Empathy Inspiration

Back in 2014 my friend Malu Sciamarelli asked me if I’d consider writing a guest post on her (then) blog. She was looking for a post on a “moment of inspiration.” I am not sure if the post I wrote qualifies but I think about the story from time to time and take some inspiration from it. I am re-posting the story here with Malu’s kind permission. I hope you enjoy it. Instead of giving an introduction about what it’s about I will just let you dive right in. 

He was a good player, the kind of player you could win a few games in a row with. He was a tenacious defender and he despised losing. He was aggressive in that kind of gentlemanly and grown-up and not annoying way. He was an extremely capable shooter, especially with a deadly baseline jumper, and knocked down shots as they came to him within the flow of the game. He was also unselfish and was happy to pass for a better shot.

I remember the first time I met him. We were on the same team at the weekly “Men’s League pick-up game in the small town I grew up in. He got me the ball where I wanted it and encouraged me. He even called me “Griff,” which I thought was pretty cool because to my knowledge we hadn’t even met yet. Other memorable things from that night were his fitness level, socks pulled up to his knees, and super nerdy goggles. This guy in his mid thirties was running with the high school kids and winning and rocking the RecSpecs all the while. He was like some sort of dorky super-hero with his stamina, crisp chest passes and commitment to defense and the fundamentals. Even with all these memorable things I don’t think I paid Ray Boucher much mind after meeting him that random Tuesday night.

Later, in what was not at all random but might have seemed so at the time, we found out he was the new junior varsity basketball coach and thus the assistant for the varsity team. I don’t think it took long to become fascinated with this fiery, eloquent, kind, and perhaps peculiar man. Before games he used to come to the back of the bus and we would grill him with all sorts of strange questions which he patiently answered. I remember how he went to college in quite a few different places because he wanted to get a taste of some different places in the US. He was very forthright about his views and life experiences and I found this endearing. He was patient with the not-so-polite questions he was asked by a group of maybe not-so-polite high school students.

We grilled him about every little thing and I ended up finding out much more than I ever needed to know about the duties and responsibilities and inner conflicts of a state assessor for the purposes of eminent domain. Speaking of jobs, hi s wife was a lovely woman who worked as an ESL teacher. She might have been one of the first few people I ever met with this job. Maybe there was some inspiration there for me in this fact and possible career that got tucked away in the back of my mind.

Coach Boucher was certainly an inspiring guy for me. I was always impressed with what seemed to be his principled take on life, strong will, honesty and care for others. These are all qualities I believe are worth aspiring to. In addition to being a good role model and a good person there is one more way he was a source of inspiration for me.

empathy plate

Aside from the Rec-Specs and the combination of patience and fire there was something about this man that seemed strange at the time. It took a few question sessions at the back of the bus before we finally asked him about his license plate. It had just one word: Empathy. We even called him “Emp-ah-theee!” as a nickname behind his back. It seemed like a weird thing to have as a license plate. Especially, you know, to go through the process of picking it out specifically and actually paying more for it. So we finally asked him, “What is up with your license plate?” He took a measured breath and said, “Well, I think that we don’t have much of a chance to communicate with most people we ever, or actually never even meet. Like people we see or drive by. We never get a chance to say anything to them. This is the one word and idea I want to share with other people in that short moment they see my plates. I think it is one of the most important words out there and I want to share it. Maybe this little bit can help. Maybe it can give someone something to think about. Maybe it can make the world just a little bit of a better place.

I wish I could say that 17 year old me was suddenly and immediately inspired by this explanation and that it changed my life then and there. I wish I could say that but it is not really the case. Coach’s message took a lot longer to sink in and I am not sure it fully has yet but the man and his license plate are two things that come to mind when I think about the word inspiration.


Terms I don’t like: 1 of 11

Are you in a band? Are you a model or something? Do you want to be? Otherwise, why are you using the word “gig” to talk about a teaching job? 

  • Is it to sound cool? (NB: It doesn’t sound that way to me)
  • Is it to sound casual and footloose (not to mention fancy-free)?
  • Is it to sound like you are in demand?
  • It is to give an entrepreneurial (edupreneurial?) spin to the act of teaching and creating a schedule?

Actually, sorry. This post is not about you and your word choices. It’s about me and my allergic reaction to this word. The post is truly about me trying to work out why the word elicits a strong negative reaction from me.

