Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher

InnovateELT conference confirmed speakers: Ben Goldstein, Chia Suan Chong, Jamie Keddie and Sandy Millin

It is a huge honour for me to announce that I have been invited to speak at the second InnovateELT conference, which takes place in Barcelona on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th May 2016. It’s organised jointly by OxfordTEFL and ELTjam. It will be the first time I’ve been an invited speaker at a conference, and it’s incredibly flattering to see my name up there with Ben, Chia and Jamie, who are all people I look up to and have learnt a lot from.

The conference itself is something quite different from other ELT conferences, which is another reason I’m excited to take part. Ceri Jones wrote about a live class she taught with students during the first conference – one of the features of InnovateELT is the involvement of students, not just teachers, in the whole experience. Another idea is ‘mini plenaries’, just 10 minutes long (here’s Scott Thornbury’s rehearsal for his 2015 plenary). Topics covered also ranged into more unusual areas than standard conferences, including mental health and social inclusion in ELT and English for the Zombie Apocalypse. You can get an idea of the general atmosphere at last year’s conference by watching this video and find out all of the talks which were included by visiting the ELTjam website.

The theme for the 2016 conference is ‘Grassroots: Power to the teacher!’ If you want to get involved, you can find out more via the iELT 2016 website or the Eventbrite listing. Early bird tickets are available until 30th November 2015.

The call for papers has also gone out, with the following options:

  1. 60-minute session with learners
    These sessions will involve you teaching a class of 6–10 Spanish-speaking, B1/B2-level learners observed by delegates. The session should include opportunities for feedback and discussion of the lesson. The room will have an Internet connection and a projector. The students should be included in the feedback sections, which can be in groups or plenary or a combination.
  2. 30-minute workshop/talk
    These sessions will be in rooms with Internet connection and a projector.
  3. 10-minute plenary
    These will take place in the garden. You will have a microphone but no other technical aids. We are requesting submissions from people within and outside the ELT community.
  4. 5-minute pitch
    These will take place in front of a panel of experts from the world of publishing, EdTech and business. If you have a great idea, this is the time to pitch it. All pitches will receive 5 minutes of feedback from the panel.

You have until 1st December 2016 to submit your talk, and you get free entry to the conference if you are accepted for type 1, 2 or 3.

Finally, you can follow all of the announcements related to the conference via Twitter and facebook.

I hope to see some of you there!

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the ‘blogs‘ section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you! Here are the topics for September 2015, some of which are to celebrate World Teaching Day, and anyone is welcome to join in. If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

My contribution for September includes some of the highlights of my teaching life – a random collection of moments showing how I’ve evolved as a teacher.

Road in Utah, USA

If you do choose to join in, why not share the link here so that others can read your posts?

Happy 5th Birthday #ELTchat!

#ELTchat changed my life.

It introduced me to an amazing group of educators around the world.

It opened my eyes to the range of classrooms and contexts in which English is taught.

It gave me ideas for my classes.

It inspired me.

It led me to start this blog and to many of the posts on it.

It took me to conferences.

It gave me opportunities.

And most importantly, it brought me many, many friends.

ELTchat birthday collage - showing images of many of the friends I've met through the Twitter chats

Thank you so much to everyone who keeps it going, and I hope I can join you a little more often now!

Read more comments from #ELTchatters on the treasure trove that is the ELTchat blog and join in with the celebratory chat tomorrow night, Wednesday 16th September at 21:00 BST. See you there!

Diary of a new DoS

This is a record of my first three weeks as a Director of Studies at a large school. Although I’ve held a DoS position before, it was at a much smaller school and my job looked very different, consisting mostly of teaching, with some management. Here I’ll only teach one group a week, with the rest of my time focussing on admin and management activities. This diary should give you a taster of the kind of things it involves.

