11 Blog Challenge

Let me start by expressing my gratitude to Josette LeBlanc (http://throwingbacktokens.wordpress.com/) and Alexandra Chistyakova for nominating me.  Also, let me apologise for taking so long to write this as it has been a hectic Christmas and New Year.  I will cheat slightly by not nominating 11 bloggers to answer my questions, as I’m sure they have all been tagged and this challenge may not be running any more.  I have never been a trendsetter so I will enjoy my fashionably late status.

The ’11’ challenge was thus:

1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
4. List 11 bloggers.
5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

(as stated above, I have cheated by not doing 4 and 5.  Forgive me!)

11 random facts about me

  1. I am an extreme introvert.
  2. I am vegetarian.
  3. I am writing my first novel.  It’s rubbish but the process is fun.
  4. I am planning on starting my Masters in TESOL in late 2014 or early 2015.
  5. I used to work in a bank.  I was an Assistant Product Manager for Investments.  I quit to travel, and luckily found teaching.
  6. I often worry I have nothing to say of any insight when it comes to teaching.
  7. I once seriously considered the idea of becoming a Buddhist monk.
  8. I am a complete anglophile.
  9. My favourite writer (non-fiction) is John Pilger.  A voice of conscience.
  10. I have tinnitus.
  11. I want to be James Bond.

Questions from Alexandra

  1. What is a thing or activity that you have never done in your life that you would like to try out?  Make my way to Mount Everest base camp.
  2.  If you attended an ELT conference or webinar this year, which talk or workshop was the most memorable?  I really liked David Crystal’s webinar for IATEFL.  He made me rethink the evolution of language and challenged my beliefs.  I re-evaluated my approach and realised that perhaps I was a language snob (to a small degree).
  3.  What are the three things or skills you learnt this year? Patience, patience and more patience.
  4. What would you be doing if money wasn’t an issue?  I am in the happy position of saying I would do the same as I do now.  I love teaching and if I had no money worries I would stay in the classroom.
  5. What is your latest fad?  I’m an old fashioned chap, so I don’t think I have any fad at the moment.
  6. What can make you freeze in admiration?  I admire people who forgive those who do terrible things to them.  I have yet to learn how to show such kindness and humanity.
  7. What are your favourite songs of 2013?  It is not a new song as such but I loved the remastered version of ‘What are we fighting for?’ by Tindersticks.  Not a hugely popular band but I love them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6oTNgn0qxw
  8. What are you thankful for?  It’s corny, but I am grateful for my parents for always encouraging me to do what makes me happy.  Even though they are sad I don’t live in Ireland, they never make me feel guilty for not living closer to home.  Their strength and sacrifice allows me to live the life I do.
  9. What books have you read in 2013 that you would recommend? The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry
  10. What will you remember the year of 2013 for?  The year I almost fell out of love with teaching and then back in love again.
  11. If you could choose, where would you live?  Why?  Spain or Germany.  I could work and also be closer to friends and family.

Questions from Josette

  1. Why did you start blogging ?  I started blogging as I felt it was a good opportunity to develop and reflect on my teaching.  To be honest, I don’t blog much as I do not have anything particularly original to say.  However, I enjoy reading others teacher’s blogs.  It’s one of my New Year’s Resolutions to comment more and interact more with other teachers.
  2. What keeps you teaching every year?  The simple reason is that I feel at home in the classroom.  I feel it is where I belong.  This year was strange year for me as it was the first time since starting teaching that I considered quitting.  A few personal and professional knockbacks hit me hard.  Happily, I came through it and rediscovered some of the joy of teaching.
  3. Do you have a pet peeve? If so, what is it? If not, have you ever had one, and how did you get over it? Tell me something about pet peeves.  I have many pet peeves.  However, the number one is when people hack up some flem and spit on the street (in front of me).
  4. Do you prefer planes, trains, or automobiles when traveling?  For speed and convenience, I enjoy planes.  For the romance of travel, I love trains but don’t get to travel on them that often.
  5. What’s your favourite movie?  This changes quite often but I will have to cheat slightly and name a trilogy.  The Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight movies.
  6. Has a complete stranger ever showed you kindness? What happened?  Complete strangers often showed me kindness in Korea.  Whether lost or confused Koreans always went out of their way to help me.  I miss that.
  7. Tea or coffee?  Coffee.  I have recently discovered the joys of a Caffe Mocha.
  8. What was one of the sweetest moments that ever happened in class – between you and the students, or between the students?  A student once gave me a Christmas card where she she explained how she hated English until I became her teacher and that ever since she has loved it.  That was very sweet of her and I keep the card as a prized possession.
  9. You have the whole day to yourself. What are you going to do?  Go for a walk and read a book.  I like the simple things in life.
  10. If you could spend a year focusing on research, what would you research? Why?  Discourse Analysis.  It seems fascinating but I am woefully ignorant on the subject.
  11. What’s your favourite word? Jaysus (Irish-English)

