My Greatest Golden Mistakes as a Teacher Trainer - My Golden Lessons
Sezgi Yalın has been teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language and training teachers for more than twenty years. She earned her B.A. in Journalism and English Literature at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and her M.A. as a Fulbright scholar in teaching English as a foreign language at the University of Illinois in Chicago. She worked as an English teacher, teacher trainer and director of studies in the USA and Poland, and gained additional experience in the field in various countries such as the UK, Spain, Egypt, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Israel, China, Nepal, Tibet, Vietnam, Cyprus and Turkey. She is currently a freelance teacher trainer working for Pilgrims Teacher Training Center in UK and Cambridge University teacher trainer courses (CELTA) around the world. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
So where should I start?
This feels like confessions here, on the ‘dance floor’ of Humanizing Language Teaching.
You know, I am a mere mortal,
on the brink of making mistakes - possibly every second of my life.
And the mistakes I have made, and still make as a teacher trainer?
They are PATHETIC.
But thankfully, they’ve ALSO been ENLIGHTENING. So much so that I now live by these mistakes. So much so that I call these doo-doos of mine the GOLDEN mistakes of my career.
They are MISTAKES - not to ever forget about - as long as I remain as a teacher trainer on our short journey here on Earth.
There are five golden mistakes, to be exact:
Golden mistake #1 - believing that everyone is perfect including myself
When I worked as a new CELTA trainer for the first time in Barcelona, I remember my evenings extended into the early hours of the morning, reading and correcting my trainees’ assignments.
These assignments focused on analyzing grammar, vocabulary and functional language for teaching purposes. Oh, the embryonic me - the new CELTA trainer - out there, to give feedback on everything and anything, and to correct every single mistake in sight.
With her red pen - or shall we call it a ‘red sword’ instead - out there, making comments on every idea, and slashing every mistake in sight...and of course, not thinking that each ‘red slash’ meant a blow right into the heart of the trainees, already overwhelmed on the stressful CELTA course.
As a result, and very sadly so, my trainees’ assignments looked like red tulip gardens
out of somewhere in Holland, but not as pretty though.
And of course, the reaction of the assessor visiting our course was: ‘Chill out, Sezgi!
Chill out! Your trainees can’t process more than 2 or 3 points. Less is more!’.
So, my golden mistake #1, not to ever forget about and which is now a golden lesson:
Chill out! No one is perfect including your own self! Just rein it in, and try to focus on 2 or 3 achievable areas or mistakes that your trainees can work on to improve.
And P.S. I do not use red ink anymore.
Golden mistake #2 - being too obsessed about my own ‘performance’ as a teacher/trainer
I grew up in North Cyprus, but was trained as a teacher/teacher trainer in USA. Interestingly enough, in both of these cultures, I was, most of the time, told that everyone else’s mistake was my mistake; it was the result of my own doing.
If my teachers did not praise me as a student, it was because I was not good enough - even if I knew in my heart that what I had done, what I had produced was actually good. And if my students or trainees made mistakes, that was because my teaching/training was insufficient.
And as a result, what did I do for years afterwards? I beat myself up about my learners/trainees’ mistakes! Oh, and how MISERABLE I felt about my students’ language mistakes! And how I spent ENDLESS hours blaming myself for my trainees’ ‘poor’ performance in classroom observations.
Those times beating myself up lasted for so many years. But one day, one sunny autumn day in New York, I was faced with a sign on each wall of a classroom where I stepped into, as a trainer on another CELTA course.
Those signs on each wall included two words only. And they sent the exact same message to our students and CELTA trainees. In bold, capital letters, it said: MAKE MISTAKES!
Of course! Duh! We do need to make mistakes for progress. And for progress to be made, my students/trainees have to take responsibility for their own learning - and learning from mistakes is one important part of that process!
Oh, a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders! And thus, golden lesson was born out of golden mistake #2 - be less obsessed with your own ‘performance’ as a teacher/trainer. Be concerned much more with your students/trainees’ learning!
