Please teach them English–the full story

A few weeks ago, the crack research team here at ELT RRR reproduced some emails from a language school manager to a new teacher. Since then, we have also managed to trace the replies made by the teacher to the manager. In the interests of balance, we are now able to post the email discussion in full, showing the emails from both parties. Below you can see the original emails followed by the responses. 

As always, let us know what you think in the comments.

Dear Susie,

It is wonderful to have you working with us. We appreciate your enthusiasm and energy. It is great that you care about the students and connect with them. It is great to see you have some interests in common with the students, including Pokemon Go and Minecraft. I am sure you will be able to share thoughts and ideas related to computers and Internet Technology. I am looking forward to a nice year (or more!) working with you at Super Happy English Academy for Children. I know that you don’t have much experience teaching English but I think your passion for learning and teaching will be a great asset for you. I also think your artistic background and your previous experience teaching underwater basket-weaving will be useful experiences for you to draw upon in your work here. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can be of any assistance to you. Take care and have a great year. Best of luck!

Sincerely yours,

John LEE
Academic Manager


Dear Mr. Lee,

Thank you very much for your email and for the warm welcome to your school. I also hope that I will be able to make a positive contribution to your curriculum and to the students themselves. It is true that I have only recently completed my initial TESOL certificate and I did find this course challenging, particularly the apparent need in language teaching to identify specific language aims prior to every lesson. However, I feel that the TESOL course allowed me to learn some very practical techniques for classroom management, giving instructions and clarifying language, which I will use to enhance my classroom practice.

There may be some confusion about my previous teaching experience, which I feel I should clarify. I have previously worked on programs for young adults, mostly focusing on the development of what are often known as 21st Century Skills, such as problem-solving, critical thinking and digital literacy. While this work included a project involving basket weaving and another that required students to visit the local swimming pool, I have never actually taught underwater basket-weaving, as you mentioned in your email.

I look forward to getting started at the Super Happy English Academy for Children.


Susie Smith

Dear Susie,

I hope this finds you well. I have heard good things about your teaching performance. Thank you ever so much for the great efforts you have been making. It is noticed and very much appreciated.

There is one issue, however. We have noticed you are placing a huge priority on creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration. These are very important, of course, but we need to find a balance between these skills and actual language learning.  I feel I was not clear enough in the orientation. My apologies. Our main focus at SHEAFC is teaching English. We always need to keep in mind that students’ parents are paying a lot of money for them to develop their vocabulary and grammar. Also of utmost importance are speaking and writing skills, which our students don’t get much practice with in their public school classes. We need to focus as much as possible on teaching English. Please be sure to let me know if you have any questions or concerns or if there is anything I can help you with or clarify.

Best regards,

John Lee

Dear Mr. Lee,

Thanks for your email. I am pleased that you are receiving positive comments about my teaching. I am certainly putting a lot of work into planning my lessons, as I learned on my TESOL course that this is very important, so it is good that my efforts are being acknowledged.

I am sorry if you feel I am working on some skills more than I should be. It’s just that the first thing that struck me with the students here is how they have problems completing tasks that involve working together; these kinds of activities seem to be unusual for them and they are often unwilling to talk to each other about anything. As you mentioned, the students need to develop their speaking and writing skills in English, and I have been trying to set communicative and collaborative tasks to allow them to do this, but it is taking time for them to become confident in using English.

I understand though that the priority is to focus on language so I will certainly try to be more explicit about these stages of my lessons in future.

Best regards,


Hello again Susie,

I hope you had a nice weekend and are feeling energized for another week of teaching English to our students. I am writing again to remind you about your primary job here, which is teaching to English to our students. Things like creativity and critical thinking are always secondary. I can fully understand why and how you view them as important but I want to emphasize the main aim is always improving the students’ English ability. Thank you in advance for your understanding. As always, please let me know if you have any questions. Have a great week!