How to ‘demand high’ – Jim Scrivener at the IATEFL Conference

Demand High ELT has been on my radar for quite a while now.  In some ways it has given me the same feeling as Dogme.  The idea itself is not a new methodology or even a new idea, but it does give the idea a name, a banner that teachers can get behind.  Just as teachers may well have been teaching Dogme before it was called Dogme, teachers have probably been demanding high, before it had the name.  Giving a name to a movement or idea can help give teachers the courage to talk about what they are doing knowing that many others are also doing the same.

The session by Jim Scrivener was high on my list of sessions to see before the conference began.  It started off with the demand high meme, ‘Am I engaging the full learning potential of students in my class?’  This is a question I ask myself constantly. Scrivener and his colleague Adrian Underhill felt that they saw lots of good, entertaining, fun teaching.  What was probably missing was teaching that pushed students.  This strikes a chord with me.  I sometimes wonder if fun and entertainment are valued more than edgier teaching that pushes students beyond their comfort zone.


An interesting question he asked was, ‘is it OK to teach?’  This is well worth asking as teaching has almost become a dirty word in some circles.  Scrivener believes there is a role for explicit teaching in the classroom, although probably not lecturing at the front of the classroom.


Ultimately the slogan, ‘expect more, demand high’ sums it up in a nutshell.  This effectively ended the presentation part of the session as Scrivener moved on to a more practical workshop.  Although there are many aspects of a lesson he could explore he decided look at a common stage in most lessons, namely, when a student has done an exercise and the teacher leads a feedback stage to check answers.


Scrivener then challenged the attendees to a thought experiment, ‘If I wanted to extend this stage (going through the students’ answers) to last 60 minutes, what are some things I could do?’  I liked his suggestion not to stamp your authority on the answer from a student.  Rather than yes, yes, good, do you agree?  leave it open whether it is right or wrong and ask other students opinions first.  This is something that I have found useful in my classes.

He also talked about moving on from fixing students’ errors. ‘Fixing doesn’t lead to insight.  It doesn’t lead to awareness.  Fixing just papers over a crack.’.

He finished with a slide that offered an alternative approach.


At the beginning of the post I said that this is one of the sessions I was most looking forward to.  It certainly didn’t disappoint.  What a great start it has been to IATEFL 2013.  Can’t wait for further sessions as the week progresses.

As for this session, it seems apt to end with a quote from Scrivener, ‘Demand high isn’t a method.  All it is is putting that question in your head, How can I challenge my learners more?’

Check out the session at http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2013/sessions/2013-04-09/how-demand-high


I’m currently working on a presentation about the use of twitter in professional development.  I assume if anybody reads this blog post, they will have found it through twitter.  It’s been a strange journey for me.

About 19 months ago, I had a discussion with my brother who had just joined facebook.  I congratulated him on joining the 21st century.  He was positive about his initial experience of that site, although he did state strongly, ‘I will never write a status update and I will never join twitter’.  We both laughed at the pointlessness of twitter and were perplexed as to why anyone would join such a site.  What a shallow experience when you can only type in 140 characters.  My impression was that it was full of B-list celebrities and sports stars writing inane comments.

Well. here I am 19 months later, and I think I am one of the strongest defenders of twitter that there is.  Is it too strong to say it has been a life changing experience?  That may be extreme but it has certainly changed the direction of my life and career.  I signed up for twitter on a whim, expecting that I would soon leave it to gather cyber dust and deactivate my account within a month.  How wrong I was.  I was just beginning my journey of professional development.  I had just come back to Korea to start my third contract.  All three contracts were at the same school.  In many ways, my early teaching life has followed a familiar path.  I arrived, essentially, as a tourist.  Teaching was a means to an end.  The first year was merely surviving and hoping I would enjoy the job.  I fell in love with teaching quite quickly.  However, at the end of my first year I knew I wanted to stay in the classroom but at the time felt I wanted to go back and do an English Literature degree and teach that rather  than English as a foreign language.

My second year teaching involved me trying to decide what to do.  For many reasons (which are too boring to go into detail about) I decided that my true love was the ELT environment.  The break between my second and third contract allowed to to start my professional development journey.