Day 0

I’m on my way to Bydgoszcz, Poland, to start my new job and new life as Director of Studies of the International House school there. The offer to take up the post came when I met the previous incumbent, Tim, at the IH DoS conference in January this year. At the end of January I visited Bydgoszcz for a few days to see the school and decide whether I wanted to work there. I love Central Europe and it seemed like the right step to take, so I accepted after a little persuasion – I wasn’t quite sure I was ready to manage such a big school, but the more I think about it, the more I think I can do it.

It seems like I’ve been waiting forever for this journey, but it’s only been nine months. In preparation for moving I’ve been using memrise to learn Polish vocabulary for a few minutes every day, have listened to a few management podcasts, and have read management blogs with an eye to what I can bring to the school. Really though, I’m not sure exactly what to expect or what else I can do. Luckily I’ll have three weeks before the teachers arrive and four weeks before classes start to try and get my head around everything.

View from Kaminskiego bridge - sculpture of a man on a trapeze wire over the River Brda

Later: I flew from London to Luton to Poznan, and the director of the school, G, was waiting to meet me at the airport – it’s so nice when someone from the school is there to take care of you when you arrive in a new place. It makes you feel so welcomed. Two hours later, we got to my new flat, next to the university’s botanic gardens, and a ten-minute walk from the school. I think I’m going to like it here.f ☺

Day 1

The first job was to brainstorm all the areas Tim and I thought I needed to know about in order to do the job successfully, then work out where to start. Since writing the initial list, it’s pretty much doubled in length and only two things have been crossed off it so far!

We began with looking at the recruitment Tim had done over the summer and deciding whether we would need any more teachers before the beginning of the year. Tim told me about each of the teachers returning from last year, and we looked at the CVs of the new teachers. That gave me an idea of the team I’ll be working with and I’ve already started to think about what classes would and wouldn’t be suitable for each teacher.

I spent the evening unpacking, making my first trip to the supermarket, cooking, and generally settling in at my flat.

Day 2

Following on from discussing recruitment yesterday, Tim showed me how to advertise jobs on the IH website and we put together an advert to fill our last vacancy.

Later in the day, ST1, the senior teacher from last year, came in for a chat. This was a chance for us to get to know each other a bit and decide what we need to focus on when he comes back to school next week. He also showed me the coursebooks and associated materials available for the teachers and talked me through the school’s placement test, ready for us to begin testing new students next week.

In between all of that I’ve been reading various documents on the computer and generally familiarising myself with the files there, which Tim has thankfully left in brilliant order for me – it’s so much easier taking over an organised computer system and knowing what’s relevant!

Day 3

I started off reading more of the files on the computer and asking Tim a long list of questions based on them. We archived a few things and updated a few others.

For lunch I took advantage of the sunshine and the warm weather to eat outside. Tim told me about a park hiding behind the buildings opposite the school – it took me a whole 30 seconds to get there. :) I think I’ll be spending as much time as I can there in my breaks to make sure I get out of school when I can, helping me in my quest for a good work-life balance.

After lunch we met a potential senior teacher (a returner from last year) and talked to him about what the job would involve. He’s going to think about it and come back to us tomorrow.

We then started out on the timetable, which is probably the area I’ve been most worried about because of the number of permutations it involves. Everything revolves around getting the timetable right, and while I’ll inevitably make a mistake with it at some point, I’d like to put that point off for as long as possible! Tim talked me through his timetable spreadsheet and I made notes with codes and tips. He also explained how the 121 system works.

To finish the day we toured the classrooms and he showed me the technology set-up with projectors and provision for laptops.

Day 4

Tim and I spent a large chunk of today working on the timetable. We started by working out who’s probably going to travel to our other two sites, followed by dividing up teen and young learner classes based on preferences and experience. We’ll continue with adult classes tomorrow.

The teacher we offered the senior position to yesterday accepted, and will henceforth be known as ST2 ;) I’m pleased about this because it means there will be more people to share the workload with, and whose experience and knowledge of the school I will be able to draw on more easily. I spoke to him alone, my first individual act as DoS.

