Chance opportunity leads to international career for University alumnus

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington adjunct professor and alumnus Jack Richards has had an illustrious career in teaching English as a second language. But if not for a chance conversation with a friend about a job opportunity, his career might have looked very different.

A headshot of Adjunct Professor Jack Richards.

“When I decided to switch from working as a trainee civil servant and studying part-time to studying full-time, I knew I would need a part-time job,” Adjunct Professor Richards says. “A fellow student mentioned that the English Language Institute on Waiteata Road had an opening. I knew nothing about English language teaching, but I decided to apply. It was that job, and the support of Graeme Kennedy at the Institute, that introduced me to the world of English language teaching and the career I have today.”

After completing his Master of Arts in English with first class Honours at Te Herenga Waka, Adjunct Professor Richards received a Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship enabling him to move to Canada for a PhD in Applied Linguistics from Laval University, Quebec. There he made many important connections with key figures in both applied linguistics and in the publishing industry that contributed to his career success.

“Had I not had the opportunity to study in Canada, the important networks and connections I made might never have happened,” he says. “I’m very grateful for the support and encouragement I’ve received throughout my career that has made so much of my success possible.”

After completing his PhD, Adjunct Professor Richards travelled to Indonesia for a year as a postdoctoral researcher before going on to the Regional Language Centre (RELC) in Singapore sponsored by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“During my years at RELC I met many of the key people in applied linguistics in the region and had increasing opportunities for conference papers and publication. I have had a fruitful connection with RELC and Singapore ever since.”

During this time he also began writing textbooks. This eventually led to an invitation from Cambridge University Press to develop a series of international English textbooks—Interchange—which have sold over 50 million copies.

Next, he moved to Hong Kong, then Hawaii, before returning to Hong Kong to set up a new department of English at the City University of Hong Kong. In 1996 he returned to Aotearoa New Zealand to set up a Masters programme at the University of Auckland.

In 1999, Adjunct Professor Richards retired from full-time teaching, although he continues to teach short courses and workshops, as well as writing extensively and presenting at conferences. He has written over 150 books and articles on language teaching, as well as many classroom texts. His works have been translated into many languages including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Arabic.

In 2011, Adjunct Professor Richards received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington for services to education and the arts. In 2016 the International TESOL organization honoured Jack Richards as one of the 50 TESOL specialists worldwide to have made a significant impact on language teaching in the last 50 years. For his interest in and passion for the arts, in 2014 he received the prestigious Award for Patronage from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.

Adjunct Professor Richards says maintaining a balance between academic work, writing, and his passion for and support of the arts has definitely been a challenge, but a rewarding one.

“I enjoy everything I have been involved in and the rewards far outweigh any challenges that may arise,” he says. “For example, in my capacity as arts patron I have been able to provide support for many emerging artists and musicians and also arts organisations such as the Toihoukura Programme in Contemporary Māori Arts in Tairawhiti and the St Andrew’s Lunchtime Concert Series in Wellington.”

After a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Adjunct Professor Richards has recently resumed his global travels, including a conference in Seoul, sponsoring masterclasses in Switzerland for Te Herenga Waka piano students, and conference presentations in Taiwan and Cambodia. He has also continued to publish, most recently English Medium Instruction: An Introduction for Routledge and Principles for Language Teaching for Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press in China.

“I am not actively searching for new projects, though if something manageable and of high interest comes my way, I am always tempted,” he says. “My partner and I are also trying to make the most of what Wellington has to offer as well as spend time in our residences in Sydney and Seoul.”