Branding, or how much material can you copy from the Internet?

I’m going to sit now in judgment on other English teachers. I think that most of them make one of two opposing mistakes:

  1. Everything comes from the Internet. Their students experience the lessons as a hodge-podge of formats and headers. The general impression that students have is ‘All Toby does is print stuff off from the Internet.’
  2. They make everything themselves. The people I have seen do this generally have pretty abysmal formatting, but they make great resources tailored to each group. The groups are impressed with the work they put into preparation and would happily recommend them to friends and colleagues, but the teacher is so swamped with preparation, that they don’t have time for more lessons.

As a guy who wants to make a resource to create worksheets on the Internet, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on downloaded (or photocopied) resources. Students do not value your talent in leading a conversation, introducing vocabulary, and explaining grammar. The best teachers make it seem so effortless, that most students won’t appreciate the effort you invest until they try to teach their own native language.

And, of course, going the other route and just doing everything yourself is great… for one group, but not for twenty or thirty. (Not if you also want to learn to code, have writing projects, make music… This post is basically aimed at me.) What’s more, when I create a resource for only one group, we always find typos, and there is no point correcting them because nobody will ever see it again. This means that everyone basically sees the first draft of everything. I make a pretty good first draft, but the second draft is always better.

The first pillar of my solution: I use stuff from the Internet. But I have also become very proactive about communicating in the I form what my plans are, and on what basis I’ve made them. And that I got some resources to help us with whatever. Here are some things that I have said in my lessons:

Steffen, Mary, and yes, sometimes you Bert, have been making the ‘He, she, it — s muss mit’ mistake and I know that you know it. But we’re going to drill it a bit more in the next lessons to help make it automatic.


Normally, I’m happiest when you don’t make mistakes, but I’m glad you made that one because it brings me to something I want to talk about: the passive voice!

I know you all love grammar, but it’s important to master this if you want to talk about processes…

The goal in these little chats is to explain that I am a professional who has a plan, and not just a guy who was lucky enough to grow up speaking the language they are paying to learn.

The second pillar of my solution: With my worksheet generator (mostly) finished, I’m focusing this year on creating worksheets that are highly reusable, and yet tailored to me. The goal is to make it clear that I made the resources and to make them so quirky that it feels tailor-made for my classes. (Which are, fortunately, all quirky.)

The way I’m approaching this goal is by using two kinds of text in the worksheets. There are the absurd texts that I write, illustrating the use of the structures to be practiced. (See this example.) And there are the ‘drill texts’ in which the students fill in the blank, or complete the sentence, or translate from German, or whatever… and these are (almost) entirely boring, could-be-copied-from-the-internet bland.

The goal is to make something that confronts students with the vocabulary and structures they need and is still uniquely me. Then, after one group finds a typo, I can correct it and use it with another group. Because I teach in three different schools, I make them without a header and just paste in the header I made for the appropriate school.

In summary: I’m only about two months in, on using the second pillar of the solution. Nonetheless, the first results are positive and, combined with using my dynamically generated worksheets (which are, being made by me, also quirky) with the appropriate header on them. (That’s automatic with my great website!)


Practice Objectivity

This is another post in my ongoing series on the individual chapters in “The Obstacle is the Way.” I don’t know how useful or interesting it will be out of context.

In a chapter about how assigning values to things before we fully comprehend them, I think my favorite couple of lines are these:

Everything about our animalistic brains tries to compress the space between impression and perception. Think, perceive, act–with millisecond between them.

A deer’s brain tells it to run because things are bad. It runs. Sometimes, right into traffic.

I think I those lines for a number of reasons. I like the acknowledgment of our ‘animalistic brains,’ I like the visual aid, and I like the juxtaposition of the animal and the modern, because our animalistic brains weren’t made for the environment in which we live.

Which isn’t to say that they don’t offer anything of value, but that reacting to an upset boss the way you’d react to a predator–or even an upset ‘chieftain’ in a hunter-gatherer society–is counter-productive and one of the ways we repress ourselves.

I’m diverging away from the material of the chapter by getting into this territory, but something I’d like to examine better (or, read more about) is the fact that I don’t think people believe what they think they believe. When the animalistic brain reacts, the rational brain is a few steps behind and supplies reasons after the fact. (No, it would be tragic if my boss were to get angry at me, because…)

Getting back to the material of the chapter, the two paragraphs above are followed by the following two paragraphs:

We can question that impulese. We can disagree with it. We can override the switch, examine the threat before we act.

