Empowering ourselves and those around us

The idea of empowerment of teachers is not something new, it seems it has been a topic since I began in the profession many years ago.  It has, however, taken on a new face and is being supported by new voices.  But what exactly is empowerment?

Lake 'Zminjicko', Durmitor-Montenegro Gordana Lutovac Vukovic

Lake ‘Zminjicko’, Durmitor-Montenegro by Gordana Lutovac Vukovic for eltpics.com

In looking for definitions of the word ‘empowerment’ I found these: ‘giving someone more control over their life or situation’ (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English) ‘the process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you’ (Cambridge Dictionary) and ‘the process of becoming stronger and more confident in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights’ (Oxford English Dictionary). What is interesting about these definitions is that, although the goal in the end is the same (having more control) the way one gets there is different. I suspect that in many ways, both concepts are true. Teachers are empowered to teach, many of us have the power to decide which materials we will use or least how we will use them; we have a certain amount of power in our classrooms, we can decide who to call on and when; and, in some cases, have a voice in setting curriculum, tests, and so on.  However, we also have to be given the power by those we work with, work for as well as by the communities in which we carry out our jobs even as we work at the process of gaining the power and freedom to do so on our own.

We're all in the this together Chrysa Papalazarou

‘We’re all in the this together’ by Chrysa Papalazarou for eltpics.com

It seems that there has been quite a bit of discussion on the topic over the last few years and the second two definitions are the ones getting the most traction.  I see this very positively and fully support anyone going through a process of becoming stronger and more confident in order to control their life and lay a claim to their rights.  Although it can be done alone, it seems that when we reach out to others and offer a helping hand this reinforces the idea that we are all in this together.

Work together Alena Filtchakova

‘Working together’ by Alena Fitchakova for eltpics.com

For this reason I feel that we can only truly empower ourselves when we help others around us to gain the freedom and confidence they need to feel empowered. By coming together and sharing ideas, the concept of empowerment can more easily spread throughout our environment and the field we work in.  I have always believed that we are all stronger when we lift each other up rather than doing the opposite. For me, the goal is to create a situation in which empowerment of one person leads to empowerment of another without pitting one group of professionals against another.  Feeling that all of us are on the same side is one of the reasons I am still engaged and enthusiastic about what I do after close to forty years of teaching. I also feel very lucky that I have been in the situation to encourage and help others through my various roles as a teacher, a mentor, an author and volunteer in various teacher associations.  My hope would be to see the concept of empowerment spread throughout ELT in ways in which the myriad groups support and help each other so that we all can achieve the best outcomes for ourselves, our learners, our colleagues and our community.


Fun in the ELT Classroom

There was a discussion several months back about fun in the ELT classroom.  Several people brought up the point this was not the goal of the class and a number of people were happy that this had become part of the public discussion.  However, it was not discussed as a by-product of teaching and learning.

Starting my 38th year of teaching English as a foreign language, it is difficult for me to imagine working in this field if it were truly devoid of fun.  Just looking at dictionary definitions we see that the noun ‘fun’ is defined as being a pleasure or something that provides enjoyment.  The adjective ‘fun’ is described as enjoyable, pleasurable, and agreeable. As these are states many of us look for in our private lives, I feel they can certainly carry over into the classroom.

Using photos and short stories about our childhoods to get to know each other.who could this be

In many cases, once we have rapport with our students, learning and teaching becomes more pleasurable.  In my work with adults, we laugh together about things we have in common or have discovered about each other, topics ranging from our free time to what we are discussing at the moment in class.  At times, issues that may be problematic can be made easier to discuss by finding elements of humour in them or in the language we need to discuss them.  Comparing languages can be done in a light-hearted but accurate way and may make the difficulties more accessible to learners. Even when we deal with serious topics, we can get enjoyment from the act of leaning about them.

Adult learners enjoying each other’s stories.adult ed - reading adverts

I have found over the years that different elements create a feeling of ‘fun’ in the classroom.  Giving out stickers to my adult learners is one example of this.  They appreciate them, they find them amusing and they work hard to get them.  Telling stories or anecdotes is another way to create a light-hearted atmosphere.  We often teach business English students about the importance of this when starting off a presentation or a talk, why not use these ourselves in class  as they are a positive way to get everyone’s attention and create a feeling of rapport with the group?  Cooperative learning activities which foster interdependence among learners is another way to have fun as are many of the physical activities we can use to break up the routine.

