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Mark Andrews: Getting my Stasi file from East Berlin was an interesting exercise in feedback

Mark Andrews: Getting my Stasi file from East Berlin was an interesting exercise in feedback

Can you provide a brief overview of your background and expertise?

I had my first teaching experience in Bavaria at the age of 18 before I went to university. After doing an Eastern European Studies degree at Bradford I was offered a job in the German Democratic Republic teaching in a university in Rostock. After two years I did a one year Post Graduate Certificate in Education in ELT in Manchester and returned to teach in the GDR in East Berlin for two more years. I then worked in a private language school in Brighton for two years before working for two years at Palacky University in Olomouc.

I then did an MA in ELT at Lancaster University before returning to Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic as a teacher trainer in Pardubice and then Olomouc. In 1996 I worked for the British Council in Budapest till 2002 and then stayed on at the university till 2011 when I started working as training director for SOL in Devon (Sharing One Language) till 2022. Since then I have been working as a freelance teacher and teacher trainer .

My main area of expertise is in intercultural learning and teaching with linguistic, cultural and pedagogical aims.  I have also been involved in co-organising teaching unplugged (Dogme ELT) courses and am interested in teaching in materials light, conversation driven and working with emergent language ways.

What are the main takeaways or insights you aim to deliver during your talk, and how do you believe they will benefit the audience?

The title of my session is ’The Art of being Authentic in your classroom.”

The 2023 Merriam-Webster word of the year was “Authenticity” The debate about what is real and what is artificial has never been as relevant as it is today. I’m interested in not only exploring ways of being authentic in the classroom, but also in discussing what people consider to be authentic regarding the materials we use and tasks we set up in class. I think seeing classrooms as just as real as everywhere else in life and not as artificial places is key to creating conditions for deeper learning to take place.

A good prompt might be to put IRF on the board and ask people to discuss all the associations they have with those three letters!  I was very influenced by the quote below while I was doing my MA and I think a good discussion of what it might mean in practice might lead to interesting insights into how we might organise our classrooms.

”When we teach a language what is real and authentic will depend on what our purposes are and that if the learning itself is the most authentic thing, then “perhaps the most socially appropriate and authentic role of the classroom situation is to provide the opportunity for public and interpersonal sharing of the content of language learning, the sharing of problems, within such content, and the revealing of the most effective means and strategies to overcome such problems.”  (Breen, M. P. (1985). Authenticity in the language classroom. Applied Linguistics, 6, 60-70.)

Jim Scrivener in his book” Learning Teaching” quotes Carl Rogers who suggests that there are 3 core teacher characteristics that help to create and an effective learning environment.  Respect, empathy and authenticity.  And by authenticity I think he means what you see on the outside matches what is on the inside, or being true to yourself or to use another word, being congruent. At the end of this session, I hope you will have a clearer idea of what these concepts mean and whether they are desirable or not for you or indeed possible.  

And then there is the question of what is authentic to learning may not replicate ”real” language outside the classroom but can be seen as authentic language tasks. In fact, it can be argued that the most authentic thing you can do in a classroom is to make the learning of the language central to everything you do.

If the purpose of the classroom is to improve people’s English, then sharing the problems involved in doing this is an authentic activity and if the learning becomes one of the main things that is talked about in class, then there may be a lot to be learned from sharing experiences with your other classmates.

With a group of students in school who may be together for several years, exploring both the English language and issues that are important to them and which they care about and are interested in, in a mutually supportive environment, will often define the character of the English class and developing a sense of class belonging and class identity through a shared class biography may be a strength of an English class. I have seen examples of where speaking to each other in English has become part of their identity and their shared history that they refer back to fondly and which becomes part of their social banter amongst themselves. This was a group I had a very productive year together with when they were 15/16.

Szabó Lőrinc Két Tannyelvű Általános Iskola students in Budapest who I worked with for a year. We had many interesting discussions including ones on the Iraq war, contraception, Hannukah and careers. I will share one of these students evaluations of the year we spent together and how that relates to being authentic in class.

Three areas which I hope you will have deeper insight into after the session are:

  1. What behaving in a more authentic way in the classroom might mean
  2. What can be considered authentic tasks in the classroom
  3. How students might become more effective learning partners for each other by sharing

the process of learning with each other, by supporting each other and by developing a sense of class belonging.

Can you recall a particularly memorable experience related to teaching or training that left a lasting impact on you?

Getting my Stasi file from East Berlin at the beginning of the pandemic.  I was informed on by 18 people and it was really interesting to read what they wrote about me including my teaching. I think it’s made me realise again how useful it can be to have people come and observe you and then to talk about it afterwards or to video yourself and then watch it carefully with a view to try to understand what you do in class and why you do it.

