I’m (still) here

It’s hard to believe that I haven’t updated this blog in almost seven weeks. And (surprise, surprise) it’s because I’ve been busy. Really busy!

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time getting my head around my upcoming trip to Kyrgyzstan. I feel as if I’ve been planning it for years, and suddenly it’s only a couple of weeks away! The practical aspects of the trip are almost sorted: flights are booked, equipment has been bought, and I’m officially vaxxed to the max. There’s still quite a lot of planning and preparation to do around the teacher training course itself, and unfortunately I have recently received some bad news: two of my teacher training colleagues for the project are no longer able to fly out to Kyrgyzstan. This leaves me running the show! Thankfully, two new volunteers have stepped in to fill the gaps – and I’m so happy that they’re able to commit to the project at such short notice.

This week I’ve finished putting together my activities booklet, and I’ve also sketched out a rough plan of the methodology-oriented sessions I’m going to teach. Once at the teacher training centre, I won’t have access to a computer, printer or a photocopier, so I need to make sure that I have compiled all my materials and emailed them to the office in Bishkek before my arrival. It will be interesting to see how I survive without the internet…

June has also brought some interesting developments on the FELLOW front: we sent one of our committee members to this event in Birmingham, and I had a very productive meeting with a senior member of the University with regard to educational provision for displaced persons in Oxford. I hope that I will be able to share some exciting outcomes from that conversation soon!

Finally, I’ve also made a big professional change: from August, I’ll be taking a sabbatical from the big wide world of ELT and making my first forays into Change Management! I’m really looking forward to trying something new, and I’m hoping to take away some innovative ideas that I can employ in my teaching and training. I can feel a few more blog posts coming on…

Here’s what an ELT editor actually does!

An attempt to explain the main elements of my job to my family and non-ELT friends…

Research

This could be desk-based research (online focus groups, reading blogs, etc.) or it could be in-market research (meeting teachers, observing lessons and running face-to-face focus groups). It might occasionally involve BETT or IATEFL. Whatever the method, it’s really important to keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the world of ELT, and what teachers and students want and need from their learning materials.

Commissioning

I commission authors; my more senior colleagues commission titles or series. When there’s a bit too much work for me to manage alone, I also book in freelance editors to work on discreet areas of a project or act as a ‘second eye’ to make sure that the materials do what they are supposed to do (and are pedagogically sound).

Materials development

In the first instance, this involves working with the author(s) to develop learning materials that fit all the requirements outlined during the research phase of the project. It also means working with a cross-functional team (art editors, designers, audio producers, video producers, developers and copy editors) to shape the final product! Depending on the materials, I could be attending a photo selection meeting, working on location for a video shoot, or rubbing shoulders with the young and talented at a London recording studio. Recording studio celebrity spots so far: Bill Bailey, Omid Djalili and Sylvester McCoy.

Project management

Making sure that everything runs smoothly: manuscripts go in and out on time, deadlines are met and the final product gets to the market ready for promotion and the new academic year.

The five worst things about being an ELT editor

Disclaimer: I do enjoy my job, but it is the most miserable month of the year. And this post about ELT editing was incredibly peppy, even by my standards. Let’s retain a sense of balance!

  1. Explaining what an editor does. What do they do? They ‘edit’! But editing doesn’t necessarily mean proofreading, and nor does being an editor mean that you can edit anything. In the last month I’ve been asked to content edit some Russian language newspaper articles (!), as well as edit a short film. I’d love to do both of those things, but neither of them have anything to do with my actual job. And I’m not convinced I’d be that helpful.
  2. Giving negative feedback. I’ve heard on the grapevine that this doesn’t necessarily get easier with experience. No one really likes to hear criticism (if they say they do, they’re lying!), and it can be even harder if an author or editor delivers a draft that obviously took a lot of time and effort but still needs a considerable amount of work. Constructive criticism is the key! An overbearing amount of editorial corrections using Track Changes is not (as I learned the hard way).
  3. Finding grammatical errors everywhere. Unfortunately it’s hard to leave the editor brain in the office! I’m really fun at parties.
  4. Seeing the wrong books in the wrong hands. So much work goes into making sure that teaching materials are appropriate for a particular market, or students with a specific need, that it can be frustrating when course books appear in an unintended context. Often this is somewhere geographically inappropriate – for example, a textbook aimed at teens in Europe ends up with adults in a developing country. Unsurprisingly, these two groups of people might not have a lot in common: a Slovakian fifteen year-old’s moral dilemma is quite likely to be a middle-aged Cambodian office worker’s ‘first-world problem’. The result? Both teachers and students are dissatisfied, and no one learns as well as they could.
  5. Always finding another mistake. Ask any editor. No matter how many times you have checked a book, and no matter how many times you have asked other editors to check a book, you will always find an error in your advance copy. You just have to pray that it isn’t on the cover…

The ‘problem’ with American English

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I’m supposed to be on vacation between Christmas and New Year, but this tweet from Everyday Language caught my eye and… here I am.

