How it all started (for me)

La Giralda in Seville, at night
La Giralda in Seville, in the evening light ….. magic

August 6th 1968. The day after my 21st birthday. I had spent the previous night sleeping on the floor of a friend’s flat in West London. There had been no celebratory drink. I was too busy preparing my first ‘extended’ practice lesson on my International House TEFL training course at 40 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1.

The practice lesson had started. There were four ‘free-lesson students’ sitting directly in front of me. They weren’t just free-lesson students, of course, they were real people with real lives. Silvana and Massimo were Italian honeymooners. Milan was a muscular and handsome Czech, loved by trainees and students alike.

The fourth student was a Japanese girl called Junko. I don’t remember anything about her apart from her name. I don’t think I was ever successful in getting her to say anything. My fault entirely, not hers.

The four of them stared at me in silence. Milan and I were already buddies. He smiled to try to make me relax. Behind the four sat my co-trainees, seven recent graduates from ‘Britain’s finest universities’, and next to them sat a dazzlingly beautiful woman from Sierra Leone with a clipboard on her knee, looking at me with a keen, supportive smile on her face.

It was horribly, achingly, quiet in the room. I had just asked the newly-wed Italian girl a complex opening question, which she didn’t have a hope of answering. The native speaker graduates of some of ‘Britain’s finest universities’ who were sitting behind her were scratching their chins and wondering if they could answer it. Silvana stared at me, my co-trainees stared at the floor and Benetta the trainer smiled and nodded in encouragement.

I was the third person to ‘teach’ that day. The first trainee, whose name was Alex, had to present and practise ‘there are some …’; the second, Fiona, had to present and practise ‘there aren’t any..’ and guess what I had to do? You got it! Present and practise ‘Are there any …?’

The three of us had agreed to base our lesson material on London itself.

Alex drilled the students into the ground, getting them to chorus-repeat: ‘There are some museums in London! There are some parks in London! There are some pubs in London!’ The lesson was definitely noisy and in a way the students were involved all the time. They said a lot, they shouted in chorus and they had a few laughs. The only problem was that they didn’t actually say anything that Alex hadn’t said first. And let’s face it, they probably could have said something new, seeing as how they were all LIVING in London.

The second lesson was very colourful. Fiona had found dozens of photographs from magazines and stuck them on cardboard. There were pictures of camels, elephants, palm trees, samba dancers and other exotic items – none of which you could find on the streets of London. At least not in those days.

Fiona flashed the cards at high speed in front of the students’ faces. They were required to make a sentence beginning ‘There aren’t any …’ based on the picture. Apart from the alarming Pavlovian nature of this exercise, there was one small problem. None of the students knew the English words for camel, elephant, palm tree, samba dancer or any of the other exotic items.

 Massimo was the most confident of the four and had a clever way of producing the sentences that Fiona demanded. If he didn’t know the English word for the exotic item, he used the Italian word and let Fiona translate it for him.

Massimo: There aren’t any … cammelli?…

Fiona: Camels.

Massimo: Camel.



Fiona: Go on …

Massimo: … in Londra.

Fiona: Very good!

And then it was my turn. I had planned something completely different from my energetic co-trainees. The opening question I meant to ask them was ‘Are there any places in London that you’ve never been to but would like to go to if you ever get the chance?’ At the last second, I decided it was too complicated, so what actually came out of my mouth was this:

‘Are there anywhere in London that you’ve never been to yet, but will in future if you can?’

No wonder Silvana was stunned into silence.

Milan was mouthing something silently at me. It looked like he was saying ‘beefsteak’. I determined to have a word with him later and tell him to stop mucking about. I then realised he was correcting my English. He was actually mouthing  ‘Is there…?’ He had turned the /I/ sound into an /i:/ so it looked like beefsteak.

Like so many trainee teachers before and since, I had wandered into the mysterious land of TEFL-speak, where supposedly intelligent native English speakers find themselves when they start trying to teach the language they never had to learn. It’s a dark and murky place but, for some of us, the start of a lifelong interest in our own language.

From the debris of these three lessons, Benetta found aspects that she was able to praise, and offered us some thoughts about what to change. She praised us for our energy and the rapport we created with the students (I don’t think she was talking about me at this point). By clever prompting, she also helped us make our own suggestions about how to improve. Alex realised that it might have been useful to let the students give some of their own examples, and Fiona expressed her horror at not thinking about pre-teaching the words for camel, elephant, palm tree etc.

Benetta thought my attempt to engage the students in a conversation was admirable. She suggested keeping it simple. I somehow knew that would be her main suggestion.

Despite my appalling performance on that particular day, I didn’t actually do badly on the course as a whole, and I was offered a job at the Instituto Británico in Seville, Spain.

First of all, I packed my rucksack, thanked my friend in West London for the use of his floor and hitch-hiked home to Salford in Lancashire. The first 100 miles I was with the charismatic and handsome Milan, who left me at a roundabout near Coventry. How poignant and yet how unromantic. Milan was planning to  meet a friend somewhere in the midlands before returning home to Prague. He must have arrived there the day before the Russians invaded the city. I wish I knew what happened to him. He was my first real friend in this business.