But this takes strength. It’s a muscle that must be developed. And muscles are developed by tension, by lifting and holding.

And, this is another thing that I think isn’t talked about enough: the importance of controlling yourself when it’s not super-important, because it will be much harder when it’s important. (For me, one example is being careful of how I speak to my kids when I don’t need to be careful about what I’m telling them, so that I have ‘muscle memory’ there for when I’m more concentrated on content than on how I say it.”)

The chapter only offers three strategies for doing this: contempt, describing things by means of their strict content, and thinking of your own problems as the problems a friend has. The rationale for this last one is that we’re more objective when thinking about our friends’ problems than when thinking about our own.

I think, if I could expand on this chapter, it would be to add priorities. Something that frustrates me is when a person complains about something in their life (the town where I live is so expensive!) but rejects all suggestions to make changes. Eventually, it usually comes down to something being more important (as long as my parents are alive, I want to live close to them). When a conversation reaches that point, I suggest “Instead of feeling sorry for yourself in such an expensive city, why not be glad that your parents are alive, and you’re happy to sacrifice having a big apartment for being close to them?”

It has been my experience that, if something is important to you, moving the ‘downsides’ of life in general into the appropriate ‘cost column’ in the accounting ledger of life makes a big difference. After all, we all think things along the lines of “there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for goal.” That suggests, after all, that living in an expensive city is better than living in an expensive and dangerous city. You’re ahead of the game! The price could be much higher!

Making business worksheets

Not long ago, I wrote about the “imposter syndrome” I feel when I try to teach Business English. Don’t worry, I certainly still feel that way.

However, my goal this year is to go from simply saying “it’s all English, master this grammar and then use it in a business context” to showing it. And, to that end, I’m actually making business worksheets focusing on a specific grammar and using ‘business texts.’

However, to avoid getting caught in the situation where I write about things I don’t know, these worksheets follow fictional companies in ridiculous industries (the collection I’m working in for emailing follows a business in the “world domination” sector).

Here’s one of my favorite example texts, from a worksheet focused on using the passive to describe processes.

Hits are made at the Ohmpah Express! Internationally famous groups such as the Grammar Junkies and the Homework Heroes were discovered by the talent scouts of The Ohmpah Express and their unique sounds were developed in weeks of workshops with our ‘rock doctors.’

At The Ohmpah Express, we don’t wait for music to happen. Here, music is made. The musical demands of next summer are predicted now, using complicated statistical models. Rhythms, lyrics and songs are carefully constructed using advanced aritifical intilligence (and some alcohol intelligence) and refined until they’re guaranteed to sell out stadium concerts the world over.

Then, these songs are delivered to the talent we have developed in-house and are turned into platinum-selling albums.

I’m happy to report that the worksheets have had the best resonance of any I’ve used for ‘Business English.’ Partly, that’s because my students know me and we all laugh at the absurdity of these businesses, and it’s partly because my texts still come across a lot of vocabulary that they find useful in a business context (‘proprietary algorithms,’ ‘generate reports from user data’)

If you’re struggling with adapting texts to your students, the lesson to me seems to be adapting the texts to you, and inviting your students along for the ride.

Control your Emotions

This is part of my continuing series on reflecting on The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday.

This chapter begins with a quote from someone I’ve never heard of, Publius Syrus:

Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.

And, as you may have guessed, the rest of the chapter is dedicated to supporting that idea. The examples running through the chapter are primarily taken from NASA’s astronaut training and the idea that NASA had to–and was able to–train the panic right out of astronauts.

Obviously, we should learn to train the panic out of ourselves.

I think the paragraph that best exemplifies the thinking on panic presented in this chapter is this one:

Uncertainty and fear are relieved by authority. Training is authority. It’s a release valve. With enough exposure, you can adapt out those perfectly ordinary, even innnate, fears that are bred mostly from unfamiliarity. Fortunately, unfamiliarity is simple to fix (again, not easy), which makes it possible to increase our tolerance for stress and uncertainty.

So, because I think the sense of what he’s saying here is clear, let me begin with the obvious: I love the parenthetical “again, not easy.” Because there is a clear difference between simple and easy in this case.

