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.

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict
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2 Responses to Trainer Conversation with David Donaldson

  1. Ron Bradley/Global TEFL says:

    Loved getting to know David a bit more through your wonderful blog, Zhenya. He and I (and Ellen and Brian) trained together a group of Turkish educators at the University of Massachusetts a few years ago. I appreciate his belief that we need to “trust the students”. Some time ago it occurred to me that in order to be a teacher, we need to have a student or students. But to be a student does not require the need to have a (physical) teacher. This puts quite a different slant on what it means to teacher and to learn. I’ll leave it there.



    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Ron
      Thank you for the comment! That training at the University of Massachusetts had a fantastic team of educators: wish I could join you all.
      I would love to learn more about the idea ‘to be a student does not require the need to have a (physical) teacher’. Have been thinking a lot about learning online recently, and one idea on my mind is about letting go of ‘control’ we seem to need in the actual classroom (‘control’ of the tasks students are working on, the pace, the dynamics, even the mood). Indeed, need to think more of what learning and teaching is/involves. So… let’s keep the conversations going! 🙂


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