Keep faith.

SCELTConference,, 2013, Interviews, Main, Reflections on Teaching and Learning, Teacher Training

An interview with plenary speaker: Penny Ur

Part Two – by Tatiana Nováková

The lesson is over, students have gone home, and it’s just me in an empty classroom. I start questioning myself: “Have I done a GOOD job here today? Have my students LEARNED anything at all? Would I change ANYTHING about the lesson if I had a magic wand and could turn back time?” We’ve all felt this way. So has Penny Ur, one of’s plenary speakers this year. It’s a comforting thought that such a well-known ELT expert and teacher trainer believes that just like the sun doesn’t shine every day, even good teachers sometimes have bad days.

SCET: You once gave a presentation “Are teachers born or made?” That’s an interesting title, which triggers the question “why did YOU become a teacher?” How have you changed since you started out as a teacher?

Penny: I never considered being anything other than a teacher, though I actually wanted to be a general-subjects primary-school teacher. Why I became an English teacher is another story. I certainly was not, however, a ‘born’ teacher. I doubt if there is any such thing. There are, certainly, a set of qualities and abilities that help: the ability to empathize with learners, the imagination and initiative to design activities that facilitate learning. But more basically, it’s a matter of common sense and a lot of hard work. And being willing to change…which brings me to your second question.

Yes, I’ve changed in many ways: modified my opinions, for example, on certain topics as a result of accumulated experience, contact with other professionals, and reading the research and professional literature. I’ve also altered some of my priorities in classroom teaching. I continue to learn and change all the time, as do we all.

SCET: Many teachers in Slovakia, and I dare say worldwide, struggle with discipline problems. With thirty years’ experience teaching at every level from primary to university in Israel, have you ever experienced a situation in which you didn’t know how to respond to a ‘misbehaving’ pupil or student? What happened? What advice do you have for teachers who deal with misbehaviour in the classroom?

Penny: Yes, I’ve been in this situation a lot. I am not an authoritative or charismatic teacher – particularly in my early years I had a lot of difficult classes, and even later as an experienced teacher I can remember at least one lesson that reduced me to tears of frustration. Students that would not stop talking and listen, that would not pay attention to the task in hand, that clearly (as I thought) had no respect for me.

Here’s my advice: keep faith. A bad lesson doesn’t mean that the students aren’t learning, or that you are not a good teacher, or that they don’t like or respect you. If they are learning, on the whole, and in general motivated to continue, then you are probably a good teacher with the normal quota of bad days! And younger students can often appear to relate to you with lack of respect, when in fact they do like and respect you a lot!

And I have two practical suggestions:

  1. Get feedback from the class: a questionnaire and/or frank discussion with the class about how the lessons can be improved (but remember: suggestions for improvement must include things THEY can change / introduce / eliminate, as well as ones that YOU can!).  Note what the suggestions are, and implement those you feel are useful.
  2. Invest thought into making lessons as interesting, involving and varied as you can, as well as learning-rich, so that they don’t have time or desire to go ‘off task’.   This last was definitely the main way I succeeded in maintaining classroom discipline – and, I suppose, the way I eventually became a good teacher!

SCET: Using their mother tongue (L1) in the English language classroom is another issue that resonates with Slovak teachers. They’re told not to use it in the classroom (theory), but that’s not often practical. What do you think is more beneficial for both teachers and students: using or not using L1 in the L2 classroom? Should teachers feel guilty about using L1 in the L2 classroom?

Penny: To take the last question first: no, definitely not. There is a place for L1 in the classroom, the question is only how much, where and when. So it’s not just a question of which is more beneficial, but rather a question of when it is helpful and when it is harmful. On the one hand, spending 80% of a lesson using Slovak and only 20% exposing them to English is obviously largely a waste of valuable instructional time. On the other hand, explaining something for five minutes in English when most of the class aren’t understanding a word you say is just as time-wasteful – arguably even worse, because you are conveying the message that it’s OK and normal not to understand English.

Essentially, use English when they can understand it, L1 if they can’t. So, (1) use simple English; (2) teach them a battery of common classroom interactional language which you can then use for instructions and feedback; (3) allow yourself now and then to slip in an L1 translation of a necessary word, rather than giving the whole sentence in L1; (4) translate new lexis into L1 in order to back up or reinforce pictures, definitions and such things; and (5) spend time using the new item – which they now understand – in comprehensible English contexts.

Prof. Penny Ur OBE is an English teacher, teacher trainer, conference speaker, researcher, ELT author, wife, mother of four and grandmother of five. She was awarded the Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to the English language in December 2012.