Then and Now…….

“Where is the life we have lost in living?”
– T.S. Eliot

Teaching in Karlovy Vary, C.R. - early 90's

As a teacher trainer and workshopper, I have had the honor and pleasure to interact with a lot of new teachers over the last  10 or so years. Energizing and invigorating.

One thing however that seems impossible to convey to them, is just how much teaching abroad has changed over the last 20 or so years. It has changed dramatically (and for the better, for the most part!).

I go back 20+ years, starting my teaching career in 1990 in Karlovy Vary, the Czech Republic, just after the Iron Curtain fell with a loud thud. But I’ve talked with even “deeper” veterans, like Thomas Farrell who was teaching in Korea when it wasn’t even on the radar of anyone (and go listen to his plenary if attending IATEFL – he’ll be a breath of fresh air from across the Atlantic!). He has stories that even make my own seem “modern”.

It seems that there are now fewer and fewer – isolated spots. The world is truly a village for all but a few teachers. Teachers now can consider themselves so lucky, in many ways. Here are just a few that come to mind.

1.  English is everywhere.

These days, I would get the Herald Tribune 4am in Seoul, on my doorstep. I light up my computer and stream Al Jazeera in English. In 1990 in Karlovy Vary, I used to wait anxiously every Sunday outside the “Tabak” for the one copy of Maxwell’s superb “The European”.  Often it didn’t come and I had zero English unless an English movie came to town. Even on TV, nic, nothing in English. (and even then, remember watching “Trainspotting” when it came to town and not understanding a thing – like it was a foreign language!)

2. Technology helps teachers.

Back in 1990, I didn’t have any EFL Classroom 2.0, a place to get resources with a click of the button.  Not even a photocopier! We did have a machine (for which the name escapes me) that you’d crank and get some ink smeared copies if desperate.  Textbooks were one of two kinds. Cambridge or Oxford – that was it.  No computers, no projectors or IWBs. No context to reinforce the teaching. It wasn’t easy and you had to learn how to chalk talk or else.  I am surprised I haven’t lost my health due to all the  chalk dust I used to inhale!

3.  No more isolation.

Nowadays, teachers can phone their family and friends very easily. There is facebook and skype. You can keep in touch easily. Back in 1990, it cost almost a weeks salary to make a call home!  Suffice to say, I wrote letters and went 6 months without hearing my parent’s voices. It was a lot tougher. It was go native or go home. Knedlicky and smazene syr (dumplings and fried cheese).  No starbucks and TGIFs offering Western tastings. I remember hearing the news Tesco had opened in Prague (maybe 1993?) and was amazed when I went there to get peanut butter! OMG.

And let’s mention here that professional development is so much easier. You even don’t have to leave the school or your home! Twitter, SNs, Facebook – ideas come to you, the talk comes to you.  I remember the first professional development conference I ever went to – in Liberec. It was an exhausting 3 day journey for an afternoon of a few workshops.

4.  English suffices.

English in now a true “lingua franca”. These days, there are always enough English speakers abroad – that there is little need to learn the local language. Of course, I think every teacher should (depending on the context) but it is no longer a requirement in order to survive your year(s) teaching abroad.  I had to learn Czech – otherwise I’d of gone stir crazy. So I did. And perhaps that’s one of the upsides to teaching yesteryear.  That and the crazy low prices that everything cost (I’m thinking of the .25 cent Czech beers when I first went there!).

There are some great memories – “how happy we remember our days in hell” – said Dante.  I remember throwing my jug down to the gypsy boys who’d for a few crowns would fill it at the corner pub. I remember Thanksgiving dinners at my place where teachers from all over the C.R. somehow miraculously found out I had got “real” turkey and cranberries and would turn up yearly in ever larger numbers. Great memories of running the miles of pristine forest trails. Memories of singing with my good friend Drew in many pubs, late into the night. Ah…. there was an upside to the isolation – the suffering made me suck longer and harder on the joys therein.

I know there are probably still a number of teachers teaching in conditions like I did years ago.  I’m generalizing but I think the point is valid – our teaching environments have changed considerably. For the better. I’m happy for it and TESOL has come a long way – growing more and more into a real teaching profession, less ruled by linguists and academics. A lot has changed.

What about the other old timers out there? Any comments about the “Then” and “Now”?

[ Still want more Then and Now? – no better photos on this theme than those of  Irina Werning.  Amazing and a must see.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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2 Responses

  1. anamaria says:

    Well, I don’t consider myself an old timer 🙂 but when I started teaching, the only way I could get hold of magazines in English was asking friends who traveled abroad to bring ONE for me. Having books written in English was hard stuff. A tool I remember well are the roll taperecorders, like this one . The only place students could hear spoken English was IN the classroom. Nowadays, I’m amazed that with all the resources available teenage students (at least in Brazil) still have a passive attitude towards learning English. They haven’t really noticed that with the internet they can learn much more and much faster.

  2. ddeubel says:

    I don’t remember those tape recorders but doesn’t surprise me…. (in university we had film like that).

    Insightful comment about how students don’t catch on that they can “learn language without school proper”. I’ve been puzzled too – now with the proliferation of material etc…

    I think it involves 2 important things among many.

    1) indoctrination of school as “learning”.
    2) motivational factors so important to learning a language

    but I do hope students wake up more!

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