Talking with experts in ELT!

Interviews on education and language teaching

Agapi Dendaki talks about ELT in the State Sector



Agapi Dendaki is a state school teacher of English as well as a Special Education Needs teacher. Agapi has conducted many workshops and seminars and has designed SEN programmes for educators and professionals.Agapi Dendaki is a state school teacher of English as well as a Special Education Needs teacher. Agapi has conducted many workshops and seminars and has designed SEN programmes for educators and professionals.


Agapi holds a BA in English Language and Literature (University of Athens), a Master of Education in Counselling Psychology (University of La Verne) and a Master of Education in Special Education and Teaching (University of Athens).

She has written ELT and SEN books as well as research papers published in Greek and European journals. She is particularly interested in Differentiated Instruction, Learning Difficulties and Behavioural Problems in the Classroom.


Did you always want to become a teacher?


I made the “big” decision in my high school years when I was already in love with language and literature. I practically wanted to “teach” everyone to like what I liked and I am afraid I did so everywhere with every opportunity. Of course, when I did become a teacher, I soon found out that this was simply malpractice and that teaching is about completely different goals and methods.


I am repulsed by a tendency I notice mainly in social media to idolize the past and talk about “disappearing values” and “disintegration of the Greek family” and “today’s mutated children” due to “this evil technology” etc. etc.


You have experience teaching in the state sector. Have kids changed?


In the almost 30 years I’ve been teaching in state schools, plus a few more in private sector before that, I’ve known thousands of kids and I can say that childhood will always be the age of wonder, curiosity and discovery. Naturally, children follow external societal changes -it’s the process of evolution- and it is clear to me that technological advancements have made them more knowledgeable, more independent and more confident in their expression. It is also apparent that the economic crisis has added maturity and thoughtfulness to the basic innocence of their behaviour.


What annoys you most in the kids’ behaviour?


Indeed, there are some behaviours I still find surprising even after all these years. For instance, the ability to lie in order to gain something or the need to deliberately hurt a classmate. The challenge for the teacher is to consider such behaviours sort of defense mechanisms aiming to accommodate some hidden need, probably left unattended to by the family, and to treat them as such. I guess there are interpersonal differences as much as influence form external factors, the family being the primary one, otherwise we would have a society of pure angel-like adults, and we know it is not so -far from it. Here lies the duty of the teacher to try to mend things, as well as our power to make a difference and “change the world” -pompous as it may sound, it is still true in many ways.


Many teachers say that parents are indifferent in our days. Do you agree? Has the Greek family changed dramatically?


Parents, indifferent? No way! Generally speaking, you can accuse parents of overinvolvement but not of indifference. I am repulsed by a tendency I notice mainly in social media to idolize the past and talk about “disappearing values” and “disintegration of the Greek family” and “today’s mutated children” due to “this evil technology” etc. etc. Families are more balanced today, away from their authoritarian past with the kids deprived of any rights as well as their more recent past with that rat race of consumerism when children were used as a means to show off. Families are evolving organisms, with many changing faces, with their ups and downs, and I don’t think we are heading downwards right now. Of course, I am aware that my observations are time and place specific: they may be informed by half a century of memories and experiences, but limited by the fact that I teach in a rather privileged suburb of Athens. 


It is believed that no one can learn a foreign language in the state school. Is it due to the system? To the foreign language teachers? To the support teachers receive or not receive? To the teaching materials?


The assumption that you can’t learn a foreign language in a state school is not an unfounded one. For sure, you cannot learn a second foreign language, French or German, with the very limited share of the curriculum it is given. Even in the case of English, with 1-3 hours per week for 12 years, we have all these problems that you mentioned. I believe the greatest obstacle is the large size of groups, followed by the high degree of diversity in the language level of the children. My colleagues are struggling to make the most of the given circumstances and materials and I assure you that, as a rule, English teachers are the longest and best trained of all the teachers of other subjects. And many of them are doing a great job. Very often, students will say that they like the lesson in the morning school better that that in their afternoon classes and this certainly means something.


Teaching is not static. It is an interaction between the teacher and his/her students, between the teacher and the materials and between the students and the materials. Where is the balance?


At any given moment, it is the teacher who has to strive to achieve the balance in this interaction. Fortunately, things get off balance all the time: students are fresher and fresher each year, new methods and materials are being developed, technology is all surprises, the world around is changing; it is the teacher who remains the same, grows old and, if not careful, obsolete. Well, the key to the balance is to just not remain the same. Be aware, watch what is happening and wonder how you can imbalance yourself to ride the tide and be an agent of change, because ultimately that’s exactly what your job is about. 


You were a different kind of teacher in the beginning of your career and a different kind of teacher after almost 30 years. What would you change in your teaching if you could go back?


Oh, many things! Our profession has developed enormously in the past thirty years. So, instead of going back in time, how about starting my career now? That I would like very much! I would combine my accumulated knowledge of our profession with my vitality of back then. 


You are also a special education needs teacher. What made you gain expertise in this area?


I like learning even more than teaching and that’s what led me to lifelong education and training. State school teachers do not (yet) have to take their students to C2 or B2 certification but they have to deal with the child as a whole in and outside the classroom. At first I studied Educational Psychology and took a Master’s in Counselling to aid myself in my work with young children. Later, when children with special needs started pouring in general schools, I knew I had to have special qualifications for them and that’s how I did my Master’s in Special Education.


Do we have more special education needs students in our schools now than we had before?


Although the percentage of SEN students in the general population remains stable, it is true that we receive more and more of them in general schools in recent years. Parents are now free to choose whether to enroll their SEN child in a general or a special school and very often they prefer the former. This happens in the context of inclusive education, which in Greece is more like wishful thinking than reality, I am afraid. Apart from the occasional support teacher, we see very few real changes happening in this direction. So, you may have a classroom of 25 children with 6 of them diagnosed with one condition or another. Differentiated instruction seems to be the only choice but you can’t fully implement it without support.


Have you ever felt embarrassed or insecure in the classroom?


Every classroom, especially big ones, especially in the state school, will give you opportunities to feel embarrassed or angry or frustrated or sad, but the thing is what you do with your emotions. It is not wise to take things personally and become immobilized; instead, you can use your emotion as an indication of what is really happening and learn your lesson. I can’t say I’ve felt insecure but there’s always some kind of anxiety along with excitement when taking on a new class at the beginning of the year. And, of course, the range and enormity of positive experiences a classroom gives you will soon make any unwelcome feeling evaporate and past and gone.


How do you see ELT in say…10 years from now?


I’d have to be a science fiction writer to picture our field 10 years from now with the speed things are changing in general and in ELT in particular. But I can see that we are heading for a more or less bilingual society (and I consider this to be a very positive and enriching development). Our students will have lots of resources and media to help them with using English as a second language, which means that our profession will be on demand even more than today, but also demanding in unpredictable ways, and the teachers that will remain on demand will be those who will defy any stagnated system and go ahead to ride the tide.