I always run out of time!

image taken from dreamstime.com

Interestingly enough, when the majority of EFL/ESL colleagues reflect on their lessons – especially on teacher training courses, such as the CELTA or the DELTA Module Two, where reflection is part of their assessment – one area seems to ‘rule them all’ as a main weakness: time management.

This tends to be a problem in itself because time is rarely an issue per se; it is a symptom; it is the consequence of a number of things which will remain cloaked in darkness if we don’t dare take our reflection a step further and squeeze our brain to figure out what really didn’t work.

Let’s take a hypothetical scenario of a 45-minute lesson in which the main aim is to help learners practise their gist and intensive reading sub-skills:


The teacher shows the learners a video to get them engaged and elicit the theme of the lesson. Then, the teacher shows the learners the title of a text along with some vocabulary taken from that text. The teacher presents the meaning of the vocabulary and, then, asks the learners to work in pairs and predict the content of the text taking the video, the title, and the lexis into account. The learners start exchanging ideas in pairs. When the learners finish, the teacher invites them to share their answers and a discussion follows. Sounds good so far.

However, when the time to read the text and do the gist and intensive reading activities comes, there is only 15 minutes left in the lesson. So, the learners end up being rushed, and the feedback they get on these activities is poor with the teacher merely giving the learners the correct answers when they make a mistake.

After the lesson has finished, the teacher says that the main problem was time management. So, based on the assumption that time management is the symptom and not the actual problem, let’s look at some possible causes that did not allow the teacher to achieve the aim of this lesson.


Lesson planning (staging an activity):

The teacher may not be aware of the different stages an activity entails and, therefore, they may not know how much time a specific activity is expected to take in the lesson; quite frequently, we underestimate the time learners need to complete an activity because we ignore the steps we need to take to set-up and run an activity effectively.

Choice of material and activities:

A number of activities may have been redundant. For example, the video in our hypothetical reading lesson above, may have been too lengthy or unnecessary in the course of the lesson. It may have been really enjoyable, of course, but this doesn’t mean that we should include it no matter what.

Not having a clear view of the lesson aim:

The teacher may be unaware of what the main aim is and, therefore, cannot decide which activity matters most; as a result, the teacher cannot make an informed decision as to which activity could be modified or even be completely skipped. Sometimes, we do fall in this trap because there are too many things to focus on in coursebooks.

Class management (poor monitoring):

An activity may carry on for too long because it’s fun and the learners are enjoying it. A teacher may feel that if an activity keeps the learners happy, talking and having a good time, it is enough to deem their lesson successful.

Poor preparation:

The teacher may have forgotten to prepare/organise the appropriate handouts, to turn on the classroom equipment, or check that it works properly, and a number of other things that seem to be too trivial to deal with, but can get in the way of the pace of the lesson and, accumulatively, waste invaluable time.


Lesson planning (staging an activity):

Imagine you have a listening exercise; the audio is two and a half minutes long. How much time do you think it should take? Any answer at this point seems to be arbitrary if we don’t consider the stages involved. For example:

  • Giving instructions (1’)
  • Checking understanding of instructions and clarifying if necessary (30’’)
  • Providing an example (30’’)
  • Giving learners time to familiarise themselves with the activity (1’)
  • Playing the audio: the learners do the activity (2:30mins)
  • Replaying the audio if the learners need to listen to it a second time (2:30mins)
  • Allowing time for the learners to compare their answers in pairs (2’)
  • Doing feedback on the exercise replaying bits of the audio to make sure all learners understood why certain answers were right or wrong (2’-3’)

Suddenly, what initially seemed to be a (more or less) 5-minute activity is now in fact a 10-minute one at best.

Keeping your lessons material-light:

Avoid choosing/designing material to make your lesson as full as possible. Remember the famous ELT aphorism: less is more. Don’t choose material that does not, in one way or another, help the learners achieve the aim of the lesson. Even if you’ve found let’s say a hilarious video, don’t use it if it does not contribute to achieving the aim of the lesson.

Making appropriate decisions in class:

Even if the learners are obviously enjoying a speaking exercise early on in the lesson and want to carry on talking, do stop them and move on to the next stage/activity; you can always go back to it towards the end of the lesson, after you have covered the main parts of your lesson to achieve the aim. Contrary to what we may sometimes feel, the learners will appreciate the fact that a specific aim will have been achieved – don’t forget that one of our roles in the classroom is to help them remain focused on the main aim, not just to keep them happy.

