The Versatile ELT Blog
A space for short articles about topics of interest to language teachers.
Michelle and me
Are you sitting down? was the first thing Sarah said, ringing from her office at NILE in Norwich to mine in Brno. The plans for training 60 secondary school English teachers in Yueyang, China, had many moving parts. With visa and travel organised and permission from my uni to take a month out during semester granted, I feared she was about to tell me it had all been cancelled. Tom's passport, Sarah said, is lost in the post and we're not sure when he'll join you. Can you train the 60 till he gets there? By then, I'd trained hundreds of Chinese English teachers in regular BC training courses. And I'm Australian.
I arrived in Yueyang and Michelle, the British Council project manager, met me. The trainees arrived for a weekend course induction with Charlotte who came from the BC office in Hong Kong. I started on Monday and she stayed and observed my training for a few days. Michelle observed my training and so did the head of the school where the training took place. Tom arrived on the Thursday afternoon to start the next day.
As I often hear from trainees and course organisers, they had never experienced training like this. And an experience it was, full of many experiences, as you can imagine in six hours a day for a month. Chinese teachers often comment on how energetic I am, despite my age, which perhaps says as much about them as it does about me! To welcome Tom, the headmistress took us to a music room so that we could sing him in. We had done a few songs already in those first days, as I like to show teachers how they can exemplify aspects of language in lyrics and use the backgrounds of songs in project work. One of the trainees wrote me a lovely note that day saying, that even after all this work with 60 teachers, and my voice drying up while accompanying their singing, I kept going. She said it was a great lesson for them all.
I usually find that Chinese teachers are energetic and enthusiastic. In this Yueyang training, they were relentlessly so. Through participating in and reflecting on the activities, they knew that they were learning language and developing approaches to teaching. One thoughtful participant commented that as wonderful as these activities were, she couldn't imagine adding any of them to her teaching because turning the pages in the coursebook was already time-consuming enough. This triggered new thinking in me – in the ensuing years, the focus of my training morphed from skills to systems. The teachers needed more effective ways of integrating grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation into their skills work. This in turned influenced the content of my The Book of How to do things in ELT and other publications.
Another thoughtful participant said that it would difficult to do these activities with their large classes of 50. I pointed out that we spent the first week doing them in a class of 60. End of!
The teachers might also have been energetic and enthusiastic because Tom and I had to select the top 20 to go on to be trained as trainers. At the end of our month, Susan and Briony came and worked with the admirable 20 for another month. And then they went to Norwich for a two week summer course. I was teaching a different NILE summer course while they were there studying with Jamie. Nevertheless, the reunion was joyous! One evening, in Constable Terrace on the UEA campus where we were all living, they handmade hundreds of jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) that stretched to the horizon.
Not only did the 20 then return to China, so did I. I had ten days to work with them to prepare them to start training. Michelle asked me if there was anything I needed. Twenty-four teachers whom the trainees could pilot their material on would be nice. In the mornings we prepared the training sessions, in the afternoons they delivered them to the 24 teachers, and then we did some feedback. It was fascinating to see the 24 teachers hold the 20 trainees in such high regard. The 24 completed questionnaires on the training and were positive and grateful.
At the end of the first day, some representatives of the Hunan department of education that was funding all of this, drove Michelle, some other BC colleagues and me in a convoy of black vehicles to a vast lotus lake around which we boated admiring the minaret in the distance as the sun began to set. I was still jetlagged and initially irritated by this six hour trip on top of a long first day, but upon realising that this had all been done for me, my mood changed considerably.
The day after my last day was Day One for the 20 new trainers. I could only stay one day, but watching them put into practice what they had learn from Charlotte, Tom and me, Susan and Briony, and Jamie, was one of the most moving experiences of my professional life. It was astounding to see them at work.
As I mentioned, this project had many moving parts, all of which Michelle managed brilliantly. She organised other trainings I did in China, and this year on my first trip to Australia in eight years, I even stayed with her in Melbourne where she and her family now live. At the end of one of our collaborations, she wrote me a short letter in which she mentioned having observed many trainers and many sessions, but mine are the only ones she learns anything new from. The letter was enclosed in this recipe book.
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