An interview with eltforum.sk plenary speaker: Ken Wilson
by Michaela Mozolová
Who is Ken Wilson? Teacher. Teacher trainer. Blogger. ELT writer. Smart Choice author. Fulham FC ticket holder. Songwriter. Collector. Radio script writer. Former reporter. Learner. Performer. Sketch-writer. Traveller. Speaker. Twitterer. And an inspiration to many of us.
I first heard Ken’s name a few years ago, when freshly out of college, I came across an amazing OUP publication: Drama and Improvisation, which is a compilation of dozens of Ken’s drama activities. I’ve tried a number of them with my students. They loved them. I loved them. I’ve wanted to meet Ken ever since and I’m looking forward to 7-8 June 2013 when I’ll get that chance at the ELTforum.sk conference in Bratislava where he’s one of the plenary speakers. But first I was given the opportunity to meet this teacher who inspires me online, and learn a bit more about him.
SCET: You’ve inspired many teachers. Who inspires you?
Ken: My first teaching job was at a sleepy private institute in Seville, Spain, where my students were lovely and my colleagues were mostly older and not very enthusiastic about their work. So there it was the progress of the students that inspired me. Then I worked at International House in London, where I was inspired both by the students in my class and by some brilliant colleagues who were working there at the time.
I’m inspired by people who show talent and enthusiasm for their work. I suppose the most famous inspirational person I know is David Crystal, who was actually my Linguistics lecturer when I was an undergraduate, so I’ve known him all my adult life.
But I have been equally inspired by teachers I’ve watched in many different countries, especially non-native teachers who work in challenging circumstances. I remember a Polish teacher called Dorota who I met in a small a coal-mining town where most of the adult population were out of work. Teenagers in schools there could have been forgiven for lacking motivation and being bored and lazy in class. Not with Dorota. She brought humour and enthusiasm to her teaching, and her students loved her.
There are people like her in every country, doing their bit to bring a little sunshine into the lives of students. And the good thing is that it reflects back, bringing sunshine into the teacher’s life as well.
SCET: In Slovakia, teaching is one of the professions which is greatly underpaid and as a result doesn’t attract many young people. What would you tell to a kid of 18 who’s got the drive but is not entirely sure whether to go study teaching or something else?
Ken: If they think they might enjoy it, then I would advise them to train to be a teacher. If they study to be an English teacher, their English skills will improve so if they decide to change careers that will be very helpful. Teachers everywhere are overworked and underpaid, but teaching offers you non-financial rewards that other careers don’t.
I went back to my old grammar school to give a talk to 250 former pupils, all men. The school closed in 1975, so the youngest ‘old boy’ was about 55, and the oldest was about 90. In my speech, I reminded them of some teachers who had inspired me. There were smiles on the faces of former pupils who had been taught by the teachers I mentioned as much as 50 years ago. I now tell teachers to imagine how good it will be if your students remember you with a smile 50 years from now. I also mentioned some teachers who had frightened me – the fear was still there amongst the old boys, too!
SCET: What advice would you give to someone training to be a teacher?
Ken: Get a lot of sleep, don’t smoke, drink a lot of water and get someone to show you how to project your voice. Your voice is your most important tool. If you can’t be heard at the back of the class, students will stop trying to listen to you.
SCET: What do you enjoy about teaching, and on the flip side is there anything you could be without?
Ken: My problem is that I don’t have a regular class, so the only teaching I do is occasional demonstration classes. I’m going to try to make time to have a proper class next year. I’m looking forward to it because students can be loads of fun. I’m not looking forward to any bureaucracy.
SCET: What do you think makes a great teacher?
Ken: The ability to tell stories, to make students curious, and to find ways to help them say and do things they never thought they could do.
SCET: You’ve written a lot of ELT material which makes use of drama and music in class; what do you think are the greatest benefits of exploiting both music and drama in our classroom?
Ken: First of all, despite being called a ‘drama’ expert, I really don’t like to use the word drama in connection with English language teaching. I prefer to talk about ‘animating’ classes with the activities I do, which some people might call drama and others wouldn’t.
What my drama/animation activities are designed to do is offer students a chance to say or write something new or original, hopefully something that will come as a surprise to you and to them.
Every teacher needs to compile a portfolio of activities like that, which they can bring out when the class needs them. You can start collecting them at the conference in June!
Apart from releasing your students’ creativity, activities like this can also help to bring coursebook material to life, make your class stop day-dreaming, help them relax and have fun and give you the teacher a chance to take a break from delivering information. When a good animation activity catches your students’ imagination, you can sit back and check on the real progress your students are making.
SCET: You speak at a lot of conferences, why did you agree to come to ELTforum in Bratislava?
When my course book Prospects came out about fifteen years ago, I was lucky enough to make author visits to most of the countries in Central Europe. During the last ten years, I’ve written course material for students in Asia and Latin America, so that’s where most of my author visits have been to. I rather miss the times I spent in Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade and Bucharest – and even some places that don’t begin with the letter ‘B’! So in the last couple of years, I’ve accepted invitations to come back to a part of the world where I really enjoy talking to teachers.
Ken Wilson worked in Spain and the UK as an English teacher and teacher trainer before getting involved with the English Teaching Theatre – first as a performer, then as writer and artistic director. He now trains teachers all over the world and is a prolific author of ELT materials with more than 30 titles to his name.
You can read more about him and his ideas on his blog.
Note: Ken will not only have a plenary session Saturday morning, June 8th (10 ways to get your students to DO something – how to engage our students, making them curious about the language and encourage them to use their imagination), but also a workshop Friday afternoon, June 7th (Can my students really improvise in English? – sharing simple, but motivating activities ‘that will result in astonishing feats of creativity by your students’).
Michaela Mozolová has cycled the world to become a teacher, though she didn’t know that’s what she was doing at the time. A few years back, she cycled along the Swan River in Perth in Western Australia to get to her CELTA. Later, she cycled along the River Thames to King’s College in London, where she earned an MA in ELT and Applied Linguistics last year. In between, she managed to find her way to Oxford and Canterbury, attending teacher training workshops of all kinds. Now, Michaela finds herself in Bratislava, where she cycles to the Grammar School for Gifted Children to teach a bunch of great, great kids and to the Bridge Language Centre to teach adults. Cycling and teaching are two of the things Michaela loves. Then there are books. And her sister. And peas. At the moment, she’s working on her own website, where hopefully (i.e. once she’s happy with it which may take a while for this perfectionist) she’ll share her thoughts and the lessons plans she creates for her classes.