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

Archive for the ‘Assorted Thoughts’ Category

2020

It’s been quite a year. Sometimes it’s felt like hard going, but there have been a lot of highlights, and that’s what I want to look back on at the end of the year. Here goes…

January

I caught up with a friend who I hadn’t seen for 16 years, then went to the IH AMT conference.

I submitted my assignments for my first NILE MA module in Trainer Development, and got a distinction.

I travelled to the UK for a family christening. That week I managed to meet up with my best friend too (that’s important as it’s the only time I’ve seen her in person this year).

February

A birthday cake made of an open book with music notes at the front, and a 'pile' of two books at the back with 'Kate' and 'sixty' written on the spine
My mum’s 60th birthday cake, as made by Amber, my amazing cousin

The following weekend we all got together again for my mum’s 60th. I saw my mum on the morning of her birthday on February 3rd (hope it’s not too much longer before I see her again!)

The aviation museum in Toulouse

I got the train to Toulouse for a few days with a friend, my first time in that part of the world, then carried on to Barcelona for the IH Barcelona conference, where I presented a few ways to tweak speaking activities. The day I arrived I had time to visit Tibidabo for the first time.

The cathedral on Mount Tibidabo in Barcelona

I started gardening for the first time, with the aim of making better use of my balcony and perhaps growing something I could eat.

March

We managed to move our school fully online in two days, thanks to the help and support of IH World. I cried more than once at the amazing way that our staff pulled together to make it all happen so smoothly…just one of many times this year I was grateful to be at IH Bydgoszcz and part of the IH family.

I wrote the first post in my series connected to teaching on Zoom, and it’s been by far the most successful post on my blog all year. My blogging generally stepped up a notch at this point, as it felt like there was so much to process – writing about it really does help. Thanks to everyone who’s read and shared these posts this year.

April

I was a bit worried about my birthday, but I needn’t have been. One lovely friend organised a Zoom birthday party for me, and our teachers had a social that evening where we all played games. It was a lovely day in the end.

Our amazing school Director hand-delivered all of the teachers things to help us stay safe during the first lockdown, and a clockwork Easter chick and a traditional Easter biscuit to make us smile too.

A bottle of disinfectant, face masks, latex gloves, a  yellow clockwork chick, and an Easter biscuit in a box

I made my first hot cross buns.

Hot cross buns on a cooling rack

I organised games on Zoom for the whole family for Easter.

Two groups of old friends and one group of new friends started to meet regularly on Zoom – I’ve definitely grown closer to all of them this year.

I took part in my first panel discussion, an IATEFL online event about moving teaching online.

May

My baking experiments have continued all year, but these cinnamon whirls were a particular success 🙂

A tray of cinnamon whirls

I moved my garden outside and the first flower appeared on a courgette – I was so excited to know I’d grown this!

A courgette plant with one yellow flower

June

I bought a bike and used it to do a lot of exploration in the forest. I’ve spent more time in the forest over the last six months than I probably did in the 4.5 years before that!

My red bike on a path in the forest

At the end of the month I managed a couple of day trips with my colleagues as Poland opened up again, both to places I’d been wanting to visit for a long time. The first was to Inowroclaw, the site of this fascinating piece of architecture designed to collect salt from the local water.

Tall willow (?) walls supported by wooden pillars at an angle, with pillars at various points along the wall. In the centre of the structure is grass

The second was to Malbork, a castle built by the Teutonic knights, and the largest castle in the world.

Malbork Castle - a red-brick fortress with a wall in the foreground, a church in the middle and a tall central tower in the background

July

I did my first online CELTA, and blogged about it with Stephanie Wilbur. It was fascinating comparing our experiences of the course.

I got my first harvest from my little balcony garden – some tiny carrots, beetroot and courgettes.

Carrots, beetroot and courgettes - all very tiny with lots of greenery

August

I visited a local beauty spot and saw more butterflies than I’ve ever seen in one place outside a butterfly house. They posed nicely for photos too 🙂

An orange butterfly with black spots sitting on lavendar

I managed a short holiday to the Polish coast, including a trip on the ‘boat on grass‘ near Elblag…

A boat about to leave the water and be lifted up a grass slope on rails

In Frombork, I saw the grave of Copernicus. This is probably the closest I’ve ever got to having a spiritual moment (I’m not religious at all) – standing so close to a person who moved the world, in a place I know he had lived and worked and stood too. I also fulfilled a lifelong dream: I saw Jupiter and three of its moons, and Saturn and its rings, through a telescope – I’d always wanted to see planets up close.

The monument to Copernicus at his grave

I had a weekend away in this beautiful place near Bydgoszcz, dancing flamenco and eating amazing food with interesting people who were patient with my Polish 🙂

Three white timber-framed buildings surrounded by greenery with a blue sky. In the foreground is  grass with a bench and two tables

Most importantly, August was when I met my boyfriend online and we clicked instantly.

September

Our flamenco concert, postponed from June, happened – there were lots of restrictions (rightly!) but we managed to do it. Well done to Dorota, our amazing teacher, for pulling it all together.

An empty, blue-lit stage. The curtains are closed, There are seats spaced out at the back of the stage

We started off our new school year successfully, combining in class and online lessons in case of a second lockdown – it was so good to be in a classroom with students again! Socially-distanced teaching wasn’t too bad either.

My balcony garden was at its peak.

Flowering petunias

I got to actually meet my boyfriend in person 🙂 My first trip to the UK since February.

October

I managed another quick trip to the UK before lockdowns and restrictions came into force again.

Church and ivy-covered cottages in an English village

I celebrated my 10th blog-iversary – time flies!

November

Despite my flights being cancelled, I managed to spend a relaxing 5-day holiday apart together with my boyfriend.

I was a plenary speaker for KOTESOL.

December

I had fun joining the TEFL Commute team for an episode of their podcast.

Despite not being able to get on my planned flight to the UK, I managed a relaxed Christmas Day, and have had lots of love and support from family and friends.

Overall

I’ve spent more time outside, learnt to garden done more cooking and baking, spent more time appreciating my flat and balcony, chatted more often to more friends, presented at and attended more conferences, learnt far more about teaching in a far shorter period of time than I ever expected to at this point in my career, and met my amazingly lovely boyfriend. So yes, some things haven’t happened, and I haven’t been able to be in the same place as many people I love (soon, I hope!), but on balance, I have to say it’s been a pretty good year.

What good things have happened for you this year?

The TEFL Commute podcasts podcast

The TEFL Commute Podcast is presented by Shaun Wilden and Lindsay Clandfield and produced by James Taylor. In each episode they take a theme and discuss it for around 30 minutes (apart from their excellent ‘Who’s Zooming Who?’ mini series, where each episode was 10 minutes and packed with useful tips and ideas). It’s a podcast that’s not about language teaching, but the topic always seems to come up, as they say in the tag line.

At the end of each series, they have a round table episode, with a guest joining the three of them to discuss a particular topic. For the end of series 12, I was very happy to be invited to talk about a subject close to my heart: podcasts. Each of us talked about three podcasts we enjoy: one about language, one about teaching, and one ‘anything goes’. You can listen to the episode here, and hopefully find something new to listen to as a result (I know I did!)

Thanks to Shaun, Lindsay and James for having me as a guest on TEFL Commute. I really enjoyed it and hope I’ll be back soon!

Days of the week (come on everybody, sing the days of the week!)

This week I’ve managed to have two engaging and useful lessons with my beginner teens – that doesn’t always happen online!

The first lesson was yes/no questions with ‘be’, which we worked on with a PowerPoint where we moved sentences around to make the questions. After that, the students saw statements which they turned into questions, before asking each other questions in the chatbox and writing short answers.

The beginning of the second lesson repeated the final activity from the previous lesson – I’ve found this to be a very successful pattern with this group as they feel comfortable repeating the same activity again. It meant I could focus on structures they’d had trouble with, like Yes, I’m. No, I not. or pairing the wrong short answer with the question.

But the reason I’m writing the post, and the thing which was the absolute winner for this group of 10-12 students was this song:

I’ve had it in my head for most of the subsequent three days! The students were varyingly super excited and cringing when they first head the song, but even the student who originally put a cushion over his face was bopping away by the end and got really into it. Most of the group knew at least some of the days before we started (I asked each of them), so I played the song, put them into breakout rooms and showed them how to share screen. They had 10 minutes to sing whatever they wanted – either focussing on the days, or the other parts of the song if they already knew the days.

After that, I went through Quizlet Spell in open class, highlighting funky spellings like Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The students then had about 5 minutes to play by themselves. In breakout rooms, they took it in turns to write the days of the week, then came back and had to write all of the days by themselves in the chat. Yep, that was 90 minutes! I’ll find out in two days whether they remember all of the days…

Happy 10th blog-iversary!

10 years ago today I published my first post on this blog. In fact, I published five (!), all copied over from a fledgling blog I’d started somewhere else in the summer of 2010 and didn’t want to lose. I then didn’t really start blogging in earnest until just after Christmas of 2010, when I wrote my first #ELTchat summaries. As you can see, it was a bit of a slow start, but it soon took off, largely thanks to Ann Foreman at Teaching English British Council sharing various posts.

I was at the start of my third year of being a professional teacher. A few months earlier I’d discovered the amazing community of teachers on Twitter, thanks to a chance comment from Shaun Wilden. I’d noticed that a lot of those teachers had blogs and thought starting my own could be a useful way to share my ideas and create a portfolio for my teaching. There’s no way I could have imagined just how wide-ranging its effect on my career would be.

Blogging has allowed me to share my reflections on teaching, training, managing, and the general minutiae of living abroad and being me. The act of framing my thoughts for others to read forces me to consider what I think. It is also often cathartic. Every conference presentation I’ve ever done is on here somewhere (I think!), along with my progress through Delta, into training, materials writing and management. Looking back on those thoughts is fascinating (to me at least!), seeing how much I’ve developed and changed over the life of the blog, and realising what has stayed the same.

The posts got a lot more frequent and a lot longer…thanks for making it to the end of some of the mammoth ones!

Through my blog I’ve made connections with people all over the world, and some of them have become friends too. It’s my own small corner of the internet, a place where I feel like I’ve been able to making some kind of useful contribution to the profession. It never fails to astonish me how many people have made use of the blog and how much of the globe it seems to have reached. I particularly enjoy finding out about the people who use my blog, and reading the comments and stories they share in response to my posts.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me and my blog over the years, to everyone who has read and shared the posts, and particularly to all those people who have written guest posts for me. I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Almost like a real teacher!

I’ve ended up teaching far more than usual this week due to various teachers being off sick. None of them had the dreaded lurgy fortunately – just the standard fresher’s flu that tends to hit at this point in the year!

Without cover I would have had two lessons with my beginner teen group this week, one on Tuesday and one on Thursday, and a Polish lesson on Friday. The rest of the my time would have been spent on my responsibilities as a Director of Studies: drop-in observations, level meetings (collaborative planning meetings), and ad hoc teacher support are the main things at this point in the year.

Instead I taught 7 lessons, covering a whole range of lesson types and group sizes:

  • Monday: cover A2.2 teens on Zoom (8 or 9 students – can’t remember!)
  • Tuesday: my beginner teens on Zoom (4 students), cover A2.1 young learners in the classroom (6 students)
  • Wednesday: cover A2.1 young learners in the classroom (11), cover FCE adults on Zoom (8 or 9)
  • Thursday: my beginner teens in the classroom, cover A2.1 young learners on Zoom (the same group as Tuesday)
  • Friday: no Polish because I had some DoSsing to do to catch up on the rest of the week!

I can’t remember the last time I did this much teaching in one week, and it was so good to spend so much time with students.

I don’t normally teach exam students because I wouldn’t have time to do the marking: I love how motivated they are. I found working with them on key word transformations on Zoom to be just as effective as in the classroom, if not more so as I could see all of their answers simultaneously in the chat and refer back to them as needed (there were 8 students I think).

I’ve never really considered myself to be a natural young learner teacher, but I’ve really enjoyed the lessons this week, and the enthusiasm of the kids both online and off. We worked on the seasons in the first lessons of the week and they wrote a little profile of themselves. One child got a bit worried that he didn’t know what month his birthday was in even in Polish – a lot of teaching English is reassuring students and building their confidence, especially with young learners. It was teacher’s day, and the kids who’d brought chocolates and flowers for their normal teacher didn’t quite know what to do with them, but handed them over at break so I made sure they got to where they needed to be 🙂 In the second lesson we worked on 8 verb phrases for free time activities and the structure Do you like VERBing? They so want to communicate and end up telling you all kinds of random information: I learnt about all their pets and the ages of their mums completely spontaneously from one group.

The teens were a little more of a struggle at the start, especially as they didn’t really want their cameras on. However, the creative nature of the project lesson we did on making your own invention to solve a problem was lots of fun. They came up with shoes that could fly, a magic pen that only writes the correct answers, and FriendlyCat 1, a robot who will keep your cat company if you have to go out.

My own group was also fun to teach this week. We worked on the numbers 1-20 and phone numbers on Zoom – the whole oh/zero thing blew their minds a little bit! In the classroom we did 21-100, and I started to introduce a little bit of spelling.

Overall, it was a nice mix of classroom and online lessons, and a really enjoyable range of lesson topics.

I do like being in the classroom.

And now that Bydgoszcz will be a red zone from tomorrow, from next week all of our adult and teen classes will be fully online. Only the younger learner classes will continue to have one of their two lessons a week in the classroom.

And I couldn’t have done it without the support of my colleagues – thank you so much to Paul and Emma, the level heads for these groups, who supplied me with lesson plans which I just needed to process, rather than having to come up with something from scratch. This is one of the fantastic things about working at IH Bydgoszcz: our level meetings/collaborative planning meetings mean that our group lessons are planned together, creating something that is more solid than what any one of us could do alone. In turn, I supplied other teachers with lesson plans for the cover lessons they were doing. And our teachers who were off sick were able to take the time they needed to recover and not pass on their germs to the rest of us, thanks to the cover system.

I do like working in a supportive school.

We’ll get through this together, and we’ll be stronger as a result.

I hope that you’re getting the support you need, wherever you are.

Back to school: first impressions

Last week was induction week for the 2020-2021 school year, and as with everything for everyone right now, it was different. Social distancing, masks, new ways of working.

But it wasn’t anywhere near as different as I thought it would be.

It was so lovely to hear the buzz of lots of people working in the school building again, for the first time since mid-March.

I forgot how much I enjoy writing on a whiteboard – that was a very satisfying feeling!

The meetings I ran involved me moving around to find a position where I could see everyone now they’re all arranged in rows, and I ended up standing up or perching with one knee on my chair (can’t work out how to describe it!) I also had to project my voice a little more to make up for the masks. But they felt pretty normal in terms of how much I felt like I was lecturing people and never like that feeling!

The one session I ran on the job description, IH promises and our expectations of teachers at the school allowed me to experiment with techniques for the socially-distanced classroom for the first time. And it was actually OK. There was lots of pair work and group work, people worked with various others, no paper was handed out, and (I hope!) everyone got what they needed to out of the session. I had an information gap task where teachers took photos of different PowerPoint slides, then kept their eyes closed when the other slides were shown, after which they compared the information on their photos. Another task involved a pyramid discussion followed by comparing answers to the job description I emailed them during the session. I had to be a little more creative when planning the session to avoid paper and consider groupings, but other than that it felt like running sessions in the classroom pre-COVID. I also used AnswerGarden in a classroom lesson for the first time.

I’m feeling pretty hopeful now, and excited about getting back into the classroom with students – that’s about 10 days away for me, fingers crossed. Numbers are going up here, but hopefully we’ll still be able to work in classrooms for a little while yet.

How about you? Are you back in the classroom? What does your updated classroom look like? If you’re online, what’s the same and what’s different about how you’re working now?

Good luck everyone, and stay safe!

ELT awards

What is the function of awards within a profession?

I’ve just asked Google that question expecting to find some kind of philosophical discussion on the topic. Instead I found links to all kinds of different awards schemes across a range of professions: engineering, medicine, project management, human resources, safety professionals, supply chain professionals, recognition professionals, and yes, even education.

The closest thing to an answer I could find came from the Wikipedia ‘award‘ entry, on page 3 of my search:

An award, sometimes called a distinction, is something given to a recipient as a token of recognition of excellence in a certain field.

Taken from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Award on 21st August 2020

According to the references, this is a combination of definitions from the Oxford and Cambridge dictionary definitions.

I tried a new search: Why do awards exist?

That got me what I was looking for. Buried in amongst all kinds of discussions of film and TV awards ceremonies are a few interesting posts, starting with How important are awards anyway?:

We all apply with the same goal in our mind – to win. If we lose (and it has happened), we get irritated. Maybe we say: ”Heh, what do they know.” But then we try to figure out why we lost. We try to learn from each new contest, and we try to figure out how to be better.

Move on to page 2 of the search, and you get Awards: why you want them and how to get them. I’m not sure what an ‘Extension program’ is either, but there are some interesting quotes in there, like these:

Awards are the most conventionally accepted method for proving to others that your work is necessary, complete, and effective.

On the surface, applying for awards may seem self-serving, or even pretentious. Winning awards, however, does much more than bring attention to you as an individual. Documented proof that programs are of the highest caliber facilitates recruitment of external support and resources for future programs (Bradley, Driscoll, & Bardon, 2012). Administration, funding agencies, local governments, and even potential future employers acknowledge the value of peer recognition. Agencies with funding and in-kind resources tend to divert their efforts toward projects with the greatest potential for success. They often base decisions about who might be qualified to accomplish a task on prior successes of individuals or agencies under consideration.

How To Go After Awards And Recognition (And Win) and why it matters is from Forbes:

After all, if there’s one thing that can make us as women squirm uncomfortably, it’s nominating ourselves for awards and public recognition. Some may not be drawn to the competitive rivalry of a contest. For others, they may erroneously see themselves as not-strong-enough a candidate to apply in the first place. And yet, the effects of not self nominating can be far reaching.

Putting our distaste for self-promotion aside—awards, funds and recognition are a form of currency. In the world we live in, they matter. They are bargaining chips! They can help you demand a higher fee as an entrepreneur, reinforce your request for a higher corporate salary to your employer, and provide external validation of how you measure up against your peers.

Decide today, right now, that you are a worthy applicant for that interesting award, publishable article, or conference presentation. Then go for it.

Going after, and winning, awards makes you more appealing to employers and clients, yes. But it can greatly help you materially, and perhaps most underemphasized, it can permanently lift your confidence. […] By applying for recognition, you too will learn a lifelong skill – how to identify and speak about your value…and how to bet on yourself.

The last article I’ll quote from is The benefits of awards — even if you don’t win, which is full of lots of useful ideas and tips:

But recognition aside, merely applying for awards or seeking to be nominated also brings a multitude of career benefits. Putting together an award application can help you reflect on your skills and career progress. It may push you to become more competitive by filling gaps in your CV and increasing your visibility. Seeking out senior colleagues who will cheer for you can help you build a strong support base for the future. Competing for awards also creates an opportunity to receive useful feedback about your work and how you are perceived from those who nominated you or awards committees, Gomez notes.

Studying the award criteria and looking at past winners may help you get a sense of what you want to strive for and identify skill gaps. Trying to fill these gaps will not only increase your chances of getting the award, but also put you in a stronger position for your future career planning and progression, Maguire says.

Current awards in ELT

Philip Kerr recently wrote about Current Trends in ELT, including mentioning the British Council ELTons awards for innovations in English Language Teaching. This is one of the quotes which prompted this post:

You could be forgiven for wondering what is especially innovative about many of the ELTon award-winners, or indeed, why neophilia actually matters at all. The problem, in a relatively limited world like language teaching, is that only so much innovation is either possible or desirable.

The ELTons are one of only three awards schemes I can think of within ELT. The other two are both related to balance and representation at conferences. The Fair List was set up by Tessa Woodward to encourage gender balance at UK ELT events. Eve: Equal Voices in ELT recognises events for parity in gender, highly proficient speakers (not just native English speakers), and how representative they are of their local teaching community.

The ELTons has a glitzy awards ceremony (not this year of course!), with various categories recognising innovation and a lifetime achievement award. The Fair List has an awards ceremony at IATEFL each year (again, not this year). EVE has a calendar which they will include events in which meet the parity requirements, and award a badge recipients can display. All of them are useful for highlighting achievements of the ELT industry, and I think The Fair List and EVE have gone some way to starting discussions about and encouraging change within conference line-ups. Just being shortlisted for an ELTon can increase the profile of a project and (presumably) increase sales/buy-in/author profiles.

(Please let me know if you think I’ve missed any from this list.*)

Accreditation and inspection schemes, such as those from British Council, EAQUALS, AQUEDUTO (online training) and IH inspections for affiliated schools also fulfil some of the functions mentioned in the quotes above: they require data gathering, identify gaps and encourage applicants to fulfil them to meet requirements. The resultant badges that those who pass the inspection can display are a sign of professional recognition/recognition by the profession, though there’s no official awards ceremony for any of them.

Applying to present at conferences also prompts reflection and can lead to increased professional recognition too, and is open to individuals, thereby meeting some of the requirements mentioned in the first part of this post.

What’s my point?

I’m not really sure…this blogpost is more about thinking out loud than an actual point!

To my knowledge, the awards schemes which currently exist in ELT focus on innovation, lifetime achievement, and conference line-ups.*

Accreditation schemes are aimed at organisations.

Maybe there’s room for something else, awards which are more wide-ranging. Something which demonstrates the range and scope of our profession. Something which individuals can apply for, not just organisations. Something which can throw a spotlight on more than just the big names and recognise those unsung members of our profession who work away diligently year in, year out.

What could we recognise?

Here are some possible award categories:

  • Teacher
  • Trainer
  • Manager
  • Materials writer
  • Support/Administrative staff
  • Course
  • Course provider (school/educational organisation)
  • Employer
  • Methodology book/materials
  • Training course/event (including conferences)
  • Teaching association
  • Social media group/account

I’m sure there are many more I haven’t thought of!

How could it work? What are the problems?

Allow time for nominations. For example, nominations include 5 reasons why that nominee should receive the award, and what makes them unique/different compared to other possible nominees.
How long? Who nominates (the potential winner or a third party)? What needs to be included in a nomination? How are the nominations submitted? What about GDPR?

Anonymise the nominations. Remove any identifying features.
Who gets that job?! How long would it take?

Have a panel for each award, or one for all of the awards. Each panel member creates a long list of four nominations who they think should receive the award.
Who would be on the panel? How do you remove bias and ensure representation within the panels? How long would that process take? Who would pay for the time or would it have to be voluntary? 

Combine the separate long lists into a master long list. Each panel member individually comes up with their own shortlist of three nominees who they think should receive the award with reasons.
As with the previous point.

The panel meets to discuss the shortlists and negotiate who should be the award winner. One person from the panel is selected to check the votes and make a note of the eventual winner.
How long do you allow for this? How do you de-anonymise the nominations and ensure the winner remains a secret?

Run an awards ceremony. Glitz! Glamour! Awards!
Who pays for it? Who presents the awards?

Will it ever happen?

Unlikely!* Somebody would need to pay for it, and within ELT that normally means publishers sponsoring the event. Somebody would need to organise it, and that requires a lot of time.

But still, it’s interesting to think about.

What impact could an awards ceremony that’s more wide-ranging have on the profession? Would it make it feel more like a profession? Would it lead to any changes, as The Fair List and EVE already seem to have done? What do you think?

*Search first, write later (!)

I got to the end of this post and did a Google search for ELT awards. It looks like some of my questions are answered by these awards and my post is a little more pointless than it was before, but I’m not going to rewrite it now! Here’s what I found:

There are ELT Excellence Awards in Greece – it costs quite a lot to apply. Presumably that covers some of the costs I mentioned above, and public schools get one free entry each, but that still rules out individuals applying. It covers a wide range of areas, including a few I hadn’t thought of.

