Achievement Profile: Steve Walters
Adapting to the Changing World of English and ELT
Steve Walters is an academic director at the Norwich Institue
for Language Education (NILE). He has done teacher training in
more than 20 countries, and was instrumental in starting the
RSA (now UCLES) Certificate in TEFL, as well as being its first
Chief Examiner. Mr. Walters recently shared insights from his
ELT career in this interview with the ESL MiniConference Online.
Some Steve Walters links:
Norwich Institute for Language Education (www.nile-elt.com)
, Heinemann (1995)
Teaching Practice Handbook
, with Richard Gower and Diane Phillips
University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate
An ESL MiniConference Online interview
with Steve Walters:
What is your main ESL activity now? What are your
principal projects, and what is on the back burner?
Almost all of my working time is spent in relation to some
aspect of teacher education/development. NILE, which is probably
both the smallest and the largest teacher development organisation in
the UK, occupies almost all of my working time, and quite
a lot of my non-working time as well. It's the smallest
most of the year round because there are 5 or 6 of us
planning and recruiting for the courses we run in the UK and
Dublin in the January-February period and in the June-September
period. Of course, outside these periods we have consultants
travelling to different countries doing in-country work
as well. When we are running courses in the summer,
then we expand up to 25 consultants working with us on
courses for teachers from around the world.. This is particularly
demanding as all of our consultants are respected, published
professionals. The summer often turns into, for the consultants
and for us, a period of demanding, interesting, professional
development, and that's outside the classroom work. So,
teacher education/development and how to make it most effective
is always at the forefront of my mind.
Outside of NILE, I have been trying to rethink my approach
to the classroom. This has been partially prompted by two
activities which dominate, or rather have dominated (I have
just about got used to the sentence "I USED TO BE a triathlete")
my ex-work life: physical (usually competitive) individual
sports, and music. I have long been thinking how they have come
to be important in my life, how I have learned the skills
I have, and how that contrasts with what I have been taught.
I believe there is a fair amount of mileage in exploring how
people learn/are taught in other areas. I've been considering
a few music lessons that I have been having recently, where
the emphasis is on me doing the practice outside the class, not
inside, as is so often the case, with the British attitude to
EFL at least. It's also made me question the parallels between
scales and harmonies (broadly the structure and grammar rules
of music) and improvisations (at the extreme, the witty
conversations of a good conversationalist). Do we expect
students to produce conversations (the improvisations) too
early or should we be concentrating on the scales and structure
earlier.... A series of thoughts to be continued. I have also
had other thoughts about parallels with playing instruments
(i.e. the physical skills rather than the aural ones of playing
music), learning advanced driving skills and so on... All activities
which can be seen at a number of different levels, for example
in terms of driving, the level of driving a car sufficiently
safely to pass a driving test compared to the level of a World
Rally Championship driver who pilots a care at apparently
insane speeds on loose gravel.
How did you start your ESL career? Who influenced
your decision? What were some important formative
experiences in the early stages of your development?
Like an awful lot of UK people of my age, purely by accident.
A friend left his flat in Norwich and his job at a local language
school. I took over both and was unqualified for the job at least.
I then went on shortly after that to what was then a standard
4 week course, followed fairly swiftly by a Masters at
Essex University. Influences? One of the earliest and
possibly most lasting in professional and human terms has
to be Ian Bell. We are still in contact and he still surprises
with his human qualities whenever we meet. He also encouraged
me to get involved with the formation of the RSA CTEFL which
has evolved into the UCLES/RSA CTEFLA. A qualification more familiar
to the British and Australian ELT cultures, than the US side of things.
I was chair of the committee that developed the syllabus and
first Chief Examiner: a major milestone in my career. Other
influences? Peter Strevens, who probably needs no introduction,
and who as well as being involved in part of my Masters,
was also my boss for a few years. And Dick Allwright who was
a major factor in the way I approached the whole of my
Masters and much of my work since. I also have to mention
Martin Hollis, who as one of my main philosophy lecturers during my
first degree had a profound influence on the way I think about
What are the four or five language/culture backgrounds
with which you are most familiar as a teacher? Which
ones are you familiar with from the perspective of a
language learner yourself? What insights have you
gained in how to meet the needs of English learners
from these cultures and language backgrounds?
My most recent intensive experience with any one culture comes
from my recent 8+ years in Hong Kong. Otherwise my experience
has been with other cultures coming to me in the UK, or me
visiting them for fixed term projects. It would be very easy
to generalise about insights in to meeting needs, but they would
be just that: generalisations. I think I would echo the
sentiments that I think most teachers would have, that you can't
start a journey to a specific destination until you know where
you are. So, it would be very easy to make general assumptions
(albeit based on experience) about particular language/cultural
groups, only to find that there were several students within
the group that you were teaching who didn't fit the type.
If you had to give three pieces of advice to a
new ESL teacher, what would they be?
Listen to your colleagues, but remember there are no right answers.
Listen to your students, but remember they expect you to know more.
Very trite, but then if this new teacher were sitting opposite me,
we would be talking and the answers would be different.
What do you see as the most important issues facing
the ESL/EFL teaching profession today?
On the "highest" level, probably the most significant thing is the
political position of English and ELT in the world. The age at which
English is beginning to be taught is being lowered world wide, English
medium education (even across part of the curriculum) is becoming
more common and the English speaking world is becoming smaller,
in terms of speed of communications at least, and bigger in terms
of geographical and thematic areas, with an increasing number of
stakeholders all pulling in different directions. I think the
growth of links between members of the profession, in whatever
way this can be encouraged, is extremely important. On the classroom
level, but also affecting, the higher level, is the teacher's role.
There is more and more support for the independent learner in the form
of user-friendly materials, either commercially published, or free from
the internet or other sources. There are more and more English publications
of all sorts available. The role of the learner is changing rapidly,
but the teaching side of the equation is not moving quite so fast (in
many areas at least). I see, for example, teachers teaching students
as if the students had no contact with English outside the classroom
and homework. We need, among other things, to recognise that the world
of English and English learning and teaching has changed and to think
proactively, rather than reactively. We need to think how we can
change with it rather than be changed by it.
Interviewed by Robb Scott
2002 ESL MiniConference Online