Teachers Talk Radio Interview: Empowering English Learners – Part Two

Lorraine and Harry chatting on a video call

A few months ago Lorraine appeared on Teachers Talk Radio with her friend Harry Waters of Renewable English to chat all about empowering English learners! You can listen to the conversation on the Intrepid English Podcast on all good podcast apps, or check out the video recording and transcripts right here on the blog. We’ve split it up into three parts. Here is part one, and here is part three. Enjoy!

Harry Waters  39:05

Hello, we are back. We are live again. That quick one there about mobile phones at the end there, it is an interesting area, I just don’t know in terms of schools especially, but as a teacher, I would always encourage my students, particularly my teenage students to to use it in class, particularly for learning English because I wanted them to find, you know, the benefits of using it in class, not, you know, sit there on WhatsApp or whatever but that was something I often encouraged in my classes which got me into a bit of trouble in a few academies because there was a strict no phones policy. But anyway, how do you feel about phones in class?

Lorraine Venables  39:53

Well, my student base is different to yours it seems, or different to the way yours was. A lot of my students are business English students. So there needs to be a certain amount of flexibility there because a lot of them are super busy, they’ve got a lot going on, you know, often they’ve got family who might need them. But generally, it might be the case that they have to take an urgent business call during the lesson. And I honestly don’t mind that at all. One of the great things about our students being, sort of, autonomous and having, you know, they buy their own lessons, so they value them. And that means that normally, for them, because it’s an enjoyable hour in their day, they kind of silence everything else. And it’s ‘me time’ for them, you know, so it’s not really that much of a problem. But I can imagine it would be quite difficult to get people, teenagers in your case, to focus on the lesson material, and not all of the other dings that are coming through, you know, what was that like?

Harry Waters  40:58

One of many, many passions of ours. Yeah. Well it was alright, I think it’s actually now getting slightly easier because of the amount of tech that there is, you know, stuff like Nearpod and Padlet, and the amount of apps that are available that are focused on your lesson that, you know, they can really help. I do remember, however, when I had a business student, and it was very much like, you’re saying, he said, this is my yoga, you know, I come here, and I’m unavailable. This time I’m completely unavailable to anybody so my phone is off. But I like that. I like that. What I also like, is the Intrepid English, the statement that you have, the the ideals that you have behind Intrepid English and we’re talking about that. The title is ‘Empowering English Learners’. I know you do a lot more than only empower. I know that’s not an ‘only’, it’s quite a massive thing. Exactly. Now, what we talked about before with the whole accent thing. I think that’s one of the like, early things for me when I’m trying to give students confidence is to become comfortable with themselves and comfortable with the way they speak. So, for me, that’s one of the early steps. But I’d like to know what you’ve got to say about empowering learners.

Lorraine Venables  42:23

This is a huge, huge area. I could go on all day, Harry. 

Harry Waters  42:27

It’s massive. 