These are some of the main conclusions I have reached so far, but I’m certain there are plenty more reasons that lead to not having enough time to achieve our lesson aims. If you have noticed anything else, do leave your comment!

A teacher’s tale

When I embarked on my CELTA course there was no way I could imagine I would now be a CELTA Tutor and Assessor as well as a DELTA tutor and even a teacher development centre owner!

As a young man, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work as a teacher. Teaching seemed particularly challenging, even daunting back then. Instead, I briefly worked as a translator of fantasy novels – naively believing that this was going to be easier – and had to find a McJob on the side to make a living; translation did not pay much, I quickly came to realise.

One day, a friend suggested I should give teaching a try. He said it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, he explained how rewarding it could be (albeit not financially), he even compared it to what I was doing at the time and in the end asked “how much worse can it be?”. I started having second thoughts and reluctantly took his advice and started applying to language schools.

A few weeks later, one of these schools did get back to me and, after a nerve-wracking interview, I was offered a teaching job. By the way, that foreign language school located in Nikaia will always have a special place in my heart – so will the owners and the learners I got to teach there.

Ms. K.M. had given me my first opportunity to teach. I’m not going to dwell so much on all the blunders I made in my lessons – they were a lot; however, I did try hard not to let anyone down. I kept studying, asking for advice, experimenting…

When the academic year ended, I realised my teaching wasn’t good enough and I had to do something to become a better teacher. I hated the fact that, in my students’ eyes,my lessons would be considered just one more inescapable slot of absolute boredom in their heavy daily schedule. At the same time, I did not want to betray the trust the centre owner had shown me.

So, I applied for an intensive summer CELTA course. I learnt a lot, I worried a lot, I even panicked at some point. The course itself naturally had its ups and downs; but I still have very fond memories of some of my colleagues on that course! How they helped me during the stressful weeks, how much fun we had, how we learned from each other!

September came and I returned to the Nikaia school. I was feeling much more confident. I could finally see exactly what I had been doing wrong and was able to reflect on my own teaching, exchange ideas with colleagues in the teacher’s room, plan lessons of different kinds; I was able to use a number of different techniques to get the students interested, to cater to their individual preferences; most importantly, I was able to finally focus on the students themselves since the burden of not knowing the basics had stopped exclusively occupying my mind during the lessons.

As the school owner/director started noticing my improvement, she offered me more and more hours and I finally got to work for her school full time. In the years I worked there, I taught different levels and age groups, I kept learning from my students as well as from my colleagues and I developed as a teacher. I went on to teach in different contexts, gained a lot more valuable experience, and a few years later I did the DELTA and started working as a trainer – and that has been a completely new adventure, with its own challenges.

When I reminisce about my journey in ELT, however, I always think of my CELTA as the beginning of everything.

  • Could I have gained this invaluable knowledge and experience without having done the CELTA?
  • Would I have improved my job prospects without it?
  • Would I have met all these lovely colleagues who helped me on this journey?

The (obvious) negative answers to these questions might seem to be overly romantic and immaterial now. Yet, I wouldn’t be able to ask them if certain things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did. And the CELTA course was one of them.

It gave me the confidence I needed as a teacher to share ideas and experiment even if that meant occasionally failing to achieve my lesson aims; it gave me the ability to reflect on those failures, identify the problems, isolate them, and work on them to get better and better as a teacher – sometimes as an individual, too. Last but not least, it opened up a whole new world of opportunities in the world of English language teaching; a world I couldn’t have imagined actually existed.

One size fits all?

Michael Blann/Getty Images

One-to-one lessons: some of us love them, others put up with them. Yet, they are a major part of our teaching, right? Many teachers tend to fill up their daily schedule with as many one-to-one lessons as possible. This is understandable – after all, teachers do have to make a living, like everyone else, and in many countries, including Greece, the low rates they are paid leave them no other solutions.

