Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Chris Bowie

Chris and I worked together many years ago, when he lived in Berlin. But he moved on, and we lost contact. We recently met up again at the IATEFL conference in Brighton, and discussed his latest adventures. This post gives you an idea. 

The day starts with a PowerPoint deck. Using PowerPoint for classroom training is already passe and we use it very sparingly in English training. But for virtual classroom sessions, where the participants attend from their computers, PowerPoint is essential as it goes some way to make up for the physical absence of the trainer.

I am the manager responsible for the English skills development at a large financial consulting and services firm in China. I work in Beijing but I'm responsible for the English skills development of 12,000 members of staff in mainland China and Hong Kong. There are just two of us with one other trainer in Shanghai.

Designing a lesson for a virtual classroom throws up a bunch of challenges that you don't need to worry about when designing classroom training workshops or courses. The most important consideration is the lack of control over the learning environment. As a classroom trainer, you can close the classroom door, open a window and ask participants to change their seating arrangements, or even gather them around you at a glass wall or whiteboard. A virtual classroom trainer has very little control over the learning environment, your learners will be receiving emails and phone calls from their bosses or will have people walking up to their desks to ask them questions during your lesson. To counter this, you have to make sure your virtual classroom is fast-paced and dynamic right from the start so that you grab their interest at the beginning and keep them engaged - so engaged that they'll ignore their incoming mail alert for another minute. This means that, just as with designing websites, you have to work on the assumption that your learners are just three seconds away from turning their attention away from your training session. This means that every second needs to be planned. I also try to keep my sessions between 45 minutes and one hour - definitely no more than an hour.

There are a few extra challenges when it comes to Chinese learners. The biggest issue is the enormous amount of power managers have in China. Over here, if a boss or customer sends an email, they'll expect an immediate reply. Another issue is a different etiquette around mobile phone usage. It's not rude to answer your phone in the middle of a conversation here and it's not unusual for a sale rep to answer their mobile phone in the middle of a sales presentation - I think this links to my previous point, if your boss or customer phones you, they'll expect you to take the call and won't take "I was busy" as a valid excuse for not picking up - they also expect that you'll keep your mobile phone on 24 hours a day. Lastly, Chinese learners are so shy and hesitant to open up. Not only is there the fear of losing face through making a mistake, there is also the Chinese proverb that "the first bird out of the nest gets shot" - nobody wants to be the one to speak up. You have to be quite insistent and encouraging right from the moment you start your lesson about participation and you have to do all you can to create a safe environment for people to take risks and try. This last element is essential for language learning and small virtual classes work much better than larger ones.

With all this in mind, I go about designing my slides, using my list of objectives and key content notes as a guide. I like to start somewhere in the middle, with the key point to be learned and then work on my practice and transfer activities, where I show the learners how they can apply what we're doing to their working contexts. Lastly I design the slides from the start of the class up to the main point. This makes sure that everything, right from the opening slides, relates to the key learning point. A virtual classroom needs a lot of interaction built in, especially with Chinese learners. I check my slides and make sure that I have a good mixture of 'tell', 'show' and 'ask' slides, with one 'ask' slide very couple of minutes or so - this keeps my learners engaged, helps me know who's still listening and and how much they understand. The 'ask' slides incorporate a certain amount of interactivity, where the learners are asked to write something on a whiteboard or move words on a screen. It's this increased interactivity, where everybody can do something simultaneously that gives the virtual classroom an edge over classroom training and definitely makes it far better than a video conference or teleconference lesson. The slides themselves need to have high impact and be visually appealing.

With all these challenges, why am I using virtual classroom at all? The fact of the matter is that I have little choice! If I want to get English learning opportunities to my learners on a regular basis, I'll need to find some affordable way of interacting with them in a way that they can easily attend. Most of my learners find it difficult to follow an elearning course. My learners are finding it very hard to use elearning for English learning as they are so busy and have many pressing tasks that need to be done with not enough time to do them. They need a lot of structure to help them plan their learning to make sure it's always manageable. This means using a mixture of elearning with virtual classrooms and the occasional classroom workshop where I can find the budget and leadership support.