Lorraine Venables  42:29

Huge. So, as a tip of the iceberg, and I hugely recommend that people read further into this if they want to, there are many, many elements of empowering learners that we try to embody in our lessons as well at Intrepid English. So, we’re mostly based in the UK. We are teachers who are excellent English teachers, let’s say that. That’s one thing that we’ve all got in common there, because we’re passionate, most of the time we’re highly qualified, well, sometimes we’re native English speakers, but that’s not necessarily a given with Intrepid English teachers. We’ve got amazing teachers who, you know, have learned many different languages and learn to teach English more thoroughly than many native English teachers or staff. So, we’re quite an empowering place, we like to empower one another, we’ve got a really nice atmosphere of, you know, open and honest communication in the school. So we can make mistakes and learn from them and it’s okay, you know, it’s not, you’re not going to get in trouble kind of thing. And the teachers that I’ve hired, I’ve hired because they’re our kind of people, you know, they care about things. They don’t want to have a, sort of, authoritarian atmosphere in the classroom. They want to help students to communicate and express themselves in their way, you know, so empowering to me is so much more of a deeper word than just ‘helping’. Good teachers help students, you know, they really want to assist the students in their learning journey. But empowering them means that that student, for example, knows that they’ve got a team of people, a supportive community of people that want them to win, want them to succeed, you know. Their English teacher will talk with them each week if they have a weekly lesson and see how they can personalise the lessons to suit that particular student. You know, unfortunately, a lot of English schools in the past ones that I’ve worked with and for, there was a strict curriculum, it was just about, you know, it was transactional. It was about, you know, booking the hours in, you know, billable hours and things like that. And it wasn’t… it didn’t care about the students’ success. The teachers weren’t fostering that, that kind of atmosphere where students can really enjoy the lessons as well as thrive in them, you know. So it was something that I’ve been quite passionate about in my personal life for a long time as well. I’m one of these people who likes to do charity fundraisers and stuff like that. Always been. It’s always been a part of who I am and when I started working with my business mentor, Alice, I was talking to her about who I am, and what Intrepid English is, you know, including all of the teachers that work for us. And, you know, she said, you’ve got this really big part of your personal life, your personality, which is raising money for charities, you know, why isn’t that part of the business model? And I thought, well, I don’t know, in a way I just felt like it was a separate thing, you know, and she was like, it’s 100% part of who you are. And it’s something that would be very beneficial to the students if you talk about this kind of thing. I think that you can be your full authentic self at work, and talk about your passions, talk about, you know, the different causes that you’re passionate about. And as soon as she said that… yes, exactly! You know, what I’m talking about, Harry. Exactly. As soon as she said that, I was like, yes! This makes perfect sense. You know, so I spoke to the teachers about it. And I said, you know, I really want to be, I really want us to focus more on doing good in the world, not just teaching good English lessons, but doing good in the world. And you know what, since I’ve said that, since we’ve started to go down that route, there have been so many amazing conversations, amazing moments, great things that have happened, because I am being my authentic self at work. And it’s something that the teachers also are really, really passionate about in different ways. So empowering students can mean different things to different students, of course. A lot of our students have talked about this feeling of dread on a Sunday night or on a Monday morning, you know, when they’re thinking about going to work. And they love their job, but they know that their English skills are a barrier to their success, and to them doing their job really well. And it breaks my heart to know that people are really struggling like this, because, you know, we’ve all had those jobs that we hate, and on a Sunday night, and you’re just like, oh god, how was the weekend gone already, you know? So I was like, well, we can do something to help you with this, you know, we can support you here. So we have been training a lot of students on business English, but not just, you know, these are negotiation skills.

Harry Waters  47:51

Not just open the book – here are some set phrases. This is business!

Lorraine Venables  47:54

Yeah. This, like, strange, vague entity which is business, you know. We wanted to provide them with, you know, support, but also useful, helpful tips or things that they can implement immediately. Things that are going to make them feel excited about that negotiation. So it could be language, could be pronunciation, but it’s also having someone in your corner who’s like, preparing you for this moment. They know what they’re talking about. And they’re not just preparing you to have a negotiation, but they’re preparing you to do really well in that negotiation, you know, to add value, to get something out of it, not just be a business person, but like, really make a difference, do a good job, you know. So after teaching a lot of students this way, you know, we realise that it would actually be really quite beneficial for us as well for us to reach out to the employers and say, look, we’re empowering your employees here. We can help you to do that. So we launched a new service earlier this year called Employers who Empower, and this is a completely different ballgame for us. So normally, we’re one-to-one lessons, and a few group classes as well. So this is a whole new area, but it’s been so well received already. We’ve got three groups this year, who have joined us and are just doing fantastically. And yeah, we’re really looking forward to seeing where it goes. So yeah, we’ve taken steps forward to empower more and more people as we go along. So, yeah.

Harry Waters  49:42

What I really love from what I’ve seen about what you guys do and, you know, some of the feedback you’ve got is, when you do you have those kind of individual lessons I’ve seen with so many, like, business classes and business teachers, there’s so many I’ve seen someone running into a staff room, you know, grabbing a textbook and photocopying the present perfect. And then going into the class and saying right, I’m going to do the present perfect today with them. It’s like, does your student want that? Is that what you student wants or is that what you feel like doing with your student? And what I really love from what I can see that you guys do is you well, you care about your students and you teach them what they need, like, not just, as you say, with this with the language that they need, but you know, with everything that they need, and it seems like, you’re not just English teachers, your English, kind of, language coaches as well, not just… I don’t want to say ‘just English teachers’ as well, because that sounds like I’m belittling English teachers. English teachers are the greatest. They’re amazing. I love all of them, especially sustainability focused ones. There’s something that I want to draw on about the kind of empowerment vibe. A lot of people think that empowering your students is just giving them confidence. And it’s something that I’ve seen with the charities I work with, you know, I work with kids against plastic. And I see how they are empowering, you know, the kids to work with them. For example, yesterday, my daughter gave a forty-minute presentation at school about single use plastics, you know, she’s eight.

