Failure And How To Stop It Before It Happens


Picture taken from here.

I think we need to talk about failure. If you teach adults, there’s a good chance you’re teaching a room full of people who have failed to learn English at some point in their lives. I should clarify that when I say failed, I don’t mean that they were a complete disaster, but they probably didn’t reach the target they set for themselves. They’ve probably taken a bit of time off, which could be six months, five years or maybe even longer, and they’ve decided to have another crack.

Now some of you might be thinking that my use of the word ‘fail’ is a bit harsh. There’s a reason why I said the students ‘had failed’ rather than ‘were failures’. I’m not saying that you’ll be teaching a room full of losers, because they don’t mean the same thing. So while you might be conjuring up images of fail videos and Ronald Wayne, I prefer to think of failure in a different way.

My approach was inspired by an episode of Freakonomics from June this year, entitled Failure Is Your Friend. In this episode, they discuss the stigma of failure, how it stops us from making good decisions and how we can turn it into our friend. As co-presenter and economist Steven Levitt says ”I always tell my students — fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chances you have to fail at something else before you eventually maybe find the thing that you don’t fail at.”

(And on a micro level, doesn’t this sound like something you might say to your students? But instead of saying ‘fail’, we usually say ‘mistakes’. I know I’ve told my students “Don’t worry, making mistakes is how we learn, it shows us that we still have things to learn.)

Their suggestion for trying to preempt failure is to perform a pre-mortem. Invented by Gary Klein, the author of Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, he describes it in the Harvard Business Review as:

A premortem is the hypothetical opposite of a postmortem. A postmortem in a medical setting allows health professionals and the family to learn what caused a patient’s death. Everyone benefits except, of course, the patient. A premortem in a business setting comes at the beginning of a project rather than the end, so that the project can be improved rather than autopsied. Unlike a typical critiquing session, in which project team members are asked what might go wrong, the premortem operates on the assumption that the “patient” has died, and so asks what did go wrong. The team members’ task is to generate plausible reasons for the project’s failure.

Which strikes me as a brilliant idea, and something that could really help our adults learners, back again in the English classroom, find out why they may have failed in the past. I think it could work something like this:

  • First ask your students briefly summarise their goal(s) for this course and why. It doesn’t need to be too specific, but try to get them to say more than just “I want to improve my English because English is important.”
  • Ask your students to imagine the end of the course, six months from now or whatever seems appropriate in your context. Explain that things haven’t gone well and they haven’t reached their goal(s). Give them some time to write down reasons why they have failed. What stopped them from being successful?
  • Write the various issues on the board and ask them to come up with suggestions for what they can do to stop this from happening.

As an example, your students might say that they failed because they didn’t learn enough new vocabulary. This happened because they didn’t do enough homework, so to stop this from happening they will make sure that every Sunday morning they are free to study English.

One possible issue with this activity is that is does require a fair amount of self-awareness and understanding of the language learning process from the students in order to work. With that in mind, I would suggest that you are ready to support the students and have some possible answers ready if necessary. But in an ideal world, this would be a task which encourages a lot of self reflection which is obviously much better coming directly from the student rather than being teacher motivated.

What do you think? Could this work with your students? Do you see potential in this idea? I’d love to know, so leave a comment below with your thoughts.

TEFL Is An Iceberg – Reflections on CELTA and Standards


When I worked in Costa Rica, my school required teachers to be CELTA or equivalent qualified. They didn’t care where the person was from, whether they were local, a native speaker or a non-native speaker, as long as you had the qualification and experience, then you could work there. To my knowledge, it was the only private language school in the country that had that requirement. The only one. The other schools, and there were quite a few, did not require  the same level of qualifications or experience. Most of them had a preference for native speakers (as I’ve written about here), but qualified teachers were not on their radar. As a result, the school where I worked normally recruited teachers from abroad to come to Costa Rica because, as my DoS once pointed out, all of the qualified teachers living in the country were already working there.

The Temporary Colleague

Earlier this year, a new CELTA qualified colleague arrived from the UK. The school provided him with a month’s accommodation and started his visa process at their own cost, two things which no other school in Costa Rica (again to the best of my knowledge) would have done. Within three weeks he was gone. He went back to the UK because he had been offered an interview, not a job, an interview with a clothing company. In his words “I’m nearly thirty now and I have to think about my future”. It’s funny that he hadn’t decided to do this before he flew halfway around the world and created a lot of unnecessary work and expense for people.

