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

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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

11 things (again)

1. Acknowledge the nominating bloggers/2. Share 11 facts about yourself

Clare Fielder recently nominated me to take part in the ’11 things’ blog challenge which she wants to revive. I originally shared my facts in December 2013 but I liked Clare’s questions so have decided to answer them here. I’ve also nominated a few more people to answer the questions who weren’t blogging last time I did this. I hope they’ll join in!

3. Answer the 11 random questions the nominating blogger has created for you

1. How are you feeling today?

Happy, for many different reasons 🙂

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m sitting on the train to Warsaw for my penultimate weekend of working on a part-time CELTA. It’s the fourth time I’ve been, and (I hope!) the first time I’ll actually get to see some of the city, due to a combination of (what is supposed to be) good weather and light evenings.

It’s the last week of the school year for most of the teachers at IH Bydgoszcz and we had a great swapshop of summer school activities this afternoon. Everyone is very positive as we finish off the year, and there’s a real buzz in the staffroom.

I also had the best night’s sleep I’ve had for a long time last night, which I suspect was because I managed to walk both to and from school for the first time in over a month. I sprained my ankle for the third time on 4th May, and I managed to ditch the crutches yesterday. Roll on complete recovery!

Life is good, with lots of great plans lined up for the summer (watch this space), and the fact that I’m taking the first steps to a long-held dream of buying my own flat. 🙂

2. What book is closest to you as you write this? And would you recommend it to others? Why (not)?

Because I’ve only got a small rucksack with me for the weekend, I couldn’t fit in my real book, and as I write this I’ve just realised that I left my iPad behind so I don’t have my ebook either. Oops! That means I have no idea what the nearest book to me is right now…something one of the other passengers is reading! If I was at home, this would be my answer…

I’ve read the first few pages of The Pickwick Papers on a free books app on my iPad which I’m using to catch up with classics I’ve never got round to reading before. I love Charles Dickens, so I’m pretty sure I’ll like this.

I’m also reading two paper books, The Song of Homanathe second in a fantasy series, which is fine, and The Rose of Sebastopol. I noticed it in our school library a couple of weeks ago, and obviously needed to read it because of my connections with Sevastopol and Crimea. It’s set in the Crimean War, which I know more about than I used to, but still not much. I’ve only read a few pages of it so far, so am not sure if I can recommend it or not yet, although they were very easy to read, so I probably would.

3. What’s your top tip for de-stressing after a hard day at work?


Being outside really clears my head and gives me time to think. As somebody who used to be allergic to exercise, I’ve noticed a massive difference since I started tracking my steps about four years ago, and I’ve drastically increased the amount of exercise I do. It’s gone from 1,500-2,000 steps on some days, up to over 10,000 most days. I feel so much better for it, and I now always try to live or stay in places which mean I can walk to and from work. It’s also helped me to lose weight.

4. Have you ever learnt any foreign languages? How has this helped you be a better language teacher?

Erm, just the odd one or two. I’m a bit of an addict!

I did French and German at school, and added Spanish at university, reaching C1 level in all of them, although they’re a bit rusty now, especially my French.

I’ve learnt Czech, Russian and (currently) Polish because of living in the countries. I’m about pre-int in the first two, and my Polish is improving all the time, especially since I started actually speaking!

I’ve also dabbled in Malay, Greek, Mandarin, Thai and braille, and am trying to learn some Italian ready for a CELTA in Milan this summer.

Being a language learner myself has made a massive difference to my teaching, because although it’s impossible for me to truly understand what it’s like to learn English as a foreign language, I do know what it’s like to feel like an idiot or a very small child, to be mostly or completely illiterate, to feel frustrated because you know you know that word…and on the flip side, I have hundreds of tried and tested language learning techniques I can share, and I completely get the feeling of achievement you feel when you manage to understand or communicate successfully, so I keep trying to push my students past the pain so that they can get to that point!

5. Describe your teaching style by comparison to an animal, and explain the similarities!

Sorry. Going to skip this one, as I find this kind of thing really difficult! Anyone who wants to attempt an answer in the comments is welcome to try… 😉

6. What are your areas of specialism & expertise within ELT / teaching, and your strengths as a teacher?

My main area of expertise is in knowing where to find the answers to questions I have, mostly through the amazing network of teachers I’m connected to both online and offline. I’m also very organised, which makes my life a lot easier as a manager, and means I’m often asked about how I manage to get so much done.

In the classroom, I think my strengths lie in my ability to empathise with the students due to my own language learning experience, as I said in question four. I’m also very reflective, and I’m always trying to improve my teaching.

7. Which are the most recently used smiley/emojis on your mobile phone/whatsapp or instant messenger programme?

The ones I use the most are :), 😉 and :p I don’t really know that many other emojis and I don’t have a smartphone, so it’ll be a while before I get round to learning any, I suspect.