However, for a one-to-one lesson to be successful, and for learners to want to return for more, we do need to spend some time thinking about the learner’s needs, wants and preferences in each case, finding appropriate and relevant resources and materials and planning the lesson in such a way that the learners can derive the maximum benefit, so that they feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

The learner’s needs and wants

Even if learners are at the same level and the same ages, they may still be different in terms of their needs and wants. For example, let’s look at the image below showing the needs and wants of two teens both aiming to sit the same exam at the end of the academic year. You will notice that there is very little overlap; so, using the exact same materials with both would not be a good idea.

Planning a one-to-one lesson

We need to remember that we should not be trying to re-invent the wheel for each lesson; there is no need to aim for the unique, extraordinarily ‘magic’ materials every time we want to make something more fitting and suitable for our learners’ needs and preferences. Using a set of specific questions can save a lot of time and effort. In particular:

  • Why did I choose this material?
  • Why is it of interest to my student/myself?
  • How does it address my student’s needs?
  • What is the specific purpose of this material?
  • Does it cover skills/useful language my student needs/wants?
  • Does it include activities my student prefers or should I adapt it?
  • Is it culturally appropriate?
  • Is it at the appropriate level?
  • What problems can I anticipate my student to have?

At this point, we need to start thinking about the learner’s preferences and their interests so that we can make the materials even better, even more motivating.

A set of criteria we can use to make our lives easier when adapting materials is the following:

  • Modifying: changing the type of activity
  • Personalising: making it relevant to the learner and his/her personal life, etc
  • Supplementing: adding materials, e.g. short videos, etc
  • Reversing the roles: the learner becoming the teacher  
  • Student taking control: the learner deciding what to focus on, conducting the activity, etc

Taking Student A from the image above as an example, we can safely assume that we would focus more on their writing and speaking skills rather than their reading, their accuracy and range of past tenses rather than present tenses, etc. So, how would we adapt the activity below without wasting precious time?

Taken from ©Pearson, New Cutting Edge
  • Modifying:
    • turning it from writing into a speaking activity, e.g. an interview between Justine Klaus and an interviewer
    • designing and completing a flowchart
  • Supplementing:
    • adding a follow-up activity: a written or spoken ‘response’ from one of the relatives to the event/ an interview, etc
  • Reversing the roles:
    • the teacher fills in the gaps including some mistakes; then the learner corrects them and explains why they were wrong.

Finally, we should not forget that the student himself/herself can be involved in the process of selecting materials or even designing material they would like to use in their lessons. In that case, we might be able to learn something ourselves from our students!

In a nutshell, we ought to remember to:

  • create a detailed learner profile and keep it up to date as the course progresses
  • base our selection and adaptation of materials on our learner’s needs, wants, and interests/hobbies
  • involve our learner in the selection/design of the materials 
  • establish a line of communication appropriate to the teaching/learning context
  • keep a record of lessons/topics/etc covered to present it to the learner’s sponsors
  • encourage learner autonomy to help them achieve their goals faster

A teacher (trainer) is a teacher is a teacher

Dame Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall  in Harry Potter

A learning experience that made my day

Recently, on a particularly stressful afternoon during which I was in an awful mood, I attended a webinar delivered by a very well-known, highly respected teacher trainer and it changed the course of my day. It made me feel refreshed; it calmed me down and helped me feel good about myself, about my colleagues and my profession in general. I had been de-stressed, re-energised.

Later that same day, I sat down and tried to reflect on the experience and try and identify what it was that made that webinar so good. Which shows that the webinar didn’t just inspire me, it also urged me to delve into the process of reflection once again and, therefore, help me work on my own presentation skills.

As I was brainstorming and listing some of the things that were great about the webinar, I suddenly remembered several other occasions similar to the webinar: decades ago, when I used to attend exam-prep lessons with another teacher. The parallels were obvious. Back then, those lessons made me feel equally good about myself; they always made my day –not in a Coelho-esque superficially positive manner. On the contrary, they genuinely sparked my curiosity and hunger for learning; they stimulated my brain for wanting something more profound, something insightful and unique. And that ‘something’ was not a goal in itself, that ‘something’ was not a prize, but a process. In fact, the goal (passing the exam) had almost become immaterial at that moment.

Teachers vs. teacher trainers

It was clear to me that there were a lot that the trainer whose session I had just attended and the teacher who had taught me decades ago had in common. Inevitably, the obvious question came to me: Is there an essential difference between teacher training and teaching the language itself? Or even better: what are the similarities between training language teachers and teaching the language to a group of students?

