#MyTEFLstory, a Picaresque in Ten Chapters

*warning: this post contains self-indulgence*


As you can see, International House wants to hear your TEFL story and so, when Alison Sturrock of IHWO asked if I’d write my own, it seemed like a good way to relaunch the blog that I retired about a month ago (don’t ask – but thanks Sophia Kahn for the revolutionary idea to simply  change the name).

Chapter 1: CELTA, Edinburgh, Scotland

I’m one of those straight-out-of-uni-never-had-another-job ELT people. I was 21 and I did CELTA for love. Well, my then girlfriend wanted to go to France to help her with her French and I had no idea what I was going to do after finishing my post-grad, so when she said there was thing called CELTA, I signed up too (getting some training before you do something is always a good idea). I don’t imagine I’m alone in starting out that way, but I am probably in a minority who suddenly realised what they wanted to do FOREVER. I loved it. I thought my tutor, Mark Roper, to be almost superhuman and I knew right there and then I wanted his job.

Chapter 2: Gravelines, France

Chris and Chris

Following CELTA, I relocated to Gravelines, Northern France, which is famous only for having an excellent Vauban moat and a nuclear power plant. I lived in nearby Dunkerque, famous for the British escaping it rather hastily, not moving to it rather hesitantly. My classes were in an IUFM – a teacher training college – and I worked with (and learned from) the excellent Evelyne Fauquer, my job to provide English teaching and hers to train the would-be primary school teachers. I was there about 10 months, I think, though I cannot recall so well now. My twenty hours of classes were relatively informal, focusing on lexis and fluency, and had mixed level monolingual French groups. I started to learn French and realised that what students say in English is an excellent help if you’re studying their native language. Contrastive analysis, we were destined to be. It was time to stop clowning around.

Chapter 3: Edinburgh, Scotland

Basil Paterson College, the school at which I’d done my CELTA, asked me back to teach over the summer and I ended up staying there for nearly a year. Great multi-lingual groups, the Italian Army, MEPs, CEOs, my first exam classes (IELTS? That’s not a word? What?), a mad Turkish man… what a time it was! My girlfriend and I celebrated Christmas by breaking up (amicably, don’t worry yourself) and it felt time to move on. I also had to escape a stalker, but that’s a story for next time I see you in a bar. Words floated round the staffroom as I wondered aloud what to do: British Council, Bell, IH… But what was this IH? A teacher called Lorraine had been working in one of these in Milan and was full of praise. But what an odd name. These initialisms and words, the multi-generational staffroom told me, were the places everyone wanted to work, the good schools, the places to be. And then, one night, a posting for a job in IH Costa Rica.

Chapter 4: San José de Costa Rica Part I

2nd conditionals 27th sept '11

The single best decision I have ever made in my life. I didn’t speak Spanish, I’d only ever heard of Costa Rica from the Italia ‘90 World Cup National Disaster that was Scotland 0-1 Costa Rica, I didn’t know anyone there nor what I was getting myself into. My mum cried at the airport – her little 24-year old boy was going away, really away. I think I cried on the plane, probably out of terror. And then I was there in San José with men with machine guns outside shops, tropical sun on my Northern European skin, a small Caribbean town called Cahuita just a few hours away and the best staffroom I’ve ever known. International House Costa Rica was an unqualified success – a friendly, serious, laidback, fun, developmental place to work.

I made two of my best friends that year and my teaching improved enormously. This guy called Ben Naismith had something called Delta, was in charge of professional development and I liked the look of his role in the school. Bernardo Morales was going to do this Delta thing and so should I do the same? After a year in which I taught kids for the first time (and did the IHCYLT), became a Cambridge examiner, taught new levels, used new books and became a much better teacher, it was time to leave. What a sad day that was. But the Edinburgh staffroom had been right about this IH lot.

Chapter 5: Buenos Aires, Argentina

I went to Buenos Aires to try to freelance for a while. The freelancing as a business English teacher was great experience of yet another side of the industry but the visa situation was not ideal and so I only lasted a few months. That Delta thing was always on the horizon and, after securing a place and a job at IH Akcent, Prague (can you spot a theme developing?), I said hasta luego to Argentina and Latin America.

