Presenters and Participants: Keeping in Sync at the Mind Spa

Ruthie Iida

Presenters and Participants: Keeping in Sync at the Mind Spa
by Ruthie Iida.


As an EFL teacher, I listen to, guide, correct, challenge, question, encourage, and console young learners on a daily basis. My mission is to both provide rich input and help equip and inspire my students to produce their own output. With all that in and out-putting, how do I recharge my batteries after a particularly intense class? Well, I don’t. Like many other teachers, I plow through stolidly until the door closes behind the very last student of the day. Then I check the bathroom for stray students before allowing myself to flop down on a chair and let out the tension I’ve been holding in.  

And that is why I relish conferences. They provide mental refreshment and spiritual sustenance (as in, “Yippee! Like-minded people, and I don’t have to teach them! I can listen and learn, offer ideas, and collaborate! They will understand me! Sure, I’m nerdy, but they are, too!”). I think of an ELT conference as a spa for the mind: frustration drains out and inspiration soaks in. Accordingly, I always set off on the day of a conference with high expectations, anticipating an interesting speaker or an insight that could be the key to a problem I’m mulling over.  And I go with the intent of relaxing my guard and relinquishing my authority. I expect participants to behave themselves so that I can sit back and focus on taking incisive notes with my dazzling array of color pens;  I also expect presenters to be sensitive to their audience as well as properly prepared. When both participants and presenters are in sync, the room buzzes with positive energy and real learning takes place.  

By “in sync”, I  mean working together to create a dynamic atmosphere. Since many conference participants have also been presenters and all presenters have most probably been participants, they should have a mutual understanding that facilitates their interaction. When the presenter and his or her audience engage with each other, there’s a sense of forward momentum that ensures boredom will not set in.  On the other hand, when one or both sides fails to notice and respond to the other, a presentation remains static. Assuming that a dynamic presentation is the ideal, here are two things to keep in mind.   

Participants: Rivet your attention! 

It’s hard to be standing in front of a room full of people. Audience participants can make things easier for the speaker in many ways; for instance, if the room isn’t full, move to the front. There’s nothing more demotivating than speaking to a handful of people who are far removed from the podium. Close proximity between speaker and listeners creates an intimacy that makes it more difficult for either side to disengage. If the room is full, behave as if it isn’t. In other words, don’t assume that checking your mail or texting  a friend will go unnoticed in the crowd. Give the speaker your full attention. Good speakers are constantly scanning the room; they draw energy directly from their listeners, so make eye contact and respond naturally to what’s being said. The more participants backchannel  by responding visibly or audibly, the more encouraged and enthusiastic speakers naturally become.  

Presenters: Take your cue from the audience!  

You know that feeling of trying to stifle a yawn that really wants to break loose? At a seminar two years ago, I was trying in vain to stay attentive after sitting for a full hour. The effort must have shown on my face, because the lecturer suddenly stopped short and said, “I think we all need a little break. Let’s stand up and move around – you all have been great listeners today and I really appreciate it.”  What a sweetheart: rather than pushing through till the end of his lecture, he took his cue directly from the faces of the participants. We all stood up and after a good stretch and a drink of water, our wilted backbones perked up straight again. This lecturer knew his material well enough to be able to focus on his listeners as well as his notes. When it’s our turn to be speakers, we too need to be well-prepared and flexible enough to spontaneously adapt to situations that might arise. We may have a specific body of knowledge that we’re determined to convey, but determination alone won’t make that possible.  

The bottom line is mutual awareness and mutual respect. Participants are responsible for respecting presenters not only because they are “experts” but because they are human beings who have invested time and effort to share their knowledge. Likewise, many participants are also experts in their field and have invested time and effort to get to the conference venue for the day in the interest of professional advancement and collaboration with fellow teachers and scholars. Both presenters and participants often have children they could have been playing with or tests that still need to be graded. In other words, everyone deserves to be treated well and everyone benefits from working together to make a conference successful. Stay in sync and enjoy your day at the mind spa that a conference can be! 