I should say that the more experienced I become, the more discussions I have about this specific topic, the more webinars I attend, the more books I read, the simpler the answer is: what makes a good teacher and what makes a good trainer are basically the same few things. And it can be dangerous for a trainer not to realise the similarity!

I am, of course, like everyone, talking about my own preferences and prejudices when I talk about what makes a good teacher. And admittedly, I may be dwelling more on the characteristics that I sometimes feel, or fear, I fall short of.

What makes a good teacher?

So, in my opinion, what makes a good teacher is…

  • our ability to listen to our students: One of the most important characteristics of a good teacher; if we cannot actively listen to and understand our students’ needs, wants and preferences, then how are we supposed to help them?
  • our ability to empathise with our students: once we take an active interest in our students’ preferences and needs, we can start showing empathy towards their difficulties, their problems, and the things that make their learning more challenging perhaps. We can establish good rapport and mutual trust.
  • being open to feedback from our students: getting used to accepting criticism and getting feedback from others can sometimes be a painful process; however, only then can we actually become better at what we do. No matter how experienced we might be, there will always be things to work on and improve.
  • our willingness to show we’ve taken our students’ feedback on board: accepting feedback means nothing if we do not take it on board and actively show our students that their opinions matter and have value.
  • being humble enough to admit we cannot know everything: once we get into the role of a teacher, we tend to forget that we are not the light of the world, and we tend to believe we have the answers to everything – even if we knowingly sometimes give answers which are inaccurate and misleading. It is absolutely fine not to know the answer to a question a student might have, as long as we then do our homework, find out the answer, put it into words that are easy for the student to understand, and get back to them at the first opportunity.
  • our overall sense of duty as educators: that’s admittedly a huge discussion. However, what I consider important is the sum of our ability to listen, to simplify and explain, to monitor, to reward, to correct, to provide a safe space, to motivate, to subvert.

Why is this relevant to teacher training?

Some teacher trainers seem to believe that they are now in a position to advise and admonish teachers, as they are no longer just teachers themselves. After all, a teacher trainer enjoys a higher financial and social status, right?

Well, not exactly – even our government does not seem to think that way, and that speaks volumes!

There are certain dangers lurking behind the deliberate and misleading divide between teachers and trainers.

  • Thinking that we trainers are it: becoming a self-professed authority and losing our humility is the gravest of dangers which logically leads to arrogance; consequently, we do not listen to our students’ feedback, we cannot learn from them (or anyone else for that matter) and we end up detaching ourselves from them (and reality) growing more and more distant.
  • Resting on our laurels without caring to develop ourselves any further: arrogance tends to have that effect on teachers turning us into so-called gurus negligent of the fact that we might be resembling dinosaurs as time goes by.

No matter our title (director of studies, teacher trainer, teacher educator, trainer trainer), we remain teachers. Only upon this realisation can we make the difference and bring about some genuinely positive changes – and not just in the relatively limited environment of the classroom.

Whose understanding are you really checking?

We know for a fact that no matter how clearly we present language in the classroom, we should always ask questions to check the learners have understood the important aspects of this language, e.g. meaning, use, and form, and perhaps further clarify potential confusion or misunderstanding, if we get evidence that they haven’t understood – or move on to something else if they have!

One of the most common ways to check the learners’ understanding effectively is through CCQs – short for Concept Checking Questions. Inexperienced teachers tend to find CCQs quite difficult to come up with; their judgement as to when a CCQ is good or not is shrouded by a cloud of uncertainty.

The reason for this may have to do with the fact that CCQs are closely connected to a teacher’s ability to analyse language for teaching. In fact, CCQs mirror a number of things:

  • a teacher’s knowledge of the language, and their own understanding of it
  • the background studying they’ve done on a specific structure, word, etc
  • how well they have prepared for the teaching of a specific structure
  • their ability to decode and simplify this inherent or acquired knowledge to help students understand.

Let’s look at two examples and put this hypothesis to the test.

Scenario 1:

A taecher introduces the passive voice to a group of pre-intermediate learners. The language is found in a coursebook text about great works of art. The marker sentence is ‘The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci.’ So, after having presented the meaning, form, etc, the teacher proceeds to ask the CCQs they have prepared to check the learners’ understanding. One of the CCQs is:

Teacher: “Do we know who did the action?”

Students: “Yes!”

