Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

A walk around my town

Inspired by Joanna Malefaki’s introduction to Chania in Greece, here are some photos from my adopted home, Bydgoszcz (pronounced like this) in Poland.

Old Town Square

View from Kaminskiego bridge - trapeze sculpture

Opera Nowa

Bydgoszcz mural

Old Town, Bydgoszcz

Bydgoszcz Post Office

Building in Bydgoszcz decorated with a face and sunbeams in relief

Autumn sunlight in the park by the Philharmonia

View of Bydgoszcz from the flat above the school

Bydgoszcz Filharmonia wrapped up for Christmas

University, Bydgoszcz

Bydgoszcz Water Tower

View from Bydgoszcz Water Tower

Granaries, On the Slonecznik II from Astoria to the fish market

Post office, On the Slonecznik II from Astoria to the fish market

Bydgoszcz Basilika

Bydgoszcz used to have a reputation within Poland as a dirty, industrial town, but it’s changed a lot over the last few years, as you can see.

I’d love to see a bit of your home town/city/village… 🙂

A medical tour of the world

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the accident I had 10 years ago, and mentioned that it changed my life. If you haven’t read it, the short version is that I tripped over when I was walking down a mountain path in South America, fell onto my knee, sprained my right ankle and fractured my tibia. So why did this have a long-term impact on my life?

Four weeks of travelling on crutches with a cast, then a ‘space boot’, resulted in many amazing memories and photos, but really wasn’t great for healing my leg properly. This was followed by ten days of sitting in a house and doing almost nothing, then seeing a doctor in Paraguay for another X-ray and gradually coming off the crutches. Luckily I got the money back for at least some of this treatment because of my travel insurance, though not all of it as the bag with all the receipts in was stolen!

Lesson 1: Make sure you have insurance.

Before this, I didn’t know anybody who’d broken a bone, and I had no idea that you were supposed to do physiotherapy exercises to build up your muscles again once you’d had an accident like this. In the short term, this meant I couldn’t kneel down for a few months, and I also soon noticed a cracking/popping sound in my knee. In the whole process after the accident, nobody ever examined my knee. Over the subsequent ten years, I have seen numerous doctors, physiotherapists, and even a podiatrist, in the UK, Czech Republic and Poland and have discovered that as a result of tripping over:

  • …the muscles around my right knee are weaker than those around my left knee, especially the IT band which goes from your spine through your bum down to your knee.
  • …my kneecap is slightly out of alignment, perhaps up to 5mm.
  • …my talus (a bone in your foot) is in the wrong place (discovered in August 2015, moved to the correct position in December, moved back again in May 2016 and still there now!)
  • …the meniscus of my knee is damaged (discovered in August 2016).
  • …my pelvis is slightly twisted, and I get pains in my hip sometimes due to this.
  • …my ankle is now much easier to sprain – it’s happened twice more due to falls, one in May 2011 in the Czech Republic, and another in May 2016 in Poland – and takes much longer to heal than for a first sprain.
  • …I also roll my feet inwards when I walk, which is probably something I’ve always done, but it puts more pressure on my kneecap, and means I’ve worn inserts in my shoes since August 2012.

All for the sake of a few seconds of inattention, and not knowing about physio!

Lesson 2: If you fracture or break a bone, get physio! 

Different medical professionals each seem to have spotted one new aspect to what is a very compounded problem, and each new point moves me a step closer to being more healed, though it’s unlikely ever to be completely better. One of the things I currently need to organize is an MRI scan, which should confirm the damage in my meniscus and perhaps result in an operation that may stop it from cracking if I’m lucky – I’m sure this will be much appreciated by many of my friends and acquaintances!

Lesson 3: If you think there’s a problem, do something about it, and don’t give up until someone can help you. You know your body best.

The real point of this post, however, isn’t to bemoan the problems caused by my accident. Instead, it’s to tell you what I’ve learnt from my ‘medical tour of the world’. Because as those of you who’ve been following the blog for a while will know, it’s not just my knee. I also have ulcerative colitis, which was initially diagnosed in Sevastopol, and has subsequently been treated in Thailand, Canada, the UK and Poland, and I have asthma and nasal rhinitis. As well as dealing with my own medical problems, I’ve also been an informal interpreter for a handful of hospital visits in France for guests on the campsite I was working on way back in the summer of 2005.

So what else has it taught me?

In the UK medical system, I had to push and push to achieve anything. At one point I was told my knee cracked because I was overweight. I was, but my left knee didn’t crack and I didn’t know anybody else whose knees did either. Some doctors didn’t seem to want to take into account the accident I had had. Other people I know who have been diagnosed with illnesses like colitis or Crohn’s have had a very long process in the UK, as much as two years in some cases, with lots of waiting. One doctor told me that my repeated diarrhoea was probably caused by a urinary infection (!) I didn’t really help myself though, because I was never around for long enough to wait for appointments to see specialists.