The Pearson English Global Teacher Award gives five winners the chance to attend the IATEFL or TESOL conference all expenses paid. It looks like it really does recognise individual teachers. I can’t find information about how to apply, but I think you probably apply yourself, doing the job of encouraging teachers to identify and speak about their value, as described above.

Oh, and there’s this post from David Deubelbeiss about teacher of the year/best teacher awards and how they’re a pet peeve of his, providing a useful balance to points above. You should definitely read that too.

Metaphors to help new teachers

As teachers, we care about our students. We want to do the best for them. This is important and admirable, but it can also create a lot of pressure, especially for new teachers.

GB v Turkey table tennis

When we first pick up a tennis racquet, we don’t expect to be able to win an Olympic medal.

When we first sit down at a piano and put our fingers to the keys, we don’t expect to be able to play Chopin.

But when we first walk into a classroom, we expect to be able to teach perfect lessons.

Just like playing a musical instrument or a sport, teaching is a skill which takes time to develop. Don’t expect to win a medal or play Chopin without practice, and don’t expect to teach perfect lessons.

Perfect lessons don’t exist. That’s why I still love this job – because there’s always something new to learn.

Three panel cartoon: the first shows a person surrounded by speech bubbles, all but one positive. 2. Person eating, all positive comments a little faded out, negative comment still clear. 3. Negative comment clear, all others almost completely faded out. Person in bed.

When our students make a mistake with their English, especially if they’re beginners, we don’t tell them they’re bad students and shouldn’t be in the classroom. We don’t point out all of the problems with their language. Instead we choose one or two areas and give them feedback to help them develop. We also praise their strengths and build their confidence in their abilities.

When we make a mistake as a teacher, especially a new teacher, we often tell ourselves that we’re bad teachers and have no place in the classroom. We dwell on the problems with our lessons. We beat ourselves up about what went wrong. We forget to notice the things that went well and what we’ve improved, which probably far outweigh any problems there were.

This is not fair to us or our students.

Bydgoszcz warehouses

Learning a language is like building a house. We need to lay the foundations and build it up brick by brick. If we build it too quickly or without having proper foundations, the house will fall down. And although we can build it alone, it’s much faster when we get help from other people who are supportive and can share their experience. 

Learning to teach is the same. Let yourself be a beginner. Notice your strengths and be proud of your progress. Notice where you need to put the next brick. Give yourself time to build the foundations, and ask for help whenever you need it.

Make the most of your old computer

ELTpics image by @mscro1

When you’re using the internet, if you’re trying to download a big file it slows everything down. If you have too many things open, it can crash. There isn’t enough bandwidth.

We all have a finite amount of attention, which I call mental bandwidth. When we’re teaching, we need to pay attention to a lot of things: what’s next in our plan, how to make the technology do what we want it to do, how to answer the question a student just asked us, the fact that we forgot to have a snack before the lesson and are starving…and how stressed and overwhelmed we’re feeling right now.

As we build up experience, some of these things become automatic. We know how to set up the next activity, we’re confident with the technology and have a back-up plan if it doesn’t work, we’ve heard that question five times before and don’t need to think about the answer, we remembered to have a snack…and we’re so much calmer and less stressed in general now. We no longer have to think about these things, releasing mental bandwidth for us to pay attention to other areas, and particularly to be fully present in the classroom and pay attention to the students. This doesn’t happen on day one. It takes time.

Clocks photo mosaic

Give yourself that time.

Embrace the learning.

Enjoy it.

Be kind to yourself.

Good luck.

(And if you need help, here’s a similar CELTA-specific post, here’s a guest post by a CELTA trainee who initially struggled with confidence on the course, here’s a list of useful links for CELTA, here’s a short presentation about building confidence as a teacher, and here’s a short task to help you think about what you say to yourself about your teaching.)

Conversation shapes

Have you ever watched in despair as students have a ‘conversation’ which is actually just two monologues? Or tried in vain to interact with a student who only gives one-word answers, however encouraging you are?

I know when I’m B1 or below, it’s difficult for me to pull my weight in a conversation and I need a lot of support from whoever I’m talking to. In the classroom we can provide this support in a variety of ways. We can supply sentence stems that students can complete, we can show them the first two or three turns of a conversation, or we can provide them with a whole range of questions or other functional language which might be useful in the conversation they are having.

These are all interventions we can make before or during students speak in class. But what about after the conversation? How can you help students to reflect on the success of that conversation? Here’s one idea I haven’t tried yet but it would like to: show students the conversation shapes below and ask them these questions:

  • Which shape is like a conversation you might have in your own language?
  • How would you feel in each of these conversations if you were a person A or person B? How actively would you participate in the conversation in each example?
  • Which shape is like the conversation you just had? Do you think you were person A or person B?
  • How successful do you think it was as a conversation?
  • What could you change in the conversation you just had to make it more like shape 3? What help do you need from the teacher to do this?

Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with A talking a lot, and B saying almost nothing Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with both A and B producing a single long monologue Blue long thin rectangles on the left are A, orange rectangles on the right are B, arrange to show alternate turn-taking with A and B taking turns of varying lengths, sometimes overlapping

You can download a PowerPoint of all of the images at Conversation shapes if you want to adapt them for your own lessons, though please retain the credit.

I think this activity is an example of metacognition, which is the act of monitoring and making changes to learning strategies you use. The reflection helps learners to become aware of the processes they use when they are having a conversation, and what they can do to have more successful conversations in the future. Here’s a beginner’s guide to metacognition from Cambridge.

What other strategies do you use to help learners have more successful conversations?

ExcitELT 2020

One of the positives of the situation in the last 3 months is the fact that many events are now held online and are therefore accessible to people from a wider range of locations. This was the case for the ExcitELT conference, held online on Sunday 14th of June 2020. I joined around 40-50 other teachers from all over the world to talk about overturning norms in ELT. As the conference was based in the Japan time zone it meant 7 a.m. start for me, but it was well worth getting up for!

The format of the conference is worth mentioning as I think this was one of its great strengths. Each one hour block was broken into three sections. First we had a short presentation from one or two people interested in that area. Then we went into break out rooms on Zoom in small groups of three to six people. We had access to a Google Doc containing questions to help us talk about the topic. We made notes in the document during or discussions and the final few minutes of the block involved a summary of interesting points which came up. This format works really well as it allowed us to dive into a topic in more depth and share our experiences of it. I feel like this led to a richer conference experience and I hope more conferences are run like this in the future.

(Note: you might also be interested in reading Zhenya Polosatova’s much more concise and pro-active reflections on the event!)

Overturning norms around teacher conformity – Anna Loseva

This was the first of two topics from the conference which I had never considered before. Anna invited us to think about which areas teaching involve conformity. Examples might be the feeling that we need to get particular qualifications to progress in the career, the pressure to conform to student expectations like playing lots of games, or perceived market pressures such as the perception that students only want teachers who grew up speaking English.

Anna started to think about teacher conformity when she was looking for a job in Vietnam. A lot of people advised her to get CELTA to make the job hunting process easier, including me. Anna decided that if she did this and got a job it would validate the system which says that CELTA is worth more than a teaching degree and the many years of experience which she already had, though she also acknowledged the usefulness and worth of a CELTA course. She managed to get jobs and has proved to herself and others that it is possible to work in a foreign country teaching English without getting a CELTA first. This prompted her to ask when conformity is and is not useful, which was the topic of our group discussions.

How can conformity be helpful?

  • It helps us to learn new things from people around us as we trying to fit in. This is especially true for new teachers fitting into the profession.
  • Our group discussed the need to know what the rules are or might be before you feel comfortable breaking them.
  • If we conform to a particular set of requirements, for example how a course works within a school, it can make it easier to support each other. We have a common point of reference for discussions and a kind of shared language.
  • Having restrictions can push our creativity.
  • It helps us to learn the culture of the system, for example how a local education system works.
  • It helps us to know when we have met expectations.
  • It allows us to set standards, and develop and evaluate ourselves and others against those standards.

How can conformity be detrimental?

  • It can lead to burnout, frustration and disappointment.
  • Students and teachers can end up losing motivation.
  • Students don’t necessarily know what is best for their education, so if we conform to their requests or expectations all the time it might be detrimental to their education.
  • When people conform without questioning it can lead to keeping guidelines which we no longer need.
  • The rules which we conform to might be outdated or inhibit creativity. They can limit autonomy and differentiation.
  • We might end up doing things which we do not understand the reason for or the point of.
  • Constructive disobedience can lead to progress and innovation. Making mistakes and trying something new are useful paths towards development.
  • We can forge our own path.

Thinking points

Anna left us with two questions to consider.

  • Do you see some of the accepted norms in our industry as questionable? Should they be questioned?
  • Is gaining approval important where are you? Is it a big part of ELT culture?

This session was a great way to start and really set the tone for the rest of the day.

Overturning norms related to teacher well-being – Tammy Gregersen

Tammy introduced us to the concept of positive psychology. She described the difference development based on strengths can make compared to development based on a concept of deficit and what’s missing. She introduced us to the work of Seligman, who says that if you use your ‘signature strengths’ you:

  • Have more ownership over development and feel more authentic
  • Have an intrinsic motivation to use your strengths
  • Have a more rapid learning curve
  • Feel invigoration, not exhaustion
  • Have a sense of inevitability with the feeling of ‘try and stop me’
  • Excited about displaying what you are good at
  • Feel creative and one stupid shoe projects revolving around your strengths
  • Engage in continuous learning
  • Own your strengths

(Apologies for any mistakes while paraphrasing – its from 2008 but I could find the original list!)

Tammy asked us to do a survey our strengths. We had to take the top five and find two of them which we had in common with another member of our group. We then had to consider two ways we could use our strengths in new or novel ways in the next 2 days.

Since I did the survey, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the top five things which came up from my list. I was very pleased with the points that it picked out because they are all things which I have consciously tried to develop in myself:

  1. Hope
  2. Curiosity
  3. Love of learning
  4. Gratitude
  5. Leadership

When discussing it with my friend later, we talked about how this type of survey could feel like an equivalent of a silly quiz in a magazine telling you what kind of person you are, but the fact that it keeps going round in my head means I think that this could be a very interesting avenue to explore. I’d be interested to know how similar or different the ranking of the 24 strengths on the list would look if I did the survey again in a few months or years. I also want to find out more about positive psychology and Seligman, starting with exploring his website Pursuit of Happiness in a lot more depth.

Overturning norms around ELT conferences – Shoko Kita, Tim Hampson, Peter Brereton

One of the reasons which I wanted to attend this conference was the fact that the ExcitELT team have been running interesting conference formats for the past few years. In this session they asked us to think about three main areas:

  • How to make conferences more diverse
  • How to narrow the gap between the presenter and the audience
  • How to make conference has more friendly and accessible, including more affordable

They started with this quote from Haruki Murakami:

'If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.'

The questions which we were given to consider are useful for anyone who wants to plan a different kind of conference I think. They were:

  • How can we address and balance all areas of diversity?
  • How do we reach a wider range of participants?
  • How do we follow up on new presenters?
  • What can we do differently to make parents more welcome and make sure we have an affordable family policy?
  • Can video or online sessions be used for people who are distant? How can video sessions be more interactive?
  • What are the time demands of social events organized alongside conferences? Does this affect who got to them?
  • How much time is optimal between sessions for discussion?
  • How can you overcome the problems of one-time workshops?

By organizing an online conference which included a lot of group discussions and responses to participants’ experiences, the ExcitELT team started to work towards answering some of the questions that they posed. I will be interested to see how new modes of training and conferences develop in the post-pandemic era.

Overturning norms around second language teacher education – Geoff Jordan

Geoff started his presentation by describing the current training norms in place for elt. He described the craft model of CELTA where you hone techniques to become a teacher and the applied science model of university degrees where you learn the theory and think about how to apply it to the classroom. Norms in in-service teacher education include observations, sponsored courses, seminars and conferences, and perhaps also visiting trainers.

Geoff says that these methods of training pay little attention to how people actually learn a second language and lead to inefficacious teaching as most teachers use a course book to implement a grammar-based synthetic syllabus.

He described a common norm now of training focusing on teacher cognitions, which requires teachers to understand and articulate their own beliefs, assumptions and knowledge (BAKs) about the subject matter and pedagogical practice. These BAKs explain the mismatch between what teaches are told and what they actually do, and between what teachers say they do and what they actually do.

Geoff would like us to change the norms of second language teacher education sorry that we concentrate on doing real, relevant things in the target language, not just talking about the target language. He would like our teacher education to support and sustain this model, recognizing that implicit learning is the default mechanism of second-language learning. Focusing on BAKs ignores the elephant in the room of the form of the syllabus and how it is delivered.

To make these changes Geoff wants us to push for reform of the CELTA, conferences, and in his words ‘globetrotting gurus’. He wants us to encourage locally organized second language teacher education, promoting teacher collaboration, local teacher organizations, and ensuring that local teachers can discuss local issues. Above all he says that the guiding principle of second language teacher education should be to promote efficacy.

Neoliberalism in ELT – Tim Hampson

Tim’s talk was a replacement for a presenter who couldn’t attend and I’m glad to have seen it because it was another idea which I had never considered before. Despite having listened to the BBC sociology podcast Thinking Allowed for many years I had never really understood the concept of neoliberalism, so I will start with one definition which Tim gave us which I think was very clear.

Neoliberalism believes that free markets and competition maximize human well-being.

Harvey (2005:21)

One of the key points of neoliberalism is the fact that it seems to be a pervasive ‘truth’. It’s difficult to imagine a world that is not neoliberal, and it just seems to be the way things are. Some of the ideas that this leads to can be questioned. For example there is an idea that when individuals make choices, the result of your choices is what you ‘deserve’, but my choices as a white British middle-class woman with a university education very different to those of poor black man in the deep south of America. Another idea is that competition drives progress, but we can ask what that competition is, what that progress is, and whether it is actually beneficial.

Linked to neoliberalism is the idea of cultural, linguistic, economic and social capital introduced by Pierre Bourdieu. For example by learning English you might gain linguistic capital which you can turn into economic capitals by getting a job, or social capital by using your accent to fit in or helping you to interact more smoothly which leads to social connections or a job. Examples of English being seen as cultural or linguistic capital include learning English to get into a university course as a basic requirement, even if the course doesn’t require you to use English. English is also used as part of a drive to internationalize universities. Some people have to get an English certificate to look good in the job even though they may never use English at work. There is also the thorny question of learners asking how they can sound more like a native speaker, as there is a perception that a native speaker accent could give you more capital. In a neoliberalist view of the world it might feel like everyone is trying to gain capital, as it is hard to see the world in a different way once you know about this theory. But are they really?

Tim pointed out that we might view learning English for social or linguistic Capital as being preferable to learning full economic capital, but often you have to be in a place of privilege to even have the choice of prioritizing social or cultural capital Iva linguistic capital. Learning a language to get a job is just as legitimate as learning it for social or cultural reasons.

In our discussions Tim asked us to consider what kinds of capital are present in ELT and how we think about them. As he said, this idea of capital is an interesting lens through which to consider our profession.

Overturning language ideology norms – Heath Rose

The final session of the day was led by Heath Rose, who writes a lot about global Englishes. He started by telling us about how we might teach English as an international language, based on proposals by Galloway and Rose (2015:203):

  1. Increase World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) exposure in the curriculum. This will reflect ‘the complex reality of how English is used worldwide’ (Saraceni, 2009).
  2. Emphasize respect for multilingualism.
  3. Raise awareness of global Englishes.
  4. Raise awareness of ELF strategies.
  5. Emphasize respect for diverse English-using cultures and communities.
  6. Change teacher hiring practices.

Heath suggested ideas such as using a listening journal to encourage students to listen to a wider range of English voices, or you think a presentation to ask them to research different types of English. He talked about getting students involved in discussions about Global Englishes, raising their awareness and helping them to consider the identities as multilingual language uses. Accommodation strategies which we could teach students include helping them to deal with speakers of greater or lower proficiency than themselves, dealing with speakers with different accents or cultural norms, and helping them to join different linguistic communities.

Some of the barriers we discussed were the lack of suitable materials, knowing how to assess language and the requirements of particular exams, teacher education and training, an attachment to ‘standard English’ by stakeholders such as parents, and teacher recruitment practices. In our group we focused a lot on the final points and on the fact that in some countries it is very difficult to challenge days due to circumstances beyond the school’s control, such as national visa policies. However we all agreed that it is very important to do what we can.

Overall thoughts

As I hope you can say from what was described here, this was a very different kind of conference and one which has given me a lot of food for thought. If you get the chance to attend, I would highly recommend it. Thank you to Shoko, Tim and Peter for organising it, and to all of the attendees who shared their ideas and experience.

Four podcast episodes for this moment

Podcasts are how I get a lot of my information, and how I broaden my perspectives on the world. The storytelling and sharing in a really well-produced podcast can change how you think or how you see the world in less than an hour, in a way that no other medium I know can do so consistently.

Here are four podcast episodes I’ve listened to in the past week which have done just that.

TED Radio Hour: Clint Smith

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked massive protests nationwide. This hour, writer and scholar Clint Smith reflects on this moment, through conversation, letters, and poetry.

If you only listen to one of these four episodes, this is the one. It draws together problems which I kind of knew about and others which I had no idea of, and shows how important and wide-ranging the impact of all of these issues are, but particularly silence. I’ve listened to it twice, and I’m sure I’ll listen to it again. The reflective nature of Clint’s conversation with the host, Manoush Zomorodi, the poems he reads, and the decisions we all have to make, but especially black parents, are all important to listen to. He emphasises that this is an intergenerational job, and we all need to play our part to move towards the world we want to create. And if you didn’t already realise how powerful and important education is, this episode would prove it.

TED Radio Hour: Ingrained Injustice

As protests for racial justice continue, many are asking how racism became so embedded in our lives. This hour, TED’s Whitney Pennington Rodgers guides us through talks that offer part of the answer.

Whitney Pennington Rodgers is the current affairs curator at TED. She selected four talks which show how racism affects all of us, regardless of what colour we are, and suggest ways that we can start to do something about it:

  • Baratunde Thurston: How To Deconstruct Racism, One Headline At A Time
  • Heather C. McGhee: Racism Has A Cost For Everyone
  • David Ikard: The Real Story Of Rosa Parks — And Why We Need To Confront Myths About Black History
  • Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa: Black Life At The Intersection Of Birth And Death

All four of these talks made me think about what I can do, and how lucky I am to not have to deal with these issues myself. The final poem was particularly powerful and emotional, and reflected what Clint Smith said in his talk too. These are things which should be self-evident, but clearly aren’t. We need to work to change that.

Desert Island Discs: Your Desert Island Discs

Listeners choose the music that has been special to them during the weeks of lockdown. With Jane Moss, Hugh Mullally, Ailish Douglas, Professor Jason Warren, Niti Acharya, Margery Hookings, Simon Spiller, Clare Raybould and Garry Greenland.

Each of the eight pieces of music shared here is accompanied by a story from the person who chose it, all from the general public. They cover all aspects of dealing with the pandemic and how it has changed lives in both negative and positive ways, and many of them made me cry. As a piece of cultural history which truly captures a moment, this podcast episode should be saved forever.

Reduced Shakespeare Company podcast: Lockdown Shakespeare Pioneer

Rob Myles, along with his producing partner Sarah Peachey, is the creator of The Show Must Go Online, which, since March 19, 2020, has been creating fully if madly rehearsed productions of Shakespeare’s canon in the order in which they were written, once a week, using actors and fight directors from all over the world. With over 100,000 views on YouTube in just 12 weeks, Rob talks about how this has become huger than he ever imagined, and how he’s learned to work in this new space; how his early studies in psychology led to understanding characters and delivering an actor-driven experience; excellent new opportunities for both audience engagement and audience research; iambic discoveries expressed in actual iambic pentameter; developing his singular obsession; shout-outs to The Barnsley Civic; being leaders in a movement rather than a company; and the realization that our moment cried out for a Rob Myles — and thankfully we have one.

This is a much more upbeat episode than the three previous ones, and is a fantastic example of the creativity and innovation that this pandemic has created. It shows the ingenuity of humans, and how we can all pull together in extraordinary ways. Rob’s story of going from somebody who hated Shakespeare at school, with a working-class background which meant that drama didn’t even really cross his radar through to somebody who became completely obsessed with it and is now co-producing every Shakespeare play in the order they were first produced. The last two minutes of the podcast are particularly important, as I completely agree with Rob Myles that Shakespeare is and should be for everyone.

These episodes have stayed with me, and will for a very long time. Podcasts really are special.

10-year challenge

You may have seen the 10-year challenge meme on facebook or Instagram. Here’s my take, and something of a reflection on the decade, one in which I’ve grown and developed enormously as a person, and learnt so much.

Here’s the first photo of me I can find from 2010, from January 9th:

Sandy sitting in an armchair

I was halfway through my second year of full-time teaching after university/CELTA. I’d completed the IH Business English Teaching Certificate and was partway through the IH Certificate in Teaching Young Learners (before teens were included).

It was another 10 weeks before I presented at a conference for the first time (March 2010 – though I’d attended a few one-day events in Brno, Bratislava and Prague), 6 months before I joined Twitter (June 2010) and 10 months before I started my blog (October 2010).

Here’s a picture of me from Christmas Day, three days ago:

Here are 20 things I’ve done in the intervening period, ready to launch into 2020:

  1. completed the IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology, IH Certificate in Online Tutoring, and Cambridge Delta.
  2. started a Masters in Professional Development in Language Education with NILE.
  3. become a CELTA trainer, and worked on 14 courses with a range of great trainers.
  4. realised that I can be a Director of Studies, and been one for 4.5 years.
  5. published 674 blogposts (this is number 675) on this blog, and many posts and articles in other places too.
  6. written three books, and contributed to a few others.
  7. tweeted over 29,000 times, mostly at conferences I think!
  8. helped to curate #ELTpics and the #ELTchat summaries page.
  9. become addicted to IATEFL conferences, volunteered on the IATEFL Membership and Marketing Committee, and set up and run the IATEFL blog for a couple of years.
  10. presented at a lot of other conferences and online events.
  11. been diagnosed and learnt to live with ulcerative colitis and become a much better cook and a considerably healthier eater in the process.
  12. got a Fitbit, and drastically increased the amount of exercise I do.
  13. visited a lot of new cities and countries.
  14. learnt 2 new languages to a reasonable level, and had a go at 7 others to fuel my addiction.
  15. met a lot of fascinating people and made a lot of new friends.
  16. taken around 60,000 photos, give or take.
  17. become increasingly aware of my massively high carbon footprint, and started trying to reduce it.
  18. bought a flat.
  19. found other people who enjoy board games as much as I always have!
  20. learnt to answer back to my inner voice, deal with my thoughts in a much more constructive way, and stay calm and manage my emotions in challenging situations.

So what’s next?

The biggest thing I’d like the 2020s to bring for me is an answer to this 2016 letter, though point 20 means that it’s not even close to the issue I felt like it was before. I don’t think about it anywhere near as much as I used to, but it’s always there a little bit. I know time will tell, and I’m happy either way, but a family would be nice (yes, I know there are other ways that can be achieved!)

Apart from that, more of the same please. That includes the next ELT Playbook, which I’ll be starting soon if all goes to plan. I love my life, I don’t regret anything from the past 10 years, as even the bad things have been experiences I’ve learnt from which have made me who I am today, and I’m excited about what the future holds.

Have a great decade. Enjoy!

Taboo ELT

Russ Mayne recently wrote two posts (Taboo, Taboo 2) sharing answers to a questionnaire he posted following this tweet:

Are there any opinions you hold about teaching that you wouldn't feel comfortable sharing with your colleagues/peers?

