What’s Your WHY?

Every teacher is a leader. A classroom leader at the very least, perhaps a leader in their organisation, perhaps even a leader in their community. As teachers, we all (hopefully) know WHAT we do on a day to day basis, but aligning the WHAT with the HOW and the WHY is the reason “some organisations and some leaders are able to inspire where others aren’t”.

By working out our WHY, then the HOW and the WHAT, and making sure that these align on a daily basis, we not only develop a stronger identity as a teacher/leader but also make sure that we are travelling down a path we want to follow.

Simon Sinek explains more:

“The way we think, the way we act, the way we communicate is from the outside in, we go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. But the inspired leaders and the inspired organisations regardless of their size, regardless of their industry, all think, act and communicate from the inside out.”

It’s the start of a new term, and I gave these three questions a lot of thought over the weekend. So as a teacher, ADOS and teacher trainer, what’s my WHY, HOW and WHAT?


ELT, like many other educational areas, is currently quite archaic* in many of its practices and needs to be renovated into the 21st Century for the good of its learners.

*Students at chairs and tables facing board and teacher as it was in the 1800s; coursebooks with unappealing/culturally inappropriate topics and out-of-date language; a lack of tech in learning…the list could fill another post.


1) Encouraging learners to take ownership of their own learning through self motivation and applying a growth mindset.

2) Moving away from a traditional chalk and talk classroom by using and creating realistic, useful and engaging activities and content, for example by integrating tech (shown here and here).

3) Contributing to a trend of teachers considering themselves competent professionals in a global industry worth billions. It’s an important job that teachers should be proud to do, and standards should be high*. If you’re reading an ELT blog, the likelihood is that I’m preaching to the converted.

*This shouldn’t be misconstrued: I’m referring to the countless native speaker pirates with no idea what they’re doing ‘teaching’ because of their passports. Could you do the same in any other professional industry? Law? Banking? Medicine?


1) Try to reflect the HOW? principles daily in my classroom practices and teacher training sessions. Practice before you preach.

2) Share my ideas through my blog, teacher training events at home and abroad, webinars and through conversations with fellow professionals worldwide.

I need to keep coming back to these regularly, making sure that my actions reflect my beliefs and modifying when they don’t, or adjusting my WHY to new information and experience and working outwards to HOW and WHAT, rather than the other way round.

This isn’t about creating a stick to beat yourself with. It’s about being your own yardstick, having standards and being accountable to yourself. I think applying this to yourself can only have positive ripple effects out to learners and colleagues alike.

And you…what’s your WHY? As always, please leave a comment below or contact me by email – james.egerton@tiscali.co.uk.

Implementing Mindset Theory in the Classroom and the Staff Room

Notes (slide number in brackets) from IH Online Conference webinar, 19th May 2017.


  • (3) Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck.
  • Result of decades of research on achievement and success.
  • (4) Summary of the key characteristics of growth and fixed mindset. I will refer back to this theory throughout the sections on practical tips.


  • (5) GRAPH Switching to a growth mindset can change student confidence and attitudes.
  • (6) GRAPH Switching to a growth mindset can improve student performance.
  • (7, 8) I applied Mindset Theory to my feedback in my previous job in Albacete, Spain in the 2015/2016 academic year, with positive results on student attitudes and subsequent performance. I wrote about this in the November/December issue of IATEFL Voices. 

HOW? Part 1 – Classroom

  1. (10) Feedback

(11) ##Highlight EFFORT, FAILURE, CRITICISM on table##

  • I hope I’ve convinced you that it’s well worth bringing mindset theory into your classroom. So how? One very simple and easy way is through *feedback*.
  • So what does growth mindset-focused feedback focus on?(12) 1 – EFFORT, rather than talent.
  • We often give talent-orientated praise by accident, but even if it’s positive, it can be really damaging in the long term. Promotes laziness and a belief in natural ability over hard work.
  • Research supports this.
  • 2 – PROCESS or STRATEGY, rather than result.
  • This can be positive and negative. It means that students will know exactly how they arrived to a certain result, and therefore how they can make changes to arrive to a better result.
  • Just a grade is useless. It tells you nothing specific on how to improve next time.
  • 3 – Use the word YET with negative feedback. Three letters can transform motivation.
  • No hope → There is another chance in the future.

(13) ##Participant work## – 6 feedback comments. Which 3 foster growth, which 3 foster fixed? (14 – answers) 

2. (15) De-stigmatising mistakes

(16) ##Highlight FAILURE on table##

(17) – Setting the bar a little too high now and again.