Two months later, I took the train to Seville and arrived there on a beautiful October morning.

By this stage in my life, I had spent eighteen years in Salford and three years at university in Reading. I was now to spend a year in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Every morning, I almost gasped with astonishment as I looked at La Giralda, the half-Moorish, half-Gothic tower of Seville Cathedral. I couldn’t understand how Sevillanos could pass this magnificent edifice on a daily basis without stopping and gasping themselves.

I was also astonished by how charming and trusting the students at the school were. They really liked my lessons in spite of my lack of experience and my frankly dubious teaching method. I talked too much, I told jokes at every opportunity and I aimed my teaching at the best students in the class. The best students loved it and blossomed. Everyone else put up with it but improved only slowly.

That was the biggest lesson my year in Spain taught me. You have to work harder than I did at involving ALL the students, with all their different levels and ways of learning. I’m still working on this after forty years in the business.

 I then returned to London and worked at International House, a place which, like many English teaching establishments in the 1970s, was buzzing with great people and new ideas. Amongst my colleagues were Liz Soars, Jeremy Harmer, Doug Case, Judy Garton-Sprenger, Barry Tomalin, Gillie Cunningham and Roger Gower. There was also a stunning blonde American teacher called Dede Brewer. She is now better known as Dede Wilson.

 At the epicentre of the place were IH founders John and Brita Haycraft. John was always on the look-out for new ideas and was tireless in promoting the interests of teachers who showed the slightest talent in any particular direction. Soon after my arrival, John did something which radically changed the direction of my working life.

I will tell you what happened tomorrow!

18 thoughts on “How it all started (for me)

  1. Congratulations on your first blog post Ken – I’m really looking forward to reading this as you are writing about a time we shared in International House in Shaftesbury Avenue. Of course, I think they were the golden years, but every year is someone’s golden year…

  2. Thanks for sharing your mistake. I believe we learn more from our mistakes then accomplishments. They spur us to do better the next time around.

    For every English language teacher the journey begins somewhere and I am always interested in learning where the journey began. Most ELTs have such exciting stories to share and I notice quite a bit of them have traveled extensively.

    I will stay tuned!

  3. Thank you, Ken! This was such a pleasure to read. I’m always impressed at the detail some people can remember about their pasts. My memories are generally much vaguer, but I’m very glad that you can and that you’ve started blogging! Very much looking forward to your future posts!

  4. Hugely impressed – one of the best starts to a blog I’ve ever seen! Will be logging on again soon to catch the next installment …

  5. Yay, Ken, and welcome to the blogosphere!

    You’ve share some wonderful “true life” stories here, and a cliffhanger ending to boot!

    I think the best way to help others find you here is to keep Tweeting and poke around for others in your “tribe” (however you define that) who are similarly blogging and/or Tweeting.

    Great start!

  6. I love stories like this. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us. I’m sure veteran teachers will get a kick out of this! Best of luck with your new blog.

  7. Your post took me back to my IH training course! Thanks for the memories.
    You’re a bit off with people and dates, though. Sue Mohamed didn’t work in IH London until the 1980s. I was there 71-73.
    You forgot one of the brightest and nicest of the early 70s: Derek Hooper.

    1. Jeff Mohamed,
      Wow, hi there Jeff,
      I remember attending your workshop at the IH in Munich – when it was being set up.
      One activity I recall: those slips of paper , tearing them off as you went along: then you got one and had to find your partner by mingling and repeating your sentence:
      “which wine would you like to have?”
      “Oh, white goes well with the fish”

  8. Thanks for this lovely blog post. I’ve had Frank McCourt’s book on his life as a teacher lying on my bedside table for ages and have been desperate to find time to finally read it. I think I don’t need that anymore now that you are going to take us back in time and tell us how you became the brilliant teacher you are today. Keep up the good work, Mr. Wilson!!!



  9. Hurray for your new blog !!
    I loved your first post and enjoyed reading your story!!
    I look forward to what’s to come =)

  10. Ah, the early years! I think my first teaching practice was ever more excruciating than yours! But aren’t we lucky we fell into this line of work! Lovely students, great colleagues (mostly), interesting challenges. Great fun, so far.Let’s see what you write bout next…..

  11. Oh, what a lovely story! Delighted to discover this blog and I’m looking forward to coming back tomorrow and finding out what happened.
    Do you remember a trainer called Beverly at IH London, Ken? She was my trainer there in the mid 70s. We were making every mistake possible in the teaching practices, but like your Benetta, she’d always she’d always find something positive to say to encourage us.

  12. Thanks, Ken! In addition to really, really enjoying your story, it gave me a chance to remember my own–those heady days when I knew so much more than I know now=)

  13. Hi, Ken! And, welcome to the blogosphere. I’m looking forward to taking this trip back in time with you and discovering the you before. Interesting reading!


  14. Thank you, Ken. Lovely stories. I enjoyed reading them. although I’d heard some of them on the seminar a long time ago. Keep on writing. D

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