George Vassilakis (BA Education, Dip. Cantab, Dip. Trans, Dip. RSA, MA TEFL) has trained EFL teachers for over thirty years. As an ELT Author, George has written a number of coursebooks for young learners, adults and young adults (published by Heinemann, Cengage and Macmillan) and designed courses and curricula for a number of different learning contexts, including Academic English, Business English and English for Teachers. He also has extensive ELT management experience, having been Academic Director of the largest chain of language schools in Greece and Cyprus, Examinations Manager for one of the largest Cambridge examination centres in Greece, and Director of Assessment for City & Guilds and LanguageCert English examinations. George is now Head of Centre at ACE TEFL, the teacher development centre he co-founded and co-owns with Alexander Makarios, also a Cambridge CELTA and DELTA Tutor and Assessor. ACE TEFL is a centre approved by Cambridge Assessment English to run courses for teachers, including CELTA, DELTA and Train the Trainer.
Did you always want to become a teacher?
I was lucky as a young teenager to have had two inspiring teachers who made a big difference to my life – one was my German teacher and the other my literature teacher. They certainly influenced my decision to be a teacher myself, although initially I didn’t think I would be an English teacher. I knew, however, that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life after my first week as a teacher in an English language school.
What was the situation in ELT when you started teaching?
I started teaching English in the 1980s, when the resources available were definitely more limited, so teachers had to be more creative and also do quite a bit of manual work when preparing lessons: we didn’t have digital projectors or interactive boards, for example, so we had to use hand-made flashcards and posters instead; we didn’t have google, so we had to mine magazines for pictures to cut out and use in our lessons; and we certainly didn’t have smartphones and apps and all the technology that has made our life so much easier in the 21st century.
Exposure to the language was much more limited than it is now: outside the classroom, there were a lot fewer opportunities to use your English, as there was no Internet and social media. You could, if you were highly motivated, read books or watch films in English, but you couldn’t play games on the Internet, chat with people from other countries or watch YouTube videos. If a teacher wanted to use authentic materials in their lessons, they had to buy English language magazines and newspapers, which weren’t cheap and didn't always contain material that could in fact be used in the classroom.
Strangely, however, although the opportunities for communicative language use were fewer, I feel that people were more aware of the fact that language makes it possible to communicate and learning a foreign language enables you to learn about, and to learn from, different people and different cultures. Learning a language wasn’t just something to be ticked off a list of ‘competencies’ that you had to acquire to make yourself marketable.
So how has teaching changed?
The overall context doesn’t appear to have changed much since I started teaching more than three decades ago. English was taught mainly in private language schools in Greece then as it is now, most English language learners were school-age children then as they still are, and the majority wanted to take a language exam at some point in their language learning career then as they do now.
The biggest change, as I see it, though, is precisely to do with exams and the way they have, unfortunately, shaped a lot of the teaching and learning that takes place. In the post-capitalist, neoliberal world we live in, the stress falls on quantifiable learning objectives, whose achievement must be measured. Language learning and language use is now described in terms of increasingly more mundane ‘can-do’ statements and lists of associated grammatical structures and lexical items, which create the illusion that human communication is much simpler than it actually is and that being able to communicate in a foreign language is merely a function of accumulating discrete items so that you can tick off boxes. The ability to communicate is then supposedly tested and achievement is recorded in the form of exam results and certificates, but in reality even the better designed examinations are only as good as the analysis of language on which they are based; and today almost all exams are based on an essentially flawed quantification of language use that assumes the whole is merely the sum of the parts. Exams do not test language use, they test whether specific measurable objectives such as the ones described in the CEFR and related research have been achieved. Thus, the techniques used in class and the design and production of teaching materials are based on the same quantifiable objectives that we have learned to unquestioningly accept as the basis of educational practice.
Sadly, it is now unashamedly the OECD’s job to shape educational policy. And the decisions that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development do not pretend to be based on anything but economic criteria: “Governments around the world are investing significant resources in foreign language teaching and learning. Policy makers, school leaders and educators need to know if their efforts are paying off.” (OECD, Learning another language: The PISA 2025 Foreign Language Assessment Framework)
If you could go back what would you change in your teaching?
I think I understand a little better now how little we know about the nature of language and the factors that contribute to success in language learning. I am probably far less dogmatic now than I used to be about what makes a good teacher or a good lesson. What different people will learn and when they will learn it is often unpredictable and will not necessarily match what the teacher intended them to learn, so perhaps we have to rethink the concept of learning objectives. In addition, not everyone learns in the same way and there are very few certainties when it comes to teaching methods and techniques. What we have come to accept as good practice in language teaching is often based on belief or prejudice rather than research and knowledge. So what I would change is I would invest more in the process of learning and focus more on the people in the classroom. I would, in a nutshell, try to teach the students rather than the lesson plan.
