Zafi Mandali has been the director of the Department of English, Ellinogermaniki Agogi for two decades. She has served as drama and literature Sig Coordinator for TESOL Greece, has given a number of presentations and workshops, published a number of articles for TESOL journal and has authored 4 books on FCE training, Grammar instruction and Composition writing, E.A. Publications. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and an MA in Applied Linguistics, University of Essex. Her soft point is storytelling in education, a learning tool implemented by her and her team along with ambitious project work.
Did you always want to become a teacher?
Actually not. I had little guidance as a teenager and I only entered university exams because my school principal urged me to do so, on the day the school was closing for Easter vacations. I attended a frontistirio for a month and a half and when the university entrance results came out I had comfortably passed. The dilemma was if I would choose between Law school and English literature. In those days one needed roughly the same points to study English or Law. I thought for a while and English Literature it was. I have never regretted my choice but I certainly can’t say I always wanted to be a teacher. I worked as a teacher of English in my university years to make a living. On graduation, I moved to London for family reasons, worked for the National Bank of Greece and did my MA. Even then, I was in two minds on what I would be doing upon returning to Greece because I had other options too.
What was the situation in ELT when you started teaching?
In those days Proficiency was an adequate qualification to work as a teacher of English in a language school. There was little emphasis on speaking and listening and I realized the gap when I went to England and felt uncomfortable speaking with the locals. In the 80s accuracy and grammar rules were the thing. I still have the proficiency books I had as a student. Small type, very few black and white pictures, texts of around 300 words followed by comprehension questions, vocabulary items, Precis, Composition, Key Structures and Special Difficulties questions. Predictable and tight patterns, rules, teacher dominated classes, absence of game like activities, or companions or photocopies, notes kept in class and much use of the dictionary at home. There were no cassettes or CDs and students wrote the phonetic symbols next to the new word to make sure they would pronounce it correctly. Students were trained to form language patterns through drills, repetition, rote learning; task based instruction or group and pair work, student autonomy, presentation, practice, production approach, Blume’s taxonomy and differentiated learning were unheard of. The national syllabus of course had no depository platforms like Photodendro nor did we know of the Pedagogical Institute of Greece. That said, teachers tried their best to find the optimal blend of methods which would work wonders with student motivation and classroom management and students were determined to learn.
Is teaching a discourse in which everyone waits their turn to speak and no one truly listens? Is it a discourse of memorization in which ready-made phrases, ideas, formulas and patterns are reiterated over and over again?
Learning is a two-way street, a give and take process. You never learn by listening to yourself speak. Likewise, teaching is not a one-way street. Teaching needs feedback, space for students to process and apply the knowledge they gain. In our day and time, teachers see themselves as facilitators and know that the less they talk in class the better. I always see teachers as directors and not as fillers of brains with facts and figures. They set the teaching scenario, the scene, give out roles, assign tasks and allow experiential learning to take place by pulling the right strings.
Learning is connecting new to existing knowledge and needs strong synapses. If students memorize collocations, phrases or patterns they benefit language acquisition and brain memory capacity too. In my mind assigning paragraphs to be learnt by heart is totally out of the question but assigning language chunks to be memorized is strongly advisable.
Has teaching changed or do we still teach the way we were taught?
The whole learning environment has been transformed from the industrial mode to a more personalized, experiential learning. In the past we insisted on grammar rules, translation was used without remorse and unawareness of theoretical basis for teaching techniques was a skeleton in our wardrobes. We wrote the lyrics of songs, since YouTube and downloading were unknown quantities, crossed out words to be filled in by students and thought that this was groundbreaking. So, things have changed and the history of methodologies used in the teaching of English speaks for itself. From Structuralism and Behaviorism in the early sixties which approached the language system though drills and placed emphasis on the form rather than the meaning, we moved to the Communicative approach which emphasized on the use of language with the explicit aim of developing communicative competence. Later we heard of Suggestopedia, the Lexical Approach, the Total Physical Response which prescribed physical activity, pretense games and miming and also the Extensive Reading theory by Krashen. All along, we heard of educational revolutionaries, the most recent being Ken Robinson who claims that there is no time for evolution; we need revolution because renovating a broken and bankrupt factory model will not take us or our children where we want to go. So, we definitely teach differently.
The question is whether we are driven to the other extreme with adoptive, flexible and augmented reality software, gamification, wearable and smart watch learning apps, platforms, clouds, twitter and I am sure there are more. We are fascinated with the new and are driven to believe it will unlock the potential, transform lives, speed up and make learning easier. But to my knowledge, not everything new works in education. I love interactive whiteboards but am skeptical of disruptive innovations and all their positive connotations. We have to face the new challenge of screenagers killing time on social media, going without sleep, playing Fortnight or electronic games, becoming passive consumers of what is flying out there and neglecting working on their analytical skills.
