The Interviews: Sue Swift from ELT Notebook

This originally appeared on the blog way back in 2008. As I’m committing myself to doing more interviews in the near future, I’m republishing this as a little ‘taster’ of what’s to come…

Sue Swift has been an EFL teacher and teacher trainer for over thirty years and has lived and worked in a variety of European and Asian countries. She is the author of a number of published courses, and runs a small language training business in Italy. Her popular blog, ELT Notebook, is a blog for EFL teachers of all levels of experience. She has been kind enough to spare the time to talk to ELT World:

What were your initial aims when setting up ELT Notebook?

I’d been involved in teacher training for about thirty years (eeek!) and as I never throw anything away, had an enormous amount of material on file. It seemed sensible to put it on-line in order to make it available to other people – and so that I could get rid of some files and make space in my very overcrowded office!

How would you rate the health of the ELT profession in general?

Mixed. Without going into whether or not globalisation is a good thing, it is happening and at the moment means that English is growing exponentially in importance. That means there’s a lot of opportunity, and there are also some really good organisations doing quality work. However, there are also a lot of cowboys who are exploiting both their students and their staff. Sadly, ELT is often still not a profession at all – there are still organisations who convince their customers that as long as the teacher is a native speaker that’s all that’s necessary. And there are even more schools that see an initial qualification like the CELTA as the finishing point in the teacher’s development rather than just the start. Unfortunately, these organisations damage the profession as a whole. If school X employs non-qualified teachers who are paid a pittance, their prices will inevitably undercut those of the professional organisations like school Y who ask for a CELTA and pay more for a DELTA, an MA, and experience. So school Y either goes out of business or ends up paying their qualified teachers a pittance too.

How important do you see sites such as the Rat Race Rebellion, for which you’re a contributing expert?

R3 excited me from the moment Mike Haaren, one of the site’s founders, first contacted me. The site aims to help people take control of their lives by allowing them to control when, where and how they work. I gave up working for other organisations in 1989, and you’d have to pay me an awful lot more money than is usually found in ELT to make me go back. Don’t get me wrong – I worked for some great organisations, was never exploited, and would never have learnt what I did if I’d gone freelance earlier. I’m very, very grateful to all of the colleagues and bosses who I worked with. If I worked 60 hour weeks and ended up with burn-out it was my choice, never imposed. But there came a point when I’d had enough of achieving other people’s objectives. I wanted to achieve my own – and that meant leaving time for things which weren’t EFL related as well as those which were. And that’s where R3 comes in. Their philosophy is that work is important – you should, as they say, be able to lock the office door. But there has to be time for other things too. Not only from a personal point of view, but also because of the impact on families, the environment and society in general. The aim of the site is to provide people with the information and tools to make this possible.

What do you feel have been the major changes in the profession of the course of your years working in ELT?

There have been many. When I took the DTEFLA exam (the precursor of both CELTA and DELTA) we were still in the era of audiolingual methodology. The very last session on the course – you know, the one that is thrown in last because it has no relevance to the exam – was on communicative methodology, which was just starting to emerge. I can still remember it – it was given by Robert O’Neill and was a breath of fresh air. Over the next few years I was privileged to work with and study under people at the cutting edge of the communicative revolution – Alan Maley, Keith Johnson and Keith Morrow, Gill Sturtridge and David Wilkins – and it was probably the most exciting time of my career.

Then there is the way that technology has changed language teaching. When I started, I didn’t even have a tape recorder in the classroom!

What would you like to see happen in the world of ELT?

Three things :

a.. Following on from my answer to question 2, the thing that I would most like to see happen would be for ELT to become a recognised profession, with a clear career progression where qualifications and experience were both essential and well-remunerated, and the cowboys were excluded.

b.. Similarly, I would like to see on-line teaching, which I think is the format of the future, become more professional and more regulated.

c.. Finally, I would like to see a move away from the idea that native speakers are the only valid ELT professionals. Many non-native speakers are far better teachers, and have far more idea of students’ problems, than the average native-speaker teacher. Teachers should be assessed on overall professional competence, not just on their first language.

My thanks to Sue for taking the time to answer these questions. Please take a look at the excellent ELT Notebook, as well as Rat Race Rebellion. Sue is currently working on putting courses on-line for the new format Cambridge ESOL DELTA course modules at the DELTA Course blog.

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