Our Marketing and PR Officer, Katharina Grabner, sat down with organisation President Frank Carle to ask him some deeper questions regarding the organisation and its impact on the TEFL sector. To find out more about how the College was founded, why Austria and the legacy Mr Carle hopes to leave, read on!
Interview with College President, Frank Carle
1. Why do you think teaching is so important?
If George Orwell was right and “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” then it must be the case that teachers control the future, for it is from teachers that many people get their understanding of both the present and the past. To some degree, we are all the products of our environments. A good teacher can help negate the effects of a poor environment just as a bad teacher can nullify the effects of a good upbringing. Effective teaching doesn’t tell a person WHAT to think, it teaches a person HOW to think. We all remember good teachers from our youth, and it wasn’t the ones with “an axe to grind.” It was the ones who helped turn us into the people that we are today by giving us the tools and skills to achieve a self-awareness and in so doing, fully develop and embrace our human dignity. It is those teachers who educated not just subjects, but the “whole person.” Modernity gives us many examples of a world in which it is not the lack of an education, but a prevalence of mal-education – authorities using education as a means to teach young people what to think – that causes the majority of human suffering. I am motivated by a very real desire to help young people avoid this fate and achieve a full measure of human dignity. As Socrates told us: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I feel strongly that the best way to achieve this self-awareness of yourself combined with empathy for others.
2. What made you personally want to be a teacher? What was your main motivation, or was there any specific experience that inspired you?
If I am totally honest, my first teaching job at the State Teacher Training College in Salzburg (Pädagogische Hochschule Salzburg) at the age of 24 was a way to put off Law School for another year. While there, I found that I had a talent for teaching; a year became two years, then three years and finally a new career in TEFL teacher training spanning two decades. There were two specific experiences that motivated me: one, the first time that I as left alone with a group of children. I immediately felt the immense duty placed upon me by all the parents who had trusted me with their most valuable possession, their children. Indeed, the calling to be a teacher is only made possible by the sacred trust of parents allowing others to safeguard the welfare of their child and help guide their development into adults. Without that trust, teaching as we understand it wouldn’t be possible. I felt a duty to earn this trust every time I stepped into a new classroom. Now that I have children of my own, it has only intensified this feeling. The second was the slow realization that as a teacher trainer, your potential to have a positive impact on the world is multiplied exponentially by how many teachers’ lives you can touch. At the PH in Salzburg, I saw hundreds of young teachers graduate mimicking my American accent, dialect and mannerisms as they started teaching English (for better or worse!). After seeing a new teacher do this with a classroom full of young Austrian children, I realized that by becoming more self-aware and controlling more precisely what I was doing while I taught, I could affect the way in which an entire generation of children in a large region learned the world’s new lingua franca.
Those experiences laid the groundwork for the idea, but the specific experience that triggered the the idea for ABCi and the College was born as co-founder Ben Stone (to this day the best teacher I’ve ever worked with) and I sat together talking after a long day of teacher training at a beer garden in Bavaria, Germany. We were responsible for conducting the teacher training for a commercial language school running summer camps in Germany. At the end of yet another 12-hour day, the group of 20+ new staff members that we were training hadn’t been paid, hadn’t been fed since breakfast and some of them didn’t know where they were sleeping. Everyone had just arrived in Germany a few days earlier and these horrific (and I would only come to realize later illegal) conditions had put everyone on the verge of a mutiny and simply leaving the programme en masse. As our boss had already signed up hundreds of children at summer camps for the next five weeks, this would have obviously been a disaster for the kids and their parents. After a promised 7pm dinner at the training site never arrived, I called the boss and explained the situation, suggesting giving everyone one entree and one drink at a beer garden down the street would help prevent a disaster. She reluctantly agreed and Mr. Stone and I preceded to take a couple hundred dollars of our own money out of an ATM (as young university graduates, essentially our life’s savings at that point) to pay for everyone to eat. About an hour later, the food had arrived, the first round of Bavarian beer had been drunk, everyone’s mood had improved dramatically and Ben Stone and I were confident we had just averted a disaster. Just at that moment, the boss called Ben on his mobile phone and started shouting incoherently at him in such a loud voice that everyone at the table became quiet. Ben passed the phone to me and she continued her tirade. Ben and I sat at that table for the rest of the evening, drinking and thinking, talking and drinking some more. The gist of the conversation was simple: We are two of the best teachers and teacher trainers that either of us had worked with, why were we working for a person who treated us terribly, paid us illegally low wages, and now, moments after we had used what little money we had to save her company, yelled at us in front of her new staff members (who she also treated terribly)? What was the point? It wasn’t like we were really helping anyone (we only had 5 days to train the new teachers with the absolute minimum that they needed to do the job, and as soon as the summer was over, everyone was dumped at the airport without any support, CPD or job prospects, waiting to be exploited by the next TEFL employer) and the pay was below minimum wage (The boss had convinced Ben Stone that he was actually a “volunteer” that week and in earlier years, I had been paid 200 EUR in an envelope to work 120 hour weeks) ALL while we watched the boss’ house get bigger, luxury SUVs get more numerous, and pools get installed. We realized that we were so focused on the mission of trying to create a fun and effective learning environment for the children, that we had lost sight of the means that were going into producing this outcome. Those means were exploitative, manipulative and simply illegal. It didn’t take the two of us long to realize that it would be possible to do this better (to focus on both the training of new EFL teachers and provide a meaningful project for pupils AND not on the profit margin) and the idea for the College and ABCi was born! Suffice it to say, this employer IS NOT one that the College’s job placement programme recommends our graduates apply to!
