An interview with Margit Szesztay

You may not have heard of Kyiv much recently, but at the end of October we hosted the English Language Teachers’ Association International Symposium with representatives from teachers’ organisations from neigbouring countries and none other than Margit Szesztay, the President of IATEFL. Quite newsworthy, I think!

I had met Margit almost 3 years ago, when she was an honoured visitor to IATEFL Ukraine and agreed to do a workshop for our Teaching Centre at the British Council. As it turned out, she is a great teacher trainer and an incredibly nice person. So, I was delighted to see her again and, since there was no time for another workshop, collected questions from our teachers, which Margit was awfully kind to answer over dinner. Here is our small impromptu interview, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

What can you say to non-native speaker teachers who want to be more confident with high-level students, but don’t know how to rely on their qualifications rather than their nationality?

First of all, there is no way of getting around the fact that language competence is very important. I think that non-native speaker teachers need to feel really confident with their language and they always need to work on improving all aspects of their language competence. But having said that, you don’t need to sound like a native speaker – I think there are excellent non-native speaker teachers. It actually would block you if you wanted to be perfect, to have perfect pronunciation. It’s going to create anxiety. So, first of all, just relax and be happy with the language competence that you have, be more courageous and use English more.

Also, make use of the fact that you can bring in so many different kinds of input like video recordings on the Internet; a lot of coursebooks have great supplementary materials these days, as well. The teacher is no longer the main source of input for the learner, there is excellent input out there. The teacher’s role is changing, and our role as non-native speaker teachers is being supporters, encouragers, organisers of classroom activities, and also being able to analyse what problems students with the same mother tongue as us have, or might have. So, helping them with that, sharing our own stories of how we became a better language learner. These are incredible pluses that we have at our disposal.

That’s what I would say: make use of all that you do have, and just feel comfortable with what you’ve got. You know, like we used to say: ‘The teacher is not a walking dictionary’, and they’re not. And the teacher doesn’t have to have perfect pronunciation – anyhow, what’s perfect pronunciation? But you do need to have good language competence, you need to be expressive, you need to feel at home in the language.

And what honest advice would you give to those teachers in particular who don’t feel confident enough to upgrade their students’ language, deal with emerging language?

My honest advice? I’ve had the privilege to observe many teachers, mostly in Hungary, but in other contexts as well. Language competence shouldn’t block you from dealing with emerging language. If someone comes up and asks you for something, and you have to think about it – it can happen to anybody! And then you can check it out, or you can ask that person to check it out. So, I think it’s got more to do with if you are a good listener, if you are interested in your students, because this is the idea behind emerging language: it’s not just ‘this is what I want to teach’, but I’ interacting with you, listening to you, and then whatever emerges, I work with that. But it’s not just a language skill, it’s a reaching-out skill, an ability to have rapport, to have curiosity, and to interact with your learners. So, I would say: do it, and be comfortable doing it.

But, having said that, I’ve also seen teachers who need to work on their language competence. There’s no way of getting round that because even though when we talk of English as an international language, English as a lingua franca, maybe a certain type of accuracy isn’t important, maybe lexical accuracy is more important than grammatical accuracy, but if you’re a teacher, it’s still very important for you to be accurate as well as fluent. You always need to learn, you always need to pay attention to your mistakes, and don’t feel bad about it, it’s part of learning. Sometimes teachers fall into this anxiety cycle, they fret: ‘Oh, I’m never going to get this perfect!’, and they are not learning because they block themselves. So, get rid of this anxiety and be a lifelong learner we all have to be, but don’t let your lack of perfect language competence block you.

You obviously speak perfect English, it’s very expressive — what would you recommend those teachers do to approach your level of competence?

It depends on what they need to work on, but I think, choose something you really enjoy. It could be learning to do something, or could be your favourite series, or watching vlogs – you can choose anything, but watch it several times – not just indiscriminately watching, watching, watching in a lazy way, because you’re watching to learn. Choose a section, watch it several times and really listen – or, if you like TED talks, choose a TED talk and listen to it, then read the transcript, then listen to it again and do this regularly. I think just watching series or films is also good, but you have to take some short cuts. You need to ask yourself, ‘What did he say?’ and then listen to it again, several times, or read the transcript, because then you would teach yourself to listen better, to pick up things that you didn’t pick up before. So, choose two days a week, depending on how much time you have, half an hour or 20 minutes: and make it your attentive listening time.

