Trainer Conversation with Ron Bradley

This is the 6th post in the Trainer Conversations series. The idea for the series was introduced here, and the links to all the earlier posts can be seen as pingbacks. 

I first met with Ron on a pilot training program for elementary school teachers in Daegu, Korea, in 2009, and we have run several intensive courses together since then. We have had occasional chats on Skype about our current (and potential) projects, exchange e-mails with ideas and activities, challenges and solutions, asked for a piece of advice when working with new trainers, and many more.

Z: Ron, it is always great to get in touch and talk! Where are you based now? What’s your current teaching or training project?

R: I am currently based, with my wife Ellen, in Grand Junction, Colorado. We are currently both training an FHI/SIT online two-month course for a group of 25 teachers all from different countries. The course is titled Teaching Grammar Communicatively.

[Note: and 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]

The Colorado National Monument with Grand Junction in the background.

 Z: Why do you like teaching?

R: You know, it’s interesting, because although I earned a B.A. degree in Music Education, I never wanted to teach music. It was just a back up plan in case I couldn’t make it as a professional musician. But after returning from an Army stint in South Korea, where besides playing music, I had the opportunity to teach English off base to Korean families, I found it quite satisfying. This was how, along with experiencing Korean culture up close, I fell in love with the idea of working with various countries and cultures to help improve their pronunciation. This, in turn, led upon my discharge from the Army to go back to school to study linguistics, which then led to attending SIT for their new MAT ESOL degree, then just one year old. 

That was a decision I will never regret. I had had enough theoretical linguistics at UC Berkeley, so the timing was perfect, to move on the something new, exciting, and practical.

Now to the question, why do I like teaching, in this case ESL/EFL and teacher training? First of all, I love the interaction with the various cultures around the world; Korea and SIT gave me this appreciation. I think primarily seeing my students light up when they are learning something new. I love teaching in a way that engages the students’ learning process, which means I much prefer using an inductive, collaborative discovery approach. I love being a ‘guide on the side’ rather than a ‘sage on the stage’. Teaching for me is about observed learning. When you think about it, a teacher needs to have students to be a teacher, but students do not need a teacher to be students; they can learn on their own from any variety of resources.

 Z: What are your (2-3) most important teaching beliefs?

R: Three of mine are

  1. To foster a safe learning environment where students are having fun learning, and where it is expected that they will make mistakes in the process. I love humor, mostly making fun of myself as the ‘dumb’ teacher.

  2. And then, as I said above, students must be engaged in the learning process—lots to consider here. Finding out what they already know is essential to meeting them where they are and then using an inductive discovery approach, learning new concepts, especially grammar, but then being able to use their new learning by the end of the class is so satisfying. It’s interesting, because new teachers want to be liked. Sometimes when I ask a teacher how the class went, they will often respond, with, “It was great.” Then I’ll ask, “What was great and how do you know?” The answer that comes back is, “They participated in the activities and were having fun.” I’ll say, ‘That’s great! and it’s important that they enjoyed the class.” Then I’ll ask, “What did they learn to do by the end of the lesson, they couldn’t do before?” SILENCE. So, yes, it’s really gratifying to see the students’ progress in their ability to use the language to communicate effectively.

  3. As every student learns differently, it’s important to address their various learning styles. For me this is done by building in a good deal of variety in the activities—some visual, some kinesthetic, etc. I feel that the best way to do this is to choose activities that include as many modalities as possible. A ball toss, for example, can easily include all four modalities—auditory, visual, kinesthetic and tactile.

Z: Ball toss makes me feel nostalgic (one of those ‘physical’ aspects of a live lesson that are next to impossible to do in a class online) How did you become a trainer?

R: In 1999, while I was still involved in running our school in Colorado and during a time that our school was floundering from the Asian financial crisis, where most of our students came from, Ellen and I decided to join the new trainer of trainer’s course being offered at SIT, titled the “SIT TESOL Certificate Course”. There were only 5 of us in that first course. Having this course under our belt allowed us to use an existing non-profit to become a training site at Sonoma State University in California, Grand Junction, Colorado, and DePaul University, Chicago, and for a couple of courses in Boston. These ran from 2002 to 2013. In 2002, I became a trainer of trainers (TOT).

Z: Yes, Chicago and DePaul University site is the place I remember so well! (was my very first course abroad in 2008, and first time in the States).

R: Having these skills early on led to some very exciting training opportunities—the first to be taught in Thailand and Oaxaca, Mexico, the training of 32 teachers from Turkey for the State Department, as mentioned above, and multiple trainings in South Korea and Costa Rica. And then as an English Language Specialist for the US State Department to be chosen to do analyses and trainings in Albania and Angola at a time when I thought my career might be over. It’s been a wonderful almost 50-year career.

  Z: What are your (2-3) most important (core) training beliefs? What shaped them?

R: These are much the same as for the most important teaching beliefs. Again, the new teacher needs to be engaged in the learning process. I try not to lecture—too much anyway. I am a strong believer in ‘loop input’, that is training in a manner that models effective teaching practices. For example, teaching a session on how to give effective instructions is all about engaging the teachers in what these actually look like by modeling them, and then having the teachers experience them in their practice teaching sessions. Then this must be followed by rigorous reflection, which, of course is the essence of the SIT TESOL Certificate course, using the Experiential Learning Cycle—describing, analyzing, generalizing, and planning for the future. I feel that it is rare that a teacher completes the course with a high proficiency of effective teaching, but if they can reflect effectively, their professional growth after the course has a better chance of continuing. I have seen this first-hand while observing teachers some 10 years after completing the course. It’s so satisfying to see their progress!

Z: What kind of courses or sessions for teachers do you usually run?

R: These included over 40 SIT TESOL Certificate courses, and then Best Practices courses in Korea especially and for the Turkish educators. I must say that probably my most exciting career experience was in 2014 training 32 Turkish educators at the University of Massachusetts with Ellen, Brian Long and David Donaldson. These educators were engaged in re-training some 48,000 teachers in Turkey at the time.

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

R: As I am not currently doing any face-to-face training, I don’t have the advantage of observing teachers first-hand. I would like to find ways to do so, perhaps using Zoom, etc. As mentioned above, I have conducted a number of webinars to Yemenis teachers using PowerPoint presentations on a wide variety of topics, including reflective practice, teaching grammar inductively, giving effective instructions, interaction dynamics, designing units of study, to name a few. My current, work training on the Teaching Grammar Communicatively course, offers ongoing engagement with up-to-date practices and engagement with numbers of teachers around the world. In January 2020, I gave a presentation at the regional EnglishUSA conference in San Francisco titled “Dictogloss: A New Approach.”

Z: Like you, I have also been working with teachers online ‘asynchronously’, without ‘live meetings’ or real-time lesson observation. In this case, teachers learn how to plan lessons, and how to reflect on them in-depth. They can get feedback from colleagues who either work in a similar type of context, or have a very different perspective (which can lead to ‘thinking outside the box’, asking great questions, having completely fresh ideas, etc.)

Now, asynchronous training format does not help with the ‘teaching’ itself, as we don’t see the teachers in their classroom. In your opinion, what roles does observing participant lesson play in teacher training and teacher learning? Can teacher learning happen effectively without it?

R: I do think it is important to observe an on-going class– in this case it would need to be by video–that shows evidence that new knowledge is being applied in observable skills. In this regard, to be effective, it is important to see both the teacher AND the students, to observe the whole picture. After all, what is important is student learning and how the teacher interacts with the students.

In my trainings I like to use the example of the students taking a class on how to fold a parachute that will be used the next day to jump out of an airplane. The students tell me “It was a wonderful class—the teacher explained and showed how to fold the chute step by step. Then the camera moves to the students and they are taking notes—very engaged in the lecture. They all pass the written test. The question is, will they now be able to successfully fold their parachutes in a way that they will have a successful jump? What would you suggest that the teacher did differently? I have always loved Michael Jerald’s (my SIT TESOL Cert trainer) question(s), “What did they learn and how do you know they learned it?” Now we are talking about skills, not knowledge—and effective communication is a skill. The parachute teacher had no way of knowing that they would be successful, even though they had aced the written test. So, whether or not face-to-face or by way of video, the nature of student engagement is the most important issue. It needs to be observed!