So, no disrespect to everyone out there hustlin’ and arranging side hustles. I don’t like the word is all. Why not? I’d like to offer a few potential reasons this term grinds my gears. Here they are in a convenient list: 

  1. I might have touched upon it above during the interrogation above but I think the problem is that it sounds so casual to me. It doesn’t strike me as a professional term for professional educators. 
  2. It sounds incongruently cool for teaching. 
  3. It also sounds like the most important thing is the conditions like pay and time of day. While these are of course important I feel like it doesn’t account for other factors like student motivation, for example. 
  4. I think the first time heard this term used in this context was at the dawn of the millennium in Northeast Asia and the first few people I heard use it like this were dickheads.  
  5. The braggadocious bros mentioned in point 4 were always blathering on ‘bout the sweet gigs they had. It was tiresome (which doesn’t mean that I never participated in such talk). 
  6. It’s also sort or boring. As a true EducaTOR, I’d prefer to hear more about reflections on teaching and lessons learned from that. I’d like to hear about challenges and solutions. I’d like to hear about students’ successes. There is so much to talk about. 

If I’m being honest, I think part of the reason I didn’t like this word at first is because it made me a bit sad to realize I’d escaped or avoided various rat races in my home country only to be in a new one in foreign land. Thus, this one word, gig, conjures up a lot of feels for me. 

Please note (especially before commenting) that this post is partially but not entirely, tongue-in-cheek. The man, Andy Allen, said he’d like to see some “You know what grinds my gears’ style” in my social media content. This is fulfilling that suggestion/request but it’s truly something that’s been on my mind for a long time. I don’t like the term gig in this context but in reality I am less judgy of those who use it than this post would suggest. I think people can use whatever terms they damn well please. 

I should also mention that I’ve held this negative feeling about the term gig long before I even heard the term “gig economy.” 

Other things on my mind as I muster up the courage to hit publish are “Maybe there would be less talk of gigs if there were more steady jobs” and “Maybe the bigger problem here is not the nomenclature.” I will leave that to others for now. I fully understand that being mercenary is often a requirement. 

I also realize that this might be very much a “white person in Asia” thing and thus not applicable to most readers.

I do feel a bit better after writing about this. It’s sort of cathartic.

Thank you for reading. Please stay tuned for this upcoming and ongoing series. I’d love to know your thoughts and feelings on this word as applied to what I’d call “teaching jobs” or “private lessons.” 

Help Jenny!

Hello! Long time no blog. I think I found a nice way to get back into it. That’s through an email from a former student. This student is fantastic at English (as we’d expect since she’s a translator.). Jenny (not her real name) was a very strong and memorable student even among future translators/interpreters. 

She wrote the following: 

…I guess my question is what is the best way to improve my fluency and my speaking skills. 

It’s embarrassing to ask this since my job is to translate, but often times, it makes me frustrated not to be able to speak good English (casually).
I am doing what I think I should to to this end (listening&shadowing) but not sure it’s the best way to do it. 
Here we mostly have meetings so we don’t get to do speeches as much as we did in school. It’s a different challenge. 
It would be greatly appreciated if you could give some of your ideas or opinions.
She also wrote some super nice comments to me, which humility prevents me from including (but apparently doesn’t prevent me from mentioning).
I was, in turn, a bit embarrassed by the lack of wisdom or ideas I could provide. I suggested more reading for fun and watching TV/movies. I suggested joining a club (like a book club or some sort of reading club.) I was going to suggest attending public lectures in English. 
So, dear reader, I turn it over to you. What advice would you offer to Jenny?
She told me that she will be checking responses and that the more ideas there are, the more experiments she can do.
Thank you in advance and thank you for reading! 

I lost my phone!

One moment I had it and the next it was gone. I was online on a bench in a shopping mall in a foreign country without a care in the world. I cannot say it was stolen but I suspect it was. As I left the bench I put my phone in my back pocket for some reason (I usually keep it in the front pocket) and then realized about 20 minutes later it was gone. I checked all the locations I’d recently been and even did some searches on Google for it. The phone was turned off by the time I was able to search for it. Perhaps by then it was gone for good and already destined for re-sale.

Losing a phone was not a completely new experience for me. In my 20s (and early 30s I suppose) I lost and broke a fair few phones but this was my first experience with this in a while and my first experience truly losing smartphone (as opposed to just misplacing it, or leaving it  in a cab and paying an extortionate price to get it back).