I’m going to preach(rant) a little now.  I do feel it is a responsibility and obligation to try to improve constantly as teachers.  We not only owe it to ourselves and our pride, but also to the students that we teach.  They trust us, and I feel we need to do the best for them that we can.  As Jenny Johnson said in her blog post from 2009, ‘I have always been disheartened to see how some teachers are happy to go on much as they always have done, doing a reasonable job but not developing to any great extent.’*

Let me be clear.  I am not saying this because I think I am a great teacher and you should all listen to my words of wisdom.  I am saying this precisely because I am an average teacher and feel it is my responsibility to improve.  I have constantly been annoyed by seeing other teachers more interested in drinking 5 nights a week that put five minutes into a little reflection on their teaching.  Nothing wrong with drinking, but it does annoy me when it affects the quality their work.  Having said that, everyone makes their own choices in life, and they are free to approach the job here as they see fit.

After that brief digression, let me get back to how fantastic twitter has been for me.  When I have thought about it over the past few weeks, the one word that kept coming into my mind has been simply. . . community. When I joined twitter I expected competitiveness.  I have seen only willingness to help teachers starting out on this journey.  I expected snobbiness from experienced teachers towards teachers such as myself who are relatively new and don’t have a fraction of their knowledge.  Again, I have received only kindness, help, and have never been made to feel inferior.  When I started this blog, Phil Wade did a guest post to give it a kick start.  Chiew Pang retweeted it to get more traffic.  I’ve also enjoyed the chats with the #KELTchat crew.**  Although I feel my blog is often quite poor compared to the others I’ve read, fellow teachers on twitter have always encouraged me to continue.  If anything, my main hope for this blog is that it is, at the very least, honest.

The community is a fantastic resource, one that I know many others appreciate.  I have discovered blogs, discussion groups, teaching tools, professional organisations etc.  It has been a revelation and an inspiration.  Quite simply, I never believed in an online community until I joined twitter.  I have ‘met’ some of the most open, honest, helpful people you could imagine.  It honestly has restored my faith in people.  I hope my growth as a teacher continues.  I hope I can reach the heights of the fantastic teachers I’ve met there.  I hope to meet some of them in real life and take another step in my professional development.

On this rainy night in Korea, I suppose I want to say thank you to the community, and I hope we are having discussions for many years to come.

*Jenny Johnson (2009) , Ways to continuing professional development—



Show Me the Money! Performance Related Pay in ELT?

As I was chatting to colleague recently he made the comment, ‘It seems like good teachers are punished in Korea by getting a heavier workload and bad teachers are rewarded with less hours for the same pay.  Surely good teachers should be rewarded’.  Putting aside the idea of what a ‘good’ teacher is, the idea of Performance Related Pay(PRP) in ELT is not a new idea.  However, I haven’t personally come across any schools that implement it.

I think most of us did not enter the world of teaching to earn our fortunes.  Should teachers be rewarded for their efforts ?  I’m not convinced.  Now you may be thinking who would be against teachers getting paid more.  Me?  Not at all, but I worry about how PRP would be implemented and if it would actually benefit teachers.  First of all, what criteria would be used to measure it.  Let’s look at some (but not all) of the possible options.

1. Student Test Scores

Exams in private schools are often made and marked by the teachers themselves so they do not go to any external body.  This creates obvious problems with consistency, and who exactly marks the test papers.  Do you mark you own? Do you mark your colleagues?  Do you mark all of the tests for consistency?  Honesty and transparency may be a problem here.

2. Student Feedback

We are entering a murky area.  Although it is important to have a rapport with students, it is quite possible (particularly with young learners) that the joke telling, fun teacher will be extremely popular with the students.  This doesn’t mean they are doing a good job.  They may spend most of the class playing pointless games or endlessly entertaining the kids.  Does this mean the students are learning? On the other hand, there may well be a dour, serious teacher who is less popular with students, but certainly no less effective as a teacher.

3.  Observation

First, who will do the observation?  Second, will their own personal preference for teaching style impact on the score?  How is the observation broken down?  What weight is given to the different components that make up your observation sheet?  Is any sort of objective consistency possible through observation?

4. Professional Development

Should teachers who attend seminars and conferences (whether in person or online)  receive some credit?  They are working hard to improve themselves (often at the cost of their own time and money) which hopefully benefits the students.  Could teachers who keep a record of their own reflective practice show that they are always doing their best for the students?


This is just a quick list of possible criteria.  The problem is that much of it is rather subjective and probably impossibe to measure in an objective way.  Who would draw up the criteria?  Would it be each individual school or is it possible to adopt an industry standard?  Could this standard be adopted worldwide or adapted country  by country?  What weight will be given to each criterion?

