Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Late Winter Doldrums - A Journal Entry

I hate routine.  I feel uncomfortable when I sense that things are becoming stale.  I like the creativity dial to be turned up to 11.  Yet over the last month, I have the feeling that I and my participants are just going through the motions of teaching and learning.  I feel the learning has stalled a bit and participants are leaving the training underwhelmed by the interaction, engagement, and challenge.  Like many trainers, my gut reaction is to simply blame myself for delivering poor training.

The main purpose of this blog is to help myself get out of situations like this, reflect on my training, set priorities, connect with others, and drive myself to do better.  So today I will give a report on yesterday's training and hopefully identify ways it could be better.


On Tuesdays, I have a full day of training at the research and development department of a manufacturer.  The project is quickly approaching its two-year mark and has been extremely successful in terms of progress, value delivered, and participation among the employees.  The training day is built around 5 one-hour group sessions with similar language levels.  The overall ability of the department is very good and my groups range from B1 to C1.  Additionally, I have introduced special mixed-level 45 minute sessions for secretaries and technical English vocabulary.  Finally, the project includes some time for individual or small group coaching and general support for English communication.

After such a long time, I am so familiar with the business and internal processes that I often know more about the organization and current events than the individual participants.  The classes provide a knowledge sharing function (both among participants and between groups) as well as a tool for building communication competence.  I am treated much like a co-worker.  It has become very comfortable, but comfort also breeds laziness.

My day...

I started the morning at 6 am to brainstorm the lessons.  I read the class notes for the previous two weeks, looked back at the training report for the last quarter, and entered a few tentative topics for the day's sessions.

I arrived at the company at 7:30 and set up in my morning conference room.  Luckily, I was able to meet and talk to an American employee who handles documentation with American regulators.  I have been trying to pick his brain for the last few months about how the company communicates externally in English.  Because of regulation, there are many written and unwritten rules about drafting documentation.  For example, the company must make sure that it does not make unsubstantiated claims in brochures.  Specific wording is required and some words are taboo.  Finally, documents cannot bend the truth, and must not raise questions among regulators.  My goal is to ensure that I am training language correctly and not teaching vocabulary or phrases which might cause regulatory problems.  We had some small talk and arranged to meet another day so he could give me some resources and I could find out some of the issues the department faces in internal and external documentation.

I also stopped by the project sponsor's office to say good morning, find out how he was doing, and let him raise any issues about the training.  After a few minutes of small talk he asked me about my reservation for the conference room.  He had a supplier meeting and was having trouble finding a place.  I said I would talk to one of the admin assistants and see if my back-up room was available.  If so, he could use mine.  He told me not to worry about it and that he thought he had another solution.  Finally, he mentioned that one department wanted to add several employees to the project and that he might have to clarify the issue.  Then we talked shortly about how it is a good sign that people want to join the training because it means the employees are talking about how useful the training is (this is covert customer relations and feedback).

A cup of coffee later and it was 8:00 - time for a 45 minute session on technical English.  Recent sessions had been around software development and testing.  On this day, I brought my toolbox from home.  A very simple lesson with only one participant.  The session is open to all and optional.

  1. The participant pulls out a tool and we write the name on a note card.
  2. We talk about different versions of the tool and add them to the note card (internet helped here).
  3. We talk about the last time they used it and what it is used for.
  4. The realia causes questions about similar tools and related vocabulary.
  5. Repeat.
  6. We collect the note cards.  I read a card and the participant holds up the tool.
  7. I give the note cards to the participant, they read the cards and tell me if I hold up the correct tool (sometimes I am right, sometimes I am wrong).
Despite the high level of the ability in the department, they often lack such general vocabulary.  Several have asked for help in this area.  For example, hammer and nails are easy, but most do not know wrench, pliers, insulation tape, or drill bits.

At 8:45 the first level class began and there was a quick good-bye and hello.  The B1-B2 participants took their normal seats in the classroom.  This is by far the class I am most proud of.  Five of the six participants came to the lesson and attendance is always excellent.  They are unbelievably smart and inquisitive people (this goes for the whole research and development department).  Over the last two years they have made so much progress that I am left in awe at far they have come.  The lesson time is great, they all use English in their jobs, and I think the training has been quite good.