Teacher: “Do we need to know?”

Students: “Yes!”

Teacher: “Really? Do we need to know that Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa?”

Students: “Yes, it’s important!”

Teacher: “No, when we use the passive, we don’t need to know who did the action.”

The obvious consequence is utter confusion, to say the least. The reason is that the teacher thought (s)he knew the use of the passive voice without paying attention to the context. It is true that one of the uses of the passive voice is when the doer is unimportant/obvious. However, this is not the case for this specific marker sentence, in which the opposite is true: the passive is used here in order to place special emphasis on the agent of the action! The problem with the concept question selected is that the teacher was overconfident: they thought they knew the rules and did not bother to check.

Scenario 2:

Again, introducing the passive voice to a group of pre-intermediate students, the teacher contrasts the same sentence formed in the active and in the passive voice to present the differences in relation to form.

The marker sentences are:

  1. The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci
  2. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

After having presented the difference, the teacher asks the following questions to check the learners have understood:

Teacher: “So, what happens to the subject of an active voice sentence when we turn it into the passive?”

Students: *silence*

Teacher: “Is sentence 1 an agentless passive voice construction or not?”

Students: *silence*

In this case, the teacher was perfectly aware of the differences in form, the terminology to describe it, etc. They had done their background studying. The major problem though is that the metalanguage they used to check understanding was not accessible to the learners. In other words, the teacher had not been prepared appropriately to teach the language.


So, when we analyse language for teaching, we need to bear in mind that knowing the rules – or thinking that we know the rules – is not enough.

Analysing language for teaching purposes also involves being aware of the audience and how you can get through to them; our CCQs reflect not only our ability to check the learners’ understanding, but also our ability to anticipate confusion, our ability to empathise with the students, and our willingness to help them understand.

Do your lessons have to taste bland?

What does PARSNIP stand for?

It’s an acronym for the following topics:

(no) Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, –Isms, Pork.

Imagine real life without being able to enjoy any of the things mentioned above or not even being able to read and talk about them freely. Imagine you’re only allowed to read and talk about Marie Curie, the weather, netball, a new species of spider found in the Amazon, and some unknown, ‘innovative’ founder of some obscure NGO.

An Orwellian nightmare to some, a dream come true to others.

Whether you think the situation I’ve just described is an Orwellian nightmare or a dream, indeed, PARSNIP is a major part of our ELT lives. PARSNIP is the (in)famous acronym of topics to be avoided in coursebooks for the obvious reason that publishing companies have to penetrate a lot of markets at the same time. So, since they wish to keep their sales high – both a logical and legitimate objective, of course – they need to make sure that there is absolutely no risk of causing offence to anyone, in other words they need to produce content that is ‘safe’ everywhere. That’s how students end up talking about a very limited, and usually rather boring, range of mundane topics.

Does it mean that being exposed to and reading about Marie Curie or Mother Theresa is to be frowned upon? Of course not. On the contrary, it can be interesting and even fun occasionally. It does become rather problematic and unrealistic though, when it’s the only content you’re being exposed to in the class.

Is there a logic behind PARSNIP?

The answer is simple: yes, there is. Avoiding topics which can offend certain students is a wise choice in a lot of cases. For example, when you are not really familiar with your students’ likes, preferences, personalities, beliefs, cultures, identities, etc, it’s always a good idea to play it safe by following the coursebook; even when they’re bland, course books can at least provide a ‘safe space’ for everyone in the class, including the teacher: anodyne texts, a coherent flow of lessons, useful exercises, etc.

I am not a proponent of doing away with coursebooks. However, the majority of coursebooks – just as any other product/service intended for mass consumption, most TV programmes being another example of that – systematically fail to deal with topics which are inherently more serious, profound and go beyond the obtuse concepts of ‘good’ vs ‘evil’, ‘offensive’ vs ‘inoffensive’, ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’.

What can we do about it then?

Inherently non-trivial interesting topics, such as current affairs articles, opinion articles or talk shows, make input and language more memorable and, arguably, they make learning more likely to take place. So, there is a case for designing or selecting materials that do not come straight out of a coursebook: materials that are inspired by the real world, no matter how bleak, saturnine, controversial, or silly the latter might sometimes be.