The idea of PRP is also often put out there by people on the assumption that it will benefit teachers.  The opposite could happen.  It could be used by private school owners to set a lower basic wage with the promise that your effort will be rewarded with untold riches.  You could be in for a nasty surprise at evaluation time as you stroll in ready to count your money, only to realise you have not reached any of the targets set by the school.

As is obvious from my post, I have many questions and no answers.  I am hoping someone reads this post and could share their own ideas or experiences regarding PRP.  Do you work in a school that adopts it?  Do you think it’s a good idea?

Opta Stats for ELT?

I’m a big football (soccer) fan.  I also have an occasional fondness for reading the latest statistics.  How many miles did this player run?  How many crosses did that player make?  It has become more and more important as coaches analyse every aspect of their players performances in the hope of gaining that extra edge that brings home the cup.  Diet, specialised training schedules, resting players have all been influenced, sometimes very strongly by statistical analysis.  Fans spend their time reading the latest stats from the latest match (If you are a sports stat nerd you can visit @OptaJoe on twitter)

I thought of this as I attended a recent seminar about blended learning.  The focus of the seminar was how online learning was integrated into the latest editions of a certain publishers books.  It seems a number of publishers are realising the growing importance of blended learning and trying to incorporate it further into their books.

The seminar did get me thinking about blended learning in a broader sense.  I’ll be honest, I have no experience in this field.  I work in a strictly offline environment.  About the most high-tech I get is putting a CD in the player or turning on the air con.  However, as a bit of a nerd I was attracted to the idea of statistical analysis in the ELT field.  It did intrigue me.  My students could do work at home and I could see all the data set out for me in shiny barcharts and graphs.  How many times they had to do a particular task,  how long it took them etc.

My initial reaction was fascination, filled with grand schemes of all the work I could get them to do, of how I could follow their every move from my own PC at home.  The possibilities seemed endless.  Phonics work, gap filling exercises, mini tests etc  Oh, how my heart was all a flutter.

After I calmed down I looked at the positives and negatives.


The first positive that sprung into my mind, was rather selfish.  If they do all this work at home, and the results are collated and presented to me by the publisher, I won’t have to check homework in class.  I can devote those vital 10 minutes or so to a task or discussion.  Yippee!  Of course, I would still have to check work, but the potential to reduce homework checking made me feel a little giddy.

Secondly,similar to homework checks, I could get them to do exercises in their own time that they were perfectly capable of doing alone.  I always try to do something in class that they can’t do at home so they get the full benefit of  class time with a teacher.  I don’t really see the benefit of me being there if I spend 50 minutes standing beside the CD player hitting the pause/play button.

The third positive which occurred to me, in a Machiavellian moment, was how I could control my classes.  Design specialised exercises based on the statistics.  I could see myself pouring over all the information, and decide…. that Jimmy has to do extra listening homework.

This is all rather tongue in cheek, but I am excited by the potential to see some of the students stronger and weaker points and create exercises, lessons plans and homework that will zero in on their specific needs.


To use the footballing analogy again, famous coaches have won trophies using statistical analysis as a cornerstone of their approach.  League titles, European cups have been won, with great credit given to Opta stat type approaches. However, it is also an approach which has been accused of being impersonal and treating players more as statistics rather than humans beings.  Is this a danger in ELT?  Could we start looking at the stats and forgetting the humans?  Will we approach each lesson  thinking only of our students’ statistical weaknesses?  Probably not, but as the importance and use of online content within traditional courses increases, it will be important not to get caught up solely in the figures.

The danger is that schools will just buy new editions of books and clumsily add-on the online learning to the existing traditional coursebook with no thought about how to truly integrate it so the students get a true blended learning experience.


As I said,  I have no practical experience of blended learning so I’m an outsider looking in and trying to grasp what it all means.  Do you think blended learning will continue to become more and more important in the future?  Is it the real deal?

Behind Enemy Lines – integrating personal teaching beliefs!

This is my third year teaching.  It is fair to say, it is the year I have grown AND stagnated the most as a teacher.  It is the year I realised that teaching was no longer something I was doing just to allow me the means to travel and see the world.  I fell in love with the job and want it to be a lifelong career.  I joined twitter and discovered many great ELT teachers with many great ELT blogs (a small sample of which are on the blogroll to the right).  I have started to really find out what kind of teacher I am, and more importantly, what kind of teacher I want to become.  I seem to have followed a typical teacher development cycle.  First year, just figure out what I’m doing.  I had no experience, no qualifications.  Second year, enjoy the fact that I have, at least, some experience, have some idea what I’m doing and love going into class.  Third year,  no longer happy just to ‘teach by numbers’ but ready to put my own stamp and my own ideas into classes.  I want to develop my teaching.

