You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words (A year of inspired insights #6)

February 20, 2012

I had been teaching for about three years when Bob came into my class. A retired engineer with a gentle personality, Bob had been to Mexico several times and wanted to learn Spanish.

As language teachers I think we are sometimes drawn to those students who show a natural affinity for the language. We praise them to their faces and quietly marvel at their skills in the staff room when we are talking with our colleagues.

Bob was most definitely not that student. Bob was highly intelligent. Before retirement, he had been a successful engineer for several decades. When it came to Spanish though, it was like his brain functioned in slow motion.

When it came to speaking, I wondered how a Canadian could seemingly gain a southern American twang when pronouncing Spanish. It was like fingernails down a chalkboard.

Sarah Eaton speaker presenter keynote education literacyWhat Bob lacked in natural talent, he made up for in tenacity and enthusiasm. Like Kyle, he won my professional heart with “do or die” attitude. His homework was done every day. He made up his own flash cards. He practiced the dialogues. He got extra tutoring. Bob decided that this his thing and there was no stopping him.

He’d come into class and tell me about the move he watched in Spanish over the weekend or the audio book in Spanish he had found at the library. He found the stores in town that carried Latin American products and not only did he become a frequent customer, he got to know the staff. His passion for the language and Latin American culture was effervescent and contagious.

Bob passed his first course and his second, and then a third. He spent the summers in Mexico taking immersion programs. He progressed but very slowly. The twang and choppiness of his spoken language always sounded a bit like fingernails down a chalkboard.

After Bob had made it through his basic level classes, he had a choice of what classes to take. He came to me for advice. Part of me wanted to say, “Look, amigo, you are wasting your time and your money. Seriously, you just don’t have any talent for this stuff…” but something stopped me.

I dreamed a dream

Sarah Eaton, Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, keynote, presenter, language, education, literacy, Calgary, CanadaMy mind went back to my high school years. I had a full slate of courses, was actively involved in student activities and had a part-time job. Some students worked so they could buy more fashionable clothes than their parents could afford. Some of the boys wanted to buy a car. Most of us socked away a few dollars to be able to go to the movies. But the thing I really saved my money for was singing lessons.

I loved to sing. I never had much confidence when it came to singing, so I never tried out for the school musical. Instead, I worked behind the scenes on the set so I could still soak up the experience. I really, really wanted to be on stage, but it would be a cold day in hell before you would ever get me up there, singing in front of people.

I knew that if I took private voice lessons and worked hard, I could do it. My plan was to take singing lessons in grade ten and eleven and try out for the school musical in grade twelve. Even back then I was a long-term planner.

I started with one lesson a week and then moved up to two lessons. I would go over to my singing teacher’s apartment, where she would sit down at her electric piano and proceed to engage me in my favorite learning experience of the week.

I was especially thrilled because she taught me songs in Italian and German. I adored learning to pronounce words in other languages. I learned how to form different sounds in my mouth, to breathe from my belly and project my voice. Those two hours were the highlight of every week.

I would go home and practice in between lessons and my confidence slowly increased.

Every year, Wanda held a recital for her students. The first year we agreed that I was not ready to participate. I still had stage fright and though you’d never know it today, the thought of being in front of an audience caused me so much stress I almost vomited.

By the second year though, I was bouncing off the walls with effervescence. I was ready. I was going to do the recital and that would help me to get ready for the auditions for the school musical. When it came to singing, a child-like delight not only filled my soul, it ran through my veins.

Sarah Eaton, Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, keynote, presenter, language, literacy, education, Canada, AlbertaThe day of the recital came. I had rehearsed and felt nervous, but ready. I got up in front of the audience I channeled Giordani’s “Caro Mio Ben” in such an inspired way, you would have thought I was lip synching to an archangel. It was brilliant. I was so happy I cried.

At the beginning of my next voice lesson, Wanda said we could do whatever song I wanted. Filled with confidence, I was already thinking about the school musical. I chose “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” since I thought I might be able to use it for my audition.

She ended the lesson a few minutes early in order to debrief the recital, “So, how do you feel about how it went?” she asked.

“The practice paid off,” I said. “I wasn’t perfect, but man, it was really the best I have ever done.”

