Polishing Turds [Guest post] 

It’s a great pleasure to welcome back the most frequent guest poster here on ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections. The author, Mr. Tim Thompson, is a friend. We were discussing the recent experience he describes below and he got to writing about. When he had about 300 words down and said, “It feels like an ELT Rant and Reflection” and I said I’d be glad to publish it here (instead of his personal blog because I thought it was interesting and enjoyable and also because it was a bit of a reflective rant. I hope you will enjoy it! I will turn things over to Tim…

I really wanted that bonus, and honestly it shouldn’t have been that hard to get. An average feedback score of four out of five for a corporate training course on a subject that I know really well? That’s a B.  80%. No sweat. But it didn’t happen and I’m pretty sure I know why.

Reason 1: It wasn’t my course. I didn’t design it. There was a company that was contracted by the client to develop the content and I was subcontracted to do the training alongside the company’s internal trainers. The participants just didn’t like the course. So the course got panned and indirectly so did I.  

Reason 2: I didn’t/couldn’t find out what the participants were asked to evaluate. Was is about the way I ran my sessions or was it more how they felt about the program? Were they evaluating things I could control, like my energy level and preparation, or was it more about things I had no control over such as the pace of the course and its content? It appears to have been the latter based on some overall course feedback that I saw. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve walked into a training session feeling like I was being asked to sell defective goods. I’ve had to work with other people’s and organizations’ materials and curricula before, and it’s really hard because 1) you’re not as familiar with it as you would be with your own stuff and 2) if it isn’t very good, 99% of the time they won’t let you fix it. Sometimes they don’t see that it’s weak and/or flawed and other times they know it’s not great but they think you should be able to “bring it to life” like you do with your own materials. If only it worked that way.

I guess I’m writing this post for two reasons (wow, I’m sensing a real theme here). The first is to vent, and I suppose this blog is as good a place to “rant” as anywhere on the interwebs. The second is to warn readers that when you stand in front of a group of people and expect them to give you their time and attention, to step out of their comfort zone to try something new, you need to bring a big personality and you also need the right tools for the job. (Does this qualify as a reflection?) Tiger Woods shouldn’t play the final round of a major tournament with a set of borrowed clubs from a guy who missed the cut. Likewise, be really careful risking your reputation trying to salvage a mediocre course.

So, what should you do if you have the opportunity to make some money using someone else’s materials and you don’t feel like they are that strong?  First of all, how much money is it? Seriously, this gig paid really well so I wasn’t going to threaten to quit if they didn’t do things my way. I went in there like a good soldier and fired where they pointed.  If the money was average, I might have turned it down. Here’s why: I don’t think I made the impression that I wanted to make. Honestly, I felt like I was training the participants with one hand tied behind my back.  They didn’t take my course so they didn’t get the best me. If you run your own business, YOU are the brand. That means every talk you give and every training session you lead affects what people think of you, and thus your company.  If you are going to potentially do damage to your brand, it better pay really well! 

Postscript: After finding out there would be no bonus due to the low overall course feedback scores, I contacted the company and suggested they consider using my materials and curriculum for future training sessions. I’m offering a program that I have run for major corporations and government research centers and the feedback is always stellar. The company said they will consider it but I don’t know if they can convince the client to make the wholesale changes required for the training course to be conducted successfully.  Michael will tell you that I can be a bit of a control freak so not being able to run the show might mean this professional relationship needs to end. At the end of the day I’d rather pick and choose the best opportunities to showcase what I can do than stay busy polishing turds.

Discussion on Culture in the EFL Classroom

Hello dear reader. Welcome. Imagine you are asked to answer the following questions:

  1. In your experience, as either a student or a teacher, reflect on a time when you witnessed how culture impacted language learning. Describe the incident briefly.
  2. How did you or your teacher deal with the situation?
  3. What do you think about it now?  What changes or modifications would you like to make to the approach that you or your teacher used?

Do any examples come to mind? If so I would truly appreciate it if you could share your response in the comments of this post. I would likely share it with future training course participants (unless you tell me you’d prefer me not to).

If you have a few minutes and are interested please do share your response. You might even choose to type it up before you read on. Please do give the questions some thought.

Don’t just skip to the next section. Yeah, you.