How difficult is it to change?
History is full of examples of humans resisting change. That said, we need to add that we do not change for the sake of change. Laparoscopic surgery has replaced traditional operation methods since the medical profession is harnessing technology. Educators too try to adapt so that they are not left out of the game. The sirens of technology can’t be ignored; nor can the fact that toddlers are given I-pads as pacifiers. We are all, to a lesser or more degree, addicted to technology. But we should not allow it to weaken our improvisation, our creativity, our ingenuity, our ability to hold our classes on our own, even without a book much less an interactive whiteboard. If teachers become totally dependent on prescribed material, they will lose their skill of being inventive, of personalizing the context, of adjusting it to the needs of the class. When and if flipped classrooms are more widely implemented, teachers must not be robotized and turned into puppets of learning engineers who design material targeting a wide, global clientele and not the localized needs of the particular class. I would hate to conduct a lesson and not leave my personal stamp on it.
If you could go back what would you change in your teaching?
I turned my mistakes into lessons. When I first started teaching, I had little clue of what I was doing. I guess I was repeating the method I had been taught with. My university studies gave me little practical insight. For example, the subject of Psychology was focused mostly on theory on philosophical trends and did not touch on matters of class management or approaches to motivate students and handle escalation of problems. I am sure things are different now. My MA gave me strong academic background on linguistics, but I still think that studying to get a degree at a young age is only part of the story. You need to constantly keep updated through seminars, conferences, blogs, conventions, article writing, presentations and exposure. If I could go back, I would bring a more creative and aesthetic mind-set to what I did, and I would practice some of the Neuro Language tools we are now learning in NLP.
The bedrock of more effective and efficient instruction is setting and maintaining meaningful relationships with students. Do teachers know how to do it?
I guess, we teachers, have our ways and they are not necessarily the same. Maintaining mutual rapport with the easy kid, the one who never challenges rules, the one who has an intrinsic motive for learning is a piece of cake. The challenge is with those students whose priorities are other than school, think that they have seen it all and know it all, believe that school will turn them to another brick in the wall and display inertia or indifference. Well, here is the secret. There is always something good to admire in every student; and by that, I mean the naughtiest, the most disrespectful, the most negligent, the most aggressive, the most indifferent. Once you track it and recognize it, there will be meaningful and transformative rapport with the student and the lessons will roll with little interruption.
Have you ever felt embarrassed or insecure in the classroom?
Rarely. I prepare myself for what is coming so there are not many pitfalls around the corner. If I do not know something related to the topic we are discussing, I admit my ignorance, consult my students whose superiority of knowledge in areas of sports, maths, physics and technology is a given for me. If we are still in the dark, we set the task of researching the topic and reporting back. Teachers who know how to improvise, how to bring life and involve students in the lesson are less likely to feel insecure. But in my very first year of teaching, at eighteen, in the totally green version of me, in my first year of university I was given a small language school of a well-known chain in Alexandria, to which I had to commute by train from Thessaloniki. One class was of 8 male military personnel who had to learn English for some reason and the army was paying their fees. Me, just a Proficiency holder at the time, had to invent a methodology, assume airs of knowing what I was doing and survive the glare of those who would openly flirt. I know I survived but I do not remember how. I guess that is why I am a big fan of improvisation and creativity.
Does routine teaching make teachers ‘lazy’?
Actually, I like routine structures and knowing what to expect in my professional life. I don’t like sudden changes. But, paradoxical as it might seem, I get bored terribly easily. So, the question for me has always been how to secure an unpredictable, an irregular routine. Spicing up lessons is as important as salt and pepper is for our cooking. Yes, routine teaching makes teachers placid, ineffective and weakens the learning momentum.
What are the appropriate teacher-student boundaries?
Boundaries need to be discreet, almost indiscernible. Some students need reminding that their status is different from that of the teacher’s. I believe teachers who are professional, approachable and knowledgeable inspire respect, kindle motivation and win students’ approval and love. Teachers should not live in their ivory castles; nor should they eliminate those fine lines signposting their role because this will invite trespassing.
How do you see ELT in say…10 years from now?
I believe that it will be more of less the same with a few alterations. For education to transform you need central government initiative to bring practitioners, professional expertise, academic policy makers and pedagogical excellence together. I have long been resigned to governments actually working for new educational paradigm and long-term planning. So, I believe schools will more or less be running on slightly altered existing curricula, societies will be bombarded by marketing sirens promoting this or that educational app, while educators will have to invent ways to outweigh the technological tornado devouring students’ studying time. We, in the foreign language field will embrace technology more and more. We will add personalized, task-based learning and CLIL approach to our content and be wary of educational disruptive innovation. Our change will be in response to the change we see in our students and society. •