8. What was the most recent photo you took?

Not quite the most recent photo (I suspect nobody really wants to see the progress of my sprained ankle healing, but if you do, I’ll be adding them to ELTpics ‘Health’ set when I’ve got the full set…)

This is the room in the hotel I stayed in in Warsaw three weekends ago, the last time I was there. For some reason I got into the habit of taking photos of all of the bedrooms I live/stay in, probably because there have been so many with the amount of moving around I’ve done, and now I can’t stop doing it…

Hotel Reytan, Warsaw

9. Where are you based, and would you recommend working there to others?

Answered that question recently as a whole blogpost, before I read this question 🙂 Here’s a nicer photo that I hope social media will pick over the hotel one when deciding what to highlight from this post! It’s my mum in the botanic garden across the road from my flat during her first visit to the city a few weeks ago:

Mum in the botanic garden under a tree covered in red blossom

10. What’s your best memory of a lesson you’ve taught?

When I was working at IH Newcastle, I had a group of B1 intermediate students who stayed together for about six weeks, and who I taught for twenty hours a week, two every morning, and two every afternoon. Having the same group of students for so long was very unusual there, as new ones normally joined the group every Monday, and left on Friday, either to go home or to move to a different level. We got to know each other really well, and we often talked about food. One week we decided to dedicate our afternoon lessons to cookery and food, with the final lesson of the week in the school flats to cook together.

Sandy, an Arabic student and a Czech student chopping onions

We represented five different countries and ate traditional food from Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the UK, which we all worked together to prepare. Some of the students had never really cooked before so it was a whole new adventure for them. It was a fabulous afternoon full of laughter and delicious food, and is one of my all-time favourite lessons. It is proof of the positive effect that English lessons can have, as it really brought us all closer together.

The whole class, featuring students from four different countries, plus me

11. What would you like to say to me, now that I’ve nominated you for this challenge?!

Thank you for encouraging me to re-read my previous answers, and bringing back some happy memories! And thanks for inviting me to play again on my blog – it’s so nice to have the time to do that at the moment, as these are often the posts I most enjoy writing 🙂

4. List 11 bloggers

Seconding a few of Clare’s nominations:

Joanna –

Zhenya –

Anna –

Hana –

And my extra ones:

Elly –

Tekhnologic –

Rachel –

Matt –

Pete –

Svetlana –

Katherine Bilsborough – she doesn’t have a blog, but she can guest post here if she wants to join in 😉

5. Questions for nominated bloggers

Again, I’m going to steal some of Clare’s questions and add a few of my own:

  1. What’s your favourite thing you’ve written (ELT or otherwise)?
  2. Do you have a favourite recipe you want to share?
  3. What’s the last photo you took?
  4. What’s the last piece of music you listened to?
  5. What was the last film or TV show you watched? Would you recommend it?
  6. Do you ever listen to podcasts? Any favourites? If you don’t, can I persuade you? 🙂
  7. What tip would you offer to a new blogger?
  8. What’s your memory of the best lesson you’ve taught?
  9. Have you ever made a mistake or been in a bad situation which felt huge at the time, but now you’re really glad it happened?
  10. Where are you based and would you recommend it to others?
  11. What question do you wish I’d asked you, and what’s the answer?


Russie nominated me on her list – thanks! I chose a couple of questions to answer to add to the ones above:

What would you describe as quintessentially English?

I was back in the UK for 24 hours in between two CELTA course last year, and had one of the most English days of my life. My mum, grandma and I went to a little village in Northamptonshire called Lillingstone Lovell for an ‘Open Gardens’ day. The village was full of traditional cottages and had a beautiful parish church. You could go into different people’s gardens and see all the beautiful plants and sculptures they’d got in them. We finished the day with a cream tea at the village hall.

Lillingstone Lovell church on the open gardens day

What was the last experience that made you a stronger person?

Over the last couple of years there have been two main things which have changed me as a person. I’ve written about both of them on my blog. One was being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (warning: do not read if you’re squeamish) and the other was being in Sevastopol during the year when it became Russian. Both of them have made me even more determined to make the most out of everything which comes my way, because you never know when your life will change. They also made me appreciate just how little control you have over some things, and that it’s important to stay positive as much as possible.

Returning to the classroom

On 23rd September 2015 I went back into the classroom properly for the first time in over a year, teaching my first class with a B1 intermediate teen group who will be my students for the whole academic year. As a CELTA trainer in 2014-2015, the only opportunities I’ve had to teach English have been in one-off demo lessons, which aren’t quite the same. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to reflect on my teaching, seeing trainees do things I know I’ve often been guilty of, then offering advice about how to get over problems like over-complicated instructions and poorly timed lessons. Time to see if I could practise what I preached!

Anthony Schmidt started a blog challenge asking ‘What did you teach today?‘ Hana Tichá joined in and I decided to record my lesson so I could contribute too:

Out of curiosity and intrigue, and as a means of reflection, write what you did in your class(es) today, from checking attendance to giving a test to blowing students’ minds with the most dogme-inspired, task-based, mobile-assisted, coursebook-free, PARSNIP-full lesson non-plan ever. You don’t have to explain why, unless you’d like. Just give the raw, nitty-gritty details.