Lesson 4: Stay in one place (!)

Thankfully, I’ve been incredibly lucky with the helpful people I meet as I’ve moved around. I arrived in Sevastopol and almost immediately had to go to the doctor because I was getting blood in my stool. With the help of Olga, the Director of IH Sevastopol, who I’d only just met, and some of her friends who were or could recommend doctors, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and put onto the medication I needed to get it under control within eight days of the first appointment. Again and again over the next year, she was there to help me out. I also got a lot of support about my diet from Katie Slater, who I’d met a few years previously, and who happened to be training as a nutritionist at that point (and who now has her own business and blog). Now that I’m in Bydgoszcz, friends and colleagues have again recommended doctors so I am able to see a physio regularly, who is the person who diagnosed the damaged meniscus in my knee. I am also an outpatient with a gastroenterologist, who is going through the process of trying to get me off needing steroids multiple times a year to control my colitis.

My current crop of medicines

Lesson 5: Ask for help.

When I lived in the Czech Republic, I noticed that I was starting to have problems with my right hip and back, which I suspected were a side effect of the original knee injury. A friend recommended a local clinic to go to and helped me to get an appointment, but I decided that my Czech was probably good enough to see the doctor by myself. The first experience was slightly traumatic, as although I’d managed to explain what had happened with the accident thanks to rehearsing it before I went, I hadn’t anticipated a couple of simple questions: “How tall are you?” and “How much do you weigh?” This resulted in the doctor, who didn’t speak any English, adopting the traditional ‘speaking to foreigners’ approach of slowing down and shouting at me, presumably in the hope that I would understand.

Lesson 6: Don’t forget to practice answering the simple questions too.

I did get there eventually, but later on in the same appointment, I found myself lying on a bed having acupuncture needles stuck into me, without knowing that it was coming. Presumably she’d given up explaining and decided to just go ahead with the treatment anyway, and although I didn’t mind, it was my first experience of acupuncture and I would have appreciated being asked. I should have figured it out as the walls of her consulting room were covered with posters of acupuncture points and similar.

Lesson 7: Expect the unexpected.

The whole appointment traumatized me a bit, and when I had to go back to the same doctor over a year later I was shaking before I went in. Of course, she didn’t seem to remember me at all and the second time around was absolutely fine. Luckily, my Czech was good enough for the very helpful physiotherapists at the same clinic. Unfortunately I missed one of the appointments though as I misunderstood the time. I arrived an hour late because I forgot that time in Czech uses ‘half to’ instead of ‘half past’ i.e. 5:30 is ‘half to six’.

Lesson 8: Always get somebody to write down the time of appointments for you!

The doctors’ surgeries, hospitals and clinics I’ve been to were all very varied in character. In Thailand, the hospital in Chiang Mai had the latest equipment and was very high tech – I’m not sure if it was the ‘foreigner hospital’ as everyone seemed to speak English.

Chiang Mai Ram hospital - a waiting room

In Sevastopol, the paint was peeling off the walls in quite a lot of the hospital.

Poliklinika Sevastopol - corridor outside injection room (a blurry photo, but shows the state of repair of a lot of the hospital)

I had to take my own towel and sheet for the colonoscopy and to buy everything I needed for blood tests and IV drips from the chemist and take it in myself, including the needle and the bandage for my arm afterwards.

Medicine for my IVs

In the UK, my local doctor was very patient when it came to explaining the long and complicated history of my colitis, of which all the written proof I had was in longhand Russian, in order to be able to prescribe me the medicines I needed.

Despite these vastly different conditions, the treatment I got in all these places was just as thorough and the doctors were just as likely to spend time listening to me.

Lesson 9: Medical professionals around the world are dedicated and want the best for their patients.

I’ve been extremely lucky to be able to afford private treatment when it was difficult for me to access public health systems in some places, and it has even occasionally been covered by my health insurance or the wonderful European Health Insurance Card if I’ve been within the EU. I estimate that I’ve probably spent at least £2000 on my health over the last three or four years, between appointments and medicine, but when it’s a choice between not spending the money or being healthier, I know which one I would pick every time.

Lesson 10: Use the medical system – that’s what it’s there for!

I wish you good health and hope you never have a need to compare and contrast so many different medical systems!

Each year IH Bydgoszcz holds a Cambridge Day to give ideas to teachers in the local area to help them teach Main Suite exams. Recently, our sister school, IH Toruń, has become an exam centre too, so to celebrate, we held events in both cities this year. My session was designed to share some (perhaps) less well-known online resources which can be used by teachers who are preparing students for both exams. These are the sites which I shared:

Cambridge Phrasal Verbs apps

Amusing cartoons and a matching game designed to help students remember 100 phrasal verbs. As far as I know they’re a different hundred in each!

