Interview with Florentina Taylor

It is my great honor to share my interview with Dr. Florentina Taylor here. She is one of the people I have met on Twitter (here is her handle) who I admire and would very much like to meet in person some day. I always admire and appreciate her wit, wisdom, sense of humor, kindness and empathy. I thank her for taking the time and for the interesting and insightful exchange. My questions  are in blue and her responses are in black.

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She likes coffee.

 

Hello and welcome, Florentina! Thanks so much for agreeing to do this.

Can I offer you a drink? What are you having?

Thank you for the kind invitation!

Coffee, please!!

Here you are.  

It has been great getting to know you on Twitter. I feel like I know you quite well from there but I am not sure exactly what you do. Can you tell us about this?

Well… I am a lecturer at the University of York, in the UK (i.e., I lecture people for a living, which may explain a thing or two.) I teach and supervise on our undergraduate, MA and PhD programmes, in various areas related to language education, applied linguistics and research. I also lead an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, which is quite popular – if I say so myself! :o)

Interesting stuff. Wow.  You sound busy. I think there is even more too, right?

I don’t suppose you’re asking about admin! I also do research, which is something that’s very dear to me. I am really interested in what makes people tick and keeps them going. I am fascinated in particular by students as human beings, who have many different pressures put on them from different directions and who struggle to make sense of the world just as much as I am (though I may be better at hiding it, as I’ve practised for longer). I’ve done most of my research with adolescent learners of foreign languages and I’ve always been humbled by how much wisdom they have, and how willing they are to share it if we care to listen. I wrote a chapter about this once, with lots of thought-provoking interview quotes.) So through my research I’m trying to understand – and, hopefully, to help other people understand a bit better too – how we can make a difference to young people’s lives in a way that doesn’t exclude them from their own education. And I keep learning from them all the time.

And is this what your book was about? Can you say more about the book?

Yes, the book explores this perspective of the student as a human being caught in a complex network of social relationships, expectations and pressures that can be quite contradictory for some people. For example, teenagers who feel that participating actively in class will alienate their classmates, but at the same time feel they need to participate actively if they want the teacher to be “on their side” (whatever that means – it’s in an actual pupil’s words). Or students who would really like to try pronouncing new words in a foreign language but they’re afraid they’ll make mistakes and sound stupid, and the teacher may be encouraging them to try harder, but also perhaps correcting their every mistake when they do.

Some of the teenagers in the book also told me how their parents urged them to pursue a certain career and their teachers wanted them to pursue another. . And somewhere lost in translation was that poor kid’s interest, something that really gave them a kick, something they’d love getting up early for day after day. But we don’t always know these things about our students, because we don’t always listen – because sometimes we think we know better, sometimes we don’t care enough, and sometimes we’re just too tired, or too busy, or too frustrated with our own lack of purpose to realise that each of us, in our own little way, can help break this vicious circle.

I don’t mean to say we need to let kids run wild and do everything they want. I mean we need to use our knowledge, maturity and experience to help them make informed decisions for their own future given a range of factors including their interests, abilities and various other resources. It’s obviously hard to draw any blanket conclusions, but this does appear to be something that teenagers in several different countries would appreciate – and so far I’ve worked with young people in Bulgaria, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and Spain. I’ve also done some research on the experience of postgraduate overseas students in the UK, and this is a line of work I’m very much looking forward to expanding.

That sounds very interesting. Your book is officially on my summer reading list!
I enjoyed this post related to the book and your work.

Haha! Are you planning to read it too? :o) Any feedback would be gratefully received.

Yes for for sure. The book is waiting for me to read it and I’d love to share my thoughts with you. You said you teach courses on research. How did you get into research? What is it like being in an ivory tower?

