Lifelong teaching

Adventures of a Language Traveller
December 11, 1998

When John Haycraft died two years ago he was hero and role model to thousands of teachers of English across the world. It was a quintessentially English tale. Part international guru, part Bohemian, British officer in India during the last days of the Raj but too raffish to be establishment, Haycraft founded an English-teaching empire to succeed the empire he saw pass away. Like many British inventors he had the brilliant idea; others saw the global market.

The travelling began early and is chronicled with charm, even lyricism, in the first chapters of the book. It was not so much the Grand as the Petit Tour, moving with his widowed mother and brother across prewar Europe from one cheap hotel to another. But for Haycraft, looking back in later life, it was his Garden of Eden. He saw in it the source of a personal crusade for international friendship to which he brought the precious gift of the English language.

After the sun-drenched, brown-limbed start the upbringing was orthodox enough in the idiosyncratic British manner: prep school, public school, Oxford, the army and the East. But he was now writing - novels, stories and his diary. In Victorian fashion he recorded "experiences of possible value, making people interesting per se because they might become ... characters". The first school was in Toledo, to make ends meet, where he found his vocation almost by accident. He was a born teacher and a genuine romantic, "each class ... a small pleasant community with a common sense of purpose", then in Cordoba with his wife Brita doing classes with "a lightness of touch, getting students to talk about their adventures".

From then on it all grew like Topsy. A network of affiliated schools all over the world, linked with International House which Haycraft had opened in London. It was the creative hub that poured out teachers, trained by Haycraft in Haycraft materials and methods. The 1970s were his zenith. In time expansion brought its problems and not every school flourished. Other players arrived on the scene, including the British Council, which became Haycraft's bete noire. The two organisations were like chalk and cheese. International House was built in Haycraft's image. His forte was the classroom, very touchy-feely, mercurial and responsive. But never an organisation man. The council recognised the huge global demand and grew a comprehensive and even more successful service operation to match it. They and Haycraft were too different to work together.

He once told me that the International House network had always been a grand design. Not so and not necessary. In the classroom he was king. If you like your teaching close-up and personal, enjoy the memoirs of a unique travelling man who did a job for his country and for language learners everywhere. Roll up. The vanity is just fun.

Sir John Hanson is warden, Green College, Oxford.

Adventures of a Language Traveller

Author - John Haycraft
ISBN - 0 09 479000 0
Publisher - Constable
Price - £18.99
Pages - 320

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