Letters of advice from former students

Today I met a group of students for the first time this semester. I know them quite well from working with them last term.  If (for some reason) you’d like a more detailed report of today’s class you can click here. (Update: Here is how they were used in Spring 2014) These students are in a 2 year MA/professional training course on interpretation and translation. In December they will take a series of tests set up by the program in order to gain a professional certificate in the field. This exam weighs heavily on their minds and is a constant concern and stressor. Today, I was very pleased when a student asked me for some advice on preparing for this exam. I told her that I had some advice to give but that I had a source of advice far better than me. To some confused and happy looks as they wondered about who the better source was, I unveiled what I had been keeping for around 9 months; letters from former students.

Last December, after the aforementioned exam I asked my then students to pen a letter to their juniors, to those would be in their shoes a year later. They happily obliged. The letters they wrote were written in Korean and English as I said it didn’t matter what language they chose. Some actually wrote in a mix of Korean and English, using English to explain the importance of certain Korean words that were of utmost importance to students in such conditions.

photo (15)

to all ye who enter here..

Some letters were serious and heartfelt and others less so. Some of the advice was super practical. Warnings like avoiding energy drinks or too much coffee were common. Making sure to get enough exercise and drink plenty of water were common themes, as was dealing with stress. Some of the advice was a bit more on the personal and emotional side, encouraging students not to give up no matter how challenging things seemed. One letter  was more fatalistic, saying something like, “interpretation is always going to be difficult so don’t ever think it is going to be easy and just get used to struggling and embrace it. At least you can be satisfied in knowing that you tried.”

Other aspects of the advice were centered around getting the most out of Mike’s class, which I appreciated. They gave some concrete tips about how to prepare for class and what to do after class to help things seep in and stick. If I might be permitted a humble brag some students mentioned how useful my class was and encouraged their juniors to make the most of the opportunity.

An interesting talking point from a few of the letters was related to the graduation exam. Some former students wrote that the exam is of course important but it is not worth becoming obsessed over. They urged the readers to chill out a bit. They said the exam is not everything and that their successors would do better not to obsess about it but to continue to work hard and do their best and let the chips fall were they may.

The other most memorable advice as chosen from today’s class was the admonishment against comparing oneself to others. The advice read that while natural, comparing oneself to classmates is not likely to be helpful for anyone and that it is much more useful to think about your own strengths, weaknesses and goals. I was pleased my former students mentioned this and pleased it was picked up on by today’s class.

A lasting memory from sharing the letters today was one student saying something like, “They don’t even know us but the care so much about us. I can feel that they really want us to succeed and I appreciate it.” I was happy that I was able to share the letters and also happy that I didn’t share them in March as I had originally intended. I think perhaps today was a great time to share them in order to address some fears as well as provide some focus and motivation at a time when fear might be higher than usual.

Another aspect from sharing the letters I enjoyed was how the current students sort of interrogated the texts from those who came before them. They read into the letters and made hypotheses about those who wrote them. Students made guesses about who was smart and who had a hard time.  They seemed free to disagree with certain aspects and to pick and choose the points that might be helpful for them. As an added benefit, some analyzed the language used and wondered if there were other ways to say the same thing.

As above, I am happy I chose to use these letters today. I was happy to give some support and help from what was perhaps an unexpected source. As a teacher, I also got the sense today’s students felt cared for by me and that they might have thought I was much more organized than I actually am.  I think I will do something similar next year as well. Thanks for reading, and as always any comments welcome. I’d be particularly interested in hearing how other teachers set up or used similar ideas.


Unlike many teaching ideas  I remember exactly when I first heard of, or more accurately–experienced,  this one. It was on my CELTA course in 2004. We got a sealed letter from a previous participant. My heart raced as I poured over the words. It was like it was written especially for me, me a person the writer didn’t even know. The advice was solid and spot-on and again seemed tailored specifically for me. I remember how the unknown advice giver warned me not to challenge or question the trainers because their word was the word. This was great advice and something I probably could have heeded a bit more than I did. There was also practical advice on how to prepare for the practice teaching that was well-received and extremely helpful. The idea of getting advice from someone who was exactly in the same position was powerful and I feel like today’s class was another example of this power.


  1. David Harbinson

    I think this is a really great idea Mike. While I’m not really in a position to try something like this where I work now, it’s definitely going to be one that I remember and use somewhere further down the line.

    I also really like the advice that you mention about not comparing oneself to others. This is something that I frequently encounter from my students, and I find that it is often from a student who is not feeling motivated or has hit the ‘plateau’. Of course I try to tell them not to focus on others, focus only on themselves. But it has so much more meaning when they can hear it from one of their peers.

