Thoughts and reflections

Taking time out?

I’ve been quiet on here for a longish while. Today this came up on Timehop and I thought I’d give writing a try.*

It hasn’t been writer’s block, though. It’s been a new job. Around 3 months ago I started working full time in an office job, entirely unconnected to ELT. There we go; I’ve said it. I’ve tweeted the occasional (fairly) oblique reference to the new job since then, and updated my Linkedin profile, but haven’t spoken about it in detail, except to my family and some friends.

It isn’t a secret, obviously, but it *has* been a change. Primarily because of the lack of ties to English teaching – something I’ve been doing my whole working life. Or since 1997. The job is in the education sector, so it’s not as if I’ve moved on to a completely unfamiliar field, but it’s not what I’ve sort of built my professional identity around.

It’s a great job: there’s a lot to learn, it’s rewarding in many ways… what’s not to like? On so many levels it made complete sense to go for it, particularly as things have been less than ideal recently at the institution I’ve been working for over the past nine years.

Since I began teaching I’ve met countless teachers who eventually quit ELT for jobs that promised greater stability and security. When I say ‘quit ELT’ I mean quit working for private language schools – teachers working in the state sector seem to make this change less often. For a very long time I thought I was going to be one of those teachers – I wrote about this for the #YoungerTeacherSelf challenge. But then, especially over the last couple of years while I lived in Belgium, I became used to the idea of always being in ELT in some way. I suspect this feeling was encouraged by the fact that in a new country my teacher identity allowed me to hang on to something familiar. Also probably by the comforting, if possibly misguided, belief that I’ve “achieved” something in this field – feel free to interpret achievement as you like – and that it would require too much effort to start something new at this point.

I guess this is why I keep telling myself that I’m just trying this job on for size – it’s a temporary contract anyway. If it doesn’t work out, I can always come back to ELT.

If you had the choice of leaving teaching after a long time in the profession, what would you do? And if you decided to stay, what do you think would be the deciding factor?

* In the interest of addressing petty concerns accuracy “today” was August 18.

Thoughts and reflections

30 questions (about 2015)

I remember when chain emails with questions like these were making the rounds in, like, 2001. They were an excellent way of procrastinating then, too. My favorite question was (no idea why) – if you looked under your bed right now, what would you find? A whole lotta dust, in case you were wondering. 😛

I came across this set of questions in posts by Rachel Daw and Sandy Millin (see the original post in which Anna Loseva explains how she came up with the questions here), and thought I’d give them a go, sticking to work-related stuff for the most part.

It’ll make more sense if you pretend this was posted in 2015, obviously.

  1. The best moment of the year.

When I’m pushed to make a decision, I keep thinking, surely there’s something you’ve forgotten. So this most likely wasn’t THE best moment, but it was a proud and happy one nevertheless: a student of mine was the only one from Zagreb University to be awarded a grant to spend a semester at York University in Canada. I like to think the reference I wrote helped at least a bit.

  1. What inspired me the most this year?

The way my assistant mods contributed to our online course. I did a post on that here.

  1. The major news of this year.

The AMORES project is officially over!! (If you can find two consecutive exclamation marks anywhere else on this blog, I’ll eat my pom-pom beanie. Apparently the hat of the year, if you’ll excuse the digression.) So, yes, two years of pretty hard work have come to an end and if you would like to help our stats by taking two minutes to download a copy of the methodology here, that would be lovely, thank you very much. It’s a bit of a drag that you have to register, but we will not abuse your data and spam you – promise. For people who like pics, we have loads over on Flickr.

  1. Anthem of the year.

I’m at the stage where something could be playing over and over for a whole year and I can’t be bothered to check what it’s called or who sings it. I think the next stage is when I start saying, “They just don’t know how to make music anymore”, and those under 20 start giving me pitying looks.

  1. The most important people in my life.

Have very little to do with ELT.

  1. What was most difficult for me to do this year?

One thing was probably deciding whether to go to the TESOL France Colloquium in Paris, held a week after November 13. I was supposed to give a talk, so I felt bad about cancelling. In the end I went and was glad I did.

  1. What color was this year?

All the colors in the Fotor for Android effects range.

