I am an alien in the blogo-sphere, so I am not at all sure how to proceed. So ‘whatever’, as they say, let’s just give it a go.
- Early years
- Moving abroad and into ELT
- The Teacher Resource Books series, India and Bell
- Recent times and current projects
My earliest memory is a vague, sun-filtered room where I am next to a Singer sewing machine. My mother was a seamstress. Something momentous is going on, which even my 2-year-old consciousness has detected. I later discover that my father had on that day received his call-up papers. The year was 1939, and he was conscripted into the navy. He came home in 1945, after the Normandy landings. I was to see him just three times in those five years.
So my youngest years were spent with my mother, running to the air-raid shelter when the sirens went off, watching the searchlights at night picking up enemy bombers in the sky above, waking to the crash of our windows blowing out and the ceilings coming down in a cloud of dust. But I was lucky. My Dad came home, and life went back to ‘normal’. My Dad went back to the family business. We grew fruit, flowers and vegetables, and sold them from a horse and cart in the street.
So many changes I have seen in my short life. When I first went to primary school, I walked there every day, alone, aged 5. It was maybe a mile from home, and the only dangers were from German dive-bombers – forget about the paedophiles! My Mum would always tell me to dive into the ditch if anything like an aeroplane came over. There were few cars or lorries. We still used horses to work our land. No TV. No telephone. And rationing: bread, potatoes, chocolate, petrol…everything was rationed. And we had no electricity, only gas. And no central heating – just a coal fire in one room – coal was rationed too. A bath once a week in a zinc tub in front of the fire. The biggest treat was the local cinema.
My primary school, I recall with the greatest of pleasure. I was lucky to have had caring and, in retrospect, very progressive teachers. They marked me for life: something we need to remember perhaps. Even the smallest chance remark by a teacher can make or mar a child’s education. My wonderful teacher, Ms Marsh, hair like an Edward Lear character with birds’ nests in it, read to us every day…a serialised reading of Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’…and she let us read anything we liked from her book cupboard. No questions asked, no exercises – just read what you like…but read.
My first encounter with formal education was a disaster. I failed my 11+ exam. At the time, this was the passport to a good (grammar) school. I would normally have been consigned to the scrap heap of educational rejects. The experience has left me with an enduring scepticism about tests and exams. Why? Because, by some lucky chance, I was assigned to a school with an experimental stream which allowed me, 5 years later, to take the state exams (GCE), which I passed in 7 subjects.
That was also an enriching experience. Many of my teachers were mature men fresh from 5 years in the armed services, rather than 3 years in the training college or university. And to my teacher of French I owe an eternal debt for opening the window of a foreign language for me. He arranged an exchange with a French family when I was just 12. I went to France and spent a month with zero exposure to English. It transformed my life.
Luck came to my rescue again. I was transferred to a grammar school to prepare the Advanced Level exams. The headmaster was a craggy Yorkshireman, son of a miner, and dedicated to helping underdogs. He put me up for entrance exams to Oxford and Cambridge. I was fortunate to get scholarships to both (yes, I did fail my 11 + exam!). I chose Cambridge.
I also chose to do my National Military service before going to university. (That was a mistake perhaps, as the government abolished National Service one year into my term). I was selected to study Chinese, then rejected by the aptitude test. I was judged to be ‘tone deaf’. Stupid I may be, but tone deaf I am not. How otherwise could I have learned Mandarin Chinese in my forties, some 20 years later? More reasons for suspecting tests! Anyway, I ended up in Germany on a radar station, and learned German instead, largely by reading and by the pillow method.
Cambridge was an anti-climax. It was full of opinionated and well-heeled boys (and a very few girls, too few) straight out of school. I studied Geography (and some Geology) – just what you need to teach English! But I was able to spend a long vacation in South Africa working in a gold mine in the inaptly-named mining town of Welkom, followed by a month’s hitch-hiking around South Africa, including Mozambique (as then was), Swaziland and Basutoland. I am glad I did it then: I’d be dead within hours if I tried it now. The exposure to the full horrors of apartheid at that time ensured that my political views were radically transformed.
Like most students then, as now, I had no idea of what I wanted to do for a living, so I stayed on in Cambridge and did a PGCE. Apart from writing a study of Christian Socialism and the Chartists, the only thing I recall of this was discovering, in the middle of a teaching practice lesson to a class of teenage girls, that my flies were undone!