Making a ‘cooperative tent’ which provides room for all.cooperative learning tent

What I notice in classes with a feeling of ‘fun’ is that the students become so engaged in what we are doing that the time just flies by.  I think we would all agree that unpleasant activities seem to last longer than those which are pleasurable and enjoyable. Students leave class more energised and, from my experience, seem to remember well what we did in class because the ‘fun’ they were having kept their attention on what we were doing.  It may not be our goal, but as a side product, fun can be seen as a powerful tool in the process of learning.

Rapport with a group

The last blog post I wrote dealt with establishing and maintaining rapport when working one-to-one with a learner or in a small group.  The tips given included matching body language, gestures and posture; matching vocal tone, speed and volume; and awareness of cultural customs and norms.  However, many of us teach or train large groups of people and this post deals with the topic of managing rapport with a group.   Although many of the tips from the last post on rapport with individuals can be used in groups, there are also special characteristics of groups which should be taken into account as well.

Starting with this definition may be helpful.  Rapport means creating mutual trust and understanding and establishing a good working atmosphere in the classroom.  This is certainly what many of us strive to do in our everyday teaching situations and these tips have been helpful to me over the years.

Students at the University of Graz

Finding commonality with the group

What are the different factors that make up a group?  This is important to know in order to be able to react in a way that sets up the feeling of trust and understanding mentioned above. We need to consider the age of the learners, their family situations, the values they have, where they live, their religious beliefs and customs, their interests, special abilities they have and where we may meet resistance.  Although it is not possible to gather all the information about everyone in every situation, if we know that we are teaching a multi-cultural, multi-lingual group we then need to find ways to include everyone in the class.  This may mean choosing words and phrases carefully or checking if particular topics are appropriate to discuss.  It also includes using more inclusive phrases such as ‘Happy holidays’ or ‘Have a good break’ rather than assuming that everyone in the group celebrates the same holiday on the same day and in the same way.  Using the wrong words may not be tragic but will not help to establish rapport with those who find them offensive in any way.  We need to consider such things in the same way we choose age-appropriate materials, know whether or not to use first or last names in adult groups, avoid certain topics if we know that they might be sensitive topics for some in the group, create a safe space for all to express their opinions, be ready to learn from our learners and not be afraid to create different group constellations allowing learners to find ways on their own to cooperate with each other.

Students at the University of Graz

Focus of interests

It is very helpful to find out what the majority of the group is interested in and find a way to use these topics in lessons.  On the other hand, a learner with a very different interest could be asked to prepare a short talk or a handout to teach others about their special topic.  Another factor in establishing rapport is to bring up a topic which might be considered ‘the elephant in the room’.  If there is something that is something very present for all the learners at the moment or is likely to cause problems, it is a good idea to mention it yourself and perhaps come up with some ideas on how to handle it as a teaching experience.  This can go a long way to establishing rapport within a group and helping with the goals of mutual understanding and trust.

Students at work at board @NikkiFortova http://www.eltpics.com

Physical situations when leading groups

When we work with one person or a small group, we try to look them in the eye when speaking with them or to indicate that we are actively listening.  In a large group we need to practice being less focused on one or two people or even on one side of the room.  We need to be able to ‘sweep’ the room with a look, give everyone the feeling that they are included and acknowledge that all are there and important to us.  There will be times when we need to focus on one student but in general we need to try to include them all when teaching a group.  This can take on physical attributes such as making sure we stand in a different place in the room, move about the classroom, allow learners to be the ones at the board and go directly to learners to chat with them or have learners sit in different places if possible.

These are some of the ideas I have discovered and worked with over the years.  I am sure that colleagues have their own tips and tricks and would love to hear about them as I feel an open discussion on this topic would be beneficial to many of us.  There is nothing like teaching a group when the rapport is there, I think it may be one of the single most important elements in learner progress, well-being and helps to motivate both learners and teachers.

Rapport, the art of communication and understanding others

A recent discussion on classroom management and dealing with students got me thinking back to the training I have done with both teachers and business people on the concepts of rapport.  This blog post is about rapport in one-to-one situations or in small groups; there are other techniques which can be used in the classroom which will be covered in a separate post.