3. What were the greatest difficulties you experienced as a young TEFL teacher, and what made you decide to build the College?
While at the Pädagogische Hochschule in Salzburg, I set out to explore many different corners of the EFL teaching world at state and private institutes in Austria and Germany. I was surprised by what I found. At state institutions, there was a tendency to focus on reading and writing over speaking and listening – students who could write grammatically perfect essays in English struggled to communicate confidently in a simple conversation. While reading, writing, grammar and accuracy are of course important, the more immediate skills of speaking, listening, communication and social skills were often overlooked. Despite recent advances in methodologies like Task-Based Learning (TBL) and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT), the majority of classrooms still resembled grammar-translation factories from 50 years ago. If the view in the public sector was mixed, the view in the private sector was depressing: language schools and summer camps run by MBAs who had no background in education and could hardly speak English were the norm. Support, training and continued professional development was non-existent. Work was seasonal, hours were scattered (7am to 9am, 12pm to 2pm and 5pm to 7pm days were common), and subject to change: sometimes you were expected to work 24 hours a day at an English summer camp. Pay was hourly (not including prep time) or cash in an envelope (and could be withheld if you displeased the boss), health and social benefits were not provided, legally questionable freelance contracts were signed, promised visas and work permits never materialized. The whole sector was a mess and needed fixing from the ground up. Businesspeople were running businesses where they charged children and their parents as much as possible while paying their staff of native speakers as little as possible, often with predictably mixed results for the young learner. That’s when it occurred to us that we needed to get the profit motive out of the education of young children. That’s when we knew that we needed to found a college to help a constant stream of young people coming to Europe to start a career in EFL avoid being exploited and used as “TEFL Cannon Fodder” – a particularly memorable phrase I heard from a veteran of the EFL sector in Europe. The thinking was simple: arm these young teachers with the training, practice and knowledge to put themselves in a better bargaining position for their first EFL job and be sure to only recommend reputable employers to alumni so they didn’t need to learn the hard way like my generation did.
4. What made you choose Austria as the place for yourself and the College?
This is a good question, as many people ask why help Austrian children – don’t they have it good enough already? Well, in truth, there is inequality of opportunity in every country, children don’t get to choose where they are born and it doesn’t seem fair to say Austrian children are less worthy of our outreach just because they were born here and not somewhere in the developing world. It is easy for us in English-speaking countries to forget the importance of English language education and cultural exchange. The level of a child’s English in a place like Austria has the same sort of predictive effects on future outcomes as socio-economic factors like school transfers, familial stability, even childhood instances of abuse. From a logistical and strategic standpoint, Austria is central to Europe and a good place from which to expand our mission and “evangelize” in favor of our TBL and CLT methodologies to the rest of Europe and the world. Austria as a country has many positive aspects: sometimes I look at it as a country that takes all of the positives of Germany (trains run on time, everything is clean, drivers are safe) with the best of Italy (food and drink are delicious, people are welcoming and friendly, tradition is lived every day). Why did I decide to stay on in Austria? Well, on a personal note, I wanted my children to grow up in a safe and beautiful country. As one of the co-founders, I have had to work long hours (up to 80 hours a week) that sometimes mean that I wasn’t always there for my young family when they needed me. I needed to know that wherever I worked that my wife and children would live in a secure country in a pristine Alpine setting. Austria is nothing else if it isn’t that – waking up in Austria and looking out the window is a bit like looking at a postcard. And did I mention the Schnitzel?