However, we have to be very careful when doing so. Some of the things we always need to remember when selecting and designing such materials for classroom use are the following:

  • The need for the teacher to be fully aware of the learners’ preferences, boundaries, level of tolerance, culture, and interests. Preferably, you need to have had a number of lessons with the learners first so that a level of rapport and mutual trust and respect has been established.
  • The teaching context, i.e. the language teaching organisation you are working for, so that you do not bring yourself in a difficult, potentially irreversible position.
  • The expectations of the sponsors of your students, e.g. parents, a company paying for their employees’ business English lessons, etc.

Can it actually work?

Yes, it can. I am sure most of you reading this post have designed at least one lesson like the ones I’m alluding to at some point in your teaching career.

Those of you who haven’t done so and are wondering what this type of lesson would look like, I’ll give you an example of one I designed and taught with a group of young adult students a few months ago. But, first, a few things about the background of the learners in that group:

They had been preparing for the IELTS exam and had been having online lessons using Zoom. All of them were uni students and some of them had to work for a living at the same time. During our lessons, they did not hesitate to speak their mind: most of them were open, talkative and friendly, but did not seem to appreciate the coursebook topics very much. I felt they would be able to deal with something more topical and, as we had known each other quite well and there was very good rapport and trust, I decided to risk a more sensitive topic. After all, the environment was safe enough to accommodate all different ‘voices’ and mindsets.

So, when I stumbled upon an interesting article about the #metoo movement, which had been getting a lot of exposure and still is a real hot potato, I made a lesson out of it: I supplemented the materials with a short YouTube video, designed a couple of listening and reading activities, and added a few questions for discussion. Believe me, these particular learners loved it. Some very interesting discussions took place – they also helped me to view things in a slightly different perspective, too.

Below, you can download the materials for the lesson – check them out, as they may still be relevant. If you think your advanced students might appreciate it, feel free to use the material. And if you do, I’d love to read about how your students responded in the comments below!

Are you a Haydn or a Beethoven?

One of my pet subjects to discuss with colleagues is how our knowledge of other areas than methodology can inform our teaching. In my case, music – the sonata in particular – is one of these other areas which has deeply informed my teaching; so, I thought of expanding on this idea in the hope that some of you might find it relatable.

The sonata in the style of Haydn.

Years ago, I studied music theory. One of my favourite subjects was History of Music, during which we studied the evolution of certain forms of composition – the sonata being the ultimate form of all.

Of course the term sonata is a rather vague term in itself. For example, a symphony is a sonata for an orchestra; a trio is a sonata for three instruments; a quartet for four instruments, and so on. Its different names depend on the number of instruments the piece of music has been originally composed for.

Regardless of the name though, a sonata consists of a set of specific movements, put in a specific order. If we listen for example to Haydn’s Sonata in C major, H. XVI, 35, we’ll notice that there are three distinct movements:

  1. 1st movement: an allegro con brio (playful and cheerful), during which we can hear the main theme and its standard variations
  2. 2nd movement: an adagio (in a slow tempo), during which the main theme is transposed into a different yet relevant key to create the illusion of an alternative theme – also, the tempo is much slower and the dynamic much more gentle and calm
  3. 3rd movement: again, an Allegro (cheerful), during which the composer returns to the original key and theme using several other technical clichés, which I won’t bore you with, to put back all of the pieces of the puzzle together in a majestic finale!

Sounds familiar so far?

By now, you might already have seen the parallel I’m attempting to draw between a structured English language lesson and the sonata. To be more specific:

  1. the way in which we teachers usually start with a lively warm-up activity (allegro con brio) to set the mood as well as the context
  2. then, we go on to the adagio movement of the lesson, during which the pace might occasionally be a bit slower, the class is a bit calmer and quieter to allow the learners to process, practise and internalise different aspects of the language systems or skills, hopefully without forgetting the overall theme and direction of the lesson
  3. finally, the way in which we usually finish the lesson with a final, heroic allegro: a triumphant, communicative activity involving the whole class trying to put all of the pieces of the puzzle back together.

Did this parallel help?

Thanks to this knowledge of the structure of the sonata, I was able to get my head round the standard, linear lesson planning framework quite fast. I was also aware of several ways in which I could modify activities without losing sight of the ‘main theme’, i.e. the main aim. In other words, I could supplement my lesson with some standard, prescribed variations.