She looked me square in the eye and, “Sarah, it has been two years… I know you really want to do this…” She then said words I have never forgotten, bullets that ripped through my heart in an instant, “I think your energies are best directed elsewhere. You’ll never be a singer.”

Stunned, I asked, “What do you mean? I thought I did OK…”

Wanda replied, “I don’t really know how to say this kindly. This is our last lesson. You will never learn to sing. It’s time for you to go. I have another student coming.”

Shell shocked, I left. In that instant, my confidence vaporized. My enthusiasm for singing would never be the same, knowing that the teacher whom I idolized had banished me. I never tried out f the school musical. Never went back to church choir. For many years, I wouldn’t even sing the national anthem at public events. I was ashamed to open my mouth. The effects of that one day lasted for decades.

The circle of life … and learning

I looked at Bob and said, “Amigo, what class inspires you the most?”

He looked at the calendar and said, “I think this course on Mexican poetry…”

“Then take it,” I said.

Bob went on to take exactly that course, followed by many other courses. He told me once that he spent four hours a day learning Spanish. He travelled throughout Latin America, taking great pleasure in planning out each trip down to the last detail.

He lived and breathed Spanish. Spanish was to Bob what singing had been for me. Even though I had been tempted to tell him that he really didn’t have any natural talent for the language, I didn’t. I knew that what mattered most to him was the joy he got out of learning what he loved.

There can be miracles when you believe

Bob and I have kept in touch over the years. Several years after he had been a student in my class, I was walking down the hallway of our department and I heard Bob in another professor’s office, talking about an upcoming trip to Mexico.

I stopped and listened. He spoke in simple, but grammatically flawless sentences. The words flowed into sentences and the twanginess had all but disappeared from his speech. You could tell that he was not a native speaker, but it was no longer painful to listen to him. “Bob,” I thought to myself, “Happy retirement, amigo. Way to go. You’re living the dream.”

As teachers we are influenced by the idea that those with “natural talent” deserve most of our attention and admiration. We focus a little more on those people who somehow inspire us by their facility to pick concepts up easily and master new skills effortlessly.

Every now and again, you will get a student whose passion for the subject matter fuels their discipline and dedication, as they put in endless hours of practice. We can forget that as teachers, the influence we can have over our students can impact them in ways we can never imagine.

I am quite sure that my signing teacher barely remembers me. If she does, she may just roll her eyes and think, “Remember the girl with that awful voice… poor thing…” I am sure she has no idea that I sobbed for weeks and that despite a secret desire to take more singing lessons again, I have never tried. That day, I was quite literally, shamed into silence.

If I could reach higher (as a teacher)

Our job as teachers is a complex one. At the beginning of our careers we think it is about the subject matter and getting the students to learn the content. As we progress through our careers, we begin to really understand the complexity of what we are doing.   No matter what subject we are teaching, every single one of our students comes to us with hopes and fears, as well as different levels of interest and engagement.

I admit that I my own experiences influence what I say when I assert that an important aspect of our job, is to help students tap into that part of themselves that fuels their drive  and to never, ever tell them they are not good enough. Not every student is going to be a phenomenal prodigy but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be an exemplar of enthusiasm combined with disciplined practice. Being a lifelong learner is not about being sensational at everything we do. It is, in part, about having the belief that what we are learning is worthwhile and that we ourselves are worthwhile.

Sarah Eaton, keynote, speaker, presenter, education, languages, literacyIn one sentence, we as teachers can either raise our students up, or beat them down. The impact and influence we have on our students can be greater than we ever imagine. What about you? What words have teachers said to you that have stayed with you for years to come? Were they encouraging or devastating? What have you said to your own students that you think may have influenced them years after they left your class?

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” As teachers, part of our job includes giving students the tools they need to build their own dreams.

And just for the record… Today when I am driving alone in my car with the windows up and the radio on, I don’t sing songs, I own them. In my little blue Mini Cooper, I am a rock star. I can almost see it, that dream I’m dreaming...”

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

9 Tips for Successfully Incorporating Virtual Presentations into Your Conference

February 16, 2012

Today I had the coolest experience. My colleagues at Idaho State University (ISU) Workforce Training were having an educational technology conference today in Pocatello. I teach for them online, but today’s conference was live — except for one presenter, me.