I was stunned by his lack of professionalism, integrity and maturity, but most of all I was angry. I was angry that he had caused so much bother for no good reason, but even more so I was angry for the state of our profession. This was a person who had the CELTA, who was equally as qualified as me and who treated the job like an intermittent distraction. And it made me a bit sad, because teaching EFL is a great job. It’s not perfect, but it can be very rewarding, both personally and intellectually. If you’re the kind of teacher who turns up five minutes before class, turns to page 48 in your coursebook, thinks “oh yeah, this one again” and doesn’t get involved in the learning process that your students are going through, then you might want to reflect on why you’re thinking about switching to “a proper job”.

Only Six Hours?

I always think about this when I hear people criticising the CELTA and discussing the entry level requirements to EFL. Often the conversation centres around the idea that the CELTA is an inadequate qualification for an English language teacher. To summarise, the main criticism was that the CELTA only contains six hours of teaching practice which cannot be considered enough for a teacher to be qualified, especially when compared to other professions.

In principle, it’s hard to argue with this point of view. I can’t imagine that there are many people who think that six hours is really sufficient training before teaching without supervision. I do have to say however, that those six hours were perhaps the longest six hours of my life! Six hours when you’re inexperienced is very different from when you’re experienced, especially when you’ve got a tutor and a group of colleagues watching you. That said, I will concede that it isn’t really sufficient.

The CELTA is what it is. It is very open about what it is designed to do:

“CELTA is for people with little or no previous teaching experience.” (source)

If you employ a teacher with a CELTA and not much else, then what do you expect them to be able to do? I would be expect them to be capable of organising and carrying out a well-executed lesson. I would expect the students to learn something. And I would expect the teacher to make mistakes every now and again. I wouldn’t expect much more than that as I think that would be unfair.

This isn’t a criticism of the CELTA in any way. As I said, it is what it is. In my personal experience, I felt that it was exactly what I needed at that time. It gave me structure and direction, and it introduced me to key concepts that I have gone on to develop in the years since. I think that should be enough of an initial certification course.

The Dilemma

So this leads us to the dilemma. If you don’t think that CELTA is enough, I’m afraid you’re very far from reality. Perhaps in certain cities in the world you can’t work without one, but it must be a tiny minority of places. If we start to say that CELTA is below the entry level, then you can go ahead and close every school in Costa Rica and a lot of other countries, I’d wager. And that’s not going to happen.

You will also prevent many new teachers from joining the profession, particularly in the private sector. The CELTA doesn’t come cheap and asking people to spend over £1000 on a qualification for a job that they’ve never done is already quite a big ask, especially in countries where this will make up quite a large proportion of the income of the job they are planning to go into. If you want them to go beyond this before they become a teacher, you can wave goodbye to 90% of new teachers. This will get a rid of a lot of bad teachers, but it will also get rid of some good ones. It would have got rid of me.

And if you do think that the CELTA is enough, as I do, then you have to concede that it’s not a perfect situation. Perhaps the course could be restructured, but even if you double the number of teaching hours, it’s still only 12 hours. How much is enough? 20? 40? How many hours do you think you needed before you became comfortable in your job? Is it feasible to include that in a course?  And of course, having a CELTA is by no means a guarantee of reliability when it comes to teachers, as I learnt in the story above.

So while I can understand where this principle of demanding a higher level of qualification comes from, and I appreciate the ideas behind it in theory, it’s so far from being a reality in a lot of places, I’m not sure if there’s much point in having this discussion. What is more interesting to me is how we try and raise the actual entry level in EFL which in a lot of places, if you’re a native speaker from certain countries, is having no qualifications and no experience, and if you’re a local, non-native or native from some countries, means that your qualifications or experience are ignored. That is the real issue and the reason why I support this campaign.

The Inverted Iceberg

It’s worth that remembering that TEFL is like an iceberg, to use an old cliche. Above the water, the CELTA line if you like, you will find the career teachers, the ones with qualifications and experience, the ones who blog, go to conferences, read books to develop, experiment in their classrooms, and reflect on how they can become better teachers. Below the line, you’ll find a huge industry of private schools with unqualified teachers, old fashioned methodologies and money making as the primary ethos.

But that only reflects a minority of places in the world where English is being taught today. As I’ve commented before, TEFL seems to be heavily skewed to the private language schools compared to the vast majority of English language classrooms which are in state schools and where the entry requirements are much higher than a four week course. So if you feel a bit depressed about the state of our profession, just remember that the reality is much more like this:

Inverted Iceberg

Picture taken from here.

Two Kinds Of People – A Getting To Know You Activity

Two types 5

As it’s the start of a new school year, I thought it was time to try out a new ‘getting to know you’ first lesson activity. I came across the website 2 Kinds Of People which simply and beautifully portrays how easily the people can be separated into different groups. I thought it was a fun way to help the students learn something about each other, while giving them the chance to learn some very useful contemporary vocabulary and functional language.

Here’s the activity plan…

1. Before class, print out (and laminate, if you can) the pairs of pictures. Cut them up into individual pictures and shuffle them.