Learning and Language Boundaries

Ruthie Iida
Ruthie Iida
By Ruthie Iida

Like many other native English speakers who began teaching in Japan in the 1990’s, I was barely trained (a six-week TESOL course in the U.S.) and unprepared to face classes of 40 elementary school students. At that time, there were no guidelines or set teaching materials. I had a mentor named Yamaguchi-san, but after an initial meeting and the obligatory Welcome-to-Japan drinking party, he abruptly fell off my radar screen and was not heard from again.

With no syllabus to follow and a dizzying number of classes to be taught, I kept myself from panicking by doing what I did best: storytelling. Unlike some of my fellow ALT’s (assistant language teachers), I was fluent in Japanese and knew how to both charm and discipline my students in their native language. Attempt to teach forty small Japanese children in English? Far too risky! I couldn’t tell jokes or clever stories, and if they failed to fall for my charm and misbehaved, I couldn’t scold them properly, either. So I taught what would best be termed as “cultural lessons”, using  Japanese and giving key vocabulary and phrases in English. Apparently, this was fine with the Board of Education and homeroom teachers as well, but it certainly couldn’t have been called English conversation.

After my stint in the elementary schools, I opened a private language school for children. I began using more English, yet teaching in a Japanese framework had become so comfortable and familiar that I was reluctant to try teaching by immersion. By using my students’ native language, I was able to explain in detail, to teach grammar, to tell funny stories, to give cultural information, and to discipline little ones who tested my patience. All this seemed reasonable to me, and since I had few teacher friends at the time, no one was around to give me a gentle prod and suggest otherwise.

I taught in a mixture of English and Japanese for over ten years until I closed my school temporarily to attend graduate school in Tokyo. At university, immersing myself in the formal study of SLA (second language acquisition), I began to scrutinize my own teaching style according to the empirical studies I read. What were “principles” exactly, and did I have them? What kind of practical changes could I make when I re-opened my school to ensure that students were actually acquiring language and not just enjoying the songs and games? I was especially curious to see what SLA research had to say about ESL and EFL teachers’ use of  their students’ mother tongue, but there seemed to be no clear answers. My Rod Ellis survey of the history of SLA research included several studies of teachers who used their students’ L1 to teach English. Ellis summarized the findings by suggesting that when it was easier to use the students’ mother tongue many teachers did so, switching back and forth between languages at their own convenience… gulp … just as I had been doing??

Finishing up my TESOL degree, I was determined to give my students more and richer input in English and to challenge them to work out meaning for themselves rather than handing them the explanation in Japanese. Yet when I re-opened my school seven months ago, I chose not to teach by total immersion, but instead to set clear boundaries for language use. Here’s basically how it works.

Lessons begin with a circle time on a large, soft carpet; that’s the “All English area”, where I work on communicating rather than “teaching” per se. Students expect to listen to and respond in English and, though the first few weeks were pretty hairy, it’s not such a big deal now. Why had I not believed my students could do this in the first place? For me, the most miraculous part about the carpet time is that even the youngest children are relaxed and well-behaved without physical place markers such as chairs or cushions to sit on. They come closer naturally when they’re interested in a book or an object, and move back a bit when they need their own space. Since the carpet time is about communication in English, I have stopped using the phrase “Repeat after me!” Actually, it’s a huge relief, as those words never came naturally to me in the first place. Communication is about give-and-take rather than repetition, which in the case of small children takes care of itself through songs and chants. And so I spend the first 30 to 45 minutes of each lesson (depending on the age of the students) turning myself inside out in order to be intelligible and interesting to my students, and to draw out appropriate, enthusiastic responses. My friend Scott calls this “Emotional Positioning”, and when the lesson content is genuinely interesting and meaningful to my students, I know it by their response.

From the carpet, we move to the table for a short snack break. As the students eat rice crackers and drink tea, they exchange stories from their various elementary schools… in Japanese. This is not only allowed but encouraged as group bonding time and also as fodder for my carpet time lessons. I get a feel for what the kids are interested in and what excites them. It’s also a brain break after the intense concentration of the immersion session.

And lastly, we move to the “Phonics Area”, where I use both English and Japanese to tell silly stories about alphabet shapes, guide students through pronunciation challenges, and help them to decode (or code) words and sentences. They’re allowed to use Japanese to ask and answer questions, but mostly they’re absorbed in the sounds of English and engaged in matching them to written words or transcribing them into writing.