I’ve heard it called narrow listening, or narrow reading, when you read or watch the same thing again and again…

Yes, and it could be reading as well. Choose something you enjoy, and just notice how it’s organised. Sometimes my students say, “Oh, there’s nothing new in this”, but then the question is, “Would you be able to write it like this, or say it like that?” And often the answer is, “No, no way”. It’s like ‘go up to somebody’: you could say, ‘He went to him’, but it would sound strange, or you could say ‘He went up to him’. Always highlight these language chunks, put them at the bottom of the article, story, whatever you’re reading, so that you are focusing on the language as well as the content.

I think it’s good advice for all language learners, not just English teachers!

Now my next question: which do you think are the most important trends in language teaching nowadays?

Well, there are so many trends, and if I think about IATEFL’s 16 SIGs, they all represent trends in a way. I would say creativity definitely is a trend, it’s not a specific thing, but ways of being creative, helping our learners to be creative – because that also means moving away from the kind of teaching where there’s always the right answer. It means playing more around ideas, being playful and spontaneous. Actually, the emerging language you mentioned also has to do a lot with creativity. I would say that it’s fortunately a trend, and there are many articles being published with lots of creative ideas.

Then, English as a medium of instruction, EMI, and Content and language integrated learning, CLIL, is definitely a trend in the sense that it’s spreading all over the world. A lot of higher education institutions, and not just them. It’s partly to attract foreign students, and partly to make language learning effective by bringing in good content. It’s definitely a major trend around the world, and sometimes maybe pushed too hard. But it does have some benefits, so it’s worth thinking about.

And then of course there are all these trends related to the technology around us, using mobile devices for learning, and not just devices, but technology in the classroom as well. The potential is incredible, so on the one hand, I’m a fan, but on the other hand, I see the dangers because there are so many addictions to the screen and because we’re not disciplined enough to know when to stop, and also because people don’t get enough face-to-face communication. So I would say, think about using it, but in a very focused, narrow way, so that you don’t use it all the time, so that we don’t forget about face-to-face communication.

And what about all those lessons that people do on Skype online, do you think they are good or bad?

I think they’re good. When you’re using Skype to teach English to people who are actually not there, I think it’s a bridging thing. I’ve never taught through Skype, but I’ve got many friends who have, and based on what they tell me and what their learners tell me, it’s very good. You still need to plan, really carefully, sometimes even more, but if you structure the lesson, I think it can be really good. I had a lot of positive stories about it.

We’re actually experimenting with group online teaching at the moment.

I think that’s putting technology to good use, because maybe not everybody would be able to come to the location, but as I was talking about before, when you’re actually there, face-to-face, technology can stand in the way, it doesn’t always enhance the quality of learning or teaching when you use devices. I’ve still got questions about that.

Anything else you’d like to share with the readers of this interview?

Well, there are many things I’m excited about, but my big area is groups. I’ve always been fascinated by groups. Each group that I meet is like a new person, and just to see how they change, all the chemistry, and the different roles that members pick up, the dynamic, is fascinating. Also, I think, we need to learn more about how we can learn together. I’m interested in creativity and even more interested in group creativity. I’m interested in critical thinking, but I’m more interested in how a group can become critical and how you can learn more about yourself through the group, and ways of tapping into group wisdom.

One of the things I’ve been working with in the past few years is the idea of the group challenge: to motivate my groups by challenging them to work together rather than bringing in competition, which of course is a great motivator, but there’s so much of it and it has so many detrimental effects. So, for any small activity like brainstorming that you want to do, turn it into a group challenge: two minutes, can you come up with twenty ideas? Because bringing in the time dimension is a good way to get people excited, and not necessarily two teams, just the class is a team as a whole. Or, can you together as a group remember all the new words? And that’s not asking anyone individually. The group collective memory will always remember more than individual memory. Collective wisdom.

And maybe some synergy as well?

Absolutely! And I think that’s a potential that we don’t know enough about yet, and desperately need to learn. Because in order to collaborate, we need not just to use cooperative techniques, but also to know more about the group and the dynamic of the group, and ourselves, how we behave, how we can influence that. And that’s something I would like to focus on.