  • Circle game: to learn each others’ names. There are nine students, four girls and five boys, aged 13-15. This took about 10 minutes.
  • Setting up routines: I told students that they should only have pens, paper and books with them, and bags and coats should go on the hooks on the wall. They had time to rearrange themselves. (Five lessons later I still need to remind a couple of them!)
  • Getting to know you: I demonstrated a triangle on the board with three pieces of information about me. In pairs, students had to guess why the information is important to me. Listening back I didn’t give them enough time to guess (less than a minute), so only stronger students contributed in the open class stage. A couple of the boys decided the triangle was an Illuminati symbol, added an eye, and have since put it on the whiteboard at the beginning of every lesson.
  • Students wrote their own triangle with information on it. They had plenty of time to do this.
  • Mingle: students had to find out about their classmates. Instructions have always been a problem for me, and although they have improved a lot, the way I set up this activity wasn’t completely clear. The instructions themselves were fine, but to make it completely clear I should have done a T-SS and a SS-SS demo first. I thought the demo I’d done with my information would be enough, but I didn’t factor in that students needed to make notes based on what they heard. I also didn’t specify before the activity that I wanted them to speak English only, so some of the boys were making it a race at the beginning and doing it in Polish. They had about ten minutes, but it could have been shorter if I’d been clearer.
  • Pair check: students tried to remember one thing about each person in the class. Here I had to remind them to expand on what they said, as some of them started with e.g. ‘Sandy – blue, M – cat’ instead of making full sentences.
  • Open class: I moved students into more of a circle to encourage them to speak to each other, not just to me (although in a relatively small, rectangular room this isn’t easy!) ‘Who can tell me something about A?’ A then nominated the next person who we found out about, and so on. This stage was quite relaxed and there was a lot of laughter, but it was also long and the pace dropped. Students had written their notes on scrap paper, so I got them to put them in the bin before moving on. I do like a tidy classroom 🙂 )
  • K points: this is the school-wide points system used for teen classes. I introduced it to them, telling them what they needed to do to win points as a class, and what would mean losing points. Five of the students had the system last year, so I should probably have got them to explain it (especially because it’s new to me!) but I didn’t think about that until afterwards.
  • Break time: students have ten minutes to go to the club, a room at the bottom of the school with vending machines, tables and places to sit. The teacher goes with them, and if they behave well, they get K points on their return to class.

The second half of the lesson was based on a reading text from the coursebook. There are six classes at the school who are at the same level, and each week the teachers meet and plan together in a level meeting. I’m the level head, coordinating the meeting, but all of the teachers contribute to the plan. We work through the book during the year, but I aim to help the teachers adapt it to their students, as ages range from 12-16, and group sizes from 3-12. What follows is the plan we came up with together…


  • I showed students the image above. We have projectors and netbooks, but they were still being prepared when I did the lesson, so they were printed on a couple of A4 sheets in black and white. In pairs, students had to say what’s happening, who the people are and where they are. One student immediately said ‘capoiera’ to the whole class, which kind of stalled the conversation! I still got them to predict in pairs, then asked that student to fill in the gaps once they’d shared their ideas.
  • ‘Capoeira’ was drilled briefly as students would need to say it a few times during the lesson. I wasn’t bothered about spelling or being completely correct though, since it’s not a high-frequency word for this group.
  • Gist reading: students read the text and matched four titles to the four paragraphs.
  • Feedback: students checked in pairs, then I read the answers and they confirmed them. The whole feedback stage took less than a minute. From my monitoring while they read I knew most students had got it right already, but one student hadn’t.
  • Reading for detail: yes/no/not given task. I demonstrated it first, showing students they needed to underline the answer in the text and write the question number next to it. Students did this without a problem. Meanwhile I was monitoring, and checking answers from fast finishers. They became the teachers and checked specified students’ answers.
  • Feedback: We only focussed on question 6, as students had the rest of the answers. There was a problem with an item of vocab (‘slave’) which I should probably have pre-taught, but it came up in the following vocabulary task too, so I’d decided not to. Oops. I gave them an example and got them to look at the text again for number 6, making sure they all underlined the right sentence.
  • Vocab race: changed student groups so they were working in new threes. I read a definition, students had to find the word in the text, then one person from their team ran to the board to write it. The procedure for the task was clear, and I set up the room to make sure nobody would fall over anything, but I should have made the points system clearer, and drawn lines on the board to show where they should write – one group tried to fill the whole board so the others couldn’t write.
  • Written record: returning to their books, students remembered and wrote the words down. I rushed the set-up of this, and had to repeat my instructions.
  • Preparation for speaking: divided the board in half and elicited ‘martial arts’ and ‘dancing’, one in each half. Students worked in two groups to brainstorm as many of each as they could, then switched to add to the other list. I was prompting students for extra ideas when they ran out, and eliciting corrections of spellings if things weren’t clear. There was a lot of Polish at this stage – I should have offered K points before the task to encourage them to speak English, and perhaps fed in some functional language, like ‘Can you think of anything else?’
  • Speaking: students worked in new pairs (trying to divide up the boys who can be a bit crazy when they work together, and encourage the quieter girls to speak up) to discuss if they’d tried/would like to try any of the dancing/martial arts. To add some challenge, I asked them to see which pair could speak for the longest. They repeated it with a second partner. I could have done a bit of feedback in between the two tasks to make the repetition more useful, but hadn’t come up with anything to tell them! I was taking notes about their confidence when speaking, and some info about what they’d tried/liked.
  • Feedback on content: one student shared their experience of martial arts, and one of dance. Other students were interested in what they had to say, and only those who wanted to contributed – I didn’t force everyone to share something.
  • Setting up homework: students looked at the list of dances and said which three they thought I’d tried. I told them a little about my experiences of dancing, and what I do to keep fit. Their homework was to write 50-100 words about what they do to keep fit – I made sure they wrote it down, and reminded them that if everyone had their homework in the next lesson, they’d get K points.


I’m much happier with my lesson pacing now, particularly at feedback stages. They often used to drag, but now I have a range of techniques to call on, and feel like they’re much more appropriate to the stages of the lesson. My monitoring has improved too, which also contributes to making feedback more efficient and useful.