I spoke to G about a couple of conferences I’d like to go to this year, and he is willing for me to attend them as long as I make provisions for any days I might miss. It’s wonderful to be working at a school which is so supportive – exactly the kind of ethos I would like be able to offer to my teaching team.

Tim showed me around Outlook, a programme I’ve mostly managed to avoid so far but will now have to get to grips with. The added challenge is that it’s all in Polish! We weeded out messages which are now irrelevant and saved examples of emails which might be useful to me in the future – it’s good to see how certain communications can be worded to make sure I am as clear and diplomatic as possible when it’s called for.

The gaps in the day were filled with general introductions to standby/overtime, ordering books, the young learner classroom management system, and a few other things which I can’t remember now.

Day 5

After being shown how to use Outlook yesterday I was able to weed out a lot of emails from last year which I don’t need any more, save a few examples of useful communications and organise what was left into folders, meaning I reached Inbox Zero :) I don’t expect it to last…

We finished the timetable so far, adding in the final classes that we didn’t manage to do yesterday. Tim helped me to post my first job advert on

Apart from that I finished going through all of the folders on the computer, deleting old files, creating a few templates for future years and blank documents for this academic year and writing a list of questions to ask Tim on Monday.

All in all, it’s been a productive week. I feel like I have a basic handle on a lot of aspects of the job, and feel much more aware of the kind of tasks my working week and year will involve.

Days 6 and 7

To begin my quest to have a healthy work-life balance, I spent a lovely weekend doing lots of relaxing things, with a tiny bit of finishing off some writing work from the summer and a couple of quick journal articles. I visited the forest park on the outskirts of the city by myself, and went to a food and handicrafts fair and explored the old city centre with a new, local, friend who I met through a member of my PLN (personal learning network).

Myslecinek park

I finished the weekend off by enjoying the final ‘River Music’ concert of the summer, a jazz band playing on a boat outside the opera house in perfect weather conditions.

Boat and crowd in front of the Opera Novy for the 'River Music' concert

Day 8

Today was long! The school has come to life with lots of students coming in for placement tests; the senior teachers were there putting everything back into the newly refurbished staffrooms, and the IHCYLT (IH Certificate in Young Learners and Teenagers) started, meaning we have two trainers and eleven trainees here for two weeks, including our first two young learner/teen groups of this academic year.

I went through applications sent in reply to the advert from Friday and made my first steps in solo recruitment, speaking to some of the applicants on the phone. I’ve realised I’m not really a phone person, and really ought to do something about that!

I shadowed Tim on a few placement tests, getting a feel for the way they are similar and different to ones I’ve done before.

At the end of the day I stayed a bit later to reorganise the big pile of paper I’d built up over the previous week. The main thing I wanted to achieve was to salvage useful notes from a double-sided piece of A4 that has so many ideas, plans and crossings out on it that it’s become overwhelming – I feel so much better now that they’re organised between my weekly planner, my academic year diary and a couple of post-it notes. There’s no organisational task you can’t improve with the right stationery. :)

Day 9

Today has been in the diary for about two months, so it was good to finally get to it. The DoS and senior teacher from IH Torun joined our senior management team for the day to plan the shape of our year. This was achieved through a large wall planner and a copious amount of post-it notes, with reference to last year’s year plan. We also tried to move things around to avoid bottlenecks that happened last year. I feel much more prepared for the year now I know roughly what’s going to happen when. It was also a great opportunity to identify areas where the two schools can collaborate and ease the workload for all of us. All in all, a very useful day.

Day 10

Now that the year plan has been done, I feel like the year has started properly and I can begin to get my teeth into it. ST1 and I worked out how many teachers’ sets of books we need, particularly of new editions of books which we’ll be using for the first time. The sooner we get them, the sooner we can plan the pacing schedule for each book for the year in order to help teachers stay on track.