Once I have the slides done, I write my trainer notes. I have to write them so they make sense to another trainer. I wouldn't call it a 'script' as I don't write down every word but I write notes on what the trainer should say when and what the learners are supposed to be doing.

By lunchtime I'm proofing my work and uploading the PPT deck to a database. After lunch I spend the afternoon in a training room conducting a four-hour management skills workshop to 12 newly promoted managers on how to coach and give 'constructive feedback' to their team members. Once again, this needs special care in China, as introducing western business practices into a Chinese context without some adaptations is just going to result in failure. I need to be careful how I present this stuff to these new managers as I know that if I come on too strong with a "west is best' approach, I'll just lose their interest and trust. I use my own China experience and, most importantly, ask them how they feel about the key concepts we're exploring.

My biggest challenge is that the current best practice to coaching is to use a 'Socratic learning' approach which involves the coach asking his or her coachee a series of questions to encourage critical thinking and deep-level engagement with the subject matter. This contradicts the traditional Confucian learning approach which involves the coach explaining and the coachee listening and taking careful notes. It would be considered disrespectful for the coachee to ask too many questions and the coach will generally not ask the coachee questions unless they want to test them - "Do you understand?" is normally as far as it goes. I need to deal with this clash of ideas sensitively and patiently; one thing we can both take on board is that there isn't just one way of doing something and it normally does not come down to an all-or-nothing choice..

My background is English language training for business people but I do like the management skills training as it adds variety and new challenges to my working day.

By 5.30 I'm ready for home and dinner. It's a long day, but I definitely don't miss the split shifts and weekend and evening lessons I used to do before I became an in-house corporate trainer. Tomorrow morning I'll be joining all the other early morning commuters on my way back to the office but, except for the commute, each day is different with different kinds of things I need to do.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Kerstin Grossmann

Kerstin is a regional manager for Cambridge ESOL, responsible for Austria, Germany, Scandinavia, and Switzerland. Always friendly and helpful, Kerstin is also very good at what she does. I loved this glimpse into a day in her office. Have a read and see what you think!

Monday morning: I am looking forward to a quiet week in the Cambridge ESOL office in Berlin. There will be no business trips, no urgent projects and a couple of public holidays in the region. After a couple of frantic weeks I will finally have some time for planning and for catching up. Today I have planned the following:

  • Meeting with Manuela, our Marketing and Sales Manager, to discuss the seminar for teachers in state schools
  • Familiarise myself further with the new B1 blended learning course, developed jointly by Cambridge University Press and Cambridge ESOL
  • Arrange a conference call with seminar presenters to discuss teacher support seminars which are relevant for trainers in the corporate sector
  • Leave at 17:00 for a change

When I arrive in the office Manuela, who is always in early, is about to leave! She received a telephone call from a large language school in Berlin, which had a request from a client, who is interested in a customised training course in financial English, possibly with an online component and an exam at the end. The school urgently needs information materials about the Cambridge Financial English Course (a blended learning course) and Cambridge ESOL’s International Certificate in Financial English (ICFE). Manuela sets off to deliver the brochures by hand.

I log into the learning platform on which the new blended learning courses are hosted when the telephone rings. A seminar presenter, who is scheduled to give a seminar in Basel next week, needs to cancel. I check with Nina, our Events Coordinator, how many registrations we have; it’s fifty corporate trainers – no way that we can disappoint them. Nina will immediately look for a replacement.

One of our consultants calls. She has a very promising appointment with a multinational company in Hamburg, which may introduce our BULATS test for benchmarking and recruitment and the Business English Certificates (BEC) as an exit qualification for their in-house training courses. This came up at short notice and she needs information materials and case studies urgently. Andreas, our Office Assistant, is collating packs of handbooks and flyers while I select case studies and testimonials and mail them to the consultant.

