Ideas and emotions: Finding a space for sharing

Stewart GrayIdeas and emotions: Finding a space for sharing

by Stewart Gray.


If you ask me, I’ll tell you: the other teachers working at my current school are seasoned professionals. I believe this is true, but I must admit, I’ve intuited their professionalism from somewhat limited observations and interactions. The unfortunate reality is that the other teachers at my school teach the same chapters of the same books as I do in the classrooms next to mine, and I have no idea what they do in their classes. How do they structure their lessons? Do they have any favorite activities? You’d have to ask them. I haven’t. 

I’ve heard teaching described as the “egg-carton profession,” meaning each teacher works alone in their own niche unaware of the doings of others and not sharing what they themselves are doing. Often enough, this description has been about right for my own teaching. In retrospect, I’m horrified by the number of hours I’ve sat pondering a lesson plan in a lonely agony when someone else agonizing over the same material at the same time was a text message away. 

It’s not that my colleagues and I would necessarily refuse to discuss teaching practice with each other. It’s rather that, mostly, we just don’t. Why not? Well, on the one hand, I have to acknowledge the role of my own shyness – I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it hard to reach out. On the other hand, we aren’t encouraged to discuss. At no point in the teaching semester does our employer invite us to share ideas. Indeed, I’ve worked at a few schools, but so far never at one that provided a dedicated space for teachers to express themselves, to advise and support each other. It’s a shame, really, because whenever I have found such a space outside of work, I’ve profited tremendously by it. 

Ideas over coffee 

A good example of a space I’ve found is the Seoul reflective practice group – a small band of teachers that meets on a monthly basis. What’s wonderful about this group is that it exists for the express purpose of sharing. It represents a private space to hash out our individual professional concerns together, over coffee. We listen to each other and we share our ideas. And it’s really helpful! Over the past few years, my teaching has been shaped and reshaped by discussions I’ve had in those meetings. 

I recall, for example, talking with one of the group’s regular attendees, Brian, about difficulties I was having in teaching pronunciation. Brian possesses certain marvellous qualities: he’ll listen attentively to what you have to say, take it all in, then offer his considerable wisdom in a non-forceful manner.* On this occasion, he listened as I vocalised my vexation. I was struggling to come up with any sort of novel, engaging ways to approach pronunciation practice in my classes. As far as I could see, I’d tried everything. Brian calmly absorbed my words and then said, “You know, what I do in my class is I get my students to practice reciting dialogues from short, funny commercials.” And just like that, with that one idea, Brian kick-started a complete rethink of the way I taught pronunciation. It was a good idea. It was a simple idea. I never would have thought of it. 

*When it comes to reflective practice, people like Brian are brilliant – find them, if you haven’t already. 

Journaling together online, emotionally 

For sure, in-person discussion groups can be great. However, they aren’t always possible. Some people might have (or be able to find) compatriots willing to discuss teaching, but they live too far away to meet regularly. For people in such a position, I have a recommendation: create a shared, online Google document in which you and others can all write together. Such a document can be a shared teaching journal, in which everyone can express themselves and offer help to others. This combines the benefits of a private, purposeful, interactive discussion space with the bonus of being largely free of geographic constraints. 

I kept such a shared journal once myself with two friends, both teachers, over a period of several months. Each of us would open the journal document each week and write about our “critical incidents” for the week. Naturally, these stand-out incidents would often be challenging and distressing experiences – a conflict with students, feelings of failure at a lesson gone badly, frustration with management, and the like. I remember once after a particularly difficult week, I found myself pouring anxiety out into the journal. I had become angry in class, and though I had tried to hide it, I was certain the students had noticed. I wrote of my crushing embarrassment – I felt painfully unprofessional. And how did my two friends respond to my anxious writings? They wrote back telling me that they understood; that they’d had the same feelings and faced similar situations in their practice; and that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. Reading their comments, I immediately felt profoundly relieved. I felt supported, not alone. Their empathy, it turns out, was powerful stuff, and it was just what I needed. 

The need for sharing 

As teachers, we all face challenges. Some of those challenges are practical and might be tackled with some timely advice and inspiration from a peer. Other challenges are emotional. We may experience frustration, self-doubt, fear, and embarrassment in the course of our practice. In such cases, caring responses might be just the remedy. Whatever the nature of the issues at hand, talking things out with other teachers can be helpful and healthy. The alternative, the “egg carton” approach, may mean struggling alone and suffering in silence. It would be lovely if more employers would take it on themselves to provide a space for teachers to talk, share, and support each other. In the meantime, to teachers, I recommend finding or creating such a space wherever, however possible. 