You might be wondering, dear reader, why I’d choose to tell this (mostly uninteresting) story on what is ostensibly an English teaching blog. There is a connection. But first a bit more background information…

Seoul steele

The Han River. It doesn’t always look like this. Photo Credit: John Steele Photo

In the past few years I’ve really started to enjoy taking walks. Armed with a podcast or three I love to walk around Seoul. The mighty Han River and local mountains are among my favorite places for a nice walk. Seoul is a great place to walk when the weather (and and fine dust level) cooperates. A late afternoon walk after classes is a cherished activity and even something of a routine for me.  Listening to podcasts (mostly about the NBA and politics) gives me a chance to relax and sort of tune out and zone out.

In the days immediately following the tragic loss of my smartphone I still went on the walks. I simply walked without any sort of additional entertainment. Something interesting happened without the smartphone and podcasts. I thought about my classes more. I thought about my classes more deeply. I gained some insights I suspect I’d have been unlikely to get had I been listening to commentary about the latest outrage from the White House. It was interesting to note the difference in what I thought about as I walked.

I didn’t actually make a conscious effort to think about class and students but it naturally happened without the “distraction” of the podcasts. I just sort of replayed scenes from class and freely followed my train of thought which often landed me in my classroom. I don’t have any clear evidence that this was helpful for my actual practice of teaching but I did feel that I was a bit more in touch with the choices I’d been making in class and the responses these choices garnered than usual. I felt like this unstructured time with no planned distractions was helpful for me.

A similar (and more troubling, perhaps) realization I had without the smartphone came while waiting for the elevator to go to my office (hey, give me a break it’s on the 10th floor). Instead of checking Twitter or the news or Facebook or email or whatever else I just stood there. I was forced  to impatiently wait for the elevator and my mind tended to focus more on what had just happened in the class I had just scurried away from. Removing the distraction of having the entirety of humanity’s knowledge in the palm of my hand gave me some fleeting moments to freely ponder my classes and my teaching. I can’t say this completely transformed my teaching. All I can say is these moments did provide me with some chances to think about class when it was still fresh in my mind and these chances might not have come had I been playing around with phone.

I am not sure if this allegory counts as “one weird trick that will transform your teaching” but I will almost certainly promote this post on Twitter as such. I sincerely hope it was mildly interesting or at least gave you a chance to think about the role modern technology plays in our lives. I find myself wondering about how random experiences can impact our teaching or at least our thoughts about teaching (or our thoughts about our thoughts about teaching). Thank you for reading, especially if you are waiting in line.

Additional notes:

  1. This tale comes from late summer and early autumn 2017.  I have since acquired a new phone. Donations still welcome. Expressions of pity or sorrow not needed as I have already gotten over the whole thing.
  2. An interesting aspect of writing this post so much later is the obvious point that I could still just choose to take a walk without my phone or could just choose to not listen to a podcast while walking. This has not been a common choice. It only happens when my phone battery is low.
  3. I can say that I have been more conscious about not immediately opening my phone any time I have to wait for something and trying my best to persevere through moments of boredom and waiting by occupying my mind in other ways. That said waiting for the elevator or for students to take the elevator up 2-3 flights of stairs can get boring at times.
  4. When I say “foreign country” above I mean not the nation of my birth but also mean not the country I reside in. I suppose I also mean it’s a country I am not so familiar with and don’t speak the language(s) of.
  5. Even though it was unsuccessful the google search (for Android phones) is pretty cool. I just typed in “Where is my phone?” and the overlords over at Google where able to tell me exactly where my phone had been last used. It turns out it was last used by me in the aforementioned mall but it was somehow good to know. I also managed to delete any information on my phone via my Google account.
  6. Do check out John Steele Photo as there are some great shots there, many from the fine city of Seoul. Special thanks to John for graciously sharing the photo above for this post.

[Guest post] The Most Important Question in ELT?

When Rob Sheppard (@robshpprd ) sent me a DM asking if accepted guest posts I jumped at the chance. I appreciate him taking the time to share the post! I was quite familiar with his writing from places like the New School’s Uncharted TESOL blog, TESOL International’s blog and TEFL Equity Advocates I knew about Rob’s work as founder of Ginseng English . I’ve since learned that Rob is co-chair of the Adult Ed Interest Section at TESOL. I think Rob really needs to get his own blog but for the meantime I am happy to share this thought-provoking post. Over to Rob…


There’s a brilliant scene in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which, after eons of computation, a city-sized supercomputer spits out the answer to Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That answer is 42. This is a comedy joke.

