An Interview with Sandy Millin
We speak to Sandy Millin, Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz, Poland and Author of ELT Playbook 1
"Amazing people, fascinating places, breath-taking landscapes. I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky with the experiences I’ve had so far, and I always say that if I die tomorrow, I don’t have anything to regret."
You have an exceptional amount of experience and qualifications in the TEFL field. Was English teaching an area you always wanted to go in to?
My original plan as a teenager was to work in business until I was about 40, indulge my passion there and get some money behind me, then become a teacher, but I had no idea in what field. I first found out about the possibility that people might pay for me to go and live in their countries when I was about 16, while researching what to do in my gap year. I knew I wanted to be a teacher eventually, and that I wanted to travel, but I’d never heard of TEFL or CELTA. In the end I found a project called Trekforce where I could spend eight works doing volunteer work in the jungle, then eight weeks volunteer teaching in a school, all in Borneo. I absolutely fell in love with the career and have never looked back. Who needs money anyway?!
Your BA was in French, German and Spanish. You have also learned Greek, Mandarin, Russian, Czech and Polish. What fascinates you so much about languages?
"I’m addicted to languages. I get a real high when I can understand something independently for the first time"
I tend to give two different answers to this, depending on what mood I’m in. One is that I’m pathologically nosy, and love knowing what other people are talking about. The other is that I’m addicted to languages. I get a real high when I can understand something independently for the first time, or communicate something successfully, or see how bits of language fit together in logical ways. For example, in Mandarin the word for ‘film’ roughly translates as ‘electric shadows’, and it makes me happy every time I think about it. Once you get to a certain level in a language the highs come less often though, because you know that you can use it successfully, which is why I have to keep learning new languages. Every one of them has made me see the world in a slightly different way.
You have travelled across the globe teaching EFL. What were some of your travel highlights?
That’s an incredibly challenging question to answer! I have all kinds of snapshots in my mind when I think about that: seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time after walking along looking at the ground until our super-excited guide said we could look up, talking about classic rock music in my intermediate-level Spanish with people I had just met in a field in the middle of the Andes, living in the jungle, having a semi-wild young orang-utan walk a metre in front of me when he was returning to visit the nursery he’d been rescued by… Amazing people, fascinating places, breath-taking landscapes. I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky with the experiences I’ve had so far, and I always say that if I die tomorrow, I don’t have anything to regret.
You originally took the CELTA in 2007, after working in Asia and South America. How do you think the qualification changed the way you taught in later jobs?
"Doing the CELTA gave me a grounding in the theory of teaching English language which I was then able to build on when I moved into my first professional job"
‘My poor students!’ That has often been my refrain when being trained up further, so in Paraguay I used to say that about students I’d previously taught in Borneo, and on CELTA I’d say it about students in Paraguay. Whenever we learn something new, we have a tendency to look back and think about what we could have done better in the past in light of what we know now. I try to remember that we’re always doing our best at any given time, and looking back regretfully doesn’t particularly help us to progress. On a more concrete note, doing the CELTA gave me a grounding in the theory of teaching English language which I was then able to build on when I moved into my first professional job in the Czech Republic, where I was lucky to get a lot of support and ideas from other teachers. CELTA showed me the importance of careful planning and of trying to adapt what you’re doing to your students, though it was a while before I felt like I could do the latter consistently.
Want to find out more about the CELTA? Click here for more information.
What advice would you give to those looking to prepare for the CELTA?
I normally send people to a post on my blog called ‘Useful links for CELTA’, including a section on checking that the course is really for you. In the pre-course interview, there is an emphasis on just how stressful CELTA can be and how much of your life it will take up while you’re on the course, but it’s hard for people to fully understand that and they often underestimate it. My key tips would be to clear the decks as much as possible during the course so that you minimise the other responsibilities you might have, and find people who can help you with things like cooking, cleaning, and having time off to release the pressure during the course. A little time off immediately before the course so you can go into it as rested as possible also really helps if you can manage it. Having said all that, I’ve never trained anybody who regretted taking the course - it really is a life-changing experience, regardless of whether you go on to teach or not afterwards.
Also see ELTcampus' fully online CELTA preparation course here.
How do you think taking the Delta helped you develop as an ESL teacher?
CELTA gave me the what, Delta gave me the why. I did a lot of my teaching on a fairly instinctual level before, but since Delta I feel much more able to tell people why I’ve made the decisions I have.
You have done a lot of work to help those looking to prepare for the Delta (see blog: https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/delta/) – what made you decide to do this?
"The process of doing Delta was very stressful and I don’t think I got as much out of it as I could have done because of the way I approached it"
When I was doing my own Delta, I spent a lot of time looking on the internet for extra help and couldn’t really find anything. What I did find was scattered all over the place, so I decided to start sharing what I learnt during my course and what I wish I’d known before I started. For me, the process of doing Delta was very stressful and I don’t think I got as much out of it as I could have done because of the way I approached it. I’m a strong believer in the fact that if you can help somebody else, you should, and I don’t think anybody else should have to go through as much stress as I did. I’m always really happy to hear that my Delta resources and those of Lizzie Pinard, who did the course in the same year as me but in a completely different way, have helped other people.
For Delta dates, please see here.
For those looking to get into ELT writing, how did you go about getting your books published?
