Archive | May, 2012

Can you have a normal life and work in ELT?

29 May

objects in the rear view mirror may be more serious than they appear

The car races along the road at 90mph / 145kmph, overtaking slower moving vehicles by forcing them to the side and even causing white vans to leap aside in panic.   As it roars through the outskirts of the town, a police car takes up the chase and eventually pulls the maverick motorist to a stop.  The officer walks slowly towards the vehicle, wondering what on earth could have provkoed such driving behaviour?  A medical emergency?  An imminent birth?

The window rolls down and the officer asks for the documents.

“I’m sorry officer,” comes the reply, “but I’m an English teacher and somebody needs lessons in a hurry.”

“Well, that’s alright then, Sir.  Can I give you an official escort to the school premises?”


It would never happen, which is a shame really because we all sleep in occasionally or something overruns and there are moments when the ability to flout the legal speed limit would be quite handy.  But I can think of absolutely no situation within my own teaching experience, that could possibly be classified as “an emergency”.  Problems – yes.  Plenty of those, frequently hanging around together waiting to mug you when you’re not expecting it.  But an emergency?

Teachers are not doctors, no-one is going to die if they don’t get taught the second conditional.  The fate of nations does not hang on whether extreme adjectives are taught with the right sort of intensifying adverbs.  We are teachers.  We turn up, help our classes get where they’re going for that particular lesson and move on.


Isn’t that how it works?

So why is our time not our own?

Scott Thornbury, in his recent talk at the APPI conference, talked about the reasons why many teachers enter the profession in the first place and at what point the dream begins to fade.  It’s usually, he suggested, when you have a day similar to the one Mike Harrison describes in his blog.  Mike talks about a working day that runs from 9.30am to 8.30pm at night.  Oh, and you get half an hour for lunch.  Sound familiar?  Mike’s situation seems to be a “typical working day” – I’d be interested to know what his contract states about the hours he’s expected to work because contracts don’t always tell the full story.  I’ve had contracts which only specified the number of teaching hours I was expected to fulfil per week – but the expectations of the school were that I be at work for a set period of time per day and made no mention of the extra-curricular activities the school expected me to take part in.

This for me, is where the ELT industry tries to have its cake and eat it.  The expectations stakeholders have of teachers frequently exceed the job description.  Can I, for example, be requested to teach a new class at short notice (be it a cover class or a new contract) which doesn’t fit into my existing schedule?  (Say that I usually teach a full schedule in the afternoons and evenings and this new class is at 8.30am?)  If the parents of a failing child want me to help their child with extra homework or even extra tutorials – am I obliged to do so?  The answer of course is “yes”.  I am obliged to do all of these things and of course as a consummate professional I do them with a spring in my step and a smile in my heart.  (most of the time…)

But I can’t help feeling that working in the ELT industry seems to be diametrically opposed to the concept of “a normal life”.  I don’t just mean the late evening classes – I mean the expectation that we are always available to do whatever is required of us, whenever it is required.

In his 2004 Daily Telegraph article, Sebastian Creswell-Turner puts it like this:  “OK, you pathetic bums, this is the score. I’m not promising to give you any work at all, and if I do give you the odd hour here and there, you’ll be paid peanuts . . . but, all the same, I want you to be fully available for anything and everything. Plus, you’re all going to pretend that you are immensely privileged to be doing this grotty little job. Geddit?”

Again, there are probably chords being struck around the world with that one, though I’ve always been fortunate enough to work for a decent enough salary wherever I’ve been – perhaps I’ve just been lucky in my choice of employers.  Truth be told, that quote from Sebastian is the only part of his article that resonated.  The rest of it is a fairly jaundiced and stereotypical view of ELT, and fortunately Luke Medding’s eloquent rebuttal in The Guardian deals with most of the serious objections so I don’t have to.  Though I note with interest the bit in Sebastian’s article where he appears to have been turned down for place on a CELTA course by International House London…

Whether an accurate portrayal of ELT or not, and I certainly don’t see myself in Creswell-Turner’s descriptions, what he says does give me pause for thought.  The situation he portrays is not one I face particularly at the moment, but it is one that exists and perhaps even prevails in ELT.  This should not be so.