So, is it Imposter or Impostor?

Steven HerderSo, is it Imposter or Impostor?

by Steven Herder.


Teaching for years in Japan without a recognized teaching qualification or teaching license from Canada always left me feeling somewhat insecure, with a sizeable “gap” in my overall identity as a teacher. Even though I was amassing thousands of contact hours in the classroom, had very good communication skills, continually learned from my many mistakes, and could always fall back on my natural enthusiasm to get students to work with me more than work against me, I always carried a doubt that maybe all of those teachers who earned an actual education degree knew a secret that I, the imposter, would never discover. 

At this point in my career, however, I am now well and truly cured of that imposter syndrome, happy to discuss or debate education with anyone and firmly established within myself as an educator. In the past 10 years, I have become a seasoned conference presenter, a busy teacher trainer, and an EFL teacherpreneur through my work with iTDi. I feel “cured” because I am often re-invited to lead teacher training workshops at numerous boards of education around Japan, have been leading popular publisher teacher trainings from Hokkaido to Kyushu for the past 6 years, and receive all kinds of appreciation from teachers around the world as a facilitator of The Teachers’ Room at iTDi and as a tutor on the iTDi TESOL Certificate. However, in order to be a better teacher trainer, I recently realized that I have a new “chicken and egg” question that I really need to better understand if I want to help more teachers. 

“Which came first for me, building my teaching credentials in order to be able to talk to teachers, or talking to teachers in order to define my teacher identity?” 

From my perspective, a whole teacher needs a balance of these three components: 

For so long, I thought that doing my MA in TEFL/TESL at the University of Birmingham offered the educational theory that I needed to become whole as a teacher. I had taught myself the skills needed to teach, and I had gained a lot of experience, what I was missing was the theory. 

However, recently, I am meeting a great number of teachers who don’t have any kind of MA in TESL/TEFL/TESOL or Applied Linguistics, who have shown themselves to be just as whole as me or any of my learned colleagues.  

What appears to be the difference between WHOLE teachers and those teachers with a HOLE remaining is mostly a case of the above-mentioned impostor syndrome or a general lack of confidence in themselves.

“I want to tell some teachers that they are already WHOLE and tell some other teachers that filling the HOLE that they may perceive to be in their teaching lives is, in fact, much easier than they would ever imagine.” 

To illustrate, I want to share an anecdote from The Teachers’ Room recently:

“Last week, I was talking with a teacher about him feeling like a fake teacher compared to others in our context because of his sense of having Impostor Syndrome. He said he spent a great deal of time avoiding discussions and hiding his real views from others. Even though he occasionally did presentations, he believed it was just a matter of time before people knew he was a fake. He explained how this sense of himself as a teacher kept him from growing any further as a teacher.  

First of all, I assured him that I knew exactly how he felt. I had felt many of the same things literally for years! However, I said that after years of talking with teachers face-to-face and online, I have come to see a pattern in professional development: 

Almost every whole teacher I know, including me, has gone through these 3 stages of professional development:  

  1. First, “There’s no way I’ll stand up in front of a group of teachers I don’t know and talk about what I know about teaching” (impostor syndrome).
  1. If we are able to stumble into a learning community, then we begin to trust those around us, and we take our first tiny steps – offering our opinions and sharing our teaching experiences, both good and bad. Unfortunately, only talking about our teaching is never enough. From my perspective, you need to build up your educational theory through a balance of input and output. This means reading and listening to a lot of what the experts know about teaching and learning. It also means having a place to discuss ideas, and preferably an opportunity to write about your ideas as they form into your own personal theory of learning (how people learn a language) and theory of practice (how you choose to teach). 
  1. Finally, and much sooner that most people would imagine, we are able to reach a comfort level, which is supported by positive feedback, and then we really begin to grow. Once you get into stage 3, then the real fun begins – collaborating, innovating, and inspiring others.

Right now, iTDi offers three invaluble veues to become a WHOLE teacher: 

  1.  Advanced Skills Courses (Online month-long courses or self-study units) 
  2.  The Teachers’ Room (Online live weekly sessions) 
  3.  The iTDi TESOL Certificate (Online 130-hour personally-tailored and interactively tutored course) 

We are a niche business, small but mighty, and owe our success to the exemplary quality of our faculty. We work well together because we share a vision, we agree on our mission, and we genuinely respect each other’s work. 