Rapport can be defined as understanding another person well and being able to communicate with them.  In some cases, this just happens and is a perfectly natural occurrence.  We meet someone and the rapport may be instant.  We find that we fall into easy conversation, we have no problem understanding what the other person means to say and we are often in agreement.  This may not always be the case however, and there are certain techniques we can use to establish rapport and help the communication along.

eltpics on the swings @sandymillan - Copy (2)On the Swings @SandyMillin  eltpics

These can be put into different categories.  Let’s start with the physical tips.  One possibility in one-to-one or small group communication is to try and match gestures, posture, body language, and even our breathing. You have to be careful to make it natural and respectful so that the other person does not feel like they are being made fun of in any way.  But if someone tends to cross their arms or legs, you can naturally follow their lead and it may feel more comfortable to them when carrying on a conversation with you than if you sit in a totally different position.  If you observe people in public places you will usually notice those who are in rapport from their body language.  They often have the same posture and may look like they are mirroring each other’s movements as well.

eltpics friends @VictoriaB52 - CopyFriends @VictoriaB52 eltpics

The next category deals with the voice.  People who know each other well tend to have the same tonality and rhythm of speech.  This is not always possible to do at the beginning of a relationship but you can adjust your tempo to the tempo of others as well as how loudly or softly you speak.  If you observe the other person in the communication, you will begin to notice how quickly or slowly, loudly or quietly they generally express themselves.  As the person working on establishing rapport, it is your job to match that as much as possible. In addition, there may be certain slang which is common among a group and choosing certain of those slang words in your speech can help you to make the other person comfortable.  For those who speak a dialect of a language, it is sometimes necessary to communicate in that dialect with others who speak it so as not to seem distant.  This has to be natural however for both parties.

The last category deals with cultural customs.  It isn’t possible to cover all cultural customs in a short blog post but distance between speakers and eye contact are two that can be observed and copied.  Some cultures are more comfortable standing or sitting close to those they speak with and others further away.  The same goes for eye contact, some people like to look others in the eye and some don’t.  For those trying to set up a basis for communication, it is important to take your partners’ lead in this case and do the same.

Tangeroos   Tangeroos eltpics

An important thing to remember is that we all have our own models of the world.  The way we see the world around us has to do with many factors including where we live, our jobs, our personalities, our upbringing, our values, etc.  However, in order to establish rapport we need to try and understand another person’s model of the world.  It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them or take on their values and ideas; it just means that we need to build a bridge so that we can perhaps begin to meet them halfway.  By doing this, we show willingness to learn from another person which is the first step in improved communication and will hopefully lead to rapport with them which in turn can help in both our work lives as well as our private spheres.


rapport bridge


Conferences, teacher training days and the value of PD in local contexts

I was delighted to be invited to two events recently, namely the 21st Annual IATEFL Ukraine National Conference in Kiev from 8 – 9 April 2016 and the International House, Toruń International Teacher Training Day in Toruń, Poland on 23 April 2016.

What struck me about both of these days is that they were organized and run by local people and the workshops and talks addressed the needs of local teachers.  When invited to events such as these, getting to know the people and the culture are a major part of the event.  I was very lucky in that both of the organisations organized tours of the cities for me, an opportunity not to be missed.

I was very happy to have the opportunity to see Kiev, a city I had heard a great deal about from exchange students here in Graz.  Some of the structures and buildings I got to see were breathtaking and having a tour like this before the conference really sets the scene for the rest of the stay.