After two hours of telephone calls and urgent requests I finally find the time to check my emails – about 20 emails arrived from our Head Quarters in Cambridge: could we please urgently inform teachers and candidates in our region about the newly developed practice tests, which have just been launched. There is a scholarship to attend the IATEFL conference, could we please (urgently) let teachers in our region know? Have we received any feedback on the new blended learning courses, they would like to know (surprise, surprise) urgently. I pass the emails about informing teachers and candidates on to Manuela, who will publish the information in our newsletters, on Twitter and on Facebook. I check the emails I received about the blended learning courses. The comments about the plethora of materials, the structure of the courses and the flexibility is very favourable. I collate the feedback and send it to Cambridge.

Lunch: a dry sandwich in front of the computer, adding more bread crumbs into the key board – one of these days.

I received an email from a teacher about a blind student. Do we have any experiences? As our office is not involved in the administration of the examinations, we don’t, but I provide her with the address of our Special Circumstances Unit in Cambridge, which produces the materials for disabled candidates, and I email our test centres about their experiences. Two of them reply immediately and I can forward some useful information to the teacher.

A German university, which received our recent mailing, calls. They need information about English language qualifications as they are offering degree courses in English. They require C1 as an entry qualification and ask which of our exams would be suitable.  I will send them further information about the Cambridge English: Advanced (CAE) and BEC Higher, which are both at C1 level and arrange for a visit by one of our consultants.   

An urgent email from a school ministry arrives, they had to change the wording of the contract we will sign next week about offering the exams in secondary schools, could I please check whether the contract is ok for us (yes, it is), can we really offer four teacher training seminars free of charge (yes, we can) and could I email them the presentation for school teachers, which I will give next week. Back to the other emails: a school wants to become a test centre, a teacher would like to receive information, a journalist wants to write an article and my line-manager needs a report on our exams in German schools (urgently, what else?).

20:00 – the telephone rings – my heart sinks – it’s probably another complicated query. ‘Hi Darling’, my husband says, ‘No pressure, but do you have an idea when you will come home – and do you want to eat something?’ ‘I will leave in a minute, and yes, I would love to eat!’ I log off, switch the voice mail on and leave. The day turned out to be totally different from what I had planned, but interesting and fulfilling. I am looking forward to a quiet day tomorrow when I will do the following ….

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Jean Sciberras

I first met Jean in 2004 when I visited NSTS in Gzira, Malta. My first impressions were that she was an extremely busy lady. As you will see, things haven't changed!

Whereas most teachers break up for summer holidays, in my case it’s more a question of break down.  No, no. I can’t really complain as every weekend is a guaranteed mini holiday on the beach followed by the Monday morning after the holiday feeling, that feeling of not wanting to go back to school. I want to lie on my sunbed , look at the horizon and dream of far away countries, of land unexplored.  With the sea, the world’s our oyster.  It is an open-ended element and it connects.  In my mind I’m the sturdy swimmer that can reach far away countries without the confines of land.

Back to earth. Every day is a busy day in summer in a language school in Malta.  Because we adopt the rolling system every Monday brings in new faces and new problems, placement tests, allocating of levels, moving to higher or lower levels, coping with the ‘more grammar, less speaking’, ’more speaking less grammar’ until you finally get it right.

As assistant Dos, I run the adult school, deal with students’ academic needs, look for qualified teachers and am there for the teachers.  As teacher trainer I run and coordinate the local TEFL Induction Course, which is a pre Celta type of course and compulsory to all the Tefl teachers in Malta. I am between courses at the moment. The last intensive one was in June and the next one will start on the 9th September. The last course had 24 participants and was one of the best courses I’ve trained.  The trainees were young, enthusiastic and fun and every session was rewarding.  I am now in the process of sending out applications and selling the new course. Following closely is another course, a preparation for the EFL exam, another local product to substitute the English A level requirement.  The EFL exam is more geared towards teachers than the A level is.  It has some tricky, demanding grammar questions . Have a look here if curious.

