Why I chose…

…Asuncion, Paraguay

I spent the third year of my degree doing a British Council assistantship. Normally language assistants go to a primary or secondary school and work with teachers to supplement the English programmes at the school. In my case, and that of the other three students who were on the same programme as me, I went to the Angloin Asuncion, a private language school, where I got my first real taste of the job I do now.

Asuncion railway station
Asuncion's now defunct railway station

During the application process we had to choose three countries where we wanted to work as assistants. At that time, I had no idea what the differences were between different countries in South America, since my only connection with the continent was the three or four lecturers who had taught me during my degree course. With only 14 months of four contact hours a week under my belt, I was so focussed on the language that I hadn’t really thought that much about the culture(s). All I knew was that I was desperate to explore a whole new continent – what was the point of spending a year in Spain when I could go there at the drop of a hat from England?

Unfortunately, there was no box on the form for ‘Just send me to South America please!’ and I had to narrow it down somehow. One of my modules at university had looked at minority languages in Spain and South America, and I knew that Quechua in Peru and Guarani in Paraguay were still quite strong. The next job was to decide which to put as my first choice. In the end, the fact that the application said ‘Assistants in Paraguay normally share a flat with the other British Council assistants’ decided it, and I put Peru first and Paraguay second. For my third country I chose Chile, for the completely frivolous reason that it was long and thin and I wondered what being in a country like that would be like!

Paraguay doesn’t have a British Council office, so those of us placed there perhaps have to be a bit more independent than our fellow assistants in other countries. During my interview, I spoke about my experiences in Malaysia, and I’m pretty sure this is what got me sent to Paraguay rather than Peru. I really didn’t mind this, as it gave me the chance to spend a fascinating year exploring South America, and I can’t think of any other reason I would have gone to Paraguay without the assistantship. I still miss it, and I hope to go back at some point soon.

Asuncion from the 13th floor

…Brno, Czech Republic

One of my favourite buildings in Brno
One of my favourite buildings in Brno

My first three years of full-time teaching, immediately after graduating, were in Brno in the Czech Republic. I had studied French, German and Spanish at university, and had spent time living in South America, France and Germany since leaving school. I was eager to visit a new country and learn a new language, but I wanted to stay in Europe to be able to go back to the UK at Christmas (I had spent Christmas Eve with friends, but Christmas Day alone in Paraguay).

I did my CELTA part-time during my final year at university, and pretty much from day one of the course in October I was thinking about where to go next. For a while I thought about Thessaloniki in Greece, then Trieste in Italy (for no other reasons than that they were near the sea and land borders and I didn’t speak the languages there), but I really wanted to work for International House, and neither of those cities had IH schools.

When the IH recruitment list was released I had no idea which jobs to apply for, so I spoke to my CELTA tutors and they suggested I look at Central Europe as they said it would be good for development. I immediately went home and applied for four schools, with no particular preference. A couple of days later I was asked to say which was my first choice, and as with South America I had no idea! Brno was my second choice again, since my first-choice school offered the chance to do a Young Learners Certificate. However, the first-choice posts were already all taken, so I was sent to Brno. This resulted in three of the best years of my life, which I summarised in this video.

Brno from my flat
Brno from the flat I was lucky enough to live in for 18 months

…Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK

The bridges of the River Tyne
The bridges of the River Tyne

I applied for Durham University without really knowing anything about the north-east of my country at all (the furthest north I had previously been was York). A careers adviser at school suggested I apply there, and I have him to thank for ending up at the perfect university 🙂 When I arrived on my open day, I immediately fell in love with the city, and over the four years of my degree I came to love the north-east of England too.

When I decided to apply to become an London 2012 volunteer, I knew that it would be much easier to go through the application and eventual training (if I got, which I’m very happy to say I did!) from a base in the UK, and it took very little thought at all to settle on applying to IH Newcastle, where I was lucky enough to get a job. It’s great to be back in the north-east, and to revisit and discover so many places I love visiting.

View of Newcastle from the castle which was new
View of Newcastle from the castle which was new (in 1080)

And my next destination?

Who knows? I’ve spent the last month or so trying to decide where I want to go in September after the Paralympics have finished, and although (like Greece and Italy before) I’ve had various countries in my head, I actually have no idea. This is very exciting, because I really could go anywhere – I fully intend to take advantage of not having any ties – but also a little scary, because I have no idea where I’ll be in eight months time. All I do know is that I’d like to do my DELTA in the next academic year, and that if possible I’d like to learn a new language. Oh, and that I don’t like snow 😉


This morning my students spent over an hour discussing and debating their opinions of what a Utopia should be like. All of this was prompted by a single page from the Total English Intermediate teacher’s book.

On page 124 of the teacher’s book there is a list of rules about a possible Utopia, designed to revise modals of obligation and permission (must, have to, should). Students work alone to decide if they agree or disagree with the rules, then get together to debate a final version of their Utopia.

This single sheet prompted discussion about whether taxes were necessary, whether governments really need weapons, the benefits of living in a foreign country, and whether one language should be allowed to dominate the world.

Thank you very much Will Moreton and Kevin McNicholas!

My new blog: Independent English

As if two blogs weren’t enough 😉

I set up ‘Independent English‘ for students, with the aim of giving them ideas to help them practise English at home. I plan to post roughly once a week, with each post being a step-by-step guide which they can work through alone or with a teacher. If I have time, I will also record myself reading the post so that students can listen to it if they are not confident readers. It is probably best for B1/Intermediate and higher at the moment, although some posts may be suitable for lower levels later.

The first entry is about podcasts, including a list of links to (in my opinion) good podcasts for learners and native speakers to listen to.

There is also a facebook page for you to ‘like’.

Please feel free to pass the link on to your students, and/or to give me feedback on how to improve the site. Hope you find it useful!

The consequences of me

This activity came to me when I was trying to think of something for a stand-alone lesson on a Monday morning before new students joined our B1 Intermediate class. For a sudden idea, it worked surprisingly well, so I thought I would share it with you.

It’s based on the game ‘Consequences’. Each person writes one or two sentences, folds the paper and passes it to the next person. Nobody can see what has been written before.

Each student needs a piece of paper and a pen, and the teacher needs a list of questions. This was my list:

  • What’s your name and where are you from?
  • What do you like doing in your free time?
  • Why are you learning English?
  • What is your family like? (you could also say ‘Describe your family’ if the ‘is…like’ structure is too difficult)
  • When was your last holiday? What did you do?
  • What are you going to do this evening?
  • What are your future plans? Is English important for your future?
  • What is one thing you love and one thing you hate?

Students answered the questions one at a time, folded the paper and passed it on, then answered the next question. In the end, we had over one page of writing for each student, something which they are often reluctant to produce otherwise.

Here are some examples (click to enlarge):

Consequences of me Consequences of me

Consequences of me

Students then worked in small groups to read the texts and correct them. Because each piece of paper had writing from all of them, it didn’t feel like they were being targeted. They could also see that everyone in the class makes mistakes, not just them. I monitored and helped them with any questions, but generally they managed to correct most things without my help.

Once they had all looked at every piece of paper, I highlighted the remaining few problems (there were never more than six on any piece of paper) and they looked at them together. You can see these in pink on the examples above.

The whole activity prompted a lot of discussion about the grammar, spellings and meanings, and students were really motivated.