Although my activity set-up has improved a lot, and I’ve drastically reduced the amount of waffling I do, I still need to remember to demonstrate activities clearly before setting students off on them. Since this first lesson, I’ve been making a conscious effort to do that (I had lesson six on Friday) by writing it on my plan – I don’t always remember to do that though.

I sit down a lot more in my lessons now, and that’s made a real difference to the dynamic in the room. I feel like the atmosphere was quite relaxed and comfortable throughout, but that I could still be authoritative when necessary.

I was a bit worried about teaching teens as they haven’t been my favourite age group in the past – I normally prefer adults. However, with the K points system, I feel like I finally have the classroom management technique that was missing from my previous attempts, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of keeping lessons interesting and motivating for the group through the year, and helping the other teachers in our level meeting to do the same. Five lessons later, I feel like I’m getting to know the group well, and am enjoying the lessons a lot more than I expected too. I just hope they are too!

I know who I am, but who are you?

I’m totally stealing this idea from Joanna Malefaki. In fact, I’m going to steal her words too:

I would really appreciate it, if you took a minute to say hello, tell me where you are from/about yourself, and what you like reading in the ELT blogs you read.

I am doing this cause I want to get to know the people who actually read my posts. Reading your comments really puts a smile on my face!

I’ve often wondered who reads my blog, and while I’ve had the pleasure to meet many of you *waves!*

Not that kind of waves!

Not that kind of waves! (my image)

I know there are a lot more of you out there. So, don’t be afraid, say hello!

Outside influences: the women in my family

This month the iTDi (International Teacher Development Association) blog was all about ‘Outside Influences‘, or the people outside education who have shaped our teaching. Many bloggers have added their own posts to this, include Vicky Loras and Anne Hendler. They have inspired me to write about the women in my family, all of whom have had a big influence on the person I’ve become.

My dad’s mum

When my dad was four and his brother was two, my granddad had a stroke which affected his language and movement, and meant he couldn’t work again. If I remember the story correctly, he was sitting opposite my grandma on the train on the way to a holiday in Cornwall when it happened. This was in 1964.

Thanks in large part to my grandma’s care, he lived until 1999 and I was lucky enough to know him. She made him persevere to communicate clearly with her because she wouldn’t respond until he’d made himself understood. She supported him, brought up two children, and worked to bring in money for the family (although I’m not sure exactly how these three things fitted together, and I can’t ask her about it any more).

When I knew granddad, he could look after himself and contribute to the house and garden, but he needed a stick to get around at home, and a wheelchair outside. Grandma and granddad looked after my brother and I for a couple of weeks each summer and took us on day trips to various places. I have lots of happy memories of those times, and that typical childhood haze of blue skies and long summer days 🙂

Grandma’s strength of will was amazing, and she never let anything get in her way. She never left the UK, but loved hearing about my travels. I used to take her to various places around the UK too. One of the reasons I got into the habit of taking so many photos was to share them with her.

Grandma at Hadrian's Wall

Grandma at Hadrian’s Wall

My mum’s mum

My granddad was in the Merchant Navy, meaning he was away for long stretches of time. Grandma stayed at home to look after the family. At one point, she had four children under the age of five and was effectively a single mum when grandy was away. Money was never easy: she made clothes for the family and learnt to be a great cook, with nothing ever wasted. Nobody ever did without.

My brother and I also stayed with them every summer, and my memories from their house are no less happy than with my dad’s parents. They used to live in a huge Victorian house with a magical garden that has unfortunately now been divided up into three properties. They helped us to explore England and Wales, and encouraged us to be inquisitive and ask questions about the world.

Now grandma helps us to keep our extended family together. If I can have a family as strong as the one my grandma has built, I will be a very happy person. Both of my grandmas taught me to appreciate what I have, to avoid waste and to realize how lucky I am.

My aunt

At the age of two, my aunt was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Inevitably this has had a huge effect on her life, and it has had other knock-on effects with her health too. I’ve watched her go through hip replacements and a cataract operation, and carry on regardless, with a positive attitude to life. Watching her has helped me with my own health problems, because I know that they don’t have to stop me from doing what I want to with my life. She was also part of the inspiration for making me and other members of my family start to exercise more when she began doing walking challenges. This was the beginning of my weight loss and general move towards being a healthier person. 

I’ve also been influenced by the way my aunt managed to stay in touch with so many of her friends in pre-internet days, through meeting them regularly and making a real effort. I think this is so important, and I’m lucky that I have it easier with facebook, email and Skype. Finally, she inspired me to learn to play cards, and I’ve enjoyed teaching her kids to play many card games in return.

My mum

Mum is another very strong, very independent woman. She built a career in librarianship, moving on to high levels of management within the UK council system. I’ve watched and learnt from her about many aspects of management and communication, and we’ve often discussed her work in ways that I hope will be useful to me as I move into management myself. When I was young, she used to help my dad with his pet shop too, working at the library during the week and the shop at weekends. Time management was key, and I’ve inherited this from her (I hope!)

My parents split up when I was 12, and although this was obviously not an easy process, watching mum get through it and continue to look after my brother and I has also shown me what it means to be strong. Mum has been so supportive of me and my brother throughout our lives. She has never told me what to do with my life, or complained about any of my choices. We’ve always been told that as long as we’re happy, she’s happy. I know other people who are badgered about when they will get married, or have children, or why they choose to live so far away, but I’ve never had that once. Mum has let me live my own life and make my own mistakes.

