10 May Meet Our Teacher Trainers: Alex Tilbury
- Alex, where and when did you start teaching English as a foreign language?
I was 19 years old, and I taught Tibetan Buddhist monks in a monastery in the north of India. I loved the experience but I was, despite my lack of experience, self-aware enough to know that my teaching left much to be desired! So I did a Celta course a couple of years later and then got a position working for International House in Katowice, Poland.
- How long have you worked with International House? Tell us about your career path, please.
Well, I started work with IH in Katowice, Poland, in 1997. I stayed there for eight years, ending up as the Director of Studies, and then became a freelance writer and teacher trainer. I’ve always kept up the connection with IH, though. I work regularly for the IH schools in Bucharest, Romania, and in Wroclaw, Poland, and I’m an inspector for the IH World Organisation.
- When did you take up teacher training?
I’ve been involved in activities like running workshops since very early in my career, but I worked on my first Cambridge Celta course in (I think) 2003. Then I started working on Delta courses in 2005. Nowadays I tutor IH Certificate, Celta and Delta courses, both face-to-face and online. I’ve worked in lots of different places: Poland, Romania, Germany, the Czech Republic, South Africa…
- What are the main joys and challenges of teacher training?
I don’t think they’re all that dissimilar to the joys and challenges of language teaching! On the positive side, it’s very rewarding to see teachers developing in confidence, widening their range of techniques, and making connections between principles and practice. It’s usually a slow process but there are those great days when something “clicks” and great strides are made. The main challenges have to do with balance: challenging teachers and pointing out problems while at the same time trying to instil confidence, encouraging teachers to try out established techniques while still allowing scope for individual creativity, and so on.
- You designed the Language Awareness Course for teachers of English. How is it meant to help improve their teaching?
The IH Language Awareness Course (LAC) is very much focused on the English language itself. In particular, it encourages participants to look at certain “traditional” language points afresh and to question the ways in which language is often described in published materials. To give just one example: Is it really true or helpful to say that there are three or four fixed “types” of conditional sentence? Or would it be better to acknowledge that there are in fact many different types, the meanings of which can invariably be worked out from their component parts (modal verbs and so on)? The LAC doesn’t deal directly with teaching methods but it is based on the assumption that we’ll be able to plan and teach more effectively if we take a more questioning approach to language and language description.
- You also wrote a coursebook, English Unlimited – what approach and structure did you use for it?
That’s a very broad question! I guess the most important and distinctive feature from my perspective is that we made a genuine effort to use purely communicative goals as the starting point in the design of the syllabus. In other words, we started each level with a specification of what we wanted our learners to be able to do in English in purely practical terms, and only then did we match lexical and grammatical content to particular goals. I think that’s very much apparent in the finished product, which is pretty consistent in contextualising and practising language in real-life situations which we hope our learners will be able to relate to. Another key feature would be the very strong focus on lexis: words, collocations and expressions.
- Are there any other similar projects (textbook writing/course design) in your professional life that you’d like to share with us?
Over the years I’ve written quite a lot of materials, both for learners and teachers, for organisations like Cambridge University Press and the British Council. One of the most recent things I’ve done is contributing to a set of teacher development materials which is going to be incorporated into the teachers’ books for a new series of adult coursebooks. I’ve got a couple of personal writing projects on the go as well – maybe one day I’ll find the time to finish them!
- How about the projects you’ve been involved in as a teacher trainer with IHB?
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been here! I think I’ve run perhaps ten IH CTL (IH Certificate in Teaching Languages) courses. That’s an intensive four-week teacher training course, pretty similar to the Cambridge Celta, which includes seminars, written assignments and – most important of all – assessed teaching practice. I also run workshops for the teaching staff at IHB and I do lots of observations of lessons, both in-school and in-company, and try to provide feedback to help teachers develop further.
- Finally, share with us 3 professional achievements you’re most proud of as a teacher trainer.
I guess one thing is the IH Language Awareness Course, mentioned above. It’s very old now and really needs an update, but I’m still quite proud of it! Another thing would be the body of work I’ve done at IH Bucharest, which over the years has I think helped boost the quality of teaching and given encouragement to some very talented teachers. Third and most significantly, I believe I can claim to have created the term “banana dictation”. (If you want to know what a banana dictation is, you’ll have to come and do a course with us.)