So why does it exist?  Possibly because there is an unwritten nobility of purpose that pervades the teaching world.  We don’t teach, it is argued, because we want to be rich – we do it because we care.  We do not exist in the realm of material things, we serve an ethereal higher purpose.  We are the ones who meld the minds of the future generations, we challenge and shape opinions, guide our charges to critical thinking, we help our students become more than the sum of their parts.  This view of teaching holds that what we do is a vocation, it is a noble calling and as such there are sacrifices to be made in its pursuit, the rewards of teaching are not pecuniary, they are to be found in what Maslow termed “self actualization” and “transcendence”.  We need to grow as individuals, achieve our full potential and to help others do the same.

As justifications and self-deceptions go, it’s quite a good one.  And I don’t deny that these aspects of the job are rewarding, my point is only that these things are not enough of a justification for the industry as a whole to treat us as less than human beings.  The obvious question simply being – why can’t we have both?

I can cope with the late nights, the extra work, the marking,  the reports, meeting the parents, writing up the lesson records, the required teacher development seminars, the staff meetings, the observations and the cover classes.  I can cope with all of these things because these things are the job that I have chosen to do – but can I please have a normal life as well?  Or am I, like the rest of the industry, trying to have my cake and eat it too?

UPDATE (13 / 06 / 2012):  If you enjoyed this post, or if it struck a chord with you, why not take a moment to complete “A Brief Survey of Working Conditions in ELT“?  The aim is to try and take a snapshot of the situation in ELT at the moment – what are the problems we have in our jobs?

Take a look and add your voice to the discussion!


From #CLIL to CSI?

23 May

I was quite impressed to spot, as a student in my class took an interminable amount of time to remove a pencil from her bag, that the science book she’s currently using was called “CSI“.  An inspired piece of textbook titling, though I do wonder whether they should have used a slightly different font…

Anyway, also leading on from Dave Cosby’s latest post, there are a few science based web resources I’ve been meaning to share, but haven’t quite got round to yet.

What you might do with them in an EFL context, I leave up to you!

An Illustrated Visualisation of what can happen in a single second:  a Maria Popova “Brain Pickings” post that reviews and contains illustrated excerpts from Steve Jenkins’ book “Just a Second”.

Leading on from what can happen in a single second, to “How far is a single second?” – from the MinutePhysics You Tube Channel.  Some great RSA Animate style illustrated examples of aspects and issues within physics (and by extension the world).  Somewhat fast paced and maybe not quite suitable for the lower level learner…



Here’s a BBC infographic on the history of cloning, another recent BBC article of note looks at colour perceptions and tries to work out why it might actually be imnpossible to agree what colour to paint the spare room…

If infographics are your thing, then take a look at the Nik Peachey curated “Pinterest” on Infographics.

But finally…  two truly jaw dropping tools that are really the reasons for this post, both of which try to put a bit of perspective on humanity’s place in the universe:

ChronoZoom looks at the scale of time involved in the history of the universe – you can zoom in and out from the earliest known events to present day, or at least events from the modern human era.  It’s a fantastic tool – if you can actually find the modern human era, it’s a bit small in comparison!  (It’s easier to find if you navigate via the “threshold” markers in the scale across the top).

Size, physical size in this case, is what is compared at “The Scale of the Universe“.  Your starting point is humanity and using your mouse or trackpad, you can zoom in to the see the smaller stuff – or out to see the larger stuff.  Click on any image you see to get more information about it.


Two late additions to this post:

Larry Ferlazzo has just posted about “Pearls of the Planet” live webcams – these are webcams that are set up in various locations around the world, some wild places and some zoos, aquariums etc, where you and your classes can watch live streams of polar bears, pandas and the northern lights.

