Making Discoveries: An ESL Story

I first crossed paths with Walton Burns at a TESOL convention. We’re both members of the Materials Writers Interest Section, and it turns out that we have quite a bit more in common, especially in the roundabout way we discovered our professional calling. Walton may not have planned to become an English language teacher or a content creator when he started his academic career, but sometimes things happen for a reason and the rest of us can only be thankful that those events unfolded the way they did. Personally, I believe the ESL world is a brighter place for having Walton’s contributions in and out of the classroom.

I recently asked Walton if he’d agree to share his ELT story along with some tips for other teachers. I hope you enjoy reading his responses to my curious questions!

WaltonBurns photo
Walton Burns: ESL teacher, author, blogger, Chair of TESOL’s Materials Writers Interest Section
  1. How did you get into teaching?

Like many ELTs, I sort of fell into the job. My undergraduate degree was in Philosophy and then I did a master’s degree in Theology. I had always planned to pursue my PhD and become a professor. However, after I got my master’s, I felt burned out on academia. I decided to join the Peace Corps and take a break from studying.

In the Peace Corps, I taught English in a Francophone school in Vanuatu, an island chain in the South Pacific. The island life was truly amazing, but the part I really loved was teaching. It was so much fun to work with the students and to see them improve day by day. Often it was small victories like teaching Marie Claire to pronounce the initial ‘h’ sound in “how” or getting Kali to use the verb “to be” in the present continuous. Sometimes it was challenging, but the students’ energy, enthusiasm, and gratitude was a constant pleasure. I realized that this was what I wanted to do for a living.

  1. You have experience working abroad and in the U.S. Did any teaching environment challenge you in particular?

At one point, I was teaching a weekly class in a vocational high school on the outskirts of Astana in Kazakhstan. Now Astana is a fully developed city, but this school was 30 minutes outside of town.

The school building was in pretty good shape, but there were no indoor toilets—not such a problem in the fall, but in the winter with -30 degree temperatures, an outhouse is not a great deal of fun. The classroom was nice, but it was barebones. For the first lesson, I had intended to listen to some dialogues of people greeting each other. I was then going to write some helpful expressions on the board. When I got there, I saw that there was no CD player. And there was only a chalkboard, meaning my markers were going to be useless.

Those problems were easy to overcome, but this poor school had no budget. So sometimes the chalkboard would be gone as another teacher had taken it before my class. Or sometimes the students would be needed to clean the school, so class would be canceled with no warning. I never quite knew what I would face.

Another challenge was my students. These vocational students didn’t have Internet access and couldn’t afford to travel. Their parents were factory workers and storekeepers. The students were enthusiastic and motivated, but it was difficult because I was literally the only exposure to English they had. It was the first and only time I have ever taught true beginners.

  1. I know you’ve shared a lot of lesson plans online. What advice would you give to new teachers about designing a good lesson?

If you want to design a lesson that you will use over and over or one that you will share with others, the best thing you can do is make it as comprehensive as you can. It’s always a good idea to have more material than you think you will use. And it’s also helpful to be ready to teach everything students are going to need to know in order to be able to achieve the objectives in your lesson.

For example, at one point when I was teaching the argument essay, I came up with a graphic organizer to help students outline their essay. Before they could use it though, I thought students should have a practice stage. So I wrote a sample argument essay that students could reverse outline with the graphic organizer.  Since the textbook used terms such as rebuttal and opposing argument, I had put those in my graphic organizer. So I also made a worksheet that explained those terms. And I decided to make another worksheet demonstrating the benefit of including opposing arguments in your essays.

When I did the lesson in class, students asked what kinds of supporting details were good for argument essays, so I added a module on facts versus opinions, citing examples, and writing persuasive anecdotes. By the time I was done, I had two weeks’ worth of lessons that taught every aspect of writing an argument essay. I could pull out the different pieces to meet my students’ needs and skip the pieces that they didn’t need help with.

  1. September is the start of a new academic year for many teachers around the world. How can teachers get off on the right foot with a new group of students? Can you share one of your favorite Day 1 warm-ups? 

One of my favorite icebreakers for the first day of school plays on the students’ natural curiosity about their teacher. It also goes a long way in showing that you are open to your students. I came up with it on the spur of the moment as I was addressing a class full of students that I had known for a long time. However, it works equally well in a class of students who know nothing about you. In fact, that can be more fun.

To use the activity, put a question mark up on the board and tell students that their job is to tell the class what they know about you. This can take a couple of forms. Students who know you already can contribute information. You can also ask questions and have them guess the answer, which is a good way to get out the information you want them to have, such as how long you have been teaching. Finally, you can also encourage students to deduce facts about you based on what they can see. For example, they may say, “I see you are married because you are wearing a wedding ring.” This variation is not for the thin-skinned. I’ve gotten comments such as, “You don’t like sports because you don’t look fit.”  But then that’s an opportunity to talk about polite and impolite language! This icebreaker always leaves you and the students laughing together, which is a good thing.


– Thank you, Walton. You know, I recall a Russian classroom that had a chalkboard for me to use. My hands and pockets were often covered in dust. The real problem was that the board was so worn that I couldn’t write in some spots. You learn to make do. Sometimes by overcoming those kinds of challenges we learn just how creative we can be!


Walton Burns is the current chair of TESOL’s Materials Writers Interest Section. He is a published author and blogger. His full bio is available on his website. Click here. For more teaching ideas, visit his blog at English Advantage.

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