Chapter 6: Prague, Czech Republic


Fried cheese. Nakladany Hermalin. Budvar. And Delta. I was teaching full time too, I should say, and Delta was part-time every Friday for eight months. This was a great arrangement as it allowed for ideas and inspiration from Delta to come into my classes immediately. Being an IH, the tutors were excellent and I decided, again, I wanted their jobs. I experimented like a demented Einstein and probably had the most intense and intensely rewarding developmental time of my career. I seemed to teach a lot of advanced classes and a teen class so irritating that I went through three co-teachers (there’s one on the right there). I learned to love The Nature, as it’s called there, and go on cottage, at the weekend. The winter was very cold – it got down to minus seventeen and the inside of your nose froze – but the inside of my head was a hotbed of new ideas. I also discovered EnglishDroid that winter and it remains my favourite ELT publication (after Dramatic Monologues, of course) to date. Nick W would send me one line e-mails instead of doing his Delta work and hours were lost trying to think of puns.

Chapter 7: San José de Costa Rica Part II

Return to IH Costa Rica. ELT’s Ben Naismith was still there and he asked if I’d consider going back. I think he needed someone to play pool with and that was a tempting proposition, so I bit the bullet, packed my bags and said hola to Costa Rica once more. I trained as a CELTA tutor in these two years – I told you I wanted Mark’s job – and had the role that Ben, now DoS, had had before: in-house CPD, teaching and CELTA. It was a brilliant job in a great school with a wonderful, committed and fun staffroom. There were many extra-curricular evenings. I stayed two years this time and only left when the school closed and we were made redundant. If leaving Costa Rica the first time had been sad, this was a despair squared, distilled and downed in one.


       ELT’s Ben Naismith observing CELTA TP


My three years with International House in Costa Rica will probably always be the happiest professional years of my life. I learned so much, developed my career so much, presented at my first conferences, became a CELTA tutor, IHCYLT tutor, IH LAC tutor and an IELTS examiner, met so many good teachers and stole all their ideas. I passed the C1 Spanish exam (the DELE) and explored the country some more. There was gallo pinto. What more could you ask?

Chapter 8: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

And so from the laid back pura vida mañana mañana of Costa Rica, to the farcical plastic heat of the Gulf Desert. International House Dubai was as surreal as its host city. A school without students, from what I could gather, and with more sales people than actual teachers. I was full time teacher training, working on CELTA and some in-house CPD. My boss was Jamie King, with whom I’ve since done a number of CELTAs and Deltas, and the highly, er, intellectual debates across the desk rewrote The TEFL Book. Ben Naismith appeared to be DoS there, another small part of Costa Rica lost in the sand.

2013-05-21 23.10.27

This was another two years in which I learned a lot – I became a CELTA YL Ext. tutor, a Delta tutor – told you I wanted my tutors’ jobs – and head of department; I presented at IATEFL, went to the IH DoS Conference and TESOL Arabia; I became a BULATs examiner, CELTA Assessor and an online tutor for IH, Bell and Distance Delta; I wrote materials for IHWO courses and opened the IH Online Conference. I even met Scott Thornbury for the first time, a meeting he still talks about with fondness to this day. But there’s only so much blinding heat and inequality that a man can take, so after two years it was time to move on to IH Chiang Mai (yeah, there’s a lot of IH in this).

Chapter 9: Chiang Mai/Bangkok, Thailand

2015-06-24 13.31.01This was another full-time training position and my time was split 70/30 between IH Bangkok and IH Chiang Mai. I loved living in Bangkok, but less so the bubble that is Chiang Mai. Once again, it’s the people who make a place and I worked with so many good trainers, learning so much from their experience and expertise that I can only call the year I stayed there a professional success. I met ELT’s Laura Phelps and Mike Griffin, both of whom still talk about this with a sentimental fondness, as you would when tarpaulins are placed around you. In June, I got knocked off my motorbike, which didn’t change how I dressed for work.