When you see yourself from a perspective you haven’t seen before it can be unsurprisingly thought-provoking, puzzling, disorienting but maybe enlightening too, especially when it is written by a Stasi informer about you in a 285-page file on you, your personality, your teaching and your political opinions

It’s good to try and make sense of things that have happened to you in the past…we don’t often make the time to do it but if we did more then I think it would have a very positive impact on our teaching and on our lives in general.

“The spring and summer of 1983 was the time when Andrews was very active in the department. This was mainly due to his teaching which he did in his “English Evenings, once a week on Monday evenings. He tried to familiarize the students with topics about Great Britain, and it was always very striking that he made constant comparisons between social life in the GDR and Great Britain but the focus in on the situation in the GDR. It is characteristic of Andrews that he evaluates phenomena without understanding their background and without going deeper into what they really are. One example was when in a discussion he equated the punk movement in Great Britain with the appearance of punk in the GDR as a form of protest. Due to his very good methodological work in his seminars and his good pedagogical qualities, it was easy for him to teach good English lessons that were well received by all the students. The quality of the lessons is also due to the fact that his knowledge of German is very good and that he is committed to realizing his lessons both inside and outside the formal classes. His goal is to teach German students to speak English well. His open and friendly nature makes it easy for him to establish a good rapport with the students, which of course also feeds back into the quality of his teaching. Characteristics that further distinguish him are quick-wittedness, intellectual agility, as already mentioned, a very good knowledge of the German language, above-average knowledge of German literature, especially GDR literature, so that he is in a good position to talk about many topics with his students. A serious problem with Andrews though is that he always asks provocative questions while always acting very naively. I would like to describe his financial situation as good. According to his own information, he earns 800 marks a month. Since he does not spend much money on alcohol or cigarettes, he is able to use the rest of his money for certain hobbies. He is relatively undemanding when it comes to food and clothing. In addition to doing sport, especially football, his hobbies also include photography, whereby, in my opinion, he chooses the motifs quite randomly, ranging from students, from foreign students, to any historical buildings in Rostock. As far as I know, his photos are developed by Ulf Bünder. He works as an assistant at Foto Koch.”

In my Stasi file there were several criticisms of me as a person and of me as a teacher and they made me think very hard about what I was like as an unqualified 25-year-old teacher.

I think how we respond to criticism is crucial to our development as a teacher and instead of trying to be defensive and to justify what we do in the face of criticism; it can be more productive to really try to understand where the criticism is coming from and to open up space for dialogue which can benefit both the observer and the observed in a teacher development context.

Who or what has been a significant influence or inspiration in your professional journey?

Probably my MA at Lancaster University in 1991/2 after two years with the British Council a lector in Olomouc Czechoslovakia

It was the only place I wanted to go to do a full time MA and it was at the radical end of communicative language teaching in process syllabuses, creating learning opportunities for students, learner contributions to lessons, critical discourse analysis, corpus linguistics, functional grammar (Halliday) rather than transformational generative grammar (Chomsky) and grammar, genre and social context.

People who taught all of this were Mike Breen, Dick Allwright, Roz Ivanić, Norman Fairclough and Geoffrey Leach.  And of those people Mike Breen was the person I was probably most influenced by. 

We did one course called Professional Issues in Language Teaching which was completely generated by us, the students. And it was based on what we perceived to be our professional needs as teachers. I think it fed into everything I did in classrooms afterwards.  My first job after it was in the new fast-track 3-year teacher training college in Pardubice in Eastern Bohemia in 1992 and I ran a course which was completely influenced by my that MA P.I.L.T. course (Professional Issues in Language Teaching)

In that course we discussed “How would we recognise a communicative classroom? ” Drawing on and reflecting on their rich experience of sitting in classrooms for 11/12 years at the age of 18.

Do you have any passion projects or hobbies that contribute to your broader understanding of teaching/learning?

I think over my career as a teacher I’ve been really interested in bringing my own photographs into the classroom as springboards for discussion and have encouraged students to bring their own photographs in too. When I did my PGCE course in Manchester we looked at describe and draw activities, picture descriptions and information gap activities using photographs as well as spotting the differences in pictures. I think it is good to go beyond picture description into interpreting pictures and I am now involved in collecting key photos from my life which have influenced my life and which have also informed my teaching.  This is one example.

When I went to Berlin the week after the wall was opened  in 1989 my friends said it was great they’d be able to travel but the main thing to deal with would be the wave of extreme nationalism that would be triggered all over Eastern Europe as a result.

It was only a few months afterwards that I visited Bertolt Brecht’s grave in East Berlin and was shocked to see “Jews out pig jew” daubed all over it.  Outside my flat in Hungary there was graffiti of the star of David on one of our recycling bins in 2020. Getting pictures to talk to each other and finding things in common is something I’m very interested in and my Lancaster MA, to come back to it again at the end of this little interview really encouraged me to value student contributions to the classroom including things that THEY bring in including objects and their own pictures.

Thanks for asking me these questions Klaudia Bednárová and I’m looking forward to the conference a lot.