Going into materials writing was entirely unintentional. In 2010, I entered an English File competition I saw on Twitter run by Oxford University Press and was one of the winners. Since then I’ve done small bits of writing and reviewing for OUP, and this helped me to increase my experience. It gave me the confidence to apply for small materials writing jobs other publishers advertised through ELT Teacher2Writer, and some publishers contacted me directly through my social media presence. Writing my blog has also given me more confidence and a lot of practice, and I think this has made it easier for me to communicative effectively. In 2015, I was invited to write a short activity book for the round, Richer Speaking, as part of their ‘minis’ series. Each minis eBook has 20 activities and is priced under $1/€1. The process of writing that then gave me the confidence to start self-publishing.
You have recently written a fantastic new book, ELT Playbook 1, which aims to help EFL teachers to improve and reflect on their teaching and to build a professional portfolio. What sparked you to write this?
Thank you for the complement! Since September 2015 most of the teachers I have worked with have been within the first three years of their career. Our school is set up to support them as they take the first steps in their careers. For the year before that I was a full-time CELTA tutor, and I was very aware of the fact that there’s a huge jump between CELTA and Delta, with not much support or development in between for most teachers. I wanted to do something to help bridge that gap, but wasn’t sure exactly what. I also know that not everyone even has that much training, and many people go into the classroom with no help or support at all. Having worked through ideas like a course or a mentoring system, I eventually decided that an affordable eBook with an associated online community was the most cost-effective way to help the most teachers possible.
Can you give us a more in-depth idea of what ELT Playbook 1 involves?
"Once teachers have completed all of the tasks from a single section, they can apply for a badge to go on their CV or social media profile to show their development."
It’s a series of 30 tasks, broken down into six sections, including for example ‘Examining language’, ‘Being creative’ and ‘Teacher health and wellbeing’. Each of these areas are ones which I believe new teachers need particular support with. Each task is followed by a series of questions to prompt reflection, and ideas for ways record those reflections. You can also share them with a wider #ELTPlaybook community on social media, though there’s no obligation to do that. The entire process of doing the task and recording a reflection should take less than two hours, and normally less than one, so that people can fit them in around busy schedules. Each task is self-contained, with no requirement for external reading for example, and can be repeated as many times as a teacher wants to, as each time they do it, it should generate new reflections. Once teachers have completed all of the tasks from a single section, they can apply for a badge to go on their CV or social media profile to show their development. And all that development only costs £5!
Where can we buy this book?
All of the information is available at http://eltplaybook.wordpress.com, as well as sample tasks.
You’ve also spoken at many TESOL conferences and are well known in the industry. How did you get more involved in this post CELTA and Delta?
"I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to IATEFL Glasgow in 2012, and have since attended every IATEFL conference - it’s the highlight of my year!"
I actually started speaking at local conferences in my third year as a teacher, a couple of years before doing Delta. This was encouraged by International House Brno, where I worked at the time. My first talk was at their one-day conference and I caught the presenting bug straight away. Joining the online community and building my personal learning network through Twitter and blogs helped me to find out about international conferences, like IATEFL. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to IATEFL Glasgow in 2012, and have since attended every IATEFL conference - it’s the highlight of my year! I’ve learnt so much from attending conferences and watching other people’s talks, and also enjoying presenting and watching sessions online. There are so many opportunities to speak now, and it’s great to see how diverse the voices are that we can learn from. There is now also a lot of support online showing you how to start attending conferences, submitting abstracts, and presenting at conferences.
You’re now Director of Studies (DoS) at International House Bydgoszcz. What brought you to Poland?
A case of being in the right place at the right time! I was previously the Director of Studies at International House Sevastopol, but due to the political upheaval in Crimea in 2014, there was no job for me to go back to. However, I was still able to attend the IH Director of Studies conference in January 2015, during which I happened to be sitting next to the previous DoS from IH Bydgoszcz. He told me they were looking for somebody to replace him at the end of the academic year. Three weeks later I was visiting a city I’d never heard of, tempted by what sounded a great school and the possibility of returning to central Europe, which I’d fallen in love with when working in Brno in the Czech Republic at the start of my career. It was an easy decision to make, and I haven’t looked back.
You also work freelance as a CELTA Assistant Course Tutor, which has taken you to some amazing places like San Diego, Vancouver, Chiang Mai, Palma … just to name a few! What advice would you give to those looking to do the same?
"Raising your profile by presenting or offering short training sessions in your local context or online is a good way to build up experience and help people to notice you."
My first advice would be not to set your heart on becoming a CELTA tutor. It is very much a case of being in the right place at the right time, and there are not a huge amount of opportunities to be trained up. They are normally offered to people who already work within the organisation offering the CELTA, rather than to external trainers, and Cambridge requires that you work the first four courses in the same centre. I was lucky to be trained up as part of my DoS role at IH Sevastopol. There are many other ways that you can be a teacher trainer other than working on CELTA. To become a teacher trainer, you should show that you are committed to your own professional development. Raising your profile by presenting or offering short training sessions in your local context or online is a good way to build up experience and help people to notice you. You can also look at the advice offered on Anthony Gaughan’s blog to find out more about becoming a CELTA tutor.
What do you think is the key to a successful TEFL career?
Passion and flexibility. If you’re passionate about any career and keep looking for opportunities, you’ll find them. If you’re flexible about what exactly your job involves and where you’re willing to work, you’ll be able to follow up on those opportunities. They often come from surprising sources. Keep developing yourself, build up your network, be open to constant learning, enjoy the process, and you’ll be successful.
What’s next for you professionally?
I’ll be continuing with my current pattern of combining my September-June role as Director of Studies at IH Bydgoszcz with summer CELTAs for at least a couple more years. In between, I also plan to keep writing eBooks for the ELT Playbook series, so that it is not just for brand new teachers. I’m already working on one for new teacher trainers, and have ideas for at least 10 other books.
Watch this space!