Mr. Lee

Hi John,

Thank you for your email and for the reminder about focusing explicitly on English in my lessons. I am trying hard to do this, and I always try to incorporate some explicit focus on grammar or vocabulary into my lessons. However, my understanding about language learning is that it is important to introduce new grammar and vocabulary items within a meaningful context. This means giving students an authentic reason for using these items of language, and it seems the most obvious way to do this is to get the students to work on tasks that require the students to think critically, about the language they are using as well as the lesson content. The students seem to be quite good at telling me English grammar rules, but they are not so good at actually putting them into practice. This is why I am doing a lot of work that involves creativity, as it requires the students to speak to each other as they develop their ideas, and work together to produce spoken or written texts that include the target language.

I am very aware of the expectation here to focus on language, but I don’t thinking this means I should avoid developing other important skills at the same time. In fact, this seems to be an effective way of motivating the students to use English.

Best wishes,


Dear Susie,

I hope you are doing well. Unfortunately I am not doing very well. Many of the parents have been complaining about what is going on in your classes. They expect their children to learn English not website design and programming. I know that you think your students are “digital natives” and this type of work should be no problem for them but this is all very new to our students. They are spending an inordinate amount of time building up their webdesign skills and not enough time brushing up on their English. This is not a coding academy. It is an English school. Also, just in case you are not already aware, our students have technology class at their schools with trained professionals who studied education and technology in college.

I did a bit of research on these 21st century skills you are continually talking about and using as a reason for your pedagogical choices. The criminals at Pearson (who, let’s face it, are not at all interested in students’ development or well-being but are only motivated by the almighty dollar) say,  “Twenty-first century education gives students the opportunity to think deeply about issues, solve problems creativly, [SIC] work in teams and communicate clearly using a varietly [SIC] of media to help develop critical thinking skills. It is less about students getting the right answers and more about students asking the right questions.” I have to tell you, unfortunately, within our current system and paradigm getting the right answer is still important.Students have tests that determine their futures and we need to ensure they are as prepared for these tests as possible.

Also, please use your own 21st century and googling skills to find out about Pearson and what they are doing in the country of your birth in order to decide if you want to align yourself with them and people of their ilk. Alternatively, just have a look at this link:

or this one: you know, I have nothing against running a business or trying to make a profit. I think many of those pushing this 21st Century skills are trying to find a new blue ocean and profit for the rest of this century. Since you are a proponent of critical thinking I’d ask you to think critically about the forces behind this 21st Century skills movement, especially as related to teaching English.  I think I am a bit off track and on a tangent here but my point is to remind you to focus on improving students’ English ability.

I don’t want to be too harsh or direct but I want to remind you that you were hired as an English teacher and this is what we hope and expect you will do. Please teach them English. I hope you will consider this message as a first warning. As always, my door is always open for questions and discussion.



Dear John,

I am sorry that the parents seem unhappy with our latest class project. You are right that I had expected the students to have better ICT skills than they do, particularly because they receive separate classes in digital technology. This has meant that the project, which involved the students working in groups to set up a website giving information for visitors to their city, took rather longer than I had anticipated. However, I feel I should point out that during the project we focused on, clarified and practiced the following areas of language:

  • Understanding oral and written instructions, including contrastive analysis of sound-spelling relationships.
  • Vocabulary for local places of interest and/or cultural significance.
  • There is/are and expressions of quantity to describe places in a town (“there’s a big park”, “there are a number of museums” etc.)
  • Modality in persuasive language (e.g. “you really should/must/ought to visit the Museum of Culture”).
  • Language for making suggestions (Let’s/Why don’t we + short infinitive, How about + verb+ing).
  • Language for agreeing and disagreeing (e.g. “That’s a/an great/interesting/terrible idea!”).

With each of these items I have included some overt language focus in class. However, the overall focus of each lesson has tended to be on the content i.e. the project itself, with the language focus embedded within this project work to provide a genuine, authentic context in which to present the language. This, along with the fact that they seem very motivated by the project, may be why the students are talking to their parents about the non-linguistic skills they are developing rather than the linguistic input.

I am pleased to see you are now researching the concept of 21st century skills, but I would advise you to look beyond what you found on the Pearson website. I am relatively new to EFL but not to the Education profession, and I agree that publishing companies such as Pearson are likely to be motivated more by profit than by the pedagogical value of their products. But it is my belief (based on a considerable amount of critical reflection) that in advocating 21st century skills Pearson are merely jumping on an already popular bandwagon and trying to subvert it so it can become profitable for them. 21st century skills can easily be focused on and developed without using Pearson materials or following their guidelines.