I am also involved in training Business English teachers, or rather TEFL teachers who would like to get some training in teaching English for Business.  This course at the beginning of summer was open to qualified teachers and attracted an interesting mixture of nationalities.  It was a 1 week course and I was allocated half the sessions. I chose first day activities including using a needs analysis, getting to know students, Needs Negotiation and Course Design. I had done my business certificate with Paul Emmerson and it is amazing that even after 8 years or so he and Maurice Cassidy were both ready to share material and ideas with me.  This is what I like in this grown-up TEFL world.  We’re not afraid to share anymore, afraid that someone gets better results than yourself.  Ok.  I know. I’m an idealist but I prefer to think so and based on my own experience this is what I still believe. Two books I found useful while preparing sessions for this course were Paul Emmerson and Nick Hamilton’s Five minute activities for Business English and Evan Frendo’s How to Teach Business English.

I then continued with sessions on Negotiations and Getting Business English learners to speak.  This last session was based on Marjorie Rosenberg’s IATEFL contribution which I saw on video.  I later on elaborated on this session and presented it in our national tefl teachers’ association, MATEFL, also held this summer.

As you see it’s been a long hot summer and it’s not over yet as on Wednesday a group of 10 Belgian teachers will be coming over to our school for a refresher course.

And that is only a snapshot of what being a teacher trainer , teacher and asst DOS in Malta could entail.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Beena Menon

I first met Beena in 2006, when she was working in Pune, India, but as you will see, this wonderful glimpse into her teaching life comes from her experiences in Thailand, where she works in a State university. Enjoy :-)

(If you are regular reader of English for the workplace you will have already met Beena - she is the person who provided a different perspective on my mango buying incident in Chennai. See the post here .)

…My good exams should prepare is First, lessons before class. Second, should reading a book very very much and every day. Third, should rest in peace and drink water in order to refreshing and good think. Finally, must not lazy and to be in earnest. My exams must study hard…

The nightmare continues inside my dazed benumbed brain, swirling words and sentences going round and round without the least bit of coherence, until a scream explodes “No…no!!! Stop!”

It’s the alarm screeching its wake-up call…I punch ‘snooze’ but the nightmare of jumbled words returns to haunt me…

To chase it away, I push myself off the bed and with the weary courage of a bruised and battered warrior whose ammunition has long since exhausted, but who must fight on with bare hands, I get ready to face my day. We’re talking about winning every little battle here; let’s leave winning the war to others over the next millennium.

Sipping a cup of tea to soothe my jangled nerves, I breathe in the clean, cool morning air, and watch the sunlight filter through the leaves of the trees in the flower filled garden of my accommodation on campus. There’s a sense of calm and peace everywhere. I love Chiang Mai, I love everything here – my work, my colleagues, my students the university and this town.

This morning, I have a Writing Skills class with my sophomores. We’re learning to write paragraphs through a simple ‘formula’. a) A topic sentence, b) 4 or 5 supporting sentences c) appropriate signal words and d) concluding sentence.

We’ve been through all the correct motions over several weeks to ensure that we’ve not only worked hard, but worked smart and worked cheerfully!

The sample output of all that effort is for all of you to see…. sigh!

I’ve barely slept last night; was up checking those infernal paragraphs from the last assignment. This above paragraph, the stuff of my nightmare, was the product of a group writing exercise.

There is more to come… this morning at class…

“I must to go to working”!!…sigh…

Teaching at the state university in Thailand is not without its exciting moments… in fact I’d say there’s never a dull moment! One gets to listen to and read the funniest, weirdest, most intriguing expression in the English language.

The fun stops and the nightmare begins when one must teach ‘correct’ usage – grammar, structure, punctuation, parts of speech, pronunciation…one wonders just how these students got this far with such grave problems and the baffling issue is which end to pick up and tackle first!

The problems are on many levels ranging from student attitude and motivation through to socio-cultural and linguistic problems. For instance, the nature of the Thai language, is completely different from that of English. The Thai language has eliminated personal pronouns, and tenses. Everything happens in the present tense, with a little word tagged on before or after to signify past or future.

They use the name of the person (first person included) repeatedly to signify the subject of the action; so that you speak about your own action in the third person.

The students are hence completely confused with the English structures.

Added to which, they’re brought up never to question anything nor clarify their doubts with the teacher. Asking questions is seen as an affront to the superior authority of ‘the learned one’. So, the classes are full of silent spectators with serene expressions who need a lot of encouragement, prodding and poking to speak up.
The teacher confronts these issues on a daily basis.

