Paul McMullan - International House Belfast

Paul McMullan International House Belfast - Best Of Belfast Podcast

On this weeks show we hear how Paul McMullan - director of International House Belfast -  traveled all over the world as a CELTA-qualified English teacher before opening up his own language school in the Holylands. 

Nestled in the heart of the Queens Quarter, IH Belfast is one of our city's unsung heroes.

Hundreds of different students pass through their doors each month, some to learn English and others to be trained up as teachers through the CELTA program, so they can travel/work anywhere in the world. 

We caught up with Paul to chat about his adventures overseas, how virtual reality could transform the teaching industry and hear about the amazing work International House Belfast is involved in. 

Check it out. 

If you had one lift ride with Liam Neeson, how would you introduce yourself?

Well, I suppose just like anyone from Belfast would... 'alright Liam, what's the craic!'

I'm Paul McMullan, 44 years old, director of International House Belfast and currently a father of 3 kids under 4 years old!

I grew up in Belfast, but always loved travelling and got really into it at a young age. I've been a state school teacher, worked as a civil servant and even worked in demolition for some time. I'm also a Liverpool fan!

What was it that got you into travelling? 

Paul 2 (1).jpg

As a child my parents had an old towing caravan that we ended up exploring every inch of Ireland in, but my real interest started in Belfast Activity Centre where I did my Duke of Edinborough and a bunch of other outdoors stuff. 

It was adventure sports that got me into travelling and it was travelling that got me interested in languages and that really takes you full circle to where we are today!

I left Belfast in 1991 to go university in Manchester. From there I went to A Coruña in Spain and fell in with a bunch of English Language teachers and started doing my own lessons. 

To be honest I had no clue what I was doing and was feeling bad for my students...

You see as native speakers we know how to speak the English language can’t necessarily explain why.

So I decided to something about it and ended up going to do a CELTA course in Barcelona which is a month-long Cambridge certified teaching course that allows you to work anywhere in the world as a language teacher. 

To cut a long story short, I dotted about the place, spent time in Australia and Thailand before moving back to Barcelona where I met my wife, fell in love and got married (to a language teacher!)

How did you end up coming back to Belfast?

It was my wife actually who really spearheaded the move much to my surprise - don't get me wrong I loved and missed Belfast - but for some reason she really fell for the city and so we ended up moving over in 2005. 

We both took a break from language teaching, I starting working as a  civil servant while Natalia was working as an estate agent as there were no language opportunities over here.

So where does International House Belfast come into all of this?

Basically we were on holiday in Barcelona when one of our friends Jonathanasked us why we weren't involved in teaching English anymore and we told him it was because there was no schools overhere. 

It didn’t take him long to ask if we would consider opening up our own and it didn’t take long for us to say yes!

The first thing we did was look for a building. We looked at loads all over the city but when we walked into the one on University Street we knew straight away this was it.

International House Belfast School Photo

A big part of language learning is immersion and so jumping into the local hustle and bustle is crucial.

It was the perfect location for our students to mix with the local student scene, practice their English and experience a part of Belfast that doesn’t shut down after 5 o’clock! 

Plus with Northern Irish people being so friendly it's the perfect place to get involved. Usually within 3 or 4 days you hear students heading to the Black Box or the Empire bar... really tapping into that earthy vibrant side of our city.

Who are your students? 

When people think of students they usually imagine a young school-aged person, but this isn't always the case with language teaching. 

People on our language courses fly from all over the world to explore Belfast and learn English at the same time...we also work locally in the community with asylum seekers and refugees

A lot of our students are doctors, engineers or entrepreneurs... For example our 1st student owned an art business and our 2nd was a nuclear physicist! 

Alongside all this we run the CELTA which allows people with no teaching background to come for a 1 month intensive course where they get to teach real life classes as they themselves are being trained. 

It's an intense course but in terms of an investment few other qualifications can promise you work pretty much anywhere in the world and will usually pay for itself in the first month's paycheck depending where you go. 

We can also hook up people from Northern Ireland with courses all over the world to learn whatever language they want.

Tell us briefly about how you guys are experimenting with virtual reality. 

This is something that's very new for us, we just recently started bringing along VR goggles with us at language conferences so we could actually offer people a 360 tour of Belfast and our school.

Virtual Reality International House Belfast

We have plans to actually live stream our language classes using a 360 degree camera so that a student can try a sample of our class from anywhere in the world...

The technology is really amazing and the potential it huge. It basically means that a student could sit at their dining room table in Russia but actually be tuning in and taking part in our classes here in Belfast. 

So watch this space!

Tell us about the staff at IH Belfast. 

I think in general language teaching and travelling always attract some pretty cool people - but then again I'm bias!

We counted up recently that between us we have over 150 years of teaching experience 50 different countries, which I think is pretty incredible. 

It's a cliche, but we really are like a tight knit family unit and the different mix of personalities has really made IH Belfast what it is today.

Lastly Paul, if you could take your 18 year old self out for coffee, what advice would you give yourself? 

I think just:

"It's all going to be ok man."

That's really all it would be!

When I look back now at my 18 year old self there's no way he would have expected he would been on TV in Columbia, teaching teachers in Kazakhstan, in Oman doing a financial audit on a college or running a language school in the Holylands...

But one thing led to another and all those small details that seem like such a big deal at the time always have a way of taking care of themselves. 

So yeah, "it's all going to be ok."

Study locally or abroad with International House Belfast.

We wanna thank Paul once again for sharing his story with us. Be sure to give the school a follow on Instagram to see all they get up to. 

Paul has also very kindly offered a pretty serious discount on IH courses for Best Of Belfast listeners/readers, (including a massive £50 off the CELTA!)

Classroom Internationa House Belfast.jpg

Simply email and let him know we sent you to make use of that.

I did a CELTA myself back in July and was absolutely blown away by the course and the school itself (especially the staff, shout out to Valentina, Sophie and Patricia!) 

Other than that guys thanks so much for reading/listening. Be sure to let us know who you would like to have on the show next.

All the best,

- Matthew. 

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Show notes: 
Intro/outro music.
Classroom sound effect.

Matthew Thompson