He shared the ideas without judgment or comment. I found them really thought-provoking, and ended up discussing with a friend which ones I agree and disagree with. My comments are in purple below, underneath the original comments which drew my attention. I encourage you to read the whole list, not just the ones I picked out, as I’m sure you’ll disagree with me too! I’d be interested to know what you think.

Agree

  • Students can learn with or without coursebooks
    Just like they can learn with or without teachers, classrooms, websites…it depends on their motivation.
  • Textbooks are a good idea. Somebody took the time to plan a course not just so that you don’t need to but because you couldn’t do a better job AND teach at the same time.
    And it’s that time factor which makes a huge difference – I’d love to teach courses that are highly specific to my students’ needs, but I have no idea how I’d ever find the time!
  • The majority of teaching (75%) in ELT is below standard.
    I’m not sure where the percentage came from, but I think that’s fairly true. However, this is mostly because of lack of time, training, funding, support, motivation, not because of a lack of effort on the part of many of the teachers.
  • We can’t really “teach” anything
    We can just create the conditions for learning
  • […] The debunking of learning styles/multiple intelligences has not really reached many of the teachers around me
    It’s a slow process, and is by no means complete.
  • Ain’t just the one way. There are so many ways to learn a language, like there are different ways to learn a musical instrument. And they *all* work to some extent – because learners are meaning-makers.
    Because *humans* are meaning-makers and we want to communicate.
  • Tired of endless arguments about methods. Grammar translation works for some students. TBLT seems hopelessly confusing and unsystematic to some students. Some students hate group work.
    Horses for courses. But we should also try different things out and see what works for our students and our teaching style, not just assume that something will or won’t work because we do or don’t like it.
  • Memorize vocabulary using word cards, lists, or vocab apps
    At some point, you’ve just got to sit down and learn it. However, this alone will not be enough – it needs to be combined with other learning strategies and context, context, context.
  • We aren’t saving the world!
    We’re teaching English! (Oh, and confidence, self-esteem, the ability to make mistakes and be OK with that, interactive communication…all that personal stuff)
  • You might be living the dream teaching now. But the lack of a pension will fuck you up in your golden years.
    Though I don’t think that’s just in our profession. It’s something I wrote about a while back.
  • ‘Listen and repeat’ is no good for practising pron. You have to get physical.
    What’s happening in your mouth? Without knowing that, it’s difficult to imitate it.
  • […] This requirement [to have a degree] is a big barrier preventing people with potential but have no degree from entering the profession.
    I have had the pleasure of working with quite a few people who have no degree but are excellent teachers nonetheless.
  • We don’t all teach EFL as a means of living in the Far East while we decide what we want to do in life. Some of us do the job in English-speaking countries as a profession.
    Not just in English-speaking countries, but yes! This is a common misconception outside the profession, and, sadly, sometimes inside it too.
  • I don’t like every student.
    Just like I don’t like every person I come across. I try to hide that dislike in the classroom though as I’m sure not every student likes me!
  • Some of the top academics often have trouble translating their amazing knowledge into practical application. They need to get their asses into a classroom again (or for the first time).
    Also some of the trainers and conference speakers. It’s all well and good telling us to do something, but unless you’ve tried it yourself or make it very clear that this is just an idea/thought not a recipe, then please don’t tell me I have to do it or try to make me feel guilty for not doing it.

Partially agree

  • Textbooks represent a lot of research and a great understanding of students’ needs. They are an excellent resource to guide students through their English learning journey.
    A lot of textbooks do, but not all, and they still need a good mediator to be used successfully.
  • Monolingual English native speaking teachers who’ve never learned another language to a decent level of proficiency (let’s say B2) lack credibility as English language teachers
    I think any kind of level is fine, as long as they’re trying – we really need to understand how it feels to learn another language.
  • Linguists teach best. If you’ve learned a foreign language as an English native speaker, you’ve got to have a lot to contribute.
    First-hand experience of learning a language certainly helps, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you ‘teach best’.
  • *Some* non native speaker teachers have accents that are difficult to understand, make countless errors, and really shouldn’t be teaching.
    The same is true of some native-speaker teachers.
  • The students improve because they are living in this English speaking country and interacting on a daily basis, not because of our courses
    That depends on the student, the course and the teacher. Some students only socialise with people who speak their own language outside the lessons, and never speak a word of English. Some are so motivated by being abroad that they learn loads more. But the course is a factor, and it’s potentially what got them to the country in the first place.
  • Within the private academies, student progression is based on customer retention and ensuring they layout out payment for the next semester. Should you raise this issue, goodbye teaching job.
    This may be true within a lot of private academies, but it’s certainly not true where I work now. 
  • That qualified & experienced EFL teachers are more knowledgable & hardworking than PGCE qualified teachers. EFL teachers never get to set work and do marking in class, EFL teachers have to satisfy a wide array of paying students and I’ve seen a lot of mainstream teachers on Twitter go crazy over the simplest of ideas that are the mainstays of EFL work. EFL teachers should be better paid and recognised as ‘proper teachers’.
    I definitely agree with the final sentence, though the money has to come from somewhere. We also have a hell of a lot to learn from PGCE-qualified teachers, and I don’t think oneupmanship helps anyone.
  • Standardised testing is overrated
    It can be useful as a guideline if the tests are reliable and valid, but we need to teach a lot more assessment literacy – an area I want to learn a lot more about myself.
  • […] pretty much every test is meaningless and all the international language exams are essentially a scam.
    Many tests are meaningless, because teachers haven’t been taught how to create effective tests and they’re not set up properly. See also my previous comment. International language exams can be hugely motivating to the students and result in real jumps in their progress, but as with any exam, they are a mixed blessing.
  • We spend 80% of our energy on the 20% who cheat, lie, and laze about.
    Though I wouldn’t phrase it anywhere near that harshly, we do spend a lot of our energy on the students who are disruptive in our classes. What we don’t necessarily do is go deeper and find out why that is happening. Is it too easy? Too difficult? Do they have other stuff going on outside that is affecting what’s happening in the classroom?
  • Teaching the IPA is a waste of time and energy for all concerned.
    We should teach the bits that students will actually need e.g. the pairs of sounds that are challenging for students with a particular first language. Having a visual reference can really help some students. There’s no need to teach all of it unless the students are interested and motivated to learn it.
  • “Everyone learns differently,” I’m not sure they do. People may have different learning habits and different strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve seen no evidence that the process of learning isn’t basically the same for everyone. I think it’s often just lip service to seeing students as individuals……before giving them all the same task to do anyway.
    I think the underlying process is the same, but the ways to get there are different for different people, and the point at which something ‘clicks’ is different too.
  • While communication is key, treating mistakes that don’t impede communication as silly and acceptable accidents so nobody’s feelings get hurt is lazy teaching and in the long run is far worse for students regardless of how or where they will use their English
    Not lazy teaching, but it takes a certain level of confidence from a teacher to be able to do this. We’re working with our newly-qualified teachers to help them decide when and how much to correct, and particularly to encourage them to do a lot more hot/on-the-spot/point-of-need correction, rather than leaving it all until afterwards…or never! Teachers also need to internalise the fact that correcting something once doesn’t solve the problem – it takes time to assimilate new knowledge.
  • The “subject knowledge” that English teachers are supposed to be experts in is LANGUAGE. So many teachers know jack shit about language as a system, linguistics, phonology/phonetics and it’s embarrassing. If I hear another teacher respond “Oh, it’s an exception! That’s just the way it is! Isn’t English wild and wacky?!!!” in response to a question about some aspect of language that is completely systematic, rule-governed and explainable, I will go crazy! It’s not an “exception”! You just don’t know enough about the subject area you’re supposed to be an “expert” in.
    First, read the article by Michael Swan that Russ has linked to in ‘language’ – it’s excellent (thanks Russ!) I don’t think we should go about calling ourselves ‘experts’ in language, especially at the beginning of our careers. However, we should know about the area of language that we’re teaching that day, and about how it actually works. We should also be aware that if the language was made of exceptions, nobody would be able to learn it, not even children. There have to be a certain amount of rules for it to be a system of communication.
  • The lack of professionalism within the ELT industry.
    Sometimes, yes, but it depends entirely on the context. I’m privileged to work in an exceedingly professional school.
  • That ultimately the private language school model is useless. Teachers have very little effect on the learners and they’d be much better off watching tv and reading books in English. The results we produce are typically down to the students own motivation/talent. For that reason it’s fine to use coursebooks as it will have the same effect as not using them.
    Again, it entirely depends on the private language school. Occasionally we have a student in a satellite school who has to skip a year because we don’t have a class available. The difference in their progress in the following years is huge because of having missed that one year, and while we do whatever we can to ensure they can catch up, it’s never the same as having completed that year. For me, that proves that we must be doing something right. And yes, they might be better of watching TV and reading books in English, but at some point they need some explicit input and the requirement to produce the language. Motivation and talent clearly have a part to play, but so do teachers, including trained teachers in private language schools who have the support of their school to support their students.
  • ‘Management’ in ELT is just a euphemism for manipulation – how to get underpaid overworked teachers to do the job without having a nervous breakdown. All talk of ‘teacher motivation’ to me is thus senseless – pay them more and give them fewer hours- it’s as simple as that, instead of spending money on plastic red buses and gadgets like IWBs that nobody needs. To become Delta qualified is a massively costly and stressful exercise, but in London the going rate of pay at this level is only 20 quid a teaching hour gross. This is, quite frankly, very insulting and the main reason why I hope never to have to work for a language school again.
    An incredibly despressing view, and I’m sorry for this person that this is their experience of the profession. It’s true that rates of pay don’t always reflect qualifications, but this is not completely the fault of schools. Students and potential students don’t understand the difference between teachers who are and aren’t qualified, and they don’t understand the difference experienced teachers can make to them either, so why should they pay more when they can pay less? This results in competing on price, meaning less money is available to pay teachers. But yes, spend the money where it should be spent, on training and support, including for those aforementioned managers, who very often have had zero training in how to do an incredibly challenging job and then take the flack when things don’t work out. 
  • Native speaker teachers (with TEFL+ observed teaching practice/CELTA ) are better than their NNS counterparts in some contexts because a) high school teachers in (eg) Italy usually have NO didactic training, neither are they observed or given feedback. Just having a degree in English is enough to be an English teacher. […]
    I don’t think the word ‘better’ is helpful here, but it’s certainly true that in some cases people can complete a teaching degree and never have set foot in a classroom, much less been given feedback on their teaching. A friend of mine in the Czech Republic trained as a French and Spanish secondary teacher – in a two-year degree, she had 12 hours in the classroom right at the end of the course, and that was only because she was teaching 2 languages. Otherwise she would have had six. Her course was entirely theory-based, and some of the theory was tenuous, to say the least.
  • We are fooling ourselves and our students in the process into believing that it is possible to learn language structures or concepts that native speakers learn over the course of their lives and have the ideal environment in which they can test their hypotheses about what they are learning.
    I’m not sure about the phrase ‘fooling ourselves’, but we certainly need to be careful in what we say to students about the learning process. We need to make sure they realise it takes a long time, and they will never be perfect (whatever that is), nor do they need to be.
  • Racism is a much bigger problem in ELT than Native Speakerism.
    I can’t comment on the comparative scale of these two issues, but it’s certainly something which is not discussed much and should be.

Disagree

  • I don’t believe that learning in a group is of any worth to anyone. If you really want to learn a language then doing so by yourself and having a one-to-one teacher is by far the best method. I don’t believe that attending a private academy/institution/language school is the best way to spend your money.
    That’s me out of a job then. Having a private teacher is potentially quite expensive. Having a good teacher is the important thing, regardless of whether you’re in a group or studying individually. Being in a group provides so many more things that just learning the language – the chance to socialise, the motivational benefits of being in a group, the accountability of needing to show up, wanting to see how your classmates are progressing year on year. It can also take the pressure off you to perform as a student all the time – being in an individual lesson is tiring!
  • ELT teachers should not be allowed to teach YLs. It is simply a babysitting service. Most teachers don’t have the skills, passion or knowledge to teach and deal with YLs. You should only be allowed to teach YLs if you have done exactly the same qualifications as someone who teaches YLs in a state school for example. Degree, PGCE and possibly a masters in specialising in YLs.
    We’d have no teachers! But they definitely need a lot more support and training, something which is definitely lacking in large parts of the private language school sector.
  • Some adolescent students are not temperamentally predisposed to language learning and therefore it is a complete waste of time teaching them. Their presence in the classroom is disruptive and counterproductive. Experienced teachers will know who these individuals are in the class within the first 10 minutes of a lesson. Exceptions will occur from time to time, but it would serve every one’s interests if these students were quickly moved into other subjects.
    And therefore we will deprive them of the joy of learning another language and seeing through other eyes. We will close off the world for them. We label them as disruptive and unable to learn, and don’t give them a chance to notice little bits of progress and build their confidence. Because that’s what we’re there for: confidence. English is a by-product.
  • A CELTA does not make you a qualified teacher.
    I’m out of a job again! It does make you a qualified teacher, within a given definition of qualified (having an initial certificate which involved being observed and getting feedback on it, and learning about a few techniques which can help you in the classroom) and teacher (for adults in private language schools). What CELTA does is give you the basic building blocks which your first jobs should help you build on. Sadly in about 90% (maybe more) of cases, this does not happen. That’s one of the reasons I wrote ELT Playbook 1, as a little step towards building on an initial qualification.

ELT Playbook 1 cover and topic areas: back to basics, examining language, upgrading skills, being creative, exploring your context, teacher health and wellbeing

  • There are teachers/trainees that will never be effective classroom practitioners because they don’t have the people skills (and such skills can’t be learnt/take too long to develop).
    The key word I disagree with here is *never* – anybody can do it if they want to, and people skills can most definitely be learnt. After all, infants don’t have them, and they learn them over time. However, the teacher/trainee may not want to put in that effort, and it may put some students off, so it’s a tightrope of whether it’s worth doing or not.
  • The majority of teachers, especially at private language schools, are really just washed up has beens and life’s rejects, this always being the elephant in the room when issues of exploitation, unfair treatment and teacher’s rights are brought up. In other words, there may well be reasons for management at institutions, etc., treating teaching staff as interchangeable, expendable revenue generators, their attitude being that the ‘teachers’ (whom they tend to think of in inverted commas like that) wouldn’t be at their mercy without having seriously fucked up in life in one way or another (‘take it or leave it’, basically). There are indeed teachers who are passionate and go the extra mile, along with all the incompetent dross, but the rather awkward question of how most ended up long-term in what regular society regards as a silly sort of gap year job remains.
    How exceedingly depressing. While the first statement may be true of some people, I’m lucky that I have come across very few of these people. Maybe I’m just lucky with where I’ve worked? And why does regular society still regard it as a silly sort of gap year job? Is it because they don’t have many foreign language schools in their own monolingual countries and don’t realise how much it can open the door for some students? What is ‘regular society’ anyway?  

Tell me more

  • The field caters to middle aged white ladies far too much and this robs it of racial literacy
  • I get to choose – pretty much – what I teach, but I do feel more and more uncomfortable with many of the ‘traditional’ theories of SLA. They are so monolingual and anglocentric in their view of how people use language, assuming that people speak and are educated in the same language they use at home and that a ‘second’ language is an add-on.

I’d love to know more about what people were thinking when they wrote those two comments.

As I said at the top, do read both posts (Taboo, Taboo 2) – what do you think are the talking points here?

Habit formation: 5-minute tips for improving your English (TeachingEnglish blog associates)

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! 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.

Teaching English Associates names word cloud

This month’s contribution offers a wide range of ways for you or your students to get 5 minutes of English into your/their lives every day. What tips would you add to the list?

Changing tenses

I live in Bydgoszcz.

I work as the Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz.

I noticed recently that these two sentences are no longer in the present continuous.


Bydgoszcz - River Brda

Today was the last day of my fourth academic year at IH Bydgoszcz in Poland.

I bought a flat here three years ago.

I have friends who live here all the time, not just teachers passing through (though they’re often friends too!)

I have a social life. Well, kind of 😉

I have daily, weekly, and now even annual, routines.

I feel settled, and although I don’t expect it to be forever, it’s certainly for the foreseeable future.

And although it will be a busy and adventurous summer, as always, knowing that I’ll be coming back home at the end of it makes things feel so much better.

Because now it does feel like home.

Why would I want to change anything?

A little bit of being present

Sunshine, warmth, spring weather – my favourite time of year.

An adventure in Lower Silesia, falling in love with Poland all over again.

An early morning train from Wroclaw to Walbrzych Miasto, which I thought I was going to miss, but the tram to the train station was waiting for me when I got to the stop.

A little detour when the bus I caught didn’t go where I expected, taking me to some beautiful old farm buildings, and the tail end of a traditional Polish Easter egg blessing ceremony, with everyone carrying their baskets through the streets.

Old farm buildings
Leaving after the Easter ceremony

An unplanned visit to a palm house, featuring cake in a secret hideaway, and bonsai trees.

Palmiarnia
Palmiarnia café
Palmiarnia
Palmiarnia

A walk across a field and through a forest.

Path from the Palmiarnia to Ksiaz Castle

A stunning view of Książ Castle, the third biggest in Poland.

Ksiaz Castle
Sandy in front of Ksiaz Castle

Time to wander around the castle and explore its fascinating history, including the amazing collection of photographs taken by the French chef who worked there in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Ksiaz Castle
Ksiaz Castle
Ksiaz Castle

A description of seasons in Central Europe which perfectly matches my feelings about them.

Daisy Hochberg von Pless description of spring

Deliberating sitting and being, not just taking photos.

Ksiaz Castle

A walk around the terraces of the castle, with very pleasing flowerbeds.

Ksiaz Castle
Ksiaz Castle

A perfectly timed bus.

Smooth connections to Świdnica, with a few minutes to spare in Jaworzyna Śląska to pop into the church.

Jaworzyna Śląska church

The genuine peacefulness of the Peace Church of Świdnica.

Swidnica Peace Church

The ingenuity of the architects who created the whole thing out of wood and decorated it lavishly, despite the restrictions placed upon them.

Swidnica Peace Church
Swidnica Peace Church
Swidnica Peace Church
Swidnica Peace Church

A pulpit with hourglasses to time the preaching.

Swidnica Peace Church pulpit hourglasses

Sitting on a bench in the cemetery outside chatting to mum, drinking in the view of the church.

Swidnica Peace Church

Murals like this one.

Bach Festival mural in Swidnica

A delicious Polish dinner of trout, potatoes and surowki (cabbage salad) in the square of Świdnica.

Swidnica rynek

Time to write postcards.

Wildlife throughout the day: buzzards, a red squirrel, deer, collared doves, a goldfinch, a chaffinch, storks and bats.

A gorgeous sunset to watch on the train back.

Sunset

The carillion of bells playing in the church near my apartment as I write this.

Time to write a blogpost to capture it all.

Being present. Savouring the moment.

Note to self: do this more.

International House World Facebook Live: Working with new teachers

In three days’ time I’ll be presenting the inaugural International House World facebook live. This is a great opportunity to find out a bit more about how International House supports new teachers as an international organisation and within individual schools. You can follow the event on facebook where you can also contribute questions to the discussion. There will be a recording which I’ll share afterwards. Hope to see you there!

IH Academic Managers and Trainers (AMT) conference 2019

One of my two favourite conferences each year (along with IATEFL!) happened at Devonport House in Greenwich from 10th-12th January 2019. I was surprised to realise that this year’s AMT was my 6th – time flies! I’ve blogged about some of them: 2014, 2015, 2016. If you want to see photos from this year’s conference, take a look at the IH World page. You can also watch the video here:

I decided not to live tweet this time as we were given a beautiful notebook and my iPad is getting quite old and tired! Instead here’s a summary of the things from my notes which I think were most useful and/or thought-provoking.

In the classroom

Although the conference is aimed at teachers and trainers, there are always some sessions which are directly related to what happens in the classroom.

Engagement

Sarah Mercer spoke to us about the differences between motivation and engagement, and how to keep learners’ (and teachers’!) attention in a world full of distractions. She suggested looking at how video games do it, and taking some of those principles into our classrooms. We should make sure lessons are CLARA:

  • Challenging
  • Learner-centred
  • Active (what is the learner doing?)
  • Relevant/Valuable
  • Autonomy-rich

and that we incorporate GOSCH:

  • Goals (including interim goals)
  • Options
  • Surprise (through variety, promoting curiosity)
  • Challenge
  • Hooks (emotional, through storylines, and ensuring personal relevance)

Both of these acronyms incorporate the idea that in video games you can make the choices – you are the agent, not the audience – and there are easy wins at the start, with challenge building and immediate feedback throughout. Storylines in games create curiosity and there is a clear sense of progress.

I also agree with Sarah’s observation that teachers who’ve built good relationships with students have dramatically lower levels of discipline problems.

Sarah is continuing her research in the area of engagement, and I look forward to seeing more of her findings – there are certainly lots of ideas to explore here.

Assessment

Gordon Stobart has a UK state school background. He spoke to us about assessment for learning within the UK school system, and how it could be applied to language schools. A key ingredient is clear success criteria, answering the question:

What will it look like when I’ve done it?

If students don’t know that, it’s hard for them to even start working (definitely something I remember from Delta days!) Having clear success criteria means we can help students to work out which work best meets the criteria, give them guided practice to work towards achieving it, and give them clear feedback on how many of the criteria they have met and what to do to meet the others. These criteria can, of course, be negotiated with students – they don’t have to come from the teacher.

He mentioned Geoff Petty’s ideas of giving medals and missions which I like as a way of really boiling down feedback. To push higher level students, Gordon suggested missions like ‘What would you do if you only had half of this material?’ or ‘Argue the other side.’ The goal of all of this is self-regulating learners who can think for themselves.

In an aside, Gordon mentioned that he had one group who he used to jokingly start lessons with by saying ‘Previously in this course, we’ve looked at…’ in the style of a TV series. The learners said it really helped as they had often forgotten!

Autonomy

Katie Harris blogs about language learning at joy of languages. Her talk described what learning languages has taught her about teaching. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about attending this, as I kind of felt like I’ve written about that a lot myself, but I’m glad I did. In the first half of her talk Katie covered what independent language learners like herself (and me!) do to learn, and in the second half she talked about a different way of approaching lessons that she has come up with as a result, which I definitely want to experiment with. Her suggestion is that for some or all of every class (depending on what else you have to do) you let students work on things which they are passionate about, for example TV programmes, books, or whatever else it might be. Here’s how a typical lesson might look:

  • Students share what they did and show each other the new words/grammar they found. Teacher circulates, answers questions and gives feedback.
  • Flexible productive tasks, such as mind maps, creative tasks (change the story, add a character etc), writing a diary entry from the perspective of a character, changing the language to a different register, I’m an expert on (for other learners to ask questions), etc.
  • Deal with emergent language.
  • Learner training.

The learner training is a key component, as you have to show students how to do things like access learner dictionaries and record new language. If you want to give them more structured homework, beyond just watching/reading more, you can give them questions like ‘Can you find examples of the structure XXX we studied last lesson?’ or ‘Can you find examples of new grammar which you think you’ve never seen before?’

The whole idea is that learners can follow what they are interested in, but that a qualified, professional teacher can help them get there faster than they would be able to alone. By doing this in a group with other people, they can share their interests and learn from each other.

Katie has done a webinar for Macmillan on the same topic if you want to see her talk about these ideas for yourself – I’d recommend it. I really want to experiment with this structure with one of my groups this year who I think would really benefit from it. I’ll speak to them about it in our next lesson, and will report back if I try it out!

Determination

Chloe Pakeman-Schiavone talked about the importance of helping learners to understand the reality of learning a language, while noticing the small achievements along the way. Building determination will help them to stick at it. You can do this by:

  • setting smaller, interim goals (as Sarah Mercer mentioned above)
  • making changes in support explicit – learners don’t always notice when you reduce support, for example by them doing something alone which they needed your help with before
  • helping learners spot determination in other people
  • creating a Positivitree – Chloe’s school has one in every classroom where students can add any achievements they want to, no matter how small they may seem to other.