Tim showed me how to calculate overtime each month – it’s quite an overwhelming spreadsheet when you first look at it, but you don’t actually have to enter that much information as most of it deals with automatic calculations based on what you put in. After that we finished going through the questions I’d built up through last week based on the computer system – it was a great feeling to throw away the piece of paper with them all on! Meanwhile, the two STs planned the seating arrangements for the staffrooms and checked what stationery we already have. We also all did a few placement tests. It’s great to know that I have so much support as I’m going through this whole process.

Staff room, IH Bydgoszcz

The whole senior management team looked at sessions for induction week and checked what we already have for them to work out how much planning we each need to do to prepare for it. We also started to consider our first teacher development sessions for the year.
Having finalised everything for induction, I dealt with email from today, following up on a few bits of school preparation with the owner and sending out my first email to all of the teachers, including information about induction and start dates so they know what to expect in their first week.

Day 11

We started the day with a chat about fixtures and fittings with the owner, following yesterday’s email. I also dealt with a few job applications left from yesterday.

Tim and I finalised my job description, updating it from his. The bulk of the day was then spent considering teacher development. The STs worked on the workshop programme for the year, while Tim talked me through the observation process. We also looked at student feedback, dealing with student issues and following up on suggestions from teachers at the end of last year. I also did a 1-2-1 placement test for a high-level student who would like medical English. Can anybody recommend good materials for that?

There were lots of bitty things, and I sense this is going to reflect my average working day much more than some of the others I’ve recorded so far!

On a happy side note, I finally managed to get the wifi connected at home. Without it, I’ve managed to go for a walk each evening and keep working on my cross stitch. On my first night with it, having made sure I went for a walk before I tried to connect to the net, I’m already staying up later than normal to spend time on the computer… Definitely need to stop that if the work-life balance is going to be healthily maintained!

Day 12

Timetabling was the order of the morning, returning to the work Tim and I did last week to update it with information from new placement tests. I also continued to work on recruitment. I went through my contract with the school director, made arrangements with a teacher about the very young learner playgroups and wrote out my to-do list ready for next week. Written like that, it doesn’t look like much, but it definitely filled the day!

Day 13 and 14

To continue the process of setting up my new life, I went to a board game shop which was recommended to me, and where I will probably end up spending quite a lot of time and money! Hopefully it will be the source of a few new friends, especially as my Polish improves. You can also borrow games from there, so I’ll see if anyone from school will join me to play them :) I’ve also registered for the bikes which are all over the city, making it easier for me to travel even further under my own steam. I discovered that I can do the 20-minute walk from my flat to the Old Town almost entirely through or next to parks – amazing!

Cathedral of St. Martin and Mikulas and archaeology museum

Day 15

Today was all about two things: recruitment and the timetable. I started by re-reading the school handbook. I first read it in January, when I applied for the DoS job, but had forgotten quite a lot in the interim. Since I was assuming that our interviewees had read it, I thought it was probably a good time to revisit it! I listened in to Tim doing one interview, then did my first one. It was extremely useful to do this because it helped me to notice things I would probably have taken much longer to arrive at if I’d started interviewing alone. The rest of the day was spent beginning to put 121 and business classes into the timetable, a much more challenging process than the groups we started with, as now there are irregular time slots, more preferences, and fuller timetables to juggle with. It’s one big jigsaw puzzle, and we won’t have all of the pieces until late next week, but we have to start somewhere!

Day 16

This was my first day of independence, as Tim won’t be in again until Friday. It gave me a real flavour of what my working days will look like from now on: I planned to do about eight different things, managed about three, and had about six other things added to be done throughout the day. It was actually much more what I was expecting the job to be like when I arrived, so I’ve been grateful for the days when I have managed to do everything I wanted to so far!

I spent a large part of the day with ST1 and ST2, looking at two areas identified as problems last year and coming up with potential solutions for them, resulting in a long email summarising our discussion and a few new tasks for each of us to get the ball rolling. We worked on their training sessions for induction week, and I realised yet again how valuable the experience of being a CELTA tutor for the past year has been, and how much I’ve picked up from my colleagues about what makes a good training session (I hope!)