At the end of each day the English teachers think – thank God for them, else we’d be out of business!
The work here does have its rewards though and change though slow, is visible over a span of years of relentless, focussed and patient work.

Abrupt as it may seem, more on the subject later…

I must to going to my class now! sigh… :-)

Cindy Hauert

Cindy Hauert is based in Mönthal, Switzerland. I first met her through ETAS, and was immediately impressed by her boundless energy and enthusiasm. Cindy is the sort of person who just gets on with things. You will see what I mean when you look at her website here and read more about a project she runs in Zimbabwe here. In this article she describes a typical Wednesday.  

Wednesday’s my heaviest teaching day and it starts at 5:45 when my alarm goes off. I have breakfast even when I don’t want it because I won’t be getting any lunch. I leave the house at 6:45, rolling a suitcase which holds my laptop, speakers and other paraphanalia, plus the books and materials I’ll be using that day.

I drive in my 12-year-old Nissan Micra (298,908 k’s on the odometer and counting) to the first company. This is a small group, mixed-level, some of whom use English daily with the Parisian headquarters. The company is a paper merchant and I’ve been teaching there for 15 years. With this group, the approach is “bizniss lite”. Quite often these are “dogme” classes with the participants deciding what we’re going to work on. It could be a discussion about the paper market, changes in the company’s strategy, or just gossip about the management! I use the input for vocabulary building or sometimes a grammar refresher.

Back in the Micra and off to the next company, a large printer. Not the easiest branch to be in at the moment. Major re-organisations have been unfolding for the last few years, but somehow nobody’s gotten around to cancelling the English programme so I’m still hanging in there—I’ve been teaching here since 1996. I have 3 groups, ranging from A2 to C1. One nice thing is that I have my “own” classroom, equipped with an aging computer and white board (non-interactive). A couple of my IT students also helped me set up a page on the company collaboration network, called English Workspace, which functions as a kind of VLE. I use the spare time before my first class to check my email and maybe even have a glance at what’s going on in Twitter.

The first group comes in punctually (it’s Switzerland, after all) and we always begin with some small talk. The topics range from politics to sports to holidays—I let the group decide. Then we use a coursebook, Lifestyle, for our lesson. Again, the “bizniss lite” approach works well with this group, the members of which are from different departments: Finance, Pre-Press and Sales.

The next group is completely different. It’s the highest level group I have right now, a good C1. We use the Economist website a lot—they especially like analyzing the Daily Charts. They’ve gotten so good at this that the class runs itself. Today they delight me by spontaneously starting a mobile phone debate: “THIS is a tool..THAT’S a toy…”. “It is not!”. I always learn a lot from these guys.

The third group is one of those just-for-fun classes. Nobody’s much interested in business topics, and even though they could all use more telephone and email practice it’s a struggle to steer them in that direction. Rather have a chat about holidays and hobbies. At this point I’m beginning to flag and I’m sorry to admit that I don’t often have the strength to argue.

I have a short break to gobble my packed sandwiches and then it’s off to the next company. This is a one-to-one with a Sales Director, one of those very clever guys who’s managed to avoid getting to grips with his English for years. Now his recent promotion has left him stranded at a barely A2 level-- not really adequate for dealing with his Chinese partners, which is what he has to do now. Still, he tries every trick in the book to put off the hard work of speaking English. We usually have bi-lingual conversations for about a half-an-hour before he finally buckles down and we can start to work on meeting skills and presentations. I like him, though. He’s got a great sense of humour and can laugh at himself, a rare enough quality in people at his level in my experience.

Coming in on the home stretch. I arrive home barely in time to let my last two students of the day in and switch on my computer. This lesson is a 2-hour one with two young women who are doing a Swiss qualification for managers’ assistants (Direktor Assistentin). Although my husband and I often refer to these two as “the chicks”, as in “Don’t forget the chicks are coming this evening,” they are not airheads at all. They are paying for their lessons themselves and take them very seriously indeed.