Tandem parachuting: jumping with the learner? Photo by Balakrishnan Raman on Pexels.com

Z: I love the parachute example! While searching for a relevant image, I realized how tandem parachuting can be used as a metaphor for coaching new trainers, aka training of trainers (ToT), which we both do. My next question will be about this part of your work. In what way(s) do you see the process of becoming a trainer is similar to or different from the process of learning to be a teacher? For example, a similarity may be the need and habit to reflect on their classroom and training experience and act on the feedback from others.

Did we bring our parachutes? Slide from Ron’s presentation.

R: The most important issue for me as to the similarity and at the same time difference lies in the level of expertise the teacher brings to the table—and it’s not necessarily about the amount of experience. The more “qualified” the teacher is as to manifesting effective teaching practices, the easier it is to guide them in the process of becoming an effective trainer, as many of the basic teaching skills are inherently brought to the table.

Z: Great one: indeed, attitude defines the learning process! One difference (to me) is that the teachers on the course are ‘practicing with/on’ the language learners who know they are new teachers who need to practice, but a new trainer is not learning the new skills with a group of ‘practice teachers’: he or she joins to either observe and ‘shadow’ or co-deliver a course with the ToT. This often results in their faster learning curve but a bit less comfortable pace.

R: Good point!

What questions about teaching or training (or trainer training!) have you always wanted to be asked about?

R: As TOTs, how can we help our TbT (and course participants, too) write a rich, detailed description of a specific teaching moment without mixing it with other stages? (Note: in the SIT TESOL Certificate Courses we are practicing rigorous reflection on the lessons taught using the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) as a model, where a description of a teaching moment is followed through logically in the other stages—analysis, generalization, and plan for future action)

[Note: Learn more about the course from the following website]

It is important to describe, as a fly on the wall, what the teacher did and what the student(s) did in response— ’cause – effect’ relationship, in other words. I also remind teachers and trainers about the language structures, e.g. the tense of description is past, since we talk about something that already happened. The next stage of the ELC, Analysis, should then explore a variety of reasons for the success or failure of the moment, but based on observed evidence in the description.

Z: Love the fly on the wall metaphor. To me, the Analysis can have lots of ‘may’-s and ‘could’-s and ‘could have-s’, since we don’t always see in what specific way an action or decision helped or hindered student learning in that lesson, in relation to the aim/objective for students.

R: Yes. This Analysis then leads to Generalizations about what works or doesn’t work and should be formulated in the present tense (what is generally true and possible, not only in the lesson we focus on). And finally, based on all of the above, Plans for future action—say in the next lesson—are stated as ‘will’ statements, or ‘going to’/future. “The next time I [give instructions, choose a reading text, create a breakout room, etc.] I will….”

Z: I love talking, thinking and writing about the Experiential Learning Cycle (ELC) and how to use it for reflection and feedback. Ron, you have just made the most concise summary of how to use it for reflection on teaching or training. Thank you very much for this conversation, and… hope there will be more of them soon!

By the way, it was not the first conversation with Ron on this blog: readers have already met him in the guest post: Your Feedback Method Does Not Work. Check out that post if you are interested in talking/thinking about feedback. Besides, you can read Ron’s brief bio blurb there.

Posted in Trainer Reflections | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Trainer Conversation with Rasha Halat, Part 2

We had a plan for our chat with Rasha Halat, but ended up discussing more ideas. This is the second part of our conversation. You can read part 1 (with Rasha’s bio blurb at the end) here, and about the idea for Trainer Conversation series here. This time we talk about teaching and training beliefs, developing professionally (PD, CPD) and our reasons to stay in teaching. 

Z: Why do you like teaching? Why are you in it?

R: I told you at the beginning that some questions were harder to answer, and that’s one of them.

Z: Then I am even more curious!

R: I had to think back and recall why I made that decision in my life. I asked myself the same question I always ask my students “Why do you want to be a teacher?” I remember a quote that helps me answer that question: ‘Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.’ (Colleen Wilcox)

I really agree with it. Whenever I think about teaching, I think it gives us hope. There is always the feeling that by teaching, we are building the future. That’s my genuine belief. Plus I feel I am a very ‘interpersonal’ person, so I like meeting people all the time. In teaching, you are always meeting new people who are mostly young, and young people give you hope. You feel you are building the future and you are young at heart. Their bright eyes, their eagerness to learn give me motivation to go on. I fully agree that TEACHING is an act of optimism.

Z: That’s so beautiful.

R: Yes, this is what keeps me going these days [in the pandemic teaching times], energizes me, gives me something to look forward to. The days I don’t have a class are never the same.

In the training room in Lebanon. “Bankruptcy” game.

Z: ‘The way you do your job is your way to show your love to the world, and/or to life itself’. I don’t remember who said these wise words, but they seem to be so true about you and your style of work… What are your (2-3) most important teaching beliefs? What shaped them?

R: Just recently I was talking to a colleague and her harsh reaction/response about her students was ‘they don’t care’, and we talked about having empathy. I feel what makes me the teacher I am is feeling with my students. I try to put myself in their place/shoes, I try to understand where they are coming from. Not all people have the same drive, the same ambition, the same motives, or even the same energy level. I think as teachers, we need to have empathy.

May be because I have been through several experiences in my life, I try to feel with my students, Instead of being harsh on them, I try to understand their needs. As a teacher, I don’t want my students to change the world; maybe all they need is some hope to carry on, and I try to give them that spark of hope to go on. This is a humanistic part of teaching, and it is number 1 priority for me.

The second belief is something you know about me: I always have high standards. After I understand my students and make them trust me, I start to push them forward. I usually prefer to reach for higher goals in life. But it is only after you make students feel secure and safe that you can push them forward. If you begin with rigorous standards right from the start, I think you may demotivate them. You need to build trust, hope, and then move towards the academic goals. I think these two work together. But first one first, and then the other.

Z: That’s like stages of working with people in a team, in a company: getting to know each other on a ‘human’, more personal level, and then the academic or professional?

R: True. Another thing I think we need to work on everywhere, but especially in our context in Lebanon, is Critical Thinking. We need not to accept anything at its face value, which is a problem in many cultures. People get trained to accept everything, never to question what you get. So it is about the skill of questioning things, about not accepting them at face value; to me this is the most critical factor that will help us change the world to the better. It is what we need to work on as teachers.

If we start working on this as teachers (with our students), it can spread further. That’s how we can make the difference.

Z: I think if this habit or awareness is acquired early [in people’s career] they would not mindlessly go up the ladder. When you are up there, it is scarier to fall down. If you look down, the height scares you, so you prefer not to. You prefer to stay up and please others.

R: Actually the older you are and the higher your position is, the harder it would be for you to change. You get stuck and it gets easier to say “yes”!

Z: Less creativity, less flexibility, fewer choices…

R: Yes. It needs to start earlier in the process. As kids and young people, it is easier to start thinking critically, and this shift gets harder (with age). The earlier it starts, the better.

Z: What about teacher education: is becoming a trainer a vertical step up (the career ladder) or is it something else?

R: I think it is the two together: it is the process of reflection, whether you are teaching or training. It is a matter of continuously reflecting on what you are doing (starting from being a student, then a teacher, and then a trainer)

Z: In some contexts (including Ukraine) a ‘teacher trainer’ position can be perceived higher than ‘just a teacher’. I don’t agree with this and work hard to promote the idea that being a trainer is not about being ‘higher up’ or better than a teacher. It is as you said an angle or lens through which you can help or serve learners/students.

R: I don’t think you can be a good trainer if you are not a good teacher. In Lebanon, for example, many teachers that I know want to become trainers early in their careers. I think you need a lot of ‘good teaching’ experience before you are able to coach others or train them.

Three important hats to wear (kindly created by Rasha’s daughters)

Z: What are your (2-3) most important (core) training beliefs, or motives? What drives you as a teacher trainer?

