“My triumphant return…and students walk out!” – my TD tale told at the 2017 TDSIG Carnival

This happened not so long ago:


We all experience times when things don’t go as planned in class and we deal with them; we learn from them; they shape our action. These times are often not prominent in our blog posts or on social media, where a rosy hue is cast over the activities, the student dynamics, or the affordances of tech tools. In TDSIG’s Web Carnival 2017, we will explore moments where the wheels fell off and how these experiences contribute to our identities and expand our modes of developing as teacher trainees, teachers, and teacher trainers.

As of today, recordings of all the talks are still available here.

This was mine:

tdsig prez scrip

And I thought I’d share my presentation on this blog in some form as well. Specifically, the form of my slides + my script. If I have a chance, I’ll turn this into a screencast recording (along with my #ELTwhiteboard presentation below). But until then…

These are my slides: 

MN TDSIG Carnival 2017 copy (open in a new window to view as you read below).

And this is my script: 


On July 1st, 2011, I returned to my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts after 7+ years teaching abroad. I had decided I was “serious” about teaching, and planned to start my MA TESOL immediately. I felt a certain pride about the hard work I’d put in to (finally!) become an effective teacher…and I was ready for more. Just a few days after arriving back, a prestigious Boston language school called: a teacher there was suddenly leaving, could I take over the class on short notice? Never fear! Matthew’s here!”, thought I.

On the first day four students walked out of my class, asking for a “real teacher”!

 My story of “the wheels coming off” hinges on this jarring critical incident which played an important part in my teacher development.


For this carnival event, TDSIG called for these four things.

  1. A lesson that didn’t go as expected (or was an epic fail).
  2. How you reacted and how your learners reacted.
  3. How it contributed to your teacher identity & development.
  4. How this experience can benefit others.

 So, my tale has these four basic chapters.

Before we dive in – who can identify the specific scene from the background of this slide? I already mentioned I was in Boston. There’s the famous CITGO sign…behind that the Prudential building…the intersection of Beacon St. and Commonwealth Avenue…Fenway Park just around the corner…yes, it’s KENMORE SQ. J

Right, so there we are. It’s Kenmore Sq. in Boston. It’s 2011.

Let’s get started.

“MY PHASE 1/2” SLIDE 3/19

Some background to the lesson in question itself.

I had been teaching in Bangkok, Thailand since 2005. After a year of untrained volunteer teaching in Sri Lanka I had done a CELTA course and settled into life as a so-called TEFLer in Thailand. I enjoyed living in the country, was thrilled with the plentitude of teaching work and the ease with which I could get and keep jobs, and harmonized with Thailand’s particular brand of a Buddhist-influenced happy-go-lucky, laidback lifestyle.

That’s me on the left, bringing my guitar to classes Young Learners classes. I’m pretty sure around that time the Justin Bieber songbook was a large part of my crowd-pleasing repertoire…:P

I was an interested and dedicated young teacher in those years; I read a lot of ELT books, posted on a teacher’s forum online, worked on the next day’s lessons when most of my friends were down at the pub. And I sometimes asked colleagues if we could observe and be observed by each other. (I wouldn’t ask just anybody, of course…I learned the hard way that plenty of teachers found this behavior not only disagreeable but highly suspicious)! I actively sought out professional development and training opportunities, because I took to teaching. I found an identity in work that tapped some old skills and forced me to build some new ones.

But the culture of Thailand and the culture of education, including ELT, in Thailand didn’t challenge teachers like me professionally.

I clearly benefitted from a lot of Native-Speakerism. I was given the benefit of the doubt, seen as an attractive choice for positions and responsibilities simply because I was a native-speaker. And white, to boot. All of this along with the overall lack of rigor in Thai educational culture meant that wasn’t an environment that itself thoroughly challenged and forced someone in my position to stretch my skills and truly grow as a professionally principled language educator.

And so, in 2011, I thought it might be time to see what lay beyond the Bieber sing-a-longs.

That’s me in the incredibly embarrassing collage of pictures on the right, having moved back to Boston with (some kind of) plan to do an MA TESOL and take the next step in what seemed to have become something like a career.

(In my defense, I’m pretty sure I was getting silly mugging for my wife there)…but that image illustrates part of what was in my mind at that time – I saw myself as making a jump. And I was excited about it!