Moving abroad and into ELT
I did not know what I wanted to do but I did know what I did not want to do. I did not want to work in the UK. Almost anything would have done, so long as it was ‘abroad’. Lady Luck came once again to my rescue. A panel of misguided ex-public schoolboys who interviewed me at the British Council in 65 Davies Street, made the mistake of offering me a job with the BC. Poor things, they did not know what they had done.
They sent me off to Leeds University to do a post-graduate diploma in TEFL. This was a pioneering thing, run by Peter Strevens, Pit Corder et al. It was a wonderful experience, less for the expertise it conferred (of which there was precious little at the time) than for the network of lifelong friends and contacts it provided.
I was then dispatched to Beograd in the then Jugoslavia to bring the good news to the wild and woolly Balkans. What a splendidly anarchic time it was, when Tito’s Jugoslavia was balancing between the USSR and the West. And what fun! And the chance to learn a new language, which I still speak with a sublime disregard for its many and complex rules. I stayed there about 4 years, and I loved it.
Auntie Council then thought Africa would be a good idea, so they sent me off to Ghana, where I spent 5 of the happiest years of my life. By then, I felt I was starting to get the hang of this ELT business. I spent a lot of time on a project for training primary school teachers, which involved me in spending weeks at a time in ‘bush’ towns like Tamale or Bolgatanga, running hands-on courses, hunting down beer and roasting wild guinea fowl.. I have never forgotten this experience in working with teachers with minimal resources. I also published my first two books while I was there. Big deal - and small sales! – a continuing pattern. And I acquired a baby daughter born in Accra.
The logical next posting was…yes, you’ve got it…Italy! Yeah, right. I was posted to Milan, where I was English Language Officer (a now obsolete denomination) to cover the north of Italy, from Genova to Trieste and from Bolzano to Bologna. What larks! I was lucky to have had as my counterpart in Rome, Don Byrne, a seasoned professional and author from whom I learned a great deal. Together, we helped a group of energetic and imaginative Italian teachers found LEND (Lingua e Nuova Didattica), which was a seismic influence in Italy at that time, and still survives.
My then wife was French, so there was a certain logic in my next posting, to Paris, to become the very first English Language Officer the Council had ever had in that bastion of Gallic civilisation. It was a piece of astounding good luck. I was given free rein to develop whatever I felt was important. This was perhaps the most productive period of my professional life. It also coincided with my writing partnership with Alan Duff and our first titles in the new Cambridge University Press list. Alan remains one of my dearest friends, and perhaps one of the most unjustly undervalued writers of our generation. I stayed in Paris for over 6 years, acquired an old house in the remote Tarn region, and stopped being married.
The Council then sent me to Beijing, where they had just re-opened following the rise of Deng Xiao Ping and the new policy of the Four Modernisations. I was an obvious choice, being tone deaf, as I mentioned earlier, and having had zero experience of working in Asia. I arrived just in time for the trial of the Gang of Four. This meant, among other things that it was impossible to get service in a restaurant because all the waiters were glued to the TV news of the trial. I spent over 4 years there, travelling to most parts of the country, and organising British lecturers for training programmes in Universities, as well as setting up the first VSO programmes. China is not the easiest place to work, even now but I still look back on the time I spent there with great affection. One of the most satisfying things I was able to do was to arrange for the TV transmission of ‘Follow Me’, arguably the single most influential turning point in the teaching of English in China. Ironically, this has the same effect as the Gang of Four trial…the waiters were all glued to the TV learning English, so you could whistle for service!. I also acquired a new wife, proving Sam Johnson’s adage that this was ‘the triumph of hope over experience.’
The Teacher Resource Books series, India and Bell
Around this time, somewhat fortuitously, as is usual, I got involved with OUP and started up the Teacher Resource Books series. The cooperation with OUP lasted for well over 20 years and we produced over 45 titles in that time. A great way for me to be in touch with innovative thinking in the ELT world. What good fortune I have had to be in touch with authors like Andrew Wright, Mario Rinvolucri, Carolyn Graham, Ken Wilson and so many more through this series.
My last posting with the Council was South India, Madras, now called Chennai. I was made Regional Director and had to look after the four southern states (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh.) What larks again! One of the advantages of Madras was that it is a very long way from Delhi, so the eye of the dark lord rarely reached us. Anyone who thinks they understand India had better revise their opinion. Most Indians don’t understand it either. But it was an experience I am truly grateful for and a place I still return to with great affection. And my son was born there too.