In the training room

Intervening

Amy Blanchard investigated the role of the trainer during teaching practice (TP) on CELTA courses. She advocated interrupting TPs early on in the course if it could be beneficial to trainees, as long as both TP students and trainees know what is happening. The areas she particularly focussed on are the ones where we often find ourselves asking questions like ‘Should I be doing this right now?’ Examples might be:

  • Positioning
  • Instructions
  • Speed of speech
  • Boardwork
  • Concept checking

The benefits are that these interventions are often far more memorable than delayed feedback, which is generally at least a couple of hours and sometimes a couple of days after the lesson (if there’s a weekend in between), that trainees get immediate answers to internal questions, that you are training not just testing, and that information is given at the point of need. Caveats are that trainee and student expectations must be very clear, it requires you to read the situation carefully (it’s not suitable for every trainee), you should only intervene in ‘little’ things not big things that could change the course of the whole lesson, and that support should be withdrawn as the course progresses, so you definitely shouldn’t be intervening in this way in the final TP, and preferably not the last few. It’s also important that all interventions are followed up on in feedback, with action points reflecting the pre-intervention situation, as trainees still need to prove that they can do these things effectively without trainer intervention. Amy got very positive feedback from trainees who she used this technique with, and even months after the course they remembered it in a positive way. This was an interesting idea, and one I’d like to explore with trainees and fellow trainers on the next course I do.

Integrating training

Chris Farrell‘s talk was fast and full on – so many ideas that I couldn’t possibly get them all down, and I will be coming back to them again and again. He was talking about the work they have done at Embassy schools to support bottom-up teacher development. Some of the areas he covered were:

  • making sure that teacher development is an ethos throughout the organisation, not a separate activity (these talks from IATEFL 2018 are related to the kind of culture change that may be required) and that everyone is clear about what this ethos means and how it is communicated
  • evaluating teacher development (see below)
  • using nudges to drive cultural change, and knowing when a nudge is not enough
  • mentoring, particularly for teachers when they join the organisation, and the training needed for mentors to be effective. Senior teachers should not be forgotten here! (Please ask Chris if you want to find out more)
  • lesson aims, success criteria and assessment: making sure we know what the teachers are teaching and they do too, and that they know how to measure whether a learner and/or a lesson has been successful or not, as well as making it as easy and convenient as possible to see the links between these things (an area that bears a LOT more exploration!)

If you don’t know what the students are supposed to be doing, how can you know what you should be doing as a teacher or an organisation?

  • reflective enquiry, with different levels depending on how serious teachers are – these vary from notes and peer observation up to full-blown action research projects, and include professional development groups

Chris also mentioned that students can self-assess their ability to use particular language using a three-point scale:

  • I know.
  • I can use.
  • I do use.

Simple, but effective!

I suspect this is the talk I will come back to most from the whole conference!

Evaluating training

Silvana Richardson talked about an idea so simple that it’s never even occurred to me before: the importance of evaluating the impact of the continuous professional development you offer, both on the teacher and on student learner. I’ve never even asked for trainees to complete a ‘happy sheet’ as Silvana called them – an immediate post-session evaluation. That’ll be changing!

She talked about five levels of evaluation based on Guskey (2000):

1. Participants' reactions, 2. Participants' learning, 3. Institution's capacity to support change, 4. Participants' use of the new knowledge, 5. Students' learning outcomes

She covered a huge range of data collection techniques. Here are just a few.

Level 1 tends to just reveal the entertainment value, but is the easiest one to collect data on, including through using ‘happy sheets’. One way to make it richer is to ask ‘How are you going to apply what you’ve learnt today?’ or ‘What are you going to do with what you’ve learnt today?’

Level 2 could be done through exit tickets for example:

  • What I didn’t know before this session.
  • What I might need support with.
  • How I feel I have progressed as a result of this session.

Level 3 needs to be done at the level of the organisation, and may require institutional change. Silvana gave the example of an altered mobile phone usage policy following a session on mobile learning when they realised that phones were banned in the classroom.

Level 4 requires time to elapse: you can’t measure impact on practice instantly, and you may need to do it at several time intervals, though sometimes we forget! Silvana’s suggestion for this was learning walks, adapted from a system used in state schools. At Bell, they choose one area to focus on (student tutorials in the example Silvana gave), do some CPD based on that area, then drop in to lots of lessons to see how that CPD is being put into action. With the student tutorials, every teacher audio recorded tutorials with student permission, chose one to focus on, completed a feedback form they’d created as a team in a CPD session, had an ‘observer’ listen to the same recording and add comments, then all of the written feedback was anonymised and compiled into a single report. The organisation (it was done across multiple schools) learnt about what was and wasn’t working from their CPD sessions, and uncovered examples of best practice that had previously gone under the radar.

Level 5 is the hardest to assess, as so many factors could contribute to students’ learning outcomes. You can look at assessment scores, retention, changes in study habits, etc, or interview students, parents, teachers or managers to see this. However, it can be hard to assess cause and effect.

Evaluating your CPD programme in a range of different ways covering as many of these levels as possible is the only real way to ensure that it’s actually doing what you want it to do.

In the manager’s office

Curiosity

Monica Green encouraged us to nurture curiosity in ourselves as managers and in our teachers, inspired by this fascinating article from the Harvard Business Review. I really like this quote she finished on:

Albert Einstein on a bike: 'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."

Developing everybody

Olga Connolly reminded us of the importance of making sure that senior staff get professional development relevant to their role, not just teachers. For new senior staff at BKC IH Moscow, they have a shadowing programme and five training sessions based on core responsibilities like observations and how to give training sessions. For more experienced senior staff, they meet regularly to have discussions based around a table, the headings of which are:

  • skill/are to develop
  • why is it important
  • how (action points)
  • support needed
  • feedback collection
  • time frame

Senior staff complete what they can by themselves, then Olga helps them with the parts they can’t complete, and works out with them what support and guidance she/the school needs to give them. Examples of areas to work on which her senior staff have looked at include:

  • setting priorities to give more focussed feedback
  • improving body language in promotional videos made by the school
  • improving computer skills to be able to watch webinars
  • noticing strengths and weaknesses when observing lessons in languages you don’t speak
  • increasing the number and variety of warmers in teacher training courses.

This system came about because previously Olga noticed that there was no clear system, no goal and no focus for the development of her senior staff. That’s definitely something I’ve been guilty of, both in my own development and that of the senior team I work with – we’ve just kind of muddled along, though some things have become a bit more systematic as I have built up my own experience. Clearer goals would definitely be useful, though for myself endless curiosity (see above) tends to deal with a lot of things!

Change

Ania Kolbuszewska talked to us about why change does and doesn’t work. The know-feel-do model was new to me:

  • What is the one thing you want me to know?
  • Why do you want me to do this?
  • How do you want me to act as a result?

I like how this boils down change communication to the absolute essentials. She also reminded us that communication is NOT the message sent, but the message received, and that perceptions are an image or idea based on insufficient information – the more information we give to people about a change, the fuller their picture will be. This can help to reduce the amount of fear associated with changes, including fear of:

  • loss of money
  • loss of social or network traditions
  • loss of power
  • loss of control
  • loss of status
  • loss of jobs
  • not having the competences to unlearn old habits or learn new things
  • (not) being involved in the change.

My favourite quote from her talk was by C.S. Lewis:

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.

By the way, if you’re interested in change management, I’d highly recommend reading Who Moved My Cheese? by Dr. Spencer Johnson [Amazon affiliate link]. I read it when I was in my teens, and it’s always shaped how I think about change and how to respond to it. It’ll take you all of about an hour to read and will give you a whole new vocabulary 🙂

Evaluation

Giovanni Licata and Lucie Cotterill reminded us that when evaluating courses, we shouldn’t rely on immediate post-course evaluation by students, as this often focuses on the entertainment/ performance value of the course, but try to investigate the longer-term effects on learning. We should also move away from star ratings – as they said, some of the ‘best’ restaurants in the world, and McDonalds, have very similar star ratings, and yet they’re doing very different things! One model you could use is KISS:

  • Keep (what are you doing to keep doing?)
  • Improve (what do you need to improve?)
  • Start (what are you going to start doing?)
  • Stop (what are you going to stop doing?)

In general

Communicating more effectively

Loraine Kennedy did a three-hour workshop entitled ‘The Craft of Conversations’ to kick the conference off. Among other things, she talked about developing emotional intelligence, coaching v. mentoring, and giving and receiving feedback, both positive and negative.

Here are five questions she asked us at one point which you might like to answer:

  • Why is emotional intelligence important in dealing with difficult people and situations?
  • Think about someone you think has high emotional intelligence. Why do you think this is?
  • “Know thyself.” Why is this important before judging others?
  • What can you do deepen you own self awareness?
  • What can you and your team at work do together to increase emotional intelligence?

She reminded us of our own role in any communication:

Your behaviour will influence the way the situation develops.

If you have a problem, you are both part of the problem and part of the solution.

The latter can be particularly hard to remember!

1. Description (what happened?), 2. Feelings (What were you thinking and feeling?), 3. Evaluation (What was good and bad about the experience?), 4. Analysis (What sense can you make of the situation?), 5. Conclusion (What else could you have done?), 6. Action plan (If it arose again, what would you do?)

Shared by http://www.researchgate.net under a CC 4.0 license

We practised using the Gibbs reflective cycle (shown above), as well as focusing on listening and asking questions, and not giving advice. I found this process particularly useful, as it made me realise that an unsuccessful and very negative interaction I had in my first year as a DoS probably came about because I was making statements and telling the teacher about a problem situation, rather than asking questions and helping them to describe the situation themselves.

At every AMT conference, there’s at least one idea which I’ve been struggling with in my own head for a while, and then somebody gives you the answer. In this case, it was Loraine’s guidelines for a complaint conversation:

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare! Get as much information as possible, including more feedback from the complainant. Write a list of relevant questions.
  2. Explain the reason for the meeting, e.g. student feedback.
  3. Meet in the right place, and make it as comfortable as possible. Do not rush the meeting.
  4. State your position ‘on side with the teacher’, and remind them about confidentiality (yours and theirs). Remind them of the need to agree a way forward together.
  5. Ask the teacher to talk about the class and the students. Any issues?
  6. Outline the feedback received.
  7. Invite comment and discussion. Expect anger, embarrassment, denial.
  8. Listen and use exploratory questions.
  9. Support the teacher. Empathise.
  10. Reaffirm that a way forward needs to be found. Stay focused on this.
  11. It is better if the teacher finds the way forward, but be prepared to offer suggestions. (‘Way forward’ suggests that it is negotiable, it may have various steps, and the person the complaint is about is involved in working it out. ‘Solution’ suggests that there is one answer, and you may go into the conversation thinking that you know what it is.)
  12. Agree on action, and a time to follow-up.

The most important thing to remember is that a complaint must always be responded to, including if the response is that you do not believe that the complaint requires anything to be changed. Loraine also reminded us that if we have more teacher to student feedback, we may avoid complaints in the first place! If you want Loraine to help you out with management training, coaching, and teacher development, you can find out more information on her consultancy work on her website.

In a related talk, Lisa Phillips also talked about the importance of emotional and social intelligence, and making sure we:

  • Pay attention
  • Anticipate situations (both positive and negative)
  • Explain, don’t blame
  • Accept criticism
  • Remember about how contagious emotions are
  • Are human!

Questions I want to keep asking myself

What does success look like in this situation? How will I know when I’ve achieved it? How will my learners/teachers know when they’ve achieved it?

Are we doing enough teacher-student feedback? Are we doing it in the right way?

How can we promote curiosity, not just in learners, but in teachers, trainers and managers too?

How much am I taking what I know about what works as a language learner into the classroom? Do I really give them what I know works for me and a lot of other people?

How can we make our mentoring scheme as effective as possible?

What questions am I asking? Am I asking enough of them or jumping in with advice instead? Are they clear enough?

Am I really listening?

What am I doing to make sure I reduce how much of the problem I am in any given situation?

How can we evaluate what we’re doing more effectively?

2018 Self-reflection challenge

Happy New Year!

I like a bit of reflection to end one year and start the next. This year’s is brought to you courtesy of the This is Evil blog, via Emma Johnston who did it first. Here are the questions:

As I only spend a few hours a week in the classroom I’ll change some of them to other areas of my teaching-related career.

Day 1: your favourite activity from 2018

Teaching people how to use Quizlet Live. It’s quick and easy to set up, and students and teachers get really engaged.

I taught a group of elementary men from Yemen in the summer – normally at the end of the lesson they were out of the room like a shot. On the day when I showed them Quizlet Live ten minutes before the end of the lesson, they were still there ten minutes after the lesson finished and hadn’t noticed it was time to go because they were so engaged in the game.

Day 2: most memorable story from 2018

Lots of great memories, but this one was particularly fun…

Presenting at the IATEFL online conference for early career teachers, working with Ruth to talk about how to approach lesson planning. We spent 10 minutes describing our own lesson planning, then 50 answering questions from all over the world. It was an adrenaline rush and I loved it – we could have continued for much longer, except I had to teach and my students were knocking on the door! 🙂 If you’re an IATEFL member, you can watch the recording in the webinars section of the members’ area. If you’re not, why not join?

Sandy and Ruth IATEFL web conference screenshot

Day 3: the best piece of advice you were given in 2018

When you self-publish, create a paperback as well as an ebook. Thanks Dorothy Zemach!

Day 4: the moment in 2018 you felt proud as a trainer

When two teachers who I’d worked with on a technology course at York Associates in the summer took what they’d learnt from me and turned it into their own presentation for their colleagues in Serbia.

Day 5: your favourite memory as a student

Performing in our flamenco concert in June. It was third time lucky, as I missed the first year due to having a sprained ankle, and the second year due to illness on the day. It was so much fun and I’m really hoping I make it to this year’s one!

Day 6: the funniest story from 2018

Erm…not sure.

Day 7: your favourite coursebook in 2018

I don’t really use coursebooks that much, but I really like how useful the Outcomes teacher’s books are, especially if the teacher who’s using them doesn’t have much training.

Day 8: a new idea you implemented in 2018

We introduced mentoring at our school this year. Every teacher has been assigned a mentor who they meet for 30 minutes a week. The system was worked out with the help of the senior team at my school, and we have some second year teachers who are also volunteering as mentors. I’m really pleased with how it’s going so far and we’ve had some great feedback. We’ve also got quite a few ideas for how to improve it next year.

Day 9: your favourite teaching aid in 2018

Quizlet – games, printable flashcards, self-study at home, Quizlet Live…

Day 10: the best joke you’ve heard in 2018

Not a joke, but something else that makes me laugh. I love the ‘Role call’ videos featuring on James Corden’s show. Here’s a recent one of him doing musicals with Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda:

Day 11: the moment in 2018 when you felt proud of your student

When Emma got the results she wanted in her Delta 🙂

Day 12: your favourite teaching website in 2018

Probably Hana Ticha’s blog – so many ideas and things to think about!

Day 13: the person who inspired you in 2018

Phil Longwell. Read his blog to find out why. Inspired by Phil, and other educators who are talking about mental health, we have started to make changes to how we provide support at our school, and we are already seeing the results. Some examples include the mentoring mentioned above, a specific session focussed on wellbeing in our induction week, and a generally open atmosphere where we make it clear that mental health is just as important as physical health.

Day 14: the moment in 2018 you realised WHY you’re doing your job

Seeing teachers from our school feeling confident enough to share what they’ve learnt with the wider teaching community, through online conferences (IH  – Emma, Ruth; IATEFL – Ruth and me), the IH Journal (Helen, Amy), and their own blogs (Emma, Ruth).

Day 15: your greatest challenge in 2018

My health, as always.

Day 16: your strongest point as a teacher

Networking. Drawing on the knowledge of the amazing teaching community that I’m part of, both online and off.

Day 17: most motivational idea/quotation/picture in 2018

I curated the IATEFL blog until August 2018. Reading all of the stories of how IATEFL has helped teachers from around the world is truly motivational.

Day 18: 3 reasons why you became a teacher

  • To help other people.
  • To explore.
  • To learn.

Day 19: your favourite teaching application in 2018

The new ‘word’ function on the BYU corpus pages.

BYU corpus word feature screenshot

Day 20: a piece of advice you would give to a rookie teacher

Ask for help!

(and buy my book) 🙂

Day 21: the best CPD book you read in 2018

I’m re-reading The English Verb by Michael Lewis [affiliate link – but it’s super expensive 😦 ], which is probably the book that has most influenced the way I think about English. I’m trying to work out how to convey the way he describes language to students and teachers in a succinct and accessible way (watch this space).

Day 22: your greatest frustration in 2018

That people don’t read adverts properly when they apply for jobs, or do and ignore the requirements stated. You’re wasting your time and mine.

Day 23: one thing you want non-teachers to understand

Just because you grow up speaking a language, doesn’t mean you can automatically teach it. You still need to learn how to be a teacher, work hard at it, and continually develop. Pay for good quality, trained, professional teachers, not just the cheapest person who happens to have the ‘right’ passport – all of us will benefit, and you’ll get your money’s worth.

Day 24: your most memorable teaching experiment in 2018

Teaching Polish to our teachers. Although I started with a few lessons in 2017, 2018 is when I’ve realised that I can do it, even as an intermediate learner myself. It’s so much fun, and I can sneak in some teacher training by modelling activities too 🙂

Day 25: your personal success in 2018

Launching ELT Playbook 1, my self-published ebook aimed at helping new teachers. I’m really pleased with the reception it’s got, and am looking forward to finishing the next one in the series.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

Day 26: one thing you plan to change in 2019

An ongoing project: my ability to completely switch off – much improved, but not there yet.

Day 27: your greatest discovery in 2018

That I should stop saying ‘I don’t have time’ and instead say ‘I have prioritised my time differently.’ We probably have time to do everything we might want to, but we don’t always make time for it. Life is about choices, and sometimes we choose (not) to do something at a particular time – how we prioritise the things we do is our responsibility, not some abstract thing from outside us.

Also, how much better I feel when I have proper time off, prioritising it over other things. I did know this before, but had forgotten. By the way, thanks to Neil for making sure the CELTA course I did in the summer had lots of space in it for time off and reflection, and for reminding me how much I enjoy riding a bike!

Day 28: which superpower would make you a Super-DoS

Staying calm all the time in all situations. I’m better at it than I used to be, but it still needs work!

Day 29: one area to improve in your teaching in 2019

Reusing language that has come up in class, not just recording it. The recording part has improved massively over the last couple of years, but I need to follow through better.

Day 30: how do you plan to start your first lesson in 2019

By teaching our teachers vocabulary to name places in a town in Polish. And the second lesson will be introducing a Proficiency group to the joys of pantomimes.

Day 31: the most important thing you want to remember tomorrow

To go to my physio appointment at the right time – changes in routine are confusing!

Time travelling

Here are different challenges I’ve completed in previous years if you fancy writing something similar but this one doesn’t appeal:

  • 2013 – WordPress automatic stats
  • 2014 – the ups and downs of the year
  • 2015 – 30 questions to ask yourself
  • 2016 – things I’ve enjoyed this year
  • 2017 – 17 things I’ve learnt in 2017

It’s been fascinating reading back through them and remembering the bad times and the good.

Here’s to a peaceful and prosperous 2019!

360 degree CPD (TeachingEnglish blog associates)

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! 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.

Teaching English Associates names word cloud

My most recent contribution is about combining being part of the online community (if you want to) and reflecting on what’s happening in your classroom. What do you think? Is it key to be part of an online community to develop professionally as a teacher nowadays?

The learning process as I see it

Geoff Jordan recently relaunched his blog with a new tagline:

Screen shot of the tag line of Geoff's blog: What do you think you're doing? A critique of ELT teacher trainers

At the end of the post ‘Teacher Trainers in ELT‘, he posed the following five questions:

  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?
  2. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?
  3. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?
  4. What materials do you recommend?
  5. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

In this blog post I am going to attempt to answer these questions.

The learning process

I have recently started to visualise the learning process using the fingers on one hand, like this:

(thumb) 1. You don’t know it exists. (index finger) 2. You know it exists, but you don’t really understand it. You can use/do it successfully 10-20% of the time, but you need a lot of support/input. (middle finger) 3. You have a 50/50 chance of being able to use/do it successfully. You still need help and support at times, or to be reminded of it, but you’re improving. (ring finger) 4. You have an 80-90% chance of using/doing it successfully. Most problems are slips, and if somebody reminds you, you can correct yourself. (little finger) 5. It’s automatic. You don’t have to think about it any more. It can be hard to believe that you ever didn’t know this.

I think the learning process is the same regardless of what skill it is you’re learning, whether that be English, how to teach, or how to tie your shoelaces. Sometimes you can skip through stages 2-4 pretty quickly, and sometimes you get stuck at one of those stages for a long time without feeling any progress. However, with perseverance, motivation, practice and time you can get to stage 5 with anything you truly want to learn. Support, guidance and input can help you get there faster, but none of them are essential, not even for getting from stage 1 to 2: if you pay attention to the world around you, you can notice the existence of things yourself.

Of course ‘English’ and ‘how to teach’ are both huge concepts, and should be broken down into many smaller concepts. The degree to which you break them down when using this metaphor is entirely up to you, dependent on who you are talking to and why. Below are a few examples.

Learning how to teach

On a CELTA course, you are working with a truly pre-service trainee, somebody who has never been in a classroom before. You have four weeks/120 hours to introduce them to the basics of being an English language teacher. By the end of the course, here are some of the areas I would expect a straight Pass candidate to be at stage 3 in:

  • Giving clear instructions.
  • Monitoring for task completion, and adjusting tasks accordingly.
  • Including peer checks consistently between individual and open class work.
  • Clarifying the meaning of new vocabulary/terminology efficiently and concisely.

In contrast, I would expect a teacher with some prior experience before the course to be at at least stage 2 in all of the above areas when they join the course, or even stage 3, and at stage 4 by the end of the course. Realistically, on a pre-service course with only six hours of teaching, six of observation, and 120 of input, I think it’s very difficult to reach stage 5 in any of these areas if you’re starting from scratch, though some Pass A candidates may manage it in some areas.

Working with early career teachers over the course or a year or two, as I do most of the time in my Director of Studies role, it is possible to break things down more and focus on components that could make up each area above. Take ‘giving clear instructions’ for example. Individual components might be:

  • Getting and maintaining attention while giving instructions.
  • Showing the materials to be worked with to help students follow what you’re saying/doing.
  • Working through an example for unfamiliar task types.
  • Getting a student/pair/group to work through an example in open class.
  • Checking instructions.

By the end of their first year, I would expect teachers at our school to be at stage 4 or 5 in all of the above areas.

There are also areas which they are unlikely to have come across or which were only mentioned in passing on their pre-service course, and I would expect them to be at stage 2 or 3 after their first year with us, and 3 or 4 after their second. These might include:

  • Teaching 121 students in a way that differs from their approach to group classes.
  • Conducting a needs analysis and acting on it.
  • Managing a classroom of teen students.
  • Assessing learner progress within levels that they are familiar with.
  • Varying the pacing of a young learner lesson to keep students engaged throughout.

As far as I’m concerned, all of the examples above are connected to the skill of teaching in general, and would be equally applicable to an EFL teacher, a Maths teacher and a History teacher.

Learning a language

When it comes to learning any language, I think the five stages are the same. As I learn other languages and notice my own learning process, I can feel myself going through the stages for different aspects of the language.

Here are some examples of elements from English grammar:

  • Knowing when to use third person -s.
  • Choosing between the present simple and the present continuous.
  • Selecting the correct article in a given context.