Does this hippo look embarrassed to you? Source

I doesn’t seem fair to just ask for replies without offering anything in return. I’d like to share the background for this and some of the responses I’ve seen and perhaps some food for thought. This task is from an online course on CBI I’ve been teaching on for a while.

Quite often participants (EFL teachers from around the world) respond with things like the following partially fictionalized responses.

  • In my L1 bread is countable but in English it’s not so I need to teach students more about this and sometimes I bring bread as an example.
  • In my L1 (Spanish) embarazada (pregnant) is not the same thing as embarrassed in English. Students get confused and maybe sometimes, ahem embarrassed, by this false friend and I need to teach them about the crucial difference. False cognates are tough.
  • In Korea and Korean we count by ten thousands and in English they count by hundreds and thousands and millions and so on. It’s really hard for students to think differently. I have no idea how to handle this except for more practice.
  • In Chinese we actually have so many borrowed words from English and sometimes the meaning is different in Chinese or Chinese English than “real” English. It’s tough to keep up with. Toast is one such example. Students can’t seem to realize that, by definition, toast needs to have been placed in a toaster and otherwise it’s probably just bread.
  • My students were amazed to see that a word from their L1 is actually used in English. They thought it was amazing that flamingo, the bird, would be known by most native speakers in North America.

In Portuguese this is called a “flamingo” Source

Do these answers match what you thought about for the original questions? To me they are a bit off the mark as I think they are about language more than culture. I try not to get into a whole thing on Whorfianism but I try to nudge participants to think less about language and more about the culture of learning for this assignment. I get that language and culture are linked and intertwined. I get that students can get confused about such things.

I guess for me, the “X is different in English than my language” is important but not central to a conversation about culture in the classroom. I also think such posts don’t lend themselves to a deep discussion. The takeaway is often something like, “I will focus more on this in class and make sure students get it.” Also many of the above answers are not really describing an incident but rather a difference (or similarity ) between languages. 

As you might imagine, I try to provide models of answers that I think work well (and yes my initial request above is related to that) and also try to nudge participants in what I think is a more productive direction. I am also thinking about ways to revise the instructions and text that precedes this discussion.

To be clear, I don’t think the responses above are particularly bad or wrong but rather just not the most productive track for a discussion on how culture can impact learning. What do you think?

Interview with David Shaffer

It’s an honor to have Dr. David Shaffer, a legend of ELT in Korea, as an interviewee here on the blog. I think I first met Dr. Shaffer online back in 2009 and have enjoyed interacting with him online and seeing him at conferences in Korea and beyond since then. It’s always a pleasure to talk to him and this conversation was no exception. Please find our discussion below. 


Hey Dave, thanks for stopping by! I know you are busy! I appreciate you taking the time. 
Thank you for inviting me, Michael. It’s an honor to be invited to this blog interview.

Can you tell readers a bit about yourself? 
Certainly, I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania (where your mom tells you to “redd up” your room, your dad tells you that the car “needs washed,” and your grandmother “left” you have the last piece of pie).

After studying education at the Pennsylvania State University, I volunteered for the U.S. Peace Corps and ended up in Korea in 1971, teaching vocational education at the government-run vocational training center in Gwangju. After leaving the Peace Corps four years later, I moved to Chosun University and spent the remainder of my teaching career there (40 years, actually), getting advanced degrees in linguistics and getting married and raising a family along the way. At the conclusion of my time at the university, I was awarded the ROK Order of Merit for Service, a much appreciated award from the President of Korea, as orders of merit are very rarely given to anyone who is not a Korean national.

Wow. That is quite an honor. I’d like to offer a belated congratulations. By the way, can I get you drink? What are you having?
No, thank you. I don’t need a drink. I’m pretty much intoxicated at the moment–intoxicated with what I’m doing.

So, what do you do?
As I said, I spent my career in teaching at Chosun University, teaching in its several English departments over the years. While I was the Foreign Language Programs director, I established a post-graduate TESOL certificate program for the university. I’ve taught linguistics, teaching methodology, and English skills courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Some of the courses I enjoyed the most were applied linguistics courses in the TESOL certificate programs–but also the teaching methodology courses in the Graduate School of Education. Outside of the university’s doors — and often inside them–I have devoted quite a bit of time to Korea TESOL and other ELT organizations.