Lorraine Venables  51:23

That was the proudest moment of your life, I bet.

Harry Waters  51:27

That, and when she learned how to do the monkey bars, those are two of the moments I’ve been really proud. It’s definitely up there with it. But, you know, and it’s not just about confidence. Yes, confidence is part of it. But it’s more than just, you know, having confidence, you know. I’m confident to speak English but it’s… empowerment is more than just giving confidence.

Lorraine Venables  51:49

Yeah. And you’ll like this, I’ve prepared by printing out a little quote from one of my biggest inspirations, the incredible Bell Hooks. So yeah, it’s a few lines long so if you just bear with me a second, but it perfectly articulates exactly why I think empowering students is so, so important. And you will get this because I think you will define yourself as one of these people. So “To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach that also believe there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred, who believe that our work is not merely to share information, but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential, if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” That’s Bell Hooks, everybody.

Harry Waters  52:45

One hundred percent. I agree with every word. It’s so much more than just information. Information is an important part of it, obviously. But it’s so much more than that. And I’ve found my teaching has become so much more enriched since it’s part of me, you know. When I teach English, I do teacher training for all sorts of different things, you know, hybrid teaching, online teaching, all of these different teacher training sessions, but I try and involve some form of sustainability with all of it, you know. Even if it’s just a few seconds here and there, I try and, kind of, raise that aspect in all of my classes. Even if it technically has nothing to do with it. I like to, kind of, try and raise that awareness. And I know that my teaching has improved so much since… and I don’t want to say I didn’t care before, because I definitely did care before, but I really care now. Not just about the students’ learning, but about what I’m teaching as well. And it’s not just, here we go, let’s go. We’re going to do the third conditional today. Woop woop, third conditional. Which for quite a long time I did think was the setting on the air conditioning, you know, where it does the wavy thing. I was like, that’s what the third conditional is, right. And that brings me back to that whole thing you mentioned about the, you know that some ‘native’ teachers. I’m gonna do inverted commas for that. Some English speakers who have the mother tongue of being English, that don’t really have a clue about a lot of how to teach, particularly grammar, so, and that kind of third conditional thing reminds me of that. But that’s me just going off on a tangent. 

Lorraine Venables  54:40

Tangents rock.

Harry Waters  54:41

I often do. Yeah. 

Lorraine Venables  54:43

I love a good tangent. 

Harry Waters  54:46

Yeah, I have a habit of tangent-ing. Again, I don’t know if that’s a word. It is now. Just invented it. That’s gonna be in the Oxford English Dictionary next year – Word of the Year.

Lorraine Venables  55:03

And it can be your tagline as well. Harry Waters: I don’t know if that’s a word. It is now. Probably the worst tagline for an English teacher ever.

Harry Waters  55:14

Yeah, yeah, it probably would be actually. But I’m gonna stick with it anyway, that’s gonna be my new LinkedIn thing

Lorraine Venables  55:24

I need a little credit there as well, please.

Harry Waters  55:27

I always credit. My wife’s a photographer, you see so, you know, when I’m making my materials and stuff I do always credit photographers and so on. Well, I was creating a PowerPoint today because I’m doing a conference for Oxford University Press actually, on March the fourth. And they sent me a thing back saying you need to credit this photo and I was like, but I took that photo, like, it’s literally my photo. They’re like, you have to put a credit on there. And I was like, yes! So on my LinkedIn I can put photographer as well, because I’ve got my own photo credit. 

Lorraine Venables  56:04

That’s awesome!

Harry Waters  56:05

It’s a photo of some secondhand shirts, like, you know, it’s not a good photo.

Lorraine Venables  56:10

It counts, Harry. It’s a win. Take it.

Harry Waters  56:12

Exactly, I’m a photographer now. Hello, Mum! I’m on the telly, on the radio, and I’m a photographer. Brilliant. That seems like a nice segue. We’re going shoot off to hear a word from our wonderful sponsors. Stay where you are, glued to your chairs or if you’re doing the washing up, headphones glued to your ears still. We’ll be back in just a moment.

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