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

After a year that has come across as pretty negative in many ways, it seems like a good idea to focus on the positives that have been thrown in my direction. Here are some of the things I’ve enjoyed in 2016:

Reading other people’s blogs

It feels like Elly Setterfield (aka The Best Ticher) has been blogging forever, but it turns out that she only started out in March 2016. In that time, she has produced various gems, including but not limited to beginner’s guides to teaching kids, teens and beginners, a series of posts about surviving summer school, and tips on some of the non-teaching aspects of being an EFL teacher, like what (not) to pack for your first job, avoiding illness, and spending Christmas abroad. They are full of useful, easy-to-understand tips. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Elly last week. We spent nearly three hours chatting, and it could have easily been much more 🙂

Teresa Bestwick has moved back into teaching from management this year, and has chosen a different area to focus on every fortnight for her professional development. Each Fortnightly Focus is a post on her blog, and has given me lots of ideas for how I could work on my own teaching and to pass on to my colleagues. It’s definitely something I’d like to play with if and when I ever return to a classroom full-time.

It’s always worth reading Michael Griffin’s blog. His series entitled ‘Please teach them English‘ was prompted by an initial post he wrote, then continued with the help of a few guest writers. It looked at the clash between teaching English and 21st century skills from the perspective of a teacher, a language school manager and two different students in the ‘class’. As well as the fact that it was thought-provoking, I particularly enjoyed the unusual form, as it was written as a series of emails and diary entries.

Laughing at YouTube

I’d never really watched that many videos on YouTube, but this year that changed. When I’m looking for five minutes of laughter, I find myself heading over to watch clips of James Corden and co., listen to interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch or relive old Kermodian rants. Here are a few of my favourites:

Attending conferences

Two conferences particularly stood out for me this year.

IATEFL is always the highlight of my year, and this one was especially good for me because it was in Birmingham, just 20 minutes away from where I grew up. As well as learning a lot (as always!), I got to relive memories of my childhood and share them with my friends. Here’s a video made by the organisers that gives a taste of the 50th anniversary conference:

TWIST 2016 was organised by the LangLTC school in Warsaw in November. It was probably the most representative conference I’ve ever been to, with what I considered to be an appropriate balance of male/female, native/non-native, theory/practical across their programme. It was also great to be able to introduce some of my colleagues to teaching conferences for the first time.

Going to the cinema

For the past couple of years I’ve had an unlimited card from my local cinema, which has enabled me to see a whole range of things. Particular highlights were:

  • Arrival

  • Zootopia (though I’d like to see it again in English!)

  • Deadpool (which also allowed me to Vancouver-spot!)

Learning

This year I’ve been able to make massive strides in my Polish, progressing to what I would guess is around low B1 level. A couple of months ago I decided to return to Mandarin as well, largely thanks to memrise. Having a few other people who are using the site and seeing their points each week is motivating me to do more – clearly I’m a sucker for some aspects of game-based learning!

2016 has also been the year when I’ve finally started to get a handle on task-based learning, something I’ve always wanted to find out more about but never really had time to. I dived into the world of MOOCs, and the Coursera one about TBL and reading started me off with really investigating TBL. I’m now reading Doing Task-Based Teaching [affiliate link] by Dave and Jane Willis to deepen my understanding, and am hoping to experiment with some of what I’ve learnt once I’m back in the classroom.

Working abroad

I’ve been lucky enough to take my first trips to Italy and Kazakhstan this year, both helped along thanks to people I’ve previously met (thanks Marcus, Julie and Iryna!) This enabled me to experience the beauty of Italy…

View from the Duomo terraces

View from the Duomo terraces, Milan

Varenna

Varenna on Lake Como

Bergamo from San Vigilio

Bergamo from San Vigilio

Venice - gondola and coloured entrance

Venice – gondola and coloured entrance

Verona - view from Castel San Pietro

Verona – view from Castel San Pietro

…and the warmth of the hospitality of Kazakhstan.

