10 things I Learned at IH Toruń, Poland.

Excuse anything delirious. It’s 6.30am, I’ve slept for 3 hours, but like any conference worth its salt, IH Toruń’s International Teacher Training Day has pumped up my enthusiasm and I’m writing this on the train to Warsaw before flying back to Riga. There are a lot of new ideas buzzing around in my head like flies. I need to swat some onto paper (screen) before they fly away, study them a bit, then perhaps I’ll take a nap. I’m enthused.

Here are 10 things I learned:

1. Be passionate.

underhillMaking a living vs living and breathing something are chalk and cheese. Adrian Underhill has been in ELT longer than I’ve been alive, and he could easily get away with showing up, shaking hands and going through the motions. However, his workshop and plenary were charged with genuine energy, and having been lucky enough to spend more time with him over the weekend, from the Warsaw-Toruń journey, to dinner on Friday, to a walking tour on Saturday morning, you can tell his enthusiasm is authentic (and infectious…here I am at 6.35am).

2. Recognition isn’t impact.

I was chuffed that TEFL guru Sandy Millin chose to come to my presentation Using Feedback to Build Mindset, and that was magnified when I read her fresh post when I got back to the hotel early this morning calling for mindset to be included on the CELTA course. But I have to catch myself, and realise that a shout out on a blog I admire does not represent a finish line. It could be a starting gun. Psychology should be included in teacher training. Until it is, there isn’t any widespread impact to my presentation or any previous work on the subject, although of course I hope the 20 participants put it into practice in their schools. This mindset topic could be my drum to beat.


3. New ideas can take time to be accepted.

Capernicus is Toruń’s most famous son, and his ridiculous idea that the earth goes round the sun wasn’t accepted until centuries after his death. Education can sometimes seem like a slow-moving tortoise when it comes to change, and course book publishers and exam boards can dovetail to form strong resistance if a new concept doesn’t benefit them financially. Nevertheless, teacher-to-teacher communication through training days like this and a variety of online platforms (webinars, blogs, YouTube videos, forums etc.) can bypass this and ensure the best ideas get through to the students in the classroom.

4. If you’re gonna be pigeon-holed, be a fat pigeon. 

The Walking Tours of Toruń tour was brilliant, as was the company: Adrian (Underhill!) and Ashley, an American teacher who had come to the conference. Admiring one particular building’s square trade windows, Adrian commented that “they look like pigeon holes for fat pigeons”. For someone who is often pigeon-holed as the “pron guy”, I mused for a few minutes and concluded that if you’re going to be pigeon holed, be a damn fat pigeon. Translation (I’m sleep deprived): make sure that what people know you for is something you a) care about b) you’re great at.

5. Celebrities (TEFLebrities, it’s a thaaaang) are people too.

Obvious? But spending time with industry powerhouses like Adrian, Sandy Millin, Kylie Malinowska (IH World Young Learners coordinator), Dave Cleary (DOS, ILC IH Brno), Zsófia Jakab (DOS, IH Budapest), and Glenn Standish (DOS, IH Toruń), I can confirm that they have no wires coming out the back of their necks, and are very much human. I’m a kid in this game, I’ve really achieved nothing significant yet, but I have the same raw tools as they started with. So if I don’t excel as they have, write books, give plenaries, influence colleagues, let it be because I don’t want to, rather than self sabotage with some lame excuse like “I don’t have the secret sauce that they do”. I suspect the secret sauce is actually hard work and attitude.

torun 3

6. Mouth gym is based on the right concept. 

Adrian’s plenary was about pronunciation, and he spoke about it being a physical skill, much like a sport. Any sound can be made when we use proprioception (feeling internal movements) to press the right combination of the four “buttons”: lips, tongue, jaw, voice. So the Mouth Gym concept is based on a sound foundation (pun intended), although it needs shaping and polishing.

7. Networking can be fun. 

I’ve always winced at the word networking; it conjured up images of city slickers faking smiles and throwing around business cards for their own personal gain. I consider authenticity above all personal traits. Even if someone’s a tool, I can appreciate them if they’re real. As Skepta raps about friends and acquaintances, “I’ve got Day 1s. I’ve got new ones. No fake ones” (Man). But I enjoyed making new friends in Toruń, sharing ideas, setting up projects, so ‘networking’ was fun, although I’d rather label it differently. A lot of friendly and interesting people made this possible.

8. The future is murky. 

On the journey to Toruń on Friday afternoon, I asked Dave (Cleary) if he thought that online lessons could replace classroom lessons within our shelf life, and his answer was fascinating. He explained how wearable tech like ear pieces could, among multiple other possibilities, replace traditional language teaching, although it won’t be the availability of the tech that decides, but rather people’s preferences. Although I can’t see the future, education should catch up to society and can’t continue to be based on fundamental principles of producing factory workers in the 19th Century (teacher, board vs students, desks). Whatever your prediction, we (teachers) must innovate and branch out to offer even a viable alternative to the developing competition.

9. IH is an outstanding organisation. 

Having worked in a private language academy in Spain for five years, I moved to IH Riga mainly because I wanted to be in the International House fold. I took a significant pay cut (taking into account salary-cost of living ratio) on the understanding that personal and professional development motivate me day-to-day like money never can. So events like yesterday (and weekly staff training in Riga, some of which I lead) have fully justified the move. I fully recommend it!

10. Quiz fact

There’s a village called Chillicothe in Missouri, USA, with a population of 8,000. Walt Disney was born nearby, and its claim to fame is that it’s the first ever place where bread was sold sliced. So does that make Chillicothe the best place since sliced bread? Or the best place that sliced bread? Answers on a postcard to Ashley Gregg.



I’m very grateful to Glenn Standish for organising the training day and my DOS Ian for giving me the chance to go. Looking forward to the next one!


7 thoughts on “10 things I Learned at IH Toruń, Poland.

  1. Hi James,
    It was wonderful to meet you on Saturday, and thanks very much for describing me as a TEFL guru and an industry powerhouse – it makes me sound quite scary 😉 You might not be there yet, but you’re certainly on the right track. And you also described me as human, so it’s all OK :p You clearly have a lot of passion for the job, and I look forward to meeting you many more times in the future.
    Good luck!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m reading this now for the second time only a month later. Not because it makes me giggle to be referred to as a teflebrity, but because I wanted to reread to be sure you hadn’t included my winking in your highlights. I guess it was number 11 *sigh*
    It was fab to meet you James and after reading Sandy’s post I’m gutted to have missed your session in Torun. But hope to see it somewhere else? 😀
    Happy Friday,


    1. Hi Kylie! 🙂 It was number 11, but I ran out of ink.

      I probably won’t give exactly the same presentation again. But I’ll be giving a webinar at the IH Online Conference on Friday 19th May that will include some of the same ideas; 30mins of implementing Mindset Theory in the classroom and the staffroom. All warm up for writing an input session for the IHCYLT course :-P.

      Happy Saturday!


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