In 1988 I was feeling that the Council was no longer the organisation I had joined. It had turned from a service organisation into a revenue-generating one. This inevitably skewed the views and behaviour of its servants. A managerial revolution was in full flood, with the risk that the managers forgot quite what it was they were managing. The full panoply of activity analysis, spreadsheets, objectives, strategic plans and the like was rapidly sweeping away what the Council had always been best at: inspired improvisation on the basis of long-term human relationships.
Hey-ho. Baraka to the rescue again. I was offered the post of Director-General of the Bell Educational Trust in Cambridge to take over from Peter Strevens. Frank Bell, ever avuncular and genial, was one of the presiding geniuses of private sector ELT in UK, along with John Haycraft and others. A dear man, inspired by his harrowing experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, he was dedicated to international understanding by way of reconciliation through language learning. I was saddened by his death during my time at Cambridge.
The Bell experience was a mixed blessing for me. I gained enormously from contact with some of the world’s best teachers, writers and trainers. Two coincidental events were also mightily influential. Within a year of my joining Bell, the countries of Central Europe had decided to secede from the Soviet empire. Meantime, I had become President of IATEFL. It was my privilege in the early 1990’s to be in at the beginning of new affiliates of IATEFL in Poland, Czechoslovakia (as then was), Romania and Hungary. More or less at the same time, Bell was founding new centres in several of these countries. What a time to be alive, and to have been part of that seismic political and cultural shift!
Recent times and current projects
I left Bell after 5 action-packed years in 1993. I had never considered myself an academic, and still don’t, but I was offered a job as Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore, partly through the good offices of Dr N.S. Prabhu, my erstwhile English Studies Officer at the Council in Madras. Sometimes we get some good karma in this world. NUS was an interesting new departure. I taught undergraduates and MA courses. Contrary to the view of Singapore as a nation of control freaks, I was never interfered with in the least. No one ever even sat in on a single one of my classes. And I was allowed to develop new courses in areas like Presentation Skills, and Voice for Theatre Studies students (sadly not for MAs in Applied Linguistics!). Among other things, Singapore is a great place to get out of. And one of the places I went to frequently was Thailand.
So, after leaving NUS after, for me at least, 5 productive years, I was asked if I would like to set up a new MA in ELT at Assumption University , Bangkok. Why not? So from 1999 to 2003 I spent a good deal of each year in Bangkok, getting the show on the road. One of the greatest satisfactions was that both the students and the lecturers were non-native speakers. The teaching staff I recruited included an Indian, a Thai, an Italian, a Dutchman, a Burmese, a Singaporean, and the students came from China, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan, as well as from Thailand. The idea that native speakers are not necessarily the best teachers is widely accepted but putting this idea into practice is not so widely practiced.
Since then, I have been a wandering troubadour. I have taught off and on, here and there, in places as distant from each other as Durham and Ho Chi Minh City, from Leeds to Kuala Lumpur. I am particularly involved with a group of creative writer-teachers from all over Asia which meets once or more a year in different countries in the region to promote the value of creative writing and to produce texts useable by local teachers. I still write the occasional book or article. I go to conferences, teach courses occasionally. One of my greatest pleasures is writing poetry and stories. And walking my dear dog in the beautiful countryside of Kent where I live – sometimes! And thinking back on the incredible good fortune I have had in being involved in ELT over all these years, and the rich rewards it has brought me in ideas and friendships across the world. I am grateful for my life.
- Alan Maley. 2004. A Tangled Web. Cambridge English Readers.
- Alan Maley and Alan Duff . 2005. Drama Techniques 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press.
- Alan Maley. 2006. English through Literature. Central Radio and TV University Press: Beijing
- Alan Maley and Alan Duff. 2007. Literature. 2nd edition. Oxford University Press
- Alan maley 2009. Advanced Learners. Oxford University Press
- Alan Maley. 2009. The Best of Times? Cambridge English Readers
~ 2009, completed 25 years as Series Editor for Oxford Resource Books for Teachers.
~ Chair of IATEFL conference symposium on the Art and Artistry of ELT. 2009
~ Two new books on Creative Writing for Pearson Malaysia, in progress.
~ 2003-2009 Co-convenor of the Asian Teacher Writers group
Alan's now finished blogging on the site - check the Guest Writers page to see contributions from other guests.