Connections and Influences – Michael

Switching things up – By Mike Griffin

Michael Griffin

As teachers we are in the change business.  Yet, as many of us know very well, change is not always easy. Inertia can be a powerful force and it can become all too easy to get stuck no matter how much we believe change is desirable.

One book that has greatly affected the way I think about change is Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.


I found this book as easy to read, powerful and memorable as it was insightful, and would strongly recommend it to pretty much anyone — especially teachers interested in creating change in themselves, their students, their institutions, and their world. There are several ideas from the book that greatly appeal to me.

One is that when trying to encourage change we need to find the bright spots. This means we need to find cases or situations where things are working and use these to guide our changes. Instead of focusing on a faraway, long-range, and abstract goal we can found out what is working right now in our classrooms and staffrooms and start from there. Having a local model in a similar situation is a great way to work towards improving what we do.  I should also mention that the bright spot need not be another person but could be one positive aspect of what the individual teacher or student is doing. I think in this field (and others as well) we often focus on what is wrong or what is lacking instead of thinking about what is going well. We can gain valuable information by analyzing what is working well and using this as a model and as a starting point. A great thing about focusing on the bright spots give some direction to the rider as well as a dose of motivation and hope to the elephant.

“Elephant? Rider? What?” I heard you asking.


A set of the Heath brothers’ concepts I found particularly helpful and useful are the Elephant and Rider. The idea here is that within each of us we have an elephant and a rider. The elephant is the emotional driving force ready to work hard and run powerfully all over the place. Unfortunately, the elephant easily loses motivation or directs its energy into something else. The rider is the analytical and rational part that is swayed by logic and reason but easily frozen by what we can consider “paralysis by analysis.” In order to exert change successfully we need to have both the elephant and the rider on board and engaged. So, if we are trying to help someone (or ourselves) make changes we need to appeal to both the elephant and the rider. It is not enough to get someone excited about ideas and convince them and their elephant that change is a good thing. We also need to appeal to the rider, the thinking and rational part. Likewise, the rider alone is not enough. We need both in tandem.

I personally find this metaphor very helpful. When I get all excited about an idea I say to myself that my elephant is interested but then when I start picking holes in it and allowing inertia to take hold, I say to myself that my rider needs some reassurance or has some questions or issues that need to be taken care of. Likewise if I see someone poking holes into what otherwise seems to me like a great idea I take this as a need to appeal to their rider. The authors of Switchsay that what seems like resistance on the part of the rider is often simply a lack of clarity, so I take this is a sign that I need to provide as clear as possible in order to assuage the doubts of the rider.

Shaping the path is another prominent idea in the book. This means that we want to create a situation in which change is as easy as possible in light of the challenges that riders and elephants face. Imagine creating a smooth path in the jungle so that both the elephant and the rider can see, choose and follow it. We want to remove obstacles to the behavior that we are aiming for. I see this as sort of eliminating things that might block us from making the changes we’d otherwise like to make.

How do these ideas relate to your own professional development or your involvement with ITDI? I think that is a question better left for you. I wish you the best of luck and would be happy to further discuss any of these ideas.Michael Griffin

Read more work from Michael Griffin on his wonderful blog ELT Rants, Reviews, and ReflectionsAs Michael’s an iTDi Mentor you can connect with him and other iTDi mentors, Associates and Faculty by joining the iTDi Community. Sign Up For A Free iTDI Account to create your profile and get immediate access to our social forums and trial lessons from our English For Teachers and Teacher Development Courses.


ELT Global Issues – Michael



If you add it all up I have spent more than 8 years — spread out over the last 12  — involved in English education in Korea. In addition to being a place I love it’s also where I had my first full time job and the nation in which I currently reside. I have taught students from the age of seven to seventy and in a variety of contexts and situations — ranging from young learners to shipbuilders. One of the most exhilarating, enjoyable, exhausting and occasionally frustrating jobs I’ve had is working with Korean teachers of English on training courses. In this position I have had the great honor and privilege of working with some amazing English teachers from whom I have learned a great deal.

