An interview with eltforum.sk plenary speaker: Chuck Sandy
Part One – by Martina Bednáriková for the Slovak Chamber of English Teachers
In large part, many of us became teachers because they remember what it was like to be a student. Someone inspired us. Someone influenced us. Or someone hurt us. Chuck Sandy, director of the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi)and one of this June’s plenary speakers at the ELTForum.sk, has channelled that joy and pain into his own unique philosophies on life, learning and teaching. Fortunately for us, he’s more than willing to share what he’s learned.
SCET: You say you believe that teachers are agents of change and true education in any real, transformative sense is radical by nature. Is there anybody in your life who inspired you to do what you are doing? Have you ever had such an inspirational teacher?
Chuck: I’ve had several teachers who changed my life and the way I think about life, people who took me seriously, challenged me to think deeper and do more, and continued to teach me long after our time together in class was over. One of the teachers who helped me on this journey is Winston Fuller. Although it’s been 35 years since I sat in his poetry workshops, I’ve recently heard him saying: “All teachers teach what they most need to learn” and “it is only by letting go enough to trust ourselves and others that we finally learn who we are.” You can read more about Winston by clicking here. Another was the poet Cid Corman, and you can read something about Cid’s influence on my life and my thinking by clicking here.
And then there was my grandmother, Pearl Sandy, who spent her life being a 3rd grade teacher. It was her, more than anyone, who inspired me to become an educator, too. You can read more about here.
SCET: How would you practically employ the ideas of student autonomy and teacher creativity in a typical, compulsory, curriculum-based 45-minute lesson? Is it feasible for public school teachers with at least 7 groups each meeting 3 to 4 times a week to really do this? How?
Chuck: A curriculum, no matter how rigid it is, really is no more than a map. Good teachers understand this and know that curriculum developers did not have the needs and abilities of a particular student or class of students in mind when they created the curriculum guidelines which teachers are asked to follow. What all good teachers do is to balance the guidelines provided by the school or that state with the needs and abilities of their own students, combine those with their own abilities and talents, and then create a lesson that works. A school or a state cannot do this. It is the individual teacher’s responsibility to take whatever material has been provided – of course, sometimes this material is neither very good nor appropriate – and then teach that material in a way that engages students. Sometimes this is very difficult to do, but it can be done and needs to be done. There is no single correct way to do this, but doing it creatively is simply good teaching. When this good teaching results in students thinking, creating, and sharing their work, we then have student autonomy – which is another way of saying effective learning.
SCET: What do you do when things do not go as you planned? What makes you continue believing in your principles?
Chuck: Nothing ever goes as planned. Nothing. We move forward by understanding this, by being flexibly humble enough to ask for help, and then, through the magic of collaboration, doing what it once seemed impossible to do. Meanwhile, we never stop believing that it can be done.
My father once said that incredible things – things that seem impossible when we first think of them – can be accomplished as long as we do not care who gets the credit for having done it. This is absolutely true and at the center of my beliefs. Nothing has really ever caused me to lose faith in my central belief in the goodness of people and the power of the human spirit to rise up to face any challenge together. This, along with the belief that education matters, that good teachers really do have the power to change the world, and that we become more powerfully effective by working hand in hand with others rather than trying to do things by ourselves are the principles that drive me. I can’t imagine ever losing sight of this or believing anything different.
SCET: Conferences like ELTForum.sk are no doubt highly beneficial for the participants. However, does it work the other way round as well? From your perspective as a presenter, in what way do conferences enrich your professional life? In other words, has anything that emerged during a conference ever made you profoundly change your opinions?
Chuck: Attending a conference like ELTForum.sk is always an amazing opportunity for me. Not only do I get to interact with great teachers, but I also get to learn more about the challenges and issues facing teachers in a particular region as well as about how teachers work to overcome these challenges and issues. I always learn a lot, and very often come away with new insights and perspectives. There have been more than a few times when something I’ve heard during a conference presentation changed my point of view, and many times when a conversation I had with a teacher during a conference coffee break caused a light to go on in my head. It was at a conference where I first heard the community activist Bob Stilger say, “Whatever the problem, community is the answer” and “Your community is full of leaders just waiting to be asked to step forward.” Those ideas, eventually, helped me see what a community of educators like iTDi would look like and later became a key foundation of iTDi’s mission statement. I always have my eyes and ears open at conferences. You never know what life-changing ideas or people you are going to meet. I’m sure I will have some great experiences at ELTForum.sk and learn a lot from the teachers gathered together for this event.
Chuck Sandy is a teacher, teacher trainer, author & educational activist with 30 years of experience. His many publications include the Passages and Connect series from Cambridge University Press, the Active Skills for Communication series from Cengage Learning, and the English for Teachers course from iTDi. He is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops around the world, and is a cofounder and director of the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi). Chuck believes that positive change in education happens one student, one classroom, and one school at a time, and that it arises most readily out of dialogue and in collaboration with other educators. This is the reason he has built a Facebook group with over 9000 teachers from 60 countries. It is also the reason he has worked to spread Design for Change across the world and why he’s become so devoted to the mission that drives iTDi.