Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher

IH AMT conference 2016

From Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th January, I had the pleasure of attending my third IH DoS conference, or the AMT conference as it’s now known: Academic Management & Trainers. As always, the conference was a very useful weekend, not least for the networking. It was a great opportunity to meet with representatives from across IH Poland since I started as the Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz:

IH Poland contigent at the IH AMT conference 2016

Monica Green‘s presentation about how to maintain positivity and morale in our schools was one of the highlights of the first day. A key point was that the focus should be across the school, including support staff, not just in the staffroom. As she said, “You’re paying the same whether teachers are happy or not, but it’s nicer to work somewhere everyone is happy.” Here are a few of her tips:

  • Morale has to start with managers. If they’re positive, their team is more likely to be.
  • Simple things make a big difference: say ‘Good morning’. Be warm, kind and considerate, show an interest, and listen to people.
  • Be approachable. If you have your own office, leave your door open whenever you can.
  • Make the physical environment pleasant to be in.
  • People who eat together work better together.
  • Make a particular effort with THAT member of staff, rather than avoiding them and hoping they’ll go away.
  • Build relationships based on trust and fairness. Be genuine and believable. Be consistent.
  • Give credit. Show respect. Define your expectations. And avoid micro-management!
  • And if all else fails, great wifi is a good way to increase morale :)

The change in name led to a slight change in focus, with two tracks of afternoon sessions for day one, one covering management issues, and one focussing more on training. It was a difficult choice, but I ended up spending all of my time in the training sessions.

It made a pleasant change to hear Paula de Nagy speaking up for pre-service courses, and highlighting all the ways they really do help teachers, rather than focussing on all the problems with these short courses, which is all too often the dialogue we hear.

Magnus Coney shared some of the things he’s learnt from three books. All of them sound interesting, and the first was mentioned a few times during the conference. [These are all affiliate links, so I’ll get a few pennies if you buy through them.]

  • Visible Learning by John Hattie.
    A meta-analysis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement in learning in general, including a ranking of which factors have the most impact on learning. The two excerpts from the list we saw during the conference included some surprises! Hattie has also published a couple of other books following up on the original.
  • Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham
    An explanation of how and why students learn, courtesy of a cognitive scientist.
  • Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger and Mark A. McDaniel
    Magnus shared a few interesting tips from here about how to help students remember things. One of the most interesting was that students learn things better if they’ve been tested on them before learning. I assume this is because they notice what they don’t know and are therefore motivated to fill in the gaps – a definite argument for test-teach-test! Another idea which I’ve got personal experience of is that things which are harder to learn stick better because you’ve processed them more.

By far the most useful talk on day two of the conference was by Jon Hird. His title was ‘Reaching every student in the classroom: dyslexia and learning English’. I’d highly recommend heading over to his blog and downloading the handout to find out more about what causes dyslexia, and how you can adapt materials so that they are more accessible for dyslexic students. Spoiler: dyslexia doesn’t just mean problems with reading and writing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the person is not intelligent.

Day three brought my first experience of an Open Space event, ably coordinated by Josh Round. Here is a brief description of the format. We started by suggesting ideas/posing questions on post-it notes, which were then loosely grouped. I ended up in a group with questions about supporting newly-qualified teachers. Each group had a secretary who summarised the discussion, and all notes were shared on the IH management pages after the conference. It was a fascinating way to deal with issues pertinent to us, and to remind us that we’re not alone, and many other people have had the same problems as us!

Looking forward to next year already!

30 questions to ask yourself

This time last year, Anna Loseva posted a list of 30 questions to ask yourself on New Year’s Eve. I thought this idea was so good I set a reminder to answer them, so here goes:

1. The best moment of the year.

This is a hard one to choose – I’ve had a pretty amazing year. Having said that, I think it was probably meeting my best friend’s new baby for the first time :)

2. What inspired me the most this year?

The amazing trainers and teachers I’ve worked with throughout the year. I’ve learnt so much from everyone, including remembering what it’s like to be fresh to the job again.