St. Sophia's cathedral

St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Kiev

building in Kiev

Architecture in Kiev

St. Andrew's chruch

St. Andrew’s Church, Kiev









IATEFL Ukraine, with support from the British Council, has set up winter and summer schools to train local teachers to train others. This programme, which includes focuses on methodology and English as a life skill, has proven to be extremely successful and the cascading effect means that knowledge is passed on from local trainer to local teacher. This was also evident at the conference where the vast majority of talks and workshops were held by Ukranian teachers from all over the country as well colleagues from a few other countries including Poland, India, and the UK.  The focus of the talks were both general topics for teaching and specific to issues being faced by Ukranian teachers which included a discussion of the new methodology curriculum and how to select course books. Other topics were digital literacy, learner autonomy, critical thinking in the EL classroom, SEN (special educational needs) and English in the context of an emerging economic powerful nation such as India.

birthday cake for IATEFL Ukraine

Birthday cake for IATEFL Ukraine

teachers at the conference

Enthusiastic teachers at the conference

Gemma, president of IATEFL Ukraine 2

With Ganna Chuiko, Vice-President of IATEFL Ukraine










Two weeks later, I headed off to Toruń, Poland, an absolute jewel of a city with an intact medieval old town.  It is also the birthplace of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.  Here the trip also began with a walking tour of the old town, somewhat different from Kiev where we needed to be driven to the various sites. The number of fascinating buildings and the history of the city had us all enthralled.

leaning tower

The Leaning Tower of Torun


Copernicus Statue (scarf added by students)

granery 2

A medieval granary, Torun

Torun panorama 3

Panorama of Torun from the other side of the Vistula River










The international training day itself was all organised by a small group of dedicated professionals at IH Toruń who had been working to set this up for months.  There was an excellent mix of presenters, from various cities in Poland as well as guests from neighboring countries such as Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Germany. Again, local context and local issues were addressed as well as more general topics for all.  The workshops I went to were excellent and even after 35 years in the classroom gave me new ideas for my teaching.

teachers hard at work

Teachers at IH Torun hard at work

teachers hard at work 1

Teachers at IH Torun in a workshop

with Glenn

With Glenn Standish at IH Torun










I was thrilled to be able to take part in both PD events and work with such enthusiastic teachers and trainers. It was truly inspiring to see what teachers in their local contexts are interested in and what issues they deal with in their classrooms.  Having the chance to both attend their sessions and chat with them in breaks or in social events organized by the association or the school is the perfect way to gain insight into another culture and teaching/learning environment. I would highly recommend these events and hope to be able to attend them again as well as similar ones in different places around the world.



Two worlds coming together: teaching and volunteering

Being a business English trainer often involves much more than just delivering grammar and vocabulary to learners. Business people need English to do business and not to learn about it. Courses for them need to be purposeful and address the issues they have in the work place. For this reason, it is very helpful to be able to draw on other aspects in a course in order to discuss relevant issues with business English learners.

I have been working with a group of project managers at my local bank for a few years now. We use a course book (we are actually on our second one now) but I also find that bringing in experiences from both my business days working in advertising in New York City as well as the work I do for IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) is very valuable. They have often mentioned that they like the fact that I understand work packages, milestones, deadlines and leading teams. So much of what they do relates directly to my IATEFL work. As President, I am responsible for finalising the agenda for Trustees meetings, running the meeting, checking the minutes, leading an IATEFL Executive Committee, meeting deadlines for the conference and IATEFL publications and setting up working parties. This experience has helped me greatly in establishing rapport with my business English learners who see me as a ‘fellow business person’, a concept which goes both ways. I have at times asked them for advice on dealing with a team or running a meeting as we all face the same problems at times when keeping a group of people on track.

IATEFL Board of Trustees at work

IATEFL Board of Trustees at work

When I first began volunteering for TEA (Teachers of English in Austria) and then the IATEFL Business English Special Interest Group (BESIG) I felt I wanted to give something back to the community I have been working in for the last 34 years. Both friends and family asked me what I get out of it. It is difficult to put this into words but the longer I do this, the more I find it enriches both my life in a personal way but also in a professional one. My BE learners tell me how they relate to my stories about travel and resulting problems, deadlines, dealing with emails, (especially the unanswered ones), giving presentations, delivering content online, taking part in conference calls and encouraging everyone on a team to contribute, stay motivated and reach their potential.

Final screen shot of web conference 2015

Final screen shot of web conference 2015

Summing up, I would say that the balance I feel I have achieved at this point in my teaching career keeps me going and I can well imagine that this is true for many of us in similar situations. I hope this continues as teaching has been a major part of my life for so long as has volunteering for teaching associations. They have both led me down paths I had never imagined taking and I am looking forward to seeing where they will lead me in the future.

Travelling to a conference

Travelling to a conference – after rebooking due to airline strike