Hot Seat

David Hopkins

One of Thailand's best-known and much-respected teacher trainers, Dave Hopkins is currently working with TEFL International in Ban Phe.

Q

Dave, you're one of Thailand's best known and well-liked teacher trainers. How long have you been doing this exactly?

A

I have been working with teacher training since I completed my Masters degree at the School for International Training. Actually my first professional job was training international teachers to work in the inner city schools of Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1970's. Since then I have been involved with teacher training in Brasil with language schools, for Peace Corps in Africa, in Thailand and Indonesia for refugee training, in Pakistan with USAID, in Egypt with Fulbright Commission, and more recently here in Thailand with AUA and now TEFL International.

Q

How many courses do you typically teach in a year and what percentage of each course is actually done under your watchful eye?

A

We do ten TEFL International TESOL Certificate courses per year. As well, I work with TESOL Diploma students online, help out with Thai teacher training, and work with English Camps when there is time. I do about half to two/thirds of the Certificate inputs depending upon how many trainers and trainers-in-training are onsite at the time.

Q

Does it get difficult to motivate yourself at times? I mean, do you step into the classroom on the first day of a program, see a dozen or so expectant faces, and think "here we go again"?

A

Not really. I have always gotten my energy from the students, and I truly enjoy each new batch of trainees. I know this sounds too good to be true, but whatever success I have had is directly attributable to the enthusiasm I get from the people in the training course, or my classroom English students.

Q

How do you deal with the first day trainee who seems to enjoy rubbing you up the wrong way and getting locked into petty arguments? You must sense when a particular person is going to be a pain in the bum.

A

This happens, but it is my job to put aside any "attitude" I might develop about a student or trainee. Often, my "attitude" is misplaced, or just plain wrong, and it is worth the extra effort to try to draw that individual into the program. Occasionally, it is necessary to suggest that some discussions will have to wait until later, but dealing with challenging trainees and learners is what I get paid for. It's great to have individuals who are open to new experiences and exploit what they are being offered in a positive and constructive fashion. It is also satisfying to bring along people who find the course difficult, or find it at odds with their previous learning experiences.

Q

An essential part of the TEFL program is the classroom observation when teachers get the chance to teach real students. How do you help teachers that have never done any live teaching to cope with nervousness?

A

Essentially, by showing them exactly what I want them to do, and assuring that they have this programmed into their lesson plans. This may sound very prescriptive, but I believe that the behaviors, choreographies and lesson frameworks that we use in the TEFL International course provide useful staging for teachers to build on in their own teaching experiences. As Donald Freeman says, "Good teachers know what to do." My goal is to show them 'what to do,' and then assess whether or not they can apply in this in a classroom with real students. I believe that this focus helps to alleviate the nervousness – i.e. the teacher/trainee knows what to do.

Q

You must get trainees on the program who have already been teaching for a number of years. Are they more difficult to handle than the total rookies?

A

There's nothing more dangerous than a teacher with a couple of years of teaching 'under their belt.' This person may, or may not, have developed some good teaching habits. Students are great teacher trainers, and so, we can count on them to straighten a few of us out as we go along. The teacher with experience is more challenging because they have gotten over the initial fear of facing a group of students every day. In the process, they, we, since I can include myself in this group, convince ourselves that we know how to teach. It is this assumption that often gets in the way in a teacher training course. Once again I will refer to Donald Freeman, and I paraphrase here, 'while we know something about language acquisition, and something about the results of good teaching, we actually know very little about the connection between teaching and learning. Too often we think that because we engage students in the classroom, and they participate, even enthusiastically, in our classes, that we have "taught" them. This may or may not be the case. There is a lot of evidence to show that learners pretty much dictate their own learning process and learning, no matter what the teacher does. An example of this is trying to get students to spontaneously use final inflections for plurals or past before they have reached that point in their 'natural order of language acquisition.' Please see Krashen et al and Steven Pinker's works in this regard. Fortunately for me, most teachers with experience come to the TESOL course well trained by their students, and possessing a certain humility about what they know, and a willingness to learn more.

Q

How do you think teaching Thais differs from teaching other nationalities, bearing in mind the dreaded 'sanuk' factor?

A

Interesting question. I was interviewed a couple of years ago on the ESL Mini-conference Online and the same question was asked. I guess I still have the same answer. While I find great differences in the cultural backgrounds and the "contexts" of the students I have taught in Peru, Chile, Brasil, the U.S., Thailand, Pakistan, Egypt, and Japan, I don't find them all that different as learners. Thai students seem to me to be particularly well-motivated. I just finished a class with a group of young adult Thais and without exception they brought to the lesson a sense of interest, enjoyment and motivation to learn. The Thai sanuk (fun) factor is a plus, but I have yet to encounter a group anywhere that didn't like to have fun.

Q

Which part of a teacher training program do teachers generally find the most tedious?