And from Polish grammar:

  • Knowing whether a noun is masculine (animate or inanimate), feminine or neutral.
  • Associating case endings with prepositions.
  • Deciding whether an action is seen as complete or incomplete (perfective or imperfective), and choosing the correct verb form.

But of course, a language is not just grammar. Learning and retaining lexical chunks is a 5-step process too, and skills and learning techniques can also be broken down:

  • Understanding the relationship between yourself and your interlocutor, and choosing appropriate forms of address or vocabulary to reflect that.
  • Not worrying about whether you understand everything in an informal conversation, but joining in when and where you can.
  • Letting yourself read for reading’s sake in your L2, not just to list the vocabulary that you encounter.

By showing teachers my breakdown of the learning process, and by encouraging them to learn languages and experience it themselves, I try to help them see that regardless of what they do in the classroom, students still need to go through the stages at their own pace. Classroom learning can speed it up in some cases, by providing input, guidance, a supportive environment, opportunities for practice and a time and space for language use, but ultimately, nobody can learn faster for their students – they have to do it themselves. This is true of any subject, not just English or languages.

Materials and more

We use coursebooks for most of the classes at out school. We aim to maximise the amount of speaking that students do through careful lesson planning, and the coursebooks we use help us to keep the range of input high across the school, by ensuring that a certain amount of content is touched on every year. I do not see a coursebook as a ‘chain‘ to be freed from, but rather as a skeleton structure to base our teaching on which forms part, though not all, of the students’ learning.

A large majority of our students join groups at the school as near or total beginners, and progress through 8 years of study culminating in them successfully passing the Cambridge First (B2) exam. A handful of them get there a little slower, repeating a level or two if they’ve really struggled. Some of them get there faster, through increased exposure outside the classroom, particularly if they are teenagers who watch a lot of English-language films/series/YouTube videos or play a lot of computer games. That’s not to say that students couldn’t all reach that level of English much more quickly and efficiently, but that requires a level of motivation, self-discipline and exposure to the language that few people have. Despite being highly motivated to learn languages myself, I have sometimes found in the past that attending regular classes was necessary to make sure that I studied in between – I didn’t need to learn much in the classes, but I did need somebody to be accountable to for my learning, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

For one-to-one and company classes, I point out to both teachers and students that despite having a coursebook, they are under no obligation to go through it from cover to cover. In fact, one of the first things we suggest teachers do with a new student/closed group is to take the contents page of the coursebook and ask students what they do and don’t want to look at, and what else they would like to do that isn’t in the book.

I regularly remind teachers that there are certain grammar points that it’s not worth getting het up about, as students will internalise them (get to stage 5) much later, even if they’re ‘taught’ much earlier by coursebooks. For Polish learners of English, all three of the grammar points I selected above fall into that category as there is no corresponding structure in Polish. It’s important for everyone to remember that teaching does not necessarily equal learning, and you never know exactly what a student will take away from a given lesson. Having said that, they should always take something away from the lesson, otherwise there was no point to them attending!

As Geoff said in another post:

[…] students don’t learn a second or foreign language by being led through the units of a coursebook like this – language learning simply doesn’t work like that.

We know that two 90-minute lessons a week alone does not create high-level users of English, and we show teachers as many ways as possible to encourage students to practise and use the language outside class. Some of these ideas include borrowing books from the school library for extensive reading, listening to podcasts for extensive listening, using websites like Quizlet and Memrise to increase vocabulary, and doing something in English for 5 minutes every day, regardless of what it is. We also encourage teachers to share their own experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for them as language learners.

Through a strong culture of professional development and a very supportive environment, I believe that we are able to provide a level of quality in lessons that would not be consistently achievable without coursebooks, as teachers are able to focus on adapting the materials for their students, rather than on finding suitable materials in the first place. They are also free to omit or replace anything in a coursebook that they feel is inappropriate or unnecessary for their students – there is absolutely no obligation to do every exercise on every page. That is more than enough challenge for early-career teachers with anywhere between 40 and 65 students on their registers covering 4 to 7 different levels, levels that they perhaps can’t confidently differentiate between until they’ve completed a year or two of teaching. (And that’s without all of the other things that first year teachers in a foreign country need to get their heads around!)

Working with teachers year-round

I endeavour to remember to remind teachers (I’d say I’m at stage 3 for this!) that if they have chosen to ‘cover’ a particular grammar point, range of vocabulary items, aspect of a skill, or language learning technique, at any given time they will probably have students at all five stages of the learning process for that thing. They need to adapt the lesson accordingly, and remember not to get frustrated if they have students at stage 1, even if they ‘did this last year’ and at stage 5, who don’t really need more input on it. This is still something I sometimes find challenging as a teacher.

Working with the same teachers consistently in collaborative planning meetings at our school, I try to put this into practice. I encourage teachers to get students to show them what they know first, rather than automatically assuming that an item needs to be presented/covered at this particular level. Examples of ways students can show their knowledge include doing a gapfill for homework before the lesson, saying all of the words in a vocabulary set as quickly as possible with their partner or completing a task at the start of the lesson. I then show teachers how to notice problems students are having and how to deal with them. I have found that monitoring for language output is an especially difficult skill for new teachers, particularly when all of the students are speaking at once and it can be a challenge to tune in to individual voices. In our collaborative planning meetings, we come up with ‘monitoring tasks’ to help the teacher direct their focus, and we anticipate areas which students might have trouble with.

Here’s an example from one of last week’s meetings, working with pre-intermediate students from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd edition. I’m trying to learn more about task-based learning, and share this with teachers (again, I’m at stage 3 of this!) – this is an example of how I’ve interpreted it, using the task in the coursebook to provide scaffolding and examples of language which a teacher might listen out for during the initial attempt at the task.

Holiday speaking from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd ed SB p13

This activity was chosen as the first speaking assessment of the year for these students. Holiday vocabulary was introduced and practised in the previous lesson. The 70-minute lesson plan that I sketched out with the teachers included the following steps (roughly!):

  • Students do tasks 6a, 6b and 6c. Monitoring task: listen for use of the past simple and whether students are actively showing interest in what their partner is saying. Make notes on a Word document.
  • If students had few problems with the past simple, display the Word document on the board, elicit corrections and reasons for why that language was incorrect/unsuitable, and supply any language students were lacking. Complete a story-based exercise from the book where they choose which form is correct. Write ten key words from the story and retell it. Monitoring task: notice problems with the past simple forms from the story (this is easier than in task 6, as there is a more limited range of forms which may come up, so teachers are more likely to spot them).
  • If students had lots of problems with the past simple, read about two people’s holidays and complete the associated tasks from the book. Use the examples taken from the text to notice the grammar rules. Complete one or both of the controlled practice exercises, depending on the students’ needs and how much they seem to understand. Work on the pronunciation of -ed endings using the coursebook, if necessary. Display the Word document, as above.
  • If students were showing interest in what their partner said without any trouble, fine. If not, introduce and drill the phrases from the green box shown above. Elicit a few other follow-up questions that could be asked or statements that could be made.
  • All students repeat task 6 as the final stage in the lesson, this time as an assessment – in theory, they should all be better this time round. I told the teachers what aspects of speaking to assess here, and gave them tips on how to assess 12 students simultaneously over the course of about 10 minutes.

This lesson plan is not perfect (no plan is). However, I am confident that the teachers will be able to teach it, and that all of the students in the classroom will learn something from the lesson. The aim of the lesson is not to ‘teach the past simple’, or talk about it, but rather to improve students’ ability to ask and answer questions about holidays they have had.

My own development

I would say that I am an intermediate to upper intermediate level teacher (if you take language levels as a guide), and a pre-intermediate to intermediate trainer (thank you to Geoff for stating that I am a ‘top teacher trainer’, but I certainly don’t believe this!), and that I still have plenty to learn. The day that I feel that I’m ‘finished’ as a teacher or a trainer is the day that I leave this career.

Even after ten years of teaching, I still don’t always feel that my students have learnt as much as they could have done in a non-coursebook lesson – both of my groups this year are non-coursebook-based, to push myself to develop in this area. I certainly know that having used coursebooks over a number of years, I have a much clearer idea of what to expect of students at different levels, and what is often far beyond their abilities. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to teach them some of those ‘higher-level’ things – that might push students from stage 1 to 2 after all, or provide the i + 1 that Krashen proposes, or help them get into Vygotsky’s ZPD, if my understanding of those concepts is correct. Rather, I don’t agonise over something ‘above their level’ if they haven’t managed to pick it up by the end of the lesson or remembered it next lesson.

Looking back at Geoff’s questions, I know next to nothing about different types of syllabus, despite having read Syllabus Design [affiliate link] as part of my Delta, and having to justify the kind of syllabus I came up with for my extended assignment. I’m not sure there is an ideal kind of syllabus anyway as learners can only learn what they’re ready to learn, and I’m unlikely to be in a position where I create an entire syllabus any time soon. I don’t feel in any way qualified to recommend a particular type of syllabus to another teacher, as I feel that teaching should be at the point of need wherever possible, despite what I said about coursebooks above.

I’m not entirely sure which methodological principles I discuss with teachers either. I’m not sure I necessarily recommend any in particular either, though you may be able to spot some that I can’t in what I’ve written above.

I know a little about second language acquisition, through theoretical modules during my university language study, reading How Languages Are Learned [affiliate link], and many many hours spent learning a range of languages myself to a greater or lesser degree of success using a wide range of techniques. I try to take that into the classroom and the training room, partly by reminding students and teachers that learning will happen when you’re ready for it, but that we can try to create the conditions for it, for example by providing more ‘hooks’ to help it stick for longer. As I mentioned above, patience, time, practice and motivation are the key ingredients.

Everything that I have written here is based on my own experience as a teacher, trainer and language learner, and my (all too limited) reading. Limited as I’ve only been teaching for ten years, always in private language schools, and the resources I have access to are those at the schools I’ve worked at, those online, and those I have paid for myself. I am grateful to all of those people who are trying to share teaching research more widely, making it more accessible for people like me. At some point in the future I will probably do an MA, but that requires time and money which I don’t have at the moment. I look forward to being able to access and evaluate more of this research myself.

What I teach

I strongly believe that the most important thing I can do in a classroom is provide a supportive space for students to learn, regardless of whether they are learning a language or learning to teach.

When training on pre-service courses, my focus is on reflection: being balanced in your assessment of your own teaching, identifying areas you can continue to work on and thinking about how, and areas which are already fine that you can endeavour to repeat and build on.

When in the English classroom, my focus is on experimenting with producing and understanding the language, trying things out, and ironing out problems.

Whatever they’re learning, I try to help trainees/students to see the gaps in their knowledge, and improve their confidence with what they know. I hope that what I share with the teaching community reflects the ideas I have described here.

I would never pretend that I am teaching them teaching or teaching them English, but rather that I am one small piece in the puzzle that can help them reach their final goal. Ultimately, what they take away from my lessons is entirely dependent on what stage they are at in their learning and is up to them.

Geoff, I hope that goes some way towards answering your questions.

Stupid things I’ve done as a teacher

Well, just the one actually 🙂

I wanted to share an example of one of those things which felt really stupid and unprofessional at the time, but which over time has just come to be a good story to tell.

Me before my first lesson at the school

Me before my first lesson at the school (though not the lesson I’m writing about!)

When I was at university studying languages, I spent my third year abroad working as a British Council teaching assistant. In Paraguay, that meant working as a full-time teacher in a private language school. The school had two possible time slots for afternoon kids’ classes. I can’t remember which way round the days were, but it was something like 3:00-4:30 Monday and Wednesday and 3:30-5:00 Tuesday and Thursday.

A couple of months after I arrived I was asked to cover a kids’ class, the first time I’d taught anyone under the age of about 16 there. I was really worried about my lack of experience, and asked the head of teacher training at the school to help me. She gave me a series of activities and worksheets to fill the lesson, and explained how to set them up.

When I got into class, everything went really well. The kids were engaged, and they worked through all of the materials successfully. We got to the end of the lesson and I let them all out.

Except…

I’d made a mistake with the time, and let them out at 4:30, not 5:00 as it was supposed to be on that day! Because they’d completed everything, I didn’t check the time carefully enough and assumed it was the end of the lesson. I walked out of the classroom and realised my students were the only ones outside. I saw the security guard, who asked me what was happening, and I suddenly realised my mistake. I had to go around, gather all of the reluctant kids up, and persuade them to come back into class, while desperately trying to figure out what to do with the last 15-20 minutes of the lesson when I had no activities left. I can’t remember what solution I came up with in the end, but I do remember that I was really embarrassed!

12 years on, it mostly makes me laugh 🙂 And sympathise with teachers who get really hung up on little mistakes like that. I’m pretty sure most of the kids don’t remember that lesson, and that my confusion had no long-term impact on their ability to use English. At least, I hope not 😉

What stupid things have you done as a teacher?

Pre-conference excitement

Looking through the programme.

Highlighting all the sessions I’m interested in, knowing there are far too many.

Relishing the variety of what’s on offer.

Getting messages from people who I’ll be meeting for the first time.

Looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen for ages.

Preparing two sessions (yes, two) 😉

Travelling.

Seeing the postcards I got printed to advertise my e-book. (Thanks for the idea Rob!)

ELT Playbook 1 postcards

Trying to finish everything at work and home ready to go.

Knowing I’ll be exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure.

Anticipating all the great ideas I’ll come back with.

Can’t wait.

Excitement about the best week of my year.

#IATEFL2018

On choosing coursebooks (badly)

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written a couple of posts about coursebooks, the first describing my requests for publishers and writers to take into account, and the second a list of questions for anybody who feels like reviewing the coursebooks they’re using so we can all make a more informed choice. I’ve also seen a few other posts that respond to our build on the points in my requests post, like this one by Julie Moore, and this one by Mura Nava. I also received a blogpost length response from Nick to those same requests. This post is partially in response to Nick’s one, and partially getting something off my chest and seeking help.

(By the way, I’d also recommend reading Nick’s post called ‘Challenging the coursebook – challenge accepted‘ and hope he’ll write part 2 at some point) 🙂

Before I continue, please remember that everything I write on this blog and in this post is not designed to reflect on my school, but only to describe my experience, one which I am pretty sure is not unique, at least in the world of private language schools.

As in my requests post, I do not intend to name specific coursebooks as I don’t believe that will help. I am sure that some of the books I am talking about work brilliantly for other teachers in other contexts, and without providing a fully contextualised review, I don’t wish to provide negative publicity for them.

A corridor between two long bookshelves filled with coursebooks

Image taken by @michaelegriffin, from ELTpics under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence

I am currently working as a Director of Studies at a private language school, and as such one of my responsibilities is to have the final say in the selection of coursebooks for our school. I inherited a system of levels with books attached to them, about half of which have stayed the same since I started three years ago, with the occasional change of edition as particular books stop being sold in Poland.

Selecting adult books hasn’t really been a problem for me: the majority of my teaching experience is with adults, I have used a very wide range of coursebooks designed for adults, and I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. I also strongly believe that there are a lot of very good quality adult coursebooks out there, many of which already meet half or more of the requests on my previous list. This means I have a wide range of books to choose from. Adult students who are studying with us are unlikely to be studying elsewhere at the same time, so I have free reign, and can choose whatever I think might be best.

I haven’t needed to choose books for our young learners (aged 7-10) because the series we use is very well thought out, and has a kind of timeless quality that doesn’t really date. The only time we need to change it is when a new edition comes out and the old one is no longer available for our students. Again, students at this age are unlikely to be studying elsewhere, so I don’t need to worry that they will have seen the book elsewhere. The one exception to this was the highest level, which seemed to throw all the challenging grammar normally found in two levels at the students: fine for a strong class, but very challenging for a weak class. When one teacher used it in my second year, we had to adapt it quite a lot and remove at least two of the grammar points. We’ve now chosen a different book to replace it, but haven’t had a group to try it out with yet, so I can’t judge that decision yet.

Teen books, however, are an entirely different question. They are the bane of my life. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent thinking about them, but I do know it is FAR TOO MANY. Here’s why…

In my first year at the school, we were using a series that was already 5 years old, and is now 7 years old, for four of the seven teen levels we have for 11-15 year olds. That means that somebody who became a teenager when the series came out would now be in their early 20s. As we all know, teen culture moves incredibly fast, and while there is no way that coursebooks and publishers could possibly keep up with those changes, I did feel it was time for something more modern. The series worked quite well in terms of language input, and in fact has now become the benchmark by which we judge other books we are considering. However, I don’t really remember my 13-15 year old students ever being engaged by the reading or listening texts, or the writing tasks, or possibly the speaking tasks, regardless of what I did to set them up. Of course, that may well be my fault, not the book’s, but you’d think that at least one or two things would grab them. It could also be my faulty memory, or the fact that in a group of teens nobody wants to be different by showing interest in something the others don’t seem interested in. Many possible reasons, but I don’t think an out-of-date book helped.

To help me choose a replacement, I asked around for recommendations of good series both on social media and when meeting colleagues. The most oft-repeated recommendation was used in a lot of local schools, so I couldn’t choose it. Another one wasn’t available in Poland if I remember rightly. We got sample copies of as many books as possible, and I also spent a long time at publishers’ stands at the various conferences I went to that year, asking about every book that seem relevant. With the help of my senior team, we tried to draw up a checklist of features we were looking for. I know that such lists appear in methodology books sometimes, but they all seem very general, and we wanted something that worked in our context. Here are a few of our requirements:

  • Available in Poland.
  • Age appropriate for 11-15 year olds (many are 9-12ish or 13-16ish – it’s hard to cover the full range)
  • Attractive to look at, so students actually want to open it.
  • Covering a similar range of language to the series we had previously used.
  • Providing a logical progression through the book and through the series.
  • Clear grammar explanations.
  • Including freer practice activities for new grammar (something we often had to add to the previous series).
  • With an interesting range of topics.
  • Lots of opportunities for speaking.
  • A workbook that supplements the student’s book.
  • Has a teacher’s book with extra activities if possible.

There were more, but I’m at home in the evening right now and I can’t remember them off the top of my head! By this stage, we had a very short list of books – definitely two, maybe even three. We showed them to students in class, and to teachers who’d have to work with them, and got feedback. None were particularly any better than any of the others. Quite late in the game we found out about another series, and didn’t manage to get as much feedback on that one. However, it was by the same publisher as the series we used to use, and seemed to cover most of the same ground. The video content seemed particularly interesting and engaging, and was something quite different to any of the others books. In the end, we went with that series.

So in my second year, we had a new series of books covering the same four levels, 3-6. We also had a new book from a different series covering level 2. That one worked pretty well, but about 15 lessons into the year, it was apparent that although the topics in the main series were engaging, the videos worked really well with most groups, and the language covered similar ground to the old series, it just wasn’t doing what it need to do, and was in fact going to cause us more problems than it solved.

One issue was that the lowest book, the one we were using for level 3, was actually easier than the level 2 book (from a different series) at times, and there didn’t seem to be a real level 3 book in their series: I’d made the mistake of looking at the CEFR level on the back and the language covered and thinking it was OK, without doing an in-depth analysis of it and comparing the two books carefully enough. Another was that the reading and listening texts were in general far too easy for our students, and didn’t seem to challenge them at all, while the videos were much harder. Vocabulary sets were almost completely without challenge, with students only really not knowing one or two items in any given list. These are all things we could work around, but they meant a lot of extra work for our senior staff in particular, supporting brand new teachers with adapting the book for their students to maintain the quality lessons we pride ourselves on. Another, much larger, problem was that while the books covered the same grammar points as the previous series, they actually stopped at unit 8, where the old series had had 12 units in each book, meaning a lot of key language was missing if you looked at the equivalent adult levels. This was particularly important for any of our students who might be old to change to adult groups in the following year and resulted in us having to rewrite the syllabus for the rest of the year for four levels, supplementing the book with a lot of other materials to make sure everything was covered that we needed to include. Again, this was a considerable amount of work, multiplied by four to cover all of the levels.

All of these things meant we couldn’t use this series again this year, so we went back to the drawing board, with a much longer list of criteria this time round. Some of the things we added were:

  • Long enough for a 124-hour course.
  • Doesn’t require too much supplementing.
  • Covers all of the ‘main’ grammar points at the equivalent adult level, so if students are moving into adult classes they haven’t missed anything major.
  • Challenging reading and listening texts.

Learning from our experience in the previous year, we checked the grammar points much more carefully. We also tried to be more systematic in getting feedback from students on the books, and had teachers do trial lessons with some of the books we were considering. However, as it was quite late in the year, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to do this: we were starting to wind up lessons with end-of-year revision, tests, etc. The list of books was also pretty similar to the one we’d ended up with at the end of my first year.

Part one of the resulting decision was to use more of the level 2 series for levels 3 and 4 – we’d originally decided against these as they actually felt like level 3.5 and 4.5 to us. At this point in the year, we’re now finding that is true: the harder language points are coming in, and some students are really struggling with them. Apart from that, a lack of ready-made extension activities, and a rather pointless teacher’s book (basically a glorified answer key), the series generally seems to be working quite well and we will probably continue with it next year, trying to re-pace the year to leave more time for the more challenging language in the second half of the books. Unfortunately, I can’t remember how consistent I was with checking which books were used in local secondary schools, and have discovered that a few of our students use the same book (or, worse, the book they used last year!) at school, so will have to check that again with the rep to see whether this is feasible. If too many of our students use it, we’ll have to choose something else, regardless of how good it is.

Decision part two was to use a new series for levels 5, 6 and 7. Level 7 had previously used an adult book which required a fair amount of adaptation, but was the only thing we could really find for their level, so the chance to use a teen book seemed too good to miss. The series was only published three years ago, and I am very sad to say it’s probably one of the frustrating coursebooks I’ve ever had. I’m lucky that I don’t have to teach from it, but I have had to provide a lot of support in planning from it, and listen to all of my poor staff who have had the misfortune of using it. Needless to say, we will not be using this series next year. It was the source of at least three of the requests on my list, including the first two regarding out-of-context items and exam tasks. And who’s to blame for this book selection? Ultimately, me. I am the most qualified and most experienced person on our team, and even though we looked at the books together, the final decision was mine. We chose it because the levels seemed to match up to our requirements, it covered the range of grammar points we required, the topics were interesting and varied, it was professionally presented with interesting images and engaging video content, and I am sure there were other reasons too. Listening lessons are particularly frustrating, as they are often ‘exam-style’ tasks containing 8 short extracts, only one or two of which may be related to the topic of the unit, making it very difficult to raise students’ interest in them. I somehow managed to completely miss that every last skills activity was an ‘exam task’, and the ones I did notice seemed at first glance to match up to Cambridge Main Suite exams, though it has subsequently turned out that they are in fact task types from a wide range of different exams, none of which are explicitly stated. Vocabulary pages are overwhelming for students, consisting as they do of three controlled practice exercises, each with 6-10 items and no other help beyond the questions in the exercise itself. If you’re really lucky one or two of the items may have appeared earlier in the unit or elsewhere on the page, but this is rare. Vocabulary is completely test-focussed, with no explicit input or freer practice activities. Most importantly, the amount of work it takes to put together a single lesson from it, particular anything that concerns teaching language, is completely unjustifiable in our very busy school for our busy, mostly newly-qualified teachers, and the senior team who support them. To top it all, a few students have told us they’re using the book at school, which I someone didn’t find out from the rep (more than likely, that’s my fault as I probably didn’t ask).

So now we’re starting to make decisions about the books for my fourth year, and I’m hoping these are books which stick so I don’t have to revisit this in another year (pretty please!) Here are some of the criteria I’ll be adding to the ever-growing list:

  • Presents and practises grammar and vocabulary items in a clear context.
  • Provides repeated opportunities to activate the grammar or a limited set of vocabulary items.
  • Contains skills activities which are not purely exam-focussed, and which it is possible to engage students in.
  • Is possible to consistently plan a 90-minute lesson from in less than 90 minutes, without requiring entire new sets of materials to be made.
  • Is not used in local secondary schools.