  • Krashen’s i plus 1, opening Ss to future steps, encouraging the effort and no negative reinforcement for failing.
  • (18) – Foster a general attitude. In my classroom. Ss will gradually become less afraid of failure, more afraid of not trying.
  • Practical application – poster in my classroom. 

3. (19) Goal setting

(20) ##Highlight INTELLIGENCE, OTHER PEOPLE’S SUCCESS on table##

  • Every student has a different goal and level. But feeling of wading through the swamp of EFL an making little forward progress fosters the impression that ‘I’m just no good at English’ i.e. intelligence is innate and not improvable, and may bring about jealousy as they look up from the swamp they are struggling through to see classmates flying by overhead.
  • (21) Ss often feel they don’t make progress because they haven’t followed the SMART rules of goal-setting…Sports Psychology section of A-Level PE and Daniel Barber and Duncan Foord’s ‘English Teacher to Learner Coach’.
  • SMART ## Participant work ## – What does each letter stand for? (22 – answers)
  • (23) Practical application of SMART – New Year’s/Term’s Resolutions with SMART goals. 
  • (24) Growth Journal. Level increases in baby steps. Ss they can progress and intelligence can change when they see this in action. By the end of the month I will be better able to…

HOW? Part 2 – Staff room

1. (25) Teachers’ beliefs on intelligence

(26) ##Highlight INTELLIGENCE on table##

  • (27) Before we can hope for growth mindset among out students, we must demand it from ourselves and believe that students are in charge of their own intelligence.
  • “I can’t teach young children”, “I can’t teach Upper Intermediate and above”. Many teachers won’t leave their own comfort zone but expect learners to. 
  • Teaching = setting an example. Ss will mirror the teacher’s convictions. This could mean learning a language – a key advantage a non-native teacher has over natives. More on that issue here

2. (28) Observations and PDIs

(29) ##Highlight FAILURE, CRITICISM on table##

  • (30) The resilience and ‘bounce backability’ we hope for from our students isn’t always mirrored in our own attitudes to feedback.
  • Problem 1 – Don’t practice what we preach. Not the right example for Ss, even if they don’t find out. For instance, do you choose a difficult class to be observed and try hard to improve it with the feedback (growth mindset), or do you pick an easy class and hide from any possible criticism, and any possible improvement (fixed mindset)?
  • (31) Problem 2 – Our teaching doesn’t improve if we don’t take in criticism and make alterations for the better. Ss – Don’t get an evolving and improving teacher. Teacher – Stagnation. Disenchantment with teaching profession. 

3. (32) Attitudes to colleagues

(33) ##Highlight INTELLIGENCE, OTHER PEOPLE’S SUCCESS on table##

1Healthier team atmosphere

  • (34) Imagine atmosphere where anyone’s success is perceived as a threat e.g. a student’s comments to management that they are really enjoying the class. Fosters poisonous atmosphere.
  • Instead – celebrate others’ successes. As Growth Mindset believes that ability is not fixed, others’ success means a chance to find out specifics of what they did and try to incorporate it into your own approach e.g. new activities, classroom routines.

2 – (35) Management — Teachers and New — Experienced staff relationships.

  • Fixed Mindset – Born leaders, born followers. The managers have the gift, the teachers should follow.
  • Growth Mindset – Anyone could rise up the ladder if they wanted to and then put in the time and effort.
  • So instead of a top-down hierarchy, foster a co-operative system, where managers are there to make decisions, but everyone’s input is valued. First year teachers have something to teach 30-year veterans of EFL from their unique perspective, as long as the veteran believes that their ability is still malleable. Visa versa too, although this is already the status quo.
  • Practical application – staff meetings, mentoring schemes, peer-to-peer observations.

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!

New Year’s resolution? Don’t waste your time.

It´s that time of year to decide on ´New Year´s resolutions´, to ‘resolve’ something which we think isn´t up to scratch at the moment. In many cases, failing to achieve them is blamed on a lack of time, but I believe that time can almost always be found, and what is lacking is motivation.

For me, motivation is the key ingredient in any success, because the stronger it is, the more solutions are found for the other obstacles that always get in your way, like lack of time or energy. Overall, New Year’s resolutions are an exercise in overcoming cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957), where a lack of motivation means that beliefs are not aligned to behaviour: I say I want to learn (belief), but I don’t study (behaviour). Or maybe some people prefer to set unattainable goals, so as to avoid putting any real effort into chasing them, or make the failure to achieve them more comforting. “Amateur psychology!” you might cry. Absolutely, but psychology is of huge importance to learning anything, and I think it’s too often forgotten among teachers and learners.

