Trainer Conversation with Annie Polatsek

This is the third post in the Trainer Conversation series. You can read the Introductory Post here, and learn more about Andriy (Ukraine) and Samira (Morocco).

Drafting an introduction of how Annie and I got to know each other, I realized we met in person only once and very briefly. It was in Daegu, South Korea, for a trainer meetup in 2011. She was working on a ‘Best Practices in TESOL’ course in Daejeon that summer.

As it often happens with SIT TESOL trainers, we don’t get to see each other very often, but our paths still cross: we sometimes throw a question in the group chat and ‘crowdsource’ teaching wisdom, or facilitate an online course in the same term. We are always searching for chances to talk about our training beliefs and practices.

2020 with its ‘unusual calendar’ helped the two of us to actually meet online and get to know each other a little more. We talked about training projects and the time in-between, when we get inspired to create something new. This post is a result of those conversations.

As usual, Zhenya’s Questions below will be marked as ‘Zh’, and Annie’s Answers will be ‘A’, so will go from ‘Z to A’ this time. At the end of the post you can read Annie’s bio]

Zh: So… where are you based now?

A: I’m on an island in Croatia. This has been my base for over 15 years.

Annie’s bicycle on Hvar.

Zh: (about the picture) Such a view! Reminds me of the trip to Montenegro in 2019… Why do you like teaching?

A: Because I am fascinated by learning. Every brain takes in and processes information slightly differently and I like to watch that in action. The dynamics of a group is also intriguing to me. Plus I’m an information sponge, so when I teach I am always learning and that has strong appeal. I have to admit that I also got into teaching because it was a means for me to be a traveler with a skill that would transcend borders, giving me chances to expand my mind and share cultural components with others.

Zh: I love that: ‘a skill that would transcend borders’. What kind of students have you taught? (I assume you have done a fair amount of traveling as a teacher)

A: My English teaching life began in Japan. After traveling for almost a year in Asia, I started to run out of money in China and everyone said – “go to Japan, you can find work there – a hostess, a teacher, it’s all wide open”. I worked in ‘conversation lounges’, one-on-one private schools, traded a room for teaching children in Paris and then got my TEFL certificate at the American University in Paris. Went back to the US (Seattle) for a year and had all of the oddball students who didn’t fit in anywhere else or tested out lower than an offered classes at a local language school. My quirkiest threesome was a Russian orchestra conductor, a rural Japanese, and a young Saudi – all men. They were caricatures of their cultures, which led to some odd interchanges. At the same time I was teaching a Boeing toilet engineer French and a Chinese Buddhist nun fresh off the boat her ABCs, plus 20 Thai teenagers for a month and assorted courses. After that I went to S.I.T. and got my M.A.TESOL with my practicum in Mexico, San Cristobal de las Casas when the Zapatistas had just burned down the city hall. After finishing my studies, I went back to Japan as a professor for two years, at a rural college. Then I dove into the English Language Fellow program from the US State department and was instantly in the position of a teacher trainer. In Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Albania, Indonesia, and Croatia I worked in universities and ended up being a coordinator for other fellows. After that I started my life as an SIT trainer and became a trainer of trainers along the route.

Zh: What are your (2-3) most important teaching beliefs? What shaped them?

A: Learning needs to take place in a relaxed environment and have an element of fun. Since every brain learns differently, unique characteristics need to be honored. I also like the saying – start where you are. Teachers need to keep that in mind when designing and sharing a lesson. Flexibility and non-attachment to what you planned are critical.

Zh: The ‘non-attachment to the plans’ is so well-said. By saying ‘start where you are’, do you mean the students? I have always thought about it as ‘start where they are’. Can you say a little more about this idea?

A: I think this applies both to teachers and learners. As a teacher, I need to be comfortable at my own level of skills and knowledge and also to accept each learner (or teacher being trained or trainer being trained) where they start from. It’s a way to truly move into acceptance of each human where they are on their own journey. Another ‘simple but not easy’ tenet of life.

Zh: I like how this question brought us to thinking about life philosophy. ‘Simple but not easy’ sounds very accurate. Something I have often been thinking about lately is whether or not ‘[ELT] Trainers need to keep teaching [English]’. Do you agree with this idea? Why, or why not?

A: I think walking the talk is beneficial. It’s very easy to offer the ideal that is actually far from the real teaching context that people are experiencing. Yet it’s not always possible to be both a teacher and a trainer at the same moment. But in principle I think it’s best to keep a toe in the classroom to remind one of the current, always shifting, educational scenes.

Zh: In my case, ‘a toe in the classroom’ is occasional observation of a lesson, or creating a lesson plan with other teachers (or for them), exchanging ideas with teachers at events and conferences, answering my friends’ language learning questions, reading teachers’ blog posts, attending reflective practice group meetings, and talking a lot about teaching and learning. What are your personal tips for being in touch with teaching?

A: I say yes to every offer of training and teaching that comes my way, unless it is completely our of my content range, like engineering or nursing. I also answer language questions, help edit writing of former learners, and read Facebook posts of new teachers.

A jump photo of a post-workshop group picture in a village near Chittagong, Bangladesh

Zh: Actually, I have never asked you this question: how did you become a teacher trainer?

A: I slipped into it, with strong encouragement from my mentor. The ELF programme presented an opportunity, with strong encouragement from my mentor. 

Zh: Can you say more about your mentor? I love learning how specific and special people can impact our decisions (an walks of life!)

A: I did my first shadowing training in Bangkok and then moved onto Espiral Mana in Costa Rica. Mary Scholl (my mentor) was pivotal to my development as a trainer and saw in me skills that I didn’t know I had. Long before I ever thought about being a TOT (Zh: trainer of trainers, or trainer coach) she pointed out the path and guided me there.

Zh: I so much believe in meeting the right people at the right time! Your words remind me of the colleague and friend I see as my mentor, and hope he would be willing to have one of these trainer conversations with me… What kind of courses for teachers have you worked on?

