Meet the Liberec-based English teacher whose videos are a global hit

English teacher Steve Watts was born in Great Britain, but he is currently the Czech Republic’s most popular YouTuber. His education channel Steve and Maggie has over 12 million subscribers and his videos, translated into seven languages, including Spanish and Hindi, have altogether over two billion views.

Steve Watts originally studied hydrology, but he soon discovered it wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. When he got a chance to train as an English teacher in Japan, he didn’t hesitate and moved there. This is how he discovered his gift of teaching small children, as he told me when I visited his studio in the north Bohemian town of Liberec:

“Japan essentially brought together a lot of my history. I have some much older cousins, than there is a bit of a gap, then it’s me and then a lot of younger cousins. So I wasn’t quite cool enough to be with the older cousins and I was put on the small Christmas table, although I wasn’t such a small kid.

“So I started to try to entertain them a little bit, I learnt some magic tricks and I learned to juggle just to enjoy a bit of fun with my younger cousins.

“And when I moved to Japan, they opened the door on the first day and said: here is your class. And it was a whole class of two- to three-year olds and obviously they spoke no English. And I thought: OK, how are we going to do this?

“We have a little phrase that I like to use, which is that we are silly but not stupid. We are not just doing something for no reason, there is always some value there.”

“But I was very quickly able to entertain them to get their attention, I was able to entertain and teach them. And I think that at an early age, if you can get them to like something, everything is much easier.

“If they like something, they want to come to your classroom, they want to communicate with you, so then the language naturally comes through that.

“So in Japan, I started to become a little bit of the go-to person for kids’ teaching. And as that grew I was able to get to senior teacher position for the north Tokyo region.

“But Japan is a long way from home and after three years of living there you are still very much a foreigner. And at that time, my grandparents were starting to get sick, so I wanted to move a bit closer to home.”

So how did you end up here in the Czech Republic, of all places?

“In Japan, they train you up and send you out, but I didn’t have the CELTA certificate to formally teach English. So that brought me to Prague. And after finishing that, I noticed that there was a school being established in Liberec as a bilingual kindergarten.

“And I thought that was a fantastic opportunity where I could step and say: OK, I think this is how we should approach language teaching and this is what we can do, so the two really came together.

“But I have to say one of the biggest draws was the fact that I came to Liberec in the winter, it was the winter of 2005, and that was the year where there was so much snow. It was amazing.

“I had learned to snowboard in Japan and the fact that there was a ski resort on the end of the tram tracks from the centre of town, was a big plus for me!

“Perhaps the slightly amusing story is that I came up and I met the people that were opening the kindergarten and we got on very well. And as I walked out from the Old Town Square, there was a very little alleyway, which is quite steep.

“I started to walk down, I slipped, I fell down, I was sliding on the ice and at the very bottom I arrived at the Irish Bar. And I thought: This is a great city! This could be a nice place to live and work. And fifteen years later, I am still here.”

Soon after establishing the bi-lingual kindergarten here in Liberec, you also established, with your colleagues, a company called Watts English. Was it at that time that you started to develop your own methodology?

“Essentially what happened was that we opened up the kindergarten and there were two or three things that that made us unusual. First of all, we were teaching English to very small children.

“What was also interesting is that we were bilingual, and not monolingual, because one language doesn’t and shouldn’t replace the other. These are Czech children, so they should know all the Czech fairy tales and stories, but they can also have the English and the American stories.

“The other thing that was unusual is that I was a big hairy scary man in the kindergarten, so we attracted quite a bit of media attention for that. So they came to see us, we showed them how we worked, and the Ministry of Education got interested and said: OK, let us see what you are doing. They really liked it and asked us to write a guide that we can distribute to all Czech kindergartens.

“So that was when I started to formally write down a basis. We gave them some general notes and from that, the ball started rolling, because we needed to have materials that fit the method.

“We needed the books, but we also needed a model for the language for the children to follow and that leads to the next stage of the story, where we started to make the videos and post them online.”

So can you tell us a little about the methodology? As far as I understand, it is inspired by the way babies learn their mother tongue.

