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.

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict
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4 Responses to Trainer Conversation with Annie Polatsek

  1. Fabulous, what a webpage it is! Thhis blog
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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Trainer Conversation with David Donaldson | Wednesday Seminars

  3. Pingback: Trainer Conversations: Introduction | Wednesday Seminars

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