R: I think they are similar to teaching, but at a higher level. I feel that with training the mission can get more challenging, as we are working with adults. By influencing teachers, you impact the new generations (of their students). Instead of reaching 30 students in your class, you may be reaching 130 students through the training session with the teachers. So it is a matter of higher responsibility I think.

It is also more challenging because sometimes it is hard to ‘un-teach’ what they have been practicing for too long first, and make them think again about something new.

I read a quote the other day that ‘in the new century to be literate means to know how to learn, unlearn and relearn.’ So the challenge is how to get your trainees to unlearn and relearn! And this is really critical as the teachers are the ones who will impact the lives of the many students they teach. The ripple effect, the pool is wider.

Z: When you mentioned the challenge to ‘relearn’ you were probably thinking of teachers joining PCELT courses who had had some (or lots of) previous teaching experience.

R: On many courses, it is the same thing. Usually many teachers – and part of it is cultural – want to prove their competence. Most of the time, they are trying to save face and show they are competent instead of showing their readiness to learn. So the question/challenge is how to make them feel highly appreciated and at the same time open to learning. This really requires a great skill on the part of the trainer.

Z: That’s such a fine balance to find. As Parker J. Palmer nicely put it ‘we teach who we are’, and we invest so much of ‘ourselves’ into the practice teaching lessons observed by trainers and colleagues. I don’t know about other jobs, but it seems like for us at ELT the concept is ‘my lesson is my baby’ so ‘please don’t touch/criticize it’, ‘I love each and every activity in it’, etc.

Our TESOL courses can be of two types: sometimes, it is an open course where teachers are investing their own money, time and energy into becoming better teachers, and sometimes it may be a sponsored course where teaching becomes a mandatory subject at school. Some teachers are 100% motivated and willing to be there, but some have 70%, or even 50% motivation level.

R: or 20%… (laughing) In general in Lebanon, 50% and above.

Z: The harder case to me is a combination of both in the same group on a course: people being really open and willing and trying to develop, and some who are ‘not very convinced’ that need the course. Again, we talk about adult learners. How can we help them?

R: I believe that everyone who shows up, wants to be there. It is my belief that anyone who made an effort and woke up to come to the morning class, or a training center, to any learning environment, for example, even though they may be trying to mask it, they want to be there. I don’t think anybody is pushing them or forcing them (they are adults). If someone makes a decision to drop out, it is clear they don’t want to be there. However, the others, those who keep showing up, they want to be there. The attitude they sometimes try to show (e.g. ‘we don’t care’ or ‘I am only here because of XX or YY’) is their ‘defense mechanism’. I know deep down there is some positivity, which I try to count on, in one way or another. I try to convince myself. It is a similar thing with students/learners. For example, take a teenager – who really loves to sleep in – and then just wakes up and comes to class! What makes him/her wake up at 7 am and come to school? I am sure s/he wants to be there, as at this age even parents can’t force them if they don’t really want to. So this is what I tell myself, and I think it works. Once you feel and believe that this person wants so to be there – as a student in your class or teacher being trained, it gets easier for you as a teacher or a trainer to deal with him/her. That’s a strategy that has been helpful to me. In general, people who are more motivated, are easier to deal with. I wish there were magic pills to offer people to motivate them (laughing).

It is much easier, much more pleasant… Now, a major part of our job is to motivate our students or trainees and show them the value of what we are doing. Once you present/show/teach something new, and there is always something interesting, that would push them forward. 90% of the time this attitude has worked. There were a few cases when it did not, but in general, it works.

In Baalbek, Lebanon: we had time for sightseeing!

Z: Speaking of ‘something new and interesting’, I guess many of those less motivated teachers have been through hours and hours of trainings where there were not necessarily many relevant things to their needs, for a number of reasons. So your attitude is about ‘look, give yourself a chance. Maybe this course is something else’

R: I agree, it is very important at the beginning (or even before the course) to learn about what they already know/have, and based on that, you can always ‘surprise’ them with something else, something new, something that would make them say ‘a-ha, now I see the value!’

Z: This possibly brings us back to the point about teaching experience and practice, or whether or not a trainer needs to be an experienced teacher. I think at this point we are reaching ‘yes’ as our answer 🙂

R: It is a big ‘YES’! (laughing)

I feel one real problem with some CPD training courses is that teachers feel they are forced to take the course or join the training session. I think schools need to start by promoting the value of the course/session. They might present it as a golden opportunity, and then trust me teachers would compete to winning that opportunity.

What happens in many schools – at least in our part of the world – is that schools assign certain teachers to a certain PD session/course without ever consulting them even saying to assigned teachers you, and you and you have to be there. This way the choice is taken away.

That lack of choice makes people feel ‘I don’t want to be doing this’. This is human nature! It reminds me of our kids! (laughs) Once you start forcing anyone, including teachers, to do something, they stop wanting to do it, even though they initially did want to do it. I think choice is generally important to teachers, to attend a course or not, to take this or that [Professional Development] session, etc. Lack of this choice may be a problem.

Z: I like that idea! A choice, a sense of decision making, having a say of what they would like to be doing, which topic/session to be a part of. This adds to being active as a participant and eventually helps more learning to take place.

Let’s now talk about teaching future teachers at University (as opposed to working on intensive courses).

R: With pre-service teachers, the course may be shorter (e.g. 45 hours) but it spreads over a period of 4 months, for example. Maybe the number of hours spent learning is the same but the time frame is wider, and it allows student-teachers to process new learning more. Once you have more time, you process deeper. With time, you can also build rapport with them, and this relationship is stronger during the face-to-face semester, for example. With many of the pre-service teachers, we continue the dialogue even after they graduate [and start teaching]. This is what I really like: I keep working/being in touch with some teachers even after 5 years. I know someone who has become a coordinator, and she still gets back to me for a piece of advice, we have discussions about what’s best to her teachers and students (as a coordinator). This is what we can’t do with intensive course participants.

Z: The point of time is very important: quality time indeed. Out of the 120 hours on an intensive course like PCELT, how many of these hours are spent being tired, worried about the coming lesson, zooming out of the input session, etc.?

R: True. And you notice with such intensive courses that the outcome is more short-term even though we would want it to continue with them -especially for the reflective practice. Unfortunately, many stop reflecting as soon as the course is over and they start focusing more on implementing the activities and practical ideas they gained out of the course instead of focusing on the “deep learning”!

Z: Which way of teacher training do you personally prefer then?

R: I like both, but with the pre-service students, the relationship is stronger, and the learning is deeper. Maybe, other/post-course components can be added to the intensive PCELT courses. Following such intensive courses up with other post-course component might help the trainers check how much is being used after one month of very intensive training. That would give the trainer the chance to check how deep the learning is or how little is being integrated into their professional practices! With more time, things may become part of their beliefs. That is something that can be researched.

Z: Can be and should be researched! I think you mentioned a research you did with the former PCELT participants in their own context.

R: Yes, that PCELT group was my golden opportunity! All the teachers I trained taught in schools in our area and I could visit them in their schools, and that definitely does not happen very often with our PCELT courses. I could observe 6 of the trained teachers in their own classrooms and what I noticed is that most of them were focusing on the surface level things; on activities! Unfortunately, the core of PCELT was not very visible! It was more about the fun/enjoyment of the activities, which I don’t think is bad after all! But we would love to see more transfer of learning!

Z: Sometimes I ask teachers in informal chats (in 6 months, 1 year or more after the course): have you re-read your portfolio after the course? What did you find/notice? And not everyone does it. How much of the learning portfolio, or the course overall, become a habit and skill in the future?

R: The course is not an end product, it is more like a starting point. It can bring Ps to another level, which does not happen all the time unfortunately!

Z: To me it is also a question of what kind of educational culture they get to after the course ends. I was really lucky with the IH school I used to work in where we had a very strong academic and training focus. In such environment you don’t really stop learning and growing as a teacher, working on the same beliefs/values/practices as a team. I think ideally, Teacher Training needs to be followed by Teacher Development.

