Rakesh Bhanot: ‘Teaching is a species of friendship’

SCELTELTForum.sk, eltforum.sk 2013, Interviews, Main, Teacher Training

An interview with eltforum.sk speaker: Rakesh Bhanot

 An Interview by Lynda Steyne

I first ‘met’ Rakesh Bhanot on Facebook. I had no idea who he was, but he was friends with some of my ELT friends so I ‘friended’ him. And my newsfeed was suddenly flooded with dozens of pictures of ‘the man with the beaming smile and huge camera’. How was it that this guy who I had never heard of seemed to be everywhere? So I did what every self-respcting human living on this planet in 2013 does: I Googled his name (adding the word ‘English’). I got over 3 million hits and discovered that he has worn many hats: e.g. English teacher, teacher trainer, university instructor, researcher, journal founder and editor, arts editor, and conference speaker, to name a few.  I also discovered he has something to say that’s worth listening to and learning from.

We’re thrilled to have Rakesh at this year’s ELTForum.sk in Bratislava next week and we’d like you to meet him too.

Rakesh BhanotSCET: So, let’s begin at the beginning – your name is obviously not one that comes to mind when a European thinks of an English speaker. What’s your background?

Rakesh: Thanks, Lyn, for this invitation ‘to introduce’ myself to the ELTForum delegates. My name is from India, and, indeed, I was born and lived in north India (Panjab) till the age of ten. However, I grew up in the north of England (Lancashire) and started teaching English in the north of Spain (Bilbao) aged 21.

By the way, it is a much-quoted fact that there are more non-native speakers of English than native speakers’ in the world today [80% – Ed.] and it is not unusual for teachers of English to have ‘non-English sounding’ names. What is still unusual in ELT, however, is the absence of teachers and teacher trainers with Asian or African backgrounds.

SCET: What (or who) brought you to the field of English and teaching English? Male teachers aren’t common in Slovakia – was that an issue for you as well? What ages, levels and nationalities have you taught?

Rakesh: I started teaching English ‘by accident’! During a gap year (between my 1st and 2nd years at university where I studied Philosophy & Literature), I bumped into a school friend who had taught English to adults in Spain. Since I was at a loose end, I asked him how he had managed to get a job without any teaching qualifications. He explained that all one needed was to be fluent in English. A couple of weeks later I was teaching 50+ hours every week, and on completing my degree I found a job teaching English in Cologne, Germany.

I have taught all levels and age groups; my work as a teacher trainer has taken me to over 30 countries, including several in Eastern Europe. Being male in a predominantly female profession has never been an issue; more significant has been the fact I don’t ‘look like’ many people’s perception of an English teacher.

IATEFL Failure Fest: how is failure a better teacher than success?
Rakesh’s bit starts at minute 47.

SCET: If you could go back and start again as an English teacher, what – if anything – would you change? What was the best teaching advice you ever got?

Rakesh: Next time, I’d like to be a ‘digital native’ and be as adept at using the new technologies as some of the younger students. I am not very ‘musical’ and feel that the ability to play (e.g.) the guitar and sing would be a useful skill. It is said that many teachers are ‘frustrated thespians’; perhaps some acting ability would help.

The most useful advice from my friend and colleague, Mario Rinvolucri, was to “teach the whole person and not just what is above the neck”, and also to involve all five senses where possible.

SCET: I have to be honest – to find out more about you, I Googled your name. The search results revealed that you’ve held many positions, played many roles. Which role or profession do you feel most comfortable in and why?

Rakesh: Big Brother (and Sister) is watching you! And Google doesn’t even mention all the activities e.g. barman, darts player, would-be stand-up comedian, chef, amateur poet et al.

However, what I like is teaching groups of elementary students where you can see, feel, and hear the progress they are making on a daily basis, and observe how their confidence grows. I also like to encourage and motivate learners to write poetry, and most students are able to do this given the appropriate stimuli.

But what I really enjoy about ELT is that it has the potential to break down prejudices and to lead to a greater understanding of other cultures. It‘s best summed up in a quote Christopher Brumfit often used: ‘teaching is a species of friendship’. I, for one, am a very friendly individual and, as this will be my first ever visit to Slovakia, I’m looking forward to meeting many new faces!

Examining how the English language itself can be seen to be “prejudiced”

Rakesh Bhanot started teaching English in Spain in 1972 and since then has been involved in (nearly) all aspects of ELT. In 1986 he founded LANGUAGE ISSUES – the Journal of the ‘National Association for Teaching English and other Community Languages to Adults’ in the UK. He has published/co-edited several books and contributed to many national/international conferences. This has taken him to over 30 countries around the world in order to deliver seminars and workshops on behalf of various institutions including the British Council and Pilgrims. Retired from full-time teaching, he is still learning to write (good) haikus and is Arts Editor for the new international magazine Asian Global Impact. Rakesh is member number 20,000 of IATEFL.

Rakesh speaks about the importance of using English to cover the hard topics such as human trafficking. He also discusses his work for Global Issues SIG, and also his role in setting up the Language Issues newsletter for NATECLA.