From ELT to history

Jumping from ELT to subject teaching? It can be daunting, but ELT teachers are a great asset in an academic classroom, combining language training with promoting student creativity and autonomy.

Nick Thorner shares his reflections on a recent career move. Nick Thorner shares his reflections on a recent career move.
I chose my career in ELT while I was still a starry-eyed history undergraduate, keen to work abroad and broaden horizons. Before long, I had enjoyed 12 rewarding years in English language teaching. But having settled in the UK, opportunities for novelty and cultural exploration were becoming rarer. So, when I heard the academic wing of my private, international school in Oxford were looking for an English language teacher to plug a vacancy in the humanities department, my ears pricked up. A few weeks later, I was teaching A-level history and geography.

It was a decision I took quickly, but not lightly. I wasn’t convinced that placing students into my inexperienced hands was going to do them much good at all. And I must say I did struggle. Almost overnight, I had gone from teaching students the Progressive Perfect to taking classes on the Progressive Era: needless to say, my lessons were far from perfect. I spent nights reading up on unfamiliar topics, leaving little time for planning. And I quickly realised I wasn’t giving students enough support at taking notes and reviewing information, two pillars of content-led teaching.

But my school management hadn’t lost its mind. On the contrary, they viewed my ELT background as an asset. Students in schools where English is a medium of instruction face constant challenges that subject teachers aren’t necessarily trained to deal with. In exams especially, pupils may struggle with rubrics that stretch native speakers’ understanding (Was event X inevitable? Assess the significance of event Y) and to formulate adequate responses. Of course, there’s a limit to how much language training you can squeeze into academic lessons, but strategies to confront language issues as they arise are useful, and arguably lacking. ELT specialists acquire techniques to scaffold communication, like paraphrase, drilling and language elicitation – adequate compensation perhaps for a lack of subject training. In fact, my school encourages academic staff to take a CELTA, which underscores the value placed on the understanding of the principles of ELT.

Besides that, the main ingredients of a good lesson – pace, structure, differentiation, personalisation, etc. – are the same regardless of the subject, and the ELT pantry is particularly well-stocked with transferable teaching ideas. Thanks largely to the communicative method, and the challenges of engaging summer-school students, ELT classrooms are hotbeds of interaction, gamification and engagement. My school has even sent academic staff to observe ELT lessons in the past to see how they promote creativity and autonomy. To a degree, academic lessons are constrained by the need to impart conceptually challenging content, but engagement is no less important.

So, I feel valued in my new role, and the change has certainly done me good. I still teach some English classes and continue to enjoy ELT. But through the pages of history and geography books I am, in a sense, travelling again – in both time and space. Career-wise, I have the option of taking the ‘on the job’ route into newly-qualified teacher status if I want to become a state-school teacher in the UK. And I’ve branched out into history examining for a couple of exam boards. The step I took is one worth considering if you have the chance.

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About Nick Thorner
Nick Thorner is an English and humanities teacher at Kings Education, Oxford, where he helps train students for entry into the UK university system. Nick has also co-authored two IELTS coursebooks and is author of the professional development title Motivational Teaching.

Looking for history textbooks? You can browse Pearson's range of history resources for ages 11-18, for both UK and international curricula.