2. Give students in pairs / threes the shuffled pictures and ask them to find the matching picture.

3. The students will need some vocabulary at this point, so as you go through the correct answers to the matching activity, take the opportunity to check what they know and teach unknown vocabulary items.

4. Next the students are going to talk together in their groups about which kind of person they are by choosing one of the pictures. Before they begin, make sure they have the functional language necessary for the task, if you think it’s necessary:

“I prefer … because …”
“I’m the kind of person who…”
“Which one are you?”
“I’d definitely choose this one because…” etc

And some adjectives to describe how they are as a person:

Old fashioned

Two types 15

5. During the discussion, listen for interesting language as used by the students as well as any problems they have. Make a note of it and give them feedback after the discussion has finished.

6. Get some feedback from the class. Ask the students to tell the rest of the group what they learnt about their partner.

7. For a follow up activity, ask the students to write a paragraph to describe themselves or their partner based on what they learnt during the activity.

Images are taken from 2 Kinds Of People. Permission was requested to use the images but no reply was received.

What’s Talking For Then?

I’m an avid podcast listener and comedy fan, so the Comedian’s Comedian Podcast is one of my favourites. I find it fascinating to listen to comedians talk about their craft, and in one episode, the comedian Nick Doody was talking about his love for stand up and how it allowed him to talk about anything he wanted. The way he phrased it really resonated with me:

What's Talking For Then?

Dealing with these kinds of issues in the classroom is a tricky balancing act. There are so many factors involved and it is necessary for the teacher to have a really good grasp of their teaching environment for it to be done successfully, but if it can be done why wouldn’t you?

If you want to listen to the interview with Nick Doody, click here. It has nothing to do with ELT, but it’s very interesting. And here’s a video of him doing his stand up. It’s very NSFW.

Greetings from Brasília

With my last group in San Jose

With my last group in San Jose

This is the first post I’ve written since I left San Jose, Costa Rica in July and moved to Brasília, Brazil. Inevitably I’ve been reflecting on my time in Costa Rica and I look back at it with nothing but warm memories. On a personal level, it was a great country to live in, and there are times when you are animal spotting in the forest, basking on the beach, or staring down into a smoking volcano that you realise that you live in one of the most unique and beautiful countries in the world. I’ll always be grateful I had that opportunity, just as I am that experienced Belgium, South Korea and Brazil before it. I hope I can go back one day (read more about that here).

Professionally, I learnt a lot too. I can’t speak highly enough of the school, Centro Cultural Britanico, where I worked and I’m grateful to all of my colleagues for the time, at work and out, that we spent together. In Belgium I taught mainly one to one business and presentation skills classes in a dogme style. Following that in Costa Rica, I taught groups of four to ten students using a coursebook. I think that having had the opportunity to try out both of these ‘styles’ of teaching will help me immeasurably with my development as a teacher in the long run.

I also had the chance to teach teenagers for the first time, and I’m delighted at how this came about. The teens didn’t have their own classes, they were in amongst the adults, which meant that I didn’t give them any special treatment and that they had to raise their game. It was very useful that I wasn’t the only ‘grownup’ in the room, and it fostered the collaborative feel between me and students, and between them as a group. It also meant that I didn’t have to deal with “a group of teenagers” which might have prompted me to think I had to teach in a specific or different way. Faced with this situation in the future, I’ll be much more ready.

Photo 09-08-2015 16 28 49

Back in Brasília. I do have other shirts.

So now I’m here, in Brasíia, back where it all started for me as an English teacher in 2007 (read more about that here, here and here). Back then I had no experience and no qualifications. I’d never read a methodology book or been to a conference. I didn’t have a Twitter account or a blog. I wasn’t aware of IATEFL or Braz-TESOL. This time things are rather different. I was in a position to discuss possible jobs before I left Costa Rica and I have been accepted to speak at a conference within the first month. I’m planning to meet teachers in Brazil I’ve only met before online. Anyone who is active in the online ELT world knows that Brazil has one of the most organised and exciting professional development scenes in the world, and I can’t wait to get involved and tell you all about it. Vamos!


A Letter To My Younger Self


This post is part of a blog challenge created by Joanna Malefaki in which we write a letter to our younger teaching selves. To read more posts in the challenge, click here.