My aunt, my grandma, my mum and I

My aunt, my grandma, my mum and I

I’m incredibly lucky to have four role models like this, women who are strong, and yet know how to support each other and the people around them, and ask for support when they need it. Of course, this isn’t all I’ve learnt from them, but I’ve already cried a few times while writing this, and I need to draw a line somewhere 🙂

Thank you ladies!

To my #youngerteacherself

This is a response to a blog challenge set by Joanna Malefaki, asking what advice I’d give to my younger teacher self. Now that I’ve written it, it turns out most of my advice is about being outside the classroom, but I’m not sure what else I can say!

Depending on how you count it, I’ve been teaching for:

Like Joanna, I think I’d give different tips to each of those ‘me’s’.

On your gap year

I got incredibly homesick for the first three weeks of the six I was at the school in the middle of the jungle. When I left, I was crying my eyes out because I didn’t want to go.

Don’t wallow. Go out and talk to people.

Explore the place you’re in, however small it might be.

Our House


Find out about the culture.

Immerse yourself in the language.

Don’t be afraid to find out about the people you’re living amongst.

Fill your time.

On your year abroad

I didn’t learn from my experience of homesickness in Borneo, and repeated it all over again when I was in Paraguay, so the advice above would work for this me. There’s more though:

Just because a resource book looks old, doesn’t mean it’s not useful.

Just because a coursebook looks old, it probably means it’s out-of-date and irrelevant 😉

Plan more than 5 minutes before the lesson.

Make sure you know something about the grammar you’re teaching, and don’t just try to wing it.

Learn what those funny symbols on that strange chart on the wall mean – they’ll come in really useful!


Asuncion from the 13th floor

My first job

I spent my next three years working in Brno, which I loved, but…

No matter how much you think it might help, spending every weekend of the first six months of your time in Brno at school planning lessons is neither healthy nor an effective use of your time. Allocate a shorter time to plan, and you will magically be able to do it.

Spend time exploring – don’t wait until you’re about to leave to start, or you’ll never get to the planetarium (still haven’t been!)


Make more of an effort with the language right from the start. Get a teacher – you need one to make you do the work.

Back in the UK

Two years in Newcastle:

Use the fact you’re in the UK. Take the students on trips. Get them out of the classroom, especially in the summer.

At the park

Invite people into your classroom.

Observe other teachers. Observe yourself.

Remember that however much you might love the north-east of England, it’s a long way from family and friends, and just because you’re in the UK, doesn’t mean it’s any cheaper getting to see them than when you live in Europe!


Do Module 2 full-time. You’ll get so much more out of it that way.

Do the modules separately, not concurrently.

Make sure you dedicate the time and the effort to actually following through on the PDA (Professional Development Assignment) properly, rather than just hurriedly doing whatever you can to make sure you’ve ticked the boxes. You might find it actually solves some of the problems you have.

When people tell you your instructions are crap, do something proactive to sort it out. Don’t just nod and carry on in the same way. They are, and you’ll save yourself so much time and effort in the classroom by doing something about it.

It’s not worth making yourself ill over – have a proper break before you start.


Start exploring straight away. You never know what’s going to happen that might stop you.

Don’t be afraid to ask people to do things with you in your free time – you’re not interrupting them, and you never know, they might say yes.

Sandy in Sevastopol

CELTA tutoring

Observe other tutors’ input sessions whenever you can find the time to do it.

Get copies of their feedback so you can become more effective, faster.

Collect as many different ways of conducting TP feedback as you can, experiment with them, and try to find ones which work in different situations.

Don’t overwhelm the trainees with paper – be picky, and get to the point.

Timing, timing, timing – be strict with yourself.

Most importantly of all…

Don’t think twice about diving headfirst into TEFL. It will take over your life in the best possible way, give you experiences you never even knew could exist, take you all over the world, and give you the most amazing life.

Don’t change anything.

Am I bothering you? (paragraph blogging)

Or at least an attempt at paragraph blogging (I find it hard to stop writing, so maybe this will help!) The idea was proposed by Ann Loseva and Kate @springcait.

Today two different trainees on my current CELTA course mentioned that they didn’t want to ask for help because they felt like they might be bothering people. This is a feeling I often used to have, but I’m hoping I’ve got over now.*

What I’ve realised is that most of the time when you ask somebody something, they’ll say yes.

Need help? Ask: you’ll get it.

Stuck at home and bored? Invite somebody to do something with you: they’ll do it.

Nobody to spend your birthday with? Tell your friends: someone will be free.

What’s the worst that can happen? They might say no.

And if they do? At least you tried.

We’re normally a lot more worried about bothering other people than they are about being bothered.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. You have to be prepared to say yes when other people bother you. After all, you never know where it might take you.

Me in a fighter plane on the USS Midway

When travelling alone, you don’t get photos like this without bothering other people!

* I still have trouble getting started on a new social life when I move somewhere new, but four months of CELTAs and moving round a lot have (hopefully!) made me a bit more proactive. We’ll see what happens when I move to Poland!

Blogging habits

I’ve recently discovered Zhenya Polosatova’s blog, Wednesday Seminars. She posed three questions about blogging habits which have been answered by many people. You can find links to them in her original post, along with the thinking behind the questions. Here’s my contribution:

What are your 2-3 favorite writing habits/rituals you find helpful?