Well, ELT is a microcosm of the galaxy itself, so it’s only fitting that we have our own answer to the Ultimate Question of ELT. Turns out it’s, eh, roughly an 80:20 ratio. Yeah, you can go ahead and cancel those conferences and call off the research studies, cuz we got it figured now. It’s, uh, roundabout 80:20.

“Is this not the most important question in ELT?” asks Geoffrey Jordan.

Y’all don’t worry: I can field this one: No. Fuck no. here i come

No, this is most the fuck certainly not the most important question in the field of English language teaching. If the answer to the most important question in the field of English  language teaching were a number, then Christ Almighty have we been doing it wrong.

End of blog post.




Oh, you want I should elaborate? No worries, I got you.

Firstly of all, this question of a specific ratio of student talking time to explicit instruction is entirely meaningless until you specify the learners and the context. Let me share a few learner profiles from my experience to illustrate.

Profile 1: Me. I spent a year in Taiwan, surrounded by Mandarin. My motivation was high. I had plenty of free time to study and a background in languages. I read a grammar textbook, talked with my coworkers every day, paid careful attention to text in subway signs and advertisements. By the end of a year, I could use the language to meet all my daily needs and could make complex sentences, though my vocabulary was limited. If you’ve got a classroom full of students like me, in an ideal context like that, the proportion of explicit instruction that the classroom full of mes need is asymptotically approaching 0. What students like that need is as much interaction and comprehensible input as you can give them.

Profile 2: In a recent job, I ran a program serving adult immigrants, most of whom fit a very different (but much more common) profile. They mostly came from rural areas and had on average a 6th grade education. They worked 50+ hours per week, had kids, and our program was only 7.5 hours per week. Most had been in the US for several years before finally being admitted to our program (see The ESL Logjam) and in the interim most had learned enough English to easily meet their daily needs. They field your questions without trouble. They can tell you about their plans for this weekend or the problems they had with the clerk at the DMV two weeks ago, yet the English they use to express these ideas is riddled with errors, many of which are fossilized. When describing complex scenarios, they still manage to be highly communicative, using pidginization strategies to get their point across. These are talkative students. Give them the entire period to talk, and they’ll do so enthusiastically. In fact, when they have the chance, many to the free conversation sessions at the local library. Do these students—whose English already meets their communicative needs, who have ample access to CI outside of the class, who because of their shared linguistic backgrounds and learning contexts share mostly the same fossilized errors—do they need the same proportion of student talking time to explicit instruction as students with different backgrounds and learning contexts?

Profile 3: How about highly educated, low-motivation multilingual students in a 30-hour-per-week, target language-embedded academic IEP?

The conclusion that the Perspicacious Reader will no doubt come to is that, no, students of different backgrounds, in different learning contexts, do not have the same needs, and this most certainly applies also to the ratio of student language use to explicit instruction. Students with more L1 education, metalinguistic awareness, motivation, and study time outside of the classroom need less explicit instruction. Those with limited literacy, time, motivation, with lots of fossilized errors, need more explicit instruction. If those students have access to a teacher for only a few hours per week and access to comprehensible input every waking hour, that ratio might be dramatically different.

Now let me be clear: My beef is not with The Big Important Question itself. I’m familiar with the Question, as well as the proposed big important 80:20 answer. In fact, I have recommended this ratio to my teachers at times and used it as a benchmark for objective classroom observations. It’s not a bad question. But treating it as though it has some grand importance is just silly. A reasonable re-framing is this: the amount of student talking time should generally far exceed the amount of explicit instruction. The main import of this precept is that it can have a corrective effect on the novice teacher who fancies himself a lecturer.

The ratio itself is meaningless. A 10% difference in what you do during your teacher talking time or how you structure student talking time can be far more consequential than a 10% variance in the ratio of teacher talking time to student talking time. All other things being equal, a student in an 80:20 class 9 hours per week is still going to progress slower than a student in a 60:40 class 30 hours per week.

I’m not interested in positing my own Biggest Importantest Question; I’m not fishing for attention or keynote slots. But I’m guessing most of the big questions will be qualitative and situated: What should we be doing, how should we be doing it, how is it getting these learners from where they are to where they want to be?

