My TEFL Story

by Scott Thornbury

Chapter 1: In the Labyrinth

It was February 1975. I was newly arrived in London and eager to return to Greece under whose spell I had fallen en route from the Antipodes. On the way I’d spent a few weeks in Italy visiting a friend who had a temporary job teaching English. He let me watch a class, and I thought: “I could do that.” So I enrolled in a four-week course at IH London — in those days housed in its quaintly labyrinthine headquarters in Soho. It cost £65 – probably the best £65 I ever spent. On Day 1 we were welcomed with a speech from the co-founder of IH, John Haycraft – very British, patrician and greyly eminent. (He was probably younger then than I am now.)

I was instantly captivated by the ‘IH method’, a Direct Method derivative, where ‘grammar points’ were presented using ingeniously contrived situations, and vocabulary was taught through mime, realia, visual aids – anything, of course, but translation. The fact that we were plunged into teaching practice from day one made perfect sense, but ratcheted up the intensity of the experience to a degree that might have been insupportable had I not had a background in children’s theatre.

Apropos: one of my teaching practice tutors happened to two-time for the English Teaching Theatre. After one TP class in which I was required to do a ‘mime story’, she slipped me a note: ‘Can you play the guitar?’ I couldn’t, but had I been able to, I might have been recruited for the ETT. I sometimes wonder how differently things might have turned out. (Good context for a situational presentation: If I had been able to play the guitar…etc)

Chapter 2: The Battle of Hastings

The Monday after the course finished I was already teaching – at the IH affiliate in Hastings. I still cringe when I remember some of those first lessons: presenting countable and uncountable nouns using a painstakingly assembled bag of groceries, drilling the present simple instead of the present continuous to narrate a picture story, being challenged (and failing) to explain the grammar of ‘I wish’ to a group of insolent Iranian naval cadets, walking my class through Hastings old town in order to reinforce the learning of those same countable and uncountable nouns. One day we were visited by John Haycraft himself. I was teaching a group of real beginners in what must once have been a broom cupboard, so I didn’t for a moment imagine he would choose to observe me. But in he swept. I had nothing prepared. I managed to get the students to ask me questions. And then each other. And then him. It was my first Dogme lesson. I heard later that he was impressed.

Four months on, with my visa due to expire, I applied to join the teaching staff of a new IH affiliate in Cairo. I’d wanted to go to Greece, but Egypt seemed close enough, and if I didn’t like it, I would simply bail out. David Thompson, who had been my teacher trainer on the four-week course and who happened to be visiting Hastings at the time, urged me on: ‘It’s a new school and expanding rapidly. Stick it out and in a year’s time you’ll be assistant Director of Studies. And then … who knows?’ (At the same time David was contemplating a move to Argentina, where he would shortly set up the very successful IH affiliates in Buenos Aires).

Chapter 3: The Battle of the Nile

Because International House translated badly in Arabic (it sounded like a brothel), the affiliate in Cairo was called International Language Institute. It had been open for three months. Such was the demand for English that the doors were stoved in on the first day.

Initially, there were just a handful of teachers, but, as David predicted, the school expanded rapidly and the demand for teachers swelled. Senior teachers (like me) were enlisted to mentor the new arrivals. I ran workshops, I observed classes, I wrote materials. Returning for a second year (I’d long given up the idea of going to Greece) I was made Assistant Director of Studies. And then DoS. The pressing needs of the constant influx of novice teachers helped hone my teacher training skills. And the scarcity of culturally appropriate materials encouraged a degree of resourcefulness that was to stand me in good stead.  I learned how to fabricate lessons out of very little, using a few simple techniques, like dialogue building, and, when everything else (including the electricity supply) failed, I simply got the students to talk.

Chapter 4: Back to Go

After four years I figured it was time for an upgrade. I returned to London where IH was now grandly housed opposite Green Park, and embarked on a full-time Diploma course. John H. and I once coincided in the urinals on the D floor. ‘So how are things in Belgium?’ he asked. I politely corrected him but I suspect that this was a conversation starter he always used when he couldn’t quite remember who you were.

The Diploma course confirmed the fact that a major paradigm shift was underway, and that the drill-centered and accuracy-driven approach I had originally been trained in (but which my students in Egypt joyfully subverted) was now succumbing to a more fluency-driven, learner-centered approach, where the information gap was the in-thing. This suited my own inclinations, which leaned towards a less assertive, more organic view of learning, reinforced by the pervasive influence of Krashen, on the one hand, and Earl Stevick and the Humanists (NOT a rock band) on the other.  It really did feel like the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

Chapter 5: The International Luggage Institute

The demand for English in Egypt continued unabated, and a new affiliate was set up in Alexandria. I went out to manage it. I’d recruited a wonderful band of teachers while in London, most of whom were straight off 4-week courses. The Thomas Cook representative who met them at the airport held up a placard which read ‘International Luggage Institute’. We drove to Alex by night along the desert road in a sand storm.  Maybe that was an augury, because the initial hopes for the school were somewhat dashed: we hadn’t factored in the competition that had mushroomed in just five years. Nevertheless, the idle hours we had on our hands meant lots of time for professional development. I used this opportunity to promote my new ‘vision’ of language learning, not as behavioural conditioning but as the ripening of innate cognitive faculties. What my teachers made of it, I’m not sure, but several (like Roger Hunt) went on to carve out successful careers in teacher training in their own right.

Chapter 6:  Crossing the Med

After five years in Alex I returned to London to be trained as a DTEFLA (now DELTA) instructor. It was during this period, one evening in the basement bar at IH, 106 Piccadilly, that John Soars showed a number of us a mint copy of the coursebook he’d just co-authored with Liz.  It was called Headway Intermediate. Little did we know – little did anyone know – that the communicative approach, as originally conceived, had, effectively, been interred.  The grammar syllabus had, like Nosferatu, sprung back from the dead.

I was offered the chance to run the Diploma program at IH Barcelona, working with Neil Forrest, with whom I was to share a weekend house in the Catalan countryside, and where the conversations, over tables spread with Neil’s fresh home-grown salads, inevitably revolved around issues of pedagogy and the classes we were observing. It was from those intense conversations that the germ of Dogme emerged. But it was a conversation that, in a sense, had started years before, with my teachers in Alexandria, or, even earlier, in the staffroom at Cairo. It was the ‘long conversation’ about what makes effective teaching, a conversation that the IH environment had always nurtured and encouraged.

Although I went on to do an MA in TEFL, and eventually left the IH bosom to work on an MA TESOL program I helped design myself, IH is inextricably linked to my development as a teacher, teacher trainer, writer and academic. It is in my DNA.

Author’s Bio: Scott Thornbury is currently curriculum coordinator on the MA TESOL program at The New School in New York (but he lives mainly in Spain). Prior to that he spent his entire EFL career with IH: in the UK, Egypt, and Spain, as well as visiting scores of affiliates worldwide.