What would you say was your worst moment as a presenter?

Well, now… this takes me back a few years. I was in Cairo, with OUP. I had given a couple of presentations in Alexandria and another one in Giza, and in each case we had more than 150 people in the audience. This was to be the ‘grand finale’. OUP had booked a great hotel, in a central location, there was food, drinks, and even a film crew. Everything was ready, all the equipment had been checked, I had had my customary double espresso… and then – nothing. Out of the approximately 250 people the organisers had expected, only around 20 showed up! What could have gone wrong? Then it all came out: someone from the IT team had forgotten to change the details in the online form, so when people tried to register they couldn’t as it looked the event was fully booked up! It was a total disaster… All this preparation had gone to waste! ???? [The Moral: When a great deal is at stake, make a checklist – and tick off all the items carefully.]

I know you have been working as a trainer/presenter for years. So here is a question for you: how can teachers get better at what they do?

Well, as I see it, if an EL teacher is to move forward, they have to do at least three things:  i) they have to find ways of getting new ideas or learning new things;  ii) they have to try out new things in their teaching practice and  iii) they have to somehow get feedback on how well they are doing and pointers about what things they could improve on.

Do you happen to know a way in which a teacher could kill all three birds with one stone?

Yes – but first let me tell you a little story: many, many years ago, I found myself working as an Oral Examiner for the Cambridge Exams. That was the first year when the paired format (2 examiners – 2 candidates) had been introduced at the FCE level, but for the CPE Cambridge still followed the traditional 1 – 1 model. To my surprise, I soon realised that while I was getting pretty confident when marking FCE cadidates, I felt very insecure at the CPE level.

Didn’t this have to do with the fact that you examined many more people at the FCE level?

Well, that was part of it, but it was not the main thing. The main reason was that with the paired format, I got to see how the other examiners marked the candidates and compare the marks I gave with theirs. When there was a discrepancy, I would sometimes ask them why they had given the marks they had, and in this way I gradually came to refine the way I evaluated people’s oral performance. By contrast, at the CPE level I got no feedback whatsoever.

So what does this have to do with getting better at teaching?

Well, I think the parallel is obvious: At present, what we do is we try to get better on our own. Would it not be immensely better however if we could somehow benefit from the knowledge and experience of our colleagues? Here is the idea (I assume you work at a language school): i) you find a colleague who teaches a class at the same level as you (say you both teach two different B2 groups – with 10 students in each class);  ii) you arrange from time to time to teach your classes jointly (that is, you find a large room, and you have a session with 20 students and both teachers in the same room – with one of the teacher acting as the instructor, while the other acts as her assistant).

Surely that would be too difficult to organise though? You’d have to find a large classroom, you’d have to get the school owner and the parents to agree, etc. etc.

I am not saying it would be easy, but it would yield great dividends in the long run. In any case, one could settle for a compromise: the teachers could alternate visiting each other’s classes, but they shouldn’t simply observe; they should also take an active part as assistants. The only downside here of course is that they wouldn’t be paid for this, and in practice this could be a serious disincentive. If things happened the way I recommend on the other hand, it would simply be a part of their job – they wouldn’t have to go out of their way to organise things. Professional development would be part of their routine. Naturally, the management would have to agree to this.

So, in what way would the teachers benefit if they did that?

Well, first of all, the teacher who would play the role of the instructor, would have to take planning seriously, as she would have to quickly explain to her ‘assistant’ what she intended to do. The two colleagues could also have a rule that in each such session they would try out at least one activity, or use a site, or experiment with a procedure that they have never used before. In this way they would force themselves to move beyond their comfort zone. The assistant could also offer suggestions and ideas. The next time they did that, they would swap roles.

I see. So you are not thinking of this as a ‘mentoring’ scheme with a senior teacher guiding the junior colleague?

No – this is something completely different. I am thinking of colleagues who think of each other as equals. In this kind of relationship, the assistant’s view would carry equal weight when discussing the plan. Later, during the actual lesson, the assistant would be able to help move things along or modify the plan as needed (e.g., by circulating and alerting the instructor if some learners are having difficulties, etc.). Equally importantly, the two colleagues should hold a debriefing session afterwards, during which they can discuss what went well, what didn’t, what things should have been done differently, what other ideas or activities could have been used, etc. etc.

And you are saying that this method would tick all the three boxes you mentioned initially?

That’s right. People would get to see new activities, techniques etc.  in their role as assistants (box No 1). In addition, they would force themselves to try out new things as this would be in the ‘contract’ (‘The lesson plan has to include the use of at least one new technique/side/method, etc.’ – see the question before the last one [box No 2]). Finally, the assistant would provide the instructor with valuable feedback about how things went and together they could reflect on possible improvements or alternatives (box No 3). I think the best thing about this method is that it involves the teachers learning from each other in a real context rather than trying to implement ideas which they may have read somewhere and which may have little to do with the actual classroom reality.

  1. Enough with PD. Seeing as we started with your worst experience as a presenter, what has been your greatest moment?

Ah – that’s an easy one. Back in 2012, I found myself in Wroclaw. I had been invited as a plenary speaker by IATEFL Poland. This was a big event so I was naturally nervous – with 250 people in the audience and some top ELT gurus among them. So, I walked on the stage and said nothing. I simply pressed my clicker. The first slide read: ‘In 1968, the Beatles wrote the song ‘Back in the USSR’…’ (people looked at each other wondering what the point of this was…). 2nd slide: ‘…in it, they extoll the beauty of Russian, Ukranian and Georgian girls…’ (looks of puzzlement all around…). 3rd slide: ‘…that’s because they never came to Poland! ????’ That was it! The whole auditorium erupted in laughter and applause! So, I picked up the microphone and said ‘OK – I’ve got my applause, I think I can go now…’ More laughrer… That was my best moment ever. [The Moral: Flattery always works; even when people know it is pure, unadulterated flattery. Oh – and humour works too… ????].