My first experience of teaching was not a very happy one. After school I went to Jordanhill College of Education and trained for four years to become a primary school teacher. But I was not comfortable in the classroom and decided that teaching was not for me. I was afraid of the kids!
But I liked children, and so I became a nannie for one year to the BMW dealer in Aberdeen. I enjoyed this, had some good holidays with the family and drove my own BMW.
Then I was offered the position as Social Organiser in a hotel in the Lake District of England. This was also enjoyable, but challenging at times as a lot of holiday makers were English and had little or no sense of humour. But in retrospect it was probably one of the best years of my working life (until I came to Language Link, that is – but more of that later).
Anyway after a year of social activities in England I was offered a position back in Scotland as a Youth & Community Worker, in the Scottish Electricity’s training hostel in Cumbernauld. There were four of us to look after 140 16-20 year-old electrical apprentices. Our job was to keep them busy in their free time and keep them out of mischief (not always successfully). We involved them in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and lots of other sports such as camping and orienteering, canoeing and skiing.
After ten years of this I decided I would like to become a student again, and enrolled in London University where I successfully completed a four-year theology degree. This was when I became fascinated by languages as I studied ancient Hebrew, Latin and Greek. During this time I spent my summer holidays in Israel working in a holiday centre in Tel Aviv Jaffa where I studied modern Hebrew.
While in Israel I met a lot of Russian Messianic Jews and became very interested in the country of Russia. I decided that Russian would be the next language I would learn.
In order to finance my next adventure at university I began to work as a Care Worker in Glasgow where I looked after physically disabled people and people with learning difficulties. This was very challenging but rewarding work, and I continued this when I enrolled at Glasgow University to study Russian language and literature. For my third year of study I was in St Petersburg where I studied on a special RLUS Work-Study programme. I completed a Teacher Training programme and started to work 50/50 studying Russian and teaching English. By Christmas, I had decided that I much preferred teaching English to studying Russian, so when I went home I resigned from university and began to look for a job back in Russia.
In March 1999 I was offered a job with Language Link in Zelenograd, and have never looked back….
In Zelenograd, I taught children, teenagers and adults. I think one of the biggest challenges was teaching level zero adults when I could speak no Russian. Although I was fairly knowledgeable about the life and work of many of the great Russian writers, my two and a half years at university had not prepared me for everyday life in Russia. So teaching this level was exhausting, but lots of fun. Humour is my favourite teaching tool, and I employed it to the full. And at the end of the course, the students were completely confident to talk in English. At the end of the year we had a joint party with another Intermediate group and my students were shocked at how reluctant these students were to speak English! Their teacher had used a lot of Russian during their lessons. I think that was one of the first main lessons I learned as a new EFL teacher – students who are weaned off the crutch of Russian in class as soon as possible are always much the stronger for it.
Another challenge for me was that I had first to understand all the grammar for myself before I could present it clearly to my students. Each evening when I came home I would sit at the table for three or four hours and read through the next few pages of the course books to find out what MY homework was for the next day. Perfect tenses were something I had never thought about before in my life. And although I used Articles without thinking about it, I had to analyse why and when. I developed a system of breaking everything down into the basic formulae and create some foolproof examples which would be easy for the students to understand and remember.
The third challenge was that I knew absolutely nothing about the Cambridge exams, but my second-ever group as an EFL teacher was an FCE group. Again, I had to do my homework - find out what the exam consisted of, analyse the various parts to see what was being tested, and then decide how best to teach the students about exam techniques as well as fine-tuning their language skills. It was all very hard, challenging but mostly enjoyable work. I have to say that this first baptism of fire into teaching for exams started a real passion in me in this particular area. Over the years I have moved on to teach for the CAE, CPE, IELTS and TOEFL exams. So much so, that I enrolled with the British Council and trained to be an official Cambridge examiner for the Speaking Paper.
I have also developed a course for teachers which is designed to help teachers better prepare their own students, and sometimes themselves, to take the FCE and CAE exams. Language Link is also an accredited Cambridge Pre-Testing Centre, and is involved in running two or three of these tests each year. These give our students extra exam practice before their own exams, and they have proved very successful.
Another great passion for me is teaching young learners, aged between 9 and 13. Despite my initial negative dip into teaching primary school kids after college, here in Language Link I found that I felt completely at home with teaching kids. Maybe I have been fortunate in teaching only exceptionally enthusiastic, bright kids. The highlight for me was my first group which I took over when they were studying Stepping Stones 3 and took them right through to Upper-Intermediate when they were about 14 years old. Their enthusiasm was inspiring – they used to beg me to give them more phrasal verbs to learn! Tying this in with my passion for working for the Cambridge exams, it is my hope in the not too distant future to get involved in the Starters, Movers and Flyers exams for kids.
In thinking about all of this, I would say that most of my passions stem from the fact that when I came to Language Link initially there was much less academic support than is available today. I also remember that there were many fewer resources. One of the teachers from Zelenograd went to Moscow one weekend and brought back a photocopy of Reward Pre-Intermediate Teacher’s Resource Book. All the teachers were so excited – we loved the book! All classes, no matter what the level, were given some activity (adapted to fit) from this book for a whole year! I also used to spend each weekend after salary going around the bookshops in Moscow and building up my own personal teaching resource library, and I would guess that my own library at home is now a close rival of Language Link’s.
One of the first things I did when I became DOS was to start building up the resource libraries for teachers in Zelenograd, and later I was asked to do the same for the Moscow library. Each year it is updated and added to and is now probably one of the best in Moscow, if not Russia.
Another thing I tried to do was begin some regular series of workshops on different aspects of teaching to help teachers. Previously workshops had been kind of ad hoc with no real structure. Nowadays, Language Link has its own Department of Training and Support with staff who work full-time to train and support teachers. And trained Directors of Studies now spend a lot of time carrying out observations on teachers, giving hands-on academic support and sharing teaching resources and ideas.
I think what I admire most about Language Link is that in the time I have worked for the company I have seen how each year it has successfully striven to become more and more professional and has expanded into many areas of language teaching, resources and training. New teachers who come to Language Link now have some of the best resources and help for EFL ‘on tap’. And for me, there’s always some new project to interest and challenge, something to take Language Link to an even higher level of excellence.
Joyce Clark, Head of External Examinations and Training, Language Link Russia
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