Other tasks for today included: finalising my contract, interviewing a Polish language teacher, doing a 121 needs analysis, following up on references, playing with the software to accompany one of our course books…and probably a few more things I’ve forgotten!

Day 17

This morning I took part in my first business meeting, when G and I went out to a company to ‘sell’ them the school and tell them what we can offer. Even though I’ve only been at IH Bydgoszcz for a few weeks, having worked for International House for seven years meant I could still contribute evenly to the discussion, something I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do before we went.

The afternoon was dedicated to getting my sessions ready for induction week, and checking that ST1 and ST2 were happy with the revisions they’d made to their sessions. I also started planning a placement testing schedule for next week and replied to a few emails.

Day 18

My last ‘free’ day of no teachers, no students and working on my own priorities! We’d already decided that Tim being back on Friday would mean focussing on the timetable, which meant this was my last day of induction preparation. I made sure that I am comfortable with all of the admin systems that I need to present to the teachers next week, reorganised a few of the relevant documents and put together my session. In between those things I placement tested three students, one of whom had spent six months at primary school in the UK. If you have any suggestions for resources for him, I’d be really grateful! I have a few ideas, but more are always welcome. The two STs got through a lot of their pre-induction things too – it’s a pleasure working with two people who are so professional. :)

Day 19

Today was dedicated to the timetable. Tim showed me how to calculate how many teachers we need based on the latest information about business and 121 classes, and we fitted as much information as we could into the paper versions of the timetables we’ve been using as a draft. On Monday I’ll need to put it all on to the computer as soon as possible so that we can confirm it with the students. There is still some information coming in with more students signing up all the time, so it won’t be finalised until next week, but I feel like we’ve broken the back of it. I’m happy with the balance of classes, support groups for teachers, and being able to satisfy the majority of the teachers’ requests. As a result of this, I also did my first full job interview and made my first hiring decision. To round off the day, I finalised the induction week placement testing schedule and timetable, and answered last-minute questions on induction sessions from ST1 and ST2.

Church of St Vincent and St Paul


Tim has staged this three-week transition process so well that I feel like I really know what to expect from the job. The support I’ve had from ST1 and ST2 has been invaluable in getting my head around the systems at the school, and we’ve already made some slight changes based on feedback from last year. I’ve learnt so much already, and I know that process will continue.

Before I arrived I wasn’t sure how I would manage to juggle everything at the same time, but having this time to settle in before induction and the students’ arrival has given me the opportunity to put various systems in place which I hope will make my job easier as the year progresses. I’ve also been able to kick-start my social life and make myself feel at home in Bydgoszcz, a very important part of having a healthy work-life balance.

I’m looking forward to what the rest of the year will bring, and to sharing some of that journey with you here (although I promise it won’t normally be this long!)


In a quest to kill many birds with one stone, I had my first flamenco lesson last night. This helped me to:

  • get some exercise;
  • start my social life outside school;
  • meet some new people;
  • switch off completely from work;
  • get intensive Polish listening practice;
  • try something completely new.
Flamenco band, Brno

Not quite me, yet!

I’d emailed the teacher beforehand to find out whether she thought I’d be able to manage in the class and to check whether she spoke any English. Between my pre-intermediate Czech/Russian and her pre-int Spanish/English, she thought it would be fine.

The class was in a beautiful ballroom, decorated by Mucha images. There were eight of us in the group, and I was pleased that she didn’t single me out too much, which I know it could be easy for a teacher to do if they’re not sure the student understands.

In general, the class was a great experience for a beginner. The teacher was patient, and included lots of variety. The lesson began by putting us all at our ease, and reassuring us about the kind of clothes and shoes we were wearing – nobody was quite sure what we needed for the first lesson.

We then focussed on one area at a time, with enough repetition and challenge to feel like you were learning, but not so much that it felt impossible. Everything was introduced in small steps, with a demonstration followed by a little practice, then a slightly harder version of the same thing. We worked with our arms first, learning various movements then putting it together to music. This was repeated with our hands, then with our feet. In between each set of movements, the teacher told us something about flamenco, covering types of flamenco and some of the history of the dance. Although I only caught snatches of it, it was interesting and a welcome break for our bodies.