If it’s in your head, get it out! Writing really helps me to formulate my ideas, especially if I know other people are going to read it (I also keep a diary for myself), and to let go of negative thoughts by pouring them on to the page/screen.

Having said that, for some posts I like to think about them for a while, so that when I finally get to writing them, it’s quite a quick process. Sometimes I don’t have a choice about this – over the last few months I’ve had lots of ideas for posts, but little to no time to do anything about them!

What are 1-2 writing habits you find less helpful, (and would like to get rid of in the new year?)

This is a difficult question. I think this is the flipside of the previous question, in that some of my posts take quite a long time to write, and while I love doing it and love the response I get, I can end up spending way too much time in front of the computer, so I need to find more of a balance.

Pacific Ocean with the sun reflected in it

More of this needed…


What is one new idea (tip, habit) you would like to start in 2015, and why?

Not sure about this one either – perhaps it’s something I started doing towards the end of last year. I began to create a draft post for each of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head, in the vain hope that when I have some time to write, I already have at least the title and perhaps a few ideas already written on the paper.

Reading Mike’s comments on Zhenya’s original post, perhaps I should also try to make some of my posts shorter, or break them into separate posts. Not sure if that’s a good idea or not though, as I find trailing through lots of different posts can get a bit annoying sometimes!

[At IATEFL 2014, Adam Simpson and I were asked a series of questions about our blogging. You can watch the video by following this link.]

Drawing challenge

At IATEFL Harrogate 2014, many of us were very impressed by the artistic endeavours of Christina Rebuffet-Broadus, who introduced us to the idea of sketchnoting.

I have to admit that her beautiful, and beautifully-organised, notebook made me a bit jealous, since my artistic skills are somewhat lacking. Carol Goodey and James Taylor seconded this, and I thought it would be fun to make us all feel a bit better by setting a drawing challenge, and proving we can all make our artwork understandable! Maybe it will be the first step towards out own sketchnoting at future webinars and conferences 😉

The rules

1. Choose four things you often have to draw in the classroom, or that you’ve had bad experiences drawing in the past (!). I suggest a person doing a particular action or job, an animal, a vehicle, and a miscellanous object, but you can draw whatever you like.
2. Draw them in any way you see fit (on a board, on paper, on a tablet…) but don’t spend any more time on it than you would in a lesson.
3. Share the results for us to guess what they are. 🙂

My offerings


My drawings

After that, I think you’ll agree, it’s a good job I’m a teacher, not an artist, as I often tell my students!

I look forward to seeing your artwork. 🙂

Challenge accepted!

David Harbinson was the first to take up the challenge, and has also shared his version of sketchnotes from a recent webinar.

Martin Sketchley shared his version of a skeleton from his YL classroom, and added four drawings for you to guess.

Maria Theologidou added a twist to her contribution by sharing a great activity for practising past simple and past continuous through drawing.

The chain of 11s

Two blog posts today, because I’ve seen this challenge going round for the last week, and don’t know when I’ll next have time to write for it! I love finding out more about the people I connect with online 🙂 Apologies in advance for the verbosity…I don’t know when to stop! I was tagged by Rachael Roberts and Adam Simpson, both of whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and whose blogs are full of excellent ideas and resources.

My task is to…

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

11 random facts about me

  1. I lived in the jungle for four months during my gap year. It was my first big adventure, and it definitely gave me the travel bug. It’s very nearly the 10th anniversary of the expedition, and I can’t believe how quickly time has gone past!
  2. I’ve done a parachute jump. It was part of my fundraising for the trip to the jungle.
  3. My dad used to have a pet shop, but before he opened it we already had over 100 animals at home…rabbits (he bred them for show), 2 dogs, a cat, a chinchilla, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, guinea pigs, budgies, cockatiels, canaries, finches, chickens, pigeons (for a very brief period, thank God!)…
  4. I love dancing, although I don’t have any particular skill at it! I took tango classes for a while in Paraguay, and did belly dancing in Czech Republic, something I was very resistant to at first, and ended up really enjoying.
  5. My whole family is English, as far back as we’ve managed to find out. Not British, English. No Welsh, Scottish, Irish, or anything else. Despite that, when I tan, I’m always very dark. This has led people to ask me, variously, if I’m Spanish, Argentinian, Brazilian, Indian… After I came back from the jungle, I lived in my aunt’s village in rural England for a month, and one of her friends asked who the foreigner was who was staying with her! 🙂
  6. Everywhere I go, I seem to meet, and normally become good friends with, someone with a name which is a variant on Katherine. My mum, my best friend, one of my best friends from uni and at least one person from most of the jobs I’ve done, generally the one I’ve stayed in contact with, all fit into this pattern.
  7. I think I was always meant to be a teacher, although it took me a long time to realise it. I’ve stayed in touch with one of my primary school teachers, and a few years ago she told me that when she was very busy my classmates would come and ask me for help. I don’t remember this.
  8. My original life plan was to work in business for about 20 years, then become a teacher when I was about 40 and had money. I came up with this plan when I was about 15, because I was worried I didn’t know what I would do with my life. I’m a forward planner!
  9. During my gap year, I did door-to-door sales, which I hated. It did, however, give me a lot of thinking time. It was at this point that I realised that TEFL was the way to go. “What, you mean people will pay for me to go and live in their countries? And I get to teach? Duh!”
  10. I really enjoy writing letters.
  11. Poor formatting frustrates me, and I will spend hours trying to sort it out.
Our chinchilla