Then we’ll be on the lookout for your articles about it, or maybe a monograph?

Actually, I’m working on a book related to that, so one day it will be out there.


More of the same or more of a good thing?


Here is an inspirational read for those who still hesitate to submit a conference proposal, start a blog or facilitate a training session because they think they have nothing new to say. The author, Shaelynn Farnsworth, reminds everyone that there is nothing truly original about stories in general and about education in particular: we rehash old ideas, recycle somebody else’s methods, engage in ‘principled eclecticism’ – and it’s ok because each of our stories adds to the development of our profession, and our enthusiasm still fuels the enthusiasm of everyone else.

Well, I’m feeling even more inspired now, and you?

How to submit proposals


Natalia Guerreiro has recently posted this lovely text about responding to conference calls for presenters. She says that the key word is PREPARE, and then goes on to provide good advice for each of the letters: P is for ‘pick your passion‘, R is for ‘remember your audience‘, and all the way to E for ‘enlist help‘. It’s all very true!

Natalia ends her post with: “Above all, try.” Now, did you know that Tyson Seburn of the Calendar of ELT Events has a chart for proposal deadlines?

ELTons: the Oscars of ELT


Did you watch the livestream last night? Some great speakers there, and of course the nominees. If you are planning to watch the recording, watch out for Susie Dent’s introductions, her malaphors will have you in stitches! How about snackcident (when you were going to eat just one crisp but ended up eating the whole pack), texpectation (when you are waiting and waiting for that text message), or epiphanot (when you were trying to say something profound but it didn’t come out this way)?

If you’re into inspiring moments, check out Helena Gomm (her speech starts at 1.07) who introduced the lifetime achievement award for the wonderful Tessa Woodward.

And if you are looking for practical ideas for the classroom, there are loads! My all-time favourite among the winners is Tim’s Pronunciation Workshop from BBC. The learning video game Learn English with Rubi Rei looks really promising, too.

My wish list has grown by two teacher training books; in fact, all of the teacher training nominees are excellent and I can’t wait to get my hands on these resources.

What about you, any impressions to share?

My IATEFL 2018 Highlights (6 of 6): General impressions


This was my third IATEFL conference, and I finally felt less like a beginner. Weak pre-intermediate, perhaps.

Looking back now, I am sure it was worth the hassle of travelling, the expense of tickets and hotel, the nerves of getting ready to speak in front of an unknown audience.

It’s not just about the workshops and talks, even though I did my best to attend as many as I could. After all, you can watch some online, and read about many of the others.

It’s not just about another opportunity to spend time in a country I love – though who am I trying to fool? 🙂

It’s not just about discussions in the breaks and networking, and not only about seeing old friends, though very much so.

It’s about the atmosphere, the unique background against which all the rest was happening.

Ok, call me an idealist, but you are among thousands of colleagues who are keen on their jobs, open to new ideas, seeking answers to their questions. It heightens your perception, makes everything you hear more memorable and exciting, builds new neural connections. A year’s worth of professional development in one week!

So, for me IATEFL 2018 was just the same as IATEFL 2016 and 2017, or multiple local IATEFLs in Ukraine, or the Teaching Skills Forum in Jordan, or translation seminars at writers’ conventions I used to attend: absolutely amazing. And this concludes my conference series for now.


My IATEFL 2018 Highlights (5 of 6): Plenaries

‘How did you like the plenaries this year?’ asked a colleague I’d met in Glasgow in 2017.
I hesitated and didn’t answer at first.
Did I like the plenaries?
Plenary sessions are tough. If you make them too practical, they won’t be relevant for half of the audience. If they are too far removed from ELT, the other half will say that they have wasted their time. If they are done by ‘luminaries’, someone will come forward and say that there are no new voices, or no equal representation.
So – no, I didn’t like some of the plenaries, but I enjoyed the others. And, whatever my personal preference, I really liked the choices that the organisers had made.

1. What is SLA research good for, anyway? / Plenary session by Lourdes Ortega


Is there any tension between ELT practitioners (teachers) and researchers (linguists)? If there is, we need to learn to work together: linguists can make their research more accessible, and practitioners can accept that knowledge is contradictory and conclusions are never finite. Lourdes mentioned several myths that had been discredited by research but are still popular in ELT:
1) Less L1 in the classroom does not mean better L2; it’s actually the other way round
2) Earlier is NOT better
3) Error correction… wait, the jury’s still out on this one.
Something to think about.