    • mikecorea

      Hello David. Thanks for commenting. I like your point about not competing and comparing. I think this is very important (and perhaps more so here in Korea?) And I think we are in strong agreement on the aspect of hearing this from a former student/peer being so much more powerful and meaningful than from a teacher.

  2. Sophia Khan (@SophiaKhan4)

    What a great idea! Although I think I would be a tiny bit afraid of handing a new CELTA trainee a sealed letter from a former one. I think most people would appreciate the spirit of the task and the meaning it would hold for a future reader, but you know those occasional ones who, well, you know…I suppose in that case, I might not do it…but is that pre-emptive censorship? 🙂 Did you seal your letters? Did you read them through before distributing?

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for commenting, Sophia. I actually did read them before (and even had a friend make sure there was nothing too controversial in those that were written in Korean). I am pretty sure that the one I got on the CELTA was sealed but maybe the trainers did a bit of “quality control” before including them. To be honest though, the one I got (and I think it was perfectly suited to me) was not super complimentary about the trainers, which is why I have long assumed it wasn’t checked. I think that would take some bravery on the part of the trainer. Interestingly, at the end of my CELTA we were not asked to do the same thing, which I was curious about.

      Just by the way in terms of logistics, in yesterday’s class (I mean the one I wrote about) I gave students chance to read all (15) of them but the previous day I gave them one per student and they had to share it/translate it for a partner. I am happy you liked this idea. I wondered for a moment if it was CELTA cannon or something like that but I guess not. 🙂

      • mikecorea

        Hi Ben and thanks for reading and commenting. Oh this is kind of awkward. I forgot to mention that if you use this idea you have to blog about. I really wish I had mentioned it earlier but that is the rule. I am sorry for not being more upfront with this restriction but I hope you can see where we her at ELTrants are coming from. Thanks again for reading for reading and commenting. We are looking forward to hearing about how this went.

        (sorry for the ridiculous response… though it would be nice to read how it goes)

  3. Jonny Lewington

    That’s a really interesting idea. Never heard of it before but will definitely find a reason to use it. thanks for sharing.

    • mikecorea

      I am so glad you like it. I’d love to hear how it goes. Actually, now that you mention it, i have had some luck with bringing back former students to talk about their experiences and what worked for them and things like this. One particular time when I worked on an intensive English program one of my students from the previous term came by and he was a confident and cool guy (not to mention nice) and he wowed everyone with his English and presentation skills. I thought it was motivating because he has been at the same (beginner) level the year before.

      Thanks for the comments!

  4. Pingback: Who are my students? | A Passion for Teaching and Learning
  5. Matthew

    As everyone else has already said: what a fantastic idea! (And a good one for CELTA courses, too). Seeing as we took it at the same place a year apart, I’m trying to remember if my group got the same thing. I doubt it, as I don’t remember – however, my memory has been known to be less than perfect…anyway, this is great and now I’ll go see the recent post about giving these to your current students. High quality stuff as always!

    • mikecorea

      Hey thanks for the comments. I am really wondering if you got such a letter on the CELTA back in the day. Maybe you did and forgot. Gosh, mine was so memorable and also perfect for me (as a person and where I was at the time).

      I am not sure if you saw it last night but I actually didn’t have a post about using the idea this term. I did manage to write something up here though:

      I might have mentioned it elsewhere in the comments but something I like to do as well is to have course participants write a letter to themselves which I then mail later on. Like at the end of the course they might write a letter to themself of next year. It generally seems to work well.

      Thanks very much for the comments and support.

      • Matthew

        I’m now thinking I did get a letter like that – and feeling a wee bit disappointed that I don’t remember it better! But the longer I recollect the more I sense having read one (and written one for a future trainee? Erm, yeah!) I’m going to look through all my remaining CELTA notes, maybe find some evidence. Anyway, one context in which I remember very clearly doing something like this was Outward Bound. We were sailing out around the islands of Down East Maine for a few weeks. And towards the end we all did a ‘Solo’ – spending two nights alone on a small island. One of our tasks during this Tom Hanksian adventure was a ‘letter to self’ that would then be mailed to us a year later. It was a fantastic process and I remember (I was only 15 or 16) how great getting the letter (and the perspective) turned out to be.

      • mikecorea

        I distinctly remember NOT writing such a letter. I was sort of disappointed not to have the chance to pass on the pearls of wisdom I had gleaned. But no chance was given.

        I have never actually received a letter to myself but old journals do the trick I think. Thanks for sharing that story.
        For some reason i just raced to send a semi-related tweet.

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  7. Pingback: Letter to myself | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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