5. What kind of support do you provide for Student Teachers today that you wish you had had?
One of the negative effects of the College’s rapid growth over the past few years is that I’ve been stuck behind a desk and kept out of a classroom for the better part of 3 years now. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Every now and then I stop and have a look at what we’re doing on our TEFL course, and think to myself: “I would have LOVED the opportunity to do something like this when I was a young man” – it would have changed my life and opened doors to opportunities that I would have otherwise not considered. The heart and soul of the TEFL course are the observations: hours upon hours of the student teacher observing a more experienced teacher, observing a fellow trainee, being observed, student teachers even observing their own teaching on video and giving themselves feedback. It is impossible to go through this process with the staff and student teachers that we have and not become a more effective teacher. In addition, the theory sessions in the afternoon do an excellent job of pulling everything together and providing an intellectual/academic basis for everything that they’re doing in the classroom. As I alluded to above in an earlier answer, it is one thing to understand WHAT to do, it is altogether another to understand WHY you are doing it AND it is that knowledge which empowers the teacher to never stop striving to discover an even better way of doing things. Getting your TEFL certificate here at the English Teacher Training College isn’t the end of your professional development, it is just the beginning.
6. What is the best feedback you have had so far about the College?
Easy. Polly Esther Cotton (I’m not kidding, that was her real name, she won a contest in Australia for best name one year) One of our first participants on the old volunteer program, she wrote back years later to say that her time with us had made her decide to go to University and study to become a public school teacher – she made it quite clear that these few months had changed her life. That’s a good feeling. In terms of helping Austrian students, we know we are doing something right at the school when Austrian teachers tell us: “I just watched that student speak more English in the last 3 hours then I have seen in the last 3 years.” It’s all about language and communication, that’s the key. A lot of people talk about “cultural exchange” and “cultural understanding” – but if you can’t understand each other to begin with, it’s all just a bunch of nice-sounding meaningless buzzwords. That’s what the College’s ABCi initiative is helping to ensure here: that there is a dialogue between the next generation of English-speakers and German-speakers. And we’re using language, culture and sport to make sure that happens.
7. What inspires you an a day-to-day basis as College President?
The stories (mostly via emails that are forwarded to my inbox from course staff) of people who who first heard the call to be a teacher while on the College’s course. Once you’ve seen more than ten of these, you start to realize that you have been entrusted with an incredible responsibility. It is the aspiration to live up to this responsibility that gets me up in the morning. The 18-year-old Austrian pupils who recognize me from a 6-hour long free outreach project from 4 years ago and run up shouting my name and explaining (in good English) that our free project at their school was the most memorable day of their school experience and gave them the confidence and social skills to keep trying to communicate, to “learn by doing” after we left their school.
8. What are the main qualities you want in an applicant (new member of staff or aspiring teacher)?
That they are a good person. By good, I mean empathic and self-aware. It is impossible to be those two things and not be a good person. As long as someone has the developed the ability to get outside of themselves to objectively view how their actions affect others AND combines this objectivity with the empathy behind the idea that you should treat others as you yourself wish to be treated, that person and I can do anything together; from that starting point, I can give you the tools, training, time and resources to accomplish anything. A good person understands how their actions affect others. A good person therefore cultivates trust and respect in all relationships, private and professional. A good person understands the boundary between their private and professional lives: professional distance. A good person finds a way to complete their responsibilities no matter what the circumstances because they know that someone else is going to have to do any work that they leave behind. A good person realizes that there is a difference between the minimum that they must do and the maximum that they should do, but always gives the extra effort (even after a long day) to go beyond “must” to “should.” It is this sort of person that I am attempting to collect together to fulfil our mission here in Austria.
9. What do you believe are the greatest challenges and opportunities for educational systems today, and what is the College’s role in a greater context?
In general, I think the biggest challenge facing educators in the 21st century is maintaining a minimum standard in core subjects for everyone while still allowing specialization. Humanity is diverse and people are different, and so are their children. And these children are best served by an education system that recognizes that theory is most useful WHEN IT IS APPLIED to solve real world problems and not every situation needs the same skills/talents. There are far too many young people today being sold a false vision of the future built on studying abstract, theoretical subjects instead of the honest truth of a practical education. I can use myself as an example: at university, I studied History (among other things like politics and law) as an undergraduate back in the United States, but there are only so many jobs out there for a “historian.” That isn’t to say that my education wasn’t useful or that knowledge of history isn’t important, but my studies should have been less academic and more focused on giving me the skills I needed to apply my talents in the real world. For example as a history teacher, librarian, archivist, researcher, etc. But majoring in “history” ? In retrospect it feels a bit like I majored in a hobby (that could have been replicated in many ways by reading Wikipedia articles and watching the History Channel) and only later was called to my occupation in education through real world experience in the classroom, something I couldn’t just read about, something that I needed to LEARN by DOING.
10. How would you like each Student Teacher to describe their time at the College after they graduated (in three words or phrases)?
WORDS: Life-changing, educational, practical.
PHRASE: Inspirational: To leave understanding that being a teacher isn’t a job, it is a calling.