Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Six Questions for Melanie Butler

Continuing almost every TEFL blogger's new-found tradition of interviewing other colleagues and cronies in the whacky world of EFL, I present, for your utter delight, an interview with the owner, editor-in-chief, and crusading Tefl catwoman of the EL Gazette, Melanie Butler.

Although Melanie customarily shies away from direct publicity, I have managed to locate this fine piccy of her alongside, featuring a younger edition of the woman when she was recruited by intelligence services to introduce the sophisticated yet decadent Western pastime of pole-dancing to an eager pre-revolutionary Iran.


1. How long have you been at the ELG, and what have been its highs and lows over that time?

I was turned down as the first editor of the Gazette in 1979, but freelanced for it more or less continuously until I bought it with my ex-partner in 1987. Apart from two years working as a publisher for Pearson Longman in the early nineties, I've been here ever since.

One low I particularly remember was being slapped with a gagging writ - which means you are forbidden to publish anything unless you remove a particular article - by a major UK institution (which will remain nameless, as I don't want another writ). A gagging order literally stops the presses until you can find a judge to hear the case. We couldn't afford not to publish and had to give in. A few months later, the management of the particular institution took me out for lunch, and when I asked why they had gagged us, they said it was because the allegations in the article were true.

That experience made me very aware of the importance of evidence in British libel law. It also made me realise the importance of a good lawyer. I am hugely indebted to Julian Pike of Farrer and Co, who has been an invaluable (and eternally tolerant) ally over the years. At the Gazette we get about four or five threats of libel writs a year (we wouldn't be doing our job well if we didn't). Our high point in the libel stakes was when a distance training provider, a Mr Ian B Dick of ILC , with a post restante address at an office building called International House, took us to the press complaints commission. His complaint was thrown out, which alowed us to run the headline "Dick's complaints do not stand up, say commission".

In the last few years it has been a major financial struggle to survive, but it hasn't stoppped us doing major investigative pieces (or getting libel threats). I am most proud of recently launching a digital version of the Gazette, which is free for any EFL teacher in the world. Just log on to .

2. How do you see ELG's role nowadays - what is its 'mission statement', implied or otherwise?

I'm not sure we have a mission statement - it all sounds too corporate. But we do have a motto: "If we publish it, we can prove it. If you can prove it, we will publish it." A lot of teachers do not understand this, and they get upset when they tell us of something that happened, but won't let us have any evidence, refuse to give us their name (we don't have to publish a name, but we do have to know it), and say they would never provide any evidence to a court if things went wrong. We're often sure their stories are true, but we simply cannot afford to run a story without evidence. The average cost of a libel case in the UK is tens of millions of pounds, and the writer, the editor, myself and the company are all liable.

The other main role of the Gazette is to report what is happening around the world in EFL - not just to native speaker teachers, but in state schools, universities and at governmental level. We try to be a neutral provider of accurate information - even if we don't always succeed.

3. What's your background as a Tefler and a journalist?

I started in Tefl as an unqualified summer school teacher in Iran, before the revolution. I earned £13 an hour, which would be equvalent to £60 an hour in today's terms.. From a financial point of view, it has been pretty much down hill ever since! I am too old to have done a Celta (it hadn't been invented), but I did do a Delta in 1977. I taught in Spain and Italy, then came back to the UK and joined the BBC World Service, where I wrote and produced EFL teaching programmes.

I continued as a freelance scriptwriter and EFL teacher until 1987, when my ex partner and I bought the Gazette from the media mogul Robert Maxwell, shortly before he fell off his yacht. Apart from a couple of years at Pearson Longman, where I was in charge of the splendidly named "adult publishing" list (no, I didn't make blue movies), I have been here pretty much ever since.

4. Compare and contrast; your worst EFL boss and colleague.

I have been my own boss pretty much for the last 22 years, and I'm not sure I can remember. I was sent out by the founder of the Callan school in London (when Callan was just another little method school run by another little man with a method) to Madrid, which was a fiasco - but mostly because I was the only teacher. The people who ran the school were perfectly sweet, but had no idea what they were doing. I left after a month or so because there were so few students that - as an hourly paid teacher - I was in danger of starving to death. I've been against hourly paid teaching ever since.

I didn't like the corporate world much. When I worked at the Beeb we were protected from the worst of it by our section boss, the resplendent Chris Farham. However, I did find it a bit of a nightmare at Longman. The people were nice, but the system was ridiculous - there was so much paperwork, I don't know how we ever got anything done. The worst thing of all was when I was put on a Culture Change Committee - as if a committee could ever change a culture. We ended up having a meeting about the meeting that we had had about the culture having too many meetings. Within a year, all but two members of the committee had left the company (including myself).