Am I a better teacher now, with a TESOL degree under my belt? Well, I’m certainly more passionate about the process of meaningful communication (rather than focusing on class control and teaching in an additive fashion ).  I’ve also drawn clear boundaries according to language learning principles: time spent immersed in meaning-focused L2 input; time spent recharging the brain and relaxing in the students’ L1; and time spent using both languages to work on literacy skills. Most importantly, I’m now hyper-aware of how my students seem to learn best and what things they want to know. After all, that’s the starting point, rather than a syllabus of structures and vocabulary that they should know. And it’s worth all the time and trouble when young learners begin to use language spontaneously. In fact, that’s when teachers like me stop worrying about our own charm and let ourselves be charmed by our students. They’re in the process of forming an interlanguage, and while we may not be the directors, we’re the witnesses. How about that as an awesome reward after a long day’s work? I’ll take it, thanks!

Fit and Feisty in the New Year

Ruthie Iida
Ruthie Iida
By Ruthie Iida

The clever plotting is enjoyable (this year I made a colorful and intricate mind map), but even as I write and sketch, I’m aware that I will not follow through on most of my resolves. And that’s fine. I’m honing the details of my “Ideal Self”, inspired by motivational studies of English language learners. What usually happens at some point during the year is that I make a spontaneous decision that turns out to be highly motivating, realize that I’m onto something good, stick with it, and — propelled by momentum – let the change happen. This year’s spontaneous decision involves a fitness center and I’d like to tell you about it.

I walked into the fitness center on the last day of the old year because 1) it was new and the sign was shiny, hence 2) I was curious, and 3) it was within 7 minutes walking distance from my house. Despite its disturbing location (above a noisy, smelly pachinko parlor), the gym’s interior was as new and shiny as the sign, featuring floor to ceiling windows in front of the treadmills. I realize that this is standard for most chain fitness centers, but it’s always been my dream to walk on a treadmill in front of a big window, watching people on the street below and feeling smug and fit. So I signed up immediately for the “fitness plus yoga” plan. It’s pricey, so I’ve been making myself go every day that it’s open… and guess what? My creative juices are flowing!

It’s all about the treadmill. I realized after the first week that not only was I feeling fit, but that my mind was full of ideas. Not being a fan of Japanese TV anyway, I resolved to NOT turn on the attached mini TV screen or listen to music, but instead to stare blankly at the street below, letting my mind wander. This was part of the good advice I got from Stephen Krashen’s iTDi course two years ago: let your mind wander. It was impossible for me at the time. You see, I am field independent: able to focus on but also constantly distracted by details. You probably would not enjoy traveling with me unless you like progressing at a snail’s pace and taking a million photos along the way. So the beauty of this particular gym is that the view from the windows is literally so dull and gray that even a detail fanatic like myself cannot find anything to be distracted by. I am staring across the street at the “Eyeglass Super” (which does very little business) and there are relatively few people passing by below me. Ho-hum.

This means that my mind really does wander, and since my school is what I’m most passionate about, I find myself dreaming up extra verses for songs, planning the next day’s lessons, thinking up potential solutions for classes where students don’t work well together, classes where the air seems dead, or classes where things are too lively and language learning becomes an afterthought. When I hit on an idea that instinctively seems right, I hold onto it tightly. Then I turn it over and over in my mind, testing it against what I know about SLA theory and projecting how students might react. If it’s a song or a rhyme, I hold on by repeating it over and over in my head as I plod along. Sometimes, alas, I’ve lost part of it by the time I get home to my journal or my MacBook, but I never lose it all. When I get home, my mother-in-law says, “You must be tired,” but I’m not. Best of all, I sleep soundly after I’ve jotted down my ideas, which sometimes reappear in my dreams, transformed but still recognizable.

It’s been three weeks now and I resolve to continue the two-for-one habit of keeping fit while giving my brain a chance to wander. What’s good for me personally is good for my school and my students as well. So Happy New Year to you all! May your minds wander far and return home safely, laden with productive ideas.


