Thursday, 29 October 2009

Why do we do it?

I’ve just got involved in a little discussion here in my staffroom. One colleague was describing how his classroom discussion about TV had fallen a bit flat because so many of the students claim not to have time to watch TV. No-one’s that busy that they can’t find time to watch TV, he said incredulously. That’s when I chimed in – I’ve been too busy to watch TV for six and a half years.

That’s neither a complaint nor a proud boast – it’s just a statement of the facts. I enjoy watching TV when I can, just as I enjoy drinking beer, but life seems to be an endless procession of scary deadlines. (I have about 4 hanging over me right now).

It reminded me of a question I had this week from my friend Natasha: why do we do all this extra stuff on top of our teaching? Natasha is one of the most active members of cyberspace that I’m aware of, always writing messages to discussion groups, mailing lists, forums and the like, and getting involved in countless extramural activities. Natasha and I jointly hosted a grammar week earlier this year, which turned into a grammar fortnight. (You need to register with the site in order to read all the amazing discussion that went on that week, or you could just take my word for it.)

I also seem to be the busiest person I know – I often look at my colleagues in the British Council staffroom and wonder what it’d be like to do just one job, to have time to watch TV and drink beer more than once a month, to earn a regular full-time salary 12 months of the year. (I resigned as a full-time teacher last year to devote more time to writing and editing – so now not only do I work harder but I also earn much less!)

It also relates to something I was going on about last week when I was giving presentations in Czech and Slovakia: the idea that we, as ESP course designers, can go the extra mile and create really polished courses. But why bother? Why not just do the bare minimum?

So why on earth do we do it?

About 4 or 5 years ago, I was working really hard for several months on my first legal English course (for the British Council). All my colleagues thought I was mad. “Why are you wasting your time and energy on this course, when you're not being paid properly for it and you could be spending more time relaxing?”

My honest answer was simply that I enjoy working on new challenges. I get satisfaction from learning new things, and I find that to be more fulfilling than the alternatives (a quiet but repetitive life). But I also had a vague feeling that it might lead to new opportunities ... who knows what?

And of course that's exactly what happened. Thanks to my British Council Legal English course, I ended up getting involved in the Cambridge University Press course, and everything else that's followed.

The point is, I've been doing extra things like this for years. Of course I've done plenty of other extra things that haven't led anywhere, but come to think of it, things usually do come out of them eventually.

Just after my daughter was born (2003, i.e. a very difficult time for me), I spent 6 months writing a course for International House on Marketing, which I assumed had just disappeared without a trace. (I lost contact with IH shortly afterwards). But this year I met the ex-boss of IH (who this year became one of my big bosses at the British Council) who had commissioned that course. He told me that my little course had served as their model for a whole series. Fantastic. And now I’ve got a very good relationship with one of my big bosses.

I could go on: so many presentations have led to new contacts, new friends, new opportunities. (I’d love to tell you more, but it’s top secret). Voluntary teacher training looks fantastic on the CV and again leads to new contacts, new knowledge and new experience.

It’s a form of leverage: if you’ve done this little project here, you’ve got a much better chance of getting involved in that medium-sized project there, which will create the possibility that you could be in charge of that huge project over there.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you volunteer and go the extra mile, it very very often comes back to you eventually, usually in completely unexpected ways.

But that's not why we do it. We do it because it's enjoyable. I like helping people, and I like the good feeling it gives me. It also does wonders for my ego to realise that I can actually help people.

And what's the alternative? Work just for the money? Sit around watching TV? Nah!

PS What about you? Why do you do it?


  1. Nice post (as ever).

    Like you, the main reasons I do it are because I enjoy it, it makes me feel like I am doing something good, and a vague hope that it might lead onto something (although actually I've turned down half of those things). For that reason, I don't feel at all superior to people who don't type up their own worksheets etc, because they probably feel the same way about that as I do about the admin that I always put off until the last minute. Obviously, though, it would be better for them, their schools and the industry if more people did feel the way we do about doing extra stuff, and I wonder whether teaching trainers and managers could do something to promote those feelings in people- something I feel I failed at when I was in those positions.

  2. Dear Jeremy

    What a striking coincidence! Isn t this post of yours just brilliantly 'mirroring' the question I emailed the other day, overwhelmed by and engrossed in a personal dilemma and dismay, to you and a few other dear ELT people , not even knowing that you had already posted this on your blog! :)

    Belgrade, Serbia

  3. Alex:

    I'm not sure if there's any point in trying to promote these feelings in other people. You get your buzz from doing your worksheets (which I'll admit I'm terrible at), I obsess over tiny details on my ESP courses ... we both neglect our admin. Everyone likes different things and is good at different things. And everyone thinks certain things are pointless or at least not worth all the effort that others put into them.

    (That probably didn't come across in my original message - although I work ridiculously hard on 'my thing', other people devote similarly ridiculous amounts of time on their own things. Who's right and who's wrong?

    I didn't intend my posting to be 'the way other people should do it' ... I just wanted to explain why I do what I do.)


    Ah, you caught me out. I'll admit this post was 80% based on my reply to you last week. But after I sent it to you I thought more about what a good question it was (your question, that is), added a few more thoughts, and posted it here. You should be glad that you inspired me!

    Are you going to add your thoughts? Why do you do it?

    By the way, straight after I posted this message to the blog I had a sneaky 5 minutes watching comedy on YouTube (DarkPlace - very funny), so after my self-righteous outburst, my colleagues caught me in the act! "Too busy to watch TV? Yeah right!"

  4. Dear Jeremy

    No worries! I share almost all enthusiasm as you.
    This is like with any love we have or should have for anything immaginable we might like to pursue in life. One just simply doesnt go on to explain it but just do it. This enthusiasm can get across as a wee bit annoying to others but we are here to gather those who want to listen :)

    I ve warned or banned from forums on and off for the very same enthusiasm grossly misunderstood but
    it doesnt really matter :)

    There are always better moderators/directors/colleagues who are capable of understanding what enthusiasm for ELT is all about and/or any work there is out there.


  5. Dear Jeremy

    Shall I paraphrase a quote I ve once read:
    'We have the same number of hours given to us by Nature or by God's design as Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Eddison, William Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau. It is up to us to decide what we shall do with the time given. '

    Belgrade, Serbia