It has not always been easy to hear stories about the challenges these teachers face. Those involved in English education in South Korea are all-too-familiar with the problems of English education. Some of the oft-repeated problems and challenges (or perhaps symptoms?) include:

an overemphasis on testing
teachers simply teaching to the test
continual and tedious lectures on grammar
rampant teacher-centeredness
non-existent to low student talking time
corporal punishment
teachers believing candy is the only reasonable replacement for corporal punishment
students sleeping through class
students ignoring teachers lessons
low quality textbooks riddled with errors
teachers swamped by paper work and duties outside teaching
teachers blamed by parents and other stakeholders for students lack of achievement

Griffin image 2

I must admit I feel more than a bit uncomfortable doling out advice to a country and educational system in which I am still a guest. Because of this and because the list of problems has been repeated and discussed ad nauseam in pubs, staffrooms, training courses, and the blogosphere I’d like to focus elsewhere. Instead of detailing the problems and offering my solutions I’d like to highlight some of the bright spots and reasons for hope I have encountered. I certainly don’t mean to ignore or try to downplay the gravity of the above issues. I truly feel there are many reasons for hope while acknowledging the sometimes grim realities. I will share three reasons I am hopeful about English education in Korea. These include that the current assessment practices are being called into question, more teachers receiving quality training, and a committed and growing group of brave English teachers who want to put their students’ learning first.


I think the current discussion about altering the current assessment practices (specifically the English portion of the Korean college entrance exam) is extremely hopeful. Some might say the confusion and clouds surrounding the NEAT test are just another reason for despair but my view is different. I think the simple fact such measures are being considered is reason for optimism. Many teachers (especially those teaching the final year of high school) feel blocked, indeed trapped, by the current assessment regime and I agree with those who say that this needs to be changed in order for positive washback to spread throughout public education. Again, thinking positively, discussions about possible changes in the assessment system could point to a future where teachers don’t feel quite as shackled by “The Test” and the lexico-grammar focus it demands.


To my eyes, the last few years have seen a proliferation of training courses for Korean teachers. While not all of these fit exactly into my concept of what an ideal training course might be, I think the important factor to consider is the massive investments of time, energy and money that Korean English teachers are giving and receiving. I also think it’s nice to see how some courses are focusing more on teachers’ beliefs as well as reflective abilities rather than just a steady diet of just English practice or ready-made activities. I feel these types of courses will pay off in the long run, even if right now the benefits are not as tangible as might be hoped.


There are teachers out there doing projects with students. There are teachers trying out extensive reading. There are teachers trying to have fun. There are teachers experimenting and reflecting on their practice. There are teachers trying out warmers. There are teachers who try to limit their translations of English texts into Korean. There are teachers that put their students’ learning first. I know about these teachers because I have worked with them. I believe brave teachers like this are growing in number and that they are the main reason for optimism about English education in Korea.

Just because I can see reasons for hope doesn’t mean the battle has been won. There are still many challenges to be faced. The road will not always be easy or smooth but I feel we are at the start of some very positive changes for English education in Korea.

Those interested in more of Mike’s thoughts on teaching in Korea might want to check out his Letter to Korean teachers (1) , “South Korea is an EFL situation (2), and 18 things about Korean Students (3)




Rules We Follow – Michael

Doing and Being: How Mike Rolls               Michael Griffin

As an enthusiastic rule finder, bender, breaker and scoffer it was interesting and hopefully useful for me to think about which rules I always try to follow. For other teachers reading this who are allergic to rules being imposed on them (like me), I must mention that these are not rules I am suggesting you follow but just sharing rules that I choose to follow for myself.

Be on time

I like to start class on time, every time. I think it is more efficient to make sure we all know when class is going to start and to do so. Starting on time one of the easiest things for teachers to control but is something that can be overlooked or forgotten. I feel the teacher starting on time is a good model for students and I don’t think we can expect students to be on time if we are not.

Be prepared

In this case, I don’t mean that I need to have mountains of handouts, all my teacher talk clearly written out, or a minute-by-minute breakdown of what I am hoping will be done in each moment of the class (though I have surely had all of these things at various times in the past). I simply mean I must have a few different ideas about different activities we might do in class while always keeping the overall goals and objectives of the course in mind. As much as I sometimes enjoy and feel comfortable “winging-it” I can’t imagine going to class without at least a few options and ideas.

Be flexible
Sometimes, regardless of how well-prepared we believe ourselves to be, we need to stray from the plan. At various times in my teaching career, I have pushed the plan or materials that I toiled over the night before too hard and have realized being stubborn about using the plan or materials is not productive for me or my students. It’s always important to keep in mind that my job is to teach the students not the plan or the material.

Be aware of students
It can sometimes be easy to forget about students as we focus on “covering” material. My personal rule is to always try to think about the students as I plan and teach especially in terms of abilities, personalities, needs, interests, and current mood and situation.