Most importantly, she was very supportive when we made a mistake or couldn’t understand exactly what we were supposed to do. She was aware of all of her students and moved around the room constantly to ensure we could all see. She would also move us into the correct position and show us what to do repeatedly if necessary.

All in all, a great example of a lesson, and I’m looking forward to next week :)

At IATEFL 2015 Manchester I was disappointed to miss a workshop by Helen Dennis-Smith with tips for more mature CELTA trainees on how to enter the profession once they’d finished their course. I contacted her and she very kindly agreed to write this post for me. She’s now a teacher at Wimbledon School of English, London, UK. Helen Dennis-Smith headshotWimbledon School of English logo

My experience

I entered the EFL profession at the age of 56 in 2010, taking my CELTA in London and needing to sell myself into an overcrowded market place. My recommendation is to tailor the way you market yourself to carefully reflect the experience you have and the subsequent impact that this will have on your teaching.

My own experience looks like this:

Mind map showing Helen's experience, divided into previous experience: love of languages, Chinese primary school, business career, raising a family, primary and secondary schools, school governor; and impact on teaching: sympathetic to the difficulty of learning a new language, celebrate different types of education and value different expectation, not afraid to teach business of legal English etc, appreciate some of the difficulties of management and be supportive, not scared of failure, can attempt to understand what makes younger learners tick and empathise, appreciate the legal implications of health and safety, employment law, safeguarding etc

I recommend taking the time to complete this kind of exercise for yourself before applying for jobs. The market place is tough, and your application needs to make it as clear as possible that the school you want to work for is going to benefit hugely by employing a more mature teacher than a very young one.

The challenges and how we can rise to them

Having obtained my first job, my initial thinking was to work as many hours as possible in as short a space of time as I could. This was based on my research into the market place in London, where it had become clear that permanent jobs in good quality schools were given largely to DELTA qualified teachers rather than CELTA teachers. The result of that was that I was eligible to start my DELTA just two years after initially qualifying. This also potentially opens up pathways into management for anyone considering this.

It also seemed essential to consider the need to squash the lifecycle of a teacher into a much shorter time than most teachers.

I recommend watching a presentation given by Tessa Woodward, a former president of IATEFL, about the various phases of teaching: The Professional Life Cycles of Teachers.

In this video she suggests that we need to start tinkering with our teaching as soon as we have got through the initial survival phase. This implies that we will experiment with different teaching styles, approaches and activities and never be afraid to try something out. Younger teachers may take some years in the survival phase. We do not have such luxury!

By doing this, we also make ourselves more marketable, as we can talk from direct experience both in applications and at interview and indicate clearly that we are not going to get stuck in a conservative approach to methodology.

The final area I would like to highlight is technology. It seems to me very important to keep up-to-date with what is available in terms of technology wherever you are teaching, but it is also important not to attempt to be seen as “cool” by the students. For me, the best approach has been to let, to some extent, the students teach me! Enquire what they use and what they would like to be able to use in class and let them show you where to find it and then adapt it for teaching purposes. The students will love to be the teacher for a while.

Last of all, we need to remember why we started teaching English. We need to enjoy ourselves, so when you get that first, albeit seemingly elusive job, make sure you have fun!

If you have any questions, you are welcome to contact me at or via the Wimbledon School of English website. You can also tweet me.

With thanks to Sandy Millin for allowing me to be a guest writer on her blog.

* Or: things I wish Brits would appreciate more

[This post has been sitting in my drafts since the beginning of May. As my facebook wall is now flooded with images of the refugees escaping to Europe, particularly from Syria, it feels like exactly the right time to finish it and get it published.]

It frustrates me when I hear people complaining about life in the UK because they don’t realise how good they have it and they don’t make the most of what they have. That’s not to say there are no problems which we need to solve, but sometimes there is so much negativity, it can outweigh the positives.

