Steve’s back interviewing the good folk of Poland once again.
This time around, Warsaw-based English language teacher, Alexander Woolley, reveals all about his teaching beliefs, teaching Polish students of English and some of his most memorable moments in the classroom.
In 2018, Alex set up The English Practice to provide high quality English language support to professionals in Warsaw. Prior to that, Alex had worked with other schools on the Varsovian market.
1. I constantly self-reflect. In fact, I once wrote a post detailing the evolution of my beliefs about language teaching and language learning. How have your beliefs about methodology and selecting materials evolved since you enrolled on the CELTA course as a trainee English language teacher?
CELTA Methodology is really great, but it’s for teaching English in general. These days, my clients are usually successful professionals in sectors like law, pharma, and marketing who want to work in English as well and as confidently as possible. Hence, my goal is more specifically to help them to do that. I have come to believe that the best way of learning is by doing, so I tend not to structure my classes around, for example, learning a specific tense that they might already know. Instead, I encourage them to describe what they are working on, so the vocabulary they need and mistakes they are making come up in an organic way. We also review emails they have written and presentations they will give and work on improving them.
A big change for me since the CELTA has been making my classes less structured – I only use coursebooks with my students who want to pass specific exams like the CAE and CPE. I create my own worksheets with articles from, for example, the Economist which allows me to select articles and videos relevant to the business needs of my clients. I also make my students do these worksheets for homework and aim to spend only 20 mins or so reviewing them in class. There are two reasons why I do that. The first was just being asked one million times for conversation practice rather than very structured lessons. The second is that I am conscious that my students pay me for the time we spend together. Frankly, I don’t believe they would get the best value for that from doing exercises whilst I “watch what they are doing”.
2. You must be all too familiar with the typical kinds of mistakes Polish learners of English make due to language transfer. How do you go about trying to cut out these errors which result from direct translation from Polish into English?
One of the advantages of working with Poles for over five years is that I know very well what kinds of mistakes they make. Hence, these days, I put a lot of work into my explanations of how to identify them. A lot of the problems that Poles have are to do with the weird idiosyncrasies of English and other Germanic and Romance languages. For example, articles, the perfect aspect, and the continuous form. For some reason, everybody in Poland also pronounces the “tables” in the word “vegetables” in the same way as “tables”, as in the furniture. On the other hand, though a lot of Polish people hate their accents and think they sound like Russians, speaking clearly comes naturally to most of them – with the honourable exception of Donald Tusk.
Generally, the level of English in Poland is pretty high. Poland’s economy is very deeply integrated with other EU countries, particularly Germany. Therefore, speaking English to B2 level is regarded as a basic skill in most white collar professions here.
As regards fixing those common mistakes, after talking my clients through them, I encourage them to look through their own written work like emails and memos and identify where they have made them in the past. I also make them pause in conversation to examine what they have said and explain what would have been correct and why.
3. You now focus on helping Polish professionals improve their spoken English, as well as delivering exam and interview preparation sessions. What sets you apart from the other native English speakers in Warsaw?
I support my clients with both specific tasks like presentations and emails, and with more general skills like small talk and understanding English cultural norms. Making my own materials enables me to tailor them to the business needs of my clients. I also publish free infographics on LinkedIn and Instagram every week with tips on how to use English confidently and effectively. And because I have my own company, The English Practice, I am able to issue tax deductible invoices to firms and entrepreneurs. Finally, I tell a lot of jokes that make my students laugh a lot.
4. Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I would like to grow The English Practice and turn it into a one stop shop for all the English language support needs of Polish professionals – speaking, writing, and business and cultural skills, as well as proofreading, interpreting and translation.
5. What three pieces of advice would you give newbie EFL teachers in Poland?
Tip 1. Do the CELTA. It takes more time and is more expensive than other TEFL courses, but it really is the best. If, like me, you do a cheaper and shorter course first, you will have to do the CELTA eventually anyway to progress in your career beyond a certain point.
Tip 2. If you want to have an adventure, go to Thailand for six months or a year. It’s very easy to get a comfortably paid job there. There’s lots to explore, the food is delicious, and the weather is great. And what is also important – Thais are very welcoming, and there will be lots of other Western teachers around, so you won’t feel as isolated as you might in other parts of the world.
Tip 3. You can’t prepare for every question you will be asked, but make sure that you know the difference between the past simple and present perfect inside out. I guarantee you will be asked what the difference is one million times in your first week.
6. Finally, can you share some of your most memorable moments, students or classes in your career?
Of course, what’s most satisfying is when someone gets a new job, client, or promotion that I helped them to prepare for.
When I was in hospital with Dengue in Thailand, my students were worried I wouldn’t want to eat the (delicious) hospital food because it was Thai. So, they brought me what they thought of as Western food – burgers and milk – every day. I had so much that I needed to ask another teacher to come and take away about a dozen burgers and six litres of milk when none of my students were visiting, but it was so sweet.
Lastly, in Japanese they don’t have s, only sh, so all my classes would begin with the student walking in, pointing at a chair, and asking if they could shit on it.
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