Our chinchilla

11 questions from Rachael

  1. Why did you start blogging and how has differed from your expectations?
    I started blogging because I’d seen that lots of people on Twitter had blogs (I was still lurking at this point) and I thought it would be a good way of raising my professional profile. It’s ended up being something I HAVE to do – I wake up with ideas in my head I have to write about. When something goes well or badly, mostly in class but sometimes not, I write about it on my blog to get the thoughts out of my head. I love sharing materials too. It’s also been amazing that people come up to me at conferences or during courses and say “You’re Sandy Millin. I read your blog.” It’s very flattering, and has led to some very good friendships, but I also find it a bit freaky!
  2. What’s your earliest childhood memory?
    That’s a hard one. I think most of my childhood memories are connected to photos, so I don’t know if any of them are real or not. I can’t think of one particular thing.
  3. Tell us about someone you admire, and say why.
    Another hard one. I think it would have to be my mum and both of my grandmas. All of them had difficult times for various reasons and are very strong women. I don’t think I would be anywhere near as confident as I am without having the three of them as role models.
  4. What was the last book you read and what did you think of it?
    This morning I decided to give up reading The Brothers Karamazov after 200 pages (and about 6 weeks!). It’s a shame because I loved Crime and Punishment, but it’s just not motivating me. The last book I finished was Adventures of a Language Traveller by John Haycraft, one of the founders of IH. I wrote about it here. I’ve been reading A Dance with Dragons on my iPad for about a year now, and am a third of the way through. I’m trying to read it as slowly as possible in the vain hope that George R. R. Martin might finish the next Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) book before I’m done. I realise this is highly unlikely.
  5. Do you prefer walking or running? Why?
    Walking. I tried running for a couple of weeks a few years ago, and really didn’t like it. I have a dodgy knee, which doesn’t help. I love taking the time to enjoy the scenery (or people watching in a city). I’ve also been using a pedometer app on my phone for about a year, and when I realised how little exercise I was doing every day it really motivated me to try harder. Did you know that 10,000 steps is the recommended daily amount for a healthy lifestyle? It’s helped me to lose weight and to feel a lot healthier.
  6. What was your first paid job?
    I worked as a librarian doing cover work, which then morphed into three hours a week every Sunday for a year. My mum was a librarian, so I’d often gone there in the holidays and always enjoyed helping. It was nice to be paid for it 🙂
  7. What five famous people would you invite to a dinner party, and why?
    Stephen Fry – I could listen to him for hours.
    Terry Pratchett – I’ve read all of his books, and his documentaries about orangutans and Alzheimer’s are fascinating. I cried when I found out he’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. (On a side note, my first poster was an illustration of the Discworld)
    Dame Judi Dench – one of my favourite programmes as a child was As Time Goes Byand I always enjoy her films. She’s also a very funny woman.
    Bill Bailey – another fascinating man – he’s interested in so many things. I was lucky enough to see him perform last year, and it was brilliant.
    Douglas Adams – I’ve written before about how much he’s influenced me.
    It strikes me that these are all pretty similar people… 😉
  8. What’s the first website you check/go on each day? Why?
    Facebook. I can’t imagine having this lifestyle without the internet, and facebook has made it a lot easier to feel like I’m still part of people’s lives, even when my friends live all over the world.
  9. What can you remember about the first class you ever taught?
    I can’t remember a specific class, but the first time I was responsible for my own groups was in Malaysia, during my trip to the jungle (see fact number 1). I think the first group I had was two girls (I had three classes there – only 8 hours a week, and I was very bored in between!). I’d observed their class before teaching them, and their teacher would hit them behind the ear with his knuckle whenever they didn’t know anything. Unsurprisingly, they could never answer his questions, and they were petrified. We got into a routine of using a word monster. The final lesson I taught with that group was the first time I ever realised I’d taught someone something, and that what they’d produced was my doing. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it.
  10. Flowers or chocolates?
    I would always have said chocolates before, but over the last year or so I’ve come to prefer flowers. They last for longer, and I’ve even started buying them myself.
  11. How do you feel about reality TV shows?
    I can’t stand them. I watched the eviction shows for the second series of Big Brother because it was between Friends and Will and Grace, and meant I could join in with conversations at school the next day. That was more than enough naval-gazing for my whole life. I don’t see the point in people putting themselves in situations where they are likely to be humiliated and mocked – I think it shows the mean side of humanity.

