From IH London to Hastings and Beyond

by Adrian Underhill

My good fortune

It’s been my good fortune to have worked for International House for 27 years from 1972 – 1999. I did the four-week Teacher Training week course (for £35.00!) at 40 Shaftesbury Avenue in July 1972 with a brilliant trainer, Derek Hooper. The entire building was jam-packed with staff and students all the time. I started teaching there in August and three months later took on a Proficiency class, maybe not a great idea, but they all passed. In October, John Haycraft announced in the Wednesday staff meeting that they needed a teacher for a 6-month special contract for 22 Libyans to be taught in Hastings, with rooms and facilities provided by The College of English Studies, run by Maurice Conlin,

The start of IH Hastings

I had friends in Hastings and accommodation was cheaper and so I took the job, and for three months commuted from London to Hastings early each day to teach the Libyans in the morning and then back to Soho for my 3.30pm Proficiency class. It was such a thrill to have these two different ELT jobs in two different places, and to do both everyday for three months. I felt I was on a new adventure with new people, new ideas, new practices, and a tangible purpose – how to enable learning. When the Proficiency course finished, I moved to Hastings, and amazingly by the end of the Libyan contract John and Maurice had agreed to start an International House in Hastings, the first UK-based IH school outside London. We had two months to prepare the rooms, the facilities, the materials and get students, and then IH Hastings opened in July 1973 in a truly fabulous building that Maurice had found and John had heartily approved. It was the old Palace Hotel, built in the 1870s on the sea front close to the pier, with about 20 rooms with balconies directly overlooking the sea.

The crowning glory of the school was our student club room, cafeteria and games room, located in the hotel ballroom, with magnificent pillars, wooden dance floor and panoramic sea views. The Club was the community heart of the school during its 27-year existence, and everyone who visited the school has a vivid memory of hanging out in The Club.

The location of IH Hastings was inspirational, and the 1970s were inspirational for a generation of EL teachers in the UK and other countries. It was a colourful time of professional buzz. International House had taken a lead in developing a 4-week course that was progressive, vibrant, and challenging to the received wisdom. Learners were engaged as whole people, and Haycraft’s vision was driven not just by lively learning but by learning as a community-building activity. And this took place in a milieu of multiple rival educational theories and practices existing alongside the four-week course, so teachers in those days had a passing knowledge of a variety of mainstream approaches, such as the direct method, total immersion, grammar translation; and also ‘left of centre’ approaches like Suggestopedia, Community Language Learning, and the Silent Way. There was the Society for Effective Affective Learning (SEAL), with its colourful annual conferences full of vivid feeder fields from other educational contexts, and Inner Track Learning, and Total Physical Response. From outside ELT, there was Timothy Galwey’s Inner Game of Tennis, and echoes of Steiner, Montessauri, and John Holt. The Open University was barely ten years old and through the BBC it offered glimpses of a different approach to learning. In Hastings, we watched the weekly episodes of Tony Buzan’s TV series Use Your Head and experimented in our classes with his approaches to mind mapping, memory training or fast reading. Admin and teaching staff went on evening courses at the college on rapid reading, and on Carl Rogers’ approach to non-judgmental listening. On top of all this was an extraordinary array of personal development practices coming from the US, challenging us to view learning and living as a holistic activity.

Leadership of IH Hastings

Thanks to our membership of International House, we had a ready-made blueprint of quality guidelines which we grew straight into and which also helped to challenge from the inside. The Principal, Maurice Conlin, had an informed, hands-off – though not laissez-faire – style of leadership. There was no micro management, and leadership was dispersed through the system, encouraging people to identify challenges and aims, develop and test their own solutions, and share and discuss them with others. This was supported by transparency, accountability and reflection, so you knew what was going on across the school. Anyone could get involved in discussing school policies before adoption and there were ad hoc forums that covered whatever was important at the time, everything from Club food to the building, to teaching resources to staff pay to the annual staff pantomime to school policies.

This was all messier than it sounds here, and not without hitches, but mess and hitches were part of our development as individuals and as a team, especially because we had the ways to talk about and act on them.

