Interview with Peter Read, trainer in Business English

By Sharyn Collins

Peter Read
Peter Read, LL.B, FCILA, CELTA is an English Teacher and Trainer with a background in ESP who has taught students with different levels of linguistic skill, ability and needs. He is based in the U.K and is a member of IATEFL, Business English Special Interest Group

 Peter, I understand that you were working as a lawyer for many years, could you tell me how you gravitated towards teaching English?

That’s an interesting question and one that requires and deserves some thought. It is also one that is impossible to answer in one sentence!

Having spent over thirty years dealing with a wide range of legal liability issues and insurance property damage claims, including personal injury, pollution and cargo damage, I realised, aged in my late fifties, that I was working in a “fur lined rut”. It was a comfortable environment, though one over time that I found lacked direction, had uninspiring management, who were self-interested and were themselves lackadaisical and accepting of their positions, without a vision for the future. I felt that I had achieved all that I wanted or needed.

It was at a time when I also became aware of Business Coaching. In my company the concept quite simply didn’t exist and indeed anything like it, including Mentoring would have been perceived as a “punishment” for the staff member concerned rather than a means of encouragement and improving performance. An attitude that still prevails in many companies and institutions.

I had read a article about the success of Business Coaching at all levels within the Jaguar Motor Company after it became company policy in 2003, and realised the huge and often unrealised potential and benefits that Coaching can generate for both companies and individuals alike; an idea that was totally alien to where I currently was in my life.

During my career I had travelled extensively in Europe, Scandinavia and South America. Whilst English was the Lingua Franca for both my business meetings, negotiations and socialising, I was always impressed by the enthusiasm my foreign colleagues had to learn and improve their English Language skills, often wishing to use vocabulary, phrases and texts in their conversations and written correspondence that were unique to their particular roles and specialisations. I encouraged this and helped them to “go off linguistic piste” and worked with them during and after meetings to understand the meaning of, for example, metaphors and idioms together with day-to-day business conversations and other communication needs, including drafting e-mails; a theme I continue to encourage because so many of my students want to sound and be more ‘British’ in their use of English.

I really enjoyed this and felt my efforts and suggestions were enthusiastically welcomed. From this, the next stage was relatively easy. I recognised that it was a risk but it was one I was prepared to take and that I was moving into what some might see as a “Linguistic No Man’s Land”. Nevertheless, when I finally needed to, I climbed out of my “fur lined rut”, left a barren and uninspiring working environment and enrolled on a full-time TEFL CELTA Course. I was not intending to progress and teach English in a traditional way but wanted to focus on the adult Business English students who I considered I was qualified to teach and encourage.

This is something I continue to do, combining my Business Coaching skills, having identified an area and sometimes using non-traditional methods to achieve success. One of the most recent examples of this has been explaining to one of my Legal English students, in very basic terms, how the British Honours System has developed and works.

How did you feel about going back to being a student again and how hard or easy did you find the course? Was it relevant to what you wanted to do?

I enrolled at and completed my full-time CELTA at ‘Experience English’ a professional college based in the centre of York. It was a very daunting experience for someone who, not having studied in a long time, was obliged to attend what turned out to be a very concentrated and intense series of daily lectures and practical exercises. I really hadn’t known what to expect although having completed the pre-course exercises and seen the suggested reading list that had been sent to me a few weeks beforehand, I had formed an initial idea. Certainly after completing my CELTA I would say that my perceptions were totally wrong. I underestimated the intensity and content of the course.

My three trainers were very helpful but also firm in their resolve that this was not going to be an easy four weeks if one expected to pass. The first week was a true ‘wake up call’ in every sense of the word. I did consider conceding defeat on the Thursday of the first week (indeed one of my colleagues did just that) and was told later that many students do leave at that stage, after realising what is involved. I was persuaded to continue by one of my trainers and I’m glad that I listened to him, as he must have seen some potential!

I was the oldest student by many years. It is one of the great features of TEFL that it attracts so many people from different backgrounds and ages. In my group there were twelve of us, the youngest being 20 and the rest mainly in their mid -20s to late 30s. All were enthusiastic and recognising my technical shortcomings were always very happy to point me in the right direction with regard to operating the photocopier and connecting the ‘White Board’ to ensure that I had an internet connection.