Aktobe collage - top left = blackboard with Sandy's name and dates of her visit, top right = teachers using Quizlet Live, bottom left = teapot and bowls, plus food, bottom right = Sheraton hotel and sculpture

Hopefully it won’t be the last time I go to either place!

At home

Exploring Poland has also led me to further appreciate how under-appreciated it is. A few days in Gdansk and Sopot with my friend showed me some of its beauty:

Gdansk town hall

Sopot

Even closer to home, it’s been a pretty momentous year for me as I became the owner of my very own flat, something which I wasn’t sure would ever happen. Now I finally have somewhere to put all of those ‘things for my future house’ I’ve been collecting on my travels…I just have to get them over to Poland from the UK!

But probably the biggest joy is watching my cousin and friends whose families are expanding. It may sometimes feel like my facebook stream is full of babies and small children, but quite frankly that’s infinitely preferable to some of the negativity that it’s been filled with at certain points in the year (and yes, I have been guilty of adding to this). When you see the pride and joy of a new parent, and the happiness of a child exploring and experiencing the freshness of the world, it’s hard to stay negative for long. The Internet can be a wonderful place.

So that’s my New Year’s Resolution: focus on the positives in life, and notice myself enjoying them. When it all gets a bit too much, move away, and come back to a post like this to remind myself of all of the things in life that are there to enjoy. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you who read this blog, and thank you for your support!

Happy birthday IHJ!

The IH Journal has turned 20 this month, and to celebrate Dominique Vouillemin has edited a special edition of the journal pulling together the traditional columns and a selection of anniversary treats. His editorial gives you a taster of what’s available. The full edition is available for you to read online or download. My own contribution to the journal is called ‘Travelling back through our profession’, and was inspired by Chia Suan Chong and the TEFLology podcast. It’s on pages 36-37 of the journal, or is on the site.

ih-journal-20th-anniversary-cover

Here’s to the next 20 years!

500 (+1)

About two weeks ago I shared something without realising it was the 500th post to appear on this blog. Wow! That’s quite a scary thought.

Thank you to everyone who’s supported me throughout, to the people who’ve offered me advice on how to improve my blog, pointed out my typos, shaped my teaching ideas, shared and commented on my posts, and to those of you who are reading all of this stuff that I write. I find it constantly amazing and humbling to know that so many people have spent time visiting and using my blog. It started out as a way of building up a professional presence online (that seems to have worked!) and of sharing some of my assignments from my IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology. It’s developed into a place to share activities, offer advice (hmmm…), and appreciate my luck in being part of this career and this community. Although I haven’t managed to write as many posts over the last year, I’ve still got a lot of ideas, and I keep hoping I’ll be able to put more of them out there.

Here are a few stats for you:

  • 500 posts
  • 350 views/220 visitors so far today
  • 825,948 all-time views
  • 440,570 all-time (or at least since they started counting) visitors
  • 11,180 views on 1st May 2014, my best views ever in a single day (on a post I didn’t even write!)
  • 31 comments by Rachel Daw, my number 1 commenter!
  • 1,493 subscribed followers/606 WordPress followers (no idea how much of that crosses over…)
  • Useful links for CELTA: my most popular post this year (ever?)
  • And the one I find the most breathtaking: countries people have visited from in 2016 (white means no visitors from there so far):

sandy-millin-blog-world-map-of-visitors-2016

Thank you so much to everyone who has made this possible!

A lesson plan

Elly Setterfield has just written a very useful guide for beginner teachers with tips on how to plan on a daily basis. At the end she asked what her readers’ plans looked like. Here’s one of mine from last year, as I was working out a new style:

an-example-of-my-highlighted-plans-sandy

My planning has gone through many iterations, but I’ve now been using this style for over a year. I always use scrap paper, and put it straight into my box ready to go to the classroom as soon as it’s done. I rarely have time to plan in advance nowadays, and occasionally have no time to plan at all. As Elly recommended, you’ll see that:

  • I plan by hand
  • I highlight key things: pink is for things I tend to forget, yellow is for language checking/clarification (though I added that after this plan), green is for answers, and blue is for reminders to offer and give points in YL/teen classes
  • I underline in red any materials I’ll need, so I can do a quick check before the lesson to make sure I have everything. I normally write the plan first and produce my materials afterwards.
  • There is a note of approximate timing for each activity, plus a running total for the lesson. This almost never happens in the lesson, even when I add lots of extra time. I normally only skip one or two activities though, which is a lot better than it used to be!
  • It’s not necessarily clear to anyone else, though sometimes I add more detail if I know it’ll be the basis for somebody else’s plan later – we work with a lot of teachers who are fresh off CELTA.
  • There are various abbreviations on there, and I haven’t written out everything for exercises I use all the time.
  • It takes me about an hour to plan each lesson, give or take.

Previous versions of my plans included typing them up in my post-CELTA over-enthusiastic phase, often in way too much detail, and right at the other end of the scale, scrappy bits of paper with four or five words written on them, in my post-Delta I don’t have the energy for this phase 🙂 I feel like I’ve now arrived at a happy medium.

So what do your plans look like?

Simplified articles chart

Once upon a time, I created many different versions of charts to help students work out whether they needed articles or not. Some of them were very complicated because I tried to include way too much information in them. Then I went to the other extreme. Now I think I’ve found a happy medium:

Articles chart

Here’s the Powerpoint version for you to download.

The 90% figure in the box is obviously a complete guess. I’ve found that most article choices can be covered by the chart, though occasionally you have to be a bit creative about it! The box gives students a set of fixed phrases which they can learn to start them off with the exceptions that aren’t covered.

‘Normal noun’ is something like ‘republic’ or ‘kingdom’. This covers the use of phrases like ‘the Czech Republic’, ‘the United Kingdom’, and also ‘the University of Durham’, but not ‘Durham University’. By the way, does anyone know why the latter two uses operate differently when it comes to articles?

Countable > plural > specific covers ‘plural’ countries like ‘the United States’, but also groups of islands like ‘the Maldives’ or ‘the Canary Islands’.

Uncountable > specific covers deserts like ‘the Sahara’ and bodies of water which aren’t lakes, like ‘the Atlantic’, ‘the Sargasso Sea’. Lakes are an exception as they don’t normally take an article: ‘Lake Tahoe’, ‘Windermere’.

Hopefully this will be my final version of this, although I know I’ve definitely said that before…

On immersion

For the past six weeks or so I have been sharing a flat with a couple who only speak a few words of English and German. When I moved in my Polish was probably hovering around A2, having received a boost over the summer from my reading, writing and use of a grammar book. I was still quite hesitant about speaking, and had only really started to build my confidence during a weekend away organised by my flamenco teacher, again with a few people who didn’t speak any English but who still wanted to communicate with me. Both the people on the flamenco weekend and the couple I was living with were great interlocutors for me, patient, happy to rephrase and repeat themselves as much as necessary, and supporting me in trying to communicate my ideas. The woman I lived with was also very good at correcting me consistently which had a massive impact on my grammar.

One of two kittens entertaining us when we weren't dancing flamenco :)

One of two kittens entertaining us when we weren’t dancing flamenco 🙂

Six weeks on, it’s like I’m a different person. I feel like my Polish is probably now into B1. I can speak about most everyday things, my accuracy has improved in quite a few areas, and my confidence is at similar levels to my much stronger languages. I’m not normally shy about pushing myself to speak, which is why the last year has been so strange for me as I was very reluctant to speak Polish if I didn’t have to. I felt like I didn’t really know what language I was speaking in, and it was a real mix of Polish, Czech and Russian. I’m very glad to be past that point, and feel like I’m now in a very good place to continue improving.

On reflection, I’m also wondering whether having such a long (almost) silent period has also helped me to speak more fluently and more confidently at this point than at the same point with other languages. A year of building my vocabulary and listening to and reading whatever I could has certainly helped me improve my understanding, and I feel it’s also made me more accurate when I finally did speak, although I’m sure Czech and Russian probably also had something to do with it.