A: The SIT TESOL Certificate course and its iterations (e.g. PCELT & Best Practices in TESOL) have been the mainstay of my trainer/TOT life and at universities and institutes through the English Language Fellow program. In the last few years I was a coordinator, in Albania and Indonesia. I also trained up Fulbrighters for the first developing country ELT program in Indonesia. I was also involved in the initial days of the planning and organization for the Asian University for Women in Bangladesh and other short term Specialist exchange programs.

Zh: Where were the courses you ran for teachers?

A: Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Bosnia, Albania, Indonesia, Croatia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, South Korea, Algeria, Italy, Afghanistan, Tunisia, Dominican Republic, Bangladesh. Early on I taught English in Japan and Taiwan.

Zh: Interesting: our paths had the only chance to cross in Korea! What would you say are your (2-3) most important (core) training beliefs? What shaped them?

A: Each course is unique and group dynamics are critical to a successful experience. That leads to a belief that creating a community of learners is a top priority – no learning takes place unless people feel at ease and trusting. Another core belief is that shaping a course to suit the unique participants is critical.Goals need to be clear, with flexibility built in. For what shaped my beliefs, what comes to mind is how much my mistakes & failures have influenced my perspective. There were pivotal moments that stayed with me because they were so powerful and I didn’t want them to happen again. Now they are ingrained in my bones and a reflex rather than a thought out action.

Zh: I wonder if you could say that your teaching and training beliefs are the same? You earlier said that you value a relaxed environment and an element of fun, and that flexibility and non-attachment to what is planned are important. Are the same things true for working with teachers?

A: Absolutely! In my opinion my strengths are my flexibility and creativity and my childlike energy. I really think I got many of my gigs because my sense of adventure led me to say ‘yes’ to anything that was offered. I even worked in Afghanistan when it came up, although I thought that was somewhere I would never visit.

Zh: Yes to saying ‘yes’! Even though modern productivity courses and authors insist that saying ‘no’ is equally, if not more important, I too feel how a new project, a new adventure adds excitement and growth to my professional identity. For now, it is going to be a little more ‘stable’ and less mobile, seems like, and online. I know you had worked with teachers online before COVID-19. What kind of courses were they?

A: The ICT** course through World Learning. I was very impressed with the design of this course, how it truly created community through exercises and reflective practice. In Korea I designed and implemented a writing course for teachers that started on site and then continued online with assignments and feedback. I also completed the final part of a PCELT training in Tunisia last year online with Libyan teachers. I found I could actually be even more supportive to the trainers-in-training & teachers because I had the time to respond and give detailed feedback to every lesson plan in writing (both the teachers’ and the trainers’). We also had our regular daily meetings virtually and kept up lively WhatsApp conversations.

**Zhenya’s Note: the course Annie mentions is called ‘ICT’ in short, or ‘Integrating Critical Thinking Skills into the Exploration of Culture in an EFL Setting’ in full. The course is delivered by World Learning – SIT Graduate Institute as a part of OPEN courses (Online Professional English Network), former AE E-Teacher programs. You can learn more about the course here.]

Zh: I am very curious about that as I have never done the ‘blended’ trainer coaching when you work with the group of teachers and trainers face-to-face, and then leave them finish the course with you being available online. Can you say more about the process?

A: I think it’s important to have the real life experience first, the personal connection is paramount. Then again, the experiences I had were both set up this way, so I suppose the other way is also possible – online first & then in person.

On a PCELT course in Tunisia (2019)

Zh: How does this online (asynchronous) training experience help you see teacher training in a more general sense? For example, through reading the feedback from participants I noticed how appreciative they are of the support and encouragement in my messages. It may be an obvious idea, but I think I used to do it much more in the asynchronous online training than in a face-to-face course, and I remind myself to do it more often.

A: When I was working on a mentor training course that was extensive, we were not able to physically visit all of the teachers for observations after the initial trainings. So we had both observed and unobserved feedback on teaching. When the teachers were surveyed afterwards, there were mixed responses. Some preferred the in-person traditional observation, while others appreciated all of the written back and forth feedback they received. Similarly, there are advantages and challenges to online and in person training, and the combination can be beneficial.

Zh: How do you keep your training skills up between the courses?

A: I contact trainer friends to find out what they’re working on, read articles, and talk about language learning with people I meet. I often find that my facilitation skills arise when I am a participant on a course I am following. Sometimes I feel the need to share some tips and more often than not they are well received.

Annie’s terrace where she can work outside in the sunshine.
Another island, Brac, is in the distance but so close that you can’t see the sea in between.

Zh: What questions about teaching or training have you always wanted to be asked about?

A: I’d ask this: ‘If you could design a course for trainers, what would be essential?’

Zh: Great question! And how would you answer it?

A: Some kind of communication exercises, like compassionate communication (NVC), a visual design component (I’m an artist and the boring nature of most materials irks me), and information about how to design workshops.

Zh: Wow, to me this is a list describing more than one course! I would love to learn more about visual design. I think the language of images, metaphors, colors is so much richer than the language of words, and it touches the hearts (not only minds). For our readers who are also into training and visual design, can you share a source to learn some basics?

A: I have been an artist all my life and went to Rhode Island School of Design, graduating with a BFA in photography. Color plays a very important part in my life and making materials is one of my passions. When I see activities and exercises that are visually uninteresting or dull, I tend not to want to use them or feel a strong need to change and improve them. I’m moved to play with fonts (Times New Roman has got to go!) and to clean up the way words are organized on the page.

Zh: So the Spring-Summer part of 2020 found you in Croatia. What’s your current project? Are you working on any course design at the moment?

A: I’m currently developing an online writing course for teachers in collaboration with my colleague Mohsin Tejani in Pakistan. We met in 1997 on my first ELF gig and when the world went on pause I reached out for collaborators. He was eager to partner up as his school of writing had been forced to close and we rekindled our friendship and joy in ‘co-mingling’ our skills together. The blending of our varied experiences & networks, plus mutual respect has been a powerful place to start for both of us. Mohsin has a writing school and website, and is also a director of the Breadloaf Writers’ conference in Vermont, USA. 