I suppose I started doing research when I started teaching English, which was when I was 17 and set up a freelance tutoring business. Having only just studied English on my own for two years at that point (I’m Romanian – to answer the question you’re not asking), I was scared that I might be getting things wrong, so I was very interested in how my students perceived the learning experience, and whether there was anything I could be doing better to help them learn better. Later on, when I qualified and taught in a secondary school, I used to ask my students to leave little notes in a box telling me what had worked for them in the lesson and what hadn’t. Some of them said things like “You’re wearing too much black”, but others also said things that made me think seriously about my teaching (e.g., that they preferred to work on some things alone and on others in groups, or things they just didn’t get in the lessons and needed more help with). Many just said “Thank you for caring”, which was in itself very useful. (No, it wasn’t all milk and honey. A kid threw a chair at me once when I encouraged him a bit too enthusiastically to join in.) So taking the students’ feedback together with my training, reading, reflection, trial and error, I kept learning and developing. That was good research I was doing back then, though it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to call it that way.

This is what I was trying to communicate in the one and only #ELTchat I’ve participated in so far, which was on the topic of practitioner research. Having seen a bit of both perspectives, I was trying to say that anybody can do research. All you need, really, is curiosity and common sense. Curiosity to give you the drive, and common sense to know that things are not always what they seem. (OK, there are degrees of rigour, which we can talk about some other time.) So I was trying to say something along these lines, but got shut up very quickly (both in the chat itself and through private messages), as my democratic disposition didn’t seem to be shared by everybody.

I know you’re playing devil’s advocate there, asking about the ivory tower, but many academics did actually start in the classroom and do know “what it’s like”. Many of us do research in the classroom. (Academics do actually teach as well, you know?) But even if we didn’t, wouldn’t we all benefit if we put our minds together trying to understand the processes we’re dealing with from several different perspectives? We don’t all have to know the same things to communicate, do we? There wouldn’t be anything to learn from each other if we did – we’d just all be perfect and boring.

Thanks for the answer and I am glad you took the question in the spirit it was intended. Getting a bit lighter here, what do you do for fun?

That’s a question I’d have normally tried to dodge, but I did recently start something that’s loads of fun and that’s also taught me how to find some much-needed time for myself. And that’s motorcycling. I remember my instructor saying it’s the best mental detox, as you’ve got to process so much information simultaneously in order to stay safe, there’s just “no room in the brain” for any worries, so by the time you’re off the bike they’ve all “sorted themselves out”. All my life I’d been looking for a way to stop my mind going into overdrive! After riding almost every day for three months now, I am beginning to understand what it is that I’m doing, so I’ve realised that you can actually stay safe on the bike AND think about your worries. It’s just that they have a totally different meaning now. There’s you on this superbly powerful yet sleek machine, and then there’s the world. A completely liberating, empowering and energising shift in priorities. The real challenge now is staying within the speed limit! :o)

Oh, fun! I mentioned we met on Twitter. Do you like Twitter?

What do you get out of it?

I love Twitter! The most valuable thing I’ve got from Twitter in the 18 months or so I’ve been using it is a number of very special people whom I would now consider good friends. Without Twitter I would have no idea of their existence, let alone becoming a better person, professional and academic with their help. When I started using Twitter, the world really did shrink a lot. I can now easily interact with colleagues and friends from all over the world, get to see their perspectives on current events, their reflections on professional issues and their creative takes on matters I’ve been struggling with.

Twitter gives me my own Internet in my pocket to dip in and out as time allows. Through it, I get customised news, I hear of conferences I’m interested in, I find out about publications I might have missed, and I have live coverage not only of professional events I cannot attend, but also of current events that may be overlooked or selectively reported in the mass media. Come to think of it, the first time you and I interacted on Twitter was when I was worried about the North/ South Korea tension in early 2013 and thought I’d ask somebody who lived there whether my outsider’s perspective was realistic or just the result of strategic journalistic scaremongering.

Oh wow, I had forgotten about that. I somehow just thought it was Russell Mayne induced comedy interactions.And we now entered the “Lightning Round” of the interview. Random questions and short answers from here on. What is the most ridiculous thing you have seen on the internet lately?

Have a look at @_youhadonejob on Twitter and you’ll get loads of answers for the price of one.