The Phrasal Verbs Machine (cartoons in a historic style)

Phrasalstein (cartoons with a comedy horror inflection)

Alex Case

A one-man activity-writing/worksheet-producing machine, and everything I’ve tried so far has been good quality!

Key word sentence transformations advice and activities (including TEFL Reversi, which you can try by printing this Quizlet set: click ‘more’>’print’>’small’ and ‘double-sided printing’ and you’ll get cards you just need to cut up

All of Alex’s FCE worksheets

My blog

A collection of FCE resources for students and teachers which I recommend, including among other things a link to FCE: The Musical!, a 60-minute webinar by Andy Scott with lots more ideas of ways to make exam preparation interesting.

Various FCE activities I’ve shared on my blog, many of which could be adapted to other exams.

Richer Speaking cover

Richer Speaking is my ebook, which includes a section with activities for extending speaking, aimed at encouraging students to produce longer stretches of language. This is especially useful for the picture tasks in Cambridge exams.

A Hive of Activities

Emma Gore-Lloyd has a range of Cambridge exam activities on her blog.  One of my favourites uses pictures as a prompt to remember pairs of sentence transformations.

Quizlet

One of my all-time favourite resources, which is great for vocabulary learning in general, and which can be exploited for Use of English practice too.

How to use Quizlet, including links to classes/groups organised by CEFR level.

FCE/Upper Intermediate sets

CAE/Advanced sets

A good set to play Quizlet Live with is ‘Making your writing more interesting

Panic attacks can affect anyone. After my interview for the CELTA course which I was trained on, probably the easiest interview of my life, I was walking to my friend’s house thinking it over. As I walked I started to hyperventilate, and I thought I might be having an asthma attack. I couldn’t understand what was happening because although I have asthma, it causes coughing fits, not ‘normal’ asthma attacks. When I got to her house, I couldn’t really talk, and I couldn’t calm down. I started to get pins and needles in my fingers and toes, gradually moving up my limbs. She phoned 999 because neither of us knew what was going on. When the paramedic came, he gave me oxygen and explained what was happening. It took at least 15 minutes for me to start breathing normally again and for the pins and needles to go away. I suspect the thought that triggered the attack was probably me worrying that they wouldn’t accept me onto the course, though I already knew they had: it was my final year of university and my entire plan after my degree was based around getting a CELTA and becoming an ELT teacher. It has only happened to me once so far. I had the first steps towards another one when I was ill at New Year a few weeks ago, but thankfully my amazing best friend was looking after me, and falling sleep due to exhaustion meant I didn’t go all the way into the pit this time.

It's time to talk

Apparently, 2nd February is Time to Talk Day 2017, a UK event “to get the nation talking about mental health and keep the conversation going round the clock”. For a combination of reasons, mental health is an area I have become more and more aware of over the past couple of years, and I’ve been thinking of putting together a list of connected resources for a while. This seems like the perfect opportunity.

Two years ago, Laura Patsko described the conversation starters which she was given for Time to Talk Day 2015, something which you could use yourself or with students.

Phil Longwell made me aware of this year’s Time to Talk Day through his very open interview with teachersasworkers.org about how mental health has affected his life and career.

My panic attacks they come from the tiniest smallest thoughts—and if you don’t know anything about panic attacks you tend to think that panic attacks are something huge—that they are huge, really life-threatening situations but for me they can be the smallest things. It starts from a tiny thought—and that thought can be a trigger which sets you off. Then you’re into a cycle. A panic cycle, they call it.

The UK’s NHS website has a page explaining the symptoms of a panic attack, with a video showing how to tackle the vicious circle that starts it, and a link to tips for coping with a panic attack if you’re having one now.

Rebecca Cope has also had problems at work caused by anxiety attacks, and has written about them very movingly. If this happens to you (and I sincerely hope it doesn’t), you are not alone. Please please please do not be afraid to talk about it. There is nothing wrong with you. If you talk about it, then we can all help the stigma to go away and we can all try to move towards supporting each other and being there when things happen. By the way, as well as being a great writer, Rebecca is a talented artist, as can be seen here:

Four panels by Rebecca Cope: 1. A girl I once knew who always felt blue told me once with head bowed she was trapped by a cloud. 2. She said "I can't hide, even when I'm inside. As it rains I lose all of myself in the fall. 3. But after the rain I stand up again. And I watch the cloud die until there's nothing but sky. 4. No more rain, I'm free to live and be me." And for a while, at least, the cloud's darkness has ceased.

