Interview with Lana Sushko: Helping Language Teachers

In this post I am excited to share the result of my very first face-to-face interview experience! Staying in the theme of attending, presenting at and organizing ELT events and conferences, I talked with Lana Sushko, my friend and colleague from Ukraine, about her work with language teachers. You will see Lana’s bio blurb at the end of the post. Now… read on!

Z: What is SOVa in simple words?

L: It is a Teacher Training school with a variety of projects. The main idea is trying to help other teachers who did not have a chance to get an international qualification/degree, but who are eager to learn, investing their time and money into professional development and making their lessons better.

Z: So your target audience is the Ukrainian teachers of state schools and Universities?

L: Whoever is interested and wants to, can join a relevant project with SOVa.

Z: How was the idea to start such a school born? [It is a word and an acronym in Ukrainian**]

L: Yes, the acronym in Ukrainian stands for Teacher Education Studio. [For the readers who understand Ukrainian: СОВа = Студія Освіти для Викладачів]. The little ‘a‘ was initially meant to be ‘English’ (‘англійська’ in Ukrainian), but we decided not to add that, as teachers of other languages also come to our sessions and courses.

**In Ukrainian and Russian it means ‘owl’, with all its wisdom and freedom to fly.

The idea to create such a school was ‘flying in the air’. A former colleague of mine who had been thinking of various projects and was moving in the direction of marketing and advertising helped with it. We were both keen on the idea of helping others, and wanted to share what we could do well.

It started with us running so-called ‘Show and Tell’ sessions for teachers, and then we developed the idea further. The colleague eventually left ELT and moved to advertising full-time, and I stayed.

Z: So you were you starting the school alone?

L: My son was in grade 6 at that time, and helping him with his school homework, I saw the materials and tasks he did for the English lessons. As we understand, state school teachers could not afford a CELTA course or Cambridge YL extension, or even a simple training on communicative methodology.

I’d like to add that at those times I was actively traveling around Ukraine with a publishing team and met a lot of teachers, and got a lot of questions were asked about a ‘system’ or ‘program’ of some kind. What they desperately needed were substantial courses, practical and meaningful, not just single seminars from publishers (generously offered throughout Ukraine to these days).

To sum it up, it was a ‘meeting point’ of the need of the market and my insight or awareness that I could offer more, so the first five-day SOVa course was born.

Z: Thank you for this timeline Lana! Now, I personally got to know SOVa as an organizer/provider of ‘Teacher Training Days’. How was that idea brought to life?

L: The idea of the event is even more interesting! The five-day courses became popular, and at a certain point we had run about 4 courses for about 45-50 teachers overall. ‘Alumni meetings’ were started for everyone not to lose touch, and a lot of teachers joined the meetings. I was wondering if that was enough. The idea to invite people to the first Teacher Training Day came in that ‘altered’ state of mind close to dreaming: I was almost falling asleep and I imagined an assembly hall full of people and myself on the stage. I woke up, wrote things I had seen down. I realized we could invite other people, not just alumni, to join such an event. Two months later, we ran the first Teacher Training Day, and about 100 teachers came.

Z: Wow, it is a great story! I think it was August 2016, and the event I had missed 🙂 I have attended four Teacher Training Days between then and now. I know I’ve told you this before, but I am fascinated by the level of organization there. I’d like to ask you some questions about organizing events. First of all, how do you decide on speakers for your event?

L: First, the speaker pool was based on the colleagues I had worked with (at International House Kyiv, International Language Center, British Council, publishers, etc.) At the same time, I really wanted to promote the idea that everyone can share and present what you can do well in your classes (not necessarily having an international certificate, for example). I started posting an announcement, or call for speakers, with a form to fill out. Sometimes a speaker can be a person I have never met before, and in this case, I arrange a Skype meeting. 

Z: In your Teacher Training Days, there are plenary sessions, and some split sessions/workshops where people can choose the topics and speakers to attend. What criteria are you using to decide if a teacher can facilitate a session?

L: Well, it goes without saying that s/he should be able to express him/herself verbally in [clear] English (the working language of the event is English). Then, s/he should have something to share with others, an idea they are passionate about. At SOVa, we encourage presenters to make the session as practical as possible, and visualize a specific outcome for the audience/participants to leave the session with. Finally, we collect feedback and share it the speakers informally. For example, we might mention that if you are planning to present in the future, pay attention to XX and YY things to improve.

Z: Do you want people to have had previous presenting experience?

L: Yes, it is definitely a plus, an advantage, but by no means our main criteria. Presenters need to start from something, and our events can be such a platform. At the same time, we won’t give a newcomer a plenary slot (starting from a workshop for 40 people is manageable and reasonable). Besides, I have been personally helping new presenters in making their first steps.

Z: I am totally with you on the idea that everyone can share ideas. I remember attending a session on Kids Club in February 2017 and was amazed by Ira, the first time presenter. The session was fantastic, reminded me about those good old days in (V)YL classroom. And… we were those 1st time presenters one day, too! By the way, do you present at your own events?

L: I find having two roles (of organizer and presenter) can be challenging: many things may come up the night before the event (cancellations, logistical problems, etc.), so the ‘juggling’ becomes complicated.

Z: Being an experienced presenter in Ukraine for various audiences, what tips for SOVa first time presenters would you give?