This is the most conscious I’ve ever been of my speaking progress, as I’ve either already been at least B2 when I’ve been immersed in a language, or I haven’t been in a complete immersion situation for more than a couple of hours at a time. Six weeks of having to speak Polish most mornings and evenings for at least a few minutes meant I had no choice but to communicate. Talking about things which were relevant to me and trying to explain things which had happened during a very eventful few weeks, sometimes with Mr. Google’s help, extended my language and provided a huge amount of motivation.

I know that it’s theoretically possible to create similar situations through the use of Skype conversation partners for example, but I’ve never had the motivation to do it before, confident that I’d eventually learn as much as I needed to through constantly plugging away at the language. After this experience of immersion, I think I might try harder to recreate it with the next language I want to study (not sure what yet!)

I’ve only had two or three Polish lessons, and I’m wondering just how much and how accurately I can learn without having any, even though I know I definitely want some at some point as I need correction. Watch this space…

Travelling back in time

Having recently recorded a lesson, I thought it would be interesting, if excruciating, to go back and re-watch myself teaching from mid-Delta. You can watch too if you want to join in the fun 😉

These are my impressions:

  • I’ve lost a lot of weight, and I’m so much happier and healthier for it! (Yep, that’s the first thing that struck me!)
  • My lessons flow much more now, with better pacing. There’s a dramatic reduction in the amount of time I spend at the board/doing open-class work.
  • I’m more confident when dealing with language now. Much less looking at a piece of paper to check things.
  • My God I was talking slowly! Although that may reflect the level of the students – I can’t remember if it was intermediate or upper intermediate, but I think I could have spoken at a more natural speed.
  • Everything was at the board here and open class. I’d be much less likely to do that now, unless I’m mopping up. I also appear to be telling the students lots of things, rather than checking if they already know it by getting them to discuss it in pairs.
  • My board work was already fairly well-organised, and I was using different colours to differentiate information. I can’t remember what happened in the rest of the lesson, but it looks like I’ve written everything on the board. That must have taken quite some time – time when I wasn’t paying attention to the students…
  • There wasn’t much thinking time for the students after some of my questions. The language appears to be appropriately graded.
  • The staging of the questions appears to be logical and the questions are all clear.

I wrote the above list while watching the video saved on my computer. I’ve just found the original blog post, and noticed some of my opinions/beliefs have changed too. For example “I think I was speaking at a manageable speed, using appropriate language, with some repetition, as you would get in normal language. I do speak faster to these students at times, but I feel in a grammar lesson it’s better to take your time.” which is not what I thought when watching it this time, especially when I realised they were upper intermediate!

Sandy at the board clarifying borrow and lend from a 2013 lesson

I also realised there’s actually another post about an intermediate class, this time with two videos. Here’s what I thought on watching those:

  • My instructions were fine, not as bad as I remembered, but not as good as they could have been. Some chesting of the handout, some instruction checking, instructions before handouts… I think the main problem with them seems to have been a lack of demos/examples.
  • The first time I was drilling without visuals, so students were saying, not reading. This is good! I also made everybody join in. Later in the lesson they were reading from the board though – no memorisation here. There were some supporting gestures and a bit of connected speech (‘to’/’from’) too, plus one example of drilling from phonemes. Now I suspect I’d put structures like “lend sth to sb” into a ‘real’ sentence, like “He lent the pen to her.”
  • I reminded students that “There’s never idle time in classes. That’s your remembering time.” Didn’t realise I was already doing that before – I thought that was a relatively new thing. There are also other bits of learner training: highlight the things you had problems with, use two colours to copy information and a reminder to use Quizlet, which was obviously a routine with this group as I didn’t have to tell them any more about it. I also must have used Edmodo with them, which I’m out of the habit of using with my students now (just some of my trainees).
  • Clear board work again 🙂
  • There was an opportunity for some dictionary work with the prepositions and the money words potentially.
  • I emphasised that the preposition should be learnt with the word: a bit of lexical chunking (though prompted by the book, and not sure I realised I was doing it)
  • Giving students the opportunity to work out the language themselves, although again in open class. Now I’d get students to discuss it in pairs first, then feedback in open class.
  • The borrow/lend focus included students’ names, making it a tiny bit more personal.
  • I made sure I had their attention during the clarification, and gave them separate writing time afterwards.
  • Wait time was better in this clarification than in the first video.
  • Nice bit of comparative linguistics about ‘borrow’ and ‘lend’ 🙂