Stay your lane

I’m not sure if  the meaning of the title of this post will be familiar to most readers. Our friends at the Urban Dictionary (in definition #2) explain it to mean, “Stop talking about things you don’t understand or know. Let experts do the talking. Don’t talk out of your ass.” That’s usually how I hear it used or imagine it to be used.


I expect this to be a very short post but it’s something I have been thinking about for quite a long time. The idea for the post came to me when I saw what was (at least in my view and most of the ELT nerds I spoke with at the time) a terrible presentation a while back. In order to  protect the guilty, I don’t want to go into much detail about this presentation but I will share a few memories (and, yeah, emotions). The presenter showed what I’d consider to be contempt for and a complete lack of knowledge of the field of English Language Teaching. That is probably fine but he’d been working in the field and sucking off the teat of the “English Language Teaching Industrial Complex” for a number of years. There he was presenting at a TESOL meeting happily announcing and broadcasting his lack of knowledge and apathy towards a field he proudly knew nothing about. You see, he was (is) an academic in a completely different field and just taught English at certain times. I thought his contempt for haberdashers of pronouns was palpable and his view on those who prostituted themselves by selling language skills on the market was full of disdain. He is entitled to his opinion.

In the presentation, the good doctor made some interesting points about how fucked up the EFL industry in Korea is. He continually referred to it as ESL but we can let that slide, I believe. He offered a different perspective and I don’t for a moment begrudge those who invited him to speak. I think sharing and hearing various perspectives is a good thing and I applaud this endeavor even if I didn’t enjoy the presentation.

Rather than go on and on about this on individual and his presentation (and as you probably can guess, I could) I’d like to write about a certain attitude (I think) I’ve seen in South Korea. The attitude (usually from foreign men but that is sort of besides the point) is something like “Teachers shouldn’t talk about Korea unless they know enough about it” and “Those who can’t speak Korean or haven’t lived here for long can’t have perspectives about Korean politics or society.”

stay your lane

It seems like the threshold for having the right to express an opinion shifts and stays in line (and remains just below) the level of knowledge of and experience in Korea these “Stay your lane” folks have. That means they are always allowed to have an opinion but those less experienced Korea hands probably should just go ahead and stay quiet. I have heard (and given) some exceptionally terrible takes in pubs and other public settings so on some level I can appreciate the “Stay your lane” Brigade’s stance.

I guess what sort of gets my goat here is the hypocrisy of the Stay your Laners feeling no guilt to jump in and share thoughts on teaching (even when they admittedly don’t care or know much about it). It seems like the “Stay Your Lane” crew are the among most likely to opine on all matters teaching and learning even if they’ve chosen to eschew both formal and informal learning in the field. Maybe this is part of the issues that plague the field since anyone (particularly “native speakers” in a place like South Korea?) can feel just as expert as those who have put in the time and effort. For the record, I’m not saying people shouldn’t have opinions. I am simply saying that maybe those who would eagerly say “Stay your lane” to foreign English teachers in Korea talking  about Korea-related topics could slow their roll before chucking stones around. This is especially true when their houses are clearly (but metaphorically) made of glass and this is something they could see if they’d crawl out of their own asses for a few minutes.

Besides jumbling a whole bunch of metaphors together what am I saying here? I’m not entirely sure but I feel better after writing. I’m not even sure if this a phenomenon only found in Korea or even only in my imagination.

Again, I don’t want to say that teachers (from all ranges of expertise) shouldn’t have and express opinions about all manner of things. I just want to say that those who earn their living in a particular field might acknowledge there is a whole field out there. There are books and journals and everything.

In other news, I aim to stray from my lanes a bit in the near future.

[Guest Post] The Upside of English Language Teaching

It’s with great pleasure that I share this guest post. I first became acquainted with Jeremy on Twitter (where he is @jdslagoski ) and I’ve enjoyed his wit and scholarship. His blogs offer a lot of food for thought. Sojourning English Language Teachers caught my attention with its name and kept my attention with the posts. In Dr. J’s Blog of ELT Praxis Jeremy shares his efforts “to bridge the research-practice gap in English language teaching with a focus on curriculum, instructional technology, and intercultural communication.” Jeremy has been in the field of English language teaching for over 20 years and has experience as a teacher, teacher educator, and administrator in Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States. Jeremy earned his PhD in Teaching & Learning (Foreign Language & ESL Education) from the University of Iowa.

I was lucky enough to meet Jeremy at JALT in 2016 and we had dinner and a nice chat. We had some chances to talk about our shared interest in Behavioral Economics and the potential influence on English teacher.