As highly-experienced, passionate teachers, we know what helps teachers to reach their potential as educators. We formed iTDi in order to offer opportunities to teachers that we wish had been available when we needed them most. We look forward to meeting all like-minded teachers who both want more for themselves and believe that they deserve more for themselves as teachers. 

By the way, I learned today that either spelling – imposter and impostor – is accepted as correct. I’m relieved that I won’t need to know that fact any longer in my teaching. 

Two Conversations About Teaching

Bryan HaleTwo Conversations About Teaching

by Bryan Hale.



Mina (not her real name) and I are both sitting on a brightly colored and comically large chair in the reception area of the hagwon we work in. A “hagwon” is a private language academy in Korea. Actually, our work day should be over already, but we’re waiting for the hagwon owner to arrive with guests for some kind of promotional event. The hagwon is sinking and neither of us has been paid for some time.

We’re not quite sitting next to each other, but at a kind of perpendicular angle, almost back to back. Despite the awkward position, we’re suddenly having a vivid conversation about one of our kindergarten classes, sharing a rush of details and observations over our shoulders. The students’ English levels have been getting more and more divergent. Are we doing enough for all of them?

Mina says something. “You never check if they’ve really learned.”

Wow. I’m stung. I’ve been babbling but suddenly don’t know what to say.

I also kind of want to cling to Mina and beg her to tell me everything behind that comment: all the little details she took in that led to it, all the little changes she would prefer to see.

It’s been a steep learning curve, this job. Learning how to make sure the parents are kept happy. Learning how to make sure the owner has the impression the parents are being kept happy. Learning how to do two pages of the textbook each lesson, no matter what, and learning how to make sure it’s visible we did the two pages. But here, where we’ve collapsed into this whirlpool of an honest talk, what Mina wants to let me know is that among all that, real learning also matters. And she can see that I’m not getting real learning to happen as much as I could.

Mina was my head teacher in this, my first teaching position. The conversation this day wasn’t the only one like it. The hagwon’s troubles accelerated things, washing away assumptions that had kept us from talking more honestly, and helping me to realize the value in really learning from Mina, beyond the prescriptions and roles of our official relationship. There was a lot to learn. She knew her students so well. She knew what they had learned and how they had learned it. And she knew how that connected to their emotional experiences. She knew her students as a whole, like a detailed landscape, full of continuities and breaks. In the middle of chaotic afternoon comings-and-goings here in the reception area, she could stand in the middle of it all and help three very different students have three different learning experiences, in a single breath. Perhaps I learned more from Mina than any other single colleague, and a part of me still wants to cling to her and ask a million questions.


Reflective Practice

Somewhere outside it’s a rainy day in Seoul. I’m stumbling into a narrow, windowless room at the back of a cafe, guided by an invite over social media and my phone GPS. It’s my first ever Reflective Practice meeting.

I don’t think I need to keep names secret here: this meeting is facilitated by Mike Griffin and Alex Walsh. And Anne Hendler is here too! I don’t actually remember the topic of the meeting and I definitely don’t remember the words verbatim like I do with Mina. I do remember Mike setting up a discussion with a friendly suggestion that we not try to solve each other’s problems and instead help each other along with follow-up questions. Suddenly I’m talking to someone I’ve never met before, a rich and rewarding exchange about our teaching experiences flowing easily. Mike appears behind her, listening in for a moment, gently cutting in with a question that helps open up a story I’m sharing. Then he disappears again. The room stops feeling small.

While the details aren’t burned into my memory as clearly as with Mina, this feels like a part of a bigger and ultimately much more important conversation that I’m still taking part in. It connects to my present partly because I remain involved with the same Reflective Practice group, but it also extends across various professional development contexts, including KOTESOL, iTDi, excitELT, the temporary physical spaces around the edges of conferences, other online spaces. Although serendipity plays a role, and although there have been many opportunities for me to receive advice and to learn from teachers such as Mike and Alex and Anne, this is a conversation where I’m in charge of my participation. In this conversation I’m not adrift, and the need to plead or cling falls away. This conversation is collegial and collaborative and open-ended.

I’m grateful for both conversations.