These are the words that make up the logo for the upcoming ETAI International Conference (July 4-6) . These are also the words best used when introducing our next plenary speaker, Professor Penny Ur. Over the years she has been engaging with teachers in various capacities: teaching courses, writing books, giving talks at conferences, both at ETAI and abroad. We all know that teachers leave such encounters with enhanced professional skills and the energy to get up and go back into the classroom, motivated to reach new heights.
In this interview, Professor Ur shares what keeps her motivated to tirelessly promote teacher development, what manages to annoy her, and what engages her in her free time.
Q: You have been committed to promoting the skills of EFL teachers for years – what keeps you going?
A: What I enjoy most is the awareness that I am actually succeeding in teaching something: that the teachers are getting some value out of my sessions or books that they can take into the classroom. When I get responses like: ‘Ah yes, of course, why didn’t I think of that’, or ‘I tried what you said in the classroom and it worked’, or ‘Thanks for reassuring me about something I’ve been doing but wasn’t sure it was a good idea’, or ‘Your book really helped me when I was starting out’ – it makes my day! Sometimes the response is only in body language or facial expression – the responses from an audience as I speak or as a discussion develops. A message is coming across: we are hearing you and understanding and learning….It’s still great: gives me a ‘buzz’! Makes it all worthwhile.
Q: You always seem so patient when you meet with teachers. Is there anything that annoys you?
A: What annoys me most I suppose is the unexamined assumptions that are at the basis of a lot of things teachers are told ‘never’ to do or ‘always’ to do, but there is no evidence whatsoever that they are in fact good practice, and may be actually counter-productive. For example: teachers bend over backwards to explain a new word in English, when it could be clarified in less than a second by using L1… because they’ve been told not to use L1 in the classroom. Or they insist on learners trying to guess the word’s meaning from context, when there is actually solid empirical evidence that most words are in fact unguessable from natural contexts, and therefore the learners usually get the answer wrong … because they’ve been told to get students to infer meanings rather than be told. It’s very difficult to uproot such assumptions, however silly they are, and however much empirical research contradicts them, and teachers often find it very difficult to abandon them, because they are so deeply entrenched in conventional thinking. I could bore you with this one for hours with lots more examples, but let’s move on…
Q: You could never bore me! What is your latest book about?
A: It’s a very lightweight (both literally and metaphorically!) book called Penny Ur’s 100 teaching tips. It grew out of something I heard David Berliner say years ago: that doctors pass on their experience-based wisdom to younger doctors through ward rounds in hospitals: but teachers’ secrets go with them to the grave! So I swore that my secrets would not go with me to the grave. I’d write a book with all sorts of tips I’d learnt through my own teaching experience, and thus share them with the next generation of practitioners. Not that all of them are necessarily relevant or ‘right’ for all other teachers: but at least they’re available!
Q: Of all the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?
A: I suppose Grammar Practice Activities. All my books grew out of a sort of excitement: ‘wow, I’ve found out something important about teaching, and it really works, I need to tell people about this’… but this one filled a particularly urgent need. Most textbooks to this day provide mainly accuracy-focused grammar exercises like gap-fills or matching exercises, and rarely give students opportunities to practice the grammar to ‘say their own thing’ in meaningful, fun activities. Such practice is really needed to help students integrate their knowledge of the grammar into their own production (as well as, not instead of, the conventional exercises). So it’s the book that I perhaps found most useful for my own teaching.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
A: My main preoccupations outside the profession are family-linked. We have four children and nine grandchildren, all of whom are (thankfully!) in Israel, and three of the four families within an hour’s drive away … so you can imagine, a lot of time spent babysitting, frequent birthdays and other family gatherings. I quite like cooking and baking, though not brilliant at it, and spend hours, even days, on that when the family is coming for a meal or festival or a weekend. My husband is a botanist, and ex-tour guide, so we take time to go walking when he has rare plants to find in different parts of the country. And occasional trips abroad, to visit family in the UK or US, or just to tour new places.
What else? Occasional movies and theatre, and, of course, reading (addicted to my Kindle!)