Elly Setterfield talks about her self-confidence issues and offers advice on what to do when you can’t stop criticising yourself, in which we learn about the inner critic, and how to respond to it constructively. She has also created an A-Z of self-care for teachers.

For those on the outside looking in, first, consider how lucky you are that you don’t have first-hand experience of this. Then read about how to support a friend who is struggling with their mental health.

A management perspective comes from The Secret DoS in You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps, which includes some key advice at the end of the post, and the important line:

Let’s be clear…mental health issues are simply health issues.

One of the things Phil mentioned in his post was the extra pressure that those of us living and working abroad add to our lives by choosing to move away from home, often into places where we don’t speak the language or understand the culture. Here’s an 8-minute talk on helping teachers settle in, which I did at the IH DoS conference a couple of years ago based on my own experiences of arriving in many a new place. It was designed for managers/employers and not directly related to mental health, but it might give you ideas of what to ask for/about on arrival, especially if anxiety is a problem for you.

Another area that can cause a lot of problems is work-life balance, which I have a lot of bookmarks related to. They include tips for getting a better balance yourself, and examples of what other people have done. This is one of my favourite reminders of what you can do to help yourself take a break:

50 ways to take a break

If you’d like to discuss mental health with your students, AllAtC has a B2+ level lesson plan based around mental health and employment. The Mental Health Friendly Initiative has run competitions for mental health lesson plans, though I’m not sure if they’re available to download. They have various resources for promoting social inclusion on their blog (thanks for recommending it Phil).

If you know of any other useful links or if any of these don’t work for you, please let me know so that I can update the post. Together we are all stronger.

10 years ago

10 years ago today I had an accident that changed my life, and which led to a life-changing event.

I was in South America in the middle of a year working as a British Council assistant in Paraguay. For our summer holidays I’d organised a three-week tour with my mum, followed by four weeks of solo travel in Patagonia, my first entirely self-planned trip. I’d been looking forward to it for a couple of months, and had come up with a rough itinerary of some key places to visit, but ultimately wanted to play it by ear.

On Friday afternoon I arrived in Ushuaia, checked in to the hostel, then immediately went to book the bus out of the town, as there was only one every two days and at that point there was no internet booking. With my seat booked for Wednesday, I knew I had four full days to fill. I also paid for a berth on the Navimag boat for a five day trip from Puerto Montt, in the north of Chilean Patagonia, about two weeks later, giving me two deadlines for later in my trip.

On a recommendation the next day I went to visit Glaciar Martial, at the top of a mountain with amazing views of the Magellan Straits.

Ushuaia - going up to Glaciar Martial

I’d been told it was an easy trip, so I was wearing my walking sandals. Initially it really was easy: a ski lift took you part-way, then you walked up a path next to a stream with the run-off from the glacier. At a certain point, however, it turned into a scramble. I decided to continue and got to a point where I could see this view, which seemed worth it 🙂

View of the Magellan Straits (with slightly bad photostitching!)

After sitting there for half an hour or so, I started back down the mountain. Walking down the scree was a challenge, but I was being careful. The problem came when I got back to the ‘easy’ part. Probably less than 10m after the path flattened out, I must have stopped concentrating and tripped over. I impacted my right knee, cried out, and found I couldn’t stand up. Luckily it was quite a busy path and a woman just behind me heard me and got to me a couple of minutes later. She asked me if I was OK, and when I said I couldn’t stand, she went to get help – one of the first times I was ever truly grateful I could speak the local language. It was coming to the end of the day, and the park rangers were moving up the path to ask people to leave, so in less than 10 minutes somebody was with me and radioing for help.

What followed was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life. I was put onto a yellow mountain rescue stretcher, which was then strapped across the back of a quadbike and driven down the mountain, with one guy driving, and one walking at each end of the stretcher to make sure it didn’t hit anything. When it got to the car park at the bottom of the ski lift, the back of the waiting ambulance was surrounded by a ring of 30-50 people who wanted to see what was happening. Having previously never wanted to draw attention to myself in any way, this was mortifying for me at 21!

I was taken to the local hospital, where they did an X-ray and put a cast on, but didn’t give me any crutches, despite the fact that I couldn’t put my right foot on the ground, or even touch the ground without excruciating pain. It turned out I’d badly sprained my ankle and there was possibly a fracture, but it was unclear due to the swelling. On returning to the hostel, the receptionists were very helpful and managed to get crutches for me and move me into a room with a private bathroom, luckily available for exactly the number of nights I needed. This was my leg at 8pm:

My leg in a cast

I had to decide whether to continue travelling, return to Paraguay or give up completely and go back to the UK. Thanks to my mum, who was able to give me some money to help me with the now much higher budget I needed to continue, and the very helpful people at the hostel, it wasn’t difficult to decide that the best option was to keep going. I know that this experience is one of many that have made me realize that mentally we are all stronger than we think we are.