Richard Byrne has also just posted about Learners TV – a vast collection of video lectures on a wide range of subjects from psychology to dentistry to accounting from what appears to be a range of Universities and colleges, mostly from the USA.  Well worth checking out for your ESP students.

Guest Post: Math in German, History in French

21 May

In his latest guest post on this blog, Dave Cosby thinks about variety being the spice of life and wonders whether taking a CLIL approach to language teaching might not be more motivating for all concerned.  After all, what’s the worst that can happen when you learn

Math in German, History in French

A dozen or so years ago my brother lived and worked Barcelona as a teacher. It was at an international school and they catered for the children of globe-trotting business people, diplomats and the like from all the corners of Europe. My brother is annoyingly polyglotal, and can rattle away in Castillian Spanish, Catalan, French and Italian, as well as his native English. He says he muddles by in German but to my untutored ear he sounds like Angela Merkel herself (well, she does have a fairly deep voice and my brother’s is high-pitched so they meet somewhere in the middle). The school had an interesting policy whereby language learning was simply a by-product of the students’ regular schooling in other subjects. So history this term would be taught in Italian, next term in French; Maths this term in English, the next in German. My brother said it used to tie his head in knots and was exhausting for him, let alone the students, and the amount of preparation time for classes drove him to distraction. That said… it worked.

A cross-curricular approach to English teaching is currently en vogue, and such an approach is something I think I approve of. Students get that they have to learn this infernal language of ours, but where’s the motivation beyond, say, intermediate level. After all with the basic tenses stashed away and a half decent vocabulary they can muddle by in most situations. I find that some often don’t see the need to go beyond this, to climb off that intermediate plateau as the learning curve again starts to steepen as phrasal verbs and idiomatic language really come into play, and the list of words the student needs to acquire stretches seemingly infinitesimally into the distance. The sheer vastness of the English language can be a demotivator all by itself. But by learning something else, by learning another topic, and using English simply as the medium picking up words as you go and when and as you need them just as native speakers do, the need and use of the extra effort is clear.

An IELTS student of mine paid me a compliment the other day, or perhaps paid a compliment to the authors of those exams in Cambridge perhaps. We were reading an exercise about the invention of the long-case pendulum carriage clock, a subject incidentally that bored me rigid. She, however, said that she enjoyed my classes not simply for their own sake but because she had the opportunity to learn about subjects she might otherwise never encounter. I paraphrase of course. Had she used similar phrasing to mine she might as well sit the exam tomorrow, get a ‘9’ and sack me as her teacher, services no longer required. And it also goes to show you never can quite predict what subjects students might find interesting. The exams always seems to talk about such ‘safe’ subjects and I suppose it must be tricky to find texts which can go all around the world and not offend the sensibilities of one group or another and so must therefore be quite innocuous but still need to retain a modicum of interest. I imagine the authors of airline magazines have a similar dilemma.

To broaden my students’ vocabulary as much as possible I use as wide a variety of articles on different subjects as I can but unlike the exam boards or airlines I can add a bit of spice by picking subjects about which people are bound to disagree. I tend to avoid religion and football teams as class discussions can get just a little too heated; students in classes with just one L1 tend to switch over to it when they really get emotional, all the better to make their point clear, just as my Italian wife switches to her local dialect when I forget to take the rubbish downstairs, or leave my leave a beer glass on the floor or… oh, you get the idea. At this juncture I need to reign the class back in as the point of the exercise has been defeated, but a bit of practice is all that’s needed by the teacher to get the balance right. You often find that the class itself is in complete agreement; in such cases you need to play devil’s advocate. They will enjoy ganging up on you to knock down your arguments.

I am sure that you will have your favourite source for articles. I get mine online, all the better to cut and paste them, and use the Economist magazine a lot as I teacher higher levels. For leading language and real tabloid zing though I don’t think the Daily Mail can be beaten. There are always stories about neighbours warring over this slight or that insult or with boundary disputes or planning concerns. It’s fantastically parochial and good grist to the mill.