Lessons finally over, I’m “uf de Schnurre” (Swiss German for completely kaput). But I still have to pack my bag for tomorrow’s lessons before checking my email, and finally to bed.

Ilangovan Padmanaban

Ilango lives and works in Chennai, India. I met him for the first time via IATEFL BESIG years ago, and have stayed in contact ever since. As you will see, Ilango is a trainer who really thinks about what he is doing, and is never afraid to branch out into new fields. He has called this article "One day in the life of a business English trainer 'masquerading' as a soft-skills trainer", but I don't think there is much 'masquerading' going on at all.

Where does Business English stop and soft-skills training take over? This was the question that faced me when I was invited last week to lead a ‘train the trainers’ workshop on soft skills for a group of English language trainers in a big city in the state of Tamil Nadu in South India.

The training company I’m consulting for had just then signed an MOU with the authorities of a large university in that city with the objective of delivering soft-skills training to all of its year-three (final-year undergraduate) students studying different majors there. Readers at this point may wonder at the rationale’ of giving training in soft skills to undergraduates. But, as David Graddol (2010) points out in his book, _English Next: India_ published by the British Council, UK, “English has long been thought of as a ‘library language,’ but spoken English skills are now increasingly needed both for higher studies and employment (p. 14).”

Yet another unasked question seems to be as follows: ‘if giving training in Business English would suffice for the purposes of pre-experience students getting prepared for eventual employment in the marketplace, developing one’s ability to present one’s ideas and notions with confidence and persuasive skill in public, reading and / or listening to business texts for obtaining critical information that could be made use of for furthering one’s career goals or to engage in entrepreneurial and business activities and writing business texts for similar purposes, what then is the necessity for giving soft-skills training?’

There are at the least four major obstacles preventing the spread of BE in the country at the moment, though it needs to be said that many Engineering universities and colleges at least in the southern part of the country have woken up to the fact that getting their undergraduates to prepare for an examination such as Cambridge ESOL’s Business English Certificate – Preliminary, which if they pass, would add value to their employability quotient!

The first main hurdle is that most English teachers in the country study English literature at the post graduate level before being employed as faculty members in colleges and universities. Only a miniscule fraction of that number ever get trained in BE! The second hurdle is that apart from the University of Delhi and a few others, Business English does not figure in the English language curriculum in colleges at all. The third obstacle is that even if BE is found a place on the college curriculum, most teachers and lecturers in the country are not trained in assessing students in BE. The fourth hurdle is that most corporate entities, though there needs to be made an exception especially in the case of Information Technology and Information Technology Enabled Services companies (that roll out all kinds of software and Business Process Outsourcing services to buyers in other countries), assume that since their staff (the rank and file) have already been educated in English (in school and college here in India), they do not need Business English for purposes of work! Their assumption is that knowing English equates with being able to do business in English! And, to compound matters, realisation has dawned on recruiters and employers working for Indian industry that students who graduate from college lack the ability to make use of their English language skills in ways that would easify their entry into the world of work. To illustrate, most undergraduates fresh out of college would find it difficult if not impossible to, say, answer the phone and take a message in English from the caller for an absent colleague. Thus it may be the case that it may take more than the usual time for the new employee to adjust to their work surroundings.

Therefore, in response to the demands of the marketplace and requirements of industry, and in response to the realisation that English language skills are also not being taught in functionally useful ways in college, many colleges and university systems (including some in the public sector) across the country have started outsourcing their requirement to give training to students in soft skills to third-party English language training providers and Information technology companies (that are also the eventual recruiters of such students) in the private sector.

Getting back to the workshop I led, I need to say that I planned to give training to impact the trainers in the following ways:

The trainers needed to understand that giving soft-skills training was all about transforming theoretical knowledge in their domain into skills-based practice and understanding for their trainees.

Trainers would need to understand that the more trainer-centred the training is, the less the skills will transfer; so they would have to facilitate their trainees every step of the way. So, I started the workshop by outlining the following guidelines for giving training and developing materials during the forthcoming weeks:

1) Demonstrate principles and concepts to trainees
2) Lead the trainee to do a task or activity or assignment
3) Facilitate learning and any and all exchanges between learners