This lesson, however, was a complete failure.  They have a coursebook (Business Result Intermediate) which we almost never use and by now is too easy for them.  But I decided to use it for a lesson on presentations.  We did the opening exercise about a company mission statement, listened to the model presentation, did the comprehension activity, and then finished the key phrases activity.  By that point, eyes were glazed over and I had lost them.  This was Charles going through the motions.  Everything about the lesson was too easy and I could see it going south the whole way.  I could feel the groan when I said, "Turn to page 78."  The intro activity failed to generate any comments, and by the time they heard my computer say, "Audio fifty-one," they were barely listening.

Here's my problem with this lesson and this group.  First, this was the third lesson of the last five which has included listening (or watching).  They want to speak and if my computer speakers fill the space, there is not any for them.  Second, the time is so short that if I try to use a typical teaching workflow, I do not really have time for much small group or pair work.  Thus, the speaking becomes teacher to learner.  I assume too much of a dominant presence in the room.  Third, they asked to work on presentations but I am constrained.  The lesson does not really offer enough time to prepare and deliver a presentation in the same lesson.  Self-study is near zero so I cannot expect them to prepare something outside the class.  I tried that last year, they discussed and decided on the topics, but it never materialized.  They just felt guilty and I needed to change tactics.  A few weeks ago they gave a spontaneous talk to introduce themselves, describe their department, and finally to explain their experience.  These went well, but they were too short and I want something more complex.

This book lesson included adjectives to describe a company.  To try to save the lesson, I asked them to find adjectives which described companies like Ikea and McDonalds.  I then set them the task of creating one slide with adjectives for a company and presenting it to us next week.  Let's see what happens.  I need to do better.

At 10:00 it was time for the next group, a C1 group of three participants.  As a side note, I have problems with level binning under the CEFR and I cannot really tell where C1 stops and C2 begins.  Let me put it this way, these participants are so good that I have a very difficult time figuring out what to teach them.  The easy way out would be to focus more on communication skills but they are also such expert international communicators with immense emotional intelligence that perhaps they should be teaching me (and often they do).

On this day, two of the three attended with one woman on vacation.  We are currently in the middle of a project to deliver a workshop.  The group consists of one mechanical engineer, one software engineer, and one project coordinator.  Thus, we devised a simple project in which the project coordinator would lead the planning and organization of a workshop with the two engineers giving presentations on new technologies in mechanical and software/hardware engineering.  The 'audience' of the workshop is a group of doctor candidates at university and their goal is to collect ideas from these researchers on how the company can use breakthrough technologies to drive innovative solutions and products (we are assuming the naivete of PhD candidates).  We have a hard deadline for the workshop because the project coordinator is pregnant and we want to finish before she goes on maternity leave.

Unfortunately, the software engineer could not bring his laptop to lesson so we could not discuss and finish writing his presentation.  So instead, we started talking about his upcoming business trip to Paris to a customer and the difficulty of meeting customer expectations for high-end products.  During the discussion, I picked up on the response, "I fully agree," which did not sound natural.  Many of our lessons feature collocations and phrases to help them sound more like native speakers.

In this case, I pulled up Just the Word on the projector (we do this often) and identified several collocations with agree including entirely, generally, and reluctantly.  Next, I turned the conversation to performative verbs.

Another tangent... For me, the debate about English as a Lingua Franca is largely settled.  It clearly exists and I am quite certain of what it is.  For me, the question was closed after watching Mark Powell talk about Lean Language.  In fact, this video helped make me the trainer I am (good or bad).  I still have not found a more valuable and worthwhile resource for teaching.

Here is Part 1... you should really watch all five parts.

Second, Chia Suan Chong interviewed Vicki Hollett a couple of years ago on ELF in which she mentioned performatives between NNSs.  Sadly, I have since lost my other sources on this element of NNS interaction.  But my observations of written and spoken international communication have always confirmed that using words like suggest, apologize, agree, propose, and invite are valuable to international communication.  They can often be a short cut to developing functional language.

So, I told the participants that these verbs can be very useful when speaking with other countries, but they may be used less often among native speakers.  We pulled up a teaching website (nicely British) for phrases to agree and disagree and compared the use of functional phrases.  At this level, they should be able to use to both and adapt their language to the ability of the audience.

One participant then asked me if I could tell the difference between a NS and NNS author when reading a text.  I told them that I could nearly always distinguish a German author because I knew the language, but that their level was so good that sometimes I could not tell from their writing.  They had recently written presentation abstracts and 75-word bios for their project (with NS models) and I could not tell they came from NNSs.