The course is called ‘Writing to Inspire Reflection – Journaling & Poetry for Teachers’. Quite exciting and challenging! My desires at this point are to work in collaboration with as many different people as possible, to enhance the quality of the offering and give them an opportunity to share their talents. I like to support people that I’ve made a deep connection with and feel strongly that more perspectives are always valuable and appreciated. Each of us offers something unique and a chance to resonate with someone else – so the more the merrier, and more chances for learning!

Zh: ‘Writing to Inspire Reflection’ sounds like a course I would love to join. What kind of course is it? What are you hoping the teachers will achieve by completing it?

A: I’m hoping that you might be one of the collaborators! It’s a venue to show teachers that writing can be enjoyable, fun, and personally satisfying. Journaling to release emotions and witness one’s own story, and poetry to be free from grammatical constraints and relate to nature and deeper values. The course is designed to operate on a few levels: support teachers to improve their own writing confidence & skills, offer a model of learning/learner-centered experiences, create community, and inspire reflective practice. Participants will experience what it feels like to be the focus of the course, as a learner, and be given opportunities to connect with each other as both writers and readers. The wish is to help teachers to feel more comfortable to teach writing and on a macro level to shift the paradigm of education from the outdated model of rigidity. They will experience what it feels like as a learner to be the focus of the course and be given opportunities to connect with others as both writers and readers. Small groups will respond to each other’s written expression and we facilitators will also offer feedback. In addition, responses will be looked at for depth of reflection so that skill will also be highlighted. Our aim is to shift the tempo, focus, and content according to each cohort as a model of a more effective way of teaching/learning. Nothing too lofty, right? 

Zh: These ideas sound wonderful, as there are ‘bigger goals’ (macro level, as you called it), and the idea speaks to the core belief I have and see as my ‘ELT mission’, namely, promoting for reflective practice and reflective thinking. I genuinely believe that starting with teachers is an excellent step, as they will be helping their learners, and so the ideas will ‘cascade’ much further that the course participants. The importance of the idea to work with the concrete participants on the course and their needs is another big belief of mine.

What do you think the future holds for our teacher training programs and projects worldwide?

A: Online learning is certainly beneficial, but there’s nothing like sharing energies in the same space with a group of teachers. I could envision a combination of online and on-site trainings, to limit air travel and also offer a variety of educational experiences. I’m hoping that we can still create an experience (that’s what we’re calling our offering, instead of a course) with the intention of connection and trust, a container where everyone feels at ease to be authentic.

Zh: Yes, it is about creating a learning experience to me, too (much more than ‘training’ teachers, even if the courses are short). Something we hope they would do to their students (create further positive learning experience). My final question to you: are there any questions about teacher training have you always wanted to ask other colleagues?

A: Maybe how their path to this life unfolded. I like the question ‘What is your passion?” for everyone I come in contact with.

Zh: A nice one, especially because every definition of ‘this life’ may be very unique, as all the trainer paths are! Thank you for this conversation, and it looks like we will have many more to come this summer!

In Bhutan, Fall 2019

Annie Polatsek has been an itinerant teacher educator for more than 30 years, traveling the world to enhance her own cultural competence and share perspectives with teachers and learners. An Asian travel adventure led to instantly becoming a teacher in Japan, and then Paris for a TEFL certificate to support that experience. A Master’s at SIT Graduate Institute expanded horizons and helped Annie find her tribe. The English Language Fellow (ELF) program catapulted her into the world of training and she never looked back. Becoming an SIT TESOL certificate trainer sent her surfing onto another level and then onward as a trainer of trainers, along with ELF gigs. Recently she was entitled a Master trainer, which makes her smile. Her home base is on an island in Croatia and she hopes to resume some level of human-to-human training in the near future.

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Trainer Conversation with Samira Idelcadi

This is the second post in the Trainer Conversations series on this blog. You can read the first one here, and learn more about the idea for these conversations in the Introduction post.

Background: in 2018 I had a chance to facilitate a unique PCELT course in Rabat, Morocco. One may say that each and every training course for teachers is unique, and I agree. The course I am talking about was special for me, as all the participants there were either ELT supervisors, or ELT trainers from various regions in Morocco. Most of them had had 10-30 years of teaching and training experience, had degrees in Teaching or Applied Linguistics, and were mature ELT professionals. Having read their application forms, I… almost had a panic attack. What can I offer to them? Why would they need to take a teacher training course? Are they forced into the training? These were just some of the questions running through my head. Then we met… and the 4 weeks with them were perhaps the most rewarding and special professional experience to me. I could see how these super experienced teachers/trainer could focus on learning from teaching experience, how they wanted to reflect on the practices they have been implementing and serve their students and teachers more and better. As you have probably guessed by now, Samira was one of those course participants.

Rabat, Morocco.

[Note: this conversation originally started in our multiple e-mails to each other, and then I came up with several questions to ask Samira. Below you will see it in the form of Questions (Zh) and Answers (S), and at the end of the post you can read Samira’s bio]

S: Thank you so much Zhenya for inviting me to be a guest on your blog. Thank you for a very inspiring learning experience in PCELT Morocco. 

December 2018, Rabat, Morocco. Our PCELT group with teachers and students.

Zh: Thank you for the kind words! I can honestly and whole-heartedly say I learnt a lot from you. And… keep learning! Isn’t it great to have a chance to stay in touch post-course and keep our conversations and reflections going… Now, can you remind me what it means to be an ELT supervisor in Morocco, and how different it is from being a trainer?

S: I would say one difference is that in our context a trainer is responsible for pre-service teacher training and a supervisor for in-service teacher training and evaluation. Part of the role of an ELT supervisor is to diagnose training needs, plan, facilitate and evaluate teacher professional learning courses/sessions; to conduct classroom visits, observe lessons, provide feedback and write reports; to carry out teacher evaluation which counts in teacher promotion; to conduct tenure and recruitment examinations.