“MY PHASE 2/2” SLIDE 4/19

I was excited when I got the call from a prestigious Boston language school to teach a 4-hour per day advanced level class, excited to enter a vibrant classroom. A challenging classroom. A multi-national, multi-lingual classroom. A “serious” classroom and a professional atmosphere. Part of me, the ego-part perhaps, saw myself as an ELT Superman…this school in distress sent out the signal, and TADA here I am to save the day! Sure, a 4-hour daily advanced class may rightfully put some fear into the heart of any teacher, especially those still not quite fully out of the woods of jetlag! But that part of me…that part of me just leapt up and seized on it as my first step in..well, my first step in joining the ranks of the ELT greats! :P… WATCH OUT, here comes Matthew Noble in his triumphant return to this shining city on a hill, teaching with his shiny skills, ready to hit pedagogical home runs out over Fenway Park across the street.


And just a bit more about what grandiose young Super Matthew was getting himself into…

This language school was (and still is) very well known in Boston. Primarily because they had run the same distinctive ad on Boston’s subway cars for the better part of twenty years – and so their undeniably catchy slogan, ‘GUARANTEED SWAHILI!’ – had such cult status that it became the perfect local avante garde jazz band name. 😛

It wasn’t just an English school – it was a world languages study center. It was a linguistic global crossroads. It was guaranteed Swahili!!!!

And here I come, CELTA-certified native-speaker Belieber who probably thinks his Harmer books represents the bleeding edge…:P

Anyway, there’s the class. Intensive indeed.

…so I showed up. The outgoing teacher was there to open the class, but leaving directly for his flight to…I think it was Turkey. I think he’d been offered a university teaching position there. He was older, seemed experienced. I noticed genuine affection in the students’ good-byes, but nothing maudlin. Something infuse with intellectual respect. I noticed his calm demeanor, and behind his eyes the comfort of an expert in his natural habitat…as he handed me some materials and the class rolls and walked out of the door.


So…this slide here…illustrates what happened next. There you have it.

I didn’t know what to do that day. I don’t even really remember what I TRIED doing. All I know is that it DID. NOT. WORK. I was, as the kids say these days, “shook”.

One thing I do remember is at one point becoming aware that I was entirely stuck in “graded down teacher-talk” mode…a kind of “low-intermediate directed speech” habit I’d brought with me as carry on from my years in Thailand. Several years worth of which I enthusiastically taught over 30-classroom hours a week…the vast majority to learners at or far below B1 level of English.

I was….simply..stuck there. With these French and Polish and Japanese advanced learners spending 6 months polishing their professional English in the “Athens of America”. 😛

And that by no means was the only problem, but I’ve effectively shoved all the others far down into subconscious levels of memory.


So this is what happened. I’m pretty sure at least 4 out of 10 or so literally walked out on my class. They walked out and headed directly for the manager. They asked the manager if there were any real teachers around to replace their old one.

They didn’t see my cape, they couldn’t feel my powers. I didn’t HAVE a cape…I didn’t have powers.

I remember after the lesson (which I guess – after the walkouts –  I somehow suffered through the next (what must have felt like) million and a half hours of that day) dazedly walking over to the person who’d brought me in an just sitting down…empty.


Empty…perhaps a bit dizzy…and the more I thought about it and felt about it and what it seemed to mean for me…SINKING.

In 2014 I suggested my first #ELTchat topic, and though I’ve made plenty of mistakes and had many challenging critical incidents in classrooms, I’m pretty sure this particular wheels falling off experience was the impetus for my suggestion.

And so in looking first at how I reacted to what happened, I’d like to briefly dip back into some of that chat.

 #ELTchat Dialogue 1/2 – SLIDE 9/19

PAUSE…then comment as folks check it out…:

  • I certainly did blame myself
  • And when the wheels come off, it can be difficult to be objective
  • Objectivity is fine, but emotion fuels great teachers…but also can burn hot when things go wrong.
  • I did care…and not just about myself, of course. I felt absolutely terrible for the students.
  • Depression? I think I could have completely disappeared into depression had not my supervisor reacted remarkably kindly and calmly!

#ELTchat Dialogue 2/2 – SLIDE 10/19

  • She helped me stay in touch with a sense of proportion. I think she said something to the tune of “you’ll adjust…”
  • She stepped in as a professional friend that day..in a mentor role
  • Dealing with a “sinking feeling” is certainly an important topic for CPD…sinking experiences build the road to burnout, or we could say ‘burn down’.
  • I wanted to burn it down. My confidence was SHOT. Wouldn’t yours be?