So it turns out another benefit to recording yourself – you can come back to it later and see how much you’ve improved/developed/changed, just as you might by recording a student and saving it for the end of the year 🙂 Oh, and it wasn’t quite as excruciating as I thought it might be!

A few days ago my students agreed to let me record their lesson. Thanks very much to Mike for doing the honours! Unfortunately we didn’t get the whole lesson, because the camera ran out of space, but 50 minutes was plenty. I was working with a group of upper intermediate students from English File Upper Intermediate 3rd edition, and this was my tenth lesson with them.

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

The last time I watched myself was during the Delta, about four years ago. You can see the videos here. I enjoyed the experience much more this time round, partly because I have a great group of students, and partly because I can see just how much I’ve progressed.

My instructions are now almost always clear and concise, and I’m much better at waiting for students to listen to me. I indicate changes in pairs or groupings and wait for students to move before the rest of my instructions, show the materials as I speak, and check instructions so the whole set-up is much more efficient. Monitoring is more consistent, for understanding of the task, task completion and language. I’ve recently started using the board more consistently for emergent language, and am developing the information I include there. I was pleased that I gave students time to write down this language as I don’t always remember it.

There is still the occasional lack of wait time for students to answer my question, I should have introduced the phonemic chart before students looked at the sounds on the board, and I need to incorporate more of the language that I write in my notebook into future lessons, though at least I’m normally getting it into the lesson which I write it down in. In fact, it’s important to get a lot more recycling and revision into all of my lessons.

The part of the lesson which wasn’t recorded consisted of finishing the pronunciation practice, including differentiating between /u:/ and /ʊ/, which the group particularly struggled with, and then giving them some speaking practice about clothes and fashion. For the first time in a while they had a chunk of time to do this, which was long enough for me to conduct a speaking assessment, one of the regular assessments we do. It also gave them freer practice, something which I often struggle to get to, and am trying to work on at the moment.

All in all, I think this was probably my most successful lesson with this group, mostly because for the first time this year I didn’t try to cram too much in. The students were engaged throughout, and I believe we only focussed on the language that caused them problems after we’d completed the initial test.

On leadership and teamwork

Zhenya has just posted her answers to the 11 questions challenge (Thanks! See mine here and here) and posed some of her own, including three which I’d like to respond to here.

Have you ever tried to lead a team of people? If yes, what are your impressions and learning? If no, would you like to (one day)?

I’ve now been working as a Director of Studies for two years in two very different schools. The first was small, with only a handful of part-time teachers and one other full-time teacher (the school Director) besides me. Most of the time I was teaching full-time as well as being the DoS. The second has about 20 teachers, including me, and I only teach for a couple of hours a week. I work in close collaboration with two ADoSes and the school Director.

I had an excellent induction, but have also learnt an incredible amount on the job, not least in the last two weeks. It has not just taught me about what it takes to manage a language school, but also about working with a team of diverse personalities, and about my own personality. It has shown me how I and my team respond to a crisis (or five!), how everybody’s personalities and characters can complement each other to complete a team and also how sometimes there are things I just don’t or can’t notice which I need other people to be willing to share with me.

It’s not an easy job, but it’s not impossible either, and the challenges it throws at me keep me interested and invigorated, if a little tired at times 😉

When do you think someone is ready to be a leader of a team?

Not long after becoming a full-time DoS, I wrote some advice for people considering moving into management. It includes a series of questions you can use to help you decide whether you are ready to be a manager.

