By Rachid Khouya
By Rachid Khouya
Morocco World News
Smara, Morocco, November 26, 2012
Nick Cherkas is the English Project Manager in the British Council in Rabat. A lot of teachers of English know him by name or in person. In this interview with MWN, Nick shed light on issues regarding Moroccan education, teachers, students and culture and about the present and future projects of the British Council in Morocco.
MWN: Thanks a lot for accepting our invitation to share some ideas about your experience in Morocco with the readers of MWN. You are the English Project Manager in the British council.
Would you please introduce yourself to our readers and some of the responsibilities of an English Project Manager like yourself?
Nick Cherkas: Thanks for inviting me to the interview, Rachid – it’s a pleasure. In a nutshell, my job is to help Moroccan teachers and learners of English reach their potential. I do this through organizing teacher training days, workshops, events and courses around Morocco, working with organizations such as MATE, MINE and MAFE to provide teacher training opportunities, and working with the Ministry of Education. In fact, the Ministry has recently asked me to carry out its in-service teacher training for all English teachers in Morocco, which is a very exciting prospect.
I also work with learners – there are around 7.5 million young people in Morocco in full-time education, with around 7,000 English teachers. The number of students is only going to get higher – even if the number of English teachers doubles, it is clear that students need to be empowered to become independent learners.
British Council websites:
Mobile apps are also essential tools in building this independence, both in and out of the classroom. I’m also working with a national TV channel to have a Learn English TV program broadcast in Morocco, which would be a dream come true…watch this space!
MWN: You have been in Morocco for a while, how do you see the level of Moroccan teachers and students as far as teaching and learning English language are concerned?
Nick Cherkas: Moroccan teachers receive an excellent standard of pre-service training from CPR, ENS, CRMEF and universities. They are the best trained teachers in all of the Middle East and North Africa, countries in which graduates can enter a classroom having received no training at all. MATE is also the envy of the MENA region, being the longest serving teachers’ association – and the best. Moroccan teachers benefit greatly from sharing their skills and knowledge through MATE, and I am always impressed and humbled by teachers who take the time and make the effort to help colleagues – and, by extension, students, in this way.
I’m also equally amazed, as an imperfect speaker of foreign languages myself, by the proficiency of Moroccan students, even at high school level, who are speaking English better than they do French. Students tell me they learned from music, films, TV and facebook, which shows both how widespread and how important English is to young Moroccans.
MWN: From your own experience in Morocco, what should be done to improve the level of the educational system?
Nick Cherkas: It’s a tricky question. My personal view is that there is too much focus and pressure on students to succeed in the BAC exam, which results in a lot of pressure on teachers to “teach for the test”, which can bring what we call negative backwash – that is, the negative effects of teaching not to gain knowledge and skills, but to pass an exam. I think that a system of continuous assessment helps students and teachers and is no more difficult to organize than one big exam. With this system it’s also much more difficult to take a photo of answers with your mobile and post it on facebook!
MWN: What does the British council do to spread the English culture and language among Moroccan English learners?
Nick Cherkas: We have a Teaching Centre in Rabat and Casablanca, and our projects in English, Arts and Society cover the whole country. The Connecting Classrooms project has worked with hundreds of students and teachers across Morocco, building links with schools in the UK. As I mentioned before, we are working with national broadcasters with an aim to provide English lessons through TV for the whole country.
MWN: The British council has been involved in a program of “access” with the Moroccan Association of Teachers of English (MATE), can you please shed some light upon this project? Its objectives?
Nick Cherkas: Historically, we haven’t been involved, but that will soon change. I, and the RELO (Regional English Language Officer) from the US Embassy have recently started working together on ways to provide employability training to young people through the Access Program. It’s a very exciting and innovative way of giving young people not just English tuition, but also skills and confidence which can help them find a job.
MWN: Are you satisfied with the work of MATE?
Nick Cherkas: Absolutely – it’s a fantastic organization with fantastic people at the helm, which can only go from strength to strength. I think that one of MATE’s objectives now is to ensure that it has a presence in every part of Morocco, so that teachers in all regions can benefit from the professional development and community MATE offers.
MWN: A lot of people think that the British council is in competition with the American cultural center, is this true? If no, what is the relationship between the two Englishes in Morocco?
Nick Cherkas: I don’t think it’s true – our objectives are similar, to help Moroccan teachers and learners achieve their potential, which is one of the reasons why we’ve started working together closer. The relationship between US and British English has blurred in recent years – most Brits and North Americans use each other’s slang and expressions everyday, and the stereotypical “British English” people think of doesn’t really exist – only the Queen and Prince Charles speak it!
MWN: Do you have any programs for Moroccan teachers and students to study or train or visit Britain, meet its people and know its culture?
Nick Cherkas: Not a specific program… As part of the Connecting Classrooms project I mentioned before, Moroccan teachers have gone on an exchange visit to partner schools in the UK. We also offer a limited number of scholarships to the IATEFL conference each year, which is the biggest English language teaching conference in the world. But I’d rather stay in Morocco with the beautiful weather.
MWN: After this time in Morocco, what are the ideas and stereotypes you changed about Morocco and Moroccans?
Nick Cherkas: I suppose the main stereotype I’ve realized is inaccurate is that, in many ways, Morocco is closer aligned to Europe than to the Middle East. Although Islam is a huge part of everyday life in Morocco – very different from a secular UK – the Moroccan identity is a fascinating mixture of cultures, which over thousands of years has resulted in something unique – and that’s definitely not something I knew about before I came here.
MWN: What does the British council do to spread the Moroccan culture in the United Kingdom?
Nick Cherkas: It’s not something which is part of our mission, although we do stay in touch with organizations in the UK which have a link to Morocco.
MWN: If you were a minister of education in Morocco, what are some procedures that you see should be taken to reform our system of education?
Nick Cherkas: Both Ministries need to prepare themselves for the massification of the education systems. Morocco has a huge young population and in 5 to10 years the number of students will rise enormously. The Ministries are taking steps to prepare for this, and I would say that they need to make sure they learn from the successful ways other countries have dealt with this challenge. This is where organizations such as the British Council can be so invaluable to governments – with our global network we have access to experts in education who have the experience and know-how to help countries give their young people the chance they deserve.
MWN: How do you see Moroccan youth and ICT?
Nick Cherkas: Young people are digital natives, and as teachers tend to be digital immigrants we must be careful of how we use technology in the classroom. I think we will see mobile learning more and more in education – all students carry in their pocket a handheld device which is more powerful than most computers. It sounds like science fiction but we need to start looking at teaching and learning with the technology students carry in their bags and pockets rather than equipping schools with expensive, stealable hardware which becomes obsolete after two years.
If students can us their mobiles to take a photo of exam answers before the test and post them on Facebook, just think what they could do with some direction and guidance in this area from teachers. Mobile learning is an area of teaching which I am particularly passionate about, and I love helping teachers explore the possibilities it holds.
MWN: What is the relationship between Nick and the Moroccan kitchen? Any special preferred dishes, clothes…?
Nick Cherkas: I can make a good tagine, but my couscous is a work in progress…tonight I made a beautiful salade marocaine which I was very proud of. The fruit and vegetables in Morocco are the best I’ve tasted anywhere in the world. When my mum comes to stay she takes some fruit back to the UK with her because it’s so much better than the stuff there. I helped my neighbor with his sheep at Eid – does that count?