This is what day two of my travels looked like:

Ushuaia - Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego

Being able to speak Spanish was a big help too. This day trip was possible because the receptionist and their friend drove me to the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, gave me a personalized tour and helped me throughout the day. I also managed to fit in a boat trip in the Magellan Straits:

The lighthouse at the end of the world

The next stage took me to Punta Arenas, after a pretty uncomfortable 12-hour bus journey, where somebody was nice enough to move so that I could have the only free seat on the bus next to me. On arrival, the taxi driver took me to the Blue House II hostel. My room was a bit messy (sorry!):

My room in Blue House 2, Punta Arenas (burnt down 36 hours after I left) :(

The people who ran the hostel were again incredibly helpful. I needed to have another X-ray and get my cast removed as it wasn’t set at a 90% angle – my screaming stopped the doctors from trying to get me to keep my foot in the right position. When I arrived in Punta Arenas on Thursday morning, they organized a taxi to the hospital for me. I discovered that it would be at least two weeks before I could get an appointment there, so returned to the hostel to try and work out what to do next. They managed to find a private clinic, but there was nothing available until Friday evening. After the exertion of the previous few days, rest seemed like a good idea.

A few hours later, there was a knock at the door to say that an appointment had become available that evening – did I want it? Another easy decision: of course I did. This was the good luck which I have no doubt saved my life.

The new X-ray showed that there was definitely a fracture:

My ankle x-ray showing a fractured fibula (I think!)

I was given what I called a ‘space boot’ (I’m sure it has a proper name in English, but doing all of this in Spanish meant I never knew it!) and sent on my way.

My space boot

Since it was clear I probably wasn’t going to see any more of Punta Arenas, I decided to leave a day early and head on to Puerto Natales. The people from Blue House II booked me a hostel there, and Saturday 3rd February found me on a day trip to the stunning Parque Nacional Puerto Natales.

Parque Nacional Puerto Natales

At one point, I was on the bus listening to the radio news with the driver while everybody else was walking to a waterfall. We heard a news item explaining that there had been a hostel fire in Punta Arenas the night before. No name was mentioned, but I wondered. My suspicions were confirmed as soon as I got back to the hostel in Puerto Natales: I was greeted at the door by the owner. “Blue House II burnt down this morning.”

The same night there had been a huge fire in Valparaiso, which destroyed some of the World Heritage Site there and killed. This dominated Chilean news, so it was hard to find information about the hostel fire. I subsequently discovered that ten out of the twenty-four or so people in the hostel had died, and because their passports and the hostel register were destroyed it took a while to identify their bodies. The fire began in the early hours the morning, when there was a short circuit in the wall between the kitchen and the breakfast room. It was a wooden building with no fire exits or fire alarms in place, so the combination of the time and the conditions meant it was difficult for anyone to escape, especially from the second floor. If I hadn’t been given the new appointment on Thursday, I would have been in the Blue House 2. The room I was staying in was next to the kitchen, and with my crutches, I’m pretty sure there is no way I would have got out.

This shook me up considerably more than the accident did. It really made me appreciate the fact that your life can end at any point, and you have no control over when that is, so you have to make the most of every day.

Before today, I didn’t know the names of any of the people who died, but I know I probably spoke to at least some of them. These are the English language articles I’ve just found about it, some of which I remember seeing before.

This Spanish language article from the day contains more details:

Spanish language media from later dates describes the justice procedure, both including a full list of the 10 victims and their ages:

There is also a YouTube video from the fire service attending the fire which I can’t watch.

This post started as something different, but I think it will end here.

In memoriam.

Incomplete thoughts

All of these are thoughts I want to turn into blog posts at some point, but for now, they’ll just remain as sentences and the thoughts will be pursued in my head. I know there are probably books and blogposts out there which build on some of these thoughts. I may even have read/be reading some of them, and they are shaping these thoughts. But I wanted to have a record of them to see where I am and where I’m going. I may not think any of these things in a few months. In no particular order, but numbered for ease of reference in case people choose to comment…

It’s not a pleasant thought, John, but I have this terrible feeling from time to time that we might all just be human.
– BBC Sherlock, series 4, episode 2