3. The major news of this year.

Becoming the Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz in August.

4. Anthem of the year 2015.

Even though it came out in 2013, I only discovered it a couple of months ago:

5. The most important people in my life.

As always, my friends and my family, but especially some of the new babies who have entered the world this year. There have been a lot of them!

6. What was most difficult for me to do this year?

Saying goodbye to Sevastopol again, this time with no prospect of going back any time soon. And hearing about the ongoing problems there, currently including daily power cuts. Thinking about all of my friends who are going through it, and hoping it ends soon :(

7. What colour was this year?

Erm…not really sure about this kind of question! Possibly blue, but only because of all the blue skies I was lucky enough to experience from February until July as I was in a lot of hot places. Here are some examples from Crimea:

Karadag, Koktebel, Mayak and the mountains of Crimea
8. Which event of the year would I choose to remember forever?

The end of the first week of teaching at IH Bydgoszcz, when I realised that I could do the job and it would all be OK :)

9. Which word did I use most often?

Probably ‘amazing’. Because it was.

10. My most ridiculous purchase of the year.

A double bed. Mostly ridiculous because of what it signifies – a complete change in my lifestyle and hopefully being a bit more settled. That and how much I spent on it!

11. I shouldn’t have experimented with …

Saying yes to two writing projects at the same time. Not good for the work-life balance!

12. This year was wonderful because …

I got to live the dream, travelling to Thailand, Palma, Barcelona and Sevastopol, and now living in Bydgoszcz. I made new friends and had a huge range of amazing experiences that will stay with me forever. My health improved once I became more settled, and I can now eat considerably more than this time last year, including enjoying all the Christmas food I missed out on in 2014.

13. Which inner problem did I solve successfully?

Not sure if this counts as an inner problem, but probably the doubts I had about whether it was the right time to take on a DoS job, or whether I needed more experience behind me. It was, and I didn’t: I love it :)

14. Who did I hug at night?

‘Bydgoszcz bear’, a gift I was given on my first visit to the city in January, and who has sat by my bed ever since.

15. Whose wedding did I have fun at?

No weddings this year, unfortunately. It was all about the babies instead!

16. What was my average salary this year?

Enough to finally get some savings behind me, for the first time in my career!

17. Did I have a conversation that turned everything upside down in my head?

Maybe not one that turned everything upside down, but certainly a couple of life-changing ones (only one of which is mentioned in that post!)

18. What new project did I start in 2014?

My two biggest writing projects so far: watch this space to find out more!

19. If I could become a superhero for just one day, what would I do?

Fly around the world and give all of my friends big hugs, especially the ones who most need them when they need them, instead of months later when we finally get to meet up.

20. What am I dreaming about now?

A family. And a more permanent home.

21. What do I consider to be my most important achievement?

Having built up enough of  a reputation to be asked to speak at the Innovate ELT conference in May 2016. :)

22. This year until this moment in one sentence.

A rollercoaster of emotions.

23. The latest message I’ve sent.


Yep, that was it.

24. A quote that is most suitable for my year.

Difficult to pick just one, so here are three:

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” – Gustave Flaubert

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

“The more I traveled the more I realized that fear makes strangers of people who should be friends.” – Shirley MacLaine

25. Did I achieve everything I’d planned for this year?

The last couple of years haven’t really involved a plan. Things have changed frequently and they’ve brought me to where I am now. I’ve pretty much given up on planning my career – just waiting to see where it takes me :) Lots of ideas, but not much that’s specific!

26. How many new friends did I make this year?

A difficult one to count – lots!

27. Who did I help this year?

Erm…Being completely immodest, I hope I helped CELTA trainees, teachers and students at IH Bydgoszcz, friends, family, randoms on facebook, Twitter, my blog…oh, and cancer research scientists.

28. Where did I travel?

To many more places than I expected, all but one of which I had no idea I’d go to this time last year. What a difference twelve months can make! I feel incredibly lucky.