Be yourself

It is becoming more and more apparent to me how important being myself in class is to me. Part of this is because I have realized I am not so good at being anyone else and the other part is that students seem to respond to the “real me” better than any fake version of myself I might create. Being myself in this sense includes but is not limited to giving my real opinion (especially when asked), joking around, showing care for students’ lives outside of class, telling the truth, disclosing personal information when comfortable, and at times choosing not to disclose personal information.

Be positive
This is easier said than done sometimes but I think it is important for me to remember (especially on down days) how much I love my job and why I choose to do this kind of work. Thinking of this usually cheers me up, or at least helps me focus on the job at hand.

As I wrote this list I realized that a lot of my rules are things to be rather than things to do. Perhaps this shows that for me a lot of teaching is more about being than doing.

Voices from the iTDi Community 2 – Michael

Michael Griffin – Korea

Michael Griffin is a teacher and teacher educator. Mike has been involved in English education in Northeast Asia for over a decade. He currently lives and works in Seoul and is online a lot.  Mike’s current professional interests are teaching unplugged, observation/feedback, and reflective practice. In addition to being a  #TESOLgeek he’s also interested in history, politics, sports, and technology. 

What are you passionate about, Michael?

I love to see students and teachers able to do something that once seemed incredibly challenging or even impossible. Helping people set, work towards and achieve their goals really drives me. I don’t want to sound like I am super altruistic but I genuinely (and perhaps even selfishly) enjoy the buzz that comes from helping people. Oftentimes, this comes from just helping people see what they are already doing well. I think teachers and students typically expect negative feedback on what they did “wrong.” I can’t deny that this can sometimes be useful but I greatly enjoy helping people see what they are doing well and what they might want to keep doing. Aside from teaching, I love reading, traveling, talking to people, and feeding my Internet addiction.  Combining the first two is ideal. I think I am at my happiest when reading a good book in a hammock near the beach.

How and why did you become a teacher? 

I often smile when I think about what my high school teachers might say if they heard I am a teacher! I was not, shall we say, a very good student. Becoming  a teacher was the furthest thing from my mind. More time in school? No thank you. I think I felt like I’d spent more than enough time in class even if I didn’t study much. How, then, did I decide I wanted to teach? It all started in Morocco in the spring of 1999. I was studying abroad in Seville and I went to Morocco on a whim with a bunch of near strangers. I bonded with a few people on the trip and had a fantastic time. I loved my time in Spain and learned a lot about myself and about the world, but those 4 days in Morocco were life changing. I think I decided against a normal life suddenly while being accosted in the market by someone trying to sell me a belt. I decided then and there that I needed to see the world!

When I got back to the states and my sleepy college town for my senior year, I hatched a plan. I would see the world right after college by teaching and traveling at the same time. I’d heard vague rumors about people doing such a thing in Spain and I thought I would give it a try. I enrolled in a course on TESOL that was taught by the amazing Chris Mares, and I was pretty hooked from the beginning. Even so, I still didn’t think it was something I would do for very long.

I started teaching about 1 month after finishing college. Again, I really just wanted to see the world. I guess I was in some ways sort of the typical backpacker teacher because travel was surely on my mind.  My original plan was to live and teach in 5 countries before settling down and finding a real job. I planned on moving each of the 5 years, but I discovered that I enjoyed Jinju in the south of South Korea very much. I ended up staying for nearly 3 years.

I guess I’d been teaching for about 4 years before I really started taking it seriously as a career. By that point I loved it so much it would have been extremely difficult to do something else. I often think that even if I had a completely different job I’d need and want to teach a bit on the side just for fun. It really is fun for me! What started out as a bit of wanderlust turned into a career. Even though my original plan called for 5 countries in 5 years I’ve only lived in two counties  –Korea and Japan — over 12 years and I couldn’t be happier.

What are you most interested in right now?  

I guess the most interesting and exciting thing for me at the moment is finding, building and participating in positive communities among ELT professionals. In the last year or so I have met some wonderful people. I think sometimes it can be hard to find like-minded professionals and I am especially grateful that I have been able meet and work with so many excellent people. The three main communities on my mind at the moment are the KOTESOL Reflective Practice SIG (RPSIG), the general ELT twitterverse, and #KELTchat (

Along with Manpal Sahota, I am one of the co-facilitators of the RPSIG and since the inception of the group in early 2011 we have been collecting curious and reflective members. Monthly meetings are now happening in Seoul, Daejon, Daegu and Busan where reflective practitioners join to talk and think about teaching, learning and reflection. I think this is extremely exciting and I think it can be a very positive step for ELT in Korea.