***CHEERS*** – SLIDE 11/19

Ok…well here’s what I actually did that day, hehe. Went to drown my sorrows “where everybody knows you name” J (cue nobody quite recognizing the Cheers TV show reference). To add insult to injury I think it also may have been my birthday…?

Do you think I went back the next day? (yes)

Do you think things improved? (they did)

How YOUR LEANERS reacted- SLIDE 12/19

Nobody actually quite the class, or demanded my resignation.

And in terms of how THE LEARNERS reacted…well…here they are at a dinner party hosted at my family home (where I was still camped out) less than a month later.

As white hot and hellish as those first 4 hours were for ME..and as clear a signal that things were NOT RIGHT as the walkouts were…the fact is that learners tend to take something of a long view.

Just as we as teachers expect our students to have off days, and to struggle to rev their engines up, and to sometimes even cower and fail conspicuously in the face of their monumental task…more often than not this goes both ways.

I’m still good friends with Denis, the French student in the blue shirt, Henri, the Haitian lawyer in the middle, and Diego, a Columbian brain surgeon, recently begged me to assume head teacher duties at his mother’s English school in Cartejenya.

Needless to say, things improved in my 4-hour daily advanced intensive class down in Kenmore Sq.


Firstly, as I was just talking about, experiences like this put things in perspective – the students’ perspective! What might feel like an unforgivable cardinal sin may just be a trifle, a venial trespass easily forgotten by learners. In fact, why not fail every once in a while – just to set a baseline. 😉

The true nightmare class forces us to connect to others, to burst the bubble of privatism that may exist around what we do and what we experience behind closed classroom doors. In this instance, I talked to my supervisor – who was supportive and wise…my wife – who was encouraging and loving – and later, my students! Who were forgiving and lighthearted. And now I’m talking to you. And if all this connection and communication isn’t a positive factor for whatever we might define as  “teacher identity” I’m not sure what would be.

As for ego, well…I exposed mine at the beginning of this story. And through this loss of wheels, whatever unrealistic, ungrounded self-image I was unhelpfully entertaining at that time was tempered, to say the least, on this disastrous day.

In fact, to be honest I don’t think that I was yet fully, deeply committed to the idea of doing an MA TESOL and truly committing to a teaching career. But this experience, in hindsight, provide a fulcrum by which I pivoted in that direction with real conviction.

As I recovered from that first day and finished out the two months of the session in that classroom I learned more about teaching and learning than I had in the 7 years prior, and that summer I was fully enrolled in an MA TESOL with evening classes while teaching at two great ESOL programs and mentoring volunteer.

A few years later I started in my current role as a tutor on an initial teacher training certificate course, and in the course of any given week observe a whole bunch of lessons that aren’t sculpted beauties. And it’s easy to recognize THAT SINKING FEELING in others. Really staying in touch with critical incidents like this helps guide me in meeting developing teachers more authentically in a place where empathy and spark growth. Knowing it’s the worst lessons that can teach us the most.


July of 2011 is pretty much the exact midpoint between when I started teaching and today. I’m glad I took that call, I’m glad I failed to impress that class so thoroughly and I’m glad some of them abandoned my sorry butt that morning.

I didn’t know what I was doing. But I didn’t yet know that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was unconsciously incompetent!

The invaluable payload of the “best” of these negative experience is conscious incompetence. And that’s the launching pad for learning, for growth and skill development.

Just look, I’ve been all smiles since that dark day!


When I get notes like this, I credit whatever ‘good teacher’ juju I have to all the critical incidents – especially the horrible ones.

Sure, the training, my profs, tutors, mentor. Authors, PLN. But mostly the crucible of the classroom and all the wires that need tripping, all the mistakes that need making.

How this can help others.. – SLIDE 16/19

The complexities of education in the larger sense, and a classroom with a learner group and a teacher…is not unlike a Rube Goldberg machine. And theory does not prepare you for it. So keep things in perspective and TAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF, for goodness sake. A bit like Boston traffic: expect delays.


At a certain point, I think we may just tire of self-judgement. This is how I approach every classroom now. This is how I approach every training experience, every observation, every session at a conference. And webinar, online meetings and sharings and conversation. This is beautiful.


One final very sappy slide here. “Sharing is caring”, we need to care about ourselves and each other at least as much as we care about our students.

Question Prompts for Discussion Slide 19/19!!!



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