For those who’ve been wondering, I have repeatedly considered ditching coursebooks entirely, but that would create even more work, copyright concerns, and many other issues that I really do not have the time to deal with. It’s not going to happen any time soon, so instead we’re starting the selection process much earlier this year, and we’re going to be teaching multiple lessons from any book we consider. I’ll be checking with all of the reps for a full list of books used in local schools. We’ll go over all of the points in the checklist above with a fine-tooth comb. I know we won’t find anything that’s perfect, because nothing is, but if we can find something at least half-way decent, that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out every time I look at it or hear its name, then I will be satisfied.

All recommendations and advice will be most gratefully accepted. Thank you for your patience!

Why won’t they speak?!

Following on from Monday’s lesson, I deliberately made sure that my intermediate class today would have lots of opportunities to speak, starting immediately with the first activity. I hoped this would make a difference to the atmosphere in the room, and briefly, it did. After a while though, regardless of what I tried to do to get a response, it seemed that nobody wanted to say anything. I’d done everything ‘right’: put them in pairs, given them thinking time, played music (at their request) so they weren’t speaking into silence, suggested possible answers (yes, no, maybe for some questions), given them chance to make decisions (do you want to listen to anything again, or shall we move on?) and was generally greeted with silence, increasingly so as the lesson progressed. There were only 6 students, we’ve been working together since the end of September, and they seem to be quieter and quieter rather than more confident as the year goes on. They get on well with each other, and have been happy to speak to everyone else in class when we do mingling activities. I’d spoken to each of them individually during tutorials before our winter holiday in February, and talked about reasons to speak more and what might be stopping them. I know that none of them are particularly introverted in Polish and have regularly heard them conversing without any problems, even with people they don’t know. So what was stopping them?

I decided to ‘pause’ the lesson as we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. On the board I wrote a long list of possible reasons that could be stopping them from speaking, then stood in front of it and told them about my experience of learning Polish. I didn’t speak at all really during my first year, once I’d realised that I was mixing Czech, Russian and Polish and people couldn’t understand me. The turning point came when I went for a flamenco weekend. When people asked me conversational questions, I had two choices: ignore them and stay silent, or try to reply. Because I felt comfortable, I tried to reply, and this made me realise people could understand me, which was the kick-start I needed to start speaking. I haven’t really looked back since. I asked the students to look at the list of reasons on the board and write as many of them as necessary on paper I gave them, or any other reasons they may have for being reluctant to speak. Here are some of them (I probably had about 15 in all, but don’t remember them all now):

  • I don’t know enough words.
  • I’m worried about my grammar.
  • I’m worried about my pronunciation.
  • I’m not interested in the topics.
  • I don’t have enough time to think.
  • It’s too quiet in here.
  • Sandy scares me – she puts too much pressure on us.
  • I don’t have any ideas.

A couple of students mentioned being tired, and one said ‘Just a bad day’. Afterwards I asked them if they’d be comfortable sharing their feelings with their classmates. They agreed, so I put them in a circle and left the room, telling them they could choose whether to speak Polish or English, and suggesting they respond to each other, not just listing their ideas, telling each other whether they feel the same. They opted to have the discussion in Polish, and exchanged a little, though it was mostly monologuing. I could hear some of it from outside, but the background music and my intermediate Polish meant I couldn’t catch all of it.

When I returned to the room, I then spoke to them in my best Polish, saying something along the lines of ‘Language is communication. You’re here because you want to speak more, but if you come and sit in silence, then it’s just grammar, and you can do that at home. I’m making a lot of mistakes right now, but you can understand me, right? Grammar is not the important thing, communication is.’ I then switched into English and said that I’m tired too, and while I can try to give all 7 of us energy, it’s hard work and I need them to help me. I also explained a bit about the process of learning, going from knowing nothing to things being automatic, saying that some bits of their English are already automatic, things like using ‘I’ in the first person, or being able to spell ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without thinking about it. To help them make more things automatic, I need to be able to hear them so I can correct them if necessary, and they need to practise more.

We spent the last few minutes coming up with either/or debate topics, like cats or dogs, winter or summer, PC or PS…which they wrote all over the board. They will be the topics for a speaking assessment we’ll do next lesson, when I’ll see whether they can use the phrases for giving examples and expressing your opinion which were the actual topic of today’s lesson, as well as monitoring their interactive communication. They’ve got five days to think about what we discussed, practice the phrases and mentally prepare themselves for the assessment – I told them what it would involve and what they’d be marked on. I’ll be interested to see if any of this makes a difference…

At the end of the lesson, one of the students checked a bit of extra homework she’d done, and stayed for longer than the rest. I asked her if she thought this kind of discussion was useful, and she said she hoped it would help. She mentioned that at school, sitting in silence and listening to the teacher is considered respectful, and at uni you sit in silence because you’re taking notes, and you work out how to understand them later, so this is quite different for her now she’s an adult. As well as contained this idea to make me think, it was also the longest stretch of English I’ve heard from her all year. As I keep telling all of them, they’re much better than they think they are!

Colouful speech bubbles

Discussing it with my colleagues afterwards, one suggested that it could also be because we’re at (I hope!) the tail end of winter, a lot of students have been ill recently, it’s still dark and pretty cold, and maybe that’s tipping over into a relative lack of enthusiasm in the classroom – it’s definitely reduced as the year has progressed. Another said it could be a good idea to ask them to have discussions in Polish first, then in English, which I’m certainly going to try. I’ve only ever used that strategy once or twice, and it’s always worked before. She also suggested getting them to set goals, even if it’s just ‘I’ll answer three questions in class before Easter.’ That fits in quite nicely with the topic of our next lesson.

Do you have any other thoughts or suggestions on this? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a class quite this silent before!

Not my best lesson (paragraph blogging)

Yesterday my intermediate lesson was meh. Nobody really spoke in the first 40 minutes or so (of 90), despite my best efforts. Another teacher came in to tell the group about our school quiz on Friday and commented on how un-energetic they were. They were playing on Quizlet, using various different functions they hadn’t really explored before. I wanted them to use it in class in the hope that they would then go back to it at home. Quizlet Live normally gets them fired up, but while generally engaged, there didn’t seem to be much energy to carry over into the next activities. Levels of energy increased slightly for some students when they realised they could beat me on the ‘Match’ mode with the set we were using, and three of them even signed up for Quizlet so it would remember their score. This was revision with some vocabulary they’d struggled with last week, so when we moved onto some new vocab, they weren’t really feeling it. We did have some speaking in between which was more engaging and was a good change of pace. The last few minutes was some rushed grammar which we needed to look at (they don’t use it, and I’m trying to expand their range and awareness of what they could use), but didn’t have time to do justice to. All in all, I wasn’t that pleased with the lesson, though I know they all took something away from it. The quiet activities did benefit the more introverted students, who I try to cater for much more in my lessons now, but don’t always succeed with, but there was a general apathy throughout. At some point in the last few months, one of my colleagues mentioned that if she didn’t get her group talking in the first 5-10 minutes she found it really hard to get them talking later in the lesson, and I think this was one of the issues here. Another problem was that I taught my plan, which had too much in it because I wanted to revise from last week and add new language I know they need. There wasn’t enough breathing space in the lesson, and nowhere near enough opportunities to practise all of the new language.

I’ve written this to show that even after nearly 10 years of teaching, considerable amounts of professional development, becoming a Director of Studies, teacher trainer and materials writer, it’s still possible to teach some pretty rubbish lessons! It’s just that now I have a better idea of why they didn’t work as well as I wanted them to, and they happen much less frequently 🙂 What was the last ‘not my best lesson’ which you taught?

Four images of Sandy in class - two giving instructions, one with a hand up for silence, and one writing on the board

Not this lesson, but another one with the same group which went much better 🙂

The times they are a-changing

Over the last two days I have had the immense pleasure of watching a large number of fascinating talks by women as part of Rob Howard’s EFLtalks event ‘Inspiring Women of ELT’. He put it together to celebrate last week’s International Women’s Day.

Inspiring Women of ELT bannerEvery talk was 10 slides, presented in 10 minutes. The women who presented them came from all over the world, and all over the ELT profession. They talked about a wide range of topics, directly related to gender, like how we should be monitoring and becoming more aware of how we treat both boys and girls in the classroom (Carol Read); tangentially related, about female role models (Valeria Benevola França); and unrelated, like my own talk introducing ELT Playbook 1.  All of the recordings will be made available over the next week or so, and I’ll add links as they become available.

It was a fabulous event, and I’m hugely grateful to Rob for organising it and inviting me to be part of such a wonderful line-up.

The other talk I watched today was by the equally inspiring Phil Longwell. Following his own history with poor mental health and how it has affected his career, he is now doing research into other ELT professionals’ experiences of mental health, both positive and negative. This shows, unsurprisingly, that mental health issues are common in our profession, but he was also able to talk about solutions and coping strategies which respondents have to deal with these problems. It was the first talk in the International House Wellbeing Season. You can watch the recording here.

Both of these events show that we are starting to talk more about the issues that stop us all from progressing as a profession, and as a species. We all need to be aware of differences, and of how our actions can both help and hinder those who are different to us. We also need to know that we are more similar than we think we are.

I hope these initiatives aren’t needed soon, but while they are, well done to Rob, EFLtalks, Phil, IH, and all of the women who spoke this weekend!

Coursebook requests

This is not a post about whether coursebooks are a good idea or not.

This is a post from somebody who uses coursebooks every day.

This is a post from somebody who regular says ‘Why?! Why would they do that?’

It’s written to publishers and materials writers.

It’s a request for minor tweaks that would make using coursebooks just that tiny bit smoother.

And for occasional major changes that would make me more likely to use your coursebook (series) again and recommend it to other people.

I don’t believe many of them should cost that much extra money, just a little more thought. Do tell me which things might not work because they would be too expensive. It’s important for those of us who use your books to understand why certain things are or are not done/included.

They are borne out of both my own experience, and comments I have heard from colleagues over the years.

They are also inspired by some of the best coursebooks I’ve used, though none have ever been ‘perfect’ (what is?).

They are my opinions, and should be taken as such. No specific coursebooks will be mentioned.

(Though I completely agree with Kyle Dugan about the kind of coursebook I may want, I’m pretty sure it will never happen because I don’t believe it’s financially viable.)

Coursebooks

Image taken by Sue Annan, from ELTpics (shared under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence)

Coursebooks

Introducing 20-30 out of context new items (which may be tangentially linked to the topic of the unit if you’re lucky) on a single page is not useful. Introducing them purely and simply through putting them into three exercises is even less useful. Doing this twice in a unit, giving 50-60 new items is just far too much. It overwhelms both the students and the teacher and is basically a waste of time. Choose your items carefully, contextualise them, and provide support in understanding the meaning, or show teachers how to do this in the teacher’s book.

Exam tasks are only helpful if you know which exam they’re for. Having an entire book where all of the skills tasks are ‘exam’ tasks without a clearly labelled exam that they relate to is just plain depressing.

Check that the reading and listening tasks are at a similar level of challenge to the grammar points and writing tasks that are being introduced. Reading and listening is often much easier, and occasionally much more challenging (though this may be because of the next point…) This gives students a false idea of their ability.

Include examples of more authentic sounding listening, plus listening skills work (this is thankfully already starting to change).

Provide editable versions of tapescripts and reading texts so that teachers can adapt them for their class, for example changing the formatting for students with dyslexia or creating gapfills from tapescripts. Even better, provide dyslexia-friendly versions of them yourself (I know this does cost money).

Don’t just list linking words, ask students to categorise them by function (adding, contrasting etc. – words the students don’t necessarily know either!), and assume they will understand the words and be able to use them. They are really important, really challenging, and I don’t think I’ve yet seen a coursebook which treats them in enough depth. (Feel free to prove me wrong).

Leave a bit of space on the page. I know it costs you a bit more to print like that, but thinking space is important, and avoids students feeling overwhelmed. They’re more likely to open your book (or I would be as a student!)

Label coursebook audio as clearly as possible in the book, preferably with the CD number and track if you’re using CDs, or the track number if it’s downloadable. Format CDs so that when you use them on a computer, the files are labelled in the same way, so you don’t have to spend ages trying to work out which track(s) you need or relabelling them all.

Consider using diagrams and infographics to explain grammar instead of massive long paragraphs of text whenever possible.

Check that gender is represented fairly and equally in both text and images. The same goes for race, sexuality, disability, and any other area where discrimination is a concern. Representation matters.

Make sure that book has been near a professional editor or team thereof, with enough time to do their job properly. Then listen to what they say. That should hopefully sort out some/most/all of the above problems.

Teacher’s book

A list of answers around the outside of a copy of the student’s book is not a teacher’s book, it’s an answer key. If that’s your approach, save paper and print it in the same way as the answer key for a workbook.

Give us ideas for how to adapt the activities on the page to suit our students. Tell us what typical problems students might have with the grammar or vocabulary. Offer ideas for games to play, especially for young learners and teens, but adults need them too. If you’re feeling really adventurous, provide ideas for homework that aren’t just the page from the workbook.

Suggest how to mark writing tasks – what criteria could I use? How do I know if the students have met these criteria?

If there are extra resources, like communicative activities for the students, and you hide them on a CD or a website, put very clear links in the teacher’s book to tell us to look for them.

Remember that the main people who use teacher’s books are probably new teachers, or teachers who are new to your series/style of book. Make the books as accessible and clear as possible. Explain any jargon you use, or provide a glossary.

Supporting tests

Thank you for creating tests that I can adapt for my classroom. They do make my life easier, most of the time. But…

Please don’t use random file formats. What is .tgd anyway?

Make the formatting as simple as possible./Ensure the person formatting your tests understands how to use Word (or whatever equivalent you use) fully! Embedded tables, random tabs or spaces all over the place, tasks that only go 2/3 of the way across the page so that when I try to edit the instructions it unnecessarily goes onto the next line when there’s 1/3 of the page left (that may not make sense, but I am happy to explain to any interested publishers!)…all of these things increase my stress levels unnecessarily.

Include a worked example for every exercise at every level, but especially for beginners, elementary and children.

Make them easy to find! Sometimes they’re on the website, sometimes they’re on a CD in the back of the teacher’s book, sometimes they’re on the software (which you may have to pay extra for – very annoying!)

Software

Remember that we live in a world of intuitive design. If yours isn’t, why bother? If I can’t learn how to use your software within 5 minutes, it’s not intuitive enough. I have better things to do with my time, and more useful websites I can use.

Don’t hide stuff in menus with loads of layers. Use icons.

If you include video, make sure it can be played full-screen.

Video and audio with clickable tapescripts is amazing!

Check that if you close the video/audio, you won’t close the software completely.

Make sure that your software adds value. If it’s just a glorified .pdf, just give me a .pdf instead of a whole separate piece of software!

Remember that we don’t all have interactive whiteboards. How easy is your software to use with just a projector? Can I use it on a Mac? Thus far I believe the answer to that is always no – what about making it .html instead of as specialist software, so that I’m not left out.

Random

I guess that most schools nowadays do not need one CD for every teacher’s set, so please don’t send them unless they are requested. My office has 3 or 4 sets of CDs for many books which are still in the plastic. This is a complete waste of resources: plastic, packaging, and time (yours and mine).

Remember that schools or students may not be able to afford the latest technology. Use the lowest common denominator for as long as possible, or offer alternative formats, or use a general format, like .pdf.

If you’re going to provide extra resources for students, make them as easy and intuitive to access as possible. If it takes too long, neither students nor teachers will bother, and it’s a waste of time and resources creating them. Remember that one or two well-placed and well-designed activities on a public website, preferably generative ones, can by used by teachers again and again, providing marketing for you if they keep recommending them to students too. This is perhaps a better use of your time and money than a super-complicated website hidden behind a paywall or a code.

Your turn

What would readers add to this list?

Questions (paragraph blogging)

Inspired by Matthew (again), as well as the lessons I’ve been teaching this week…

My current favourite getting-to-know-you activity to do with new students, especially 121s, is simply to get them to write a list of questions they want to ask me. With 121s I’ll write a list of things to ask them at the same time, so it doesn’t feel so awkward watching them write, and we take it in turns to ask them. 10 questions seems to work well in 121; in groups it’s about 5 each with students then selecting the ‘best’ from their lists. Questions are inevitably an area that students need to practise, regardless of their level. Students rarely form questions themselves, and are much more likely to answer other people’s/the teacher’s questions in the average lesson [I know I’ve read blog posts about this before, but can’t remember where – all links gratefully accepted].

The lists of questions students produce in this activity tend to show up the same kind of problem areas: present simple v. continuous, present perfect (or the lack thereof), word order, common mistakes (like Where are/did you born?), articles, etc, giving you a starting point for grammar areas to focus on. They may also throw up slightly more unusual problems: one of the ones I’ve noticed this week is capitalisation of ‘you’, following the Polish pattern of politeness, e.g. Where are You from? In addition, student-generated questions demonstrate which topics students are most interested in, as they tend to ask at least one or two questions about those areas. To push higher-level students to show off their grammar, especially if they’ve picked very simple questions to ask, you can encourage them to reframe one or two things from their list as indirect questions, and talk about politeness, especially if you’ve never met the students before.

Of all the things this activity makes me consider though, I have to say the oddest thing is how often the question How old are you? comes up in a typical student list. It’s one of those things students often ask at the start of lessons without thinking twice, though I’m pretty sure they would be unlikely to ask it that quickly if they were meeting people at a party or a conference!

Have you tried this kind of activity? Do you have a similar experience of it?

Stop asking me questions!

Based on an ELTpic by @ij64 (I believe!)

12 hours (paragraph blogging)

I can’t remember the last time I started teaching at 8:15 in the morning and finished at 7:05 at night. I know it’s the norm for a lot of people, and longer too (for a few months in South America I did 06:50-21:00). In both cases (today and the super-long day) it was only 3 lessons with huge gaps in the middle, but the gaps I used to have were filled with sleep, planning, food, rest, doing something else. Today’s ‘gap’ (two consecutive lessons, gap, one lesson) was filled with a collaborative planning meeting, two hours or more of induction for a new teacher interrupted by various timetabling questions for new 121s, realising I’d forgotten one student and timetabled a clash for another one (all sorted now!), eating, finding placement tests, very briefly checking my email to check I hadn’t missed anything vital and decided pretty much everything could wait until later in the week, offering somebody a job for September, dealing with computer problems for a teacher, planning a lesson, making sure I have everything for my classes tomorrow morning, leaving school at 8pm. Then getting home and sending documents to the new teacher and having a chat to my boss for a few minutes. Phew. I should only have to keep this up this week (due to new company demo lessons and needs analysis). Normally I just teach 4 hours a week, and this week it will be 13 – a huge difference! Hats off to those of you who maintain this pace all of the time, and I truly hope that the people you work with appreciate it.

Jungle Tree

A tree in the jungle. Because green helps 🙂 [my photo]

If you want to find out more about staying sane as a teacher or manager, I’d highly recommend the International House Wellbeing Season: a series of webinars starting on 7th March 2018 and continuing over the next few weeks. There is also a Teacher Health and Wellbeing section in ELT Playbook 1Look after yourself!

Why I don’t have a smartphone (paragraph blogging)

This is my phone. It is frequently the butt of jokes, especially when people know about my online presence. And I don’t really care: I do not want or need a smartphone. I know that having one would actually cause me more problems than not having one in my life as it is at the momtent. My Nokia does everything I need it to: make calls, send texts, cost me a minimal amount of money (about 50 Polish zloty every three or four months or so, depending on how much I use it – that’s around £10/€12), only need recharging for a couple of hours once a week or so, fall apart when I drop it (about once a week!) and be easy to put together…and all for only £10 three and a half years ago. At one point, I did have a secondhand iPhone for a year, and it was undoubtedly useful. It got me started with recording my steps using a pedometer app, it got me into reading ebooks when I had to commute on the Tube during London 2012, and it can be useful to quickly check something when I’m out. But…I generally spend 5-7 hours a day at work on a computer, plus another 1-3 hours at home. Most weekends I probably spend a minimum of 6 hours each day in front of screen, and often more. I have an iPad (2, hence the photo quality above), a pedometer, a camera, an iPod shuffle, and a Macbook. I do not have any notifications switched on, and I try very hard to switch my computer off by 9:30pm in the evening if I’m not using it to watch a film on my projector. I look at social media when I want to, not when my phone dictates and my hormones respond by telling me I need a fix – and I still spend too much time scrolling. I do not need more screen time. On nights when I have switched off the computer in good time and had a couple of hours with no screen  before bed, I sleep better. Sometimes I get text messages like Google map links when people assume I have a smartphone, and sometimes I think maybe I should invest, but then I think I can’t be bothered with the mental effort of having to control my impulse to look at it all the time. Like not having chocolate at home, it’s easier just not to buy it in the first place! 

Inspired by Matt Noble

If you’re interested in breaking up with your phone, there’s an interesting interview with the author of a book of the same name on a recent Science Focus podcast (from 16:07 onwards) with tips on how to go about it.

Where am I?

Seeing my social media explode today in what I really hope and feel is a step-change in the way our society treats women and the way those women think about themselves and their relationships with others, both men and women, has prompted me to finally write a post I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

Sandy

I’m 32.

I’m female.

I’m single.

I’ve never had a boyfriend.

I am most definitely not alone.

Sandy speaking at InnovateELT Barcelona

I’m a professional.

I’m a manager.

I’m a teacher trainer.

I regularly speak at conferences.

I organise teacher training at my school, and encourage and support women and men to be part of them.

Sandy cooking at home

I own my own flat.

I’m independent.

I’m confident.

I very rarely worry about what other people think of my decisions – they’re mine, not theirs.

I work hard to be the best person I can be.

I try to help other people whenever and however I can, though I often feel like I could do more.

I try to think about my impact on the environment, though I also feel I could do more here.

Sandy on the USS Midway aircraft carrier

I travel alone without thinking about it.

I go to the cinema alone without thinking about it.

I eat at restaurants alone without thinking about it.

I swear. It is a normal part of my speech. I don’t have a problem with hearing other people swear when it is appropriate to the situation. I think about the people who I’m around when doing so.

Sandy Millin working as a Games Maker at London 2012

I’m (now) happy with my body. It took work. When I catch myself now, I can stop those thoughts. They almost never come now.

I enjoy choosing clothes. This also took work, and was directly related to the point above.

I never wear make-up, after trying it a few times and deciding it wasn’t for me. I don’t feel this is a problem. Or that it should be. (Though I did once buy lipstick – when I asked for help because I’d never bought lipstick before, the woman in the shop said ‘You poor thing’.) I believe this should be a choice, and that men should be allowed to wear make-up if they want to.

Sandy presenting at the speed dating

I am good at using computers and other technology. I understand the basics of HTML.

I am good at maths and mental arithmetic.

I used to describe myself as being into a lot of ‘male’ things: fantasy, sci-fi, science, games, computer games, ‘nerdiness’. I no longer believe they are male and that I am unusual as a female for enjoying them. They are mine.

The fact that I’m a woman doesn’t generally make that much difference to my life, at least in terms of my decision making.

I know what I want from my life, and yes, that does include having a family at some point. But a family that is shared. I expect to be in an equal partnership, if I have a partner.

I’m a romantic. I would also like to be romanced.

I don’t believe the previous two points negate anything else I’ve written.

I’m white, I’m British, and I was born in the European Union. I know this gives me an advantage in many arenas. I can’t change any of those facts, but I can use them to try to help others. I can also remember that I’m nowhere near the most downtrodden or underrepresented population in the world. Not by a long way.

Most importantly, I’m happy.

But…

I don’t remember ever seeing or reading about ‘me’ in popular culture. (Please prove me wrong in the comments.)