For me, it’s important for a leader to have experience of being part of a team or environment similar to the one they are managing in. That way they are much more likely to be able to empathise with their team. If they are ready to learn what it takes to be an effective leader, then they are probably ready to become a leader. If they think they know it all already, then I would probably steer clear!

What’s your best tip on working with people?

Communicate.

And remember that part of communicating is listening.

Listening attentively

Without good channels of communication, it’s impossible to work effectively with people. There will always be rumours, backbiting and negative comments if people don’t understand what is going on and why.

You also need to be willing to listen when members of your team have something they want to tell you, whether it’s positive or negative (and let’s face it, it’s usually negative). Don’t get defensive or be accusatory – let them talk, and find out what they need from you. Sometimes it’s just to let off steam. Sometimes they don’t know what they need, and you need to help them work towards finding out.

Another part of communication is about being open to the world around you. By learning more, you will be able to connect more easily and effectively with more people, which will hopefully benefit both you and them. By being open, team members are also more likely to be willing to share those things with you which you can’t see, as I mentioned above.

How would you answer Zhenya’s questions?

This week I have taught:

  • 3 hours with my new upper intermediate adult class (who are actually mostly older teens);
  • 3 hours of cover with a low A1 kids’ group;
  • 2 hours with a 121 who I’ve been working with over the summer;
  • 3 hours of cover repeating the same lesson with two different high A1 adult groups.

This is easily the most teaching I’ve done in a single week for over two years, since I started out as a CELTA tutor and then a DoS. It’s also probably the largest number of students I’ve had contact with in a week since I finished my Delta. While it’s been pretty tiring on top of my DoS responsibilities, it’s also been very invigorating, and has helped me to realise a few things about how my teaching has developed over the last couple of years of self-reflection and training others.

I never used to enjoy teaching kid’s classes. Despite knowing the theory of how to approach them, I could never put it into practice. I’ve now spent a year working in an environment where there is a lot of training for teaching kids and teens, with teachers who are great examples to learn from, as well as tried and tested routines and discipline systems which are used across the school. I was also the local tutor for a teacher doing the IHCYLT for teaching young learners and teens. This was useful revision, as it’s six years since I finished mine. I discovered that I now really enjoy these lessons 🙂 It’s been a long time coming! Having the security of routines wasn’t just good for the kids: it also meant that I knew what to do at any given time in the lesson, especially for the all-important beginning and end of the lesson. It probably helped that it was a relatively small group, but I felt in control throughout the lesson, and felt that my plan was right for the level and interests of the kids. This is a huge step forward for me, and I’m even considering timetabling myself for a kids’ class next academic year, something I was very reluctant to do before (!)

Another area where I’ve noticed a massive improvement is my activity set-up and instructions. This is particularly important for lower levels, and between the four lessons I taught with them last week, I only had one activity where the students didn’t understand what I wanted them to do. This was entirely my fault, as I knew it would be a potentially complicated activity, and I hadn’t thought through the instructions carefully enough, but I managed to rescue the situation pretty quickly through a demonstration, which is what I should have done to start off with. Although I still forget them sometimes, demos have now become much more natural for me, and have led to a massive decrease in the amount of time I spend setting up activities and solving problems when the students don’t understand what to do.

With the upper intermediate group, I also set up a series of routines right from the first lesson. One of these is journal writing, and another is extensive reading, something which I already knew was useful, but now understand more of the theory behind thanks to the Coursera course I’ve just completed.

My 121 student showed me that my language awareness is now pretty comprehensive, as I was able to deal with pretty much any language question she threw at me without having to look it up. When I did need to use a reference tool, I was able to confidently access a corpus, something which I had no idea how to do a couple of years ago. I also managed to explain some of the fundamentals of grammar based on what Lewis says in The English Verb [affiliate link] using this diagram, something which I’d like to develop more in the future – this one was created on the spur of the moment!

Rough diagram based on Michael Lewis's The English Verb

The way that my own teaching has come on makes me feel much more confident about supporting all of the teachers I’m working with. We’ve got another exciting year ahead at IH Bydgoszcz, and another great team. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us.

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