Zh: Examinations?

S: Yes, those are written and oral examinations to select candidates who would go through one year training in teacher education centers to become teachers. After a year of training, they join schools where they get the practice part. Then, we conduct other examinations for these teachers to get a permanent post.

Zh: Thank you! Sorry for interrupting you. What else do supervisors do?

S: We observe the quality of the administration of regional and national standardized exams, participate in conflict resolution and school inspection committees. ELT supervisors also conduct research on classroom practice and educational issues, and are also often involved in the in-service training of school principals and supervision of field training of supervisor trainees.

Facilitating a professional learning session for teachers in Tiznit, Morocco.

Zh: I can see how busy supervisors are in Morocco! How did you decide to work with other teachers as their mentor/helper/coach/trainer?

S: I taught English for 14 years. During this time period, I had many opportunities to facilitate professional learning sessions for colleagues either through professional associations’ conferences or in formal professional development sessions. I also worked on several (collaborative) educational projects in my school and beyond. This helped me acquire a lot of experience in facilitating professional learning and leading projects. When the opportunity to formally facilitate teacher professional learning presented, I applied for it and was accepted. I graduated from the National Training Center for English Language Teaching Supervisors in 2014.

Zh: What kind of courses or sessions do you usually run?

S: There are different formats of teacher professional learning sessions I usually run for the community of teachers I work with. There are hands-on workshops revolving around teaching language skills, assessment or other ELT topics. I also try to provide opportunities for lesson observation and discussion through demonstration lessons run by teachers. One-to-one coaching feedback sessions, based on issues that emerge during classroom observation or upon a request from a teacher, is also another way of working with teachers that I found very effective. I also try to work on projects that include planning several sessions a year with a group of teachers who would like to lead projects. It is a form a self-directed professional learning where teachers lead a project for a whole year and share their work in a conference we organize locally at the end of the year.

For example, I tried to start a mini-PCELT like group this year but we had only two meetings before schools stop. I call it “mini” because there are no students. Teachers teach their colleagues. They reflect on the lessons taught using the reflective cycle you shared with us and they get feedback on their work. At the end of the meeting, they would collaborate to plan a lesson. I don’t know the impact of what I tried yet, but I hope to continue with the experience next year.

Zh: Re the course model: yes, I have facilitated several courses using micro-teaching (or peer teaching) instead of real language learners, and I think it is better than a purely theoretical course: there are still chances to apply what is taught in practice, work on the detailed lesson planning and take part in the reflective session afterwards.

To me, it comes down to the idea of Deliberate Practice, and if teachers are aware of the reasons and purposes behind this structure of the course, it becomes a great experience. This article can be helpful (even as a course reading, I think). 

S: The article reminded me of an audiobook I listened to a while ago called “The little book of Talent” and it describes the idea of deliberate practice necessary to grow talent mostly among athletes and musicians. I am glad to discover that it can be applied somehow in teacher education and training. I will try to explore more on that.

Zh: I am now looking forward to reading this book! Let’s get back to the classroom: what are your most important teaching beliefs? What shaped them?

With a group of teachers in Tiznit, Morocco.

S: For me an important belief (quoting a former teacher educator I had) is that ‘teaching need not be boring’. I believe in variety and creativity in the classroom and its impact on motivating students to engage with the lesson and learn. Students also need opportunities to work together on hands on activities, discover rules for themselves and try new ideas, make mistakes, ask questions, get opportunities to think critically and reflect on their own learning. They also need opportunities to lead projects and conduct small research projects for their class and share their work and get /give feedback to their peers. The teacher is not the only resource in class but other students could be “experts” on different topics and could contribute to ‘knowledge building’ in class.

I think my beliefs were shaped by my own experience as a learner and teacher, my own education and training, my readings and my own learning from the different projects I led. My beliefs were also shaped by interaction with colleagues, by the different conferences and educational programs I participated in both in Morocco and abroad. I got opportunity to learn from amazing colleagues from different cultures. My beliefs are also continuously shaped and reshaped by present experiences and future goals and aspirations.

Zh: It is so true about shaping and re-shaping our beliefs as we keep learning. Now, what can you call your most core training beliefs are?

S: I think working collaboratively is important for teacher learning. Usually when planning sessions I try to make sure that there are enough opportunities for teachers to collaborate and share thoughts, reflections and expertise. Teachers are a wonderful resource and they could sometimes benefit a lot just through sharing experience. Opportunities for deep thinking and reflection on practice, is also an important component to keep in mind while planning a professional learning session. Reflection could be on the content of the workshop as well on the way activities /tasks are weaved. This will give teacher opportunity also to learn how to plan their own sessions for their colleagues (I usually encourage everyone to plan and share a workshop when they feel ready to do that). It is also crucial that sessions with teachers gradually contribute to building a community where trust and deep conversation can take place. A lot of learning happens in informal conversations that sometimes take place during the break or while working on a task or activity so it’s important that there is space for that.

Rabat, Morocco.

Zh: I am so much with you on trust and deep conversations. Could you say a little bit on how you do that? I am always in search for new ideas and strategies.

S: One way of building trust, in a professional learning session, is to believe in everyone’s potential (either students or teachers), to use a motivating language, and to create an optimum environment for experience /expertise sharing. An interesting idea that I learnt from an English friend is that she would always open a session with displaying a picture of a hat and then invite participants to wear a learner hat. She would also say “what‘s said in the room stays in the room” to establish a positive space for sharing successes and challenges. There is an interesting video by Simon Sinek (at the Global Leadership Summit 2018) on the importance of trusting teams in organizations. Developing trust in our schools as organizations, in our classrooms and among the teams/communities of teachers we work with, will certainly help sustain collaboration and increase performance.