  1. Which event of the year would I choose to remember forever?

The BELTA Day weekend. Apart from the professional value, I really enjoyed the dinners on Friday and Saturday with the speakers and the board. And helping prepare the venue was stressful but fun. I think there is a pic of me somewhere sweeping the floor. With a broom. Those who know me well will appreciate the momentousness of the occasion.

  1. Which word did I use most often?

Probably AMORES. Or maybe please. As in, “Please remember to check the deadline for unit X”. One of the perks of online teaching.

  1. My most ridiculous purchase of the year.

That would be ridiculous as in disproportionately expensive? Okay, I paid way too much for the train tickets to Paris (see #6), considering I could’ve booked months in advance and paid a fraction of the price.

  1. I shouldn’t have experimented with …

Taking on a second project that required a serious time commitment while the first one wasn’t over.

  1. This year was wonderful because

The year was good. If it were a student it would get a C. Parts would get an A or a B.

  1. Which inner problem did I solve successfully?


  1. Who did I hug at night?

And pass.

  1. Whose wedding did I have fun at?

Luckily, no weddings this year. I find them incredibly tedious, and while I’m happy if the person who’s getting married is happy, I would rather just see the pics. Oh, yeah, a friend from high school got married this year – lovely pics on Facebook!

  1. What was my average salary this year?

Amazingly, pretty much the same as it was for the last three years of running my own school. Which just means it’s a good thing I’m not doing that anymore.

  1. Did I have a conversation that turned everything upside down in my head?

Nope. I can feel I’m going to be flippant, so just nope.

  1. What new project did I start in 2015?

See #11. It was an interesting project, too – materials writing. I had to pull out.

  1. If I could become a superhero for just one day, what would I do?

Revolutionize the Croatian audiobook market. Make people realize you don’t have to be visually impaired to enjoy audiobooks. I’d love to be able to listen to the occasional recording by a Croatian author.

  1. What am I dreaming about now?

I have this idea of living back home at some point, and home being a good place to live. I’m not very demanding about this: a good place to live is a place where both of us have decent jobs, and don’t have to worry about being laid off or the business failing.

  1. What do I consider to be my most important achievement?

Probably doing a good enough job on AMORES to know that I could work in a non-teaching role full-time.

  1. This year until this moment in one sentence.

Oh, I’m crap at this sort of thing. Knowing your weaknesses is a good thing, right? Pass.

  1. The latest message I’ve sent.

Knowing there’s no way I’d answer all these questions in one go and post them, I saved this one for last. It’s not very specific, is it? Do they mean text message? Viber? Twitter? Okay, the last one was yesterday on Twitter, and I said something like, “Thanks very much for the blog post, please send it to X and myself”.

  1. A quote that is most suitable for my year.

Too #22, sorry. But I will recommend two books. They could be read at any time; their only connection to 2015 is that I read them this year (when I say read, I mean got them on Audible). “On Immunity: An Inoculation” by Eula Biss, and “Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery”, by Henry Marsh.

  1. Did I achieve everything I’d planned for this year?

I guess I should’ve kept a list of the things I’d planned, only I’m not a fan of planning. There was this MOOC I started once (not this year) where they said we should “enjoy the serendipity of the random encounter”, which I liked the sound of. There were a couple of things that went to plan – one was sending in a speaker proposal for TESOL France. I think I also commented more on other people’s blogs, and I’m glad I did – I got a lot out of that, actually (that’s material for a whole other post).

  1. How many new friends did I make this year?

Ha, is that Facebook friends?! Seriously, I have a problem with this term. You saw me once – or never saw me at all – and now we’re friends? I’ve been told this is a ridiculous way to feel and, yes, friends is probably simpler and visually tidier than “People I know on Facebook” or something.

  1. Who did I help this year?

My students, the AMORES project team, the BELTA board. These I know about.

  1. Where did I travel?

I mostly went back and forth between Belgium and Croatia. There were a couple of days I spent in the UK attending an AMORES workshop (Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham), and, of course, the trip to Paris for the TESOL France Colloquium.

Bonding activity at Emma Bridgewater during the UK workshop.
Bonding activity at Emma Bridgewater during the UK workshop.
  1. Which projects am I putting off till next year?