Women who are there to be the love interest, check. (Note the 3 pages of male love interests v. 9 of female love interests on this wiki)

Women who are dividing their life between work and family, check.

Important women from history, check. (And it’s great that a few more of them are being noticed.)

Women who are there to demonstrate that women are as good as men, check. (Though only one at a time, of course.)

Women in the role of the villain, check, just. (And that’s important too – really important – men are most definitely not all bad and women are not all good!)

Women who are there to make up the numbers, check. (We need more diversity, so how can we fit a woman in?)

Creeping towards balance, check. (And with a minor mention of it in reviews…I hope this is the norm one day, but we still need to celebrate when this is achieved at the moment to make others sit up and take notice.)

Women who talk to each other about something other than men, check, sometimes. (The Bechdel-Wallace test helps, but it’s not perfect.)

It’s not to say I don’t enjoy that culture. I do. But I never see myself there, single, not chasing a man, would like children, 30s, professional. But I guess my story isn’t interesting for film-makers, reviewers or readers.

According to the line that culture is throwing at me, I’m over the hill and should definitely have settled down with a husband by now. I know I’m not, thanks to my friends.

I should most definitely have had more sexual experiences than I have, says the media. Why yes, that would be nice. But sex shouldn’t define me, or any woman, and nor should the lack of it.

And if I’ve done this thanks to the role models I’ve been lucky enough to have, how many more women need to see, hear and read that they can be them and there’s nothing wrong with that?

So what now?

If you think that harrassment and bullying should be a thing of the past, visit ELTtoo. (I’ve been on the receiving end of institutional bullying, instigated by one person, and causing problems for both women and men in that institution. I left. They didn’t all have that freedom, though I believe most of them have gone now a few years down the line. The institution still exists and the same people are still running it. As far as I know, none of us have really said anything about it publicly and nothing has really changed.)

If you are a woman with a facebook account, the Women in ELT group may be of interest to you.

If you are of either gender and you’re organising a conference or event, or are a woman who wants to start speaking at them, have a look at Women Speakers ELT for more information and support to run more gender-balanced ELT events.

Let’s keep talking about it, all of us, women and men.

Let’s keep up the pressure.

Let’s change the future for those who follow us.

It’s time.

My bookshelf

This post was inspired by Naomi Epstein’s response to Grant Snyder’s comic strip My Bookshelf. I’m going to write about books in general though, not just teaching ones – lots of answers popped into my head as I was reading Naomi’s post. Here goes…

The book I couldn’t put down

This is a pretty long list, and includes pretty much everything by Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and what I’ve read of Neil Gaiman so far (still a work in progress). Also Sharon Penman books when I was a teenager, the Cicero books by R0bert Harris I’m currently reading, the Harry Potter books the first time round, the Robin Hobb books, etc. etc. etc.

The book I couldn’t pick up

I’m going to put some books here which I had on my shelf but put off reading for ages because they scared me a bit, but which I ended up loving when I finally read them.

  • Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky
  • A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  • All classics, until I read Pride and Prejudice when I was 18 🙂

The book you gave me (I haven’t read it yet – sorry!)

IATEFL sent out A History of IATEFL to members last year and gave a copy of The Non-Native Teacher by Peter Medgyes at the conference in Glasgow. They’re sitting on my shelf, but I haven’t got round to them yet. I know I’ll have read them by this time next year though!

The book I brought to the beach

I’m not really a beach person, but I definitely remember getting sunburn in the back garden from spending too long outside without putting suncream on when I was reading Love in the Time of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Alexander books by Valerio Massimo Manfredi when I was a teenager.

The book I tried so hard to like

When the BBC Big Read came out in 2003, I’d already read 25 of the top 100 books, and decided to read the rest of them. This meant that I dragged myself kicking and screaming through:

  • Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (boring)
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams (repetitive – the rabbits eat, sleep, poo and fight)
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (I just wanted to bang Cathy and Heathcliff’s heads together and tell them to get a grip)
  • The last 100 pages of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (philosophical thoughts he’d already conveyed multiple times, and which interrupted what I felt was a gripping story)
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding (urgh)
  • Ulysses by James Joyce (trying far too hard – just annoying)

I did read every page of all 100 books though, and it led me to a whole load of authors I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. There were at least 10 books on there that are now among the best books I’ve ever read, so it was worth it! I’d love to know what an updated version of the list would look like.

The book I somehow own three copies of

Looking at my bookshelves, the thing that immediately jumped out at me was three Collins German dictionaries, and three matching French ones, though ‘somehow’ probably isn’t the right word – they chart my progress from 11 years old, to GCSEs, to university, getting considerably bigger each time!

The book that saved my life

I’m not sure I could claim that any book has ever saved my life, but the single book that probably changed the way I think in the shortest number of pages was The English Verb by Michael Lewis. I read it as part of Delta, and it completely changed the way that I think about language. I constantly tell people about it, and have it on my shelf right now, waiting for me to read again.

The book I lent you (can I have it back?)

If pushed to choose my favourite book of all time, I’m pretty sure I would go for Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. I have owned various copies of this book, but now don’t appear to have any. I have definitely lent it to people in the past, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never got it back. Oh well. Spreading the love 😉

The book I fall asleep to every night

Since August 2016 I’ve been reading a few pages of Harry Potter in Polish every night before I go to bed. When I first started, it took about 10 minutes to read two pages, and I didn’t understand many of the words on the page. I only knew what was going on because of my prior knowledge of the stories. I’m now on the penultimate chapter of book three, can manage 6-8 pages in 10-15 minutes, and reckon I understand about 50-60% of what I read. It’s made me realise first hand just how useful extensive reading is for language learners.

The book I mistook for a hat

Hmm…I suspect the answer to this may also be dictionaries when I was at university – they’re certainly big enough, and we often used to have to carry them around with us!

The book I’m desperately trying to write

Well, a series actually. Book one should be out in the next couple of months, I hope, pending permission from a few publishers to use quotes from their works, and I have ideas for lots of follow-ups if it’s successful 😉 Watch this space… (and if you can’t wait, try my first e-book, Richer Speaking)

All the books that changed my life

I can’t imagine a life without books and reading, and I’m grateful to my family for instilling a love of reading in me at a young age. I don’t remember not being able to read. I do remember reading by the light of the late evening sun in the summer coming through my red curtains when I was supposed to be asleep. I’m a reading addict – when there’s nothing else to read, I’ll pick up sauce bottles on a table, cleaning products in a bathroom, anything with words on really, regardless of the language! Now I read a few blog posts every day, and have three or four books on the go at any one time. Right now it’s Harry Potter 3 in Polish, Imperium by Robert Harris, Pop-up Shakespeare by Jennie Maizels, Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin, and a few teaching magazines that have been sitting on the shelf for a while. Books really have shaped a lot of who I am. (P.S. If you want to buy any of the books in this post for yourself, and you decide to click on this Amazon Affiliates link, I’ll get a few pennies – thank you!)

My bookshelves

My bookshelves – the first furniture I bought for my new flat!

As Naomi said at the end of her post,

Here’s to all the books I’ve read and those that are waiting to be read! Life is good!

17 things I’ve learnt in 2017

Just because I like the title 🙂

  1. Even though I’ve bought a flat in Bydgoszcz, one day I aim to live in Brno again.
  2. I can bake bread relatively quickly and it tastes good.
  3. Slow cookers are amazing, and you can make delicious soup in them.
  4. My Polish is now good enough to teach a group of beginners.
  5. It’s a magical thing when you suddenly start being able to speak another language without having to think about every word you say.
  6. After a year of 10 minutes of Mandarin a day, it’s kind of possible to hear tones.
  7. My favourite words in Mandarin are currently ‘taxi’ (出租车) because of the three 1st tones, ‘train’ (火车) because it’s a ‘fire goer’, and ‘chocolate’ (巧克力) because of the way it sounds.
  8. Television is a very important part of a British Christmas (I knew it was in our family, but had no idea how much of a cultural thing it was!)
  9. Our flamenco group is now starting to learn how to dance with fans.
  10. More things about Excel than anybody ever needs to know.
  11. The cross on the Maltese flag is The George Cross, not a Maltese cross.
  12. Malta has an incredibly rich history, including prehistoric monuments that are older than Stonehenge.
  13. Loads and loads of films and TV programmes have been recorded in Malta, including the Jerusalem scenes in the Ken Branagh film of Murder on the Orient Express.
  14. I have a lot more books inside me (one of which is hopefully coming soon…)
  15. Weekends are really important for me, and it’s something I need to keep reminding myself of.
  16. IATEFL can change lives.
  17. It’s quite hard to come up with 17 things for a listicle.

Mnajdra temples

Mnajdra temples in Malta

What have you learnt this year?

 

The things nobody teaches you

It’s observation season at IH Bydgoszcz at the moment. Some of the advice I’ve given has made me think of skills that are really useful to have as a teacher, but which we are very rarely taught, or have to pick up as we go along.

Here are my examples:

  1. Reading upside-down: really useful for monitoring to see which answers students have.
  2. Picking out individual student’s voices from the general noise (or the Cocktail party effect): key for both monitoring and assessment, if you’re assessing speaking while the whole class is working. Also, tuning in and out of multiple conversations smoothly.
  3. All the many functions of a photocopier.
  4. Sitting down, standing up, and when and why it’s useful to switch positions.

Notes:

  1. I’m a fast reader anyway, and think that this was something I may have been able to do before I became a teacher, but I’ve definitely honed this over time. I hadn’t realised that many people found it challenging until recently!
  2. Another skill I kind of had but am now much better at. The flipside of this is that I find it very hard to tune out of conversations when I’m not in a classroom, so I can join in with staffroom conversations even when I’m sitting in my office 10m away 😉 I also sometimes find it hard to focus on conversations in restaurants etc. if there’s another interesting conversation going on nearby, or I’ll flit between the two conversations. Apologies to anyone I’ve done that too!
  3. I think most people are probably shown one or two ‘magic’ things their local copier can do, but there are so many other functions that generally remain a mystery!
  4. I’m mostly thinking about small groups here, up to about 16 students. I know some schools have rules about sitting/standing, but it’s often not addressed on training courses.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics/6886151367/in/photolist-buvjTH-fHQ8CT-gaRTFC

‘Teacher’s enemy’ by @pysproblem81, taken from ELTpics (but maybe our friend if we really understood it!)

So (how) did you learn these skills? How can you help other people to learn them? What else would you add to the list?

Surviving week one

We’ve just finished week one of our school year. As always, it was a rollercoaster of emotions for everyone involved.

Teachers are nervous because they have no idea what their classes will be like. Those who are brand new are wondering if they’ve made the right decisions: moving to Poland, joining our school, leaving what they know behind, becoming a teacher…

Second-year teachers are feeling more relaxed this time round. They know what to expect, and they can only marvel at how nervous and stressed some of the new teachers are. Then they meet their classes and realise there are still challenges there, and work yet to be done.

The students are no different. They want a good teacher, or a teacher like the one they had last year, or a teacher who’s definitely not like the one they had last. Their first day nerves are just as acute as ours, sometimes more so: they’re doing it all in a foreign language after all, which at least some of us aren’t!

After two or three days, once teachers have met most of their classes, things start to settle down. They realise where the pressure points might be, but it’s no longer a sea of unknowns. Planning is done based on known quantities, or at least more known than a few days previously.

Our Fridays aren’t as busy, with just a few 121s at this point in the year. Everyone can take a bit of time to sort themselves out, plan ahead for next week, or just get out of the building that bit earlier.

Now, on Saturday, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that they’ve survived week one. They can work out what to do with their weekends, and how much work it will or won’t involve (the answer if they want to stay sane: it won’t!)

Looking forward to the year ahead!

I hope that in this year to come you make mistakes. Becuase if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world - you're doing something.

P.S. Fiona Mauchline has recently written a set of very useful tips to help you survive your first year of teaching, or to remind you of things you may have forgotten if you’re a bit further down the road.

Who am I writing for?

Following my post asking who my readers are, and posts by Michael Griffin and Tyson Seburn in which they discussed students reading their blogs, I thought I would continue my introspective streak and say a little about who I think I’m writing for.

Mike and Tyson both asked a set of questions which I’ll start off by answering:

  • Do you think about students potentially reading what you write?
    Yes. In fact, I assume that they will, and have written some posts specifically for them, like Useful FCE websites. I also have a whole separate blog, sadly neglected, which was designed for students, and I often refer them to the Quizlet and podcasts posts there.
    As a CELTA trainer, I actively encourage trainees to read posts that were written with them in mind, not least Useful links for CELTA. I always assume that my reading can be read by anyone, and therefore try to keep things anonymous or not include them if I think they might cause problems at some point down the line.
  • Would your writing be different if you were sure students would never read it?
    I don’t think so, because I would still assume that somebody who reads it might know my students, even if they weren’t my students themselves.
  • Have your students ever talked about your blog with you?
    One or two students have asked me about it, and I told my new group about it in a letter I wrote them today, though I just said I have a blog, not what the actual link is.
    A trainee once came up to me in getting to know you session at the beginning of CELTA, and jokingly said ‘I wanted to meet you quickly, because I wanted to know what someone who tortures people spiritually is like.’ She was referring to a post I’d written a couple of weeks before.
  • Have you ever heard of a teacher getting in hot water with a student based on what they wrote on a blog?
    No, though I’m sure those stories must be out there.
  • Do you have guidelines for yourself or from your institutions about what you can and should write about on blogs or elsewhere?
    There are no institutional guidelines (if there were, I would probably have been involved in writing them!) I have one personal guideline though: Only write things about other people that you wouldn’t mind people writing about you. It’s a variant of ‘do as you would be done by’.
  • Does it bring credibility to you as their instructor? (My additional question)
    I don’t know, though I think it does show them that I care about my profession and put extra time into it beyond work.

So who do I think I’m writing for then? The things I write about are probably aimed at the following groups of people:

  • Other teachers.
  • CELTA trainees and trainers.
  • Delta trainees.
  • Students (occasionally).
  • People wondering about living/moving abroad.
  • People with ulcerative colitis and other chronic health conditions.
  • People who are interested in my life, what I’m up to, and the thoughts in my head 🙂
  • Myself, especially for catharsis.

I tend to write posts as they pop into my head, if I have time, though some sit in my head for a long time before they make it onto the blog. Having said that, I currently have 88 titles in my drafts, which I may or may not return to one day! It’s therefore pot luck as to which of those audiences I’m writing for when I hit publish, depending on what I’m interested in/worrying about on any given day. This particularly post was mostly written to Tyson and Mike to answer their questions, but also for myself to work out my answers are. The rest of you can take it or leave it 😉

Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself. - Terry Pratchett

A gratuitous quote from TP, just because I need a picture to go with this post 🙂

An accidental discovery

When I was looking through my diaries yesterday to write my post about starting different teaching jobs, I opened a diary at random and came across a folded handout:

Speaking games handout

What was so confusing was that it was from 16th June 2005, so two years before I started CELTA, and I had no memory of it at all. At that point I was coming to the end of my first year at Durham University, and it was just after our exam period had finished.

When I opened it up, it said:

Thank you for helping us out today! We hope that your participation will be fun and helpful to the students. This worksheet will give you some background information and ideas for activities to help the students with their speaking on Saturday.

The exam

The students are sitting the Cambridge KET exam. The oral paper lasts about twelve minutes. [The exam was then described.]

Today’s Exercise

To prepare for the test, it is important that they gain confidence in speaking to and understanding people they have never met before, perhaps with accents to which they are not accustomed. It is also important for them to have practice with the exam tasks in a ‘real’ situation outside the classroom. […]

We will start by dividing the students into groups with an even number of volunteers in each group. You can then take your group into another classroom or area where you can do a number of icebreaker games, followed by some more formal conversation practice, for about 90 minutes. Then we would like you to take your groups into Durham to give them practice in making questions and finding and relaying information as they will in section 2 of the exam.

Overleaf are a number of activity ideas for you to try. You don’t have to do them all, and you can use your own judgement about which activities will work, and if you have your own ideas please feel free to try them.

Most importantly – have fun!

On reading my diary entry, it turned out that this was for Japanese students who studied at Teikyo University’s Durham campus.

I really like this way of helping the students to meet people outside their campus, and to make exam practice more realistic for them. It’s also a great example of how you can show non-teachers what to do to help them to interact with and assist learners, without it being too much of a strain for either of them.

Sadly I didn’t write anything about how I felt about participating, but I’m assuming it wasn’t that traumatic or dramatic as it had completely disappeared from my memory. I wonder if there are any other teaching connections hidden in my diaries? 🙂

Starting out

Yesterday we finished induction week for our teachers, including nine new to school, and five who are completely new to teaching. This, and Tyson Seburn’s recent post ‘Frosh me‘, made me think back to when I was just starting out. Depending on how strictly you define it, I could select a few different points to focus on.

I’ve been keeping a diary since I was 17, and now that I have my own flat, I’ve recently been reunited with my boxes of diaries again for the first time in many years. Writing this post was the perfect excuse to have a look back through some of them.

Malaysia

My first ever lesson was working with children in the jungle in Borneo. I got incredibly homesick while working there, and filled multiple notebooks in the 8 weeks I was in the village. If I could go back and do it again, I would spend a lot more time talking to the people in the village and getting to know them better. Instead I stayed in my room, wrote in my diary and cried a lot for most of the first three weeks. This wasn’t helped by us having absolutely no contact with the outside world, not even letters unless somebody was driving out to the local town which was 3 hours away – we got letters once in that time.

We had a couple of chances to observe classes before we started teaching. One of my main memories is watching a middle-aged male teacher use his knuckle to hit a little girl behind her ear when she couldn’t answer his questions. In my diary it says:

[B]’s english lesson was dire and he was amazed that the children didn’t understand – he hadn’t ever prepared his lesson!

I don’t seem to have mentioned the corporal punishment in my diary (not sure why) – it was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that, and it really shocked me. About seven weeks after that, my final two lessons with the two girls he taught and two others who joined them later made me cry because it was the first time I really knew that somebody had learnt something because I’d taught it to them. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

Paraguay

Starting out in Paraguay during my year abroad from uni, I decided to take a photo of myself before my ‘first ever lesson’. I suspected I would be doing this for a while 😉

Me before my first lesson in the Anglo

There’s some form of getting-to-know-you activity on the board behind me – no idea what. To the right of the board is something students asked me about pretty quickly. I assumed it was just another pretty picture, like the other posters in the classroom. A couple of months later I found out it was actually Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart! Unfortunately the diary I wrote about this lesson in was in a bag which was stolen a few months later. What I do remember is that the class was 6:50-7:50 in the morning, and there were only three of us teaching at that time. It was a lovely group of students, ostensibly preparing for FCE, but probably about two levels lower if I were to placement test them today!

CELTA

My first day of CELTA was almost 10 years ago – I started it on 17th October 2007.

And so it starts…

I walked to Elvet for our first CELTA class. There are 8 of us: me, […]. We played some introduction games, then did some admin, including receiving our files. We met the students for about half an hour in a very noisy room (!), then discussed which groups we thought they should be in.

I don’t remember any of that! This is when I’m really glad that I write my diary 🙂

My first teaching practice was a week later, and I was first up:

The students didn’t arrive until 6:30, so I started about 6:35. There were 7 Japanese girls who came together, 2 Chinese women, a Ukrainian, a Yemeni woman, a Polish woman, and 2 Polish men called Przcemek! I had the first slot, doing the ‘small difference’ – everyone’s name on the board, on person goes out of the room, 2 swap places. […] Afterwards we had feedback – no major problems – and divided up our roles within the group.

I don’t remember that activity either, and don’t think I’ve ever done it since. It seems like it could be fun with low-level groups, especially with kids. These were pre-intermediate adults. I also know that it’s Przemek, not Przcemek now 🙂

Summer school

My CELTA was part-time during my final year of university, so that I would be ready to teach full time once I left. I had my graduation ceremony in Durham on Thursday, mum and I drove down south via Wolverhampton to drop off my things on Friday, induction for summer school started on Saturday, and our first lessons were on Monday. It was quite hectic, and I was a bit scared of teaching teenagers.

This was when I discovered just how small the EFL world can be. I had applied for jobs with IH at four different schools, which I had to put in priority order. I had no idea, so just picked at random. 1st was a school in a relatively small city in Poland (not Bydgoszcz!) that ran a young learners course, which I thought might be useful. 2nd was Brno, because it was still a small-ish city. 3rd was a capital city, and 4th was Odessa, purely because it was by the sea! On arrival at summer school, I discovered that two of my colleagues had worked at the Polish school previously and didn’t really like the town, so I wasn’t that disappointed when the school said they had all the teachers they needed. Two of my other colleagues were Czech, and from Brno. Everything they said about the city made me desperate to go there, so when I had my interview a week into summer school, I was really hoping to be successful. Thankfully I was, and I still have a very soft spot in my heart for the city – everything they told me was true!

Brno

Brno Cathedral

Brno Cathedral on my first morning in the city

This is where I really feel like I started out – all of the other places feel like pre-cursors. This was a full-time, nine-month contract in a professional school. I was made to feel welcome as soon as I arrived, and still am every time I go back.

This morning I was up and ready pretty quickly. Mum and I got to Stansted at 11, had a drink, then did my check-in. They didn’t weigh my hand luggage so I added in my extra books. We had lunch at O’Neills. I went through security at 12:50, luckily very quickly as I had just realised boarding should have closed at 13:10 – not that they started letting us on until 13:15 – and after I’d run too! :s Apart from that, the flight was uneventful and we landed 5 mins early.

As we flew in, the main thing that struck me was how many trees and wooded areas there are around the city – might even get me walking more! [It didn’t much!] SV, the school director, met me at the apart [sic!] and drove me to my new home. A flat (13) in a red block in the Vinohrady area of the city – think the street is Mutenicka. She gave me a map of the city and showed me where the school and flat and how to travel between them.

[Note – I’m disappointed in the level of my English here – must have been tired!]

The next day:

I left at 8:15 to walk into Brno – it took 55 mins – a bit too long to be a regular occurence! I found the school, wandered around the city, found the cathedral & then went shopping at Tesco – very confusing as it had 4 floors & you had to pay separately on each :s I went back to school and was introduced to I and E in the office, P & Magdalena? [It wasn’t!] I went for lunch with P, & she then took me to Vodafone to buy a SIM card. I couldn’t work out where to get the tram from so got it from the first stop outside the centre, then had to get off as roadworks meant it was going an unusual route. I tried out my Czech, but had to rely on the pointing rather than the answer.

I’m so pleased I wrote about it in this much detail (though you might not be!) It brings back my feelings of disorientation, and the little things that I found so challenging. That was the first time I’d been to a country where I wasn’t already at least intermediate level in the language, so it was a huge challenge for me when I’d been used to at least being able to get my basic message across. It really motivated me to try and learn more Czech as soon as I could!

Induction started a couple of days later. This is what I wrote at the end of my diary entry for that day:

I’m now exhausted and have information overload!

Our Brno induction was just three days, and in Bydgoszcz our teachers have a week. I feel for them 🙂 On Thursday (two days ago as I write this) I gave the teachers their timetables, having run around like crazy for most of the day to get them finished. The session immediately before they get their timetables is an activity swapshop which everyone contributes to, which was inspired by my first week at IH Brno. Most of the teachers new to the school seemed pretty nervous when they came to see me, whereas the returners were very calm. Here’s what happened when I got my timetable in Brno:

The afternoon started with the other half of the swapshop, then a meeting with other teachers doing the same intensive courses. [Students had 3 hours a day, Monday to Friday, with a different teacher each day] I”ll be doing KET on Monday afternoon, which means they’ll be absolute beginners (!), followed by FCE on Tuesday morning. We then had to wait for ages to get our timetables. I replied to stuff on facebook, hung around for a bit, went to get a holepunch [all the important things!], then ended up having a manic hour between 5 & 6 when I got my timetable, went to the copy shop to get copies of my passport photo, went to the transport shop with D to get my travel pass and got my books from the office. It sounds simple, but in reality involved climbing 2 flights of stairs about 10 times, coupled with a lot of manic stress. I got it all in the end through, as well as my local health insurance card.

