'30 years in English language teaching' by Jon Burton

8th February 2021

2021 marks thirty years since I first became involved in English language teaching. It’s been a good opportunity to look back over that time, what’s changed for the better, what I miss, why I came into this profession, and why I’ve stayed.

As a young undergraduate my first contact with English language teaching was by way of a summer job teaching and helping run social activities at an English language school predominantly designed for teenagers on short courses, getting their first taste of an English-speaking country and using the language skills they had developed back home at school. I found it to be an exciting experience, and one which I loved. Perhaps the thing I valued most was seeing young people from around the world enjoying each other’s company, sharing experiences, helping each other and getting along. This rubbed off on me, and I found myself very interested in finding out more about my students’ different countries and cultures too.

Many experiences followed: furthering my teaching experience, living and teaching abroad, furthering my teaching (and later EFL management) qualifications, developing lesson materials, working in different institutions, becoming involved in areas of academic management, quality assurance, online learning, marketing and school management. Through all of this my driving passion and my motivations have always been in helping people to communicate effectively in a language non-native to them, in learning and discovering about other cultures myself, in seeing learners achieve their goals, and also in seeing people from different backgrounds, nationalities and contexts working, studying, socialising and communicating together. This aspect is so important, not just for our own profession, but also for humanity as a whole.

So, what changes have I noticed over the last 30 years? In short, lots, and most for the better I would say, although I’d like to stress that not all teachers and learners have experienced some, or indeed any, of the changes mentioned below. There’s still much to do to improve equality of opportunity.

The blackboard or whiteboard and the trusty cassette recorder, with its invaluable counter, have been added to in many teaching settings, firstly by videos and CDs, then by smartboards, DVDs, CD-ROMs and then online learning. Where the essential skills for a teacher included the ability to use a photocopier, and clear a paper blockage from one, there is now also a need for advanced IT skills for teaching, lesson preparation, academic administration and communication.

Teaching and learning materials and resources have also been on a similar journey. Whilst I look back with fondness at the materials I first started using, I can see how far things have developed in supporting both students and teachers. It’s been good to see an increase in variety, a focus on extended and autonomous learning, regional appropriacy, and now the current push for greater and true inclusivity is a battle which must be fought and won.

The world also seems to have become a lot smaller. When I first started teaching, and in particular travelling and working abroad, it could feel very isolating. There was no email, no internet, no Facebook and being part of a teaching community of practice was dependent on the postal system. These days everything is one touch of a smart phone away. That’s not to say that this is entirely a good thing. I loved that feeling of adventure and discovery which came from being in a new and different location and culture, without easy access to the familiarity of home.

During the last 30 years I have also seen our profession face any number of challenges and existential threats, although none as dramatic as the current impact of COVID-19. The pandemic has inflicted an awful toll on English language teaching. We have seen students unable to undertake courses, or stranded away from home, institutions facing closure, and teachers losing their jobs. It’s been horrific. I’m very proud of the role IATEFL has played in running such a large number of training events, some of which were free of charge to the wider English language teaching community, during these testing times as well as making additional resources available, and providing the means for teachers and managers to communicate and share information and their challenges at such a critical time. And let’s not forget, this has been done largely by volunteers, all facing challenges from COVID themselves.

Perhaps my greatest journey during my career has been in moving from a teachers’ room in a smallish language school on the Kent coast in the UK, to working for an international association which brings together a global community of English language teaching professionals all enthusiastically sharing ideas and challenges, exchanging stories and experiences, and working together for the benefit of their learners and themselves in order to take the profession forward. Actually, thinking about it, that doesn’t seem such a long step from what was going on in that first staff room, so perhaps things haven’t changed so much after all.

What have been the greatest changes you’ve seen over your professional journey so far?

About Jon

Jon is based in Kent in the United Kingdom, and is Chief Executive of IATEFL. He has 30 years’ experience in English language teaching as a teacher, trainer, materials writer, quality inspector, academic manager, language school and further education college principal.

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