Having said that, I found your point about students being required to get the “right answer” interesting, particularly because we are operating within a specific paradigm where students have to pass tests. I understand this, but at the same time, is it not important for us as educators to give students the skills to question this paradigm? Do we want tomorrow’s adults to simply carry on making the same mistakes as us, or to be able to transform society for the better? You may argue that this is not our role and that we are only supposed to teach language, but language is meaningless without a context, and it is hard to think of more motivating contexts for young people than those which encourage them to engage with and challenge the status quo.

If you would like to read more about 21st century skills I would recommend the following links: (which stresses the importance of retaining a strong focus on subject knowledge while simultaneously developing 21st century skills). (a research report on 21st century skills for young people in OECD countries, identifying challenges regarding implementation and assessment). (which includes a section on how project-based work can be used to develop 21st century skills along with subject-specific knowledge).

Hello again Susie,

I am sorry to always write to you with complaints but when the parents complain to me I have to relay the complaints on to you. The issue is again a lack, or a least a perception of a lack, of focus on actual language learning. I know we discussed the idea of doing a debate in class and I said it sounded like a good chance. I just didn’t know you were going to spend 2 weeks setting it up and choose such challenging and grown-up topics. The  issues of female genital mutilation, gay rights and bathrooms for transgendered people in the United States are not things our students have considered much to date. It is beyond their life experiences and everyday talk. These are not issues our students would likely be comfortable or articulate talking about in their first language. It seems such topics are well beyond their English ability. I realize you could make the case that your English class is the the time and the place for developing these skills but my point remains that you are here to teach English. I’m also not sure if it is appropriate to foist your worldview on impressionable students under the guise of critical thinking. Would you have been completely fine with the situation if students didn’t eventually concur with your views on these topics? I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is that our students learn English or at the very least that their parents are satisfied with the progress their children are making and the class content. Please, I implore you, use the textbook. It has the English students need for their tests and their future here in this imperfect yet real world we find ourselves in.


John Lee


Dear John,

I am bit confused. In your last email you were very critical about Pearson. Now you are telling me I must use a textbook that is published by this very company. I’m afraid I don’t see the logic here. Big publishing companies that produce ELT materials for the global market are often criticized for selecting bland and inoffensive topics which fail to develop critical thinking skills, precisely so that they can be sold anywhere in the world. As you seemed to disagree with Pearson’s commercial motivations, I thought you would be pleased that I was avoiding such materials.

I was unsure about choosing topics that might be too culturally sensitive, and I certainly didn’t want to be accused of imposing my own cultural values on the students, but at the same time I want to create contexts that students can relate to, and which allow them to engage with and challenge existing values and norms. This, along with a desire to expand the students’ capacity as global citizens, is why I chose topics that are more prevalent in cultures outside this country.

I do not feel that the topics I chose are “grown-up,” as you put it; FGM is performed on young girls, and while the students do not have first-hand experience of it, they were able to relate to the notion of having such a thing imposed on them by an older generation and how this would make them feel. Similarly, while LGBTI issues are rarely discussed (if at all) in this country, this doesn’t mean that there are no gay or transgender people here, so these topics also have relevance for the students, particularly those who happen to be LGBT themselves (please don’t suggest to me that none of them are).

You are right that the students were unused to discussing these topics, so we did spend a lot of time researching the concepts and generating some factual information before structuring their arguments for the debates, which explains the two weeks of preparation. I would like to point out though that the grammar content in the textbook for this period was:

  1. Expressions of quantity (A few, about a third, more than half etc.)
  2. Indirect questions (I’d like to know, I wonder if, Could you tell me etc.)
  3. Reporting verbs (say, tell +object, ask, suggest etc.)

I can safely say that all of this language was focused on and practiced during the debate project. The textbook introduced this language along with vocabulary related to food (“A few of us like potatoes,” “I wonder if she likes potatoes,” “I asked her if she liked potatoes” etc.) but this didn’t seem to replicate anything that the students would ever use in real life. In any case, we had previously covered food vocabulary in our Recipe Book project.