What’s keeping you busy these days?

Two things, mainly: Korea TESOL, as I alluded to a moment ago, and the Gwangju International Center (the GIC). At the GIC, the director twisted my arm a bit to accept the position of editor-in-chief of the Gwangju News, a 60-page monthly magazine serving the Gwangju and Jeollanam-do expat community and local English-speaking Korean community. In addition to my editing duties on the magazine, I pen a column on English language teaching and learning and sometimes specifically on Korea TESOL.

The GIC noticed that I had a second arm and twisted it until I agreed to be the chairman of the board of the GIC. That has led to duties such as sitting on the promotion committee of the World Human Rights Cities Forum, an annual Gwangju event, headed by the mayor of Gwangju. Upcoming is planning for the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the GIC later this year.

That sounds interesting and exciting.
It is. The other major occupier of my time is Korea TESOL (KOTESOL). Though I have been considerably involved with KOTESOL over the past 20 or so years, for the past two years, I have added the position of KOTESOL president to the mix. While presidential matters take up a certain amount of time, I spend more of my time working on KOTESOL publications. I am an editor of one kind or another on the KOTESOL Proceedings, the Korea TESOL Journal, and our quarterly magazine The English Connection

Ahh yes, TEC.
Yes, a publication that you have been known to contribute to.

And then there’s the KOTESOL International Conference Committee, which I have been a part of for the past 19 years.

It is a community in itself. Granted, conference planning is a lot of work — I’m both the invited speakers director and the financial affairs director again this year — but the interaction with the other members of the team makes one feel warm inside and puts a smile on the face. 

I think we will have a pretty darn good show to offer again this year; invited speakers include Rod Ellis, Andrew D. Cohen, Boyoung Lee, and Thomas Farrell, to name a few. I am also excited about our two featured panel discussions: “Women in Leadership in Korea” and ”Women in Leadership in ELT.” We are scheduling over 200 presentations of various types on various topics. Two-thirds of the presenters are based in 20 countries outside of Korea, and one-third of the KOTESOL membership is involved in conference preparations in one way or another. I am excited! 

Sounds like it will be another great conference. It also sounds like a lot of work! You mentioned your column in the Gwangju News above. I’ve enjoyed reading your articles there  (they always pop up on Academia.Edu for me). You recently wrote about why folks should go to ELT conferences.  What do you think is particularly attractive about KOTESOL conferences and this year in particular? I know you mentioned some aspects of this year’s conference already. 
Ah, you saw that! I believe I focused on the “community,” the presentations, and the invited speakers. KOTESOL realizes that our conference attendees are teachers of all ages and proficiency levels as well as researchers and administrators. We try to provide sessions on a wide variety of topics so that there are sessions that are relevant and of interest to everyone throughout the two-day conference. 

To illustrate “community,” I will recall the story of one Korean professor with a long history of attending ELT conferences. She was invited to our conference for the first time, she came, and she was thoroughly impressed. She said that the conference made her feel happy, that the attendees were so friendly. She was surprised at how easily complete strangers would strike up a conversation with her about the session they had just attended, about their teaching situation, or about research they may be working on. KOTESOL conference-goers often feel like they are part of a two-day community, with some of the connections made at the conference lasting much longer. 

I also mentioned presentations. At KOTESOL conferences, we try to have a balance of different types of presentations. Korea has over a dozen ELT associations national in scope, and each of these has an annual conference. Their presentations are typically 20-25 minutes in length and are research reports. While KOTESOL conferences do have this type of session, such sessions do not occupy a majority of the conference schedule. We have a large assortment of 45-minute workshops and talks, and a fair number of poster sessions, panel discussions, and colloquia. Mike’s note: Here is a link to the full schedule

I may be biased, but I think KOTESOL conferences provide a fine line-up of invited speakers each year, between eight and twelve speakers based in different parts of the globe, specializing in different parts of the field. I was recently at a conference in Seoul and they did what is quite common in Korea: They scheduled all six of their featured speakers for the same time slot. So, even though I would have liked to go to at least three of them, I could only see one. What KOTESOL does is schedule a featured session for each session-hour of the day, so if one wanted to, they could attend each of our featured and plenary sessions over the duration of the conference. And our invited speakers do workshops, too. I mentioned Ellis, Cohen, and Farrell earlier; each of them is doing a workshop in addition to their talk. As I said, I am excited.