R: Oftentimes ‘Teacher Development’ (programs at schools) may be restricted to a few days here and there, and this is another area that needs to be researched deeper: what is the objective and result? Are they just filling up those hours of TD? I was reading a post about a webinar, and the question was asked about the craze/fuss about certificates. There are always questions about the certificates for the events Ts attend. What’s the value of the certificate for a webinar? The answer was that we need/want the certificate for a PD point [in our school] The question is then what makes real PD, and what’s on paper. That’s a big question to look into.

Z: What kind of school are they working in? Do they have to submit/report about the hours they spent on events? Does it help to make the wage higher? I like to think about ‘CPD’ where ‘C’ would stand for ‘Creative’ PD. When you have the ‘C’ for yourself, when you are a driver of how you develop, you can change the attitude.

More ideas: Critical, Cheap, Cumulative, Cycling, Clarifying, Channeled, Cooperative, Caffeinated… What’s your ‘C’?

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

R: Is teaching different from training? Are good trainers always good teachers?

I know trainers who teach in a teacher-centered way but show interactive ‘sample lessons’ to the teachers in training. I think I should teach the way I train teachers to teach.

Z: To me, it is a lot about (personal and professional) integrity: if I believe something is a great idea, do I do the same in my teaching? Do I practice what I believe in? Do I walk the talk?

R: This is the basic question, and we are either afraid to see how things are, or take it for granted.

Z: True, it is about being holistic and authentic: doing what you believe is right. Philosophy!

R: Yes, then it becomes more convincing (to the participants or teachers-to-be). I think what we do needs to be genuine. Another question that I have been thinking a lot about lately, is how we can keep teachers motivated especially during times of adversity? I think this is something I would like to think about more!

Z: I love the question, and believe it is an important issue. We were just talking about it with our colleague based in Thailand the other day. The times of pandemic seem to only emphasize and add to what already has been a challenging task in many contexts (motivating teachers grow and develop without necessarily offering them better working conditions or support at the workplace, or pay raise, etc.)

What would you say is the meaning of our job in education?

R: Supporting teachers. Many people have the potential they need to realize. ‘Dust’ teachers who have become fossilized. Make them feel fresh. Re-skilling, energy boost. Look outside the routine, be creative, innovative.

Z: I adore energy boosting! What makes you feel that?

R: When I go to ELT conferences, I feel that way. Even when I know what the speaker is talking about, seeing it from another angle and getting the chance to talk about it with others rejuvenates me! I think that is what we need to be doing with our trainees! Let them feel fresh again.

Z: Love the re-dusting metaphor. I like to think that my ELT mission is to make teachers love the job (again). Remove dust, bringing ‘the teaching self’ to the light, seeing it differently.

R: I learn from my trainees a lot. This gives them trust and belief, and they get surprised. Once trainees feel that way, they start sharing their true colors! We can start learning from each other instead of me teaching them what to do! I think teachers many times get to surprise themselves with their own potential, and that is what I think needs to be our mission!

Z: I wish this conversation was live for the others to listen and join us.

R: We can do that later (laughing)

I heard an idea from someone that if you meet a person once, it may be by chance. However, if you meet for the second time, you may either decide to never see each other again, or… become really connected, start to be a part of each other’s lives, in this way or another. I am grateful for the chance to work with Rasha more than once, and hope and believe there will be more of these opportunities. One of the many things 2020 taught me is to be grateful for the people in my life. Thank you for the conversation, Rasha, and let’s keep it going!

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Trainer Conversation with Rasha Halat, Part 1

This is the fifth post in the Trainer Conversation series (to learn more about the idea, you can start reading with the Introductory post and then checking the links in the Comments to all the earlier posts).

Background: Rasha and I first met as co-trainers on the very first PCELT course in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2013. Every time we meet our roles are slightly different: we worked together again on a course for new trainers in Beirut and all over Lebanon in 2015. In the winter of 2020 in Kuwait we coached two new trainers and worked with a group of teachers from that country. I can confidently say that working with Rasha is a learning opportunity for me. Why? Please keep reading this post!

Kuwait, February 2020.

For this conversation, we met online on an early Monday morning before our working day began, and had our drinks with us. Rasha had her coffee, and I had my sparkling water with lemon and ice which I grew to like in Kuwait with Rasha’s help. We talked and talked and talked… and realized that this conversation could not fit into one blog post. So… there will be 2 Parts, as the title suggests. ‘Z’ below is for Zhenya, and ”R’ for Rasha. 

Z: I saw somewhere** how online teaching can be referred to as ’emergency teaching’ (some refer to it as ‘pandemic teaching’)? How efficient does this whole shift look to you? Or perhaps it is not yet the time to make those conclusions?

**For example: The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning

R: This whole thing happened too fast. The shift online was expected, but not this unexpectedly fast! And not many of us were prepared for it, Lebanon including, worldwide is the same. But… we are all learning!

Z: So much is on everyone’s mind at the moment! Not only learning. Students have been spending hours and hours online these days.

R: True. Students are taking all their courses online now, and you find them moving from one Zoom room to another which is a lot of digital input.

Z: For young people being ‘locked down’ may be especially hard, being away from their friends for such a long time. Screens don’t really help in that, right?

R: Exactly, my youngest daughter was saying the other day: ‘It’s so boring, I see the same people every day, I don’t see anyone other than you!’ How can we help? May be we need to borrow them new parents or siblings from time to time… 🙂

Z: … Or wear a carnival mask? People online get so creative in their lockdown activities (laughing) So you have been teaching English, and also ‘how to teach’, and both of these were online in the past weeks?

R: Mostly I’ve been teaching Education courses and linguistics ones at the university.

At the school we taught very briefly, I don’t consider that time to be enough to call it ‘experience’. The decisions at the Ministry of Education level were not binding to one particular mode of on-line instruction. They offered lots of options (watch TV channels, use Microsoft Teams, etc.) due to the different socio-economic needs of the different families. The real challenge though was the weak Internet connection many students had. It was the main issue both in how prepared the students were for the process of online learning, and how affordable that option was for the families. In Lebanon, the Internet is very expensive, and with the current economic crisis and inflation that both started even before COVID 19, it got even worse. So they decided to cancel public schools. Some private schools are doing a better job but definitely not the public ones.

Z: Sounds so true for many parts of the world. If parents have money to afford private school tuition for their kids, they would most likely afford the Internet for them. I liked how you wrote in the e-mail to me that you are trying to escape the whole situation through teaching, and into teaching.

R: I always tell my students that we are lucky to have this online learning because it is distracting us, makes us feel somehow productive, that we are learning something. It is great to be able to enjoy it! That can be motivating by itself.

Z: The human nature, the social aspect/part of it, and can (at least partially) compensate for the lack of actual communication. Actually it is a very important idea, since there are opinions and questions now about the effectiveness of being at the screen, ‘synchronously’ there (like we are talking now)

A chance not to be alone, lack of communication is a challenge for many.

R: We definitely feel we are supporting each other …

Z: Are you teaching through Zoom and Teams?

R: At the private university where I teach, we decided to use Zoom live classes, and the decision was made at our Education Department level. Some other departments at the same uni are using PPT with Google Classroom, and the others are using something else. In addition to the synchronous sessions via Zoom, we are using Google Classroom for managing the student work and assignments.

Z: How has Zoom time been for you?

R: Zoom is used as an alternative for the face-to-face sessions, and it is working very well. I have almost full attendance in my classes, which is great, as the tool is not affecting the attendance rate. Our sessions last for 1 hour 20 minutes, which is a full-length session, even more than we used to have in the actual classroom.

Z: Do you feel the session/lesson pace goes a little slower online?

R: Exactly. We were joking with colleagues the other day that the favorite words no-one forgets to say now is ‘Can you hear me? Can you hear me?’ all the time. Every few minutes you need to check if they are still following, that no-one got disconnected, and so on.

Z: True.