Overall, I found the four week course stimulating, very different to anything else I’d ever done and learnt a great deal sitting in and attending the classes given by qualified TEFL teachers.

After overcoming my initial fears I enjoyed the teaching practice classes that are an essential feature of the course. These intensified both in content and the length of time spent teaching each class.

My main hurdle and concern were the weekly written exercises. We were required to prepare and achieve pass marks in each one to pass the CELTA. This is an important part of CELTA and those who are not prepared and ignore it, do so at their peril.

Was it easy for you to find employment after taking the TEFL course?

To be honest, even before completing my CELTA I had realised that I was not going to follow the more traditional TEFL routes. I wasn’t going to teach a class of 40 or more children or young adults in the People’s Republic of China nor Korea or indeed a summer school in Spain or Italy. I would leave that to the younger generation of teachers!

My intention had been to teach Business and Legal English drawing on my employment experience, ideally in small groups and on a 1-to-1 basis. I was very lucky to find employment working as a freelance trainer for an internationally recognised college doing just that and it is something I continue to do together with writing articles related to my work. Without having successfully completed the CELTA course, I would not have been able to achieve this. Subsequently, I have been able to develop my own style of teaching, being ever mindful of analysing student’s needs, identifying objectives, introducing different methods and concepts together with designing exercises that are tailor made for individual or groups of students. CELTA provided me with a firm base from which to build and expand my teaching techniques and style. I take responsibility for all the faults but hopefully there are some successes as well.

You clearly enjoy what you do, but was there never the slightest desire to enjoy the fruits of your labour and retire to enjoy the finer things in life such as more time?

Before leaving the ‘fur lined rut’ I have previously described, I was clear in my mind that I wanted to do something else with my life, being mindful that I would be passing through a ‘no man’s land’ of my own making. It would have been very easy to fall into a self made trap dominated by leisure driven activities. This was not my intention at all. I was determined to offer others an opportunity to share some of my work and other practical life experiences, including helping students to understand some of the difficulties and complexities of the English Language.

One thing was a definite. Having spent the last five years or so of my career dealing with the multitude of messy claims and legal liability issues that are associated with the cruise ship industry, there was no way I was ever going to walk up a gangplank to join three thousand other passengers and crew on board a ship that was to be their home for the next month as it departed from either Southampton or Miami!

I think that within the generation of ‘baby boomers’, of both genders, there are those who have a completely different outlook to some of their peers and members of earlier generations.

With that said, there are still opportunities to visit ones local supermarket, Waitrose is an example, where one can see recently retired husbands hanging onto the side of the wire framed shopping trolley debating the pros and cons of what to include and what is really needed, before approaching the cashier at the check-out. In many cases it is fairly clear that neither want the other to be there!

In my case, I have many outside interests including playing tennis which I took up six years ago, having joined a ‘Rusty Racquets’ class I’d seen advertised in my local library. I’m now addicted and whilst I’ll never make it to Wimbledon, other than as a spectator, I still get a real buzz out of playing whatever the weather. I also work for two local auction houses and firms of solicitors, valuing postage stamp collections; a childhood interest I continued into adult life. Although this hobby might be perceived by some as ‘nerdy’, it is a very productive pastime both in terms of knowledge gained, the people one meets and the financial rewards. As an aside, one of my specialist Business English classes involves describing the international nature of philately. This introduces the people involved to the trading patterns and documentation that are in everyday use with participants role playing in different exercises that I have designed.

Certainly, I enjoy my leisure time. I’ve made a number of extended trips over the years to both Australia and New Zealand, where I have family together with visits to Europe and the USA, but the idea of stopping altogether and not being able to develop my Business English teaching career is a complete anathema to me. As one of my tennis colleagues says, in fact he’s written a book with the same title,

Use it or Lose It”……and he’s aged 91.

Finally, as age is no barrier to you in terms of working or learning, where do you see yourself in two years’ time?

Given my commitment to developing new scenarios and different learning techniques, in an attempt to break away from traditional methods of teaching, I hope that within the next two years, I’ve been able to successfully introduce some new modern, innovative and practical ideas that will help students appreciate the beauty of the English Language and lead them to achieve their goals and objectives.

Learning English is an ongoing experience and, even as a native speaker, I happily admit to learning new vocabulary, usage, phrases or expressions every day. It’s all part of the wonder and need to appreciate this global language.