Golden mistake #3 - forgetting to practice what you preach, and forgetting to loosen the leash a bit
You know how a teacher or a trainee sometimes does not know what to do for a lesson, so you give them a ‘great idea’ - well, at least I do. It is of course a ‘great idea’ which is super simple and effective...at least in my head. And in fact, I recently tried imparting some of these ‘great ideas’ of mine in Kazakhstan where I trained CLIL teachers last month.
And like many teachers around the world, after hearing MY ‘great ideas’, the Kazakh teachers nod and smile and say ‘thanks’ - very politely just like many Turkic teachers I worked with before. Of course, they get up to do their lesson, and in my delusional happiness (remember I have just gifted the teachers with my ‘great ideas’?), the carnage of a lesson unfolds.
So my bullet-proof plan I have just given of course does not work. You know why?
Because I forget to triple check that the teachers understood it.
So what golden lesson did my golden mistake #3 teach me?: if you are not going to practice it yourself, then don’t be telling your teachers/trainees to check their students’ understanding with well-thought out concept checking questions. You, yourself, double or triple check!
And sometimes, you know how you also give teachers/trainees LOTS of ideas - which I did a lot of at the beginning of my career. Of course, those ideas might not work during your teachers/trainees’ lessons. And then they say: ‘but that is what you told me to do’.
So to add more to the golden lesson that came out of golden mistakes #3: loosen the leash a bit. Instead of giving teachers SO many of your own ideas, let them come up with their own ideas as far as possible and work in feedback on making them better. But I know it can be a tough gig for a control freak. So if you can't loosen that leash, then step aside - training/teaching should not be an arena for control freaks, where trial and error should be tolerated.
Golden mistake #4 - shoving too much information/content down teachers’/trainees’ throats
You know how these days when you go to a supermarket, there are too many choices. I used to be like one of those supermarkets; I had this bad habit of trying to give my customers - the teachers/trainees - as much information as possible so that they can make informed decisions about their teaching. But then of course they can’t, because there are toooo many choices. Tooooo many cans on the shelf.
I remember my first ever workshop as a trainer in the UK after I had been kindly invited by Mario Rinvolucri to train teachers on courses at Pilgrims Teacher Training Center. And, to check what he got himself into, Mario, of course, attended my first workshop. To this day, I remember so clearly, so vividly - the horror, the shock on the man’s face at the end of my workshop. The usually bubbly Mario Rinvolucri was sitting at the back with a worried look on his face that clearly said: “What have I done?!”. So after everyone leaves, Mario approaches me. In an enthusiastic way, even though shocked, he tells me he loves my ideas and that they are creative, but, but… But I have far too many to share in a one-hour workshop. And he says three words that echo back to my earlier years as a fledgling CELTA tutor: ‘Less is more!’ he says. “Less is more!’.
So golden mistake and thus golden lesson #4 - avoid overwhelming trainees/teachers, or anyone really, with lots of and a wide range of information. Instead, have them ‘nail’ fewer subjects/ideas. And BTW - no worries. I have been asked to go back and train at Pilgrims Teacher Training Center. Rest in Peace Jim Wright, the Principal of Pilgrims Teacher Training Center - thanks for NEVER stopping to believe in me!
My golden mistake #5
It comes in two parts: A and B. A: not questioning others' beliefs, and B: not being able to decide what makes one different any sooner in life.
I am not very old, you know, or very young - some gray hair here and there, but as long as I remember myself, at least till before I had some of this gray hair, I’d been ALMOST convinced of something - by my circle of colleagues, friends, students, and public in general in both of my home countries: North Cyprus and the USA. And no - that something is not that I have to dye my hair when it turns gray.
I was ALMOST convinced by my circles that I was and was going to stay forever an inferior teacher trainer because of an unshakable truth of my life. And that truth, which had plagued me incessantly for the longest time, pushed me looking for some almost non-existing remedy.
I climbed the Himalayas, lived in a monastery in Tibet teaching English to monks, trained teachers in the remotest villages of Nepal.
Yes, I love traveling, but I had also been to those places where I thought the remedy was to be the ONLY English speaker my students/teachers have ever met in their life. This way, when I did the job of teaching /training that I love doing, I would not be inferior to anyone anymore. And that was not because of a narcissistic personality disorder you might think I have. And also not because I wanted or planned to be a Goddess of Teacher Trainers in one of those Buddhist and Hindu countries. No.