Concerning ‘deep conversations’, I believe teachers as professionals, have a lot to contribute with. So, we need to create a space for sharing thoughts and ideas in our training sessions. One possible way of doing it, is to structure conversations and choose the type of questions to ask before any planned task/activity, while working on the task and after. I usually try to vary questions and focus more on questions that trigger HOTS (higher order thinking skills), creative and reflective skills instead of limiting to closed questions. Moreover, it is not only the type of questions asked that creates deep conversations but also the type of tasks/activities planned in a session. If we ask a question like: ‘What is collaboration for you?’ Participants would probably share their definitions of collaboration. But, if we ask a participant to share ‘how collaboration looks like in their schools’ and/or ‘how they would personally encourage collaboration in their classes’, the conversations might probably be richer and deeper. The ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions are important to ask in a class/session. However, the ‘Why?’ type of questions can also trigger interesting conversations in a class or in a training session.

Zh: Love the ‘Why?’ questions so much, sometimes, too much… Now, this is my favorite question to all my fellow trainers: how do you keep your training skills up between the courses? I personally run intensive courses 3-4 times per year, not all the time.

S: I continuously learn from different sources and different people. An important source is reading and researching. I invest a lot of time in planning or researching materials for my professional learning sessions. So I learn a lot along the way.

Zh: Did anything inspire you recently?

S: For example, the question about beliefs and what shaped them made me think of an interesting article written by Gusky (2002 p. 383). It illustrates a model of teacher learning and change. He states that after  a professional development session, teachers would change practice which will affect students results and after teachers notice the impact of their practice on students results they would then change their beliefs. However, it would be easy if learning is that linear. It’s very much probable that beliefs affect experience and experience affects beliefs. I just thought it would be interesting to know more about how teacher beliefs about teaching and learning change. That would help us plan professional development better.

Zh: Thank you for the link!

S: Besides, I often look for opportunities to attend conferences and educational programs. Networking and attending conferences locally nationally and internationally is also an excellent source of learning. Online courses also provide additional way of keeping skills up. I enjoyed some previous MOOCs such as: Content Based Instruction Course, Teaching English for Young learners and professional development for teacher trainers all listed here. I just joined this one: Filmmaking and Animation in the Classroom (with FutureLearn)

Zh: Filmmaking and Animation! Now I am getting super curious!

Presenting at MATE conference Marrakesh, Morocco.

S: I also love to try new ideas, lead projects or collaborate with colleagues on joint projects. Critical friends are also a great source of learning and support through the joys and the challenges of the job.

Zh: Yes, those are so important! I feel what we are doing in this post is that kind of conversation (or very close to it?) What questions about teaching or training have you always wanted to be asked about?

S: Yes, probably this one: ‘How can we help students and teachers plan, lead and evaluate their own learning projects?’

Zh: Can you answer it, please? 🙂

S: The project idea could be very simple depending on the level of students. Let’s say students are taught a new (course book) unit on the topic of Food, for example. The teacher can tell students that they are expected to prepare and present a poster for their peers on good/ bad eating habits at the end of the unit. The poster as a project serves to recycle what was taught in the unit. It is also an opportunity for students to conduct further research on food / eating habits. They can learn from additional sources outside class. Planning and presenting their project is another opportunity for learning because they will have to decide how to present (individually or in groups if it’s a group project). They will get / give feedback to their peers after they present their work. So, planning, implementing, presenting and evaluating their projects (self or peer –evaluation) could offer opportunity to learn more content, practice language skills, as well as gain presentation skills / planning / evaluation skills etc.

[Zh Note: for more details please check Samira’s article on Enhancing project-works in EFL classes.]

Teachers can also benefit immensely from the same learning process (planning/implementing/ presenting/evaluation). It all starts with a question or challenge I have. I can then research the idea, choose the strategies or activities I can implement in my class. Observe/reflect on learning, take notes, document the whole process in their portfolios, and share their projects with colleagues for feedback. Learning from each other’s experience can bring to the group a practitioner’s perspective that enriches discussion and learning for everyone.

Presenting at MATE Study Day, Tiznit

Zh: Agree so much about the reflective practice perspective, rather that ‘knowing’ the right answer. Learning from each other and with each other is so enjoyable. Now, are there any questions about teacher training have you always wanted to ask other colleagues?

S: Probably, these are some of them:

  • How can/do we teach/train for impact and how to develop teacher expertise and leadership?
  • How can/do we motivate adults to learn?
  • How can/do we provide feedback that leads to action?
  • How can/do we encourage teacher inquiry?

By the way, I’d happy to hear your own thoughts on the same questions, when you have some time.

Zh: I love the questions, and would love to think about them. Maybe this is another post in the series? Or maybe readers and/or other trainers would want to take some/all of them?

Meanwhile, thank you for the conversation. I am learning a lot from our e-mails and chats, and hope they continue. Take care!

Samira’s Bio:

Samira Idelcadi is a Moroccan ELT supervisor. She holds a MSc in Public Services Policy and Management from Kings College London (2011). She is an active member of MATE (Moroccan Association of Teachers of English), co-founder of Tiznit – MATE branch and a former president of AMA Association (Association of Moroccan Alumni). Before becoming an ELT supervisor, she taught English in secondary schools for 14 years. Samira worked on several educational projects and programs as well as presented at many national and international conferences. Her main interests are teacher professional learning, teacher leadership, educational change and educational policy.

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Trainer Conversation with Andriy Ruzhynskiy

This is post is the first one in Trainer Conversation series (find more details about this idea in the Introduction).

Background: Andriy and I first met in 2000. I was a full-time college student and a part-time teacher at International House (IH) Language School in Dnipro, Ukraine, and Andriy was working for IH Kharkiv. Since then, we were connected a number of times and in different capacities: through workshops and conferences, school visits, lesson planning discussions, other professional development events. Later in 2007 Andriy was my coach for the final stage in becoming a licensed SIT TESOL Certificate Course teacher trainer. Since then, both being traveling trainers, we occasionally ‘bump’ into each other at courses and conferences (in Ukraine or abroad). As you may guess, we keep talking about teaching, learning, training, trainer coaching, and living of course. What you read here is a glimpse into some of our conversations over the past weeks. The post has my questions (Zh) and Andriy’s answers (A).

in Daegu, South Korea

 

at IH Kharkiv, Ukraine (2007), with our SIT TESOL Cert group

Zh: You have been a teacher of Russian and English as foreign languages for a long time, and if I remember correctly, you have been teaching with International House Kharkiv in Ukraine since…

A: I started teaching in 1984, and I joined IH Kharkiv in 1995.

