I first heard the name of Scott Thornbury in the autumn of 2012 on Prague underground from a colleague. Or rather I didn’t. I heard “Scott Th” and a bunch of vowels. I was with a colleague whose lesson I’d just observed because I’d been looking for inspiration. The lesson had begun with a proverb written on the board and evolved around it with various activities and groups talking, peer feedback and teacher feedback. The students were high-positioned administrators and clerks at an important Czech institution. The level was C1 or above.
There was no coursebook or worksheets.
I had just seen my first ever unplugged lesson.
It took some effort but I successfully googled the name of Scott Thornbury at home and a whole new world opened up for me. At that time all my “social networks” were face to face, email or phone. I didn’t have Facebook and Twitter. I found some blogs, discussions and videos. Quickly, I became very enthusiastic about Dogme. I spent much time studying the principles and soon, I started trying them out in my classes. I bought Teaching Unplugged, read it and treasured it ever since.
That school year I was doing my course in teaching Czech to Foreigners and we were supposed to write a final thesis. I remember being largely uninspired by the suggested topics such as “The Analysis of Selected Coursebooks at A1 Level” or “The Methodology of Using Pictures in the Teaching of Adult Learners” or even “A Description of a Selected Grammatical Phenomenon in Selected Coursebooks for the Learners of Czech as a Foreign Language.”
Instead, I proposed “Dogme or the Return to Simplicity in Language Classes”. I found an enthusiastic tutor who supported me. Later in June, my thesis got a pass even though the opponent hadn’t had a clue and kept asking me what I’d meant by the dogma. (I still have the text somewhere – in Czech – if you’re interested).
In the meantime, I was inundating my poor students with Dogme-like classes. I was training myself not to use the coursebooks and I was deliberately not planning my lessons throwing myself into the deep waters of improvisation. Although I do feel utterly sorry for some of my students, many of whom would have been better off learning a more conservative and systematic way, it was a great school. I learnt to improvise. I learnt to plan backwards. I learnt not to panic if I didn’t have a plan, book, CD, worksheet, you name it. At the end of the school year, I could stand in front of a class and do it.
I loved Dogme with everything that came with it – the zero photocopying, independence on publishers, being with the learners and teaching them what they needed, the improvisation. Mr Thornbury and Meddings were my heroes. I became an ardent proponent of Dogme. I could not imagine teaching any other way. I remember a school I worked for at that time insisted we start making quarterly syllabi for our courses. Fiercely did I fight! I told them it was impossible to make realistic plans if they didn’t include an element of the unexpected (I actually still think that) but it was in vain.
Slowly though, the glamour started to fade away. What went wrong? First I noticed that my students and I were running out of topics. We’d had a conversation pretty much about anything. They’d told me about their habits, lives, work, and hobbies. That was the better scenario. The worse one was if my students were learning as part of their work benefits and didn’t care much for English at all. Their lives were pretty much unchanging. What was there to talk about? Hence, revelation one: the teacher is there to inspire. (I secretly believe this is where the appeal of native-English speaking teachers comes from, because their lives in wherever they are from are much more interesting than ours, normal people who get to leave the country once a year for the summer vacation).
Consequently, the non-planning bit became too stressful. If the students didn’t care or just didn’t know, what was there to teach? (Some serious misunderstanding on my part, I know.) Revelation two: plan, but be ready to ditch your plan or adapt it.
Revelation three: work with what the students need (Ask them. Apply violence if needed. Don’t let them get away with “speak better English”) or at least what you think they need. Make plans based on these needs. Ask students to agree with the plans. Adapt as needed. Sometimes throw in what inspires you (see Revelation One) – an article to read that you liked, a few idioms, a video, an idea to discuss.
Revelation four: it’s ok to use materials. I feel much happier with a bit of text to come to class with. I am the happiest with a home-made worksheet. I don’t really use entire coursebooks but I might use a listening bit here and there or some lexis item. I love the dialogues of the ESL Library and they do make my life so much easier (I’m not getting paid for this I swear). It needn’t be a long piece of text, just something (that can even be dictated) to make me feel more confident.
Where am I now? I don’t really know. There aren’t any observations. My colleagues teach differently from what I hear. My “method” is by no means scientific or research-based but rather heart-based (this is probably going to put off a whole bunch of people but I’m leaving it here anyway). I get a lot of clients and people keep coming back. In my view, it is a mixture of experience, organisation and working hard. I guess the most important is that I’m constantly self-assessing the way I teach and hopefully evolving, but I might just be totally wrong.
There is one thing to say – if it weren’t for my Dogme period in life, I would not be where I am now and for this I am grateful.
I’d like to thank here some ladies for being great: Andrea, Jiřina, Klára, Eva, Jane, Zora, Caralyn – you know what I mean.
I’d like to thank Maruška for putting up with me with those syllabi.
And I owe huge thanks to my Twitter friends from and thanks to whom I’d learnt what I learnt. You know who you are. Online mentorship rocks!