R: I always say there is a lot of digital input now. Some students decide to turn on their cameras. Some say that it is easier to process with the camera off. Out of all the tools I am using, I prefer Zoom as it is user friendly and students seemed to be very comfortable with it.

Z: It is ’emergency teaching’ at the moment, but conclusions can be made for the future (what is and is not working, etc.)

R: Right. We are using Zoom in a very interactive way, with the whiteboard feature, with lots of group work in the breakout rooms, they make presentations. Classes can be very interactive. Perhaps less interactive than face-to-face but still. I personally like it, even thought I don’t like technology that much.

Z: Do you see a chance, or do you imagine yourself running a PCELT course 100% online this summer?

R: Partially. I think parts of it can be done this way. It was discussed some time ago/before COVID-19. Looking at CELTA, it is possible. The dynamics of the course can’t be replicated online, if we talk about the experience, but it can be substituted/modified, if needed. Given a choice, I’d opt for face-to-face. If we keep improving and learning, it is possible.

Z: Or NOT impossible.

R: Yes. I teach a Practicum course at the university to senior students who are graduating this year. The face-to-face course consisted of students going to the school, observing teachers’ classes, and then teaching five full lessons towards the end of the academic year. There are other components to the course, but the main ones are observing and teaching. I was worried at first: what can I do with them online? I started to look for videos about best practices (many come from CELTA courses actually, from real classes, with 40 students, etc.) [Note: the examples of the sessions they watched can be found here and here.]

We started to have discussions about the lessons, and reflected in the same manner as at PCELT (Note: we talk about using the Experiential Learning Cycle as its structure, as described in this older post for iTDI Blog). Then my students had to teach mini-lessons similar to what they have seen on YouTube (but they were more like tutorial videos) – some were also thinking of uploading those too.

We added another component to the course where they would observe an online English class at our university and reflect on its effectiveness. I also had them attend multiple free webinars on a variety of topics (but many were on online teaching). That whole experience made them feel that they are part of the international English language teaching community.

So at the end they said ‘It was very rewarding’. They loved the online classes, they said they had not expected those to be interactive, they could observe students playing games, e.g. jeopardy game online, students working on a Google sheet collaboratively, etc.

They felt this learning process can be interactive, even though at the beginning they were resistant. I think every experience is an eye-opener for us. We can see the new opportunity if we want to. Some teachers say ‘we can’t do it’ but you can always find a window of opportunity out there.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined myself teaching a Practicum course online, but now I think when we go back to ‘normal’ I would incorporate parts of what I did this semester. It’s not going to be the same kind of teaching as before. It’s going to be different.

Z: True: the teachers who did not say ‘no’ to this experience will definitely broaden their repertoire of techniques and practices by the time they get back to ‘normal’ (or when the normal gets back?) I think there will be much fewer cases of ‘Oh, I am afraid of technology’. I think that’s gone now.

So do your Practicum students do any ‘micro-teaching’? Do they create lessons for each other?

R: Yes. Some also practiced on their kids or relatives (or whoever they could find) and delivered classes to them. It was really interesting how everyone was trying to be creative in a different way. And the results turned out to be amazing.

Teaching online can be engaging!

R: This was the course that worried me the most, as it is very much based on practice teaching, and it turned out to be really good. This takes me back to your original question about having PCELT online. This course is very similar to the PCELT experience and if we could do it online, we can do parts of PCELT online.

Z: That means that your Practicum Course students could benefit from both face-to-face and online learning and teaching, having acquired these extra skills in online teaching. A kind of FPD, or ‘forced professional development’, if I could create such a term. They will be equipped with skills, knowledge and awareness much more than let’s say students who graduated in 2019.

R: Just like your phrase “Forced Professional Development”! Of course, I always tell them that you are lucky that it happened now, because you/we don’t know what the future is going to be like. Now they learned a great variety of skills, tools and platforms. I think they feel more empowered now. I think their generation is prepared for that kind of shift/change. They were more ready than last year’s graduates, for example. Some of my students like the online format even more than face-to-face (which feels a bit frustrating!)

Z: That brings up a skill/habit of being comfortable in a face-to-face communication situations. It is one thing when there is a screen between you and me, and it is a completely different story if there is a ‘live’ human at the table with me 🙂 I feel that my own perception of others is shifting now, and I feel less comfortable in a crowd, which had never happened before. Even the definition of a ‘crowd’ is different now. A crowd of five people?

R: Honestly, I am not sure how I would feel myself once I am surrounded by people again! Re-defining… I think there will be a lot of re-defining happening soon.

Z: Let’s talk about the future of teacher training? I wonder what you think about this idea: when you train face-to-face, you don’t prepare teachers to work online (we often don’t have the time to discuss the tools/platforms). Now, when you train online, will they be ready to teach face-to-face later?

R: it depends on what the future is going to be like. What will there be more: online or face-to-face? We had been training courses face-to-face because this is what teaching was about. At this point (Note: we talked about it in May 2020), we don’t know, as some universities are making a shift for the whole 2020/2021 academic year (Cambridge and Harvard, for example)

Maybe, it is becoming a ‘new normal’? I am not sure. I think from now on we need to have both (online and face-to-face) components in training courses. Even if we go back to normal.

Z: We don’t know about the new wave of COVID, or the new pandemic. No-one said it is the last lockdown, for example. I hope this does not sound too pessimistic…

R: For our students, a new insight: no revolution will stop us from learning! In the past, sometimes they had to stay at home for a month, for example. From now on, ‘snow days’ won’t stop them from learning, or my travel/trips. Nothing will!

Z: It makes me wonder: what is real learning? Who said that in the 21st century knowledge needs to be acquired in a group of same age peers, in a specific building/room at a set time? Could it be an old concept now and a time for a new level of flexibility?

R: Webinars, for example… This happened to me actually with the too many webinars I am enjoying. I even attended a 2-hour session run by Dr. Krashen (one of my favorites). It was about acquisition, reading and research writing. It was at 3:00 am my local time and nothing could stop me 😊

It was the best webinar I have ever attended. I enjoyed it so much! I felt as if there were no time or space limitations preventing me from this learning experience.

(Note: Rasha is referring to this masterclass recording ‘Developing Literacy, Developing Language’)

Z: ‘Limitless learning’… I like how that sounds!

R: But still I miss my annual IATEFL trip and all the other live conferences I used to attend.

Z: In 2020, I wanted to go to a long-distance conference. I was choosing between IATEFL International and TESOL International.

R: It was decided for us…

Z: At the same time, there are all these online learning opportunities for teachers I am so excited about. You mentioned numerous webinars. The two of us also ‘bumped’ into each other at exciteELT Conference on 14 June, remember?

[Note: if you are interested, read my brief reflection on the conference in this post

In Part 2 of this conversation Rasha and I talk about teaching and training beliefs, developing professionally and the reason to stay in teaching. Stay tuned!

Rasha Halat holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics (Critical Discourse Analysis), MA and TD in Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language and BA in English Language. Former Chairperson of the Education Department at Lebanese International University (Bekaa Campus) and currently a lecturer there. She is an SIT and World Learning/AMIDEAST licensed Regional PCELT Trainer of Trainers. Rasha has more than 20 years of experience in the field of teaching English, including 16 years of academic experience at the university level teaching future TEFL Teachers. She has worked in teacher training programs regionally, nationally and internationally and presented at international conferences in Egypt, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, England and USA.

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Trainer Conversation with David Donaldson

This is the fourth post in the Trainer Conversations series. You can read the Introductory Post here, and learn more about Andriy (Ukraine), Samira (Morocco) and Annie (U.S./Croatia).

David and I met on a course for teachers in South Korea in 2017, and then met briefly in Barcelona when I attended and co-presented at InnovateELT Conference in 2018. While these were not long meetings, I feel we have been working together much longer: exchanging ideas and materials, reaching out to each other for help and input when working with new trainers, sharing local travel tips (we both ran courses in Izmir and Kuwait in the past two years or so). 

This post is a Guest Post: David is responding to the already familiar questions from me. Now let me step aside and enjoy a conversation with him!

With fellow trainers in Daegu, South Korea.