From Sensei To Student


Ruthie Iida
Ruthie Iida

By Ruthie Iida

In the heat of July and August, a determined-looking middle-aged woman burdened with an oversized backpack pulled a small rolling suitcase through the crowds in Shinjuku. She hefted the suitcase up and down multiple concrete staircases in Tamachi and Mita and clung to it protectively on narrow escalators packed with businessmen. The woman was me. I was navigating the city of Tokyo, where I stayed during the week in order to attend classes and study for my master’s degree in TESOL.

I began the program last May and finished up this past August, which is like ordering a large juicy hamburger with everything on it – onions, tomatoes, cheese, avocado, bacon – and wolfing it down in three minutes flat. The director of the program and the kind ladies at the graduate office didn’t use that analogy, but they were dubious about my living far from Tokyo and packing so much study into a short period of time. Their doubt did not deter me, as I was dead-set on making a change in my life and one year was the longest vacation I felt I could take from my full-time job. My husband agreed to foot the bill  (“Think of me as your third child!” I told him, flashing what I hoped was a winsome smile) and also to let me stay in Tokyo three nights during the week so I would not waste study time commuting back and forth to the city. According to some friends, none of this was either sensible or practical.

Potential impracticality has never stopped me from trying something I was determined to do, but on the other hand, going against general disapproval does raise the bar: no-one wants to fail publicly when others have advised them to do things differently from the start. And so I knew that once I began my course of study, pride would not allow me to bail out of the program before finishing. What I did not anticipate, however, was that pride would also work against me at times. And that humility is not easy to cultivate when you’ve been the boss of your own language school for 16 years.

So, what was it like being a student again after a 29-year academic hiatus, and why did my pride fail me? Well from the beginning, I had to come to grips with the fact that writing academic papers is all about precision, not eloquence, and that was painful. As a former English literature major, I had spent years cultivating a certain writing style which just wasn’t working for me anymore.  I was adrift in a different genre. For one thing, my writing was not formal enough. And I kept trying to be funny, which wasn’t appreciated, either.  I found it difficult to describe or even think of theories as “robust” (robust was a milkmaid, right?), to think of language as “input” (which can be impoverished, rich, or even deviant), or to imagine that my students might suddenly have “language-related episodes” (Would they keel over? Would they speak in tongues?). And I was always over the word count.

But somewhere along the line, I got the hang of academic writing: it is precise, and precision is a different kind of eloquence. I learned to write swiftly and accurately, collecting my thoughts as I wrote, whipping off multiple neatly-crafted essays in a three-hour test period. That was a new kind of energy for me, resulting in a new kind of exhaustion at the end. I knew that I had chosen wisely to stay in Tokyo during the week, rather than pushing myself to make the long commute back home in the evenings. As I gained confidence and academic know-how, I began to fully engage in my classes, to feel competitive, and to raise my eyebrows at less serious students who ventured comments like, “Don’t you think we have too many readings?”

I loved every paper I turned in. Well, nearly all of them. And I loved the crazy three hour essay tests that demanded on-the-spot creativity, combined with organizational and analytical skills. Above all, I loved the content: I was writing about language acquisition and about pedagogy, both of which I feel passionate about. So it was crushing when many of those papers and tests came back with very little feedback. Or, in the case of my comprehensive exam – the equivalent of a thesis – no feedback at all. The test was not even returned. I did receive a typed letter from the director of the graduate program congratulating me on passing, but that is not feedback. “The exam was like giving birth!” I protested to my professor. “I want the baby back, and I want someone to tell me how beautiful she is!”

Yet even as I threw dignity to the wind in demanding the return of my exam, I knew that it was not going to happen. Mid-protest, I had already begun swallowing my disappointment and trying to recall the (brilliant?) ideas I’d had while writing so they wouldn’t be lost forever. And I did let go, reasoning, “I’m here as a teacher. Lesson learned: I won’t do this to my own students. All who work hard deserve feedback.” Thinking of the little ones waiting for the re-opening of my language school, I was able to squash the last vestiges of my pride and move on. Alright, I know objectively that there is at least a fraction of a small vestige left, but I’m okay with that.

The final word:  if you’re considering graduate school, go with the awareness that no program and no institution is going to be perfect. You will, however, grow and mature wherever you study. It entails risk, sacrifice, and the cultivation of humility, but you’ll emerge from the experience both wiser (you can’t help but learn something) and humbler (because learning is never straightforward).  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.