I find it odd that I wrote far more about the manic hour than about my timetable. I guess I had no real idea what any of the classes meant for me, apart from the absolute beginners, which I was clearly a bit worried about. I had remembered the waiting, but not the ensuing crazy hour or two. Hopefully it wasn’t quite the same for our teachers – maybe they’ll tell me if they read this 😉 I also had no idea that the swapshop I remember so well from Brno had also been almost immediately before we got our timetables – there’s a funny kind of symmetry.

The second weekend involved another learning curve:

After lunch I put some washing on, which took ages as we [my flatmate and I] couldn’t work the machine. I planned FCE, interspersed with monitoring the washing. It eventually turned out that the machine wouldn’t spin, so my clothes are stuck in it. There was a burning rubber smell, and I have a nasty feeling the fan belt might have broken. I phoned S, not expected her to be able to do anything, and she hasn’t replied yet.

Neither of us had ever encountered a top-loading washing machine before, and we had no idea you were supposed to lock the drum before switching on the machine. The result: it did half a spin, tipped all my clothes out, got stuck, and tried to continue. That was a valuable life lesson as I’ve lived with many similar machines since! 🙂

My first class was with a 121 student. I was driven out to the car showroom he owned, about 20 minutes from the centre. For the whole journey, I remember wondering why this 50-something successful businessmen should listen to me, 23, fresh out of uni, and just embarking on this career. I didn’t mention any of those feelings in my diary though, only that:

He needs a lot of work on accuracy when speaking, but is generally a pretty good communicator.

He ended up being one of my favourite students, and I taught him for three years. 🙂

In sum

It’s been fascinating looking back at my old diaries and seeing what I did and didn’t choose to write about. There are lots of little life lessons scattered in just these few incidents, some of which I’d remembered when and where I learnt them, others that I’d completely forgotten.

What do you remember about your first day(s)?

Who are you people?!

Joanna Malefaki’s blog My ELT Rambles is one I enjoy reading, because her voice is so strong – I always feel like she’s chatting to me, even though we’ve never actually met.

Today she wrote a post about meeting the readers of her blog, and how strange it can be to realise that all those things you probably mostly wrote for yourself, and possibly a few people you know, have actually been read by other people who you’ve never met. In it, she said:

Well, I guess I feel strange and happy at the same time. Happy that I can help someone, strange cause, boy oh boy, do I ramble!! I guess bigger bloggers are used to it, but I am not. That’s why I am writing about it today. Does meeting someone who has read what I say, change the way I blog? Nope!! Still gonna ramble!!!

This completely echoes my own feelings. I’m lucky to have met quite a few of the readers of this blog face-to-face, and it never fails to make me squirm in embarrassment inside, while at the same time making me feel satisfied that my writing has been able to interest and help other people. When I started the blog I never dreamed that it would go as far as it has – I just imagined it as a kind of professional portfolio to help me when I was applying for jobs. Having ‘the’ put in front of my name feels very weird when somebody says ‘Oh, you’re THE Sandy Millin’, which has now happened a few times. But I can’t deny I enjoy my little corner of fame 😉

One of the things that feels particularly strange is that I think I can probably only identify maybe 100-200 (at a push!) of the people who subscribe to and read this blog, so I’d really like to know a bit more about the rest of you. It can seem a little unbalanced at times 😉 If you’re feeling brave, why not say hello in the comments and tell me a bit about you. I’m not sure if or how it will influence my writing, but it’d be nice to know more about who’s reading it!

Thank you.

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I've ended up where I needed to be. Douglas Adams

Staying healthy

I’ve written at length (when don’t I?!) about the fact that I have ulcerative colitis, and how it affects my life.

Having a stress-induced illness means that it’s particularly important that I find ways to manage how stressed I feel to avoid a flare-up of my colitis. September and the beginning of October are by far the busiest times of our school year, and can be very stressful for me at times. For the last two years, I was quite bad for most of this six-week period. Since Christmas last year, I’ve been on immuno-suppresants, which have stopped me from having any flare-ups (yay!) and seem to be keeping me mostly healthy right now (double yay!) I can still feel some of the symptoms though, and I need to look after myself to avoid the other pitfalls of a weak immune system, like catching every cold that passes through the school (!)

Here are some of the things I’ve been trying to do:

  • Making sure I stick to my morning routine as much as possible, doing physio exercises and spending 20 minutes or so doing cross stitch, both relaxing activities in and of themselves. I listen to podcasts at the same time to give me something to think about other than work.
  • Keeping active by aiming for 10,000 steps a day, which equates to about 100 minutes of exercise a day. When you’re sitting a desk doing timetables and setting up electronic registers all day, that’s not always easy!
  • Eating healthy food. I bought a slow cooker a couple of weeks ago, which has helped me to cook in bulk and not have to worry about exactly when the food will be ready. So far I’ve made soup and lasagne, and am happy to get any other suggestions (though I can’t eat anything spicy because of the colitis, so no curries!)

Soup in my new slow cooker

It might not look very appealing, but it tasted delicious!

  • Switching off the computer and blue screens by 9:30, before going to bed at 11pm. Having always been lucky to sleep fairly well, I didn’t think this would make much difference, but I feel much more refreshed by my sleep if I haven’t been using screens late at night.
  • Noticing when I’m stressed, particularly if I’m moving faster than I need to be, taking a deep breath, and consciously slowing down. For example, I realised I was rushing when I was washing my hands this afternoon because my brain was very active and I felt like I needed to get things done. I realised that taking an extra 30 seconds would calm me down a bit and make my work more effective in the end.
  • Blogging 🙂

I’m also really looking forward to my first flamenco class of this year – our lessons restart tomorrow night.

What do you do to stay healthy and to de-stress?

What are you thinking about?

When I was a full-time teacher, my thoughts went something like this:

  • Why do I have to get up this early?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • I hope my students are enjoying their lessons.
  • I really hope I’m actually teaching them something!
  • Hmm…that didn’t really work.
  • Oh my god, how could that lesson possibly have gone that badly?
  • This blogging malarkey is fun. I’m learning so much from everyone.
  • I don’t want this year to end because I’ll really miss my students.
  • …and so on.

Now, I’m a Director of Studies, CELTA trainer and materials writer, and my thoughts have (mostly!) moved on.

  • Why can’t I get back to sleep?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • Where am I going to find the last teacher I need?
  • What teacher development should we offer this year? Is it giving everyone what they need?
  • Will this timetable ever be finished?
  • How can we make sure everyone feels comfortable at school?
  • That was really snappy/short/sharp/angry – apologise now and don’t let it get worse.
  • I wish I had more time in the classroom and to work on my own teaching.
  • I wish I had more time.
  • I really want to work on that CELTA course, but the dates don’t fit.
  • Where will my next CELTA course be? When will I know?
  • How can I encourage people to buy my book?

Richer Speaking cover

  • I’m really excited about this project – I can’t wait to be able to share it!
  • Don’t forget to put in your IATEFL proposal.
  • I need to make sure I still find time to get thoughts out of my head onto my blog.
  • I have too many ideas for my blog and not enough time!
  • Switch your computer off at 9:30. You know you’ll sleep better if you do.
  • Stop it. Look after yourself.
  • …and so on.

What are you thinking?

A timetable metaphor

Last week I started trying to put together the timetable for the new school year. This is the third time I’ve done the timetable for my school, not counting changes that happen through the year. I’ve worked out a few systems for myself now, and as I’ve got to know teachers, students (especially 121s) and what does and doesn’t work, things have got a bit easier, but it’s still an all-consuming task. I have no idea how those who do timetables at schools with continuous enrolment manage it!

What my head feels like right now! (Image from Pixabay)

It’s like you’re trying to do a jigsaw, with people adding random extra pieces all the time, and occasionally taking them away.

There is a deadline, but you know that the picture will still have to change for at least a couple of weeks after the deadline has passed – it’s never truly finished.

The end result has to be a picture that is as pleasing as possible to various different groups of people: students, staff (approximately a third of whom you’ve only had a couple of hours of conversation with during interviews and have never met in person), admin staff, businesses etc. You’ve never seen this picture and have no idea what it’s supposed to look like.

Said people are also looking over your shoulder, offering advice, asking questions, and sometimes telling you that the picture just doesn’t look right that way or that they’re not happy with that particular part of the image.

You go home, sleep on it (or not, as the case may be!), and occasionally wake up in the middle of the night thinking ‘Duh! How could I possibly have forgotten that?’ or ‘Oh yeah – that would be a much better picture.’

You’ve been on the other side of the process as a teacher, and you have a pretty good idea of what is manageable in terms of a timetable. You try as hard as you can to make things as easy as possible for your teachers, a lot of whom have never taught before, while at the same time matching up students and groups to those who you believe will be most likely to teach them successfully. You also try to balance timetables, so that they seem ‘fair’ when the inevitable comparing begins. You also know it could be a lot worse for them.

Three or four weeks later, after many hours of work and countless to-ing and fro-ing, you hand out the timetables to everyone. And then the complaints roll in.

But at the same time, there is a sense of satisfaction. This giant, ever-changing logic puzzle has coalesced into something that looks like it just might work. Now you just have to wait and see…

Professionalism v. the ELT industy

[This started out as a comment in reply to To the senior English language teachers of Ireland…  on the ELT Advocacy Ireland blog. However, it got so long that I decided it was more suited to a blog post.All quotes are taken from that post. All views expressed in this post are entirely my own, and I am willing to be talked around if you believe I’m wrong and have the evidence to back it up.]

I do sympathise with posts like this on conditions in the ELT industry, and know how lucky I am in my job, my career path, the opportunities I’ve had, and the wonderful schools I’ve been lucky enough to work at. However, I have to take issue with sentences like “How can you conscionably earn millions every year and treat your staff so despicably?” which don’t have any evidence to back them up. Running a language school is an expensive business, and although I know there are obviously people who deliberately exploit the teachers and the staff, I don’t feel that it is always done on purpose.

For example, I used to work in a school (outside Europe) which really was running hand-to-mouth. We ran a CELTA course in the summer: if we got 6 trainees we could afford to pay rent for the school that month and pay the tutors, one of whom was the director of the school. If we didn’t, she would go without pay that month. If we got 8 trainees, that was rent for the following month too. 10, and we had two months rent. The magic 12 meant we were fine until the end of November, but neither of the two courses I did even hit 10. The rest of the year, we struggled to get enough students to cover the pay of myself (the DoS) and the Director, plus wages for 3-5 freelance teachers who did a few hours a week each. There was no question of sick pay or holiday pay for the freelancers: if there were no lessons, there was no money. In an ideal world, yes, all of those things would have been covered, but if you wanted to run a quality language school with trained teachers working legally with visas if they needed them, you had to charge more for classes to cover your costs than the ‘cowboy’ schools did, but the students wouldn’t pay our prices if there was a cheaper school down the road, a school which to them seemed exactly the same.

I’m not saying this is a typical situation at all, and I strongly believe that professionalism is essential, but ranting about these ‘rich’ language school owners without having the facts and figures to back up the rant is, I believe, not going to get us anywhere.

There’s enough room in the boat for everyone, but only a select few are kept in the boat at all times. The owners choose which ones to keep in semi-permanently and which ones they’ll haul aboard when they need to power through the summer months, before flinging them back overboard again when costs are at an optimum level. It suits them to have us grasping, it’s amusing to them.

This, I believe, is an unhelpful black and white picture which uses an over-dramatic metaphor without taking the reality of the situation into account. At schools in English-speaking countries, numbers in the summer can be vastly different to numbers in the winter. What to do when you have all of those extra teachers? Where do you find them? How do you pay for them all in the winter when you only have 100 students, compared to 300 in the summer? Recruitment procedures should be more transparent, and we should be able to question decisions that are made and speak about them honestly. Recruiters should be able to back up why they have chosen to (re-)employ teacher A over teacher B. That way, teacher B will have a better idea what they need to do next time to try and get the job, in an ideal world of course. I do not believe these decisions are always made easily, though I do feel they’re sometimes based around favouritism and drinking buddies, rather than experience, which is very wrong and should certainly be challenged. If you need a regular, year-round job, and have chosen the ELT profession in an English-speaking country, perhaps you are in the wrong place – we need to be making this abundantly clear to those entering our profession so that they know exactly what it is they’re getting themselves into.

I also know that in schools I have worked at where I have had discussions about money, at least half of what comes into the school normally goes on teacher wages, even without funding CPD or paying for administration time worked. In reputable schools (which I’ve been lucky to spend most of my career at), this includes taxes, national insurance, etc. Then you factor in administration staff, rent, utilities, building upkeep, materials, and it’s hard to see where all of this magical extra money to pay for these things is going to come from, if the students won’t pay higher fees. Perhaps the first campaign should be to encourage schools to publicise their account books, so we can see exactly where the money is going and question them in a mature and adult manner about what happens to any excess cash there might be.

To be considered for a position at an ACELS accredited language school, you need a minimum of a Level 7 degree and the investment of a four week training course which costs a minimum of €1,000. This level of investment is not reflected in an ELTs take-home pay, nor in the respect shown to them by the industry. Perhaps the most galling thing is that we are not even considered to be teachers by the government or The Teaching Council because the CELT/A is not a recognised teaching qualification. Students are sold courses taught by ‘world class’, ‘qualified’, ‘experienced’ teachers.

I strongly believe that we need to support teachers to improve working conditions, but we cannot do this with our heads in the clouds, imagining that the money is going to come from nowhere. Education is our business, and it’s not just the school owners who need to learn. We also need to train students that cheaper doesn’t mean better, and in fact they should be paying for this higher quality of teacher/trainer/school. Who, after all, outside the private language school/ELT bubble, really knows what CELTA and Delta are, how much they cost teachers (generally out of their own pocket), and what they mean in terms of professionalism? And that’s without taking into account the qualms of those people within ELT who knock those qualifications. How do we expect students to be able to make a reasoned decision about which school to choose if all they have to go on is potentially spurious claims of ‘highly-qualified teachers’ when they don’t know what they means and when all they really have to go on is price? Sometimes word-of-mouth can help us out, but that takes time to build up, and time without students is time without money, that magical money we can use to pay the teachers with. Inside our bubble, we know that native speakers are not automatically better teachers than non-natives; we know that a professional teacher has to work hard and invest a lot of time and money to create their professional identity. But where is that awareness outside the bubble? Where are the ELT teachers in popular culture? Where is the discussion of professionalism in a multi-billion dollar industry in the wider media? And it is our job to train up our students to be able to communicate across cultures, surely an essential act in our globalised world. I, for one, had no idea English-language teaching even existed in this form until I was an adult, having grown up in the UK, where it is nowhere near as obvious as in non-English-speaking countries, where you can’t turn around without seeing an advert for English lessons.

Why should school directors make an effort to share information with us if we attack them and put them on the defensive? If our bosses are distant, we need to bring them in and call them to account. It is our responsibility to build relationships too. If we cannot feel loyalty to our schools, and do not help to build a feeling of community there, why should our employers care about us? If they do not see us day to day, how should they know what we need from them? Intuition? Telepathy? I know this is an idealistic view, but we work with people, and those people are not just our students. We need to be in contact with our managers too, right up the food chain, and they need to be trained in communication skills so they know how to work with us, another thing that seems to be sadly lacking in a lot of ELT schools.

Finally, as long as the discussion remains inside the bubble, things will never change.  Why should they try to change things if the pressure is only coming from below, and not from the governing bodies of the profession?

There are a lot of questions here. I certainly don’t have the answers. Maybe you do?

Giving feedback on writing (TeachingEnglish blog associates)

This was a post I’d been meaning to write for a long time! Since doing the Delta exam a few years ago, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to mark writing. To find out what the current results of this experiment are, take a look at my latest post for TeachingEnglish British Council, describing how I give feedback on short pieces of writing of up to 300 words. How do you approach marking?

Marking writing

Going through the attic

Over the long May bank holiday weekend I’ve spent a lot of time in the attic of the house I grew up in, finding all kinds of ‘treasures’ and things I’d completely forgotten about. This page was in a notebook which I think I was writing in while I was working in a factory in Germany during the summer of 2003. It shows a list of things I wanted to do at that point in time – I’ve clearly long been into writing lists of goals!

Some of my old possessions: my aims in life when I was in Germany in 2003

Looking back on the list of things that I prioritised as an 18 year old, some things haven’t changed:

  • I still want my (hypothetical) kids to speak more than one language.
  • I would love to find a partner.
  • One day, I’ll add playing an instrument to my daily habits, and I’ll make some form of progress with it.
  • Australia is still a dream destination, though now I think it’s topped by New Zealand, Japan, China, South Korea… looks like I’ll just have to do a tour of East Asia and Down Under 🙂
  • I’d like to be able to ride a horse, though I’m not quite sure my body will be up to it. At some point, I’ll have a go and see what happens!

I’ve achieved three things:

  • I teach 🙂
  • I’ve bought a flat – it has two floors, so it’s almost a house 😉
  • I own a Traveller’s Atlas.

Some things are highly unlikely:

  • See Will & Grace be recorded – although they’re returning for a new series, I’m pretty sure I won’t have enough time or money to make it over there!
  • Go to a Robbie Williams concert – again, money and time make it unlikely, though maybe, just maybe…
  • Have a company in Germany. I love the country, but I didn’t know about the rest of Central Europe back then 🙂 Also not sure I can be bothered with the stress of owning my own company!

I’m part-way there with a couple of them:

  • I finished my degree, but clearly didn’t know that a Masters normally comes before a doctorate 😉 Not sure if I’m enamoured enough of studying to pursue that one through to it’s conclusion, but you never know. I have a tendency to get bored and then agree to things that I occasionally regret when I’m in the middle of them!
  • At one point at the end of my degree, I was C1 level in three languages, French, German and Spanish. Pretty sure that counts as fluent 🙂 And I’ve made a start with quite a few others

And I don’t really remember what these were for:

  • Japanese business: I’m pretty sure I never intended to be part of a Japanese business. Maybe I just wanted to keep learning about some of their management techniques which I’d been introduced to at school?
  • Psychology: I’m guessing that’s something else I wanted to find out more about. I should probably rekindle that interest, especially following Sarah Mercer’s IATEFL 2017 plenary.

So there you have it: proof that dreams don’t just come true, they evolve and develop 🙂 What do you think your 18-year-old self dreamt of that you’ve achieved now? And what is still a work in progress?

Behind the scenes

in response to Sandy Millin:

A fascinating post, and I completely agree with Svetlana. Your blog is truly inspiring! Here’s to the next few hundred posts 🙂

Thank you Sandy. Let’s see if I can make it to two hundred first! Will you join #ELTbehindthescenes and share with us what goes into making your blog?

How could I refuse? Thanks for the invitation T!

Last week I put together a series of posts about the IATEFL Glasgow 2017 conference. It’s something I’ve started to do every year, and every year I forget just how long it takes 😉

While I’m at the conference I tweet throughout any and all of the talks that I go to, providing I can connect to the wifi. This is for two reasons:

  1. As notes to download later ready to put together my posts
  2. To help other people feel like part of the conference: I started out on the receiving end of the tweet stream, and I know how lucky I am to be there.

Here are some fascinating graphs from TweetStats that show you when I’m at conferences 🙂

Graph showing tweets per day in the last year

Tweets per day in the last year

Tweets per day April 2017

Guess when the conference was

If the wifi’s not working, then I use the iPad Notes app, but still write as if I’m tweeting.

I’ve been tweeting throughout conferences for six years now, and it feels fairly automatic. I’m also pretty quick now 🙂 I can take most of it in, but obviously I don’t always notice everything, so that’s where it’s handy when other people are tweeting from the same talk. I also look at the conference hashtag regularly to retweet things from other talks that I’m interested in.

After the conference, I look back at the list of talks I went to using my paper daily planners, and categorise them, so for example this year I had Listening and Pronunciation, Teacher Training, Materials Writing… It’s the first time I spot what the main themes of my conference were. I set up a draft post for each theme, plus ones for Miscellaneous, Things I Missed, and a summary to bring all the posts together.

I use Tweetdownload to get a .txt and a .html file of my tweets. I start with the .txt file open from the beginning of the conference/the bottom of the stream, deleting tweets as I put them into the relevant blogposts. If I want to embed a tweet or follow a link, I use CMD+F to find it on the .html file. Clicking the tweet in the Tweetdownload file automatically opens the original on Twitter. This is when the learning happens, as I have to organise my thoughts into something coherent and logical. It’s also when I go down a lot of rabbit holes, following up on things that I didn’t have time to investigate during the conference itself.

Normally I only have a handful of tabs open in my browser, but when I’m writing up the IATEFL posts, it’s a bit different:

My desktop as I prepare my post-IATEFL blogposts

The top right window has all of my posts. Bottom right is the Tweetdownload .html file, and a tweet I’m getting ready to embed. Bottom left is the .txt file to delete things as I write them. Top right has everything else, like the British Council IATEFL links for me to find videos, Amazon if I want to put in affiliate links (the only way I make any money from this), and various other things that I can’t remember now.

Because there were so many tabs open, I didn’t switch my computer off overnight, something I normally do religiously. It would have been too much faff to open them all again! This time round, it took me about five hours on Monday, and thirteen or fourteen on Tuesday to write everything up. It must always take me that long, but I’ve never really noticed it before!

I think in the past I’ve done one theme at a time and looked for the tweets for the relevant talk, so I’ve published the posts as I go along. This year I published them all simultaneously, apart from the last one, so that I could put the live links onto the summary straight away.

So there you have it: that’s how I turn just under 1000 tweets into 8 blog posts. 🙂

If you blog, I’d be fascinated to hear something about how you go about it. Let’s find out more about #ELTbehindthescenes

How the other half live

This is the first weekend in a very long time when I have had no deadlines (internally or externally imposed), no work commitments, and no formalised plans. That meant that I could do whatever I wanted all weekend, and that is a very rare occurrence. So what did I do?

Well, the boring stuff: a bit of tidying up, but thankfully no cleaning, because the lovely lady who cleans my flat much better than I ever could came to do that instead 🙂 Sorting some paperwork into folders. Actually, there wasn’t a lot of boring stuff.

The routine stuff: physio, cross stitch, memrise, sorting some photos.

The unexpected stuff: an hour or so at the doctor’s for the conjunctivitis I woke up with yesterday morning, which thankfully has pretty much gone now. I was lucky: the doctor spoke English, and there was only one person in front of me in the queue. She said you can often wait up to six hours at the weekends. And now I know where the night/holiday/weekend doctor is for future reference.

The relaxing stuff: a long bath with a good book to read, cooking lasagne, making some almond/date/coconut/cocoa balls (thanks for the recipe Kylie!), more reading, possibly a bit too much time on social media…

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

The good book I’m reading 🙂

The social stuff: a long Skype call with my best friend and her almost two-year-old daughter, who can say my name now, as well as counting to three, and knowing some of the days of the week. I haven’t seen the little girl for three months, and now she really is a little girl!

The film-y stuff: rewatching Guardians of the Galaxy with friends at home, a trip to the cinema to see the beautiful The Zookeeper’s Wife, and an indulgent Sunday night viewing of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The work-y stuff (because there’s also a little bit): reading blog posts (but that doesn’t feel like work), 30 minutes replying to my students’ journals ready for our lesson tomorrow (which I always find fascinating). One question I was asked: can you touch your wrist with a finger on the same hand? I can’t 🙂

In short, it was A Good Weekend. Something I should do more often. I guess this is what it feels like to have a normal weekend 🙂

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!

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