I think that there are a few ways I can apply this to my own life. The last time I can remember panicking was probably during the fiasco of moving my software from the development system on my notebook to the Linux server I rented from Linode.

My emotions during the whole process were not helpful, and the thoughts they conjured up “the last months of work were pointless if I can’t get this software to work on a server” were destructive. I’ve since thought I should write a guide to putting your Django project on a Linode server — as much for me as anything else — and I realized that I no longer really know how I got it to work if I ever did know. I can recall several resets, and late evenings (with wine, which clearly didn’t help), where I would wind up changing things in configuration files “just to see what happened.”

Could I have managed that better? Certainly. Did I learn from it? I don’t know. Was the panic I felt in any way constructive? No. Should I have given in? Of course not.

I like that this chapter suggests that the exposure afforded my by having panicked once will help me face my panic next time. Now I know what it feels like, now I know how destructive it was.

But I’m not going to go looking for it.

The glorification of failure.

This all feeds into a minor rant that I could easily expand on. It’s this: from a distance, it seems as though silicon valley and, by association, startup culture in general really glorifies failure. I’ve heard things on podcasts like “nobody takes you seriously in the valley until you’ve had at least three failed startups,” and wondered “don’t they risk incentivizing failure?”

Incentives are a big thing in my life. I have three small kids, and I see the world around me in the terms of carrots and sticks. When parking fees are high, and tickets are cheap, isn’t the city incentivizing illegal parking? That kind of thing.

And I don’t like the idea that failure is incentivized. I think that trying should be incentivized, and failure accepted. There’s a clear difference (in my mind) and it wouldn’t have hurt whatever anonymous speaker made the “three failures” quote I mentioned above to have reworded: “Nobody takes you seriously in the valley until you’ve made at least three serious attempts at a startup.”

To me, there are worlds of difference.

Having the same conversation seven times

I’ve been thinking about what I can say that is of value to people who are considering becoming EFL teachers. I have a niece who wants to live in Europe and thinks teaching EFL can be her ticket. I told her two things:

  1. Learn another job in the U.S., because the most in-demand teachers are the ones who have experience in something else, and can teach specialist vocabulary. Also, because…
  2. I don’t think my job will be around in the future. Machine translation will be a much more affordable way to do the communication that I teach most. Sure, it won’t help much in vacations, but the people who pay for my work, bosses don’t care about their employees’ vacation experience. For what they want, machine translation will be great.

However, I’m collecting a couple of tips that I think might help people who are thinking of teaching EFL or are starting off. Today’s tip is this:

Get good at having the same conversation fifteen times, but making the person you are talking to feel like you’re having it for the first time.

No joke, I think this is my greatest strength as a teacher. It saves me thinking of something to speak about for every lesson, and the students think I’m the fun teacher who always has a different, wacky idea.

Even more, after you have the conversation twice, when you go into the third group you’ll know better which questions to ask, you’ll be able to provoke conversation with “you know, I’ve heard…”

A go-to conversation topic for me.

An example I have is talking about when to say “Hello” in Germany. I think this sounds absurd to Germans and people who haven’t lived in Germany, but I can do a good job of moving from one point to the next in this conversation spontaneously, as though I’m asking this question for the first time. I should point out, my style is much more conversational than this, but here are the major points in the conversation:

  1. In the U.S., when I studied German, my professors taught us the words “Guten Tag,” and then emphasized that we should never greet strangers in German. “It’s the fastest way to let them know you’re not from Germany.” Do you think that’s true?
  2. Here’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about this, because my wife — who you know is German — absolutely hates one of our neighbors because “she can’t open her mouth to say hello.” Why would she hate her for not doing something she shouldn’t do?
  3. So I should say hello to my neighbors? Even if I see them downtown, shopping?
  4. If I see you guys when you’re shopping, should I say hello?
    1. From what distance? I mean, I have no problem yelling across the street “Hey, Marcus, it’s me, the English teacher” and waving, but I don’t see other people doing it…
  5. Now that I’m thinking about it, people say “Hello” when they walk into the Doctor’s office. What’s up with that?
    1. Are there other places I should say hello?
  6. My mother-in-law greets every hiker we pass when we’re hiking. Is that normal?
    1. Should bikers greet each other? What about joggers? What if I’m walking with a stroller, should I wave to other people with strollers?
  7. Okay, thanks… I think you’ve helped me in my goal to become a little more German. I really appreciate it.