Chapter 10: Kobe, Japan and the World

The time had come, the walrus said, to freelance (of all things). I decided to leave Thailand and move East again, this time to work for the excellent Language Resources, Kobe. The spirit of LR is very much of old skool IH – professional, dedicated to quality teaching, committed to helping their staff and all round friendly and great to work for. So much so, I went back again after my initial four months of CELTA was over. It’s time to learn Japanese and really explore that izakaya menu.

2015-10-11 18.24.34



My connection with IH continues through being the Editor of the IH Journal, writing online course materials and tutoring for the Online Teacher Training Institute. It’s been about eight years that I’ve been involved with the organisation and I hope there’s another eight to come. IH has certainly been the most prominent and important aspect of my career and if, like me in that Edinburgh staffroom, you’re just starting out in ELT and aren’t sure what to do, then look at the IH Jobs page online and then don’t look back. Then go to the BC after three years for the opportunities money.

Post-script: I would like to add here that I have been very lucky and privileged in my career. I work with teachers every day who work very hard and are remarkably talented but have not had the same opportunities that I have had. There is rife inequality in ELT: being a white ‘native speaker’ from the UK has given me immense advantages and many visas. This is to be lamented and fought against. And while this post (and blog) is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I want to make it clear that I have a great deal of respect for all the teachers I work with and the profession as a whole. We are all in this together.

Fluffy Post 1 – The Absolute Unadulterated Joy of Questioning What You Do

I don’t write blog posts very often, so regular readers will be aware don’t exist, but I’ve decided to write one this morning as I’m feeling inspired. Is it the coffee? Is it the fifth movement of Mahler’s Resurrection still bouncing and floating around the hollow space between my ears? Could it be new neural pathways created as my taste buds sent mind-altering currents to hitherto unknown parts of my brain after Tim Hughes’ astounding leftover-chicken-and-stuff-in-the-kitchen curry last night? Who knows, for what does it matter to the workings of a world that just mapped Pluto?

It matters not, but I just wanted to share some joy. Heaven forfend! Some joy in a world of torment and disaster. But there are little lights, fireflies in the dark of night, uneven pinpricks of euphoria that come at me from time to time. And I’ve had a few of these recently. It’s not been the greatest time. There have been challenges: a relationship going through a ‘difficult phase’, a motorbike accident, a decision to leave my job and move to another country (again!), CELTA number 4,762 and ultimate acceptance that I will probably never play for the Scotland national football team in a World Cup final. But all these first world problems have got one thing in common: they all make me question what I do and who I am.

Now, as this is an ELT blog, let me make at least some reference to the field. All I’ve said above can be summarised in the more academically appropriate words of Thomas Farrell:

“Over their careers teachers construct and reconstruct (usually tacitly) a conceptual sense of who they are (their self-image) and this is manifested through what they do (their professional role identity)” (link here)

What got me thinking about this was a question from a recent CELTA candidate. I was asked about the need for teaching reading subskills (skimming, scanning, detailed comprehension, etc.). I replied the jury was out and that learners may simply transfer existing comprehension skills from L1 to L2, though there seemed no harm to me on working on scanning with lower levels whose L1 has a different script to that of English (my current context is Thailand – yeah, just try scanning Thai as a beginner). But after the session, I got thinking and started to ask questions about what I do.

I thought about reading lessons I’ve taught, what I’ve done with texts in class, and how I feel as a learner of another language. I revisited Russ Mayne’s excellent post (would you expect anything else from Russ?) on Skimming and Scanning (link here), gave Christine Nuttall a ring on my special red telephone and settled down with Swan and Walter. I thought about what subskills are, whether they exist, whether it’s more effective to think about processing than subskills; I reflected on what the difference between subskills and reading strategies is, the need to “pre-teach” and what cats do in the night (though I accept that’s not totally related). I ruminated over the point of reading for gist (see this webinar for more on that), whether scanning involves comprehension and what on earth is meant by “reading for detail”; I considered whether texts should be linguistic objects, what it is that makes people group reading and listening together, rather than reading and writing, and the need to focus on discourse to improve reading. I thought a lot. I constructed and reconstructed my professional ideas and identity.