In the world of ELT, the differences between British English (BrEng) and American English (AmEng) can be problematic. When it comes to the ‘version’ of English they would most like to learn, the vast majority of countries and regions have their own preferences. In Poland, for example, BrEng rules the roost, while in a lot of South American countries it’s a case of AmEng or GoHome. A predilection for one form of English over another can even affect a teacher’s job opportunities: a substantial number of the students at my language school in Russia would specifically request an English (note: not even British) teacher in order to learn ‘English as spoken by London biznesmeny.’ I hate to disappoint my former students but, as a 22-year-old Arts graduate hailing from rural Shropshire, I hardly spoke the kind of English they were so desperate to learn.

Distinguishing between British English and American English is particularly important in my current job. ELT course books typically choose one English and stick to it – it suits the demands of the market, and it suits the learner (better to avoid inconsistencies between spelling, etc.). For the most part, it’s easy to spot where an author might have slipped up: the odd ‘parking lot’ or ‘humor’ here and there is easily spotted and edited. However, there are plenty of little things that constantly trip me up – the date format being one of them. Not only do I have some close American friends, but also outside the office I’m more likely to listen to Radiolab than Radio 4, or get my news from The New York Times before The Times. As a result, I don’t always get the ‘right’ preposition of time, and I don’t automatically reach for the present perfect.

In other words: I’m a linguistic hybrid.

But these days, who isn’t? The ubiquity of the internet hasn’t just freed our minds – it’s freed our tongues, too. Wherever we are in the world, we can be exposed to any number of World Englishes just by turning on our device. So why do we – as teachers and publishers – often strive so hard to maintain our (inaccurate) binary view of English?

I believe that, as a language-teaching community, we should do more to break down stereotypes of ‘superior’ versions of English, and support English in all its many forms.

So where do we begin?

The ten best things about being an ELT editor

  1. Making a difference. This sounds trite, I know. But anyone working in education has the power to changes lives for the better – and it’s exciting to think about the ways in which people can grow and develop as a result of learning English.
  1. Travel. I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of interesting cities in my career so far… and here’s hoping I get to visit many more!
  1. Meeting teachers and students. One of the best parts of the job is getting to know people from all over the world, and finding out what makes them tick.
  1. Photo and video shoots. There’s nothing more entertaining than a day or two on location, which brings me to…
  1. The variety of the day-to-day. I have an office job, but it’s not always an office job. One day I might be finding a new author, the next – attending an audio recording, or conducting a focus group in a Ukrainian high school. Being an editor is more than just copy-editing.
  1. The combination of creativity and strategy. Mapping out markets and analyzing teacher and learner needs is one thing, but developing a product that ticks the all-important exam boxes while remaining fun and engaging is quite another. And publishers don’t always get it right…
  1. Photo selection meetings. You get to spend a few hours looking at pretty pictures – and choosing your favourites! What’s not to like?
  1. The people. The vast majority of my colleagues disappeared abroad to teach after university (like me), before returning a few years later to a career in ELT publishing with plenty of stories to tell. We’re a multilingual group with intricate knowledge of the countries we lived and loved.
  1. Technology. EdTech histrionics aside, there’s a lot going on at the intersection of mobile technology and language learning – and I’m excited to see where Google Classroom and Facebook’s Summit will go in 2016.
  1. The extra-curriculars. My office job gives me another reason to keep teaching – and thanks to our strong network, there are always plenty of opportunities to step into the classroom.

How did you get in here?

Hi. My name’s Caroline, and I work in English Language Teaching.

I never thought I’d end up here: a door opened, and I fell in.

I studied French and Russian at university and, after a year abroad that took me from studying Serbo-Croat and working in an Irish pub (classic French experience right there) to inflicting phrasal verbs upon unsuspecting Russian businessmen, I made a promise to myself: I, Caroline James, would never work in an office. And, one day, I would return to Moscow.

While a lot of my friends were throwing themselves into unpaid internships during university vacations, I was teaching a motley band of European teenagers halfway up a mountain in the Swiss Alps. When the dreaded assessment centre season rolled around in November of my final year, I watched on as everyone signed away their futures (or at least the next two years) to faceless firms in the City.

I applied to do a CELTA in Ukraine.

Fast-forward to 2015 and – after a successful couple of years teaching in Moscow, and a not-so-successful (but hey, I still have it!) MPhil in Russian Literature – here I am in Oxford, having managed to turn a series of seemingly bizarre decisions into a legitimate career.

But I do have to work in an office now.

Like many people who work in ELT publishing, I was a teacher before I was an editor – and I was a student before that. I might sit behind a desk at the moment, but I’ll always be a teacher at heart and – most importantly – I’ll never stop learning.

I’m writing this blog because I want to become more active in our ELT community. Despite our shared backgrounds, there still seems to be quite a large gap between publisher and teacher.

This blog isn’t going to be a damning exposé of the ELT publishing industry – because actually, it’s a pretty wonderful place to work. Don’t expect a ‘tell-all’ from me anytime soon…

Instead, look out for posts on my language teaching and language learning experiences, as well as my thoughts on broader trends in ELT and education. Enjoy! And – as always – please send me your feedback. I look forward to getting to know you!