I know that a lot of these things are ones I appreciate because I have seen contrasts during my travels, and that many people haven’t been as lucky as I have with their opportunities to see the world and to meet people from so many different countries, which obviously gives me a different perspective on life in the UK. Many people I’ve met dream of coming to the UK and spend their whole lives working towards it. Their dedication is amazing, and I always hope it will work out for them, and that when they arrive they will not be met by negativity.

Here are a few things we have which I am grateful for, in no particular order:

  • very little corruption
  • rule of law
  • effective emergency services
  • a free health system
  • social security
  • education for all
  • one of the most respected university systems in the world
  • good quality roads
  • public transport across the country
  • one of the most useful passports in the world
  • an ethnically and culturally diverse population
  • support for anyone who is discriminated against for reasons of gender, race or disability
  • reliable water and electricity supplies

Lake District tree

  • some of the safest weather in the world
  • minimal threat of huge natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and hurricanes
  • a huge choice of food
  • rubbish collection and recycling
  • very few stray dogs and cats
  • a free press
  • the right to argue with and be cynical about authority
  • the right to vote
  • the right to protest freely

Why shouldn’t we share these benefits with those who need them?

Last summer I had the immense pleasure of meeting and working with M, a nine year old from St. Petersburg who spends her summers in Sevastopol. I decided to blog about her classes because I found it very difficult to find information about how to teach a 121 class with a young learner who was almost completely blind, and hoped my posts would help others. Teaching M required me to approach lessons in a completely different way and the result on my blog was the Rethinking the Visual series. If you’d like more background I’d recommend reading them first.

This year I was back in Sevastopol for four weeks to do a CELTA course, and I was very happy when, on my first day at school, M and her mum came in to see if she could have classes for the summer. They’d just arrived in the city and didn’t realise I was there, so there was lots of hugs and laughter :)

The first lesson we had was based around a present I’d bought her just one week before at the Casa Battló in Barcelona, without knowing if I’d see her or not.

This is the only picture I can find of the gift – a braille picture of the house. I was so excited when I saw it and bought it instantly because I’ve never seen anything like it before (please let me know if you have and where I can get others!) M really enjoyed exploring it, and we revised some house vocabulary. Using the palm of her hand I showed her where Spain is in relation to Crimea and where Barcelona is in Spain. We also talked about Gaudi.

Over the next four weeks I had eight one-hour lessons with M, and I was very happy to see how much difference another year of school has made to her reading and writing abilities. Last year she vaguely knew the letters in braille, and I needed to refer to my list often to confirm which dots she needed to make some of the letters. She can now read braille pretty fluently, and write it confidently. We wrote down new vocabulary in every lesson, which is a big difference from last year, and she could still remember where Barcelona is and who Gaudi was at the end of the month.

The main problem she still has is that of all children her age (and many adults too!): spelling. Whenever M wrote down new words I always tried to elicit the spelling from her, and she had about an 80% hit rate. During one lesson she asked me about how to know if a word is spelt with ‘c’ or ‘k’. It happened to be the first lesson when I was being observed by A, the teacher who has taken over from me for the rest of the summer. Between us we came up with sets of words to help M remember some spelling rules. I thought we’d come up with most of the c/k rules during that hour, but kept coming across more exceptions or ‘groups’ during the rest of the month – the rules are so much more complicated than you can come up with off the top of your head!

M’s school had lent her two books for the summer, Mary Poppins, and another of short 1-2 page texts accompanied by exercises on topics such as dinosaurs and Tutankhamun. Some of our lessons were spent reading the short texts, with M spelling out any words she didn’t know. We would then take the exercises and answer them orally, and I would try to expand her world knowledge wherever I could. After reading a text about the jungle, she was particularly excited to discover I’d lived in one for four months and asked me lots of questions about the experience. I used her hand again to introduce her to Borneo.