Here’s how we did it:

1. Brief your presenter on what to expect

Jeff Hough and the team at ISU gave me a thorough briefing about the conference a few weeks prior to the event. We negotiated the terms of the presentation and they gave me details on what to expect.

2. Tech-savvy conference organizers

These folks specialize in offering professional development webinars for educators. I’ve done dozens of webinars and used the same platform (in this case, Adobe Connect) that the conference organizers had on hand. They knew how to set up their system and had used their webinar platform hundreds of times before. They are adept at all kinds of technology and had significant experience successfully producing webinar presentations.

Sarah Elaine Eaton, virtual, presenter, webinar, education, professional development3. Experienced and energetic virtual presenter

Modesty aside, it is safe to say that I know how to give a virtual presentation. I have colleagues who flatline in a webinar environment because they “need the crowd to give them their energy”. At today’s conference, I never saw my audience. Well, not until after when one of my ISU colleagues, Paul Dickey, tweeted this photo (which I saw after the presentation).

Some of the worst virtual workshops or keynotes I have seen have been given by people who have no experience or webinar training. (In case you’re interested, here’s how you can get trained).

4. Previously presented material

Ensure the presentation has been tested. The conference organizers asked me to repeat a Twitter for Teachers workshop that I had taught for them previously. They had already seen the program delivered via webinar and liked it. The program had already proven to be a success.

Conference organizers want their attendees to have a stellar experience. Many things can go wrong with a virtual presentation. Make sure the presenter’s content is not one of them.

5. Do a connectivity test

Before the conference, we tested all the technology we were going to use – audio, video, slides and a real-time screen share. Hotels and conference centres are notorious for having poor wireless connections. The more people who tap into them, the slower they get. Virtual presentations chew up a lot of bandwidth. Even if your system works perfectly at the office, having a new venue changes the game. Every single piece of tech needs to get tested… and tested again.

As we prepared for today, we had some issues with the audio. We made some adjustments that helped significantly when the room was filled with a live audience.

6. Expect the unexpected

At one point during today’s session, we lost audio. Because we were all experienced working in a virtual environment and were aware of our audio problems during the connectivity test, it came as no surprise when the audio cut out. We were quickly able to work things through and I picked up where I had been cut off. Both the conference organizers and the presenter need to be able to keep their cool when “tech happens” in front of a room full of people.

Every person involved in today’s virtual program understood what aspects of the production we could control, such as our individual mics and computer settings and which we could not control, such as the venue’s wireless connection cutting out. Knowing what you can and can not control puts you in a better position to problem solve on the fly.

7. Include real-time interactivity

In my case, Jeff acted as a host for the session, introducing me and then fielding questions from the audience. At the beginning of the session, I said, “OK, let’s do a show of hands in the room. How many people use Twitter right now?”

Jeff acted as my eyes and ears and reported back to me, “There are crickets in the room, Sarah,” meaning that there was silence. He then added, “There are maybe four hands up.”

“O.K.,” I said. “That is less than 10% of the room. Let’s see if we can’t increase that by the end of the presentation…”

We stayed in constant contact throughout the session, talking back and forth, naturally and with a conversational tone.

8. Show, don’t tell

There is a certain amount of “telling” in an instructional program, but try to limit it as much as possible.

My presentation included a combination of static slides and a real-time screen share. I was showing folks how to use Twitter, so I demonstrated it live. Because Jeff also has a Twitter account, we were able to Tweet back and forth in real time and the participants could see it on screen.

The highlight for me as a presenter came when one participant signed for Twitter during the presentation and Tweeted “@DrSarahEaton“, as I had shown them how to do moments earlier.

I noticed it on my feed and said, “Hey, who’s that? Is that someone who’s in the conference room right now?”

Jeff asked the brand-new-baby-Tweeter to raise his or her hand. She did.

This was the single best moment for me as a virtual presenter. It was completely unrehearsed and unexpected. We had no idea anyone was going to sign up for Twitter right then and there and start putting the content into action at that very moment.

It caught the attention of every single person in the room and suddenly, it all made sense. What I had been saying about educators being able to connect in real time from all over the world, was no longer something I said, it was something we were able to actually show them. It was the coolest thing.