I assure you that I am not neglecting the language required for the students to pass their assessments-I am merely trying to find ways to introduce it within meaningful and engaging contexts. The parents may have problems seeing this but the students are very aware of how their language is developing; I know because I have recently introduced Reflective Practice Journals, where the students document their thoughts on how they are progressing in their learning.



Dear Ms. Smith,

I regret to inform you that we will have to terminate your contract. Even after receiving multiple emails and warnings you still persisted in your pursuit of 21st century skills instead of simply teaching English. I asked you and reminded you many times but you never listened. I tried to be understanding but the last straw was when you spent 3 weeks creating a Justin Beiber parody song and then had students perform a lip dub version of it to upload to youtube which took another 3 weeks. I actually had to hire a temporary worker just to field all the complaints from parents. When I asked you about the educational purposes of this you didn’t really give me a clear answer but just said something about it being something you should do as a 21st century teacher and that it was all about collaboration. Our school is not a proving ground for your status as a 21st century teacher and the focus should be on the students and their needs. Instead of dealing with further complaints I have decided to let you go. I hope you will understand my position on this. I wish you good luck in all your future endeavors and in spite of your early termination I’d be happy to provide a reference, especially for jobs outside the English teaching sector.You are a passionate and energetic person and I hope you can find your niche.

Please do me a favor and avoid Twitter in class for the next 2 weeks before your employment is finally terminated.

Thank you for your understanding. I sincerely wish things had turned out differently.

Yours truly,

John Lee

Academic Manager
Super Happy English Academy for Children


Dear Mr Lee,

I have to say I am not surprised at your decision, based on how you have responded to the work I have done with my students. I insist that I did listen to your warnings, but I felt they were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of my classroom practice. You and the students’ parents seem convinced that unless grammar and vocabulary are presented front and center as the main focus of a lesson, they are not being taught. I feel certain that the project work I have done in my lessons has been very effective in developing my students’ knowledge and skills in English. In addition, we have also focused on and developed skills which are absolutely essential for young people growing up as global citizens in the 21st century and which, I may say, were sorely lacking when I first arrived at the school.

The idea for the Justin Bieber parody project, for example, came from the students themselves as they were criticizing occasions when Justin Bieber treated the media with disdain despite having initially gained popularity through social and traditional media. I saw this as a great opportunity for students to express their views on the role of the media in celebrity culture, while at the same time introducing them to the concept of satire, which is essential in understanding so many popular texts in English. I tried to explain to you the inter-connectedness between these skills and linguistic content, and how important all of this is for 21st century citizens, but you seemed unwilling to listen.

I can say with confidence that my students have made tremendous progress in critical thinking, working collaboratively with others, creative thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and digital literacy. When I taught my first lesson in your school the students acted as if they had never been asked to give their opinion about anything before; it was almost as if they didn’t understand the question. Now, they are able to formulate their own critical questions and are developing a healthy sense of skepticism, which can only be helpful in their future lives.

I enjoyed working with the students in your school, and I am pretty sure they enjoyed my classes too. However, I feel the expectations of parents and the resulting parameters that the school chooses to work within are limiting to the development of the students, on a linguistic level as well as a broader, educational level. It is clear that you are looking for staff who can merely demonstrate an understanding of linguistic forms and meanings for the purposes of passing tests, rather than developing any ability to use language meaningfully or authentically. I can’t help feeling that such an approach does not prepare the students adequately for the situations they are likely to find themselves needing to use English in when they are older.

Like you, I also wish that things had worked out differently, but I fully understand your decision. I will of course comply with your request to avoid using Twitter and other social media while I complete my contract. I wish you luck in finding a replacement who is able to work towards the goals of your organization.

Yours sincerely,

Susie Smith


In case you missed it from the original post, these are not real emails. The first round of emails from the manager were written by me (Mike) and Susie’s replies come courtesy of Steve Brown (@sbrowntweets). If you’d like to know more about what Steve thinks of 21st century skills (usually referred to as Essential Skills in the UK) and other ELT-related issues, you may want to visit his (excellent) blog: Steve will be happy to respond to any comments below. I am grateful Steve took the time to write up the other side of the story and thrilled with how it came out. I hope readers enjoyed Susie’s responses as much as I did. 