The bedrock of more effective and efficient instruction is setting and maintaining meaningful relationships with students. Do teachers know how to do it?
Well, some people find it easier to relate to others and some find it more difficult. This is true of relationships we all form outside the classroom as well as the relationships teachers have with their students. However, I don’t think anyone can dispute that a positive, pleasant classroom atmosphere is not just conducive to learning but an essential condition for learning to take place, so as a teacher you need to invest in your relationship with your students even if outside the classroom you don’t relate well to others. The bases, I think, of a good teacher-student relationship are respect and empathy. Respect for the student as a person comes with the realization that each student has their own talents, interests and skills and there will be a lot we can learn from them; that they are there to learn English does not mean that they know nothing and their teacher knows everything. Empathy involves finding out as much as the student will let you about them and their situation and considering the effects what you say or do (as well as what you don’t say or don’t do) might have on the student.
There are, of course, some simple classroom management rules that teachers can, and do, learn to use (for example, asking all students questions, using the students’ names as often as possible, correcting mistakes sensitively and selectively), but building and maintaining rapport involves more than just a few simple tips and tricks.
What are the appropriate teacher-student boundaries?
As I said before, it is important to keep reminding yourself as a teacher that each student is a person that deserves to be respected for who they are. You need to find ways of relating to that person, because your job is to help them learn. But students and teachers do not have an equal relationship; they are not friends. The convention of the classroom is that the teacher holds the power: it is the teacher that makes decisions about who will speak, when they will speak, what they can say and how they will say it. And because the relationship is unequal, it is possible for the party that holds the power to take advantage. The moral responsibility of the teacher is to keep trying not to take advantage of that relationship in any way and that is where the boundaries lie. It is a professional relationship that a teacher forms with their students, so the objective cannot be personal advantage, self-gratification or even the seemingly innocent satisfaction of being admired by your students. In that respect, the teacher has a similar role to that of the therapist: their goal is to help the students learn and thus eventually make themselves redundant, to see to it that the students do not need them any longer.
Have you ever felt embarrassed or insecure in the classroom?
I feel insecure in the classroom most of the time, as I can never be sure that what I am doing will have a positive effect on all of the learners. There is a lot of trial and error in teaching: you try out activities that, to the best of your knowledge and ability, will help learners learn and then you hope that they will learn, but you can never be sure. And I think this lack of certainty is a good thing, it is false certainties that do not leave room for improvement, room for development.
I don’t feel I have to be perfect, maybe because I know there is no such thing as a perfect lesson or a perfect teacher, so I don’t usually feel embarrassed when I make mistakes – I just own up and move on, and in this way I try to show to the learners that it’s okay to make mistakes. Mary Poppins may have been absolutely perfect in every possible way, but she was a fictional character. Real people are flawed and that’s what makes them interesting.
Is teaching a discourse in which everyone waits their turn to speak and no one truly listens? Is it a discourse of memorization in which ready-made phrases, ideas, formulas and patterns are reiterated over and over again?
I’d say that teaching is not a discourse, it is many different discourses. There is, of course, a lot of what you say: ready-made phrases, formulas and patterns which can be memorized and which can be helpful in organizing material to be taught and hopefully learnt. There are also routines in teaching: routines for beginning or ending a lesson, for starting a new activity, for eliciting questions, and so on. But if the teacher is teaching the students and not the lesson plan, then the lesson cannot take the form of a pre-prepared debate in which, as you say, everyone waits their turn to speak and no-one truly listens. On the contrary, the teacher will support and encourage their students to interact more and to interact more freely so that more language can emerge and more opportunities for learning can be created and exploited.
Does routine teaching make teachers ‘lazy’?
Routines provide structure and I think they can make many learners, especially if they are very young or very old, feel more secure, but they will not inspire and they will not engage the learners cognitively or emotionally. There is definitely room for routines in teaching, but I would suggest, for the sake of teachers’ (and learners’) sanity, refraining from always doing the same old things in the same old way and in the same order in every lesson. To my mind, the problem with what you call ‘routine teaching’ is not so much that it makes teachers lazy, but that it makes teaching uninspiring, so you soon stop having a good time when you’re teaching – it becomes a chore; and if you are not having a good time teaching, there’s no way the students are going to have a good time learning, which in turn will lead to them losing their motivation and making your life a misery. It’s a vicious circle that needs to be broken!
How do you see ELT in say…10 years from now?
I don’t think anyone knows what education in general will be like in ten years’ time, but I think we can safely guess that education and language education will make more and more use of new technologies (e.g. virtual and augmented reality) and that it will be more accessible, at least in the first and second worlds. As far as English language teaching is concerned, I think a change we will see in a few years is that native speakers will have lost ownership of the language for good, and a new standard of international English will eventually replace the standards we are using at the moment. And I keep hoping against hope that the obsession with measurable objectives and the quantification of learning will have subsided in favour of a more humanistic concept of education.