Zh: A long time! Now, I have never actually asked you about this: when and where was your very first course for teachers?

A: It was in Yasi, Romania in 2002. The course was co-validated (SIT TESOL Certificate and CELTA).

That was a fantastic project supported by Soros foundation. There were 2 groups of trainees from a lot of countries, but mainly former Yugoslavia, the Baltic countries, Moldova, and Ukraine. There was also a great bunch of trainers: 3 main trainers and 3 trainers in training (including me). I was lucky to be trained by Wagner Veillard, Monica Chin and Jamie Scanlon. Unbelievable professionals! I must say, I have always been lucky with great teachers.

Zh: I am completely with you on this: to me, our SIT Training Community is the most amazing group of trainers in the world. I am obviously biased, but I am happy to acknowledge this. [Note: please meet more SIT TESOL Certificate Course trainers here]

What about some stats to share? Between 2002 and now, how many courses for teachers (approximately, of course) have you run? By ‘courses’ I mean 2- to 4-week intensive training sessions, with groups of 6-20 participants.

A: I was preparing for our chat and counted the courses. There are… about 90 all in all.

Zh: Wow! Impressive! And your bio blurb below says you have taught teachers in 15 countries. With that experience under your belt, what can you call your three most important teaching beliefs?

A: If I need to select my top-three, I would name the following: focus on your students/learners, focus on their learning (not my teaching) and manage your expectations.

Zh: What are your three most important (core) training beliefs? By ‘core’ I mean something you believe or practice no matter what kind of course you are working on. It’s always interesting to me which values are constant, which of them stay the same from course to course, from country to country.

A: In fact, they are the same as my teaching beliefs! What training course I am teaching (SIT Cert Course, CELTA, or IHC) does not matter. The beliefs are the same.

  • Focus on your learners and their learning: in this case, course participants, teachers-to-be, and their learning during the course
  • Manage your expectations. This applies to teachers who come to the course having a very different starting point: some have taught in public schools and have certain habits and preferences, some are only starting out and lack confidence; some teachers are planning to move countries, and some come to earn the certificate as a proof that they are excellent teachers. Also, as trainers, we need to help the participants manage the expectations they have from the course, and help them meet the criteria of the course. This ‘expectation managing’ is a mutual process on the course.
  • (may be the part of the previous point) If we believe that there are no perfect lessons, or perfect teachers, we need to make it clear to the participants that the purpose of them joining the course is not about becoming an excellent teacher. It is about becoming a reflective, thinking teacher. Well, sooner or later, they will hopefully become excellent teachers, but setting this aim for the end of the course is hardly realistic.

at ILTC, Chisinau, Moldova

Zh: Actually, I remember you saying this to our group of participants in my first SIT TESOL Certificate course in Ukraine. A tiny voice in me was saying ‘there are no perfect trainers either…’ Does it also imply that there are no perfect participants/trainees on the course?

A: If my former trainees are reading this interview now, they will certainly remember my favorite phrase ‘there is nothing perfect in this world; only this word is perfect’ Of course! There are no perfect trainers; there are no perfect teachers; there are no perfect students. Enjoying the improvement is the key. Whenever I finish a course, I always feel that I have gained some experience, and I will certainly run the next course in a bit different way.

I would also add another belief: being honest with people. Sometimes it hurts to hear the truth about one’s lesson, but on the other hand, why are people taking these courses? To hear flattering lies? I am not sure about that at all.

Zh: This honesty, or integrity is a very important part of training for me. Not ‘sugar coating’ and hiding the truth, and at the same not hurting the teachers’ feelings and helping them improve. Sometimes I have a feeling this skill needs ‘recharging’, especially if I am not on a course. By the way, how do you keep your training skills up between the courses? Do you take part in online discussions with other trainers, attend/present at conferences? Do anything else?

A: Yes, lots of Facebook groups with/for ELT students, teachers, teacher trainers, etc. These groups help not only keep in touch with likeminded people, but also to share a lot of professional information. At least 90% of my readings now have been recommended by somebody in a Facebook group.

Presenting at conferences? Yes, I do it sometimes, but I am not a very big fan of that. Don’t ask me why 😊It is probably because of the big number of people in the audience. I need to see the eyes of the listeners, but it is not always possible 😊

Zh: I am with you on that. Besides, I often have a feeling that people at many events prefer to ‘just listen to the talk’ and not interact, and those types of sessions are not my favorite… What else helps you develop as a trainer?

A: As you know, I run various courses, and this helps me broaden the view of what teacher training and teaching is. Also, as a traveling trainer, I feel training courses in different places is the main source of professional development. Nearly every course is run with a new co-trainer, and this professional exchange of ideas and styles is fantastic.

Zh: You have recently started a Facebook Group for teachers. How do you see its role for the ELT Community?

A: Originally, this was not my idea. One of my course graduates Vladyslav Kamynin took initiative and wanted to keep learning collaboratively. He invited me for a coffee after the course ended, and we brainstormed the ways to keep in touch for further professional development. So, I suggested starting a group on Facebook. That was how IH Kharkiv 2019 ELT Reflective Group was born. It is a closed group where I added only former trainees and course co-trainers, and the group has been quite active so far.

Zh: I am very happy to be a member of this group: lots of practical classroom tips are shared there. The conversation before my presentation called ‘I don’t like games in class’ was very helpful, by the way. Now, I never asked you: why is there ‘Kharkiv’ in the name of the group? I first thought it is going to be similar to the Reflective Practice Group we have in Dnipro.

A: True, there are professionals from many parts of the world in the group, and it ended up being 100% online (different time zones, etc.) Since my ‘home base’ is in Kharkiv, and the IH school I am working for is in this city, it is natural to have it in the name.