  1. The way I teach and the way I study languages are increasingly at odds with each other. Trying to pull back by changing my teaching, but it’s a long slog.
  2. I’m not comfortable with the term ‘freer practice’. I don’t think it does what it’s supposed to. I also almost never get to it anyway.
  3. Most of a language teacher’s job is nothing to do with the teaching of language, but is in fact about the building of confidence, moving students towards ‘It doesn’t matter’: It doesn’t matter if I make a mistake: the world will not end. It doesn’t matter if I don’t understand everything: we can all do more than we think we can.
  4. Learning to teach and learning a language have a lot in common, in the same way as learning any new skill. Time, patience and an acceptance that you will never be perfect all help.
  5. Prompted by Damian Williams at IATEFL 2016: Language awareness is two-fold: knowing about the language and having an instinct about what is correct. One skill which needs to be focussed on more is writing. Native speakers should be given guidance on how to do this once they’ve left school, not just non-natives. An English teacher should strive to have the best command of the language they are able to, and we should help them to develop this, not just teaching skills.
  6. I kind of think I finally get task-based learning. I’m trying it out. At least I think I am.
  7. There’s not enough of a focus on memorisation within lessons, especially before speaking/freer practice activities. How can students really internalise the language? This is an important step before we can expect them to use it.
  8. Maybe a good lesson shape: meaning-focussed task, build on some of the language students needed or an area you think they would benefit from, memorisation/ internalisation through some kind of challenge, another meaning-focussed task. Don’t expect them to use the language you focussed on: it’s there to be noticed, then actively used when the students’ language system is ready to absorb it after whatever incubation period is necessary. This may vary from student to student. Is that TBL? Dogme? None of the above?
  9. The way we approach grammar teaching across a series of levels confuses more than it helps and is incredibly inefficient in the long run. How can we introduce the more general rules proposed by Lewis in The English Verb as early as possible and help learners see connections? I’ve tried this sometimes, but only really with intermediate and above as a way of clarifying links between grammar structures. What about making that the first way the language is introduced? Would you need L1 to do this efficiently? (I suspect Danny Norrington-Davies may help here, though I don’t have the book yet, so I’m not 100% sure) [affiliate links]
  10. Prompted by Julie Moore at the IH AMT conference: we should differentiate more between the language we expect students to produce, and the language we just want them to understand receptively.
  11. Chunks, chunks, chunks. But how to teach and practise a large enough amount of them so that students really remember them other than through rote learning? And who decides/should decide which ones are worth learning?
  12. If we really want students to get lots of exposure to the language, then the easiest way to do it is probably through listening, since so many of us are plugged in all the time anyway, and it can serve as background noise to life. But then we need to teach students how to listen. And that includes connected speech. But that might not be what they need if they’re in an English as Lingua Franca environment. But then will they get enough listening anyway? But they might get most of their exposure through films, video games and music where connected speech is probably necessary. But but but…
  13. We can’t force our students to be motivated. But without motivation they will never really get anywhere. It’s exposure to the language that provides the tipping point across various thresholds. I’ve only ever really managed this in country, but so so many people don’t get that opportunity, but still manage to get to very high levels in foreign languages. I admire them and would love to know how they do it. Where do they find the time? It’s so much easier to watch, listen to and read things in my language. Two pages a night in a foreign language is enough for me!
  14. Training, blogs and methodology books should never be divorced from a current and up-to-date grounding in classroom teaching. It’s all well and good telling people how to do things, but if you can’t do it yourself, consistently, when you’re tired, overworked, and have a million other things to think about, then it’s all just wishful thinking. We all know deep down that e.g. coursebook-based lessons probably don’t reflect how languages are actually learnt. We all know there are a thousand other things we could do in the classroom that might be more efficient. But time. And sanity.
  15. There are things which are very wrong with the state of ELT and with our profession. We want to change them. But change takes patience and perseverance. Lead by example. Speak, do, don’t shout, show patience. Ranting and railing just get people’s backs up, and may even make people dig their heels in. Be patient. Change will come. Change has already come. Notice what we have done, not just what is yet to be done. Celebrate progress and others will want to celebrate with you.
  16. Mental bandwidth is a thing. You can only think about so many things at once. The balance of how you use your bandwidth changes as you build up experience and things become more automatic. Understanding this idea might help people not to be so hard on themselves.
  17. Training shouldn’t just be about teaching. It should include things about the day-to-day realities of being a teacher. How to manage your time. How to communicate effectively. How to manage your managers. How to find work. How to have a work-life balance. How to avoid ruts. How to stay sane.
  18. My job is not to pull, but to push. Push the school to where we think it should be. Push the teachers to achieve what they can as efficiently as possible. Push people together to strengthen everyone’s networks. Push myself to keep developing, so I can demonstrate what I believe, not just talk about it.
  19. If I really believe something, then I should show it through my actions. Incremental changes in my life have made me happier and healthier. There are more of these to be made, but I am in no rush. I will make them when I am ready. And if I don’t make them in time, then it’s nobody else’s problem but mine.
  20. You can learn from everyone. But you should not let what they think govern what is happening in your head. Your head is your space. You decide who and what to let in.