It is exciting. I have thoroughly enjoyed my experiences at KOTESOL International Conferences. I wish you and KOTESOL the best of luck for this event. I’ve participated in many workshops with Farrell and they are always eye-opening. Please give him my regards.

What do you think are the main challenges that face KOTESOL at the moment and in the near future?
Oh, your questions are getting more difficult, I see. Well, let’s see. I would say staying relevant. With the internet as a major source of information and communication, the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate. KOTESOL can’t keep doing the same thing as they did the year before and expect to further the profession. KOTESOL must evolve as the field and the world evolves, and hopefully lead in some of these areas.

KOTESOL needs to address more than just the ELT needs of our members and the greater community. In furtherance of this, KOTESOL has adopted a non-discrimination policy and a code of conduct as well as a privacy policy. Inclusiveness is an issue in ELT and well as the world in general (and should have been much earlier). This year, KOTESOL has established a Diversity Committee to give the organization advice and direction as needed. In addition to the Social Justice Special Interest Group that has been a part of KOTESOL for a number of years, the organization has recently established the Women and Gender Equality SIG, the People-of-Color Teachers SIG, and the Environmental Justice SIG.

Thinking of conferences again, we regularly consider the pros and cons of in-person presentations as opposed to live streaming. On the one hand, live streaming would be less costly, but such presentations do not yet draw the interest that seeing and hearing an ELT authority in person does. We will change as our conference-goers change. At present, we offer a conference app that allows for more interaction between attendees and with speakers and presenters.

Membership is always a concern, but if the organization stays relevant and if Korea continues to put emphasis on English language teaching, this should not present a problem. However, an area of increasing concern for not just KOTESOL but ELT organizations worldwide is the decline of print publishing. Much of KOTESOL’s support for its conferences was once publishers of ELT textbooks and teachers’ handbooks, but this support is  steadily decreasing because of the financial situations of these publishers. The challenge is to identify new sources of revenue to support our conferences and related events. It is a challenge, but not something that the ingenuity and creativity of KOTESOL cannot effectively deal with.

Thank you for the response on that. I think your point about publishing is a good and often overlooked one. Speaking of the future, what is coming for you?
Some more of the same, hopefully. Within KOTESOL, I will be moving to the immediate past president position on the KOTESOL Council and will be involved in projects and tasks as directed by the president. I plan to continue to be active in KOTESOL publications — editing, proofing, managing. And I plan to be active on the 2020 International Conference Committee. Oh, an exciting new project that KOTESOL and I are getting involved in is collaborating with AsiaTEFL on their annual international conference, which will be held in Goyang– just north of Seoul–next June. I think that this will be a great opportunity for our KOTESOL members to experience an international conference of about 500 presentations in which the great majority of presentations will be from presenters based in Asia outside of Korea.

Oh, that’s great. To be honest, I’d forgotten that AsiaTEFL will be in Korea next year. It should be a great experience. Don’t worry the questions will get lighter and shorter from now. We are entering the lightning and random questions round. 

What aspect of Korea in 2019 do you think would be most surprising to the Dave Shaffer of 1971?
That Korea would come to be considered the most connected (internet-wise) nation in the world. The Korea of 1971 couldn’t even provide reliable electricity to the light bulb hanging from my 1971 ceiling.

Right! In 1971 I guess even the idea of the internet itself would be amazing. To flip that question around, what aspect of Korea in 1971 do you think would be surprising to a foreign teacher working in Korea in 2019?
I can’t decide on just one. I would say the contents of the textbooks, the lack of supplementary materials, large class sizes (over 70 students in a typical high school English class), how freezing cold the classrooms were in winter and how sweltering hot they got in summer.

What are your favorite Korean foods? 
Toenjang-guk (퇸장국, bean-paste soup), beondegi (번데기, silkworm chrysales), and bindae-tteok (빈대떡, mung-bean pancakes).

Do you have any book recommendations outside of TESOL? 
Fear, by Bob Woodward. Simon and Schuster, 2018.

Solid choice. I will not comment on the beondegi! I will just say thank you for stopping by and again wish you the best for the upcoming conference. 
And I will just say thank you for inviting me to do this interview.