Where are you based now? 

The where-are-you-based question makes me smile. It reminds me of military personnel who are “based” around the world. It is a common term in the training community because we tend to travel from job to job. My case is different. I have lived in the same city (and in the same neighborhood) for over 40 years so the question for me is where do you live? I normally work on two training courses a year, so I am away from home for about 2 months a year.

What’s your current project?

I’ve been working remotely with 2 teachers who are trainers-being-trained (TbTs) from Kuwait. We are reading and discussing three topics: learning, planning, and objectives. This has been really good for me. For each topic we all read the same texts and then answer a set of questions. Since 2013 I have read these texts several times when working with TbTs or preparing to deliver a teacher training course. I think it is really helpful to revisit these topics from time to time. I notice that every time I do this, different things catch my eye. I make notes in the margins and it is fun to see how my thinking evolves over time.

I’m also doing some language teaching using the Zoom platform. I was a bit skeptical at first but I am finding it to be quite effective. I suspect that the ‘post-COVID’ teaching landscape will be different and that distance learning will play a bigger role.

Dave with his new course participants.

Why do you like teaching?

Good question. A lot of things come to mind. I like the people (teachers) that I work with. This is really important since we spend a large chunk of our lives interacting with the people we work with. I also enjoy interacting with students in the classroom. It strikes me that teaching is like a game in that each time you do it, it changes depending on the interplay of the teacher, the students, the material, the culture (I’m tempted to add an “etc” here because I am sure there are a lot more factors!) So, in short, teaching for me is always new and fresh. I also find that teaching allows me to tap into the creative side of my personality.

I would also like to comment briefly on why I like teacher training. I work with teachers from many different countries. We typically spend 4 weeks or more working together for many hours. It’s a transformative experience and we all grow as human beings. It reminds us of our common humanity and how much we all share. It gives me a very positive view of what the world could be like.

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

One belief that I got from one of my trainers is summed up by the phrase “Trust the Students”.

If we start from this belief that the students will always become actively involved, this allows us to relax and have the confidence to be present in the moment and respond to what actually happens in the classroom. To give a simple example, believing that we can trust the students means we can ask a question and then shut up. Teachers often dominate in classroom interactions because we are afraid that the students will not perform. We have to trust the students.

Another belief is very simple. Learning is not linear. It is not the acquisition of knowledge. Learning a skill is a process which requires a lot of practice, useful, wanted, specific feedback, encouragement, time, motivation, achievable results. The belief is to “be patient, aim high, and take what you can get”.

How did you become a trainer?

I was the director of studies and part owner of a language school in Barcelona. My original motivation was to become a teacher trainer in order to offer teacher training courses to take advantage of our premises. I obtained the Cambridge Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (DELTA) and I looked into different teacher training programs. A trainer friend who knew a lot about teacher training (fortunately) suggested SIT. I went through the SIT process and became a licensed trainer in 2006.

What kind of courses for teachers do you usually run?

I usually run two types of courses. The first is a 4 week course for people who are training to become TESOL teachers. These are for people with little or no teaching experience or sometimes for teachers who want to improve their skills. The second type are what we call “Best Practices in TESOL”. These are courses for in-service teachers that aim to improve their skills and introduce them to more learning centered teaching methods.

In Izmir, Turkey.

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

I do different things. One thing is to attend events for TESOL teachers. Fortunately there are quite a few in Barcelona. IH Barcelona and Oxford TEFL both offer weekly workshops for Barcelona area teachers (the Oxford ones are free). The APAC (English Teachers Association of Catalonia) holds an annual event. I also attend events organized by the British Council and materials publishers such as Pearson and Macmillan. I also do occasional one-off training sessions for local schools.

What are some ‘energy’ tips and tricks you could share with new teacher trainers?

You have told me that you think that I am “energetic” and “upbeat” when I am training. I think that training work allows me to connect to these qualities. This is why I keep coming back for more. I think I am a better person when I am training.

As for tips for new teacher trainers. It is important for each trainer to find their own voice. The trainer community if full of incredibly gifted people. When I first started out I was intimidated. As I became more experienced, I learned that the results that we were getting did not really depend on any great talent from the trainers. The courses always produce results because we work hard, and the participants want to learn. We basically set everything up and then facilitate. Becoming aware of this took the pressure off of me. I also found that the trainers that I have worked with have all been supportive. This was essential for me. They support and validate what I do and this made it possible for me to be myself and find my own voice.

Answer Guy and Answer Gal. In Erbil, Iraq.

What’s in your trainer bag?

I do have quite a few things that I take with me. I am not sure why but I have found the following to be helpful in no particular order.

  • A stuffed animal. (for my last course I used a stuffed beaver) During the course the animal comes into play in many unforeseeable ways.
  • Sets of plastic clothes pegs. I use them when I do pair works or jigsaw activities. I have 4 different colors.
  • 2 bells. I use them for games or sometimes to signal the end of an activity
  • A set of small board magnets that I got in Korea – they have the best magnets
  • A small flag of the country where I am training
  • A film director’s “clacker”. I use it to signal the start or finish of a role play or when we video something
  • An obviously fake microphone. I find that a person will speak more when they are holding a microphone. I used to use a board pen but a toy one works great.
  • Objects for finding partners. I typically get sets of toy animals (2 of each) or cars. My latest one was sets of different kinds of mustaches
  • A magic wand. This comes in handy for dealing with impossible requests from the participants.
  • A coffee mug with a lid so I can carry coffee with me and not spill it.
  • A set of rubber balls. They can be used for juggling or other activities requiring balls.
  • A Bluetooth speaker for playing music with my smart phone
  • A set of colored sticks for doing the post teaching reflection (I got this from you)

I just love the list! It could actually be a different post, just because it is so practical, and fun to read, and shows lots of practices that illustrate the beliefs you wrote about. Love it!

[Note to readers: if you liked the list of ideas above you may enjoy Kate’s guest post about her ‘Trainer Bag’]

Juggling as a learning experience. Jordan.

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

Can people be trained to be good teachers?

Yes and no. Like with any job a person needs to have a set of skills and attitudes which will be an asset in their field. I have observed quite a few teachers and I have noticed that there are a lot of different “styles”. A teacher does not have to be a great entertainer. We need to find what works best for us. That said, it helps to enjoy interacting with people, to be creative, organized, physically fit, able to work under pressure, have a sense of humor, and to be empathetic.

Thank you for the warm conversation David! From what you said I would like to remember keeping the balance between engagement and purpose, trusting the learners, and welcoming bits of fun into the sessions, even on serious matters. Thank you for adding these ideas into my metaphorical ‘trainer bag!’, and for having a chance to talk about training this summer.

David Donaldson has been based in Barcelona for so long that he now claims the Catalan capital as home. He has worked as a TESOL teacher and DOS/owner of a Barcelona language school. He holds the Cambridge Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (DELTA), and has been an SIT TESOL Certificate trainer since 2006. David has run his own SIT TESOL training site in Barcelona and has traveled far and wide to work on SIT TESOL and Best Practices in TESOL courses in the United States, Mexico, Korea and Turkey. He is also a teacher trainer for the World Learning AMIDEAST Professional Certificate in English Language Teaching (PCELT) working with in-service teachers in Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Kuwait. He particularly enjoys working with experienced teachers as they rediscover their love of teaching. In his free time, he enjoys cycling, playing the guitar, and singing in the Barcelona English Choir.

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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’.

 

Posted in Trainer Reflections | Tagged , , , , , | 10 Comments

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!

Posted in Trainer Reflections | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

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)

Posted in Learning Thoughts | Tagged , , | 11 Comments

Trainer Conversation with Marbella Trejo

After the summer-ish break, I am back to writing. Please welcome the seventh post in the Trainer Conversations series (visit the Introduction post to the idea  with the links/pingbacks to all the earlier posts).