The reason was quite simple. As the only English speaker these students/teachers met, they would hopefully focus on only one of my strongest assets - my training skills and my passion that manifests itself through these skills. These students/teachers, unlike myself or others in my circles, would not be stuck on or even in the slightest bit detect the unshakable truth of my life.
And that is, is the fact that I have an accent - that I am a non-native speaker of English. And as a result, they would not pause and say: she is possibly not as good as those other trainers, who started learning and speaking English in their moms’ wombs.
So have the Himalayas, the Tibetan monks, or the teachers of Nepal been able to provide me the remedy to help me forget about my accent? Of course not. There had been so many other occasions, and so many job refusals around the world that kept reminding me of my ‘non-nativeness'. And there had been many individuals, too - colleagues, students, teachers, and trainees - who posed the question ‘where are you from?’ when they first met me, with an untrusting, nervous smile on their faces - and not solely because they detected my accent right away, but also because I had an unusual name - not Sarah, not Mary. It was Sezgi.
As all these life events were unfolding about my accent, and non-nativeness, some other parallel, more promising events were, too. Unfortunately, I was not for the longest time, able to hold them as close to my heart as I should have - in a more timely manner. I was so blinded by the fact that I have an accent. And that I would possibly never be added to the list of those without the accents in our field - I could never be another Jeremy Harmer, another George Pickering or even Penny Ur, but as importantly, I could never be added to the list of some of the other brilliant professionals in our field who are from English-speaking countries.
So along this bumpy road (with also days and nights of hard work in the field), the torches I had been handed to even though I have the name Sezgi (Sezgi with an accent) went unnoticed till about, I don’t know, 10 or 11 years ago.
I thought of some of my colleagues I encountered on this bumpy road - call them my mentors if you will. Stacey and John Hughes - whom you who might know - ELT professionals who hired me ages ago to be the Director of Studies of a language school in Poland. Suzanne Blum-Malley, then an ESL director and now one of the provosts at Columbia College in Chicago - who actually ‘mobilized’ Columbia College to sponsor me for an American work visa, unheard of for an English teacher (with an accent), about twenty years ago.
Even though I met many several highly-capable, more than qualified non-native professionals with beautifully clear and different accents in our field, I still felt the need to look in the eyes of those people (my mentors) several years after they hired me, and say ‘why? why would YOU trust a teacher/trainer with an accent, with a strange name?’.
‘Your difference is your Unique Selling Point,’ they all said. Well, no - not in those exact words. But I think you all know what that means - especially if you are teacher trainers or aspiring to be trainers. My difference had enabled me, I think, to carve my own print, if you will, at least in circles where I worked. That trainer with an accent and a funny name - who actually knows about the content she is teaching...she is actually an OK trainer and works hard. And her accent - well - it is not blocking the way she is training others.
I know what you all might be thinking now. My parents or teachers should have probably told me that it was ‘ok’ being different. But they did not - and you know what? I still love them. Yeah, it took me a while (two centuries of my life, perhaps?) to trust and appreciate that I am not any less as a trainer with an accent.
But better late than never -
so golden lesson #5 squeezed out of golden mistake # 5 - in two parts:
Part A: Don’t allow others prescribe the kind of trainer you should be or the accent you should ‘adapt’ - especially in our currently multi-cultural context. One of the examples of this context I had been in was on a teacher training course in Vietnam. I worked with a group of teachers who are from Fiji, Australia, Ireland, Scotland, Singapore, Canada, and USA (Texas and Boston, to be precise). Now, tell me - which of these teachers is accentless?
Part B of golden lesson #5: If you know your differences, or if you have an awareness of them, cherish them. Use them to contribute to our field. Be a model. Rattle the cage. Remain yourself. Otherwise, what is the fun in all us being the same?
Phew… thank you for listening to/reading my confessions - well, at least to five of them. Venting to colleagues is gooooood - already feeling much better…
The Power of Visualisation
Joanna Czeredys, Poland
My Greatest Golden Mistakes as a Teacher Trainer - My Golden Lessons
Sezgi Yalin, Northern Cyprus/US