Thomas Farrell interview (October 2022)

by Vicki Plant

Welcome to the TESOL France 2022 colloquium
Thank you. I am very happy to come to TESOL France as a plenary speaker this year. I am very happy to meet teachers in France at the conference.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I'm originally from Ireland. I was a teacher in Ireland many years ago then I decided to travel throughout Europe and Asia and ‘arrived’ in South Korea in 1979.  I stayed there for 18 years and I got my PhD along the way in the US. Then, I moved to Singapore. I was training teachers in Singapore at The National Institute of Education for about 7 years. I moved here to Canada about 18 years ago.

So you started your career off in teaching and then what made you move into the academic world?
I sort of became curious about what I was doing in the classroom and why I was doing it. So, I decided to dig into it and try to find out what was happening in the classroom. Was it good or bad? And that started my let's say a way into academics. And then I formalised it with a Master’s degree and later my PhD.

There's obviously a lot that you've written about the reflective practitioner and how we have a need to reflect on what we do.  What really drew you to reflecting on work? Would you say you had a type of critical incident?
The continual critical incident of being a traveller across the world was the pretext for me to continuously engage in reflection. My personal reflections then came over into more, let's say, professional reflections and anyway I think it's very difficult to separate the two. I had never heard of reflective practice as an academic discipline at all until I started to formalise my own studies. And in fact, when I was doing my PhD, my supervisors had never heard of it either as it wasn't popular within the field of English language teaching. That was in the late 80s, early 90s and so when I started reading about it. I was fascinated by it. My PhD topic was on the reflections of three language teachers in Korea. 

So, you are going to be one of the two plenary speakers at the TESOL France Colloquium this year. Could you give me a little synopsis about what you're going to be sharing with us?
Again I am honored to be chosen as one of two plenary speakers (the other speaker Andy is excellent as well) I'm going to talk in France about what a classroom was for us before COVID, what a classroom is during COVID, what the changes are after COVID and then I'm going to talk about why it is important, even more so now, that teachers reflect on their practise. I'm also going to introduce them to a framework that is relatively new that I developed.

Could you tell us a little about the framework? 
The framework starts with the teacher reflecting on the self or the teacher-as-a-person. I believe that it is very difficult to separate the person from the teacher and the teacher from the person and you should not, you know. Who I am is how I teach is my mantra. The person I am is the teacher I am. And then I move on to reflecting on your principles about teaching and learning a second language. After this you reflect on what you plan before you teach--that's called reflection for action. Next, you reflect on what you actually do in the lesson: reflect-in-action and reflect-on-action. The last stage is reflecting beyond practice or critical reflection about where you stand in the action, what textbooks you use and who wrote them and what agenda is being pushed in the school you teach and what the agenda is being pushed politically about who you are as a teacher.

Within this framework, this model that you've got, do you see it's something that is more applicable for a teacher to do by themselves? Or is it something in the context of their teaching environment, with somebody else?
I would always encourage collaboration, but then again, you're reflecting on yourself as well. You can start by yourself and consider it. In terms of, let's say, you're working at a language school, two teachers coming together as critical friends can help each other reflect, and they can go through the framework together. That's probably better and share what they find, and they can challenge each other - it's difficult to challenge yourself. You can become biased about what you're looking at and looking for.

So it sounds like a fascinating talk you're going to be delivering to us.  And what's your biggest thing you'd like to get out of coming to Paris? What is it that you'd like to take away with you after your visit?
What I hope to do is to plant seeds.  With the idea that people are not scared of reflecting and they're not scared about looking at what they do. Maybe I can excite somebody who's sitting there thinking you know, will I or won't I? I hope I can provide some groundwork for teachers to engage in reflective practice.

Final question, how would you encourage somebody to come along to your talk? If you can give your pitch in a few words, what would you say?
Ok, here is my pitch: You've been teaching X number of years. You wouldn't be at this conference if you weren't curious about something. Are you curious about what you're doing? Perhaps I can offer you a framework which is not that threatening, presented by a person who's not that threatening (me and I wear a baseball hat). This might actually change your life as a language teacher. I'm just saying that It changed my life.  I made that decision all those years ago. 

I'd like to thank you very much for your time. 

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