A week of Professional Development (and much more)


This is a write-up on Berni Wall’s (@rliberni) professional development workshop which I attended in August 2012. As it seems, it turned out to be much more than this as apart from the learning that took place, it included aspects that are rather hard to find in traditional workshops. Some might say they are unnecessary or even pointless. To me however, it was exactly those aspects combined with instruction that made learning so powerful.

The journey begins

I’d known Berni from #ELTchat and had heard wonderful stories about her professional development workshop. It all sounded exactly what I was looking for; a week of professional development and experiential learning where everyone shares according to their experience and training. And so, I applied early in advance and was more than happy I got a place for the first week of August.

Having heard some scary stories about how cold and wet that particular summer had been, I packed my case with long sleeved shirts, sweaters and water proof shoes and set off for Kirkby Fleetham, North Yorkshire. It turned out that I was not going to wear any of those as the weather couldn’t have been better; sunshine on most days and no rain at all!

Arriving at Kirkby Fleetham

Berni and her husband, David, came to collect me and Hazen (a Syrian teacher who was also participating in the workshop) from Northallerton station, just 15’ away from Kirkby Fleetham. They were so friendly that just a short drive home was enough to make us feel comfortable and welcome. The next surprise awaiting us was the house: the Fleetham Lodge. An atmospheric, three-storey house with fireplaces everywhere! My room was on the third floor, overlooking the garden. It was bright and spacious and I loved it at once!

The Fleetham Lodge

Then it was time for dinner. A multicultural one! You see, the house was full of people; Hazan from Syria, Markella from Italy, Louise, Madeleine and Jake from London and of course Berni and David. We had a delicious English-Indian dish and we didn’t stop chatting and joking. It may sound strange but I felt right at home.

Our daily sessions

We had sessions both in the morning and in the afternoon with breaks for coffee and lunch. What was really inspiring was that the workshops were designed to involve us not only as participants but as presenters as well. That is, they were led by Berni but we were all invited to share experiences and ideas so we learned from each other. Our topics were all ELT related and included vocabulary, grammar, teaching approaches, writing, ESP, listening, speaking, motivation, using literature in the classroom and web 2.0 tools.

I talked about technology and speaking (my favourite areas) but felt comfortable enough to also share my insecurities about areas I feel less confident with: vocabulary and grammar. It’s not that I find my teaching ineffective, no; it’s more that I feel it’s less enjoyable, adventurous or motivating and want to do something about that. I got so much out of our discussions that I decided to change my approach this year and combine some of the ideas I heard with technology (more on this soon). Using literature in the classroom was another area that I was inspired to incorporate into my teaching!! Berni shares a great passion for literature and believes that it should have a place in ELT regardless of the learners’ level or age. It all depends on the way you present it and, of course, on how much you, the teacher, believe in it.

The Brontë experience

On Wednesday, we took a break from our sessions to visit Haworth, a quaint, hilly village in west Yorkshire also known as the hometown of the Brontës. Walking around Haworth was like stepping back in time; cobbled streets, boutique shops, apothecaries, tea shops. We then visited the Brontë parsonage museum, which used to be the house where Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë produced works of literary greatness including Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Walking around the rooms and seeing their writing desks, beds, clothes, diaries, drawings and letters was like hearing the echoes of their voices and feeling the harshness of their short lives.

The day was lovely so we decided to walk out over the mystical and wild moors and get a feel for the background of the Brontës  books. It took us two hours or so to reach the house that is said to have inspired Emily Brontë  to write “Wuthering heights”. It is practically in the middle of nowhere and now derelict but it’s the epitome of the legendary novel and its heroes, Catherine and Heathcliff. An absolute gem and a definite must-see place!

The cultural immersion into the English countryside

And as if all this was not enough, we also had loads of cultural immersion moments due to the annual feast held in Kirkby Fleetham over that particular week. Berni had a number of responsibilities as a vice president but we couldn’t be happier to help with preparations in the village hall. This meant working with the locals for a while, doing some paperwork and meeting cheerful and friendly people.

On Thursday evening we went to the ABBA tribute concert which turned out to be a disco night event; people of all ages, from kids to seniors, were dancing and swaying to the rhythms of “dancing queen” and “mamma mia” and it was so much fun! Who would have thought I would have danced so much in my CPD week at Fleetham? Certainly, not me 🙂

Finally, on Saturday, we joined the 111 annual Kirkby Fleetham feast which opened with a traditional Irish dance and included a number of funny races, dog shows and competitions of best in show vegetables, flowers, fruit and crafts. Everybody was enthusiastic displaying their produce, taking part in races, winning trophies and socialising and it was a real pleasure to be part of it.

And much more…

What else? Curling up on the sofa with a glass of red wine and watching films based on the Brontës’ novels, cycling around Fleetham, enjoying amazing meals (David is one of the best cooks I’ve ever met), taking our coffee in the garden, playing with Artie, Orson and Maguire- Berni’s lovely pets, watching the chickens walking around the garden (yes, there are chickens as well) and most of all spending time with Berni and everyone else in the house.

This a short video that will give you an idea of what I mean 🙂

How hospitable and generous can a person be to open up her house to strangers for a whole week? What does she get out of it?  Probably the best person to answer would be Berni herself; I can only say a big thank you for an unforgettable week, in one of the most beautiful corners of the UK; to me, it was an opportunity to think, learn, share, set goals, re-evaluate my practices, meet great people and have lots of fun. Reflecting on it right now, I reckon it was the social aspect that made me appreciate the educational one more, and what motivated me to learn and share and get so much out of it.

What do you think? Can we separate instruction from the social aspect of learning? Is it true that learning is initiated in the classroom but it actually happens outside of it? I’d love to hear your thoughts.