2. Sausage and the law: how textbooks are made / Plenary session by Dorothy Zemach

I had to watch this session online because my own talk was scheduled immediately after it, and I am glad I found the time. Dorothy made it clear why so much seems wrong about materials writing and publishing, and at the same time remained very supportive of coursebooks. If we want to have better materials, we need to examine and compare them and speak openly to the publishers. And of course not to pirate copyrighted materials.
And yes, books should be written by professionals.


3. Knowledge is power: access to education for marginalised women/ Brita Fernandez Schmidt


Brita’s session was unusual and very touching. It was about the power of education and human kindness, her organisation called Women for Women, and other things which she described much better than could ever be done in a blog.

4. Living to tell the tale: a history of language testing / Plenary session by Barry O’Sullivan


A fantastic journey into the past of IELTS, the Main Suite and other beautiful instruments of torture for poor candidates. Here are two ideas that I’d like to re-post:

1) The future of testing is tech-driven, localised and personalised (not global!)
2) A test is a snapshot, so is always slightly out of focus. If possible, we need to use other kinds of evidence to supplement it.

5. Mugging de Queen’s English / Plenary session by John Agard

ScreenCapture at Tue Apr 24 20:54:22 EEST 2018

This was a fun show by a poet who had decided for some reason that we are all primary teachers, and even said so. We didn’t mind because his poems were great anyway. More literary readings, please! (I really recommend watching his recitals, e.g. here or here.)

My IATEFL 2018 Highlights (4 of 6): the ‘Native/Non-Native’ Debate

A topic which is very close to my heart; it was great to see a growing number of presenters who viewed it from different angles. As before, you can see more slides and notes in my little database if any of the sessions below interest you.

1. Managing and developing teachers with lower English proficiency / Gerhard Erasmus

Gerhard spoke about a British Council project in Nepal and through discussion questions and stories led us to an understanding of what such teachers may need. He also mentioned the difference between teachers and any other language learners: they need to be able to use L2 in classroom communication. It’s very different from my own context: very proficient NNSTs, on the other hand, need to focus on other areas of language (not classroom instructions) and on increasing their level of confidence.

2. NNESTs’ professional confidence in the ‘standard British English’-model workplace / Yoko Kobayashi (poster)


This is a poster presentation which I missed because of all the running from building to building between sessions, but I still wanted to include the photo of the poster. It was inspiring to see that Malaysian teachers of English in the research were professionally confident, and this confidence stemmed from many years of training and (!) their status as NNSTs.

3. Teacher profiles: native, non-native, qualified, trained? / Jasmina Sazdovska & Zsuzsanna Soproni


Jasmina and Zsuzsanna presented the results of a survey of more than 300 ELT teachers about the most important qualities of a good English teacher. Perhaps not surprisingly, language proficiency was seen as the most important characteristic by native and non-native speaker teachers alike.
Their solution to the native/non-native issue? Pay more attention to language proficiency and review the contents of teacher training courses. I can’t agree more!

4. The only non-NEST in the village / Sebastian Lesniewski
This presentation was at the same time as Ross’s, but I was able to catch it on video later (thanks, Sebastian!)


Sebastian quoted IATEFL speakers from previous years and used his personal experience to reflect on the position of non-native speaker teachers in ELT. I agree with him that ‘non-native’ is not a derogatory term, but we do need to look for better ways to talk to students about our origin. He also said that as non-natives we need to try harder and be better teachers to compete in the market, but he sees this as a positive challenge – do you?

5. ‘Native’ & ‘non-native’ English teachers: contrasting opinions / Ross Thorburn 


I had already been familiar with Ross’s research and wrote about it here. What was particularly interesting in his presentation was the paradoxes that he saw in the customers’ attitudes. For example, students think that ‘natives’ are better at teaching pronunciation, but they often can’t tell the difference between a native and a non-native accent; also, they consider ‘non-natives’ better teachers of grammar and vocabulary, but at the same time are ready to pay more for a ‘native’. Yes, we still have a long way to go, but, to reiterate Ross’s quote from Dr House:




My IATEFL 2018 Highlights (2 of 6): Leadership and management

This post is mostly about academic management: the first five sessions look at the professional development of teachers from a manager’s perspective, though there is a huge overlap with the CPD strand (coming tomorrow); the last two focus on customer experience. I’ve also included the pre-conference presentations: before, I focused on my impressions; now it’s time for the contents. If any of the sessions interest you, the photos of slides and more comments are available here. Or you might just decide to contact the presenters!