It looks like some of those thoughts were deeper than I suspected! Maybe this shows you some of my beliefs and principles. I always find that kind of thing hard to pin down. Maybe I’ll get round to writing more about some of these. Maybe not. But now at least some of them are out of my system. Happy New Year everyone!

After a year that has come across as pretty negative in many ways, it seems like a good idea to focus on the positives that have been thrown in my direction. Here are some of the things I’ve enjoyed in 2016:

Reading other people’s blogs

It feels like Elly Setterfield (aka The Best Ticher) has been blogging forever, but it turns out that she only started out in March 2016. In that time, she has produced various gems, including but not limited to beginner’s guides to teaching kids, teens and beginners, a series of posts about surviving summer school, and tips on some of the non-teaching aspects of being an EFL teacher, like what (not) to pack for your first job, avoiding illness, and spending Christmas abroad. They are full of useful, easy-to-understand tips. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Elly last week. We spent nearly three hours chatting, and it could have easily been much more 🙂

Teresa Bestwick has moved back into teaching from management this year, and has chosen a different area to focus on every fortnight for her professional development. Each Fortnightly Focus is a post on her blog, and has given me lots of ideas for how I could work on my own teaching and to pass on to my colleagues. It’s definitely something I’d like to play with if and when I ever return to a classroom full-time.

It’s always worth reading Michael Griffin’s blog. His series entitled ‘Please teach them English‘ was prompted by an initial post he wrote, then continued with the help of a few guest writers. It looked at the clash between teaching English and 21st century skills from the perspective of a teacher, a language school manager and two different students in the ‘class’. As well as the fact that it was thought-provoking, I particularly enjoyed the unusual form, as it was written as a series of emails and diary entries.

Laughing at YouTube

I’d never really watched that many videos on YouTube, but this year that changed. When I’m looking for five minutes of laughter, I find myself heading over to watch clips of James Corden and co., listen to interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch or relive old Kermodian rants. Here are a few of my favourites:

Attending conferences

Two conferences particularly stood out for me this year.

IATEFL is always the highlight of my year, and this one was especially good for me because it was in Birmingham, just 20 minutes away from where I grew up. As well as learning a lot (as always!), I got to relive memories of my childhood and share them with my friends. Here’s a video made by the organisers that gives a taste of the 50th anniversary conference:

TWIST 2016 was organised by the LangLTC school in Warsaw in November. It was probably the most representative conference I’ve ever been to, with what I considered to be an appropriate balance of male/female, native/non-native, theory/practical across their programme. It was also great to be able to introduce some of my colleagues to teaching conferences for the first time.

Going to the cinema

For the past couple of years I’ve had an unlimited card from my local cinema, which has enabled me to see a whole range of things. Particular highlights were:

  • Arrival

  • Zootopia (though I’d like to see it again in English!)

  • Deadpool (which also allowed me to Vancouver-spot!)

Learning

This year I’ve been able to make massive strides in my Polish, progressing to what I would guess is around low B1 level. A couple of months ago I decided to return to Mandarin as well, largely thanks to memrise. Having a few other people who are using the site and seeing their points each week is motivating me to do more – clearly I’m a sucker for some aspects of game-based learning!

2016 has also been the year when I’ve finally started to get a handle on task-based learning, something I’ve always wanted to find out more about but never really had time to. I dived into the world of MOOCs, and the Coursera one about TBL and reading started me off with really investigating TBL. I’m now reading Doing Task-Based Teaching [affiliate link] by Dave and Jane Willis to deepen my understanding, and am hoping to experiment with some of what I’ve learnt once I’m back in the classroom.

Working abroad

I’ve been lucky enough to take my first trips to Italy and Kazakhstan this year, both helped along thanks to people I’ve previously met (thanks Marcus, Julie and Iryna!) This enabled me to experience the beauty of Italy…

View from the Duomo terraces

View from the Duomo terraces, Milan

Varenna

Varenna on Lake Como

Bergamo from San Vigilio

Bergamo from San Vigilio

Venice - gondola and coloured entrance

Venice – gondola and coloured entrance

Verona - view from Castel San Pietro

Verona – view from Castel San Pietro

…and the warmth of the hospitality of Kazakhstan.

Aktobe collage - top left = blackboard with Sandy's name and dates of her visit, top right = teachers using Quizlet Live, bottom left = teapot and bowls, plus food, bottom right = Sheraton hotel and sculpture

Hopefully it won’t be the last time I go to either place!