11 questions from Adam

  1. I am aware of the phenomenon called ‘twerking’ but I don’t really know what it is. Do you? Would you explain it to me in one sentence?
    Any kind of word which spreads like this and I don’t understand frustrates me, so wikipedia is my friend here. 🙂 Twerking is sexually provocative, completely unnecessary dancing, generally designed to annoy other women.
  2. The Soviet Union still exists. Why does this make you happy / sad?
    Since I’m living in the Russian-speaking remnants of it in Ukraine, echoes of it are very much still around me. I don’t particularly feel one way or the other for it though, since I don’t feel I know enough about it. The main thing that living in Paraguay, Czech Republic and Ukraine has taught me is just how many opinions there are about oppressive regimes.
  3. What did you eat for dinner last night?
    I’m currently on a dietary regime that requires me to eat every 3 hours, and I have to have 200-300g every time. This does not combine well with teaching. So dinner was either chicken, vegetables and rice from the canteen next to school at 4pm, or Tuc biscuits, cheese and a couple of cocktail sausages at 9pm. Neither of these meals was ideal.
  4. I’m new to this planet. Tell me what a dog looks like.
    About 80cm tall, about 1m from nose to the tip of its tail. If a cat can take it in a fight, it’s not a dog.
  5. Go to YouTube and basically surf around until you find a song that you’ve never heard before. Share that song with us here.
    Katy Perry – Unconditionally
    I first really listened to her music thanks to Mark Andrews, and think her lyrics are generally pretty clever, although this one seems to have dropped the ball.
  6. The 60s or the 70s? Why?
    Neither. I was born in the mid-80s, and am pretty happy with life right now 😉
  7. Invent a word for something that doesn’t have a word to describe it. Share your word and description here.
    Ermm…no idea!
  8. Would you prefer to be that guy from Memento who wakes up and can’t remember the previous day, or that guy from Groundhog Day who wakes up to exactly the same day over and over again?
    Groundhog Day, mostly because I’m a romantic!
  9. Go to this YouTube video. Be honest, how long did you last?
    About 10 seconds. The music was already annoying me 😉
  10. What are your thoughts on becoming one of the first Mars colonists?
    That would be amazing! I’ve always loved space. My second poster (after the Discworld) was the lifecycle of a star, and one of my dreams is to see the Earth from space one day.
  11. Based on the way things are going, which language should we learn to be a good world citizen by the year 2030?
    English and Chinese, but generally you should just learn any other language to make sure you don’t have an insular view of the world. One of my favourite sayings is the Czech proverb:

Learn a new language and get a new soul.

And the nominees are…

A lot of the people I wanted to nominate have already been tagged and written their posts, so I thought I would spread this challenge to a wider community, not just EFL people. You don’t have to respond to the challenge if you don’t have time. I’d just like to find out more 🙂

  1. Lizzie Pinard
  2. Fiona Mauchline
  3. Anthony Gaughan
  4. Mike Harrison
  5. Phil Bird
  6. Chia Suan Chong
  7. Mike Griffin
  8. Ceri Jones
  9. Kevin Stein
  10. Kate Millin (my mum!)
  11. Liz Broomfield (a great proofreader and editor)

My questions to the nominees…

  1. What advice would you give to someone starting out in your profession?
  2. Are you a tidy person or a clean person, or both, or neither?
  3. How often do you go to the cinema?
  4. Do you have a favourite word (in any language)?
  5. What’s your favourite meal? Can you cook it?
  6. What’s the phrase you constantly hear yourself saying?
  7. What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?
  8. What’s your favourite method of procrastination?
  9. Do you like classical music?
  10. I don’t know much about poetry. Is there a particular poem you think I should read?
  11. And, a little bit of advertising. 🙂 What’s your favourite eltpic? (You don’t have to justify it!)

Update: answers to questions posed by Sharon Hartle

  1. Have you ever wanted to have another name?
    My name is actually Sandra, and I was called that until I was 18. I used ‘Sandy’ in my first email address, and to this day I have no idea why. When I went to Malaysia, I met the people I was going with by email first, so naturally they called me Sandy, and I found I preferred it. Now I get confused when people call me Sandra!
  2. What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you when travelling?
    Having the same conversation again and again with taxi drivers in Patagonia after I fractured my leg, sprained my ankle, and ended up on crutches for two months:
    – What happened? (I was walking down a mountain in Ushuaia and tripped over.)
    – Why are you in Patagonia? (I’m working in Paraguay and have two months off)
    – Why would anyone go to Paraguay? (Because I’d never been to South America and wanted to go somewhere unusual)
    – Do you have a Paraguayan/Chilean/Argentinian boyfriend? (No)
    – Do you want one? (No!)
    This conversation was very good for my Spanish…Sandy with a fractured leg
  3. If you could change one thing about your house, what would it be?
    I don’t have my own house or flat, so that would be the main thing I would change! One day…
  4. What is your ideal holiday?
    One where I go somewhere new, with lots of interesting things to see and do, with people I can spend hours chatting to (either who I take with me or meet there!)
    On the other hand, a week of lying about by a pool reading now seems to hold an appeal it never did a year ago…
  5. What is your favourite moment of the day?
    I love being up early in the morning before anyone else is, especially in cities. One of the best times I ever did this was on New Year’s Day 2007, when I wandered around the deserted streets of Buenos Aires at about 9a.m. – it was like a different city. Something similar happened to me in London in 2012, walking through the city for three hours on a Sunday morning, starting at 7a.m. It’s quite magical, and I really should do it more.
  6. Where do you listen to music?
    Wherever and whenever I can, although I probably listen to more podcasts. When I’m doing mindless things like cleaning or washing up, I always have music on.
  7. What is your favourite classroom activity?
    I don’t really have one favourite, more a whole bank of them.
  8. What would the five things be that you’d take with you to a desert island?
    Ermmm…too difficult!
  9. Are you a lark or an owl?
    Definitely a lark, as number 5 will attest!
  10. What is one adventure that you’re planning for 2014?
    A trip to Kiev with my best friend and her fiancé, and learning to be a CELTA tutor (I hope!)
  11. What is the one thing you know you shouldn’t do, but… you do it anyway?
    Spend hours and hours and hours on the computer 😉

(And thanks to Ceri Jones for including me in her post)

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