Liberec | Photo: Hana Hauptvogelová,  Czech Radio

“Yes, it is. Essentially it’s learning through play at the start. As we say, to like something is better than to know it at the beginning. So how do we start with any language? How do you start with teaching your baby?

“First of all, they spend they spend up to two years maybe even longer just listening to the language being  exposed to the full range of language.

“So it’s about creating the bubble of the language. And how do we start in the beginning? We need to say that we are going to introduce some language and create an environment where these words are going to be high-frequency.

“Then we need to practice those words, so we do some drilling in the video clips, often through repetition, through getting the children to repeat with me many times, but in a fun and interesting way, so that we can start to lock it in.

“Then we move into the so-called TPR stage, the total physical response stage, which is basically say and do. So essentially, if I say touch our head and you touch your tummy, then you have shown me that you don’t understand the word and I need to go back and reintroduce it and practice it.

“And then finally the very last stage is to actually push for speaking. So those are the main stages and of course around that that we have all the materials, songs and videos.”

So do you still remember your first video? When did you make it and how did you get the idea to introduce Magpie Maggie?

“Well, it was essentially through the creation of these materials and other projects that we put together. We would focus on some particular language and the reaction from the kids was always great.

“Maggie really came about because we needed something cute and fun. So we were looking at different animals and the easiest, if we are in a green screen studio where the background is changing, is a bird, because a bird can come to me wherever I am.

“I can be in the top of a tree, I can out at sea on a pirate ship, and a bird can very easily just fly in. So I could say to Maggie Magpie: Can I have an apple, please? I could put my hand anywhere and Maggie can fly in, give me an apple and fly off.

“So when we decided we would have a bird, we looked at parrots, very often they are green, so we can’t use them in a green screen studio and they are quite a strong, dominant colour, so when they fly in, it takes your attention.

“We wanted something a bit sneaky, so Maggie being a black and white magpie she is able to creep in and you don’t necessarily see her when she come is. And because Magpies are naughty, they are known for stealing shiny things, I was thinking we could get quite a lot of we can get quite a lot of stories out of that.”

The sketches, originally aimed at children who are learning English, are today available in another seven languages, including Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese, French, German and Italian. Steve Watts continues.

“Essentially we were working on some videos and from the response the kids gave us we thought: OK, why don’t we pop this up on Youtube? That way it doesn’t have to be on a DVD, the children can watch it with parents at home, so they have easier access to it.

“But then all of a sudden there was a spike of children watching it in the UK, in America, in Australia, New Zealand and all around the world. And we thought: Wow, this has more potential than we thought originally.

“This was I think in 2016 or 2017. Of course there was a slow start for a while, but suddenly it really took off. And that’s when we said: If children with English as a mother tongue are enjoying these clips, how about we do some dubbing?

“So we put them first of all in Spanish, and again there was a big response from places like Argentina and Latin America. And we thought: So it really is native learning language speakers who are enjoying these but are also learning from these.

“We have a little phrase that I like to use, which is that we are silly but not stupid. We are not just doing something for no reason, there is always some value there.

“But it does leave me speechless sometimes to think of the numbers and to think of the views we are getting, all from little Liberec!”

The numbers are really quite stunning. You have over two billion views and over 12 million subscribers in total.

“Yes! There was a magician on Britain’s Got Talent, and they were interviewing him and he said: I have been doing magic and I have got tricks on YouTube and they have gone viral. They have had like seven views.

“It does leave me speechless sometimes to think of the numbers and to think of the views we are getting, all from little Liberec.”

“And I suddenly thought: Hang on, maybe we are actually global and we can describe our videos as being viral. I think the biggest video, the one single biggest video has about 60 million views.”

It’s the Halloween Songs and Stories, which have over 67 million views…

“There you go, 67 million views on just one clip, which is staggering. Halloween really seems to be what we are most famous for. Halloween is our biggest time of year. Halloween hasn’t happened yet, but we have already finished Halloween and we are moving on to Christmas. I am always ahead.”

There are thousands of educational videos out there. What makes your channel different? What do you think makes it so attractive?

“I think it’s essentially that balance of being silly but not stupid. We wear the educational aspect of the channel quite in the foreground. We make no apologies for it and I think the parents can immediately recognize that.

