Roland Illman: Teaching is not a Lethal Activity, 2013, Interviews, Main, Teacher Training

An interview with presenter: Roland Illman

 An Interview by Martina Bednáriková

Roland Illman, a speaker at the ELTForum next week, knows that being a teacher is specifically about creating highly positive relationships and being aware of what’s going on among your students. His advice? To be a good teacher, don’t take things too seriously. But there must also be a willingness on our parts to try new things.

SCET: Roland, why did you choose Slovakia? Why Bratislava?

Roland: At one level the answer is simple: Uta, my partner, is here! She came to teach English here some time before me – I simply followed. At another level, I wanted to reconnect with European culture after some years working in the Middle East.

SCET: You travel a lot while teaching. Which country did you like the most as an EFL teacher? What was the most memorable experience you’ve had while teaching abroad – the one that has made a long-lasting impact on you?

Roland: It is easier to mention some memorable teaching experiences rather than rank them to find the one that made the most impact. Taking Arab students, for example, I have been touched consistently by their sociability and easy humanity, whether in North Africa or Gulf countries. Libya was very memorable for the special pre-revolution conditions I was working under: the infrastructure in so many areas was very weak, but the sincerity and humility of students was unique. Power cuts, floods and extremes of temperature were of little consequence when it came to students’ desire to learn.

SCET: What makes you get up in the morning? Where do you get energy for all that you do?

Roland: I love ideas – and ideas found and developed among people seem to want to grow, by themselves, as it were, through being shared. I like most the days when I can be involved in that sharing. In addition, for English language teaching, I find it exciting to have a job in which I have to organise ways of getting people to listen to each other, and help them to express themselves: having a job that is specifically about creating highly positive relationship is especially motivating for me.

One of Roland's classesSCET: What are your main teaching cornerstones? What do you believe in as a teacher?

Roland: Here’s my list:

  • Be sensitive to nuance in the teaching-learning relationship with students: observe what is happening to try to find out what is really going on;
  • To learn how to teach you have to make yourself small, just as students need to make themselves small before the language;
  • The teacher needs to work on the student so that the student can work on the language: avoid working on the language yourself and leaving the student “unemployed”;
  • Don’t take things too seriously: teaching is not a potentially lethal activity!

SCET: Your presentation entitled “New Tools – New Relationships?” centres on new technology that teachers can make use of in their classrooms. What is your favourite ‘new tool’ that you can’t live without?

Roland: It feels as if the combination of laptop + projector + teaching software has changed things qualitatively – I’d miss this bundle if it were never available again. The contrast between what we used to have and the tools we often have now is truly astonishing.  But it is just that astonishment that prompts me to reflect on where we are now…

TeachingSCET: Do you think it is possible to engage new technology in Slovak classrooms? The educational system, currently facing a huge financial crisis, does not seem to be very promising or helpful in this respect. Furthermore, the demand for new skills required from the teachers would be a problem as well, as the state would probably not be willing to fund something like this.

Roland: New technology in Slovak classrooms? For sure it is possible. It is in the particular nature of this globalising and democratising technology to dissolve the constraints that tend to put a brake on more traditional projects and pursuits like building or pay. People hanker continuously for what they perceive it offers – connection, relationship, convenience – in a way that they don’t for, say, that new roof on the school. Maybe that’s why a lot of new tech is already in schools: so many students have their smart phones and laptops… So things can be done now because individuals at the grassroots level have invested in tech already.

The issue of teacher adaptation and the learning of new skills is far less about finance than about teachers’ willingness to try. “You can lead a horse to water…” Yes, you need a computer of some kind, but the key issue is, have teachers seen what can be done and what the benefits to them and students might be? Enthusiasm, with wise perspective, is perhaps more important, as the pre-requisite to using tools, than the tools themselves.

SCET: In what way do you think the teacher-student relationship is affected by these technology changes in today’s world? Or is it? Have you observed any profound changes in your own lessons with the development of technology over the years?

Roland: “Profound changes”? I will always remember seeing a teacher ‘work a classroom’ of students with her smart board: they hardly had a moment to breathe as she kept them on task pretty much continuously, seemingly by just pressing buttons! To a man, their eyes followed the slides, their heads went up and down and the teacher clicked through her pre-prepared sequence. I was impressed by the focus in the class but faintly concerned, Foodin a way hard to pin down, by something Dickensian about it all. The question is, do we know how to speak this ‘language?’  Is it really a new language?

As I have suggested, I have found the power of the computer + projector + software very liberating: Google, Microsoft and the rest have released teachers and students in many ways; but, as with all freedom, the parallel need for wisdom is right on our heels.

Roland Illman is a British teacher of EFL with 20 years’ experience in a variety of contexts in France, Quebec, & UK & 4-5 years’ recent experience in the Gulf & N. Africa. Now based in Bratislava, he is working freelance at International House & City University teaching Business English, English for Academic Purposes & General TEFL. He is interested in the integration of e-tools into effective teaching-learning relationships.