So how can we maintain a high level of motivation with New Year’s resolutions?

  1. Realistic goals.
  2. Specific timeframe.

Those who sign up to lessons with the fuzzy aim of “learning English” realise within a few months that this is impossible to achieve (you never complete a language, as it’s constantly evolving), and their motivation disappears. Instead, more achievable objectives could be:

– Survive a trip to London in August 2017 (measuring the achievement of this goal will be as easy as pie, as if you fail, you won´t make it home).

– Understand a specific English-language film without subtitles e.g. Wonder Woman, released in June 2017.

– Gain an official qualification like IELTS or Cambridge (or do the exam at home, without paying the fees, to see your improvements) in December 2017.

I watch a lot of motivational talks on YouTube, and a guy I really like is Eric Thomas because of his energy and clarity of message. This is one of his quotes which helps me decide if I “have time” or not when I´m pursuing a goal:

“Most of you say you want to be successful. But you don’t want it bad. You just kinda want it. You don’t want it badder (sic) than you wanna party. You don’t want it as much as you want to be cool. Most of you don´t even want it as much as you wanna sleep”.

As Thomas says, how much do you want to achieve your goals? If you want to run, is the rain a big enough excuse for you to stay at home? If you really wanted to learn to play an instrument, would you mind practising on a Sunday afternoon? How much would you give to achieve it? How much would you give up to achieve it? I´ve used examples of learning English, but the message is transferrable to anything.

Of course, teachers should be motivated to make lessons varied and engaging, but students’ self-motivation and a desire to keep getting better are vital for improvement to take place.

So, in summary: set clear goals and be stronger than your excuses.
Happy 2017.

Mindset: Making the Most of Observations

“I want to improve my teaching practices”. Most teachers will say this, or why do we bother doing this job? To quote Jay-Z, ´loiterers should be arrested´. If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. Stagnation is a slow death.

However, as with anything, there´s a wide schism between words/intentions and making them reality. Observations are commonly used to bridge this gap and help teachers with individual issues; but the word ´observations´ are often synonymous with ´judgement´ and ´threat´. Jack C. Richards summarises this attitude to the observer (´guest´) in his old-fashioned but sometimes useful Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms (1996): ´A guest’s purpose…is not to judge, evaluate, or criticise…or to offer suggestions, but simply to learn through observing´. In short, this is rhubarb.

We’re all familiar with the caricature of the observer as a hostile vampire in the corner of the room, poised to swoop on any errors and suck the life out of any enjoyment teaching can bring. However, since starting as an observer, and having collaborated with many others, this couldn’t be further from the truth: it’s great to see effective teaching in action, and I often learn something new I can use in my own lessons. There is no inner struggle to suppress a cheer if a teacher misses a great opportunity for a CCQ. Yes, observers note down errors, but this is not to quench a thirst for ‘blood’, but to be able to help the teacher concerned.

My new job as Senior Teacher at International House (IH) Riga gives me a unique double perspective on observations, as I am the only teacher to be both observer and observed in official observations. This has got me thinking about applying Professor Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory to the observation process (particularly pre-observation prep and post-observation feedback). I tend to apply this to all aspects of life, and I´ve written a previous blog on the topic (read here), and an article that appears in the current issue of IATEFLscreenshot-2016-10-20-16-16-46 Voices (available in all good….ah no, actually). However, it´s just as important to instil Mindset Theory in teachers, not just students. Maybe even more so, as teachers are there to set an example. So, what is it?

  • Someone with a growth mindset is characterised with a positive attitude to learning from failure, and a belief that they can learn anything given enough time and well-directed effort.
  • In contrast, someone with a fixed mindset is conditioned by the belief that talent is innate and unchangeable, and an unwillingness to take risks in fear of exposing a lack of ability.

So how does this apply to pre-observation prep?

Predominantly in choosing which class is to be observed. Although teachers were encouraged to choose their most challenging class, several I observed opted for an easier ride in fear or being exposed as a ´bad´ teacher (no such thing), and facing subsequent punishment. This unwillingness to take risks is classic fixed mindset, and meant that very little was learned from the hours we both invested in the process. Frankly, it was pretty much a waste of time.