Zh: As someone who has always loved Kharkiv, I agree! 🙂 Can we keep talking about other work you have been doing. Do you work with teachers online, too?

A: Yes, for several years at IH CAM Course (Certificate in Advanced Methodology), and I am a local tutor for Cambridge DELTA. This is a tutor who is taking care only of the lesson observations, not a full DELTA course. By the way, did you know I took IH COLT (IH Certificate in Online Tutoring)?

Zh: Did you? Me too (in 2006, I think). A great course!

A: Yes, it is! So the courses I facilitate are international, with teachers from all over the world. Besides, I am the IHWO Russian Language Coordinator. This is an absolutely different angle. Teachers of so-called Modern Languages have a lot of needs different from the English teachers’ needs, and my job is to help them.

[Note: A ‘modern language’ is any human language that is currently in use. At IHWO, ‘modern languages’ are non-English languages taught by IH schools worldwide]

Zh: That means there is a lot to manage. You told me you are also teaching teenage classes remotely, via Zoom/Skype, etc. Do you notice any similarities between teaching (a language) and training teachers in the online/distant format? Can these skills ‘overlap’?

A: These are two very different types of learning: asynchronous (discussion managing and assignment responding) and synchronous (live) modes, and they are not the same. Teachers are motivated adults, and my online students now are teenagers. Live classes in the real time require a whole different skill set. By the way, I can say we need to manage our expectations about: students and their perspective, about the tools we have (or don’t!), and the skills and training (we have or have not had). I see COVID-19 and lockdown/quarantine teaching as a ‘force majeure’ situation.

Zh: I share the importance of remembering the student perspective. They have not chosen this type of learning, by the way, unlike the teachers in the courses you mentioned. Hope we will manage to live through these times and be able to learn and reflect from this experience.

Back to teacher training: what do you think the post-pandemic future may/will hold for teacher education?

A: I think there will be a new format/mode in education, and possibly more than one. Many scenarios are possible. On the one hand, we may be all tired of staying in front of our screens for a long time. Even some teenage students said they won’t even touch their computers after this lockdown ends! On the other hand, if we think about working with new teachers, there are many aspects of learning that are the same in both modes (online and face-to-face), for example, managing classroom interactions, learning about student needs, teaching language skills, clarifying new language items, assessing student progress, etc.

At the same time, managing a class of students online is different since we don’t have the physical space. To me, the most challenging part is monitoring student work: you can join the breakout room [e.g. in Zoom], but you can only see what is happening in the room, with those 2-4-6 students, and not have the whole class picture. In the actual classroom even when you approach one specific pair of students, you still notice what is happening in the background, with the others.

at ILTC, Chisinau, Moldova

Zh: Yes, it is like that trick of looking at one small group of learners, especially teenagers, but listening to the other. To me, it is hard to compete/compare with the dynamic and energy of the shared classroom experience in one location.

Let’s go down the memory lane a little more. In the courses we have worked together, I remember you as a very positive, upbeat, energetic colleague, super efficient with daily tasks and routines and keeping great balance between course work and life (something you often reminded about was smiling genuinely, and moving myself out of the ‘default’ mode, for example). What are some tips and tricks you could share with new teacher trainers, or someone considering to become a teacher trainer in the future?

A: For running intensive courses, I’d share these tips:

  • Learn how to cope with stress
  • Create and maintain team spirit with your co-trainers (the people you run the course with are more than a team, they are family!)
  • Manage your expectations: try to notice the participants’ effort of learning, do not seek for the immediate ‘perfect performance’.

Zh: I can’t but notice that the very first point is about coping with stress. From my experience of working together in an intensive 4-week course, I remember you saying that ‘there is no such word as ‘tired’ in my vocabulary’, and our group of participants found it very helpful and motivating. What else helps you (and the teachers you work with?) cope with the stresses of a 4-week course?

A: I walk a lot. In any new place/city/country the first place I find on the map is a walking route to the training center. And the second one is a park (the park may be #1 actually!). The other thing is treating people with kindness and managing expectations.

in Vancouver, Canada

Zh: I love the way we keep coming back to the idea of managing your expectations. Can you say a little more about that in the context of working with teachers?

A: Over the years of training experience I got to be much softer, less strict even, especially in the way I offer post-teaching feedback to the participants on the course. Why? Possibly, because I can see them as unique beings, not a ‘copy’ of a perfect teacher. I think about their development and growth, and focus more on helping them to find or discover their own teaching philosophy.

Zh: Sounds beautiful! To me, this refers to our mission of ELT trainers/educator: helping people to love the teaching job, appreciate the never-ending learning in it, become learners themselves.

A: or… make a decision and leave. I think it is an equally important role we play in helping people realize that the profession, or life-style of a teacher is not something they had imagined or been looking for. So it is great if people spend only one month of their lives and a certain amount of money to realize that they must not be teachers. This is much better than suffering for the rest of one’s life doing the things that they do not like.

Zh: Very true too! Thank you for the conversation at the times when we don’t know where our next face-to-face course is going to take place. Enjoy the online classes and being in your home city for now!

at Larina Language Academy, Kharkiv, Ukraine https://larina.academy/ru/coursesforteachers

Andriy Ruzhynskiy

  • MA High Honours, Phylology, Karazin National University, Kharkiv, Ukraine
  • PhD in Teaching, Pushkin Institute, Moscow, Russia
  • CELTA, CAM, IHCTL, SIT TESOL Certificate Teacher Trainer

I am a Senior Teacher and Teacher Trainer at International House Language Centre, Kharkiv, Ukraine. I have been teaching English and Russian to students from all over the world since 1984. My teacher training career started in 2002, when I became an SIT TESOL trainer, and then in 2007 I got licensed to run CELTA and IHCTL courses as well. I am also a CAM course Tutor with IHWO, and a Local DELTA Tutor for IH London.