29. Which projects am I putting off till next year?

The ones I haven’t had time for this year!

30. What do I want to achieve next year?

Ideas brewing for a course, a book, a reinvention of my Infinite ELT Ideas blog, and quite a few things at IH Bydgoszcz. And one or two other things which I won’t write about here…

Happy New Year everyone! Thanks for inspiring me Anna :)

2015 in review

I always find these stats interesting, though I’m not sure if anyone else does! Apparently I’ve shared 98 posts so far this year. This will be number 99, and I’ll try and write another one in the next few hours to get a nice round 100. :)

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 210,000 times in 2015. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 9 days for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Joanna Malefaki challenged me, and how can I refuse? :)


I love podcasts! I subscribe to about 25 different series, mostly from the BBC, and I love discovering new shows. Writing this post has prompted me to click on three more shows which I hadn’t heard of before,  mostly about space, one of the things I’m fascinated by. Listening to discussions with and about Tim Peake, the first British astronaut on the International Space Station, has been giving me shivers all week, marvelling at what humans can do.


I love blogs too :) Joanna’s post inspired me to write this, and this evening I’ve also read about a couple of interesting speaking activities from Hana Ticha and the story of a deafblind woman travelling in Japan.


Apart from writing this post, I’ve also written up feedback for an observation on a young learner class which I watched yesterday, and did a bit of minor rewriting on a few reports from school – we’re in the process of checking them before they’re handed out to the students in the New Year.


The main speaking I did today was giving everyone wishes for Christmas and the New Year, both in the course of the day in general, and in a 15-minute period when we shared Polish wafer bread, something which is traditionally done before the Christmas Eve meal in Polish households.

Polish Christmas wafer bread

Thanks for the challenge Joanna and Merry Christmas everybody!

MaWSIG is the Materials Writing Special Interest Group of IATEFL, the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.

MaWSIG logo

They run a blog which features a new post every month from members of MaWSIG. I think I’m the least experienced writer to feature on there so far :) It’s a real pleasure to be asked to join in with what I have already found to be a very useful blog from a very useful SIG!

My post is called Getting started as a materials writer. I share some of questions I have wanted answers to as I’ve started out with materials writing and tips for my fellow new writers. I’d be interested to see what people add to the list.

On Sunday December 13th 2015 I did a webinar for the Sundays with BELTA series from the Belgian English Language Teachers’ Association.

Sandy - Sundays with BELTA square poster

Here are the slides from my presentation, including links to all of the activities.

All of the links are below, just in case you can’t see them or click on them on the slides:

Many of the activities should be self-explanatory, but if not, you can watch the recording to find out how to run the activity. If you’re a BELTA member, you can watch recordings of webinars from the past six months. Anyone can watch older webinars from the series. My recording should be freely available to all from July 2016.

I’d be interested to hear how you use the activities in your own classrooms, and what adaptations you needed to make to fit your context.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Über-simple articles

Having spent six of the last eight years working in countries where the mother tongue is Slavic, articles are a real problem for most of my students. This is an old photo from Sevastopol, which I’ve just rediscovered, of a diagram which I use again and again to help them understand the rules, although the percentage I attach to it changes from use to use!

Articles flowchart

I encourage students to use the chart whenever they’re not sure which article to choose or why an article has (not) been used. They ask a series of questions:

  • Is the noun countable or uncountable?
  • Countable only: Is it singular or plural?
  • Is it general or specific?

Most of the time, this is enough for them to choose the correct article, or to understand why articles have or have not been used in a reading passage they are analysing. I count ‘a/an’ for first mentions as general because you don’t know which one people are referring to yet. I also point out to them that if in doubt, ‘the’ is correct in 50% of situations!