See #25. There’s nothing in particular. Okay, one thing comes to mind. Despite my audiobook obsession, I’ve continued to buy paperbacks. So I was thinking I should take a break from audiobooks and go back to reading, at least to get through the books that have piled up over last year.

  1. What do I want to achieve next year?

Possibly write something that’ll make it into a publication with a wider readership. We’ll see.

Thoughts and reflections

#YoungerTeacherSelf challenge

This post is part of the #youngerteacherself challenge started by Joanna Malefaki. Make sure you read the post that inspired it all and the many excellent responses Joanna has linked to below.

Special thanks go to Joanna for not giving up on my contribution, and Hana Tichá for tagging me in her post. 🙂

For a start, let’s assume that corresponding with my future self was something of an established practice of mine in 1997, so a letter like this wouldn’t have made me think someone was playing a practical joke.

Classroom of the future
Classroom of the future

Dear Ven,

Hope you’re doing okay. It’s been a while since I last wrote. Sorry, but I’ve had an incredibly busy couple of years. Did you find any of that stuff useful that I told you about focusing on English lit rather than journalism at university? I’m guessing you did, because I see you’re close to getting your degree.

So, I thought I’d tell you about the next…well…decade…or more, because I’m not really sure when I’m next going to be able to write, and anyway, when you get to where the older Ven is now you’ll see it never hurts to repeat stuff a couple of times (and probably rephrase, too), just to make sure you’ve been heard.

You’d better sit down. In 2015 you’re going to be – how can I break this gently? – a teacher! Now, please don’t do anything rash. I know that right now you can’t think of anything that feels more like a failure because none of the people majoring in English lit want to be teachers; you all want to do something more glamorous. Like you want to be a diplomat. Ain’t gonna happen. But listen to me. You’re really going to like being a teacher, and if it makes you feel any better, a lot of the others are going to wind up being teachers too. Now I think would be a good time to go away and process this. Read the rest of this letter tomorrow because I have some practical advice that you might want to take on board in a more positive frame of mind.

Back? No, my news hasn’t changed since two seconds ago – in 2015 you’re still a teacher. But I promise you won’t be disappointed…well, okay, to be completely honest, you’ll like teaching from the start, but it’ll take a good few years before you realize you don’t want to keep looking for other jobs. Anyway. Here’s the advice I was talking about.

No, being a teacher doesn’t mean you have to work with kids. In fact, pretty soon you’ll be getting a call from someone who’s going to be your boss for the next 7 years. (The first two you’ll basically be working full-time, but you won’t have a permanent contract, and you’ll be thinking it’s normal to save up during the school year so you have money over the summer. It’ll take years before the unfairness of this sinks in, so don’t worry about it now.) You’ll be teaching in-company courses all over town and you’ll do a bit of everything: general and business English, and ESP. Now for the tips:

  • You might as well not bother applying for non-teaching jobs. Or, if you must, at least don’t focus on your teaching-related experience in your CV.
  • Do translating work. Anything you can get. It’s extra work that pays, and you can do it from home. You’ll see some people claiming they make decent money teaching; what they don’t stress is that they teach 40+ hours per week. People just don’t make decent money teaching normal hours.
  • Don’t get too attached to students. To your boss they’re business, and if another full-time teacher needs her schedule filled, she’ll take over your class. No, there’s no point sobbing about it to your diary, nor will the students actually start that petition.
  • While I’m at it – students can be fickle. You’ll hear a teacher say her students love her to bits and have told her she’s the best teacher they have ever had, EVER, and they have NEVER learned as much from another teacher and then next year you’re going to take over her class and they will say the same thing to you. But maybe they’ll mean it both times?
  • Bottom line – focus on the teaching. That’s your job, and you’re going to be good at it. But it’s not a competition; you don’t need to be better than anyone, you just need to do a good job with the students you have.
  • Do the Mark Powell course (the LCCI CertTEB). In fact, do any training that comes your way – if the boss is offering to pay for it, especially, and even if she isn’t.
  • Watch the boss and the way she runs the school and take notes. It’ll come in useful when you’re running your own school.
  • There’s going to come a time when it’ll seem like everyone is leaving the school and changing professions because they don’t want to teach 30+ hours per week all over town for the rest of their working lives. What they’re saying makes sense. You don’t want this either. Find another school.

