What I learnt from Judy Baker

Usha Aroor

Judy with her daughter Bella
Judy with her daughter Bella
Judy Baker is a teacher trainer. She worked with Pilgrims in Canterbury UK (Pilgrims English Language Courses) for over 10 years and currently lives and works in Sydney. She has a special interest in the use of NLP in education and is the author, with Mario Rinvolucri, of the book Unlocking Self-expression through NLP (Delta, UK).She has also worked with teachers in Europe and India.

In the film Kung Fu Panda, Po the panda in being put through his lessons in kung fu by Master Shifu. ‘I know you’re trying to be all mystical and kung fu-ey,’ he says, hungry and panting as he follows Shifu around, ‘but could you tell me where we’re going?

We didn’t know either when Judith Baker conducted a training programme for us in 1982, but it was clear we were going to a very special place, so exquisitely a part of her plan. Orient Longman (as it was then called) organised a three-week workshop for a select number of teachers drawn from India – there was also the head of a school from Nepal – and invited Pilgrims of Canterbury UK to conduct it. Judy led the main part of the training programme. Those of us who attended it found ourselves in an immersion experience which changed our lives deeply. It was a turning point in my life as ELT editor and all the work I have done since has been affected, strongly, by what I learnt from Judy.

Judy introduced us to the humanistic approaches in language teaching. Among the most important concerns was placing learners – not content – at the heart of the learning process. We had heard this before, but what did it mean? It signified respecting learners’ needs, building their self-esteem and drawing on what they know as a resource, and starting there instead of with a wholly pre-decided teacher-led, teacher-dominated programme. ‘Learning and teaching,’ she said, ‘are not just to do with cognition. Feelings, attitudes, reactions are so much a part of the learning-teaching process.’ She also urged that teachers use materials that are relevant and meaningful to the class. All this is better known now but for us it was new, fresh and stirred our curiosity as well as, initially, our scepticism because it seemed ‘soft’ and formless.

Using the Silent Way, suggestopedia and other humanistic methods, Judy led us through a large range of tasks which we experienced as learners initially and later reviewed from the point of view of teachers and editors. We learnt, among other things, new ways of looking at grammar, comprehension, writing, speaking and listening. She introduced us to Grammar Games by Mario Rinvolucri. We learnt extraordinary ways of using dictation for listening and language production from the book Dictation: New Ways, New Possibilities by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri and of using stories in the language classroom from Once Upon a Time by John Morgan. For example, in the book Dictation, one of the activities involved us learners listening to a text without writing it; then we would write what we remembered, leaving gaps for what we did not remember; the text was read again more than once until we – all of us – had it word-perfect. This dictation relied so powerfully on auditory memory. There were other exercises in which there was shared listening and cooperation among groups of learners. Every aspect of these tasks, including getting the text accurate as well as the sweet equality of everyone’s getting them right, was critical to the task. Similarly, we learnt how stories could be used with great effect to draw out resources of language and to evoke feelings. Grammar games were for us a new concept and we learnt how interest in the target grammar item could be prompted by our working on a problem in which it was used naturally. Judy also showed us how poetry and songs could be used. I shall never forget the intense and moving experience of listening to her read Musee des Beaux Arts by W H Auden based on the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Peter Bruegel the Elder. Judy had brought a print of the painting with her – she had everything planned, collected and ready for presenting.

At the end of each day, Judy discussed the tasks with us, always eliciting our reactions and analysis. She would read to us from several books so that the theoretical base was understood. Among these books was Earl Stevick’s Humanism in Language Teaching: a Way and Ways. It opened our minds to the fact that learning is also an emotional, value-laden and attitudinal process. Materials, theories and techniques were important but equally important was what happened within and between people. He spoke of harmony as a basis for learning.

From Judy I also learnt about the power of gentleness, patience, humility and humour in teaching – all so much a part of the humanistic approach but also a part of Judy herself.

The author was the first editor of Teacher Plus. She is now consultant ELT with Orient Blackswan. She was associated for over 40 years with the same company with responsibility for ELT and school materials. She is the author and editor of White Dove, a series on value and peace education. She can be reached at uaroor@gmail.com.