On the occasion of ELT NEWS’s 30th anniversary we are happy to publish a series of interviews from ELT personalities who have left their trace in the Greek and international ELT scene. Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has worked for a number of publishers and examination boards and he has given seminars and workshops in many countries. He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines. His areas of interest include Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one and Humour. For articles or worksheets of his, you can visit his YouTube channel [ www.youtube.com/user/MrNickmi ] or his blog [ www.michelioudakis.org ].
By Anastasia Spyropoulou
Did you always want to become a teacher?
The interesting question is actually ‘Did you always want to work in the field of ELT?’ My first degree is in Economics, you see… Then one day I looked around me at the auditorium and I realized that I was surrounded by men! ‘There is something wrong with my choices…’ I thought… So I became an EL teacher. Now, I look at the money I make and I think to myself ‘There is something wrong with my choices…’ but it is too late to become an Economist…
What was the situation in ELT when you started teaching?
I think the biggest difference was that back then there were no quality controls. Anybody who was a ‘Proficiency’ holder could become a teacher – and many, many did. The assumptions were also different, you see… The idea was that if your mastery of the language was good, you could teach it. Now things have changed and we know you need a lot more… Mind you, back then there was only one ‘Proficiency’ – the Cambridge Proficiency test, the result of many ‘distillations’ and quality controls. Now things have changed and it’s interesting to notice the paradox… (They cannot sue me on the basis of this interview, can they?)
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?
Where did this come from? I’m sure if you could look into my eyes now you would see two huge hourglasses turning around slowly… (currently processing info… ). OK – you do realise I am half-joking of course, but there is an important lesson for us teachers here: countless studies have shown that teachers need to address students in a confident, direct, simple and non-ambiguous style (see Heath and Heath 2008 – chapter 1).
Has teaching changed or we still teach the way we were taught?
I think it has – in fact, I am sure it has. I think this is partly the result of the dissemination of ‘best practices’ and, perhaps more importantly, improvements in the coursebooks. Coursebook writers do try to produce materials which reflect the latest pedagogical thinking (although they are constrained by the conservatism of the market) and busy teachers often just do what the teacher’s guide tells them to. So, yes, there has been change (albeit largely not the result of a conscious effort on the part of teachers…)
How difficult is it to change?
It is not easy. Humans are creatures of habit. There is ‘System 1’ (our subconscious, fast, automatic way of thinking) and ‘System 2’ (our conscious, slow, laborious way of thinking) – see Kahneman 2011 (Part 1, Chapter 1). Our default tendency is to delegate everything to ‘System 1’ and give ‘System 2’ a good rest. That’s why (esp. when we are tired) we tend to fall back on what we know and what we are comfortable with and by the way, this is also the only way to explain why so many people voted for Brexit and D. Trump (they sure gave their ‘System 2’ a good rest…) The way to make progress is to use the power of habit to help yourself change. You decide on the direction you want to move towards, you set yourself a goal, you break it down into very small, manageable steps and then you establish routines which will help you achieve your goals. The books to read on how to go about it are i) ‘The Power of Habit’ (by Duhigg) and ii) (for practical tips) the excellent ‘Think Small’ (by Service and Gallagher).
If you could go back what would you change in your teaching?
Actually, what I would change would be my approach to my Professional Development: if I could go back, i) I would reflect more; ii) I would network more; iii) I would invest more time in learning about technology; iv) I would experiment more; v) I would get myself a mentor who would help me change course when I found myself in situations which did not actually help me grow professionally. (A case in point: I was an Oral Examiner for more than 10 years. Being an OE is an interesting experience and the money at the time was good, but beyond the first year there is very little you can learn; this is not the case with teaching where you can always try out new things).
Here is a question for you: which teacher would you prefer: one with 20 years experience, or one with only 3 years experience? If you have answered the former – that’s the wrong answer!
The bedrock of more effective and efficient instruction is setting and maintaining meaningful relationships with students. Do teachers know how to do it?
I totally agree with the assumption and the answer is … basically ‘No’. Granted, we do gradually develop a feeling for what works and what doesn’t, but it’s always hit and miss. Here is the reason. Think about what prospective EL teachers are taught: i) they are taught everything about language (far too much if you ask me) and ii) they are taught quite a bit about methodology – the ‘How to teach language’ bit (not nearly enough if you ask me, but still…). What they are (almost) not taught at all is Psychology. What is it that makes people tick? How can I motivate my students? How can I generate curiosity? How can I prevent disorderly behaviour? How can I nip problems in the bud? How can I get problem students on my side? How can I tailor my message so it speaks to the students’ hearts? How can I inspire my class? (NB: This is why you need my fantastic book ‘Psychology for Educators’; ok, it hasn’t come out yet, but it will at some point…)
Have you ever felt embarrassed or insecure in the classroom?
Well, one feels insecure every time one steps into new territory – be it teaching young learners, teaching EAP, teaching business people, teaching online etc. But this is how you get better: one of the keys to improvement is to push yourself beyond your comfort zone; if it feels easy, smooth and pleasant, you are not learning anything. Another key by the way is ‘feedback’; if you do try something new, you have to have a way of finding out if you have done well, where you could have been better and how you should improve (see ‘Peak’ – by A. Ericsson and E. Pool ).
Does routine teaching make teachers ‘lazy’?
Here is a question for you: which teacher would you prefer: one with 20 years experience, or one with only 3 years experience? If you have answered the former – that’s the wrong answer! (Willingham 2009 – p. 192). Studies have shown that teachers, like professionals in every other field ‘stagnate’. Because of work pressure, we tend to use the few things we feel comfortable with, then out of these things the fewer still we are even more comfortable with and before you know it, you end up with a repertoire of five activities… (In case you didn’t get it, my answer is ‘Yes’… )
What are the appropriate teacher-student boundaries?
That’s a hard one to answer. As a general rule I would say ‘Think of Mr Keating’ in ‘The Dead Poets Society’ – he is a good model. Of course it all depends on the student, how close they need you to be, the distance they would like to keep from you, but it also has to do with the teacher; some of us are more comfortable being close to students, others not so much. A good rule of thumb would seem to be ‘Don’t try to be someone you are not’ (C. Rogers) – BUT then along comes Ibarra (2015 – p. 119) and she says ‘Actually, you don’t know who you are until you act!’ If you want to change, act as if you are already the person you want to become; it may not work for you, but you may well surprise yourself!
How do you see ELT in say…10 years from now?
Well, I could reply that I imagine a dystopian world where teachers have been replaced by robots, or one where brain surgery has obviated the need for EL teachers and EL teaching or (more optimistically perhaps) one where my book has become a best-seller and the world is full of happy teachers guiding motivated students towards ever higher levels of language proficiency and personal satisfaction. The truth however is that 10 years is way too far ahead and as someone once put it… ‘It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future’…