“I think also the children pick up on the fact that we are not oversimplifying, we are not dumbing down. I try to give a very natural performance even in completely unnatural situation. And I think it comes from many years of teaching small children.

“I have a feeling that sometimes people think you need to over-animate everything and be the clown from the start. And I think that can sometimes be overwhelming for the kids.

I believe that if you are natural and friendly, the kids pick up on that. They say: “This is a real person, this is somebody that I could play with and that I could be around.”

And do you think it’s also important that the kids see a real person?

“I thinks so. We came from English language teaching environment and the most important thing is to give the language a hook. In a bilingual family - my wife is Czech and I have bilingual children - the kids instantly know when to switch between languages.

“The kids have hooked English around my face: They look at me, they ask a question in English, they’ll turn, look at mom and ask a question in Czech. And that transition is seamless because they have a very strong hook.

“Of course there can be many hooks and in the English language classroom we have many. We have it at a set time, in a set place, we set up the classroom in a certain way and we sing a song to start the English class. But by far the best hook is a face.

“So I think having a real face in those crazy whacky cartoon worlds normalizes it or at least gives them a hook to say: I wonder what it would be like for me to be in that situation, because Steve is in that situation. I can see how he reacts. I’ll play along with him in these crazy situations.”

We are now sitting in one of your two studio, in Liberec, in front of the green screen. Tell us a little bit more about the production of your videos…

“It often starts with me walking around Liberec in Jizerské hory or the Ještěd ridge and an idea might pop in my head. And that’s when I go to the pre-production team to discuss the idea.

“To give you an example, I thought it would be quite fun to have Maggie’s ‘I Scream’ van for Halloween. Maggie will put me in the van, she will drive around the town for Halloween, and we will see lots of different ghosts and witches and I will scream every time we see something.

“Then we go to the story development stage. We took that story, we developed that and we said: Wouldn’t it be fun to make ice creams of the monsters? Wouldn’t it make logical sense if the more Steve screams, the more monsters arrive and the more monsters arrive which means Maggie can sell more ice creams?

“Then we finally get into the studio. We will spend the first part of the day just trying to work out where everything is, because of course there is nothing here. Then we record the Steve part, and once we have got that recorded, it goes off to be roughly edited and we can start to put Maggie in.

“And then postproduction begins after that, when we need our artists to work on filling out the environment, doing the background and the foreground.

“And then we put it on YouTube and the obsessing starts, because you look at the new video and say: Is it doing well? And to this day I can’t predict what would be successful and what not!”

After spending more than 15 years in the Czech Republic would say the attitude of Czechs towards learning English and also the way English is taught in schools has changed?

“I think so, yes. As I said, at the beginning, there was an attitude that native English teachers were not useful in the classroom too much.  I went back in and said: Native English-speaking TEACHERS are useful. Just a native speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that you can teach the language. So I think it has changed in people realizing that.

“I think it also changed a bit in realizing that there are many resources that Czech teachers can use, but what is important is that it’s not about their level so much. It’s about whether they can get the children interested in language. And very often they can.

“And I think also that 15 years ago, there was an understanding that English was important, but it was like another subject that you would learn half-way through primary school.

“So I think there is now an understanding of the fact that having bilingual children from the very start is possible and in fact it is beneficial to expose the children to English at a much earlier age.”

And finally, what are your plans for the future?

“Essentially the plan for the future is to continue to spread around the world. The YouTube success has been great, but of course, you should never put all your eggs into one basket, so we moving into other streaming services, such as Amazon Prime.

“We are looking at more and more TV. During the pandemic, there were a couple of TV channels that said: We need content. We saw your stuff. Can we broadcast that?

“The other things that we are looking at doing is that we are getting out and about, so we are recording Steve and Maggie out in the real world. I have recorded two clips already in Mirákulum, the children’s play area just north of Prague, and we are hoping to do more in different locations and travel further afield.

“There is a possible Steve and Maggie cartoon that we’ve put together, which means I can spend a little less time in the studio and I don’t have to act everything out. So we are just riding this wave, which has been amazing and see how far and how wide it will take us!