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

Archive for the ‘Assorted Thoughts’ Category

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

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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… 🙂

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