I joined Twitter in October 2011, after a recommendation from none other than Chuck Sandy in his awesome presentation about communities at the Kotesol International Conference. I was actually quite skeptical about the power and use of Twitter, but I gave it a chance and I think I have been rewarded ten-fold. I am in awe of the group of educators that I am in contact with daily. The laughs, supports, nudges, insights, tips and questions have all been a treasure for me.

#KELTchat is another new group that is starting to pick up steam. What started with an innocent question about hashtags from Alex Grevett has turned into a thriving community that I am very proud to be a member of. We usually meet twice a month for live moderated chats on Twitter but we also share links, ideas, questions, trials, tribulations, and successes through the hashtag on Twitter. I am also very pleased that we will be presenting about #KELTchat at the 2012 Kotesol International Conference.

What things do you do to help you get better at being a teacher, Michael?

Working with other teachers as a trainer or trainer-trainer or instructor or as a mentor or critical friend is extremely helpful for me. I can see images of myself in what people say and do and this makes me more aware of what I am doing and not doing in the classroom.

Experiences training Korean public school teachers have been invaluable for my own development as it has helped me call into question some beliefs that seemed quite obvious to me previously.

Aside from being on Twitter and blogging, I get a lot benefits from just talking with other teachers here in Korea. I met some through #KELTchat, some through the SIG, some are my former or current training course participants, some are my training colleagues and some I just met quite randomly. Once again, I am extremely grateful to be a part of such wonderful communities.

Finally, I have also been presenting a lot in the last year. I guess I’ve presented 10 times this year already. I think this is a good way to develop professionally as well. Sometimes I chose a topic that I was interested in but didn’t know much about, and the fact I had to present on it helped me find out more and more about it and was quite a nice nudge.

What advice would you give to a teacher just starting out on a journey of professional development?

Just start! No really. I think a lot of time we want to wait until the time is right. We want to wait till this term is over or until something else happens in our personal life or we are totally ready for it. I think that we can start by starting and take things as they go. Perhaps this advice, like many kinds of advice is just a form of nostalgia, as I wish that I had taken professional development seriously from the start.  I also firmly believe that reflection is the key to professional development. Without reflecting I am not sure that we will get as much out of our experiences as we otherwise could.

Michael, is there any blog or online link you’d like to recommend?

I’d hope and expect that most iTDi folks would know about Josette Leblanc’s (@JosetteLB)  blog already. This is the blog that got me back interested in reading blogs after taking a few years off. It is also from the person that encouraged me to start a blog of my own!  I am amazed at the quantity and quality of ELT blogs out there. It can be hard to keep up.  I also think there are great things going on with blogs focused on teaching and learning here in Korea. My sense is that previously there were a lot of blogs about expat life and living in Korea but not so many about actual teaching. It is refreshing and wonderful to see blogs focused on teaching and learning.

Here are some blogs from teachers in Korea that have caught my eye this year: by Alex Walsh (@AlexSWalsh) by Alex Grevett by (@breathyvowel)   by John Pfordresher   (@JohnPfordresher)  by Anne Hendler (@AnneHendler) by Barry Jameson (@BarryJamesonELT)

Other links? Hmm, of course,

What’s your favorite quote about being a teacher?

I have two quotes that are very central to my ideas about teaching and learning.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire

      “It’s not the answer that enlightens but the question.” – Eugène Ionesco

Is there any thing else you’d like to say?

Yes, there is, and this goes back to challenges.  For me the biggest challenge these days is time management. . I have a tendency to pile things on during the semester and then find myself with lots of responsibilities and a lack of time. With so many things going on and so many interesting things and people catching my attention I sometimes find it hard to stay focused and use my time as fruitfully as possible. I am still working on and thinking about this, but some things that help me manage my time better include using to-do lists to helps me see what is in front of me. It is also pretty fun to cross an item of the list.

If I am pressed for time I use “Chrome Nanny” to block myself from Facebook and Twitter. I schedule regular breaks and do my best to enjoy the breaks so as to come back refreshed and ready to work. I find it useful to complete one thing before moving on to the next one, that way I can focus all my attention on the thing that I am doing. Sometimes just starting, instead of worrying about the task at hand is the best way. Finally, I am trying to be more selective about accepting responsibilities. I try to make sure that I really want to do something or that I believe in it before taking on more commitments.