This time I had a chance to have a conversation with my colleague and friend Marbella Trejo. Marbella and I ‘met’ online in 2017 and worked ‘virtually’ on several modules for an online course English for Communicative Language Teaching for teacher assistants. Then our paths crossed again in 2019 with a strategy planning project, and we were also in touch with each other every now and then when we had questions about the courses we were working on. We finally met in person in March of 2020 at the TESOL Center Manager Summit (yes, before ‘the’ date of the year!). The image below is a proud proof of this meeting! (Marbella will introduce herself formally at the end of the post).

Zhenya and Marbella finally meet in person after years of Skype calls. TESOL Partners Summit, March 2020.

We exchanged a number of e-mails and messages while working on this post, and kept the same format to organize our thoughts: the questions are asked by me, and marked (Z), and the answers are from Marbella (M). Now, let’s have some fantastic Guatemalan coffee and begin…

Z: Where are you based now? What is your current project or workplace?

M: I am currently working as an Academic Coordinator for the Adults’ Program at IGA, the binational center in Guatemala City. My work entails curriculum design for our different English language programs, designing courses for children, teenagers and adults, and a lot of teacher support through in-service workshops, material revision/feedback and observation of face-to-face and online classes. At the moment, everything is being done remotely because of the current situation and it has provided challenges to adapting to online teaching quickly. It hasn’t been easy, but I am so grateful for the learning that has taken place and for the team that I work with. 

I also work as a freelance teacher trainer and curriculum designer/content developer creating materials to be used in online formats. I’ve been able to work on some of these resources intended for English language learning and teacher professional development. 

Z: And we worked on some of them together! Do you teach at the moment (language classes, other classes)?

M: Unfortunately, I am not currently teaching – my work is mainly in the teacher training field of pre-service and in-service teachers within the institution and around the region, and it also involves curriculum design as I mentioned above. 

Teaching will always be one of my passions, and some of the reasons I enjoyed teaching were because it was an opportunity to witness growth in others – throughout my courses I was able to notice new language, skills and strategies constantly being developed. I was able to see the real impact this had on my students’ lives since they were able to apply to have new experiences, apply to job and study opportunities – I just felt very fortunate to be able to see that happening and to be part of it. I also really enjoy the challenge of trying to set up learning opportunities for others – I find it refreshing and exhilarating! The whole process of planning it out and then noticing what worked and what can be worked on for later always keeps it interesting. 

Z: I am with you on this feeling: not having the actual teaching experience but being able to design/construct it for/with others is a different kind of work. Sometimes I see teacher training as a kind of teaching, too (but of a different subject…) What are your (2-3) most important teacher beliefs? What shaped them?

M: Some of my main teaching beliefs relate to the importance of scaffolding and supporting all types of learners. I find that in both contexts, for language learners and for teachers, it’s essential to work towards independence, but to also think about the support that they may need in order to be more successful and confident as they learn and develop language and skills. By being aware of the support that learners need students become more engaged and willing to venture outside of their comfort zone. This has been a quest I’ve been on both as a teacher and as a teacher trainer – finding the best ways of scaffolding learning and not only thinking about it in terms of language proficiency, but also from the perspective of disabilities or special educational needs there may be, different personalities that may exist in the classroom as well as there being multi-aged and multi-levels within a classroom. I am by no means an expert, but this question guides me in the exploration of new strategies and approaches for myself as a teacher and trainer.  

Another teacher belief that strongly dictates what I do in the classroom both as a teacher and trainer is trying to relate what is being learned to real-life contexts so that learners can always establish connections and applications the language or skills may have to their own lives. Many times things can be approached from a very theoretical perspective, but I have found that some students can be off-put by this, and we can contribute much more when their own interests and needs are taken into consideration. 

I also strongly believe that through support and the design of guiding tasks, students can be led to discover key concepts and ideas for themselves. I think of myself more as a designer of those experiences vs. a traditional trainer or teacher. The key aspects are related to how these are designed, since without the adequate support learners may become very frustrated, discouraged and lost. So I do go back to scaffolding these as necessary.

At IGA, in Guatemala.

Z: I have been talking about this idea with my husband lately: in IT, there is a job/role of an architect (like in the Matrix movie, haha) and sometimes I see course/curriculum/task design as a kind of ‘scaffolding path’ to help learners. I firmly believe that true learner confidence comes from the initial support, where needed, and such guidance needs to be carefully built in, or structured, in the learning program, and gradually removed. In order to do that, the designer’s (previous or current) teaching experience is very important. I would love to talk more about this, one day! Something I have never asked you about: how did you become a teacher trainer?

M: I had been teaching English for a few years myself when I decided to take the SIT TESOL Certificate Course in Costa Rica (at the Institute For Collaborative Learning). This was the definitive moment that I knew I wanted to continue developing my own teaching skills and practices, and this was the life path for me. The next year, I was invited to become part of the Academic Unit at IGA – the binational center in Guatemala I still work at. Here I began my journey of learning more about how to provide support for teachers and their professional development. 

Having trained in-service and pre-service teachers at IGA for a few years, I was offered to become a licensed trainer for the SIT TESOL Certificate Course. I went back to Costa Rica, but now with a new challenge of doing my Stage 1 training. Then I had the opportunity of doing my Stage 2 as a part of a best practices course in Boston – this was by far one of the largest and most diverse groups I had ever worked with, but again, there was a clear confirmation that I wanted to continue support teachers on their learning journeys. 

Monterrey, Mexico

Z: This is amazing how you ended up being a learner (course participant) and then a trainer at the same training center! No wonder that the ideas and beliefs you hold are so interconnected (from learner to teacher, from teacher to trainer, etc.) By the way, what would you say are your (2-3) most important  training beliefs

M: I truly believe in the need to create authentic relationships with teachers and participants. To care for the human that is often doing the best we can along with communicating that you are there to support them as best you can. I feel that when I have been able to connect with teachers on more than just a professional level, they show a side of themselves that is more open to exploring their teaching practices and that is more receptive to learning. 

I might have said it before, but as a trainer, I feel I must never forget to be a good teacher – those effective teaching practices will actually speak much more than what words ever will. So I must remember to model the principles, to not only ‘talk the talk’, but to actually ‘walk the walk’.

Z: I love how we are getting back to this strong connection between teaching and training, and appreciate the ‘walking metaphor’: being with the teacher, taking a (similar) journey and facing similar challenges, forming solutions together, rather than offering a recipe book. What kind of courses or sessions for teachers do you usually run?

M: I run a lot of pre-service and in-service training for teachers that work at the binational center – this involves carrying out initial training courses for possible candidates that will potentially work for any one of our programs. We often focus on the lesson planning and teaching using our frameworks, as well as the basics of promoting student engagement and interaction. There are periodical (bimonthly) training sessions that are run based on the needs and requests teachers have. In addition, I am part of a national certification program in Guatemala, where we run a program that goes much deeper into understanding the field of English Language Teaching and the different approaches that can be applied. 

As a SIT TESOL Certificate Course licensed trainer, I have had the opportunity of training teachers locally and abroad; some of the courses/projects I have been part of are related to running Certificate courses and training trainers-being-trained to offer their own courses, like in Monterrey, Mexico. I was also able to do the same thing for a PCELT course in Tunisia in August of 2019. I have been part of an annual teacher training event in Chicago where we are able to work with instructors that offer vocational training in the field of construction, offering them the tools to work with planning and teaching frameworks to make learning more student-centered and interactive. 

Something else I’ve enjoyed thoroughly and that has helped me grow as a professional is participating in conferences in Latin America, working on topics related to discovery-based learning, the needs of introverted learners and professional development through communities of practice. 

Z: Wow, you have been involved in such a variety of projects and programs… What are your most favorite kinds of courses/programs, and why?

M: I find that I enjoy both intensive and extensive formats for courses that are intended for both novice and more experienced teachers, in a face-to-face format. I see the benefits of both, for example, with intensive courses, we often see significant change in only one month (during a Certificate course) and participants leave invigorated to continue developing what began during this experience. For extensive courses, I enjoy having more time to explore topics further and go a little deeper, at a pace that everyone can enjoy and benefit from. 