Hi James,

So you’re just about to give your first lesson, armed with nothing more than a few pages of interview questions and a whole lot of curiosity. Before I give you some advice, you should know that I’ve teaching English for 9 years now and you have no idea about the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen. But you’ll discover all of that in time. Here’s what you need to know right now…

  • Teaching is all about people being together and sharing. Your job as an English teacher is to make sure that your students have the language ability to have these conversations. You teach adults, so there’s no hierarchy, and they don’t expect you to be some great authority on the English language. Engage with your students, and engage them with each other, and the rewards are huge.
  • Remember, and I can’t emphasise this enough, that the lessons do not belong to you, they belong to your students. What you are in doing in the classroom is nowhere near as important as what the students are doing. Stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking about them.
  • You’re going to meet a lot of very interesting people because of this job, so learn from them. Make sure they know that you are genuinely interested in their lives and professions and you will learn as much as your students.
  • The quicker you can learn about the language the better. At this time, you don’t really know anything. If you don’t believe me, then tell me what a preposition is. Trust me, in a few months that will seem like the most basic of terms. Spend some time learning how English works, you’ll make my life much easier now if you do.
  • Right now you are all potential. You have no experience and no qualifications (English being your first language is not a qualification!), so stay humble, be grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given, and learn quickly.
  • Really pay attention to your colleagues and what they do. You can learn a lot from watching other teachers, and not just the things they do better than you, there’s a lot to learn from people’s mistakes too.

That will do for now, I don’t want to overwhelm you. You don’t know it yet, but this first lesson is the start of something life-defining, so enjoy yourself and work hard. The rewards are yet to come.




Photo credit: Photo taken from by insEyedout, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, 

A Distraction of Collective Nouns

The best thing about living in Costa Rica is the nature. A narrow country with an Atlantic and a Caribbean coast, and a spine of volcanoes down the middle, it is host to an amazing array of natural habitats containing more biodiversity than North America and Europe combined. And my favourite aspect of that environment are the birds.

I liked birdwatching as a kid, but like many of these things, the interest wanes. Then one day something sets you off and a long forgotten passion is rekindled. For me it was an 8 hour birdwatching walk in the Monteverde cloud forest that was arranged as my dad’s sixtieth birthday present.

While I’m sure my Dad enjoyed it, I loved every minute of it, all 8 hours, and I found it to be a surprisingly peaceful and reflective experience. There’s something about standing still, listening intently only for bird song and the rustle of branches, with barely a word passing between you, that is both meditative and requires a degree of mindfulness that I find otherwise almost impossible in my daily life. There’s no conversation, no listening to podcasts, no homework to review, no emails or messages to reply to, nothing. And of course you get to look at beautiful creatures like these.

Photo 04-04-2015 10 16 10


Photo 25-11-2013 18 05 11

And as an English teacher, not surprisingly, I also have a keen interest in the English language. I’m fascinated by its quirks and eccentricities. In other words, the things that make it so damn difficult to learn.

So you can imagine my joy at coming across this book on my last trip to the U.K. A Conspiracy of Ravens: A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Birds* is a simple compendium of collective nouns for birds, accompanied by beautiful wood carvings from 1743 by the artist Thomas Bewick.

a conspiracy of ravens cover

There’s something immensely pleasurable about these phrases. Take a gander at this one:

a runcible of spoonbills

As if the word ‘spoonbill’ wasn’t enjoyable enough, you also get to luxuriate in its collective noun, ‘runcible’. Go on, treat yourself. Say that coupling of words, bound together by an article and a proposition, out loud five times. Let the syllables swim around your mouth. You’ve had a long day, you’ve earned it. And now try this one on for size…

a murmuration of starlings

and this one…

an orchestra of avocets

Which, in a roundabout way, leads me to thinking that ELT really needs its own set of collective nouns. Why restrict them to the animal kingdom alone? Here are my nominations, if you’ve got any suggestions of your own, drop them in the comments below and I might do a follow up post with the best ones.

An anarchy of prepositions
A lateness of homework
A saviour of resource books
A tiredness of students
A whinge of teachers
An underuse of interactive whiteboards
A relief of break times
A desperate why of phrasal verbs
An if of conditionals
An Adobe of webinars
A decline of vocabulary notebooks
A tote bag of conferences
A mandatory of training sessions
A crutch of coursebooks
An Amazon** of handouts
An obligation of exams
A straitjacket of syllabi
A pressure of parents
A tsunami of blogs
An abandon of cd-roms
A graveyard of student notebooks***
A distraction of collective nouns

By the way, I’m not really as cynical as these suggest, but negative ones are so much more fun to write! I just wish I had a set of appropriate wood carvings to illustrate them.

* Full disclosure: if you buy the book via this link, I get a tiny amount of money and you pay the same price as you would have anyway. This is as close as I get to making money from this blog. Amount of money raised thus far: £0.00.

** This is not another plug for the website I’m referring to above, it’s a plug for the forest.

***Hat tip to Michael Lewis Swan for this one. I read somewhere that he referred to students vocabulary notebooks as places ‘where words go to die’ or something along those lines. Any link would be gratefully received.