  1. M. Makino

    Not to take anything away from Steve’s no doubt experience-based responses, I must say I liked the previous version better for what it revealed about the teachers by their interpretations of the situation. A lot of NS teachers in Japan reflexively saw the director’s concern as very narrow and illustrative of a premodern concept of ELT.

    • Steve Brown

      Hi Mark,
      Interesting – so are you saying that by leaving Susie’s side of the story open to interpretation, a lot of people automatically sided with her against Mr Lee? Have I understood correctly? Now that Susie’s perspective on the situation has been exposed, do you think they will still sympathise with Susie or will reading her emails change their opinion in some way?
      Thanks for your comment,

      • M. Makino

        The way I see it, the new narrative makes the boss seem unreasonably and irredeemably ignorant, or at least willing to placate parents who are, whereas before there was more than an inkling that Susie was flying by the seat of her pants and calling it responsiveness and student-centeredness. Now we know she actual was doing a pretty responsible job, at least in my view, which makes it harder for readers to fill in Susie’s side with their own assumptions.

      • M. Makino

        I forgot to answer your question. Yes, most teachers I heard from automatically assumed Mr. Lee was being shortsighted. Now I think they still will, but with better reasons than their assumption.

      • Steve Brown

        Hi Mark,
        OK, I understand your perspective now and I see why the original post would have produced some interesting reactions from your fellow teachers in Japan. When I first read Mike’s post I felt that it showed Susie in a more negative light than Mr Lee, but that there was a possibility that she actually doing some good stuff, just Mr Lee couldn’t see it. This was what prompted me to write the other side of the story, and I’m grateful to Mike for agreeing to post it.
        Of course, just because I have portrayed Susie as a conscientious and effective language teacher who also works hard to develop 21st century skills, this doesn’t mean that all teachers who receive this sort of criticism from their managers are doing an equally good job. It’s easy to do anything badly, and the same applies to the teaching of 21st century skills. As Mike suggested in his comments after the first post, there is a tendency for some people to use certain terms to justify what is essentially bad teaching. Susie may well be a conscientious and effective teacher, but there are other teachers out there who actually do avoid teaching English, or anything else for that matter. I’m not an apologist for such people, and this post was certainly not intended as something they can use to justify their rubbishness.
        Thanks for drawing my attention to this interpretation.

  2. Pingback: Please teach them English – the full story | The Steve Brown Blog
    • Steve Brown

      Hahaha! That’s a very good point, Marc. Perhaps this goes back to some comments people made on the previous post (maybe it was you?) suggesting that in many ways the manager deserves to get a teacher that doesn’t meet his requirements if he is happy to recruit someone with little or no experience. If Mr Lee was happy to recruit Susie on the basis that she had a pulse, an initial TESOL qualification and (possibly) because she was a native speaker, this would certainly explain any mismatch between his expectations and hers. A more rigorous recruitment process may well have highlighted the two parties’ different approaches to language teaching and learning, which may have prompted Mr Lee to think twice about hiring Susie. What do we think of that though, would he be right not to hire her?
      Thanks for highlighting the recruitment side of this scenario – it’s another interesting angle to consider.

  3. HL

    I loved this.

    I don’t think it’s a surprise that I found myself identifying with Susie when I read the first post and was frustrated at not being able to articulate a satisfactory response (although I did try!). I found myself identifying with her even more whilst reading this.

    Thanks for the links – maybe they’ll help me manage to eventually clarify my own thoughts on it all.

    • Steve Brown

      Hi Helen,
      I’m glad you liked it. I also felt that Susie may have been treated a bit unfairly when I read the first post. I should also confess that I wasn’t that familiar with the term “21st century skills”, so the overuse of this term and related jargon that Mike was alluding to was kind of lost on me. In Scotland we tend to talk more about essential skills, or sometimes core skills or transferable skills, but this seems to refer to pretty much the same thing as 21st century skills, from what I understood from articles I linked to. We also have the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland, which requires teachers to embed these skills across all subjects, so I suppose we’re getting quite used to this as an educational approach. I’m not sure how things are in the rest of the U.K. though..?