Chris Ożóg, writing in the IH Journal, neatly synthesised what observations can be if teachers adopt the growth mindset: ´Observations are there to help teachers develop´, not as an excuse to punish or even sack them. Speaking from experience, I know it´s nerve-wracking to be observed, but this feeling should be embraced as a part of the challenging process of improvement.

  • To get the most out of the observation, ask yourself:

– In which lessons do learners most struggle to learn? (not the same as: in which lessons do I find harder to teach?)

– What can I gain from being observed?

How about Mindset Theory in post-observation feedback?

Any worthwhile observed lesson has aspects which can be improved. No teacher or lesson in the world is perfect. Valuable observer – teacher feedback should go both ways, so teachers should also consider their own strengths and weaknesses in post-lesson self-evaluation.

Nevertheless, the key is the next step: acting to improve the improvable. Someone with a growth mindset is willing to learn from failure, whereas those with fixed mindsets believe that ability (teaching in this case) is innate, so much less malleable. The former will act on advice to improve their lessons; the latter will let out a sigh of relief when the observation forms are signed and filed away to collect dust, reassure themselves that everything´s fine and carry on as before.

  • To get the most out of the observation, ask yourself:

– What were the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson?

– What steps can I take to put the observer’s advice into practice?


  • Observations can be an outstanding tool to improve individual teaching practices. They aren´t always easy or comfortable, but it´s a small price to pay. The intensive 6-week Delta Module 2 course at IH London was my first taste of regular observations, and I´d say my teaching improved more in these six weeks than in the previous three years.
  • As mentioned in my previous blog on the topic, we can channel learners into a growth mindset by tuning the language we use in our praise and feedback. As teachers, we should be self-conscious enough to do this for ourselves, so we can make the most of the observation process for our own professional development and for the learners themselves.
  • Always go back to the “why?” If the phrase “I want to improve my teaching practices” applies to you, try to adopt a growth mindset in your attitude to the next round of observations at your school.


Ożóg, C., Observations on Observations, International House Journal of Education and Development, Issue 32, Spring 2012, http://ihjournal.com/observations-on-observations-by-chris-ozog

Richards, C., 1996. Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms, Cambridge: Cambridge Language Education.

It’s All in the Head

After reading Bounce by Matthew Syed last summer, one section in particular has transformed my teachi41Qzhk6f1QLng approach this academic year.

The Theory

The particular section described psychologist Professor Carol Dweck´s theory on mindset. Dweck argues that a person´s attitude can be described as a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. It´s more than a label; the repercussions are reflected in all areas of life.


  • Positive attitude
  • Learns from failure
  • Takes risks
  • Believes they can learn anything
  • Fostered by praising effort and process: “I can tell you´ve been studying”.


  • Believes talent is innate
  • Unwilling to take risks
  • Gives up easily
  • Encouraged by praise which promotes the idea of innate intelligence:  “You´re amazing at English”.

In Practice in the Classroom

The prize is huge: developing self-motivated students who label failure as nothing more than a stepping stone to success.

From my experience, the Spanish education system seems to prioritise marks over learning from a young age (I´ve seen many a 7-year-old with exam anxiety on the eve of an ´important´ test). This encourages a fixed mindset: an obsession with marks, a fear of failure, and a reluctance to engage with challenging new material (which is the real reason they come to Nessie after all!). They were used to being rewarded with 100% and praised accordingly; why struggle through something unfamiliar and only get 50%? Why try harder if talent is fixed?

So what have I done to try to plant the seed of a growth mindset among my students? I´ve made an effort to avoid generic, lazy praise like “Well done”. Instead, I´ve been more specific with praise, for example praising the strategy e.g. ”The clear plan you did helped your structure”; and especially effort e.g. “I think you studied a lot more this weekend than last weekend. Am I right?”. Also, I´ve focused more on what they have left to improve, rather than what they´ve already mastered.

Moreover, as Professor Dweck recommends, I´ve tried to use the word yet” as much as possible in feedback, because as she explains, when receiving a “yet”, ´you understand that you´re on a learning curve; it gives you a path into the future´.

The Results

It´s still early days; mindset is developed over long periods of time. Nevertheless, after initial shock/disappointment among many students that I wasn´t just going to tell them how clever they were, I´ve started to see some very positive changes.

Mindset-photo-2.jpeStudents´ general attitude and resilience to failure is now healthier: instead of beating themselves up over a low grade, many now see that it´s part of a process of gaining better knowledge and higher marks in the future. Furthermore, fewer hide from challenges; they seek them, and are motivated to better their English level.

In summary, transforming mindsets can make a huge difference. For me, at least, it´s a work in progress!