Your next job is going be a welcome change. For the next 2 years you’ll still be teaching in-company courses all over town, but your last class of the day will be over at 4 pm, and you’ll have something like 22 hours per week. (You won’t be surprised that you’ll be earning less, but on the plus side, you will have a life.) Your new boss is going to be highly supportive of CPD, encourage you to go on training courses, and will do pretty unusual things (for Croatia) like hiring a fresh CELTA grad (a NNEST) with a degree in psychology, and NNESTs (but non-Croatians) with a degree in English. This will help you see that good teachers can come from different backgrounds; they don’t necessarily need to have a degree in English lit. Nor do they need to be Croatian.

The boss will retire and she will offer to sell the school to you and a friend. At this point you’ll be feeling like you’ve gone as far as you can as a teacher. Go for it. You’ll be running the school for seven years. Some tips:

  • Get a marketing person to do the marketing. You suck at promoting your services and your preferred marketing strategy is sitting there and praying the client miraculously chooses you. There’s going to be this nightmare period that’ll eventually be called the global economic recession – not a good time for your preferred marketing strategy. If you hire a professional on time, you might save your school.
  • Make sure you do as much as you can to make life easier for your teachers. Don’t invent pointless tasks for them thinking that they only work 20 hours a week. Always remember how much work goes into prep and travelling around town, not to mention marking, observations, PD sessions on Fridays, etc. This is a good time to look over those notes you took in your first school.
  • Your teachers should go to BESIG conferences, not you. What you should definitely not pass up, however, is a course on online course design, and later, online tutoring. That is going to be one of the best investments you’ll ever make.
  • You’ll be asked to teach a university class. Undergrads. EAP. Totally out of your comfort zone. (Those whining about general English coursebooks needing extra materials should try R. R. Jordan for a semester.) Do it anyway. You won’t like it at first, but that and the online course design will make sure you have something to transition to when you leave the school.
  • Don’t get too attached to teachers. (See a pattern yet?) They work for you first. Some of them may become your friends second. You’ll use the familiar ‘you’ to address them because you’ll like the way your second boss did this (as opposed to the first one), but this is probably not such a great idea. Why? Well, you’ll have to let some of them go in the recession, for a start. It’s really, really hard to tell someone they have to go; you might want to make it a little easier on yourself.
  • Grow some balls fast. You will need those to stand up to some people (no need to go into details at this point, but let’s just say that if you’re clear about what you’re not going to accept right at the start, this might save you a lot of time and headaches).
  • There’s going to come a time when you’ll realize that a school owner should be emptying bins in the classrooms and cleaning whiteboards on a regular basis if a) the business has just gotten off the ground, b) the cleaning lady is sick, or c) the owner has a cleaning fetish. It’s around this point that you’ll leave anyway (though not of your own choice), but if you were staying, I’d say this is the point at which you should cut your losses.

You’ll be teaching in a very different setting next – yes, I am absolutely sure you’ll still be a teacher, and no, I don’t need to double check. But you’ll be in Belgium (no need to go into exactly how that’s going to happen yet). For the first time ever you won’t actually have to work, if you don’t want to. You’ll see, though, that you won’t want to give up teaching, and this would be a good time to take your course for undergrads online. If anything, you’ll take more pride in being a teacher at this stage than you have in years. Last set of tips:

  • Join BELTA. It’s the Belgian Language Teachers Association, and they’ll just be starting out when you first get in touch with them. They are lovely people and will make you feel at home in your new country.
  • Be more active online. You’ll have spent the past couple of years managing the school Facebook page without creating an account of your own, for reasons that will seem pretty lame at this point. You’ll have a dormant Twitter account. Do something about it! I’m not going to go on about how useful it’ll be and how much you’ll learn; because that’s really far down the road, but you’ll love it.
  • Write more. You like writing and always have, since creative writing classes in junior high. I’m not saying it has to be a novel – you’ll figure it out.
  • Get a decent chair. Don’t spend all your time in it.

Trust me when I say you’ll be very much okay with how things will turn out.