      • mikecorea

        Hello Steve,
        I agree it is a great idea.
        I was thinking of asking Maria if she might be interested in writing something. No pressure, though Maria!

        This is another way of saying that I think it is a great idea but I don’t think I will be writing it!

      • Steve Brown

        Hi Mike,
        I wonder if a real student (or ex-student) might be able to contribute? Like you, I don’t think I’m in a particularly good position to write it though!

  4. mariatheologidou

    I loved Susie’s responses – it’s really difficult I think not to identify with her and see part of our teaching selves in how she views teaching/learning. I find Scott’s suggestion really intriguing – indeed it’s time to hear from one of the students!

    • Steve Brown

      Hi Maria,
      Yes, there are a lot of my own views in among Susie’s emails. I wonder though how many teachers actually teach like Susie. And if they don’t, what stops them – is it their boss, their students’ expectations, or maybe just because it’s too much work and it’s far easier to just plough through the coursebook?
      One interesting thing about Susie is that she had already been teaching before doing her initial TESOL course, and she clearly never bought into the idea of teacher fronted, non-participatory teaching that is often advocated in these types of courses. I think she’s probably a better teacher BECAUSE she didn’t buy into this approach, but that surely raises questions about initial TESOL courses – what do you think?

      • mariatheologidou

        Externally, I think it’s everything you’ve said plus the cultural environment where they teach. Internally, it’s the fear of failure – many teachers still fear/think/imagine their students see them as masters, authorities of knowledge that no one can challenge. Stepping away from the “wise” textbook is a leap into the unknown which can’t always guarantee – immediate at least- results. When it comes to TESOL courses, I’m afraid it’s country-based again. I was extremely fortunate to graduate from a School where there was a lot of emphasis on actual teaching reality and not on theory only. My MA was in a different field – Translation- so I can’t say I know how much emphasis is given on experimentation in other or non-Uni TESOL courses. From what I’ve seen though, especially in exam-oriented countries, teaching beyond the coursebook is often seen as a “risk” that can’t help students gain the skills they need to succeed in their exams. Very much like what Mr Lee supports so fervently. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Maria,

      I wonder if you might want to give it a try… that is writing a post or response from the perspective of the student. No pressure, just a thought!

      • mikecorea

        Hello Maria! That is great news! I am excited to see what you come up with. Maybe email is the best way to go further with this. My address is Michael E Griffin at gmail dot com (without the spaces of course). Talk to you soon! 🙂

        On Mon, Aug 8, 2016 at 1:08 AM, ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections wrote:


  5. mikecorea

    A friend on Facebook who happens to be a language school owner wrote the following and kindly allowed me to share it here:

    A good post, but it really bothered me. I suppose because I knew everyone (including teachers who would never have the courage to take risks in the classroom like Susie) would take Susie’s side. I don’t think you can really take sides until you’ve been in Mr. Lee’s shoes, dealing with the parents and their often old fashioned assumptions.

    I opened a new school based on some innovative (for Japan!) ideas and when I was building up a business, dealing with resistance from parents who didn’t understand our methodology and having to be patient took a lot of strength. I could only do it because my husband and I truly believed in what we were doing. It took years to build up trust.

    So, have a little sympathy for Mr. Lee. Make his job a little easier and help him figure out a way to explain your classroom madness to the nervous parents. He might not really believe in the old fashioned ways of doing things either.

    • Steve Brown

      I can see how the post could bother some people. I suppose the bothersome thing about it is that most people would agree that Susie’s a good teacher, but many teachers (like Susie) work within paradigms that actively prevent teachers from teaching like this. This suggests to me that there’s a lot wrong with our profession at the moment.
      It bothers me too. Anyone else?

  6. Pingback: A blast from the past: Notes from a talk I gave to students in 2008 | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  7. Pingback: Please teach them English-The full full story | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections
  8. Pingback: Please teach them English: The even fuller story | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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