Most of the texts were accompanied by a project, although I don’t think they were designed with visually impaired students in mind. Her school wanted her to do one of these projects as part of her summer homework, but it was difficult for her parents to help her because they don’t speak English. M chose a project about dinosaurs. In it, she needed to find out about different dinosaurs and put together fact files about them. The problem is that she still doesn’t know how to use a computer, so the only ways she can do research are if she is lucky enough to be in a braille library (do such things exist? I assume they must somewhere!) or if someone else does it for and tells her about it, which is what we did. I went on to a dinosaur site and tried to give her as much autonomy as possible by getting her to choose the ones she wanted to find out about and tell me exactly what she wanted to know – I tried to work as a search engine rather than doing the work for her. The project also said that she should draw or find pictures of the dinosaurs, but we ran out of time to do that, so I hope her parents will be able to help her with that.

M really wanted to find a girl in the UK to chat with. She’s ten now and was looking for someone of a similar age. I have a thirteen-year-old cousin so have put them in touch. They’ve sent each other a couple of voice messages. M was very excited by the exchange and is looking forward to having a proper Skype chat with my cousin. If you know a ten-year-old girl with a B1 or higher level of English who’d like to chat with M, let me know and I can try to put them in touch.

The biggest challenge with the lessons this year was that they were at school rather than at her house. In the third lesson, when we were in our third different classroom, I gave her a tour of the school, showing her where all of the rooms and doors were so she could find her own way around and had a better idea of the size of the rooms and school. It was interesting for me to see how being in a different environment affected her confidence initially, and how much more comfortable she obviously felt once she knew the layout of the school.

I did get to go to her house one day though, for pancakes and home-made cake with her family. We explored their garden, full of home-grown fruit and veg, and played with her two little sisters, the older of whom was trying to teach me Russian by pointing at a picture of a unicorn and saying the word repeatedly until I said it back to her :) She was also singing ‘Let it go’ when we arrived, but only knew that line. Films and songs are certainly powerful – she’s four!

I’ve really enjoyed teaching M again this summer. I have no idea when I’ll be back in Sevastopol, or if I’ll be in Saint Petersburg at some point, so I’m not sure if or when I’ll see M again. I really hope I do because she is one of the fastest learners I’ve ever met. She’s already B1 (intermediate) in English, and has just started learning Spanish. I’m sure she’ll be an interpreter one day. I’ll watch her progress with great interest, and I hope I’ll get to teach her again at some point.

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the blogs section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you! Here are the topics for July 2015, and anyone is welcome to join in. If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

My contribution for July is a collection of zero prep activities from other people’s blogs, plus one recommended book. They should help you if you’re doing a last-minute cover class. Katherine Bilsborough has also written on the same topic.

Idea and light bulb on blackboard

If you do choose to join in, why not share the link here so that others can read your posts?

Sevastopol moments

The views from Dasha’s house, Lisa’s flat, Tanya’s flat

Views of Sevastopol

Returning to Chersones and Silver Strings

Chersones Greek temple and Silver Strings waterfall

Seeing Foros from a different angle

Foros church

Going to Livadia for the first time

Livadia Palace

The beaches of Balaklava, Pobedi and Fiolent

Silver beach and Diana's Grotto beach


Panorama building and bits of the Crimean War painting inside

A tour of Crimea, from Karadag along the coast back to Sevastopol

Karadag, Koktebel, Mayak and the mountains of Crimea

The north side with Daria

Fort on the North Side of Sevastopol Bay

Time with Olga and Andrey

Crumble (kramBOL) with Olga, Lisa and her sons

Games with Sasha and Tony

Long chats with Anna

Dinner with Tanya and Lena

Unexpected meetings on day one, leading to lessons with M again

Visiting M and her family for pancakes, unicorns and dinosaurs

A beach barbecue with Ira and friends

Campfire on Inger beach, near Balaklava

Seeing how children have grown and finding out about ones to come

Happy smiling faces at the end of CELTA

Being reunited with all of my things

Getting back into Russian

Knowing how everything works

Observing the changes

Feeling like I’ve never left


Hoping to return

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