This really is a big issue for me.  I started to write this post about how I could bring my own style and beliefs into a class in a company that may not share them.  How can I teach the way I want to teach, yet still teach in the way that my employers want me to teach?  After all, they do pay my salary.  This is not a vanity project for me.  They pay me, I’ll teach how they want me to.  However, I also owe loyalty to my students, and to teach them in the way that I believe will benefit them.  Is there a way to teach according to your own beliefs and ideals and also satisfy the academy.  My school owners have been in the ELT business much longer than I have.  Who am I to put aside their methods and replace them with my own?  After all, I often remind myself, if the academy goes out of business, I can get a new job, but it is the owners who lose their livelihood.

As I was writing this post I saw a post on twitter that the next #KELTchat would be about this very subject.  ‘What a coincidence’, I thought.  As I reflected on it, I realised that it was not, in fact, a coincidence at all.  Surely, many teachers feel this way, particularly in Korea.  For me, the answer has not been easy to reach.  I am not there yet.  I have developed ways that I can try to find a happy medium between the heavy coursebook use demanded of me and my own beliefs of a more humanist approach that involves using the students as resources, working on emerging language, pair work etc  (Dare I use the ‘d’ word…?)

I have tried to introduce ‘dogme moments’ into my classroom.  Those few minutes of each class where I can take a detour behind enemy lines and forget about the coursebook.  They are brief, but often lead to the richest conversations, where students are suddenly talking about topics of interest to them.  Students previously slumped in their chairs with glazed over eyes, become alert and eager to use English.  Why are they eager to speak?  I believe it is because they get a chance to talk about something meaningful to them.  I see students who rarely speak or give one word answers change, and start to search their brains for the right words to express what they want to say.  We are no longer discussing coursebook topics such as ‘processed corn products’.  They care about the topic and want to reach out.

Is it possible to teach your way within tight institutional frameworks?  Like  most things in life, the answer probably lies in reaching a compromise.  You need to know what is expected from your bosses, but that doesn’t mean you can’t bring something of yourself to the classroom.  We are not robots whose function is to hand out gap filling exercises or press play on the CD player.  We have a chance to show our enthusiasm, to attempt to transmit it to the students, to engage them (or bore them less).  As it is, I will continue in my attempt to become an above average teacher by bringing my teaching beliefs into the classroom.

Are you not entertained?

‘Are you not entertained?’.  So asks Russell Crowe in Gladiator.  It is a question I sometimes wonder whether I should ask my students.  Should teachers be entertainers, especially with young learners?  I was recently watching the ‘Three Amigos’ movie.  One scene involves the trio trying to entertain the local rough crowd in a bar while attempting to get them to sing along to ‘My Little Buttercup’.  Is this what it is like to be an entertainer in the classroom?

Now, I feel some teachers are natural entertainers, some are not.  I like to think of myself as quite entertaining in the classroom, but my students may disagree.  However, the fact that someone is more or less serious in front of their class shouldn’t really reflect badly on them… or should it?

I work in Korea which has a billion dollar industry in private academies(Hagwans) teaching English .  It is a dog eat dog world.  Hagwans open and close everyday.  Students can leave at a drop of a hat. Something that was said to me by another teacher in my first week in Korea has always stuck with me. ‘They won’t ask the kids if you are good.  They’ll ask them if they like you.’  Isn’t this a problem?  Of course, we all hope that our students like us.  We try to form a connection, make the class an interesting and safe place to encourage and promote learning.  I don’t think any of us want our students dreading the moment they enter our class.

The worry I have is that the balance has gone too far in one direction.  In a system where private academies have to balance their books, entertaining teachers can often be automatically perceived as ‘good’ teachers.  Quite simply, if the students like their teacher, regardless of the teachers ability, the students are more likely to stay in the academy, and therefore, keep the money rolling in.  The potential negative side of this is that sometimes, teachers who do very little apart from playing games with little or no educational value are popular.

Students in Korea not only have school and English academy to deal with.  Some students can attend up to four or five other academies such as Chinese, Art, Math, Music etc.  They can welcome a class with a teacher who ‘mucks about’.  Even some school owners have been known to welcome this.  What about those poor teachers that are of a more serious nature?  Are they in danger of being undervalued because they happen to be less lighthearted in class?

In saying all this, my approach is very much one of trying to engage the students, have fun, but always with the goal of learning at the end of it.

For me, teachers come in all shape and sizes.  With regard to young learners, I prefer to see high energy teachers showing enthusiasm and transmitting that enthusiasm to the students.   However, does this mean that, in a highly competitive industry, more reserved teachers may be judged harshly?

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