A Feedback culture

IH Hastings had year-round Teacher Training (as did other IH schools in London, Barcelona, Paris and elsewhere) which meant that every classroom had an open door for observation. A feedback culture developed between teachers and trainee teachers, and amongst teachers themselves, in which mutually supportive feedback conversations took place on the far side of defensiveness. You could expect to give and get truthful and supportive feedback on your own performance, or your colleagues’. I have no doubt that going through the defensiveness barrier raised the ceiling on what was possible for us, and enabled a clearer appreciation of our commitment to each other: everyone wanted to get better, everyone had blind spots, everyone was on the same side of the learning fence, and ‘mistakes’ were a positive part of learning rather than ‘career limiting’.

I realised that while the cliché “our most important resource is our people” may be true, human capital is not about having smart people; it’s about having people who are connected up. And the great discovery for me was that connecting people up enables them to be smarter. In these ways, the school and its activities become an adventure park for everyone’s learning. Professional / personal learning became not only something that staff did for themselves and for the benefit of the clients, but something that everyone did for the flourishing of the school itself.

Don’t wait until you’re ready…

But returning to the time line, within three or four years we had developed five departments: The Executive School, Teacher Training, The Summer School (in 20 UK centres), Special Contracts and, of course, General and Exam English. And one of our aims was to enable any teacher that wanted it (which was nearly everyone) to gain experience in all departments, so people developed a range and depth of experience, and enhanced their CVs. This meant that most of the 25 or 30 permanent teachers were teacher trainers, could run a summer school, could teach executives, could speak at conferences around the world, and could participate in the wider world of ELT, for example writing materials, helping launch or run IATEFL Interest groups, and so on. Regarding taking on new jobs, skills and responsibilities, we had this funny motto in IHH which simply said “Don’t wait until you’re ready”. That comes with a caution, but it has worked for me and for IHH.

I, like most others, went though many roles as the school developed. In 1973 I was a teacher and supervisor of the language lab (much to say about that – best language learning gadget ever, provided you don’t use it for the behaviouristic purposes for which it was designed) then as DoS. In 1975 Maurice asked me to start an Executive School, which very few other schools were doing at that time. (It’s there I learnt one of my most important lessons ever, through teaching one-to-one, which to my immense surprise transferred perfectly to larger groups, and now I call it “121 in a group”. It works everywhere and with everything)  A few years later we were able to advise IH London on setting up an Executive school, and it was nice to be able to give something back. Later I became director of in-service training and of the external TT programmes. And from 1984, a school director on the board. In 1986 I took a two-year part time post-grad course in facilitation styles at Surrey University, a pioneering and quite gritty experiential course, which helped me develop skills and knowledge in holistic learning, and subsequently, with others at IHH, to develop a range of innovative teacher training courses for which we gained an international reputation in the 80s and 90s. Experience of these things enabled me in 1986 to start the Teacher Development Special Interest Group, for IATEFL, which was their first SIG. This got me interested in IATEFL and I eventually became IATEFL president from 1999 to 2001.

Throughout the 27 years of IH Hastings we had contact, support and wonderfully creative tiffs with IH London. Many of us helped IH Central Department, as it was then, to carry out annual ‘visits’ to other IH schools around the world which built up further contacts, confidence and experience for all of us.  And now I wonder where I would have been without the IH that John and Brita created, without the creative foment of ELT in the 70s, and without my many IHH colleagues including Tim Bowen, Jim Scrivener, Ellie Spicer, Rosie McAndrew, Vic Richardson, Deb Barratt, Jonathan Marks, Bill Harris and many others. And also the wonderful colleagues in the other IH schools around the world. Most of us are freelance now, working in the new corporate world of schools, publishers, and testing systems. I think it can be less easy today for teachers to feel they are active participants in the construction of an intelligent teaching organization. But everything changes and new opportunities can pop up anywhere. So I urge them to take courage, and not to wait until they’re ‘ready’…

Author’s Bio: I work as a trainer and consultant, and writer and speaker. I’m a past President of IATEFL and current IATEFL ambassador, and series editor of Macmillan Books for Teachers, which includes my book Sound Foundations and the app Sounds: The Pronunciation App. I work with organisations and leadership on how we connect up with others in staffrooms, classrooms and schools through jointly owned partnerships, and on accessing under-used human faculties like intuition, playfulness and improvisation.