How did you get connected with English Language teaching?
I’m not aware of anyone who grew up longing to become an English language teacher, and I am no different. In fact, I never imagined that I would become a teacher. Growing up, that didn’t interest me much. What I was most interested in was the printed word, so I spent my university years studying literature, taking lots of creative writing courses, and even majored in journalism for awhile. Mostly, I just drifted along with no clear idea about what I might do with my life.
Then, one day my academic advisor informed me that I had almost enough credits to graduate. I only needed to fulfill a single independent study requirement, but what should have been good news caused me to panic. With no real skills except the ability to read critically and write fairly well, graduating from university was a frightening prospect. That’s why I could barely focus as my advisor explained the several opportunities available for fulfilling my missing graduation requirement. I had no idea what to do and wasn’t even sure I wanted to graduate quite yet, so I said I’d think it all over and get back to him.
By the time I got back to him some weeks later, there was only one independent study option left: serving as an assistant to a professor who was teaching a special section of the English department’s Freshman Composition course. I signed up. Then I went to see the professor to learn more about what I’d be doing.
The professor turned out to be Dr. Martha Howard, the Dean for International Students. She explained that since a large group of Japanese students would be entering the university in the coming semester, she’d decided to offer a special section of the English Department’s Freshman Composition course for them. She’d be teaching the course and I’d assist by correcting papers, providing extra help, and maybe even doing some teaching. To get the credit I needed, I’d have to keep a reflective journal, write a couple of papers, and meet with her several times a week outside of class. That didn’t sound like too much fun to me, but what choice did I have? By the time I’d decided I did want to graduate after all, this was the only way to do it. This is how Grace works sometimes.
Sometimes Grace says “go here and do this” and “no, there are no other options because this is what you need to do” and that’s how I wound up in that classroom with Dean Howard and those Japanese students. It took me years to understand the depth of this Grace, but I can tell you now that it was in that classroom where I first discovered my life’s calling, met the woman I would one day marry, and took my first steps into a life that’s been spent working entirely in education and mostly in Japan. So here’s the short answer to this question: Grace led me here.
Writing this now I can’t help but think of these lines from Thomas Merton as I continue to live the truth in them: “I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see what I would do when I got there. But You saw further and clearer than I, and You opened the seas before my ship, whose track led me across the waters to a place I had never dreamed of, and which you were even then preparing to be my rescue and my shelter and my home.”
Our readers would be interested in your journey from professor to educational activist. Could you explain how these changes came about?
Although I’ve always been an activist of sorts, it was during my speaking tours for Cambridge University Press when I was first offered the opportunity to see the incredible need faced by teachers working in the developing world in very difficult circumstances. Having the chance to work with teachers who had very little opened my eyes, and once my eyes were opened I couldn’t look away.
Still, what could one person do? Working alone, not much. This is why I began joining and building organizations that could provide material assistance along with development opportunities to teachers working in what anyone would call poverty. Later, though, I began to understand that poverty can’t be defined only as a lack of basic necessities. Poverty is better defined as an absence of hope, and that’s something endemic to educators all over the world – not just in the developing world. This poverty is everywhere and it’s enough to break your heart.
Yet heartbreak is the exact place at which God calls us most clearly, says my friend Lowell Sheppard. It’s right there where our hearts break that we find our work, in this very place where Christ’s suffering becomes visible to us in the world. Once I saw this need for healing, I couldn’t look away.
I don’t want to say too much here, but this is how I became an educational activist and it’s why I eventually had to leave my university position. There came a point when I could no longer do the work my university required of me while also doing the work I came to quietly understand that I’d been called to do. I had to make a choice, and though it was pretty clear what I needed to do, I struggled with this for a long awhile until a series of events took my choice away. Since the events that forced me to finally give up my professorship included a falling out with colleagues, a crisis of faith, and a heart attack, it was hard to recognize these things as the acts of Grace they were. But again, this is just how Grace works sometimes. It arrives looking like a disaster that knocks you down before it picks you up. Then it reminds you that you’ve already been given all of the tools you need to make your way forward and do the work you’ve been called to do.
Years before this time, I’d heard my friend Bob Stilger say that “whatever the problem, community is the answer” and that “your community is full of leaders waiting to be asked to step forward” and these lines really resonated with me. Yet even though I quoted them often and even worked them into The iTDi Principles, I wasn’t able to truly live them until Grace knocked me free from university work.
That’s when I was allowed to see how the International Teacher Development Institute I’d helped to found already provided a structure that could help alleviate the suffering of teachers who’d either lost hope or were in danger of losing it. Since that community of educators all over the world is full of leaders waiting to be asked to step forward, I made it my business to call them and that’s at the heart of the work I do now. I’ve written about this here in an article called The Miracles of Community Leadership in which I say …
Each & every day I am a witness to teachers working miracles of community leadership. I watch as they encourage the discouraged, empower the powerless, and welcome the stranger into their midst. I see them conquer fears, rise up out of depressions, take on new challenges, and grow in ways they not long ago considered impossible. When one does not have the skills needed to do the work that needs to be done, I watch as others step forward to offer assistance. When one falls back in need of rest and renewal, I watch as others step forward with open hand to say yes. When one suffers the sort of loss that leads to clenched fists and a closed-up heart, I watch as others step in to lift that one back up. This is how leadership works in communities. We take turns doing what we can for each other, and we do it because we’re teachers and this is what we do. We build, we connect, we comfort, and we love. We hold each other. We don’t break faith. This is how we keep the lights lit, how we hold the sea back from engulfing us all.
