Onestopenglish’s king of our Language for… series, Colm talks about his diverse teaching and writing career as well as an unfortunate incident illustrating ‘ham’…
So, Colm, tell us a litttle bit about yourself…
Hello. Where to begin? I’m from a small town in rural County Cork, Ireland. Way back in 2003, wide-eyed and innocent, I decided to move to the bright lights of Barcelona. I quickly learned that the city would only make me money-driven and heartless – so I stayed! I love it here. I worked in language teaching for over 15 years, during which I got into writing. After several years of manic juggling, in 2018 I made the leap to full-time freelance writing. I now write for various ELT publishers, but mainly for the lovely teams at Macmillan and Onestopenglish. I also write for sectors beyond ELT, such as Music and Psychology.
In five words, how would you describe yourself?
How did you start your writing career?
As a teacher, one of my favourite parts of the job was preparing worksheets focusing on pop songs or viral videos. After a few years, I’d written loads of worksheets so I set up my own blog, called Picnic English. With the blog as a showcase, I started applying for writing work. I won a Lesson Share competition here on Onestopenglish, which led to an offer to write a series of lessons for the site, which in turn led to an offer to do digital authoring for parent company Macmillan.
At the same time, I was working as a teacher at the British Council in Barcelona. I started doing some work for their various websites, writing lesson materials but also general content. When I finally left the British Council in 2018, that experience as a content writer made it relatively easy to find work in non-ELT sectors.
What’s the most interesting place you’ve ever taught in?
Wow. It’s tough to single one out. Teaching in Barcelona was such a mixed bag. Often, my day would begin with an early-lunchtime class in some glamourous glass skyscraper, teaching a group of bespectacled fashionistas. From there, I’d make my way to some neighbourhood school to get vomited on by four-year-olds.
What are you most proud of in your teaching and writing career?
When I was teaching, my proudest moments definitely came from elderly students. Beyond retirement age, people tend to study just for the thrill of it. When they make progress, it gives them such a confidence boost – and their glee is contagious! I’ve had many moments feeling like a proud parent to students who themselves are older than my own parents.
As for my writing, my proudest moment has been (somehow!) getting contracted to write a book. My first book, The Illustrated Book of Songs, (published in 2019) is a comical glance at classic songs from the worlds of rock, pop, hip hop and so on (https://colmboyd.com/the-illustrated-book-of-songs). Getting a book published makes me feel like, whatever convoluted path I’ve taken, it’s turned out ok. It also confirms to me that it doesn’t need to be a case of either/or when it comes to ELT writing and more general writing. I can do both and I think publishers appreciate that one complements the other.
What’s your most embarrassing teaching moment?
One comes to mind which bears more than a passing resemblance to the answer on this same Authors’ page by Brian Boyd (who by the way, is no relation). Like Brian, I was attempting to illustrate meaning by drawing pictures on the board. My students were confused about the difference between the words ’jam’ and ’ham’. So under the former, I drew a typical jar of jam. Under the latter, I drew what I thought was a simple leg of ham: a round, bulbous bottom part, leading to a protruding, meaty shaft. Oh dear. My students (thankfully adults) erupted into roars as I scrambled to find the board eraser. Before I knew it, tears of laughter were being shed, students were posing for photos with the world’s most phallic cartoon ham, my meaty creation was being Whatsapped to friends with the instruction to ’Caption this!’ I decided it was class breaktime.
What are your tips for becoming an ELT author?
I think the most important thing is to be able to link to stuff that you’ve written. The easiest way to do that is to have a blog, or even just a Facebook page, where you can share your writing. Your posts might be in the form of lessons or whatever ELT-related content appeals to you. In my case, I love pop music, so my blog provides lessons based on that. If you prefer football, go for that; if you prefer hanging out with cute cats, go for some sort of cat-based ELT blog (I’d be your biggest fan!). You don’t need to create hundreds of posts or try to gain a million followers. You just need to make sure that what you write is of good quality. That way, when an opportunity comes along, you can link to your great work and convince them that you’re the right person for the job. And who knows where that could lead?