ESL Teacher Interviews: Sylvia Guinan

In Kaplan's first "Interview with the Experts", we talk to Sylvia Guinan

Sylvia has been teaching ESL/English for fifteen years, with experience in primary , secondary schools, language, and literacy institutes in Ireland, though the majority of her experience has been in Greece.

You can discover more about Sylvia by visiting the About Me section in her blog.

What made you become an ESL teacher?

In many ways I was a child-teacher. It’s something special to consider, as, knowing what we do now, children have open minds and natural curiosity. Coming from a family of ten, I had five younger brothers and sisters, so I was always helping someone with homework or just playing creative games.

The most substantial reason, however, was my passion for books, fantasy and fiction. I studied English Literature, a discipline which naturally led into teaching.

At the age of 21, however, like many of my generation, I wanted to travel the world before settling down. My key to working around the world was English, and my first (and last) stop was Greece. ELT was so different from literature, as was the Greek teaching methodology. Nowadays I blend creativity with practicality in my quest to empower language students everywhere.

How would you describe your teaching style?

My teaching style is a coming together of this polarity in my experiences. I call my methodology ‘BrainFriendly’ because of my eclectic use of best practices mixed with multi-media, the arts, and the psychology of learning. Therefore I ‘deliver’ the expected content to students as raw material, but they must do all of the creative work in developing language awareness and fluency.

The number one priority is awakening imagination and empowering students to express themselves in creative ways. Teaching functional language alone can be soul-destroying for classroom dynamics, while giving students the freedom to play with language is magical.

It takes a lot of experience, research and testing of ideas to seamlessly blend function with creativity, and this is what I constantly aspire to. I have total confidence in the potential of each student, and creative methodologies can get students to surpass themselves in exams. Today’s technology, web tools and professional development opportunities put the onus on us, as teachers, to develop methodologies and niches in ways that would have been almost impossible twenty years ago.

What cultural insights can you get from teaching ESL?

I’ve been teaching online for two years, and I’ve had some amazing international experiences. As part of the Edupunk movement with George Machlan, I used to hold public fun creativity classes on, which meant that as soon as I logged into class, I could expect just about anyone from anywhere to be in my class. I had international students writing collaborative poems and stories in the virtual classroom, as well as playing word games and learning through music.

Story-telling and poetry were amazing ways to get the feel of culture. I remember some very magical moments when students would express themselves poetically in ways foreign to ,say, British or American culture, yet all the more beautiful because of that. They were ‘owning’ their English, and painting their thoughts with culturally-enhanced perspectives.

That’s when you KNOW, you are beyond the text book. They were engaged in collaborative creativity which produced some wonderful cyber-vibes in class. This meeting of minds is far removed from the cut throat reality of political diplomatic endeavours, and, I believe, can serve to create a more caring new world order.

I have experienced the same and more on facebook, as colleagues and I led some poetry writing frenzies in our English language groups. The same multi-cultural enhancement of English, and a special humanitarian understanding pervaded cross-cultural groups in amazing ways.

Have you experienced cultural difficulties from teaching ESL?

I haven’t experienced cultural difficulties in teaching per se, but, rather in adopting the culture of the host country. I am too liberal for Greek culture from feministic perspectives, even though Greece is a European country. I teach women from Saudi Arabia or UAE who are at home in their cultures because it’s what they believe in.

Crossing over into another culture is something else because it’s your whole belief system and mentality at stake. In some ways, also, when cultural rules are clear, there are no misunderstandings. When you are, however, in a country that’s liberal on the surface, under-currents of patriarchy can surprise and disturb if they appear out of the blue.

I recently had very direct cultural challenges when I was commissioned to write digital courses for university student in the United Arab Emirates. The cultural guidelines were very strict but I was soon sensitized towards the kinds of materials they needed.

I regularly find students from Saudi Arabia or UAE and there are certainly great differences which need to be taken into consideration, especially with regard to Westernized educational movies and multi-media. However, this is about cultural awareness, something that we should all be sensitive towards.

Which other ESL teachers do you admire and why?

I have favourite teachers from both wider networks and my closer tribe.

My first influence when I decided to teach online was Nik Peachey. My children were still babies and I was doing a lot of research when they were asleep at night as I plotted my foray into online teaching. I was inspired by the breath of his work, the web tool technology and ideas he so freely shared, and the philosophy of learning that was apparent in his work.

Moving on from Nik’s influence, I naturally gravitated towards creative colleagues online; namely Jason West, Kirsten Winkler, George Machlan, The Edupunk Crew, Andre Klein, Jason R.Levine (Fluency MC), Mau Buchler, Brad Patterson & Edulang, and Dr.Nellie Deutsch who trains teachers in online learning on WiZiQ. I also admire Alex from TEFLTASTIC, and David ddeubels of classroom 2.0 and English Central.

My favourite Mompreneurs are NinaEnglishbrno and Anita Adnan, both passionate and professional mothers teaching online. Last but not least, Ann Foreman, social media manager of the British Council who does wonderful work in promoting English language teaching and encouraging individual teachers around the world.

Intellectual influences are Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Goleman, Howard Gardner and Mario Rinvolucri.

What would you say to someone who was considering being an ESL teacher?

I would say that the most important thing to do is explore your values as a human being and bring that into your teaching. We now know that methodologies are soulless tools that won’t work without teacher integrity. This integrity keeps teachers from burning out, getting disillusioned or getting bored.

When you know your values, find your talents. By this, I mean that you can teach English through your talents, be it music, story-telling, photography or cooking. Then help students to learn English through their own talents.  This is social/emotional learning, the psychology of learning. This is rapport building; this is magic.


What do you think is the future of ESL teaching?

I think that the future should lie in blended learning. It’s practical, possible and necessary. It’s a sinful waste not to do so. Today we have Chinese learners, for example, with no access to native speakers. Blended learning would combine classroom socialization with online learning as native speakers enter classrooms virtually and work with on site teachers to create perfect learning outcomes.

Experiments such as these are happening all over the world now. As technology gets more stable, this should become a reality everywhere. Mobile learning is also the next big thing, though, for me, I really want to see traditional classrooms breaking down walls and meeting teachers and native English speakers from around the world in social learning projects and experiences.

The sad thing is the digital divide. I would love to see or be part of solutions that use technology to empower the Third World – as in Sugata Mitra.

Another big thing in the future of education is self-publishing. Education is being liberalized, publishing hierarchies are trying hard to maintain their relevance in the modern age. Individual teachers are becoming empowered to create innovating and breath-taking products.

Speaking of which, my own children are beating me in the publishing game. My ten year old has published her first fiction book called ‘The Magic Roots’. My seven year old twins have written short stories and my six year old has made her first alphabet book.

That’s what we call Edupunk. Children/students lead and teachers/parents follow. As for myself, I am writing two creative, alternative style ELT books, which are fully designed for fluency building and exam success.

Which superhero would you be and why?

When I was asked this question two years ago, I created my own comic super hero(ine).

Vibe Vixen’s super power is to zap negative energy from nasty minds with her super-sonic hoover laser. Nasty energy is zapped off into a black hole. Individuals who have been deprived of their ‘moaning minion crutches’ are forced to feed on happiness if they are to survive.

Vibe Vixen is probably influenced by Daniel Goleman (social intelligence) and Sir Ken Robinson (the Element)J

Thanks to Sylvia for some really insightful answers into the life of an ESL teacher. If you agree or disagree with any of Slyvia's remarks, please leave a comment below.

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