And what were my conclusions? What paradigm-changing answer did I reach? Absolutely nothing. Not a conclusion in sight. A bit of anti-climax? I think not, because the definitive answers were not the point and are ones I can never reach without moving into primary research – something that is not for me right this very second – no, the point was the process, the thinking, the critical reflection and the absolute unadulterated joy of questioning what you do.

What on earth did I write this for?  Good question – need to think about that.

A Tale of Two Conversations

@sandymillin, ELTPics
@sandymillin, ELTPics

It’s my second blog post in about a year! And what a post it is. Well, ok, it’s really not taken me that much time to write and is more a question or two for you, dear reader, based on the transcripts below. Here’s some information you might want before you read:

Location: Dubai

Topic: Lunch

Ordinary level: very very ordinary

So, have a read of these two dialogues and just think about the differences in them and why that may be the case, think about: grammar, phonology, accommodation, communicative competence, adjacency pairs, standard English, ELF, right, wrong, (in)accuracy, and whatever the hell else you like.

Conversation 1

[phone call]

Me: I’m the Atrium shop – that’s all I need to say

Ben: Hm, ah, well I’ll have what you’re having

Me: Dangerous words. I think I’m gonna go for the large falafel granary

Ben: Hm, shit, I had a falafel last night. Get me a tikka mayo, with the granary and all the evil things.

Me: It’s you who doesn’t like tomato, right?

Ben: No, no tomato.

Me: Ok, so tikka mayo with salad, no tomato?

Ben: Yeah. And could you see if they have one of those fresh strawberry things?

Me: aye, no bother. I’m gonna get some antioxidants for my pomegranatey self anyway. See you in a bit.

Ben: Ok, thanks very much.

Me: Bye

[hang up]

Conversation 2

Guy making sandwich (GMS): Hello sir!

Me: Hello! How are you?

GMS: Fine sir. You? Sandwich?

Me: Yes please. Chicken tikka mayo on the granary please.

GMS: Ok sir, granary? [ˈgræˈnæˈre]

Me: Yes please

GMS: All salad? (intonation rising sharply)

Me: yes, all salad. No tomato.

GMS. No tomato?

Me: No tomato.

GMS: Ok sir.

GMS: no cucumber?

Me: Yes cucumber, no tomato.

GMS Ok sir.

… [BREAK IN CONVERSATION – I order next sandwich now]

GMS (to other member of staff): How many pastrami I put?

Staff member: I think four.

Me (jocularly – nice word): Oh, I think five.

Staff member (laughing): Ok sir, yes, put five.

GMS: Ok sir, five, and this (places extra half)

Me (laughing): great! Thanks. Excellent service here.

GMS: [smiles]

GMS: Make it hot?

Me: No thank you

GMS: Want toasted?

Me: No thank you.

GMS: Ok sir. [hands over sandwich]. Thank you sir.

Me: Thank you! Have a good day. G’bye.

GMS: Have a good day sir. Good-bye.

So there you have it. That’s how I get lunch from the place down the road a coupla times a week. But, back to the conversations, there are quite a few differences between the two  on a few different levels. Feel free to leave a comment below with any of your thoughts and I might one day get round to posting my own, probably some time next year at the rate I write here these days. *shakes fist at Distance Delta* *loves it really*

And finally, having thought about all that, I would now recommend you read World Englishes by Jennifer Jenkins and Uncovering Grammar by Scott Thornbury and see if the above gives any further food for thought.

(the sandwich was good, by the way)

IH 60th Anniversary Online Conference

Just to let anyone reading this know that I will be speaking at the IH online conference on November 29th, with some more expert and famous people than me speaking on the 30th. My talk will be about accommodation theory in ELT, based somewhat on a previous post you can see here.

It’s a great chance to watch some top speakers (self not included, obviously..) and I’d really recommend checking out the sessions. You simply register for free and be online on the day. You can do this, by click here.

IH Conference