After that, a few other people joined in and sent Tweets, too.

Jimeny Cricket may have talked, but these crickets Tweeted! It was brilliant.

9. Give participants a valuable handout

Participants did not get a copy of my presentation slides. (Bor-ing!) Instead, every participant received a copy of the Twitter for Teachers manual that I did to accompany the course. It is a 25-page, step-by-step how to guide that steps them through the exact processes I showed during the presentation, in exactly the same order. Well, except for the spontaneous moments that made the session come alive.

The technical aspects of a virtual presentation increase your risk of failure significantly. Just about anything can go wrong. Even with all the preparation in the world, the potential for unexpected screw ups can still happen. Lots of preparation helps to mitigate that risk. Having an experienced team who have worked together before also helps tremendously.

You know when a virtual presentation has been truly successful because the webinar technology becomes “invisible”. When participants are so into the experience that they almost forget their presenter is hundreds, if not thousands of miles away and their sense of distance has melted away, you know you’ve just incorporated a great virtual presentation into your conference.

A personal thanks from me to all the folks at ISU Workforce Training. As any experienced virtual presenter knows, those work on the production team are the real stars of the show.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

“I am a language teacher”: A picture says a thousand words

February 16, 2012

I’ve seen a few of these photo collections flying around the Internet recently. This is one I did up… just for fun.

Sarah Elaine Eaton I am a language teacher speaker presenter humor funny

You have my permission to share it… Just leave the blog link at the bottom, please. 😉


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

21% of employees are Facebook friends with their boss, study shows

February 14, 2012

A recent article in Znet, gives a synopsis of a research study done about employees who are friends with their bosses on Facebook. Here are the highlights:

Sarah Eaton social media speaker Calgary consultant Alberta CanadaThe study was conducted by Russell Herder, who surveyed over 1000 employees in the U.S. in late 2011.

Two interesting points in the article:

Of the 21% of those who are friends with their boss, they are more likely to be younger employees.

Being Facebook friends with their boss leads them to believe it helps them do their jobs better.

In terms of who initiates the FB relationship, 46% of the employees initiated and 38% of the bosses initiated.

Male bosses are more likely than female bosses to connect on social media, the study reports.

The article recommends that companies have a written social media policy governing what the expectations are for all company employees.

Another recommendation from the researchers is for leaders to fight the urge to retreat or over-react to friend requests from employees. Until recently, organizational leaders have often been coached to avoid interacting with subordinates on social media. That is beginning to change as more and more people begin to adopt social medias as part of their social interactions, both on and off the job.

Organizations (that includes companies, non-profits and educational organizations alike) are beginning to see social media for what it is — a means to engage and connect with others.

Are you Facebook friends with your boss?


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Webinar: How to Develop a Social Media Policy

February 14, 2012

Sarah Eaton social media technology speaker presenter webinarThis week’s webinar with Chinook Learning is “How to Develop a Social Media Policy“. Its designed for organizational leaders and managers who have to cope with guiding employees’ use of social media in the workplace.

Social media has changed how people interact with each other on line. Marketers talk about social media strategies, but that is different from an organizational policy that is designed to guide and govern users’ behaviour in social media settings. This course is based on this article “Anatomy of a Social Media Policy” that I wrote last fall, published by Social Media Today.

Participant outcomes

By the end of this webinar you will:

  • Understand the differences between a social media strategy and a social media policy.
  • Understand the basics of social media governance.
  • Know the critical elements of a social media policy.
  • Understand the importance of dialogue when it comes to striking a balance between users’ rights and responsibilities.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of what a social media policy is and how to go about developing a relatively simple, straightforward policy for your organization.


  1. Social media policy – Definition and overview; Differences between a social media strategy and a policy.
  2. Social media governance – What social media governance means for organizations, employers and employees.
  3. Anatomy of a social media policy – Learn the critical elements of a well-constructed social media policy and how the various elements work together to create a fully functioning and effective policy. Learn what they key parts are so you can build your own simple, straightforward policy.
  4. Balancing users’ rights with their responsibility to their employer. Why it is important to dialogue with users in your organization and tips for doing this effectively.


Share this post: Webinar: How to Develop a Social Media Policy

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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