We then discussed some of the ways I could identify a German translation or author.  We discussed the prominent use of nouns in German and reformulated a few example sentences (we had done this before).  We also looked at the use of the passive (also common in German).  Finally, I wrote a few example sentences with endless relative clauses and broke them down into smaller sentences using the subjects this, that, and it.

Overall, I think this was very good lesson.  I felt like a language guide and I feel they left with a better ability to change their language depending on the audience, which is a key skill for them to master.

At 11:00 it was time for the B2 group but my inbox showed that only one person would be able to join the lesson.  This group is particularly difficult to plan for.  The test engineer who came would likely pick up on the fact that I ended the previous sentence with a preposition and ask whether it was allowed.  In fact, many of our lessons focus on the difference between prescriptive and descriptive grammar (thanks Scott Thornbury and Michael McCarthy!).  He is a language lover and generally believes that proper grammar is the primary measure of language ability.  He studies Mandarin in his free time and often sends me clarification questions when he senses non-standard forms of English.  Unfortunately, most of his language learning has come from critically reading formal texts and his spoken English lacks staccato sentence rhythm. It can be difficult for listeners to patiently wait for the end of a thought or sentence.  Another participant in the group has similar difficulty in spoken fluency.  The group is rounded out by a Spanish woman with great speaking skills but tons of L2 interference and a new participant looking to gain speaking practice and refining feedback.

With only one participant, I took a tried-and-tested lesson plan... "What are you currently working on?"

He told me that he is working on software testing documentation and I questioned him in detail about the purpose of the document.  With another learner I might have seized this topic and looked at improving his writing.  But with this man, whose grammar is flawless and writing puts NSs to shame, clear explanations and spoken communication are the focus.  I asked him to change places in the room and for him to take the whiteboard.  I asked him to please draw and explain the process of the document.  What is the trigger for writing it?  What is the approval process?  Who reads it and why?

This placed him completely out of his communication comfort zone.  First, he is less aware of the non-linguistic aspects of communication such as visual aids and body language.  He is not used to creating a visual representation of thought and would prefer to simply rely on words to convey his message.  Twice I had to ask him to draw what he meant because I couldn't understand (keep in mind here that I have been working with the department for years and I am very familiar with internal processes and documentation).  Second, he is not adept at eliciting or reading feedback.  He does not include feedback questions and generally has trouble reformulating explanations.

My feedback was much less on the language (only a few lexical gaps) and much more on structuring messages and making things tangible.  I told him about the importance of examples, but left the visual representation topic for another day.

However, he expects language input and as a Business English Trainer, I am focused on giving it.  During his spontaneous talk he continually used the passive.  At lower levels I would praise this usage when describing a process.  But for him, he is simply overusing the passive and the sentences lack meaning.

Below is my 'board' which was in MS Word on the projector screen.  I wrote his passive sentences and the italics show his reformulations.  The reformulations might not be perfect, but the lesson is to reduce the passive voice.

At 12:00 I began my one-hour lunch break.  My wife and I are inching toward buying a house and we are seriously considering moving to a town in which one of my participants lives.  But not only the town, but also the same street.  So, I personally wanted to find out what it is like to live there.  I visited her desk and we had a half-hour conversation about the town (in English of course).  She is a B1 level and she likes to talk about her new house and her hometown.  We talked about land prices, lots for sale, directions, advantages and disadvantages, etc.  It would be nice to categorize this as a lesson, but let's be honest... it was just us talking (I was happy she asked many questions).  She did get speaking practice and the chance to use some functional language, but I was really just curious about the environment (I am also hesitant about giving feedback when colleagues can hear).  She loved it, I was very happy to get the information, and it is great to have such chances.  I ran to the canteen for a quick lunch and starting thinking about the afternoon sessions.

1:00 - It was time for the lowest level group of the day, B1.  Like the morning group, these participants have made great progress over the years.  I must remind readers that although two years seem like a long time, we are only talking about 60-70 total class hours over that period.  This group, like the B1+ group in the morning, has a bit more structure than the higher levels.  I generally approach things more systematically, but I am also very flexible to participants' just-in-time needs and communication issues.

I had planned a class to have a status update meeting.  We had had a listening lesson with phrases a few weeks before and I wanted to encourage them to apply what we had learned.  But the rule of thumb is that when I plan something, the participants bring something else.  If I don't plan, they bring nothing... go figure.