1. PR for PD: Harnessing individual energy to empower institutions in teacher development / Clare Magee & Fiona Wiebusch (PCE)


Clare and Fiona offered alternatives to the ‘Friday workshop model’ and insisted that teachers only need space, time and money, and that the managers simply need to provide these and get out of the way (a common, slightly controversial, thread in many presentations this year). That said, they had a lot of interesting options to suggest to teachers, focusing on space, or Platforms: face-to-face (tea room, meetELT in a pub, 1-day TD fest); peer-to-peer (peer partnerships, pineapple charts for observations) ; digital (e-News, social media). I particularly liked the idea of Passion Platforms and would like to find out more. An idea for a future post, perhaps!

2. Trusting Practitioners / Ed Russell (PCE)


Ed had cool ideas about how to engage very experienced teachers with niche interests – and of course building trust and good relationships. Teachers are invited to think about a very concrete teaching issue (puzzle) and share in a PDG (Personal Development Group).

There are 5 stages:

  1. Identify a puzzle and form a question
  2. Review literature and watch colleagues, decide on your action
  3. Share the plan with the PDG, get feedback
  4. Do what you planned to do and keep a record
  5. Reflect on the experience and share.

I like how the focus is moved to the individual, but at the same time the manager provides structural support. It would be nice to know what happens next.

3. Culture Change in ELT Staff Rooms / Liam Tyrrell (PCE)


Using examples from his own management experience, Liam spoke about the general approach to changing the culture in the staff room:

  1. Picture the desired change
  2. Find your allies and engage the Silent Majority
  3. Give the teachers a lot of choice, but don’t control too much, just ‘take the admin heat’
  4. Recruit people who fit well with the culture

‘Taking the admin heat’ is one of those missing components in the grass-roots teacher development: yes, we should offer a lot of opportunities and ‘let them run with it’, but relinquishing all control is not really helpful.  (So true!)

4. What IS there to offer teachers in the happiest country on earth? / Ania Kolbuszewska (PCE)


Ania spoke about introducing a new CPD concept in Switzerland, in a multilingual and multicultural environment. Even though my context is very different, I found her approach very useful: begin by observing teachers in action, ensure that you all speak the same language (agree on terms), be aware of cultural differences and try to minimise misunderstandings (using top-down strategies if necessary).

5. Creating a culture of CPD, centre-wide, brand-wide, company-wide / Oliver Beaumont & Duncan Jamieson


The presenters compared professional development to a garden (and ‘sprayed’ us with a yellow watering can!) On a more serious level, they highlighted the importance of sustained development, with feedback and coaching, and shared three CPD schemes they use:

  1. Flash training  (teachers are asked: ‘How do you…’ and analyse their practice; have very quick input; decide what you’ll do this week; reflect). All this should take place within one week and not take longer than 20 minutes.  I really like the economical approach to time here.
  2. Personalised Peer Observations (the teacher chooses an observation focus and creates an observation tool before doing a peer observation. Then the observer and observee reflect together and come up with an action plan). I think making their own observation tool is crucial here – could be combined with pineapple charts!
  3. Academic Flair Development programme (this scheme takes INSETT to a new level by introducing action research and limiting the focus to several topics a year). Something worth looking into.

6. Magic moments: making your students’ experience memorable / Ben Butler


Ben gave us quite a lot of information about managing customer experience and explained the difference between touch points, moments of truth and magic moments. It’s important to see everything that happens to a student as a whole journey, from sales to teaching and operations, and establish a customer service mentality throughout the whole team.
7. The highs and lows of student expectations / Sophia Amaryllis Bennett


Sophia spoke about the forces that pull our students in different directions and whether we can do anything about it: culture, peers, family, goals, as well as changing trends. It’s interesting that the better we do, the better we need to do in future, and should never rest on our laurels. We also discussed very interesting case studies – a great way to internalise the input without leaving the session.

To be continued!