By mixing up the topics you discuss, read about and write essays and articles on you’ll find yourself less bored too. The exercise books we all use as teachers are really handy, and can act as a great spine to a course, but rely on them alone and both you and your students will be bored stiff in no time, you especially so, as you will have read the same text umpteen times before. A nice by-product of all this reading is a pretty good general knowledge, always handy in a pub-quiz.

Don’t forget to chase down tricky grammar when you come across it, and rather than preteach those troublesome words it might be better to see if students can divine meaning from context, though of course do concept check. Gist reading is one of those skills where there’s no such thing as too much practice. It’s also really useful to ensure that students keep a record of the useful vocab that has come up, along with a translation in L1. I know, I know, this is all stuff any half decent teacher does in their sleep, but it’s always worth bearing in mind so please forgive my reminder.

Incidentally, it’s often quite revealing to have a look at students’ translations. You’ve just given them five of six English synonyms, with different implications and grades of meaning and you lean over and read what they have translated each to, only to find that they have used the same word each time. Such are the pitfalls of translation, and its problems regarding the strength and depth of the English tongue. Now, as I have the afternoon free, I am off to learn about car maintenance… in  Portuguese.

Dave Cosby is a teacher of more years experience than he cares to remember and has worked in a variety of countries around the world, in a variety of roles from teacher to Director of Studies to language school chain troubleshooter.  Currently he’s based in Coimbra, Portugal.  You can find more posts by Dave in the Guest Posts section.

One for the Etymology geeks

19 May

There’s an interesting post on “Visualising English Word Origins” from Ideas Illustrated, which colour codes words according to their origins and then uses this process to analyse texts.

If you scroll down through the comments section, you’ll find links to sites where you can run a similar process  to the one the author describes on your own texts.  This was originally spotted via the Johnson Blog at The Economist.

In a similar vein, the Voxy infographic below takes a quick look at where English gets some of its constituent parts – thanks to @yya2 on twitter for spotting that.

#BBC Podcast – The Trouble with Moody Teens

16 May

There was an excellent podcast on the BBC – Podcasts – Documentary of the Week page recently.  Sadly, BBC policy is only to host these documentaries for a seven day period, which has no expired, so unless you know someone with a bootleg copy, you’re probably out of luck.

Which is a shame, because I think this is one of those programs that anyone who has a day to day professional or parental involvement with teenagers should be forced to listen to.  It looked at depression and mental health issues amongst teenagers, which is often dismissed by parents and other adults as just being a “moody teen”.

I don’t think the audience is just limited to parents, though parents will take a lot away from this, I think anyone who teaches teenagers should also definitely listen to this – it offers some startling insights and some first hand accounts as well as talking about measures and support networks that are in place in the UK to help.

One of the references in the program was to NICE (National Institute for health and Clinical Excellence), a UK body, and their guidelines for dealing with depression in children and young people.  You can find their web page here:  Depression in children and young people: Identification and management in primary, community and secondary care.

Another resource I came across is  This appears to be a Canadian based organisation, but it contains links and resources aimed more at families, the teens themselves and educators, and may be a source of more accessible assistance than the NICE guidelines.


#APPI 2012: Using Poetry in the EFL Classroom

14 May

Huge apologies to everyone who came to my session at the APPI conference on 29th April – this post contains the material and links I promised you that Sunday morning.  In hindsight, I probably should have posted it up there beforehand – lesson learned!

In any event, below you should find the prezi I used in the session along with a transcript of the talk I gave.  Any problems, please let me know via the comments section below!

The APPI talk was based on a seminar originally delivered at International House Coimbra, back in September 2011, which also gave rise to a short you tube version of the presentation, which I blogged about as “A Short talk on using poetry“.  That post also contains further links to a range of additional online resources for using poetry with your classes.