One of the weaker members of the group came in the lesson talking about a discussion with a German supplier which was frustrating.  I let them discuss the issue in German for a few minutes (she started in English but quickly changed to L1 because she was so wound up about the issue).  When I am teaching, I am always looking for topics like this because they are real and known.  If you have read my post "I Only Have One Lesson Plan", you will know that I am always seeking moments when I can capture the topic and turn it into relevant training.

But let's analyze a bit what was happening in the classroom at that moment.  First, I think she was quite concerned with her image to colleagues, suppliers, and even her trainer.  Her written English is well above her level and she knows it (plus, I've told her).  She does not like my visits to her desk or speaking in class because (I think) she feels mistakes might embarrass her in front of others.  In the group, she is the only person who is still unwilling to take risks and make mistakes in the search of learning.  Second, she came into class with something on her mind and she wanted to tell her colleagues about it.  She was proud of how she had handled the situation.  Third, she had attached emotions to the story and she really wanted to communicate what happened.

My thinking was to let her finish, let her tell her story in German.  Let her shine and get praise from her colleagues.  Cutting her off or forcing her to speak English would only have caused frustration.  I need her to feel accepted and comfortable in the group.  I need her to speak!  Listening to her story I realized that she had all the grammar to tell this story in English and about 75% of the vocabulary.  But she needed scaffolding and time to tell it.

Here is where I made the wrong decision.  Instead of giving her the opportunity and structure to formulate this story in English, I took another route.  First, I told her that I did not understand everything she had said (a lie) and I asked her clarification questions about the story.  Specifically, I asked questions which targeted specific lexis, "What does the supplier make?" [looking for the word cabinet].  This is simply bad training.  It is completely unfair to ask participants to produce words I know they do not have with the hope that they will somehow emerge with some Pavlovian bell.  I have watched other trainers do this and reminded myself not to fall into this trap.

During the story, she raised a common topic within the group - people who do not respond to emails in a timely manner.  This was my second mistake.  I decided to focus on this subject and work toward phrases for making suggestions.  This was TEFL pure, I pulled out a function from my portfolio and not what they immediately needed.  This is not to say that making suggestions is not useful, but taking the lesson toward simple negotiations would have been better.

Why did I choose this topic?  Because I am horrible at responding to emails.  I have been working on it for years but I do not seem to be getting any better.  I made the lesson about me and that was a mistake.  It should always be about them.  In fact, I am wondering whether all the lessons for this day were more about me and what I want than about the participants and what they want.  I need to listen more carefully.

So, we discussed as a group our frustrations about people who do not answer emails.  We discussed how often it happened and why.  It was generally a good discussion and I was writing their thoughts on the board (adding vocabulary).  Then, I revealed that I am horrible at writing back and I feel really bad about it (again about me... arg).  Next, I asked them to give me tips on time management and handling correspondence.

Each person talked a little about how they handle emails and we stumbled across some lexical gaps like out of office reply, respond, and immediately.  They used several phrases we had seen to make suggestions and I put a few more on the board.  Time was running and I considered having them write an email to follow up when someone does not write back, but it would have taken too long.  We shared ideas on how we use email, telephone, and the chat tool within the company.  The participants were able to vent a little and discuss the issue, but I am generally dissatisfied with the lesson.  The topic has great potential and I did not use it.  Now I have lost it.  The discussion was dominated by the confident speakers.  The dynamic reverted to teacher-student and not student-student freedom.  I could have done better.

At 2:15, I was looking to rebound from two poor lessons and two average ones.  I needed to refocus and salvage my day.  But I was also battling thoughts far away from the training and was having trouble focusing on the next lesson (I'd been watching my inbox fill up all day among other concerns).  Also, the last group lesson is a B2+ group with the most inconsistent attendance.  These lessons are always a one-off and it is nearly impossible to link them because the people change so often.  Finally, I am never as focused in the afternoon as the morning.

Two participants from six appeared and I was happy to see the weakest member of the group in attendance.  He is a software testing engineer and has been working on an individual project for quite some time to develop a software requirement.  The requirement is highly political and costly and he is generally fighting a losing battle of mixed department interests.  The company works on a product development cycle and the two participants find themselves on the extreme ends of the process.  One defines the requirements for the product, the other tests the completed system at the end.  I do not need to introduce a notional information gap (like a role-play) because there is enough of a gap already.