I have run numerous teacher training courses in about 15 countries, from Canada to New Zealand. I am convinced that this is real blessing to have this job as it gives me fantastic chances to meet super professional people all over the world. I regularly take part in conferences and workshops on teaching techniques and approaches in my country and internationally. Besides, I am a singer at a Ukrainian folk group ‘Muravskyi Shliakh’.

 

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Trainer Conversations: Introduction

I like to think that COVID-19 brought physical distancing to our world, but did not take our (ELT) social connectedness away. In the past weeks of lockdown I have been in touch with fellow teacher trainers/educators in different parts of the world. As you can imagine, these people are normally very busy running intensive courses for teachers, presenting at conferences, observing lessons, etc. The non-traveling months of spring (and summer?) 2020 ‘edited’ our plans, and one side effect of these changes was the time to talk and reflect about our beliefs and practices.

Having had some conversations with colleagues, I had an idea for a series of posts with a working title ‘Trainer Conversations‘. These conversations excite me, I feel I am learning from them, and perhaps it would be interesting for someone new in the training/education management role, or for someone who misses a chance to chat with other trainers.

The main motivator to actually get me started with these posts was/is the postponed course for teacher trainers in Ukraine. You can read more about the course here and here. The course was created in partnership with World Learning SIT (School for International Training) Graduate Institute and supported by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. The course was supposed to be my ‘central’ professional development project for 2019/20 school year, and I enjoyed preparing it with my colleague and fellow trainer Liliia Kurushyna. We worked hard for the project: prepared an outline, advertised the course, responded to candidates (115 applications for the 24 places), carried out rigorous selection process in collaboration with 2 more fellow trainers based abroad, had a group of 24 teachers who started preparing for the summer meeting, started planning our course session in detail having the audience needs in mind. Then on 12 March 2020 pandemic was declared, and… you know the story. The good news is that the course was not cancelled: it will now happen in the summer of 2021.

Photo by NastyaSensei on Pexels.com

I see these coming ‘Trainer Conversations’ as a chance to keep myself in ‘trainer mindset’ by speaking/being in touch with the cool people working with ELT teachers.

At first, I imagined these conversations as very structured interviews, with questions asked and answered. Then, when I started these chats, I realized I can’t bring a neat framework to all of them, as each trainer I talk with is very unique. Two posts are currently in the making, and they are already very different. 

I keep reaching out to fellow trainers who have a bit of time on their hands and a desire to talk about teacher training. [Note to readers: if you know someone you’d like to read about, please get in touch]

I start with the questions that I am (selfishly!) very interested about:

  • Why do you like teaching?
  • What are your (2-3) most important teaching beliefs? What shaped them?
  • How did you become a trainer?
  • What are your (2-3) most important (core) training beliefs? What shaped them?
  • What kind of courses or sessions for teachers do you usually run?
  • How do you keep your training skills up between the courses?
  • How do you manage the stress(es) of managing an intensive course? What helps you stay sane?
  • What question(s) about teacher training have you always wanted to ask other colleagues?
  • What questions about teaching or training have you always wanted to be asked about?

[Note to readers: if you have specific questions to teacher trainers, add them in the comments]

I really like thinking about these ideas, and as I said, really enjoy talking to my colleagues. I don’t know how long these series would be, and how regularly I will be able to post them, but I hope it will be an interesting experience. I might also write my answers to those questions, as one of the colleagues suggested.

Thank you for reading, and stay tuned!

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A Different Look at Writing

I have been preparing for a conference presentation which I called ‘A different Look at Writing’. 

The session description says: Do you like writing? Do your students like writing? We will experience several writing activities and discuss how to get excited about the writing process. We will see if we can teach writing in a different way, and how this skill can be used in other aspects of teachers’ lives.

First, let me share a couple of assumptions I am making about the attitude to writing (or its image) teachers may hold. [Note: I have talked to my colleagues in Ukraine about this, and I have run this session at our EduHub event in Dnipro earlier this year, so they seem to be true at least for my colleagues here]

Assumptions

  1. Teachers like speaking more than writing (in L1, in L2)
  2. Teachers don’t (often/always) write much in their everyday life outside teaching.
  3. Teachers (may) project their attitude to writing to students
  4. Writing is harder than (the least comfortable among) the other language skills (both for teachers and students), and both in L1 and L2. 
  5. Students (may) need the skill of writing in English to reach the life goals they are setting

The session idea: if you [the teacher] write (in English) in the real life outside teaching (for business, for pleasure, etc.) you (may) see this skill/process differently in the classroom, and this may change your attitude to teaching writing, choosing methods and activities, etc.

Now, the last sentence of the description suggests that there are different ways in which the skill of writing can be used in our lives, and I decided to make a list of how it helps me personally. So yes…

writing plays an important part in my life

  • as a professional development tool (well, you are reading this post on my blog…)
  • as an ‘idea catcher’ (I always have a note book with me when I travel, and when there is not paper around you can see me texting notes on my phone)
  • as a ‘creative warmer’ for a new project (with a timer on, I like to brainstorm possible options or alternatives for tasks, and having 3-5 of them is often enough to start working out the details)
  • problem-solving tool (can be also seen as a decision-making tool) for weighing pros and cons of something, or analyzing options and alternatives, or offering them to my project partner, etc. 
  • reflective practice tool (almost the same as professional development but in this can more systematic/structured
  • ‘calming down’ tool or a kind of meditation (for example, the Morning Pages idea from Julia Cameron, which I have never managed to work on systematically or at length) 
  • thinking tool (the difference between this one and all the mentioned above is that the ideas come from the process of writing, and my mind gets clear, and new connections are visible, and… lots of other magic things may occur)
  • planning, or capturing tool: as David Allen puts it, ‘your mind is for generating ideas but not for holding them’
  • something that brings me to the state of flow

What about you? What is your relationship with writing? What role does writing play in your (ELT) life? In what way your writing experience outside the classroom impact the way(s) you are teaching this skill? 

Thank you for reading!

P.S. this post is about an activity I used in that session (A Class Journal)

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