An interview with Alison Taylor, ETAS Past President
Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions about your life as a retired EFL teacher. Could you perhaps start by telling us a bit about yourself with regard to your teaching before retirement, where you taught and who your students were?
I started teaching in Scotland when I was in my early twenties and taught English language and literature in several Edinburgh high schools. When I came to Switzerland, I switched to EFL and was a teacher at KV Wil (commercial college) for 23 years. I taught evening classes from beginner to Proficiency and also apprentices during the day. In addition to this, I worked for the Cambridge exams centre in St Gallen as an examiner and presenter for over twenty years.
You have read Briony Beaven’s talk on retirement given at the last IATEFL conference, (https://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2017/session/51-years-english-language…). What were your first impressions of this talk?
Very thought-provoking and interesting! It is heartening to see examples of people even older than me who are still working and learning new skills because I think I belong to this group too.
Did you retire when you thought you would and was this a good decision?
I retired from my full-time teaching at the official Swiss retirement age but kept on working for Cambridge exams for another five years. This was a good solution for me, because I loved having the flexibility of being retired, after being restricted by school semesters for over forty years, but I could still work with young people and with a wonderful team of colleagues as a speaking examiner and doing school support.
Beaven talks of how expertise can be of value not only for yourself, but also for the profession. Do you plan to make contributions to ELT in your future life?
I think if you’ve been an English teacher in Switzerland, you can never totally retire. I still regularly meet up with three groups of old Proficiency students and I often proof-read dissertations etc for former KV students. Although I refuse the frequent requests for private lessons because I love my freedom, I do coach people for specific goals – for example, I am helping two teachers prepare for the Proficiency exam at the moment.
Instead of the three-stage life that has been the pattern so far, with education, work and then retirement, do you think you could adapt to a multi-stage working life after the retirement age, acquiring new skills, working for yourself or for several others, open for new networks and experiences? Perhaps you are already involved in some way in these new life stages?
This has definitely happened to me. When I stopped working full-time, I went on a couple of writing courses and finally wrote my book Sewing the Shadows Together, a story which had been at the back of my mind for more than 30 years. This has opened up a whole new world for me! I published my book two years ago and regularly go to crime-writing festivals all over Europe. I’ve appeared on panels and met so many wonderful writers and readers. I also belong to several on-line book groups and now waste rather a lot of time on social media (another whole new world for me!)
Writing has also allowed me to pursue my other great interest – travelling. In order to go to crime writing events, I’ve travelled to places I’d always wanted to visit – like Iceland and Shetland.
I’ve now written my second book, A Fractured Winter,which is set in Switzerland and Scotland, and was published on May 1st 2018. Writing is a wonderful hobby, as I am never bored because I can always dive into my other world. I must be careful what I say though: I was once reprimanded in a kindly manner by a full-time writer when I said I was retired. She told me I couldn’t say that because I am a writer, which is true – so I guess I will never really be retired!
This is wonderful for me, because my family was a little concerned as I was approaching retirement since teaching (and ETAS) had been such a huge part of my life. I really liked my job, but now I love the variety and flexibility of my new life – especially as I am also able to spend time with my three adorable grandchildren.
After reading your responses and thinking some more about you and your new life, I’m curious to find out a bit more about your writing. How does your life as a writer link to your life as a language teacher? For example: how has dealing with language as a teacher, which always also involves raising students’ awareness of language use (structures, collocations …), impacted on the nitty-gritty job of writing?
Having been an English teacher certainly makes me more aware of the writing process. I do a lot of editing and redrafting and consciously vary sentence structure, avoid repetition of words, look carefully at register, and so on. I have also become aware of some of my favourite words and phrases, which I must use sparingly (and omitting unnecessary ‘that’sin my last novel reduced the length by 200 words!)
Another possible link: Though you state that the actual plot of Sewing the Shadows Together has been at the back of your mind for a very long time, it doesn’t mean you had all the characters and each single incident ready to weave it all together. How have encounters with people throughout your life, among them many students and co-teachers and their individual stories, influenced the creation of your fictional characters?
The original idea for Sewing the Shadows Together was with me for a long time, but over the years many incidents and people influenced the plot. For example, trips to the Scottish islands and South Africa inspired parts of the book, and a school reunion gave me the idea for the opening chapter.
Does the process of planning and then writing a book have anything in common with planning and then implementing language classes?
I’m not much of a planner in my writing. I start with an idea and characters and then the story develops as I write. When I was teaching, I had to plan much more carefully – but in both cases, it is good to be flexible, to pick up on ideas and react to personalities.
How has your life experience made writing possible? Would you have been able to create the plots and flesh out believable characters as a younger person? For instance, what do you think of this quote from Paran & Robinson (2016, p. 14).
“In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes one of the compensations of growing old as being the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light . . . .”
That’s a lovely quote and I can certainly identify with it. The settings in my books are always places I know myself, the characters often have some features of people I’ve met and the incidents can be inspired by experiences I’ve had. However, the plots are in no way autobiographical. They are inspired by thinking ‘what if…’ and then imagination takes over.
Have you followed any of the kind of tips that Rosanna Ley gives on her website when you started your first book?
They are great tips and I follow nearly all of them. There are only two I would amend in any way. In the fourth, I would say you should have an idea about your characters before you start but listen to them as you write because their voice will develop and direct the plot. I discover more about the characters and how they would react in different situations as the book progresses. In the fifth, I would say write what you know as well as what you want to explore.
How has reading influenced you as a writer? (Concerning plots, characters, settings, language)
A great deal. I’ve always loved reading and I’m sure I’ve absorbed a lot without really being aware of it. Reading really is the best preparation for writing in all those areas.
Are writers sharing in a similar way to teachers in ETAS and IATEFL and that way helping each other develop?
Absolutely! I used to love ETAS and IATEFL conferences and the crime writing festivals are similar. I’ve learnt so much from listening to established authors talking on panels. Crime writers especially are known for how supportive they are to new authors.
Thank you very much Alison for taking the time to share some of your experiences and giving us a glimpse of your life after ELT.We wish you many more enjoyable hours spent writing and editing and are looking forward to reading your new book.
Baillie, A. (2015). Sewing the shadows together. Leicester, UK: Troubador Publishing Ltd.
Baillie, A. (2018). A fractured winter. West Sussex, UK: Williams & Whiting.
Baillie, A. (2018). A fractured winter. [Kindle edition]. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/
Ley, R. (n.d.). Rosanna’s ten writing tips[Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.rosannaley.com/bio.php
Paran, A. & Robinson, P. (2016). Literature and language in the EFL classroom. Oxford, UK: OUP.
About Alison Taylor-Baillie
Alison Taylor-Baillie was an English teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland, before coming to Switzerland in 1986. When she arrived here, she started teaching EFL and soon realised that this required very different skills. Fortunately, she soon discovered ETAS and was inspired and educated by its workshops and conferences, before formalising her qualifications with a DTEFLA (DELTA).
She eventually served ETAS in various functions, first as Regional Coordinator for the St Gallen Branch, then as Teacher Development Chair and eventually as President and Past President. Even after her term as Past President, she still remained involved in ETAS as member of the ETAS Journal Editorial Board. Although retired and engaged in a very different career, she is still a member of ETAS and loves reading the Journal and attending the occasional event. She very much appreciates the continued contact with many wonderful people she met through ETAS, which is not only great for furthering your education but also amazing for networking.