And once I understood that helping God to work these miracles of community leadership was my work, I also discovered how God provides me with enough so that I’m able to make this unpaid work my work. That’s an ongoing miracle.
What is the International Teacher Development Institute (ITDI)?
iTDi is an online community of teachers around the world working together to become better teachers. Although we do work in the physical world as well, we mostly offer online courses, certificate programs, and other professional development opportunities that are open to all teachers– regardless of their background or ability to pay – because all of the founders believe that teachers everywhere are hungry for community and connection and that maybe hope can be restored one teacher at a time by offering this in a very real way
At this moment we serve thousands of teachers in over 90 countries around the world and have a faculty which includes people like John Fanselow, Penny Ur, Scott Thornbury, Jill Hadfield, and Stephen Krashen – who’s made his course recordings forever free to all. In addition to these big names in ELT, we also offer several ways for all teachers to step forward and present their ideas either live in our Summer Intensive or in writing on the iTDi Blog or via our new collaboration with Gallery Teachers. Then there are opportunities to mentor or be mentored, as well as many other ways to serve and be served by others in the community. To get involved all you have to do is ask. You don’t need to wait for someone to call.
For those who believe in iTDi’s mission and yet are too busy with their own work to get involved, we also offer the chance to contribute financially by becoming an iTDi Patron. This is especially important as we give scholarships to any teacher who requests one and typically over 50% of the teachers taking our courses are on scholarship. We only ask that scholarship recipients give back by sharing the learning they receive, connecting and mentoring others, or by serving the community in whatever way is possible for them. Those who can pay for iTDi courses help provide scholarships to those who are not able to pay and iTDi patrons help us serve even more. That the iTDi community comes together in ways that allow us to keep doing this work is yet another example of Grace.
One of the goals of the Christian Teachers Special Interest Group is to explore ways our faith connects to our teaching contexts. Can you comment on this? How do you personally reflect the love of Christ in your teaching and learning?
It’s pretty clear that Christ calls us to serve others regardless of where they’re from or what they believe. He also calls us to come together in community and tells us again and again in the Gospels that through His Love and the power of The Holy Spirit that we’re called to be the hands, feet, hearts, and minds of the miracles and graces He has intended for the people we serve. Though I often fail at this, I keep trying my best to live all this in my life and in the work I’ve been called to do with teachers. And it’s through this work and these efforts, which include my many failures, that I’ve come to see Christ most clearly. By working in community to help others while also allowing others to help me, Christ comes continually closer and I hope He becomes increasingly visible in me.
Working to make Christ visible in my person and through my work is especially important because like many of us, I do my work in contexts where Christ is not readily welcomed and with people who are not yet ready to hear the truth of the Gospels. Therefore, though I can’t come in with Gospel answers to questions that have not yet been asked, I can come in as an ambassador of His kingdom and a reflection of his light. When through His Grace I am able to this, I’ve yet to encounter anyone anywhere in the world who is not somehow aware that there’s something going on far greater than whatever work we appear to be doing. This is the moment when questions sometimes get asked. That’s also when, through His Grace, I’m sometimes able to answer with a Gospel truth gently enough for a door to open up and a journey into Christ to begin. My job as a person of faith is to keep my eyes and ears open for such moments while continuously working in ways that shine His light and encourage those moments into being.
The theme for CELT 2016 is collaboration. How do you address collaboration in your teaching context? What collaborative projects are you currently working on? What aspects of collaboration do you find particularly challenging?
All the work I do is collaborative and though I think I’ve already outlined my ongoing collaborative efforts, I’ll now add that the most challenging aspect of this work involves disappearing far enough into the background once work gets going that it seems to have nothing to do with me. A good book on this process that I need to reread is called Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in The Light of God’s Everything and appropriately enough, the author is Anonymous. Though personal obscurity might seem like an odd goal for someone doing collaborative work, when we put Christ at the true center of what we do, a pursuit of our own glory can’t even come into the equation. The real work of a collaborative master is to disappear so that others get the credit and God gets the glory.
Years ago I was offered a teacher who had perfected this. His name was Charles Barton and he was Headmaster of the Nagoya International School. When he passed away in 2012 I was given a chance to speak at his memorial service where I gave a short talk called, “A Recipe For Dream Builders.” Though you can read that whole talk here, I’ll conclude this interview with a slightly revised version of that recipe. Think of this recipe as a mission statement that includes both my goal and my ongoing challenge as I continue to work collaboratively for and with Christ for the Glory of His Kingdom.
A Recipe for Collaborative Kingdom Builders
Look far into the future, trusting in Christ’s beautiful vision. Share that vision with words as you can but always through the work you do. Listen carefully to the interpretations of others and be willing to compromise on the details, but be unwavering about the vision. Make each person feel that nothing would be possible without his or her unique contribution – no matter how small – and make it seem like hard work is fun. Do it all with a smile & a wink. As the work progresses, get everyone to believe that the ongoing work you helped set in motion was actually their idea. Thank each person by name and lead with so much love that they forget that none of this was actually possible until they all arrived and did the work. Because you know that Christ has been at the center of it all along, take no credit for any of it, and be sure to give God the glory. Then, when the time comes, move on & leave everyone believing they don’t really need you. Understand that the work will continue on without you because it’s never been about you. It’s always been about His Kingdom. Embrace that truth and accept it humbly as you disappear into the Love of Christ.
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