What is your typical breakfast?

I don’t do typical. Certainly not at breakfast! :o)

Haha. OK. Fair enough. Would you like to recommend any books outside the field?

Not sure how far outside the field you want to go, but here are some books that are very dear to me (I realise that doesn’t answer your question):

Carl Rogers & Jerome Freiberg – Freedom to Learn

Alfie Kohn – Punished by Rewards

Irving Stone – The Agony and the Ecstasy

Gustave Flaubert – Dictionary of Received Ideas

Leonard Cohen – Poems and Songs

I think you answered the question and maybe added some summer reading, for next year. Thanks. Next question, and last question. Who are 5 people (living or dead) you’d like to invite to a dinner party?

Virginia Woolf, Daniel Kahneman, David Lynch, Sophie Zelmani and… somebody else.

Sounds like a good group. Thanks very much for indulging me. It was a pleasure to interview you and I hope readers enjoy reading your responses as much as I did.

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to talk about some of the things I’m passionate about! And for having the graciousness* to say my answers weren’t too long! (*Is that even a word?)

I think it is a word, and speaking of words, this is me getting in the last word–thanks! 

6 comments

  1. nathanghall

    Best. Interview. Ever. (Okay, maybe a bit exaggerated, but great nonetheless). Florentina is one of those people I truly admire and someone I would love to sit down and have coffee with some day. I just ran across her thesis online the other day and I plan on reading it along with her book. Thanks for doing this, Mike.

    • Florentina Taylor (@_FTaylor_)

      Nathan – Yes, everything I do is a bit exaggerated. :o) I know what you mean. Thank you for the kind comment. Would love to meet you one day too!

      Mike – Thank you for helping ensure a steady supply of coffee and chats with some of the very special people I’ve met on Twitter. (Might even invite you to join us!) Thank you very much for the interview as well. Great fun! (Does this count as the last word?)

  2. Carol Goodey

    Thank you both for this – a very interesting read. I really enjoyed learning about your experiences and your research, Florentina, and your book is now on my Kindle :-) Looking forward to reading it!

  3. Chewie (Gangwon Dispatches)

    “Some of the teenagers in the book also told me how their parents urged them to pursue a certain career and their teachers wanted them to pursue another. . And somewhere lost in translation was that poor kid’s interest, something that really gave them a kick, something they’d love getting up early for day after day.”

    Couldn’t agree more. It always amazes me how often adults lose sight of students’ interests. What they have to say is interesting and in many ways just as important as whatever the adults in their lives have to say. I like how you’re quick to qualify your statement by saying “we shouldn’t let kids run wild,” for some do think that letting the students voice their opinions means letting them do whatever they want. On the contrary, letting the students’ voice their opinions simply means letting their voices be heard. They’re the ones who actually have to go out and do things. I’m loathe to think I, as a teacher, am in a position to “let” my students have opinions because they have to live in their own heads, not me. I can’t take their opinions away. Maybe it’s my love of punk rock and American self-determination that’s the reason for this, but the students are human beings with thoughts, opinions, and dreams. They, of course, have to reconcile those things with reality, but I can’t take their opinions from them. As a teacher, I can question their opinions, but that’s only because I’m eager for them to answer “why.” That’s all.

    • Florentina Taylor (@_FTaylor_)

      Thank you for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comment, Chewie. I agree entirely. (I also love self-determination theory and I’m sure I’d love punk rock if I knew exactly what it is. :o) )

      I think part of the problem is that, despite it being the 21st century, we still sometimes think that children are incomplete humans. You can see that in the surprise with which we sometimes react to a clever thing a child has said or done. Well, yes, they are clever people! They look at this mad world with fresh eyes, just like we used to before we became too jaded to notice anything. They just need a bit more time to learn some of the things that we know, and more. But then we put them through the mill and methodically crush the most creative ideas that could, you know, change the flipping System we keep moaning about.

      Love your blog motto. “Teaching is love.” Quite!

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