A

Grammar. It's too bad, but most of us were traumatized in about the seventh grade, bludgeoned by grammar rules, and still haven't gotten over it. It's also too bad because from one perspective, an EFL teacher doesn't have to know much about grammar to do a competent job in a communicative teaching situation. That being said, a good teacher has to know 'how to sneak the grammar in' in implicit theme based lessons. In other words, know how to create a contextualized life situation with communicative target language. Fortunately, our textbooks usually do this job for us. In a TESOL Certificate course we focus on 'language awareness' to:

a. define the current labels used to describe grammatical forms, and,

b) explore the functions of these grammatical forms. I wish there were more time to deal with 'noticing grammar,' and making the link between understanding the forms, and how they are used in real life communication. I am sure that this would make the grammar inputs more meaningful and less of a drag.

Q

You've been many years in Thailand Dave. Do you feel it's the best country in Asia in which to earn a crust as a TEFL teacher?

A

Thailand is a great place to teach because there are a lot of job opportunities, but a lousy place to earn a living or advance professionally. The first point is obvious to anyone who teaches here now. The lack of opportunity to develop professionally is equally unfortunate. By this, I mean the deficit of situations where trained teachers can move into positions involving curriculum development, teacher training or specialized teaching. While such situations exist, the level of compensation is not commensurate with the qualifications and skills required. As well, while I sincerely appreciate the role of Thai TESOL in representing and contributing to the development of Thai English teachers, there is little attention given to the needs and "voice" of foreign English teachers. The foreign teachers may be well-advised to make more of an effort to participate in and support Thai TESOL towards this end.

Q

Have foreign teacher standards gone up here over the past ten years?

A

Not that I can see. There hasn't been any significant change in the demands for professional credentials; therefore, the value placed upon native-speaking teachers remains low. New immigration/labor rules may bring about some changes in this regard. In perspective, have the standards for foreign teachers gone up anywhere in the last ten years?

Q

What three things make an effective EFL teacher in your opinion?

A

a. Humility. Students learn in spite of us, not because of us. Teachers have to learn how to get out of the learner’s way. Much of the time this just means letting the students do it. Let the students do the talking. Let the students make choices. Let the students be the source of class content and inputs. It is not the teacher’s performance that is critical, but the student’s. After all, it’s one of the few jobs in life where the main idea is to get somebody else to do the work.

b. Patience. It is highly unlikely that anything in particular is learned in any one class. Research clearly shows that learner’s acquire language according to a ‘sequence of acquisition’ that is hardwired into the language acquisition device that we are born with. Since we are only marginally aware of how this sequence works, and in what order, we shouldn’t get too upset if students aren’t using the pluperfect perfectly by the end of the lesson. After all, we didn’t all become fluent in Thai in a day now did we? I was impressed with this the other day when I asked my 12-year old Thai daughter to put the clothes in the washing machine. She gave me a normally quizzical 12-year old look and went on with what she was doing. Five minutes later I heard an “AAAhhhh!” from the other room and she hurried outside to put the clothes in the machine!

c. Persistence. Keep trying. We are not in a business where one learns it all in some course or some number of years. We’re not even at all sure about whatever “it all” might be. One thing we do know is that teaching is a life-long learning experience. We need to reflect upon our teaching experiences and use these reflections to develop our approaches to the classroom. Identify those “learning moments,” picture them, write out the details, exchange them with others, and take action – i.e. do something to utilize what you have learned.

Q

Picture the scene Dave. I'm teaching a group of ten corporate students and I've run out of things to do. There are still ten minutes of the lesson left. What's your favorite 'rabbit from the hat' time-filler?

A

For me the answer has always been to have more than enough material planned for every lesson. I basically walk in with about twice the activities I will need. This is a safety net in case the lesson goes faster than I planned, and it also provides me with alternatives. Worst case scenario, I will work off something that we have been doing. For example, if we have been working with a dialogue in the book, I will have students get together in groups and write their own dialogues. Another possibility is to have some on-going activity, like learner’s journals, that can be used as a fill in when you don’t want to start a whole new activity. Workbooks can also be compared and corrected in groups during this time.

Q

OK, what about the native-speaker vs non-native speaker debate? Can Ulrich from Stuttgart really teach as well as Patrick from Dublin?

A

I believe that properly trained non-native speakers can be as effective as native-speakers. Check out the “Looking At Classrooms” teacher training video from CUP. Good sequences of non-native-speakers doing an excellent job. I worked with refugee training here in Thailand and Indonesia where the majority of the teachers were Thai or Indonesian. With the proper support, they were very effective in a large program that was carefully monitored and evaluated by the U.S. State Department. I also worked with in-service teacher training in Egypt and felt that these teachers were as effective as native-speakers. The whole question revolves around an understanding, or misunderstanding, of the teacher’s role in the classroom. Study shows that most of the learning takes place between peers, rather than between teacher and student. Interestingly enough, this also proves to be the case in the acquisition of L1. This is likely to provoke lots of debate since it touches a nerve. I can only refer ‘doubters’ to more recent literature on language acquisition.

Q

Do you get any tempting offers from rival training companies to try and lure you away from sunny Ban Phe?

A

Not lately, and not likely.

Q

If I complete one of your courses, is there still a Dave Hopkins hotline where I can phone or email you and say "Dave, I need a lesson plan for Monday"?

A

Last I knew there was an “Ask Dave” link on the TEFL International at teflintl.com but I’m not sure if it is still there. I regularly correspond with graduates who have teaching questions and enjoy doing this to the extent that it is possible.

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