At home

Exploring Poland has also led me to further appreciate how under-appreciated it is. A few days in Gdansk and Sopot with my friend showed me some of its beauty:

Gdansk town hall

Sopot

Even closer to home, it’s been a pretty momentous year for me as I became the owner of my very own flat, something which I wasn’t sure would ever happen. Now I finally have somewhere to put all of those ‘things for my future house’ I’ve been collecting on my travels…I just have to get them over to Poland from the UK!

But probably the biggest joy is watching my cousin and friends whose families are expanding. It may sometimes feel like my facebook stream is full of babies and small children, but quite frankly that’s infinitely preferable to some of the negativity that it’s been filled with at certain points in the year (and yes, I have been guilty of adding to this). When you see the pride and joy of a new parent, and the happiness of a child exploring and experiencing the freshness of the world, it’s hard to stay negative for long. The Internet can be a wonderful place.

So that’s my New Year’s Resolution: focus on the positives in life, and notice myself enjoying them. When it all gets a bit too much, move away, and come back to a post like this to remind myself of all of the things in life that are there to enjoy. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you who read this blog, and thank you for your support!

Happy birthday IHJ!

The IH Journal has turned 20 this month, and to celebrate Dominique Vouillemin has edited a special edition of the journal pulling together the traditional columns and a selection of anniversary treats. His editorial gives you a taster of what’s available. The full edition is available for you to read online or download. My own contribution to the journal is called ‘Travelling back through our profession’, and was inspired by Chia Suan Chong and the TEFLology podcast. It’s on pages 36-37 of the journal, or is on the site.

ih-journal-20th-anniversary-cover

Here’s to the next 20 years!

500 (+1)

About two weeks ago I shared something without realising it was the 500th post to appear on this blog. Wow! That’s quite a scary thought.

Thank you to everyone who’s supported me throughout, to the people who’ve offered me advice on how to improve my blog, pointed out my typos, shaped my teaching ideas, shared and commented on my posts, and to those of you who are reading all of this stuff that I write. I find it constantly amazing and humbling to know that so many people have spent time visiting and using my blog. It started out as a way of building up a professional presence online (that seems to have worked!) and of sharing some of my assignments from my IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology. It’s developed into a place to share activities, offer advice (hmmm…), and appreciate my luck in being part of this career and this community. Although I haven’t managed to write as many posts over the last year, I’ve still got a lot of ideas, and I keep hoping I’ll be able to put more of them out there.

Here are a few stats for you:

  • 500 posts
  • 350 views/220 visitors so far today
  • 825,948 all-time views
  • 440,570 all-time (or at least since they started counting) visitors
  • 11,180 views on 1st May 2014, my best views ever in a single day (on a post I didn’t even write!)
  • 31 comments by Rachel Daw, my number 1 commenter!
  • 1,493 subscribed followers/606 WordPress followers (no idea how much of that crosses over…)
  • Useful links for CELTA: my most popular post this year (ever?)
  • And the one I find the most breathtaking: countries people have visited from in 2016 (white means no visitors from there so far):

sandy-millin-blog-world-map-of-visitors-2016

Thank you so much to everyone who has made this possible!

A lesson plan

Elly Setterfield has just written a very useful guide for beginner teachers with tips on how to plan on a daily basis. At the end she asked what her readers’ plans looked like. Here’s one of mine from last year, as I was working out a new style:

an-example-of-my-highlighted-plans-sandy

My planning has gone through many iterations, but I’ve now been using this style for over a year. I always use scrap paper, and put it straight into my box ready to go to the classroom as soon as it’s done. I rarely have time to plan in advance nowadays, and occasionally have no time to plan at all. As Elly recommended, you’ll see that:

  • I plan by hand
  • I highlight key things: pink is for things I tend to forget, yellow is for language checking/clarification (though I added that after this plan), green is for answers, and blue is for reminders to offer and give points in YL/teen classes
  • I underline in red any materials I’ll need, so I can do a quick check before the lesson to make sure I have everything. I normally write the plan first and produce my materials afterwards.
  • There is a note of approximate timing for each activity, plus a running total for the lesson. This almost never happens in the lesson, even when I add lots of extra time. I normally only skip one or two activities though, which is a lot better than it used to be!
  • It’s not necessarily clear to anyone else, though sometimes I add more detail if I know it’ll be the basis for somebody else’s plan later – we work with a lot of teachers who are fresh off CELTA.
  • There are various abbreviations on there, and I haven’t written out everything for exercises I use all the time.
  • It takes me about an hour to plan each lesson, give or take.

Previous versions of my plans included typing them up in my post-CELTA over-enthusiastic phase, often in way too much detail, and right at the other end of the scale, scrappy bits of paper with four or five words written on them, in my post-Delta I don’t have the energy for this phase 🙂 I feel like I’ve now arrived at a happy medium.

So what do your plans look like?

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