However, there came a point when I suddenly felt that this seemingly straightforward approach to lesson planning became stringent; it got rather repetitive and boring both for the ‘composer’ and the ‘audience’. The traditional, Haydnesque sonata structure had become “a shop device by which a bad composer may persuade himself and the innocent reader of textbooks that he is a good one.” (Newman, 1958:51)

I had reached a plateau and wasn’t able to move forward – to the point of risking becoming a Poundland singer-songwriter. And my ‘audience’ could feel that.

Beethoven to the rescue!

Still, this parallel between music and teaching helped me once again. This time it was Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas: I remembered how the grand maestro completely altered, or sometimes even abandoned those archaic standards and rules of form which restricted his creativity to the detriment of the final outcome. He would shift the order of the movements; he would add or even leave movements out; sometimes, he would only include the main theme followed by a range of variations. In fact, his last and most enjoyable piano sonata consisted of two movements only!

This helped me reconsider my planning abilities: the second ‘slow’ adagio movement could now be modified and replace the first one; then, a series of variations could follow leading up to a crescendo-finale, or there could even be an alternation of adagios and allegros. Or, I could leave whole movements out! I had come to the realisation that as long as the composer respects his audience’s expectations and is able to help them keep track of the main theme, then the sky is the limit.

So, if all lessons become as predictable a procedure as the archaic form of the traditional sonata, the outcome may ultimately be a yawning audience, or even worse: an empty stage. ‘Papa’ Haydn we should study; Beethoven we should aspire to become.

A final note

Wendell Kretschmar, a music teacher in Thomas Mann’s book Dr. Faustus, while playing Beethoven’s last sonata on the piano (the one consisting of two movements only) and delivering a lecture on it, exclaimed:

“A third movement? […] A return after this parting – impossible! It had happened that the sonata had come, in the second, enormous movement, to an end, an end without any return. And when he said ‘the sonata’, he meant not only this one in C minor, but the sonata in general, as a species, as a traditional art-form.”

Mann, T. P. Doctor Faustus

Even though I do not whole-heartedly agree with my beloved Wendell Kretschmar, I do see the point he is trying to make. The one thing I haven’t mastered yet is improvisation – I’ve never been a huge jazz scholar… Perhaps, the time has come for a bit of John Coltrane!


Mann, T. P. (1949). Doctor Faustus. Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. London: Secker & Warburg
Newman, E. (1958). More Essays from the World of Music: Essays from the London Sunday Times, selected by Felix Aprahamian. London: John Calder; New York: Coward-McCann, Inc.

Guess who’s back!

You haven’t heard from us for a few months, but please don’t assume we’ve given up teaching or training teachers. On the contrary, George and I have been busy putting into practice a dream we’ve had for a long time: to start a new centre for teacher development, where we can do more than just offer ready-made, run-of-the-mill courses. We ’ve worked really hard to make this dream come true and we’re happy to say we’re now ready!

The name of our new baby is ACE TEFL, or the Athens Centre for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, and we truly want it to live up to its name: a centre where teachers can feel good, exchange ideas, help one another grow, share experiences, learn more about teaching and learning, develop professionally as teachers and trainers, and, of course, have a good time.

We’re located right at the heart of Athens and we’ ve been busy making our premises the place we’ve always wanted to work in: not just a professional working and learning environment, but also a place that is cozy and full of character. Naturally, we’re equipping our centre with cutting edge resources, a library with over five hundred books and periodicals, bright and spacious seminar rooms, comfortable meeting spaces, and all the amenities you would expect to find in a modern training centre.

But even more important, we want our centre to be a place where teachers feel safe, respected and valued. After all those years of working for others, George and I are now free to give priority to the needs and wants of the teachers we work with and show them the respect they deserve. One of the many ways we can show them this respect is by ensuring that they fall in love with the place in which they will be spending a lot of their time during the day and enjoy every single comfort available.

As for our services, you can have a look at the types of courses, seminars, workshops and other stuff we offer here. Do feel free to drop us an email and we’ll be happy to give you more details on whatever interests you.

P.S. Do keep an eye out for our centre-warming party date as soon as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted! For the initiated, I am sure you are well aware of the parties George and I can throw! For the uninitiated, you are more than welcome to check it out for yourselves! If you’re not sure, well… ask around and I’m sure you’ll be convinced to join us!