I can say that I learn so much from teachers at all levels, teachers that still haven’t been in their own classrooms just yet, and also teachers that are eager to learn new ways of approaching things they’ve done for a while – each experience is so enriching for me too! 

Z: How do you manage the stress(es) of an intensive course? What helps you stay sane?

M: I am not going to lie, it can be a very challenging and stressful experience, but I do try to make time to do other things on weekends, such as taking little walks and short trips whenever possible (especially if I am abroad). I try to set certain schedules and respect them as much as I can in order to ensure I am getting enough sleep and that I am eating properly. On some occasions I have been able to set up a workout schedule to stay active too – if this isn’t possible, I make sure to walk to the training site to get a little sun and exercise into the day. 

Other things that help keep me sane are checking in with my family on a regular basis and also I’ve learned to get input from other trainers on how they managed and did things more effectively in order to help optimize my work a little further. There is no shame in asking for help! 

Z: Yes, yes and yes! Actually being honest about the level of stress on an intensive course is one step towards being proactive and seeking strategies to keep balance. Sometimes I wonder if my long-distance running sessions are built into my routine in order to train myself for a ‘marathon’ of running a solo training course for 4-5 weeks? Joking! What question(s) about teacher training have you always wanted to ask other colleagues?

M: I’ve always been interested in seeing how others guide post-teaching feedback sessions, either as a group or one-to-one sessions, what tools they use to promote reflection and how much input they offer or they don’t when carrying these on their own. I’ve also been exploring potential frameworks for planning training sessions, and would be interested to hear how other trainers organize their sessions. It would be fabulous to explore how some trainers maximize their time and work more efficiently – especially when they are working with trainers-being-trained (in addition to a group of course participants). And finally, what effective training practices have they trainers found when delivering online courses?

Z: Love these questions, and would love to see what experienced trainers think about them! What kind of advice or tips would you like to share with new teacher trainers? (something you wish you had known when you were starting out)?

M: Some tips I try to offer my TBTs (trainers-being-trained) when we are working together relate to time management (some of the ideas I shared above), reflecting on their own sessions using DIGPA (using the experiential learning cycle, Describing, Interpreting, Generalizing and finally Planning Action) – in order to continue developing their own reflection skills as a practitioner, it can be important to reflect on their own sessions and training experiences. This is especially fruitful if it can be done with a co-trainer or team of trainers. Many of the lessons learned for new trainers come from these conversations with others, something they may never have had the opportunity to do before.

Some other tips I’d include would be: 

  • Each group of course participants will have its own personality and ways of needing support and expressing their learning. It’s important to open up channels of communication for participants to share these with you and each other. 
  • You are a part of a community of trainers, you should never be ashamed of reaching out to the community and asking for help and for ideas. As a trainer and as a trainer of trainers, I have learned so much from exchanging emails, messages and conversations with other trainers. It’s never too late to learn something new. 

In a training session in Tunisia.

Z: So true: I personally learned a lot from these trainer professional development e-mail threads! I have the same feelings about our conversation post actually! Sorry for interrupting you: are there any more tips to add?

M: Yes, a couple more ideas:

  • There are so many teachable moments for participants to expand and better understand topics covered throughout the course. Take advantage of opportunities to recycle and circle back to topics that were already covered before to help Ps make new connections to the content. 
  • Remember that many of the elements of effective learning experiences for Ss apply for participants as well, so it’s more about being a good model of teaching practices (beyond only sample lessons) that will help feel what student and learning-centered approaches feel like. 
  • Try to build in opportunities for enjoyment throughout the course, this experience is about building community and human relationships too. 

Z: Fantastic tips! How do you keep your training skills up between the (intensive training) courses?

M: Fortunately, my job at the binational center offers ample opportunities for me to continue planning and carrying out workshops and training sessions on a regular basis, as well as observing teachers and carrying out feedback sessions with them. I also try to be involved in activities that relate to the trainer community, for example calibration sessions that are held at times in order to discuss procedures and beliefs about how the SIT TESOL Certificate course can be run and the alternatives there may be. 

With instructors at the Annual Instructor Conference. Chicago, USA.

Z: In your own Professional Development as a teacher trainer, is there anything (an idea, an approach, etc.) you have been thinking about to try/would love to try in the future?

  • When planning my own sessions, I often use DIGPA (the experiential learning cycle with an opportunity to have a concrete experience, describe it, make interpretations based on it – then generalize and finally plan action) to plan my training sessions throughout the course and in my own sessions. I would love to experiment with other ways of planning and organizing my sessions using Test-Teach-Test, alternative project/task-based approaches for ELT and for teacher training purposes. 
  • As part of this rapid transition to online teaching, I was able to experiment a little with the flipped classroom model as a trainer, and feel as if it could really go well with the SIT TESOL Certificate course and helping participants be better prepared before the course begins. 

PCELT Course in Tunisia.

Z: And I have been considering taking this TBLT course by the trainer group in Barcelona, but have not had a chance yet. Maybe in the coming spring… What books outside of ELT have you (recently) read that helped you get new ideas for training sessions and courses?

M: This wasn’t too recently, but the book Quiet by Susan Cain helped me better understand myself personally and professionally. It centers around the need for introversion and extroversion in the world, and helped me understand the need for appreciating differences and strengths instead of judging from one perspective or another. The book offered some ideas on the need for alone time to process and work, considering a field that often focuses very much on collaboration and togetherness. 

Z: I read the book, too, and loved it! I agree that we may be focusing too much on ‘group work’ as trainers (and teachers!) in ELT. And… I actually noticed how much more introverted I appear to be than I’d thought I was. Now, my last question to you: do you think one can develop as a teacher and/or teacher trainer while doing non-teaching jobs and having no access to the classroom? If yes, how? 

  • I feel that teaching and learning take place in almost any work environment there is. So, there are better ways of approaching job training and the offering of feedback in order to make them even more effective. This is something I have seen time and time again with the professional development sessions carried out with union instructors who offer hands-on job skills and techniques. Once these instructors have the tools to make learning (and teaching) more engaging, active and ultimately enjoyable, everyone benefits. Their trainees actually want to be there and learn what their instructors want to help them reach. It relates to keeping the principles in mind of what helps and hinders learning and applying them independently of whether we are in a traditional teaching/learning environment. 
  • While we might be learning something new at a job that is not part of the field, we can also help ourselves find better ways of approaching the skills and content, scaffolding it for ourselves – and in turn put us in a better position when we are teaching or training since we’ve been in these shoes, we know how it feels. 
  • The term “feedback/constructive feedback” can mean so many things in other fields, but it doesn’t necessarily involve reflection, so we can constantly consider ways of slowing down and considering what might be done differently, what alternatives there are, what works well and what doesn’t and why it might be happening. As a reflective practitioner, we can train others to follow this thought process without needing to be in a training environment. 

Z: Yes! I have been nodding in agreement while reading the lines above. I especially agree with your last point: the idea of closer observation, pausing to think before acting (‘act, don’t react’, one of my dear colleagues and friends keeps saying), consider alternatives and choices, ask oneself ‘why’. Sometimes, these are much easier done in the classroom, or in a training situations than outside. Which means there is always room for further growth and development.

PCELT Tunisia, Graduation.

Thank you for this conversation, Marbella, and for the chance to think together about the teaching/training job that connected us. I feel so honored to have worked with you on various projects, and… can’t wait to step into a face-to-face/physical/real training room with you. I know we will. One day!

Marbella Trejo studied both Psychology and Special Education at Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala City. She has a TESOL certificate from the School for International Training (SIT/World Learning). Marbella is a Licensed Trainer and Trainer of Trainers for the SIT TESOL Certificate Course.

She started her career in the ELT field in 2005 teaching learners of all ages and levels and began training teachers in 2008. Marbella has been able to work with educators in Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, the US, Mexico and most recently Tunisia. She has also been able to develop curriculum for and facilitate online professional development courses. Marbella is currently working as an Academic Coordinator and a/the lead trainer for the World Learning center at the binational center in Guatemala City. She also loves music, podcasts, documentaries, traveling, lettering/stationery and just listening to people. 

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