Nik Peachey, digital guru and author of our Tech Tools for Teachers series, talks about the highs and lows of his personal experiences of education and explains how a lazy workaholic (his own words) came to get so interested in learning technologies. He also imparts some valuable advice on becoming a materials writer and gives tips on the wonders of self publishing online through blogs and e-books.
Tell us a little bit about yourself …
Teaching is a bit of a mysterious career choice for me as I really didn’t like school and didn’t do very well at school, so I’m still amazed sometimes at how I ended up lecturing on an MA course at a British University. My teachers didn’t think I was intelligent enough to sit my O-levels (the necessary requirement to progress in education past 16 in the UK; replaced by GCSEs in 1988) and I had to stay on an extra year to finish them, after which I left school and got a job.
After four or five years of working for a living, I realized that it wasn’t much fun having a dead-end job and that, if I didn’t do something about it, I would end up trapped for the rest of my life doing something I hated. I thought about what I really wanted to do and started doing evening classes to get some qualifications and get back into college. I finally decided to study music and enrolled on a music foundation course whilst getting up early to do cleaning jobs and building work to pay the rent. This was one of the most dismal experiences of my life and taught me everything I know about what education should NOT be like. I watched a series of lecturers reading the same notes of the same lecture they had delivered time and again for decades. Whilst listening, I did my best to recreate those notes in my own notebook and then commit them to memory in order to regurgitate them in the final exam. I really thought there was something wrong with me because I just couldn’t keep awake and, of course, I failed the exams. I was lucky enough, though, to be accepted on a ’return to study’ course at Dartington College of Arts. The course was great, really challenging, and I met some amazing people who were truly engaged with what education was really about. I ended up staying on for three more years to do a degree in music, majoring in jazz performance. It was also at Dartington where it was first suggested by one of my tutors that I may have dyslexia. My spelling is still appalling and I’m a very slow reader (both of which have been really helped by the use of technology).
My original plan when I finished my degree was to teach English and save enough money to do a Masters in composition. I’d started teaching the guitar while I was at college and really enjoyed the teaching, so I went off to Cairo to do a CELTA certificate. From the first few days I was hooked and loved it. I loved the interactive style of teaching, the genuine feeling of communication, and realized this is what education SHOULD be like.
After that I went on to teach in Egypt, Ukraine, Singapore, Tunisia, Spain and Morocco. Whilst at IH Barcelona, I managed to get into teacher training and after that I got interested in technology and found myself working for the British Council on a CD-ROM project and managing their websites for teachers.
The combination of teacher training and technology has really become my passion and I left the British Council in 2007 and became a freelance writer, consultant and trainer – and just about anything else I can turn my hand to in order to make a living. Since returning to the UK in 2010, I’ve also been working for Bell Educational Trust and lecturing at Westminster University.
In five words, how would you describe yourself?
Obsessive, compulsive, stubborn, lazy, workaholic, contrary. (Yes, I know that’s six, but the last one explains some of the others.)
How did you start your writing career?
I’ve always enjoyed creating my own materials and that was a big part of my initial training (as coursebooks were pretty poor in those days). I pretty soon started volunteering to teach courses that didn’t have a coursebook, as I enjoyed the freedom to create materials and do things that my students were really interested in. I guess it just progressed from there and I started applying for bits and pieces of writing work.
Where’s the most interesting place you’ve taught?
This is an impossible question to answer. I’ve taught and trained in so many wonderful places and with so many really interesting people. I’ve been really lucky that way and I don’t really like to compare.
What are you most proud of in your teaching and writing career?
That’s a tricky question to answer. I’m actually really proud of the Tech Tools for Teachers series I’ve produced for onestopenglish. I think it’s some of the best work I’ve done. I’m also really proud of my blogs. I started the first one, Nik’s Learning technology blog, almost five years ago and basically everything I have achieved since then comes from that blog and the work I publish there. I’m also really proud of the book I produced and published online for free, Web 2.0 Tools for Teachers. I wrote it in just over a week, working round the clock, and then published it for free on Scribd. Since then (2009), it’s been read more than 85,000 times. That’s a great feeling. The book is getting pretty out of date now, so I’m hoping to find time to update it soon.
What’s your most embarrassing teaching moment?
As someone who does teacher training with technology, I’ve probably had more than my share of embarrassing moments with things not working as they should. Probably one of my most memorable, though, was on the very first day I started teaching. I told my Egyptian students to call me ‘Nik’. They looked very confused and a little embarrassed and I couldn’t understand why until, at the end of the class, my trainer told me that ‘Nik’ in Arabic is the F-word. After that, I decided it might be better to use ‘Nicholas’.
What’s your favourite joke?
Um. I’m terrible at remembering jokes but I do have a couple of simple but quite long ‘shaggy dog’ type jokes. I’ve found these really useful during IT crises while I’m rebooting a computer or praying for a webpage to open. My favourite one is about a chicken that goes to the library every day and asks for books, by saying “Book” or “Book, book”. The librarian finally decides to follow the chicken to find out why it wants so many books and discovers that it is taking them to a frog. But each time the frog sees a book, it just says “Read it”, “Read it”, “Read it”. It’s the kind of joke you really have to hear, so you’ll have to come along to one of my training sessions and wait for an IT disaster if you really want to hear it.
What are your tips for becoming an ELT author?
I was editor for the British Council/BBC’s teachingenglish website for about four years and, as an editor, I would say that the biggest problem teachers have with the actual writing process is that they don’t hear things from the perspective of the reader. Good teachers and good materials writers often have a really clear picture of how the materials work and what happens in the classroom but they struggle to convey that to a reader. So, my best tip for improving your reading is that you really have to be able to put yourself into the readers’ heads, and see things honestly through their eyes, to write good teaching materials that someone else can use.
As far as developing your career in the profession goes, I would advise writers to think outside the box (or the book, to be more precise). Getting your work to a publisher and getting it in print is great and can really help you to develop your reputation but it isn’t the only way. It’s very easy nowadays just to start publishing your own materials online, through blogs, online publishing platforms or even Apple’s iBooks. That’s the way I’ve done it. I’ve been offered book deals a couple of times but I still prefer the immediacy of being able to publish online and to get immediate feedback from your readers and the freedom of being able to write exactly what you want to. Of course, there are downsides to this; you have to be your own editor, which can be really hard, and there are no royalties – although I do know people who make money from publishing their work online.
Personally, I still think the best way is to set up a blog and start writing and publishing as much as you can. Like most things, putting time into what you do is the best way to improve it and having a blog can help you get feedback, can develop your reputation and can even help you get a little bit of appreciation. Get started today.