The think about this conversation is that I’ve found people love being helpful. And so, I like to give them the chance. You can see in reading this that the conversation is based on an actual question that I once had.

My strength is in letting people help me again and again. I think it’s once you should develop, too.

Steady Nerves

In my continuing series on the individual chapters in “The Obstacle is the Way,” this is the third chapter, “Steady Nerves.”

The third chapter in The Obstacle is the Way is a short one, but it starts with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt, and who doesn’t love him?

What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can get only by practice.

The chapter is about the discipline of keeping your wits about you when it seems as though you should panic. It starts with some pretty impressive stories of General Grant keeping his cool even as things are exploding (or falling) around him.

Initially, I was a bit put-off by this chapter, because I’m going to get under cover if I’m fired upon, and certainly don’t intend to practice being unmoved by exploding artillery.

However, these are the two paragraphs that made it all much more approachable for me:

When we aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride. Stuff is going to happen that catches us off guard, threatens or scares us. Surprises (unpleasant ones, mostly) are almot guaranteed. The risk of being overwhelmed is always there.

In these situations, talent is not the most sought-after characteristic. Grace and posie are, because these two attributes precede the opportunity to deploy any other skill.

I like that because I can see developing grace and poise as wise things to do, whether I’m strategizing how to be more effective or simply wondering how to grow as a human. And, there’s a wisdom in saying that, in addition to certain hard skills, you’ll need to be in control of yourself in order to develop them.

Like both the other chapters, it doesn’t take long for me to see where I can apply this lesson in my life:

  • Reading all the parenting books in the world won’t help  if I don’t have the self-control to apply what I’m learning in the heat of an exchange
  • Accepting that the worksheet app requires more administrative tools than actual worksheet-creating tools means I can buckle down to actually writing those tools
  • Learning to recognize when a ten-minute meditation would help me move my day forward is a good first step towards actually doing it

So, I guess I have something to think about in the coming week.


You might want to file this under “Toby processes another Twitter exchange in blog post format” and move on. That’s basically what this is.

I understand that I’m not great at social skills. I’m not bad at them, in the way Sheldon Cooper is, it’s just that I keep thinking I’m having fun and being told, after the fact, that I was a jerk. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” Is something I said often as a younger man.

Now, I mostly avoid social situations with people I don’t know and — life hack! — the problem has solved itself.

Except, I try to relate to people, and it’s hard.

Weirdly, I think I can relate to some of the people I really don’t like: Donald Trump, John McCain. The creative writer in me can write backstory, fill in details for these people, such that what they’re doing makes sense from their point of view.

It’s the people who I mostly get along with, or who share my ideas and ideals with who are hard for me to relate to. Ultimately, I think that’s because I think we share a point of view, and I don’t invest a lot of time into thinking about theirs.

And, a lot of my conflicts comes down to this: Why don’t you set some priorities?

In my private life, it’s the divorced/separated dads who say they do everything to be with their kids… but are ‘forced’ into making choices that limit their time with them. (I’ve learned to not say it, but I still think “If the kid’s a priority, just say ‘sorry, that interferes with my goal of spending time with my kid.'”)

With liberals, it’s the agenda. If you care about stopping the ‘radical GOP agenda’ (not sure why I used quotes there, but it feels better than straight up calling people I used to like radical), make that a priority.

That brings us to the twitter exchange I mentioned at the top:


That ‘This Tweet is unavailable’? That comes from me being blocked by the user in question. Because I stuck to my guns on an idea that seems logical to me: if our top priority is stopping the President’s agenda, then we need GOP politicians to ‘switch sides,’ and if we want them to consider switching sides, then we have to incentivize their switching sides. And, if we want to incentivize their switching sides, then we have to accept that making them suffer for their stupidity — or gloating over ‘we were right and you were wrong’ — is a secondary priority and just won’t get to happen.

In the discussion — my first, long, prolonged discussion on Twitter with several people — everything was civil (except for the user who eventually blocked me calling me racist for not hating Sean Spicer sufficiently) but nobody’s opinion was changed.

I drew on every example I could think of where Dems understand that one thing is a priority over another: decriminalization of marijuana, gun buybacks, the embargo on Cuba. No dice.

And I wonder, what would a person who is as right as I think I am but also possessed actual social skills have done? Or, is Twitter just not a place where opinions are changed? Or, am I straight-up wrong?