Earlier this year on Facebook I saw Jeremy sharing some quotes from “The Upside of Irrationality” by Dan Ariely and we discussed the possibility of him writing a guest post on this very blog. What you can see below is the result of that discussion. I hope you enjoy it (and get as much out of it) as I did. 

The Downside of Education Labor

“Why do you try so hard?” a coworker asked me in the spring of 2015. This question confirmed that I was making the right decision to leave a job that I both loved and hated. This scenario came to my mind while reading Dan Ariely’s 2010 book The Upside of Irrationality, specifically a passage on page 72:

“If you take people who love something and you place them in meaningful working conditions, the joy they derive from the activity is going to be a major driver in dictating their level of effort. However, if you take the same people with the same initial passion and desire and place them in meaningless working conditions, you can easily kill internal joy they might derive from the activity.”

This passage comes from the second chapter titled “The Meaning of Labor” in which the author describes why and how people find their work, their job, and their career meaningful. Ariely describes several meaningful and meaningless working conditions. The big difference between the two is that people witness your achievement for work to be meaningful. In the meaningless conditions, the work is put away or destroyed before anyone can see the results. There’s no acknowledgement. It’s like Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the mountain with nobody watching or caring.


I was beginning to feel like Sisyphus in a job I left a few years ago. Incidentally, during my last department meeting at that job, we were asked to write a word that describes our work on the board and I did indeed write “Sisyphus.” I spent the past two years on a faculty development initiative that was gaining momentum and traction across the college. I was meeting and exceeding the goals that we set for this initiative every year. When the project was small, I received ample praise which motivated me to work harder and better. When the project grew, the praise within my department ended and was replaced with either criticism or indifference, a stark contrast to the praise I was getting from the rest of the college.

When the project was beginning to make noticeable positive changes, I was told to remove my name from the project but encouraged to continue working on it. The rationale for this was that the project belonged to the college and not to me. This cut deep because it was implied that I was doing it for myself when in reality the project was completely collaborative and wouldn’t have been successful without the faculty and staff who volunteered their time to see it come to fruition. Finally, about a month after my coworker asked why I was trying so hard, the head of the department, my supervisor’s supervisor, strongly suggested that I move on to another project. A few weeks later I announced that I’d accepted a job elsewhere.

Those last few months at that employer were bleak because I felt my meaningful working condition become meaningless. My situation was becoming a lot like those experiments in the chapter where participants were asked to build something out of Legos. After completing their work, they had to watch their creations get disassembled before they left the room. To further illustrate, this project resulted in a task force that was asked to create a report for the college. After one year, the report was presented to top administrators of the college and then shelved with no further actions or reactions. I got to witness firsthand the frustration and disappointment of each member of the task force, including myself, before I left. The initiative died about six months after I left, leaving many faculty and staff demoralized concerning collaborations with my former department. Now I know what some people have warned me about: places that suck your soul.

This was not an English language teaching position. Fortunately for me, I have found most of my English language teaching jobs in meaningful working conditions. I have been able to witness the fruits of my labor as my students’ English proficiency improves. And for jobs in the United States, I also take pride in my students’ ability to integrate into the community and eventually matriculate into university. Thanks to social media, I have been able to witness my students succeed in their university courses and beyond.

The IKEA Effect in ELT

Unfortunately, this feeling of pride takes me to chapter three of Ariely’s book: the IKEA effect, in which he identifies four principles of human endeavor:


  • “The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us and the way we evaluate that object.
  • Greater labor leads to greater love.
  • Our over-evaluation of the things we make runs so deep that we assume that others share our biased perspective.
  • When we cannot complete something into which we have put great effort, we don’t feel so attached to it” (pp.104-105).

The object in this context must be external, so one can’t interpret it as your teaching because that is a part of you. Instead the object can be the lesson, a certain activity, or materials you developed for learning. As an experienced teacher and curriculum coordinator, I have often had the opportunities to create my own lessons, whole courses, and whole programs. If they positively affect student performance, then I love those lessons, courses, and programs forever. I used to assume others would too, but other teachers love their creations more.

ikea products

As an ELT curriculum coordinator and project manager, I sometimes cannot enact the courses or activities I designed because I am not always the instructor or facilitator. When someone else gets to facilitate my design, I have learned to let it go and celebrate the collaborative effort when the project is successful. If the instructor follows my lesson plans exactly the way I designed them, I still feel attached to them. However, I’ve been in reversed roles where I had to follow a lesson plan strictly, and I do not feel attached to them unless I was able to tweak it to better meet the needs of the students. If I was given a little leeway to tweak, then I loved the lesson more.