Of course, if this isn’t enough and you want to cover the exceptions too, you could try my über-complicated articles chart in which I attempted to cover everything! It’s probably time to simplify that a bit :)

Sandy - Sundays with BELTA square poster

On Sunday 13th December at 16:00 CET (and what’s that in your timezone?) I’ll be doing a webinar for the Belgian English Language Teachers Association, which anyone can come along to. I’ll be sharing easily adaptable activities for Christmas and the New Year. You can find out all the details by clicking here or on the poster above. See you there!

For the last few months I’ve been considering different ways of offering professional development to teachers within a school. To that end, here is a collection of alternatives/supplements to weekly seminars in no particular order. 

Lesson jamming: get together with a group of people for a couple of hours, take a prompt and come up with a lesson plan or two, which you can then take away and use. Read more about it (the penultimate section of the post) and an example.

Examining principles: consider your beliefs about what happens in the classroom and the materials you use in more depth, perhaps using some of the activities shared by Jill Hadfield in her IATEFL 2015 talk (the second section of the post)

Debate: take a controversial subject in ELT, and have a debate about it, perhaps encouraging teachers to find out more about it before the time. Potential topics could be the use of course books or whether testing is useful.

Webinars: watch a webinar together, then discuss it. Find some here to start you off.

Reading methodology books: but not alone! You could try something like Lizzie Pinard’s ELT Book Challenge or start a reading group. And it doesn’t have to be books, it could be blogs too.

Using ideas from one of these books about professional development

Action research projects: running workshops on how to identify areas of teaching to research and/or how to make the most of peer observation (or here), sending people off to do their projects, then bringing them back to report on their progress and share their results. Read about examples of projects.

Project-based professional development: as proposed by Mike Harrison, with the idea that teachers do a series of things related to a particular area they would like to investigate. I think it could be seen as a variant on action research.

Reflective practice group: encourage teachers to share reflections on their teaching regularly. Here’s an example from Korea.

Sharing is caring: as an extension, teachers could bring along their current problems in the classroom and the group can brainstorm solutions. This could also lead into more in-depth action research.

Critical incidents: “A critical incident is any unplanned event that occurs during class.” (Farrell in the Jan 2008 ELT Journal) Share an example of a critical incident and discuss different ways of responding to it.

Activity swap-shop: every teacher/four or five teachers bring along activities and share them with the group. They should take about ten minutes, and probably involve a demonstration followed by reflection on which groups it might (not) work with and why.

Video observation: watch part of a lesson together and discuss it.

CPD and a cup of tea: as run at IH Palermo, with teachers working in small groups to discuss various questions related to teaching, with the hot drink of their choice. :)

Open Space: a kind of mini conference, as seen at bigger events like IATEFL conference

Scholarship circles: as run at Sheffield University, consisting of a series of teacher-led groups focussing on different areas, as chosen by the teachers involved. You can join in with as many circles as you like.

Exploiting materials: brainstorming as many ideas as you can based on particular materials through the use of post-it notes.

Bite-size reflection: Anthony Gaughan and Phil Wade have put together a free e-book containing twenty 5-minute reflective ideas.

Abstract art on a classroom wall

Working through the maze of professional development (From ELTpics by Carmen Arias Blázquez, used under a CC 3.0 license)

Let me know if you try out any of these ideas or if you have any to add to the list. 


Zhenya Polosotova shared five different types of reflective sessions on her blog back in December 2013.


Xish learners…

…expect there to be a lot of grammar in the lesson.

…want you to present the grammar clearly.

…want you to focus on grammar.

…don’t want you to focus on grammar.

…want to do a lot of speaking in our classes because they didn’t get that at school.

…are used to red being used when they make mistakes (and are therefore scared of it)

…expect the teacher to know all of the answers.

…are coming to our school because they want a native speaker.

These thoughts have been swirling round in my head for a while. In every country I’ve lived in, I’ve been told variants of the sentences above about learners from that country, plus many other things besides which I can’t remember. It strikes me that these comments are much more universal than many people think. Or is it just me?

The following line is what prompted me to finally get these thoughts out:

“For Croatian learners the idea of the all-knowing, red-pen-wielding instructor is quite common.”

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