My IATEFL 2018 Highlights (1 of 6): Teaching

IATEFL welcome

Alright, I have finally put together my experience of this year’s IATEFL. A six-day cycle begins!

1. Teaching
2. Leadership and management
3. Professional development
4. Non-native/native speaker issues
5. Plenaries
6. General impressions

I’ll be giving highlights in the blog posts, but you can find complete accounts with slides (and more of my rambling comments) in my OneNote database.  It’s a living document and everything (except teaching) is still being updated.

I mostly focused on academic management, but managed to squeeze in a few sessions on methodology: sometimes to support friends, sometimes to explore a new idea. That is why the topics come from very different areas.

So, in no order of preference:

1. Hyper polyglots: what can they teach us? / Scott Thornbury


Scott Thornbury spoke about very successful language learners and what we can learn from them as students and as teachers. Very useful for student counselling and developing learner autonomy!
The advice for teachers is to help students have concrete goals, give them a variety of teaching strategies, provide opportunities for communication and help them build an L2 self (this is definitely something to explore).
It’s interesting how old and new methods combine to help the learners achieve their goals: exposure and focus on fluency, as well as memorisation, spaced repetition, rote learning and apps… If it works, it works!

2. Generating a gender-free growth mindset in the classroom / Sophie Handy


Sophie’s talk seemed to answer one of Scott Thornbury’s questions: so is it about aptitude after all? The research she did with her teenage students was aimed at gender-based stereotypes: do boys and girls see themselves and their potential differently? How can we as teachers help them believe in themselves and achieve better learning? I think I’ll try to replicate this research and see how I can make my classroom more of a learning zone than a performance zone.

3. The Disney creativity strategy in the Business English context / Marjorie Rosenberg


Marjorie Rosenberg introduced a very simple but effective idea that could be used in Business English lessons, or in fact in any lessons with more or less mature students – and even in business meetings. (What does Walt Disney have to do with it? Well, he was known to play each of these roles with his subordinates, and they never knew what he was going to be next – interesting fact). Apparently, all of us play the role of a dreamer, realist or critic, and acknowledging these roles overtly can bring a lot of benefits. In the practical part, I happily channelled my inner critic! It seems that I need more work done on my business communication skills.

4. Best practice for blended learning: approaches and outcomes / Pete Sharma & Barney Barrett


This session was all about course planning, with lots of practical and sensible advice. All of it is in their book, and I really recommend checking out Pete Sharma’s website. I had a lot of my questions answered and thoughts confirmed: e.g. why online courses tend to have such a high drop-out rate (lack of human interaction), ratio of f2f and online activities in a blended course depends on context and goals, but the classical number is 50/50. It’s funny but the presentation on blended learning was the only one that had paper handouts!

5. Signposting lesson aims and activities / Alina Promska & Liudmyla Konoplenko


Fresh, energetic and ruthlessly well-structured – what else can I say? Was really happy to see the teachers from my teaching centre present. They signposted their own session (yes, practise what you preach) and demonstrated a lot of useful principles and activities to talk to students about the lesson structure and activity aims. Well done!

6. We have ways of making you talk better / Stephen Reilly


This session inspired me (and some other people I know) to start recording lessons again. I did try making videos of my lessons, which was a painful but very useful experience. Audio is much less of a distraction because you don’t have to think about your hair or clothes! Stephen presented discourse analysis tools that can be used to look at one’s TTT (watch out for those pesky verbal tics) and gave useful advice about the technical side of things. And yes, this analysis should result in a realistic action plan.




Ego permeability


Another term that has been haunting me since IATEFL: ‘ego permeability’ as an affective factor of successful language learning (from Scott Thornbury’s talk about hyper polyglots). The Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Applied Linguistics defines it as “the ease with which new experiences, cultural features or perceptions of other people may pass the defences of one’s personality”. A quick Google search yields quite a few books and scholarly articles, but I haven’t found any practising EFL teachers writing about it. Can this idea be used to motivate adult learners? Or explain to them the essence of the communicative approach? An idea for someone’s future post, perhaps!

However, it would not be a blog of curated resources if I didn’t leave you with something to read. Here is an article by none other than Ruth Wajnryb about the arguably lower ego permeability of the English language and how it helped it become Globish.  It’s a long read, but definitely worth it!