of ELT and influence teachers and students worldwide.
My memories of you also extend to the time when you refurbished our kitchen with new shelves and installed a new swivelling television stand. And of course your wonderful culinary skills were always appreciated.
I miss you and will never forget how you have enriched my life.
Thank you to Jeff, Ruth, Ken and Georgie for the treasure of your personal insights into John’s life. Above all, thank you to John who, with Liz, has exerted such a benign influence on all our lives in ELT.
Trustee, International House Trust Ltd.