Interview with Andy Curtis, the 50th President (2015-2106), TESOL International Association
"Career suicide" was how a number of my family members, friends and colleagues described my decision to leave the generous medical science scholarship I was on to become, of all things, a teacher! I left medical science, after some years working in hospitals in England (mostly in the gynecology and pediatric wards), as I could not accept Western medicine's approach to people. They were first reduced to 'patients' with a set of symptoms. The symptomatic patients were then further reduced to their diseases, and finally to their specific organs. As a result, "Mr. Smith" became "the lung cancer patient in bed 42". And so it was, in 1989, at the age of 26, I decided to travel around Europe, starting in a small town called 'Arroyo de la Miel', in southern Spain. In the bars where I worked, young English teachers would come to hang out, and I was genuinely surprised to find that teaching English was something you could do professionally. I left Spain, cancelled the rest of my travel plans and returned to English, where I completed a Bachelor of Education (BEd) teaching degree, to become a science teacher, which I enjoyed, but my first passions continued to be languages and cultures. I did an MA in Applied Linguistics and ELT, and eventually a PhD in International Education, during which time I became a member of TESOL International Association and IATEFL. Certainly a 'non-traditional' route! But the journey had been all the more interesting for that.
I've partly answered that question above, but I can say a little more about that shift and why, as many TESOLers still ask me today about me making that change. Although going from medical science to TESOL seems like a random – and some even said 'reckless' – move, I was troubled by the language of Science, in which there was nobody. By that, I mean I was not allowed to write, for example, "I took a test tube". My science professors were aghast at the idea that the 'agent of action', i.e., a person, being revealed in writing. It had to be expressed in the passive voice: "a test tube was taken", to preserve the veneer of 'objectivity'. My long-time friends, who stayed in the medical field, tell me that Western medicine is now more holistic, and use of the first person singular in scientific writing is not quite as shocking today as it was back in the 1990s. It was that interest in the language of science that enabled me to makes the moves from scientist to science teacher to teaching about the language of science to being a language teacher. "Oh", some TESOLers say, "when you put it like that, it makes sense". But trust me, at the time, going from a high-prestige, high-paying career to being a low-status, low-paid English language teacher made no sense at all to anyone, least of all my family, friends and colleagues!
The most helpful advice I received as a scientist was "Get out! You clearly love language, and with your Anglo-Indian, Afro-Caribbean history and heritage, you should do something that brings together your love of language and who you are." The person who gave me that advice, some 30 years ago now, is still in the medical field, and is still a friend. The most helpful advice I received in TESOL career came from Kathi Bailey and David Nunan, both Past Presidents of the TESOL International Association (1998-1999 and 1999-2000, respectively). Both of them persuaded me to apply to be one of the first recipients of the Association's Leadership Mentoring Award, to encourage what was referred to as "individuals from under-represented groups" to become involved in language education leadership. My application was rejected, and I was ready to give up, but Kathi and David persisted, and I applied again. I was accepted into the LMP program on my second try, with Kathi as my mentor. One of the first things she had me do was map out a ten-year timeline, taking me from being a new member of the Association to being its President. In the end, it took much longer than that – nearly 20 years, from joining the Association in 1996 to becoming its 50th President in 2015. But that was time well-spent, and to be the first President of Anglo-Indian, Afro-Caribbean heritage – it was worth the wait.
My demotivation as a hospital-based medical science officer in England in the 1980s has been touched on above; first, it was the 'dehumanizing' approach of Western medicine at that time, and second the move from a publicly funded healthcare system, called the National Health Service, to a system based on ability-to-pay. The day I received a phone call (I still remember that call vividly) asking for a price list for the medical testing services the hospital provided, was the day I knew had to leave. But not all of my movements have been motivated by disappointment. For example, after I completed my BEd, I realized I really enjoyed teaching, but not the age group I had trained with, i.e., 11 to 16 years olds. I did my training in a school in the Northeast of England, where the unemployment rate was a shocking 50%, due to the policies of the Conservative Government of the UK at the that time, under Margaret Thatcher. Consequently, most of my time in class was spent breaking up verbal and physical altercations between teenagers, some of whom were much bigger and stronger than me! Those experiences contrasted sharply with my in-class time with more mature university students and other adult learners. They had chosen to be there, in that classroom at that time, with me, which meant their motivation levels were high, and we could focus our energies on teaching and learning – rather than parrying punches.
Building an eye-catching resume that stands out from the pile and following a fulfilling career path are, of course, two quite different things, but the former can certainly help with the latter. I remind the teachers-in-training that I work that it is not the resume that gets you the job. The resume gets you noticed, which can lead to interviews, and it is doing well in those interviews that can get you the job. Also, there are now so many websites that give advice on resume-building, that I tend to spend much more time on preparing the trainee teachers for their first face-to-face interviews. These days, they might be online interviews, which require different kinds of preparation than the traditional in-person interviews.
As for taking and making a successful career path, I have never been a big fan of the 'just follow your heart, and the universe will take care of the details' advice. I have known too many people for whom that turned out badly. The alternative advice I give is i. find something you're good at, and ii. something that you want to keep getting better at. Teaching is an ideal example, but I also warn the BEd students that I work with to only go into teaching if they feel they can do it wholeheartedly. I have done a lot of work where it was possible to do it half-heartedly (barman, waiter, shop assistant and other jobs) but teaching is a vocation, it is a calling, and it is important to do it wholeheartedly.
As I wrote above, I came into the Association via the Leadership Mentoring Program (LMP) Award route, which has now been going for more than 20 years, and which has produced a generation of leaders, who are, in recent years, helping to make the Association's leadership more diverse in the last 15 years than it was in its first 40 years. (Luciana de Oliveira, Deena Boraie, Ester De Jong and I will be presenting a panel on this at TESOL 2020, in Denver, CO.) The Association provides many opportunities for members to engage in professional development. For example, the Association's Interest Sections and Professional Learning Networks are always on the lookout for volunteers, which is also true for the Special Interest Groups in IATEFL. Those are all great ways to get involved. As well as volunteer experience (which also helps to build up the resume) it also helps to have international experience. It is important to go out into the world and learn what it feels like to be, for example, a 'visible minority' if you have lived your whole life as part of the majority in your country or context. These are tough times for international educators – from the rise of the political Far Right and their race-based anti-immigration policies to the COVID-19 pandemic – but these hard times make the work that each of does, every day, in our classrooms, with our learners, maybe more important now than ever before.
Interview questions are prepared by Amira Salama, the CPD PLN Online Discussion Leader. The CPD PLN leadership team would like to extend thanks to Andy Curtis for accepting our invitation to do this interview. We hope all our members find this interview as informative as we did. Thank you, Andy!