I expect the facilitators or instructors of my curriculum to feel the same. Most of my lessons were designed for experienced teachers, so I purposely left a lot of wiggle room for teachers to make the lessons their own. I call this my “secret sauce” because I am able to accommodate for the strengths of my teachers, which is directly tied to assessing the day-to-day needs of the students. In this case, my labor of love is no longer the curriculum itself but the collaboration of curriculum development between me, the instructors, and the students. If the teachers and students are happy and successful with the outcomes, then I do not care if certain activities I designed were out of sequence or even dropped. This “greater labor” is shared and leads to a greater love of not only the curriculum but the relationships forged through the successful joint effort of designing and facilitating the courses.

The Not-Invented at Our School Bias

All that pride in teamwork takes me to the fourth chapter in The Upside of Irrationality, which is about the not-invented-here bias or “if we didn’t invent it, then it’s not worth much.” I recognize this as the rigidity of a school’s curriculum because it represents the hard work of the whole school. When I started my job as curriculum coordinator at another former job, I learned that I threatened this strong bias of the many of the teachers. Why would I want to change anything about this wonderful curriculum that has served us so well over two decades?

Two sentences stood out for me in chapter 4. The first captures my leadership philosophy very well:  “If you understand the sense of ownership and pride that stems from investing time and energy in projects and ideas, you can inspire yourself and others to be more committed to and interested in the tasks at hand” (p.121). The second describes what I encountered in my last two working environments as a change agent: “Once we are addicted to our own ideas, it is less likely that they will be flexible when necessary. We run the risk of dismissing others’ ideas that might simply be better than our own” (p. 122). One of my greatest achievements as curriculum coordinator was not taking the dismissal of my ideas personally. As a leader of a team, my ideas work best when they are integrated with the ideas of the other team. Within the past few years, I have learned that it’s important for a leader to maintain his or her vision, but it’s not as important to have all or most of his or ideas enacted by others.

Finally, this bias is easily seen in the proprietary nature of English language programs, especially private ones, that have administrators and faculty who believe their curriculum is superior to others or they market it that way. It’s the “secret formula” of ELT that will never get shared on social media or published in any journal. As a curriculum designer, the key to a “most successful formula” is its transparency to all stakeholders involved (students, teachers, administrators, and parents) because a strong curriculum is flexible enough to use “evidence-based” approaches to an extent that meet the goals of the program and the needs of the students. A secret formula also suggests rigidity or a one-size-fits-all approach, which may be cheap and easy for the school but it does not serve the students. So I urge teachers and administrators to share your curriculum, lesson ideas, and activities. If your school or program successfully improves students’ language skills, the “magic” that is difficult to replicate is more likely to be the expertise and winning dispositions of your teachers who are able to make the curriculum accessible and meaningful to the students.

More recently, I have been able to incorporate many of Ariely’s ideas and suggestions in a program I designed for English language teachers in Brazil. First, I was put in a meaningful working condition both physically and mentally. The program was based in Chicago and Iowa City, two cities that I love and have a long history and strong familiarity with. Additionally, I set the standards of my working conditions, designing my schedule and workload, maximizing my time to learn about each teacher’s needs and strengths. Second, I put all my effort into this especially during their two-week visit when every waking minute was dedicated to the success of the program. My love for this project was amplified by the joy and excitement I saw expressed by many of these teachers.  This project was purposefully collaborative with two non-profit organizations and the United States Embassy in Brasilia. Our collaboration helped the program run smoothly every single day. Lastly, to reduce the not-invented-here bias I posted the entire program publicly online. The nuts and bolts can be reproduced by any competent and coordinated group of international exchange and English language teaching experts. However, the “magic” was I loved this work and the participants and it took place in the backyard of at least my twenty years of my life.


Although opportunities are like this are rare, the upside of English language teaching is 1) working in meaningful conditions, where one can work in a school and/or culture that you cherish, 2) being able to complete and find closure to your great efforts, and 3) being able to find that the secret to success in teaching and learning is intangible, that your effort, expertise, and enthusiasm are worth more than the lesson plans and curriculum you create. The tangible parts of your work are the product and not the source of an enjoyable English language teaching career.