Fortunately, the author of onestopenglish's ESP series, Hospitality and Tourism, failed his interview for a job hiring out deckchairs at Brighton beach, otherwise his career might have taken a completely different turn.

keith harding

Tell us a little bit about yourself …

Like everyone else, it seems, I never planned to become an English language teacher. It started as a way of getting some extra money in the summer when I was a postgraduate in Brighton. It was either EFL or getting a job hiring out deckchairs on the beach (and I failed the interview for that!). Then, with a PhD in History in the bag and with not much demand for historians (this was the early 80s, when Mrs Thatcher – God bless her – was slashing the university budgets), I moved up to London and decided to do the four-week CTEFLA course while I waited for a real job to come along. Having qualified, I took an eight-week summer job at St Giles College London Highgate and 23 years later, I was still there!

St Giles was a great place to work and I had the good fortune to work my way 'up' (although I’m not sure that’s the right preposition) from Teacher to Teacher Trainer, to Director of Studies and eventually to Principal. In 2007, I decided to make way for others and retired from St Giles and began a freelance life as a writer, trainer, consultant, British Council inspector and anything else that comes my way. My specialism is ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and in particular English for Tourism.

I also qualified as a Blue Badge London Tourist Guide earlier this year. I’d wanted to go back to learning and studying, as well as gain a new skill. The course was incredibly hard work but also immensely interesting: it covered every aspect of knowledge, including history, art, architecture, literature, modern London, sport, fashion, theatre, as well as the practical skills of managing groups and presenting information in an informative and entertaining way. My poor brain was not used to such hard work but I survived!

So, even if I still haven’t got that 'real job' yet, I nevertheless have plenty of other jobs to occupy my time.

In five words, how would you describe yourself?
It’s easier to come up with something if you have to stick to the same first letter (quite a good classroom activity, by the way), so how about this:

Outwardly ordinary, organized and open-minded but with the outrageous, obsessive soul of an anarchist and a poet.

How did you start your writing career?
I was teaching an English for Tourism course and found the published materials a little dry and unexciting. So, together with a teaching colleague, we put together our own materials to make the classes more lively, interesting and authentic. We realized that what we had was actually a really good course, so we sent it to a publisher. They weren’t interested, so we sent to another, they picked up on it and – hey presto – there we were in the glamorous world of writing. The first lesson we had to learn was that what we wanted to publish was not necessarily what they wanted to publish, so the first book did not really contain much of the material from our course but it nevertheless felt great seeing your name on the cover of a book (and it made choosing Christmas presents easy that year!). Many years and several books later, I still get a thrill from seeing my name on the cover.

Where’s the most interesting place you’ve taught?

Unlike most people who enter our profession, I didn’t work abroad – apart from a few trips to San Francisco to run teacher training courses and be Acting Principal for the St Giles school out there. Since going freelance however, I’ve had short training trips to a number of places. I guess the most interesting places have been the places that were most different from the UK. I remember particularly Tehran in November 2008 (wonderfully hospitable people living in 'interesting' times) and then Algeria earlier this year, where the people were just as hospitable and interested in what I had to say but where I never expected to find such wonderful scenery. The more you travel, the more it surprises you.

What are you most proud of in your teaching and writing career?
As a teacher and a manager, helping people to develop to the best of their ability and potential. As a writer and a trainer, helping people to discover fresh ideas, and in particular to see the growing importance of ESP in the changing world of English Language Teaching.

What’s your most embarrassing teaching moment?

I can’t really remember many embarrassing moments but I do recall one potentially tricky situation which I often tell people about when I’m talking about pronunciation. I was a young innocent newly-qualified teacher and I had a class of mainly French au pairs. I hope it’s not non-PC to say so but they were very attractive young ladies and a joy to teach. We were playing 'What’s my line?', where students had to think of a job and the others had to ask questions to work out what the job was. During the preparation stage, when the class were all thinking of jobs to choose, one of the students came up to me and confidentially whispered in what I can only describe as an incredibly sexy French accent, 'What do you call the person who comes into your house when you’re having sex?' Well, at least that’s what I heard. I felt rather flustered underneath but maintained my professional cool. Did she mean private detective or voyeur (hardly a job) or pimp? I struggled for a while, wondering – perhaps fantasizing! – that perhaps there was some strange chemistry going on between me and the class, when suddenly I realized what she meant: not 'having sex', but 'have insects'! She was looking for 'pest controller'! I’m not sure if I felt relieved or disappointed.
What’s your favourite joke?

I notice a few other authors have gone for the tried and trusted 'man goes into a bar' formula, so here’s my version – you might have to think about it a bit (and it’s just a tiny bit rude):

A woman goes into a bar and asks the barman for a double entendre. So the barman gives her one.

What are your tips for becoming an ELT author?

I’m tempted to say 'Don’t'. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of negotiating with editors and such like and it’s not as lucrative as some people seem to think. But nevertheless, it is a very creative process. The key, I think, is to enjoy it but that’s true for most things in life.

Here are a few other random points:

  • Make sure activities/exercises will actually work with real learners (and with real teachers).
  • Try to produce material that is economical on the page but generative of lots of learner practice: small on the page, big on learner use (it’s the equivalent of the old 'low TTT/high STT' mantra).
  • Don’t always go for the big new radical idea that’s going to transform ELT. Be prepared to start small.
  • Once you get your foot in the door, as it were, listen to what the publisher/editor says and even if you disagree, try to go along with it – they’ve probably done their research and know what is wanted. It’s a dialogue, of course, but don’t always assume that you know best.

And you also need a lot of good luck!