The tester started by talking (without prompting) about how his project is going and his latest successes and challenges.  He brought up the document management process and I asked them to map the document management system over the product development process.  Specifically, this was about how the company organizes product requirements both at the macro and micro level.  This may seem like Greek to you, but I'm sure you would get the hang of it after some time around software project management.

Within a few minutes, all three of us were standing at the whiteboard with markers in our hands drawing diagrams, explaining processes and folder trees, using examples, discussing constraints and problems with the system, etc.  The two participants were sharing their perspectives from their ends of the system.  We were having a meeting.

I noted a few comments for feedback but the 'meeting' took so long that I only had time to look at collocations with suffer, cause, and face.  I corrected their usage, added a few more collocations and we transformed the collocations into different tenses.

It was not really the home-run lesson I had been looking for but I felt good about the discussion.  I was able to give some on-the-spot corrections and some delayed language feedback.  The participants were able to compare notes on a real business process and produce language they need in work.  The weaker student highlighted a few words he remembered from the stronger student.

Finally at 3:15 I had my final session of the day, a repeat of the technical English vocabulary lesson.  Two engineers came who I'd seen earlier in the day.  I pulled out the tool box and we repeated the same lesson as above.  The 45 minute session was fun (they are both women in their thirties and we laughed about men and tools, "better to have it than to need it") and I believe they picked up on the vocabulary (we'll see).  Again they were quite surprised that they did not know the words for such everyday tools.

At 4:00, I packed up... exhausted... and went home.  Typically, I would have stayed longer and visited the participants who could not come to their lesson.  But I am increasingly getting requests for support via email or chat, I needed to save a few hours.

In a quiet apartment I had the chance to catch up on the emails I had received that day including a few urgent coaching requests.  I created Quizlet flash cards for the adjectives and antonyms from the 8:45 lesson.  I sent out 'board work' photos or documents from the lessons.  I responded to all the outstanding issues and I felt good.  It was an average day of training and was not quite good enough, but I was happy.

Not so good...

So overall, the day was okay but I feel like it lacked creativity.  The participants and I are all in the February doldrums, a long way from vacation and the winter keeps dragging on.  We are not at our best and that is frustrating.  We are all stressed and tired.

If you have managed to read this long, I'll ask you... What do you think about my training on this day?  How do you shake yourself awake when projects are for a long time or things become stale?  How do you reinvigorate yourself?


  1. Thanks for the post - really detailed, realistic and honest "Day in the Life" of a business trainer! I met a lady today who is thinking about getting into the world of Bus Eng training and will share this with her as a wonderful snapshot of our lives.
    As for the Feb doldrums, I hope they are over now.
    Perhaps in my world (industrial town in France) clients are not large enough to allow us spend a whole day in company and levels are generally lower.
    I do recognise some of the issues you come across though and have been trying to include some simple "gamification" missions in companies to kick-start some group-work. Without taking on the digital side of gamification, some "missions" such as "setting up chain emails between colleagues to get some clarification on a their PowerPoint/doc", led to interesting interaction between groups and levels, and placed the students in the role of teacher for a while. "Badges" were replaced by getting coffee and croissants for their colleagues.
    Love the focus you place on using students real life needs, and the immediate coaching they get.
    When you get to know students/a company very well, do you think it is time to turn some of the responsibility for learning over to the students? Maybe they can make their own flashcards for each other?
    Thanks again for the time it must have taken to analyse your day this way - and look forward to updates :)

  2. Thanks for the post - really detailed, realistic and honest "Day in the Life" of a business trainer! I met a lady today who is thinking about getting into the world of Bus Eng training and will share this with her as a wonderful snapshot of our lives.
    As for the Feb doldrums, I hope they are over now.
    Perhaps in my world (industrial town in France) clients are not large enough to allow us spend a whole day in company and levels are generally lower.
    I do recognise some of the issues you come across though and have been trying to include some simple "gamification" missions in companies to kick-start some group-work. Without taking on the digital side of gamification, some "missions" such as "setting up chain emails between colleagues to get some clarification on a their PowerPoint/doc", led to interesting interaction between groups and levels, and placed the students in the role of teacher for a while. "Badges" were replaced by getting coffee and croissants for their colleagues.
    Love the focus you place on using students real life needs, and the immediate coaching they get.
    When you get to know students/a company very well, do you think it is time to turn some of the responsibility for learning over to the students? Maybe they can make their own flashcards for each other?
    Thanks again for the time it must have taken to analyse your day this way - and look forward to updates :)