Get to Know: Sue Hackett

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“Observe peers – give yourself time to build up an understanding of effective teaching and learning through observation of peers, reflection on practice and trying out new things, activities, approaches…”

Could you tell us something about your early career in the language teaching sector?
I started my teaching career in the 80s as a primary school teacher. My first job was at an American international school in Istanbul and, a year into this, I did a CTEFLA and also taught English in the holidays. Istanbul was a great city to start – full of young people wanting to learn English, including those either wanting to enrol at an English medium instruction university, or already at an EMI university and wanting to improve
their English further.

I then joined a university which was just opening – Bilkent University in Ankara – where I went in as a test writer and developer. This was a very innovative, ‘cutting edge’ university to work in at the time, investing in staff development, with an ambitious vision of establishing a high quality reputation both domestically and internationally, and a plan and road map of how they intended to do this. They had a preparatory section for the students to learn English, an in-faculty English support unit, and as the university was en route to increase in size significantly within the following 10 years, the English language education structure was also planned to increase, diversify and in effect set a national benchmark for English language provision in a Turkish EMI university.

Whilst I was at Bilkent, I kept my role in testing and assessment, and took on the role of Head of Curriculum during which time I headed a curriculum renewal project and introduced a new syllabus which was focused on foundation skills, had an EAP orientation and enabled students to start developing some independence in terms of study skills, projects etc. From this, I moved to heading a textbooks writing project to in essence supply textbooks which realised the learning enshrined in the new syllabi. During this period, I also got more involved in teacher training as the university offered CELTA and ICELT courses to newly qualified graduates. The university was really so innovative in their approach, and over the 90s, the ELT structure and provision, with more than 200 teaching staff, was very dynamic and productive.

In 2000 I came home to work for the Advisory Council for English Language Schools (ACELS), the state QA agency for EL schools in Ireland. Although ACELS is no longer a free-standing agency of the Dept of Education and Skills anymore, having been amalgamated twice since 2010, it is still there, and I manage the scheme as part of my responsibilities in the ELE field, as one of the functions of Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI).

At present, QQI is developing International Education Marks (one for HE, one for ELE) and these should be launched in 2018. This is a very interesting time for ELE in Ireland as it is such a successful, dynamic and important sector, acknowledged as such in the 2016-2020 Irish International Education Strategy. It is great to see the state support of this sector and the recognition of the key role the sector, with all its diverse provision, plays in both bringing international students to Ireland, providing a high quality student experience, and providing pathways to Irish Higher and Further Education.

What big changes have you noticed in the language teaching field since you started?
There have been so many so I am selecting here the key ones which in my view have had and are having a significant impact on language education (LE) including English:

  • the role of the Council of Europe and specifically in the ongoing development of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. The impact has been game-changing, both for LE providers and all the related industry that supports it, and in such a positive way.
  • the underlying principles of the CEFRL are perhaps sometimes lost in the focus on the bands and the descriptor scales, but the principles of language as a key means of enabling peoples to understand each other, appreciate diversity and different, become interculturally aware, recognise the importance of effective communication as a means of effecting this … etc etc – all of this is very significant and it has changed all professionals involved in language education immeasurably for the better. I have only recently become aware of the CoE Framework of Competences for Democratic Understanding (that may not be the absolutely correct title) and it is again something really special and that we can use language education to enable development and awareness raising – critical in the times we are in.
  • the role of external quality assurance agencies as a means of supporting quality improvement, providing networks of like-minded quality providers, setting agreed benchmarks for provision, providing an independent evaluation which is objective and constructively critical. There are a range of bodies of this type, either national which may have a stronger legislative or regulatory role with accountability built in to the scheme, or more cross-national ones in which the focus is primarily on quality improvement. Irrespective of type, the challenge is to ensure that the schemes uphold standards, demonstrate rigour and a common standard across those providers within the scheme, and are sufficiently robust to withstand providers who do not meet the standards for whatever reason.
  • the ongoing professionalization of ELE professionals. There have been in the last 10 years, development of professional frameworks and criteria for academic staff involved in language education. The next step is perhaps to enable accredited value of the sectoral qualifications and professional development activities, so as to recognise a language teacher in the same way as any other state-qualified teacher. I have noticed recently some great initiatives related to this such as the establishment of an EL Teacher Research Group in Ireland, more research based publications in the EL media and more senior posts in language education advertised which specify a research element to them. That is all good as it provides even further evidence of a strong, well-established and intellectually dynamic community of practice.
  • lastly, an emerging international recognition of the importance of language education for employment, education (i.e. higher education or further education), for international mobility and social cohesion. As these awarenesses have emerged, so have new (or renewed) sub-sectors of the language education field. It has taken us in Ireland a while to get to grasps with the use of English as a means of accessing higher education and just now a lot of activity is emerging in this area nationally, to provide training, awareness raising, fit for purpose programmes and ultimately, an environment in which non L1 students studying in an L2 medium of instruction can thrive. Allied to this, it is very interesting to observe the increase in English medium instruction in HE providers, in countries where English is not the L1, e.g., Spain, Holland. Equally, employers have become much more aware of the importance of language competence, plurilingual and pluricultural competences, in the global environment on which they operate. Governments have reflected this in their national Skills Strategies as well and it then also filters into the compulsory schooling system. It is always interesting to me to observe how wellcertain countries manage this and the competence both in language and cultural understanding that results, e.g., Scandinavia, Holland, Italy, Brazil.

Why did you choose to get involved with an organisation like Eaquals?
I first ‘met’ Eaquals in my role as Project Director in ACELS as ACELS was an Associate member. Over the years, I have learnt an enormous amount from Eaquals both from interactions, projects, networking and it has become part of my professional identity in the sense that I espouse and support the key principles upon which Eaquals is founded. I became an inspector some years ago and more recently, a member of the Accreditation Panel. I get enormous satisfaction from the professional experience that I gain from being a member, the people I meet, the initiatives that I can link in to. I can get a bit evangelical about what I see as Eaquals’ unique characteristics and I would even see myself as an advocate of the organisation in this respect!

What new development in the field of language teaching interests/excites you the most?
Hard to say which and it changes – however, at the moment what I find very engaging is the 1) way in which I see language education becoming more mainstream in government policies internationally, recognition as to the many benefits that a strong language education system and sector brings, and the need to value, cherish and nurture this field as one which has specific and unique characteristics. and 2) with the growth in forced migration, and refugees in particular, I have a strong interest in wanting to find a role in supporting this group in terms of social integration and understanding of their new environment; equally, in helping the welcoming communities in understanding where their new community members have come from and how this diversity is such an added wealth to the community at large. Communication has the core role to play in this and language competence is of course key to this.

What advice would you give to a new teacher/trainer starting out in the language teaching sector?
If the teacher is wishing to make this a profession, I would advise the following:

1) ensure that any initial qualification that you do, is a nationally accredited or recognised one. There is such a high number of ‘TEFL type’ qualifications out there which make all sorts of claims, including ‘accreditations’ (some of which they may have but on investigation don t necessarily relate to the qualification), but they do not meet professional norms, they are cheaper than the professional qualifications for a reason, and the new trainee may find themselves hampered by an initial TEFL qualification, that limits their employment opportunities and indeed , gives them a profile on paper which is not going to support them professionally.

2) when looking for a first job, ask the school what kind of support is in place for new teachers. A senior teacher, training team, mentor system is going to be enormously useful to you in your first post.

3) observe peers – give yourself time to build up an understanding of effective teaching and learning through observation of peers, reflection on practice and trying out new things, activities, approaches etc. Be kind to yourself – we have all given bad lessons, felt ineffective and blamed ourselves when students don t seem to have learnt, but as you experience challenges, you will also find solutions, try out new things and learn approaches and techniques which work for you. Keep your focus, engage in professional development, allow time for reflection, and don t be afraid to ask for advice and support.

4) if you are planning to work abroad, do the research beforehand. Make sure the employing school is reputable, if possible talk to teachers who are working there or who have worked there,

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