5. Compare and contrast; your best and worst EFL moments in the classroom.

My worst moment was probably the first time I walked into a class at the Callan school in Madrid, and my first class, a bunch of student translators, asked their first questions: " When do you use the future perfect continuous?" I ran into the loo clutching my copy of Thompson and Martinet and cried! About thirty years later, looking at analysis of the British National Corpus, I found the correct answer to the question: "We almost never use the future perfect continuous. There is only one exampe of it in the Corpus - it is probably the least useful tense in the world. Forget about it."

My reaction, by the way, was not to say that grammar doesn't matter. Of course it bloody matters, and teachers who don't know anything about it are about as useful as driving instructors who don't know about the internal combustion engine. I've been interested in grammar, and grammar research, ever since.

My best moment in the classroom was probably when I was working at the European Business School in London, where I had the class with the lowest level of English. I decided not to bother with grammar and vocabulary, but to concentrate on getting them to write essays and make presentations in a way that fitted in to British Academic culture (an early form of EAP). I used a range of unorthodox methods, from booting out all the French who sat at the back and chewed gum, to telling the Germans to shut up and write the essay the way I told them to write the essay. I gave lectures, I tore up their essays, and I also swore a lot in several languages.

I have never been a fan of the "being your own best teacher and making your students own the learning process" bollocks - just do whatever works best (short of downright cheating) to get the results, that's what I say. If you don't believe me - visit Holland. The teachers would make Mario Rinvolucri die of shame, and the whole population speaks English!

It worked at the European Business School. When the exam results came out, my lot still came bottom in English, but they were top in every other subject! My students, a bunch of linguistically challenged Germans and bolshy French kids, were ecstatic. When, shortly afterwards, I was involved in buying the Gazette, they did all the business calculations for us before the sale, and about three of them came and worked for us for free for a few months.

6. If you could change one thing in UK Tefl, what would it be?

Why UK EFL? Most of the world treats native speaker teacher graduates like cannon fodder - though, I do have to say, some of the London schools seem to take the biscuit. Outside their own countries, non-native speakers fare even worse. And before you sneer, Sandy, [can you see me sneering, Melanie?] I should say that the best teachers I have ever seen in action were Polish.

If I could change one thing about UK EFL, it would be the stupid British Council decision to leave out teachers' terms and conditions from the things they inspect in the accreditation scheme. This is not only because I think it is immoral - more importantly, I think that it is simply fatuous to say that you can guarantee quality when you have teachers at accredited schools teaching 45 hours a week. Worse still are the summer schools, with teachers working 60 hours a week - before preparation and marking - particularly when they are supposed to be looking after a bunch of kids and teenagers. They're too tired to stand up - it's a catastrophe waiting to happen.


Well, thanks a million, Melanie. And I sincerely hope you get over the shame of appearing in this blog soon!


Alex Case said...

An absolute classic Sandy, and yet another reason why I am delaying sending you the dull answers I have managed to come up with so far

Never knew our gal Mel was the owner too, interesting


Great interview Sandy, what a fascinating piece - the other day Christopher Graham offered up Melanie Butler's name via Twitter for a piece I'll be doing on women-in-elt (I'll link to this one) but I hadn't heard of her before. So, now I know!

I enjoyed her story on the Future Perfect Continuous - my first class asked me just about the Present Perfect Continuous and I just looked at them, in HK, like they were from Mars! My, how times change!

Obviously don't agree with Ms Butler's approach:

'I have never been a fan of the "being your own best teacher and making your students own the learning process" bollocks'
but there are always different courses for horses, rightie-o.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

Finally a real and inspiring voice from ELT--and not anonymous--in a position of real influence, who can say how it really is.

I vote Melanie as the leader of this org and that org. She found a way to delete all of the corporate ELT blah-blah.

The TEFL Tradesman said...

How would you like a good kick up the arse, anonymous?!

Anonymous said...

Has the mighty mouse, I mean the mighty SM, been offended?

Take off your clothes, I mean, reveal your real identity, you sandlover you...

Anonymous said...

Ok - I'm really Mario Rinvolucri.

Satisfied now?

Anonymous said...

I know who he is, but why should I tell any of you?

Anonymous said...

How much is that Sandy... in the window?

The TEFL Tradesman said...

Ah, you mean 'the one with the waggley tale'?

Probably priceless, I reckon...

Kimi said...

Dad, are you the TEFL Tradesman too?

The TEFL Tradesman said...

You're no son of mine, pipsqueak!

Your council said...

Mrs. Crump is here with your daughter Kimi. If you don't send money soon, she's going to get kicked out of her Council flat and will have to move in with your uncle above the fish n' chip shop.

Kimi clearly needs braces too. Her teeth are really bad, even for England!

(Typed on behalf of...)