L: I can share a list of the things that come to mind:

  • think about the participants, about your audience
  • think about the context where they come from (educational background, experience, language courses or exams taken, etc.)
  • find out what course books they are using
  • find out if they have had any experience in teaching communicatively?
  • think of ‘how-to’ tools you can share
  • plan practical activities to experience with them
  • plan more than just activities, think of questions to discuss and theory to address
  • don’t make your session totally theoretical
  • decide on using inductive or deductive approach to combine theory and practice.

Z: Do you have a preferred way to structure your own session (inductively or deductively)?

L: I have used both approaches in my sessions, and if I use the deductive way, I try asking lots of questions to teachers to keep it interactive.

Z: Lana, you have experience of presenting for 400+ people. I remember a conversation we had in our session for presenters when you disagreed that ‘a workshop is more for participants, but a plenary is just a lecture’. In your opinion, how are plenary sessions different from the workshops for smaller audiences?

L: The plenary sessions in our Teacher Training Days would be reserved for more experienced teachers and speakers. Even with experience, I know it can be very hard to make plenary sessions interactive. Having a clear practical outcome in mind can help presenters to make them more interactive, and ‘inject’ elements of pair and group work.

I should add that not all the groups are ready to work in pairs, but if we don’t start doing that, we’ll never change or challenge the audience! Yes, I try to push a bit in the presentations I deliver. Of course I remind teachers it’s a task ‘that it is just for several minutes’ 🙂

Z: How do you then elicit ideas from the group? Do you ask someone to shout the answers out?

L: Sometimes this is not technically possible (without a microphone, for example). I try to prepare a slide with my ideas (possible ideas), asking participants in pairs to compare with what they brainstormed, and comment on any differences they found.

Z: Speaking of slides: are visual aids crucial for a plenary session, in your opinion?

L: They are, even for a smaller group of people! I think just listening to a lecture or a talk can be very challenging/tiring, and being able to hold the attention of the audience is a challenge by itself, and without the visual support, it is nearly impossible.

Z: Unless you are a fantastic public speaker? I can say that even with a group of 12 teachers on a course giving clear instructions for a new task, for example, is very hard without visual scaffolding… Would you also say that a handout/worksheet is equally important for a session?

L: As for handouts/printouts, I would ask ‘why’ the presenter needs them: would it be possible

to share the materials online, or could the attendees do it in their notebook/folder? We all know that there could be lots of paper after an event attended, and sometimes, there is never enough time to go through those folders (busy teacher lives!) I think having access to materials online is a convenient option people could have, if they have energy and time to reflect. Saves trees, too!

[Zhenya’s note: Lana is going to facilitate a session about presenting skills with a title ‘Scared but Prepared‘ on 23 February]

Z: Each Teacher Training Day you are thinking of something new: a new track, a new speaker, etc. Is there anything you are thinking about for the coming event you can disclose?

L: The coming Teacher Training Day is going to be in Kyiv on 23-24 February. Yes, this time it is two days, and… we’d like to become more ‘international’ and involve speakers from other countries. At the same time, we have so many Ukrainians who have taken courses, even worked with students and teachers abroad, having accumulated the knowledge and being ready to share. Watch our Facebook page for more details!

Z: To me, this seems to be ‘the‘ SOVa mission. This event is one of a kind in Ukraine, and I am looking forward to joining the new one this weekend!

L: I am happy you have been our constant guest, and more than that you bring a lot to the event, you help participants and presenters to develop and reflect on their teaching, training and presenting experience. I hope that together we can help our teaching and training community in Ukraine become more and more professional.

Z: Thank you for the interview, for your words and… I hope it’s not the last time we are having such a conversation 🙂

Lana Sushko is a teacher, SOVa founder and teacher trainer. She has been a teacher for over 20 years, and a teacher trainer for almost 10 years. Lana has worked in Ukraine for International House Kyiv, British Council Kyiv, International Language Centre, teaching adults, teenagers and children. She founded her own teacher training school SOVa which holds interactive workshops and 5-day training courses for teachers and administrators all around Ukraine. Lana holds CELTA (2005) and IHCYLT (2006) certificates, and is on her way to DELTA.

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/
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5 Responses to Interview with Lana Sushko: Helping Language Teachers

  1. Wilma Luth says:

    Zhenya, thanks for this interview! It’s great to read about innovative ideas in teacher training. And I loved reading how first-time presenters are encouraged and supported. There’s so much knowledge and skill in the room when a group of teachers get together!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Zhenya says:

      Thank you for reading and leaving a comment Wilma! Can’t agree more with the last sentence: yes, ‘so much knowledge and skill in the room when a group of teachers get together’! We have all been first-time presenters one day (and I often have a feeling I am still a beginner, and that’s a nice feeling I’d like to keep)
      Thank you for the inspiring everyday posts on your blog, keep them coming!
      Zhenya

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ron Bradley says:

    Zhenya, great job on the interview with Lana Sushko! It is wonderful to see her work. I can tell by her photo that she is a “fireball”. I would love to get in touch with her. Could you send me her e-mail address? I am always looking for ways to share and learn.

    As for you, Zhenya, you are a tremendous blessing to the field.

    Warm regards,
    Ron

    Like

    • Zhenya says:

      Dear Ron

      Thank you for the warm comment (as always, reading your words reminds me of the great times we shared on the training courses in Korea!)
      I would love you two to get in touch. Expect an e-mail from me soon! 🙂
      Zhenya

      Like

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