Are you waiting for the good old days?

August 20, 2010

Remember the good old days of funding, back when classes were small, classrooms were well-stocked, teachers were paid well and education was well funded? When was that exactly? If we think back, probably that time, if it ever existed was back in the 1970s or so.

By the mid-1980’s, massive cutbacks to education began across the developed world. In Canada in the U.S. the phrase “cost recovery programs” was introduced, meaning that courses such as those offered by continuing education branches of large public educational institutions and boards. In the UK, education changed dramatically under Margaret Thatcher. Class sizes grew. Morale among teachers dropped. Salaries stayed the same, as wage freezes took effect.

Do you still wish for the days before all the changes? I hate to break it to you, but they’re not coming back. There are fewer and fewer full-time positions available in all job sectors now. Outsourcing to countries where labor costs are much less expensive is taking over the world at a rapid pace. Educational experiences online are budding right through the traditional brick-and-mortar institutions.

The question is, what do we do now? I’d argue that the trick is to think forwards instead of backwards. Look around and assess what you really have in the 21st century. More teachers than every have graduate degrees. Classrooms are more technologically advanced than they have ever been. Children love to learn and play just as much as they ever did. And most of them can’t relate to those “good old days” because what exists today is the norm for them.

If we assess the current situation with a view to valuing what we have today, it shifts our perspective, putting us in a space of possibility and expanding horizons, rather than a black hole that sucks in your energy, your spirit and your love of teaching.

The question is not “How do we get our funding back?” but rather “How do we maximize the tremendous resources we have in terms of wisdom, knowledge, experience and potential to ensure that our students have the best experience we can give them today?”

The greatest gift we can give our children and our students is a future full of possibility, curiosity, creativity and compassion for their fellow humans. To do so, requires forward thinking and a commitment to make it happen for them.

What are you waiting for?


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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.

Thoughts on literacy issues in Cameroon

June 2, 2010

Recently a colleague suggested to me that I put together an abstract for an upcoming conference in Cameroon. I’ve never been to Cameroon, so naturally I did some research. Research, of course, leads to more thinking. Here’s a thought-piece on literacy in Cameroon, just because I’m a thinker.


Learning is changing in the 21st century at a global level. There is a rise in the importance and recognition of non-formal and informal learning. This is particularly important in the case of literacy and languages, not only in Canada, but in other countries as well. Let’s take Cameroon as one example. The Republic of Cameroon is located in central and western Africa. Bordered by Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo, it is home to almost 19 million people.

UNICEF reports that the total literacy rate for Cameroon from 2003-2008 was 68% of the population, with 77% of the males and less than 60% of the females having basic literacy skills. That’s significant.

I ask myself what countries in the west can do to improve the situation in countries like this? What are the implications for the 21st century if we do not? Literacy today includes more than just reading and writing. It includes thinking skills, technology and information literacy and the ability to communicate with others. Together these skills allow us to work together, build partnerships and continue to improve collectively, rather than having the gap between those who “have” and those who “have not” widen even further. It is time to close this gap, or at least narrow it. This is more possible today than it has ever been in any point in human history. It is a possibility in the 21st century, if we work towards it being so.

There is a movement in the west to link second language learning to leadership. How can people in the developed nations, particularly the youth, use their own skills in literacy and second languages to improve the lives of those in developing nations? There are those who would argue that we must work first to improve literacy conditions in our own country. I don’t disagree. I also know that 20-somethings get itchy feet. They want to travel, backpack and see the world. What would happen if we created a world where literacy was so important and so “cool” that youth with itchy feet from developed nations were inspired, of their own volition, to combine their travels with a deeply-rooted personal desire to help others in developing nations improve their literacy skills? Wow.

Educational leadership guru Michael Fullan states that “leaders learning from each other raises the bar for all”. The youth of today are the leaders of the 21st century. They live in a globalized, technologically progressive world unlike that of their parents and grandparents. How can we, in the 21st century, mobilize youth on a global level to transcend geographical, political and economic barriers to raise the bar for each other, using the improvement of literacy skills as a starting point?

Literacy is the key to improved education, skills, and employment. These, in turn, build the capacity to improve our situation, increase our human dignity, provide for our families and contribute to our communities. I believe that it is the responsibility of developed nations such as Canada and the United States to work together with other nations to “raise the bar” for everyone across the globe. I believe that literacy and improved language skills are foundational skills for leadership in the 21st century, a century where technology will change at rapid rate. I also believe that the youth from western developed nations must be mobilized to use their skills to help others from around the world.

Eaton, S. E. (2010a). Formal, non-formal and informal education: The case of literacy, essential skills and language learning in Canada. Calgary. Retrieved from

Eaton, S. E. (2010b). Leading Through Language Learning and Teaching: The Case of Gandhi. Paper presented at the Interdisciplinary Language Research: Relevance and Application Series, Language Research Centre. Retrieved from

Fullan, M. (2006). Turnaround leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Index Mundi. (n.d.). Cameroon Literacy. Retrieved June 1, 2010, from

UNICEF. (n.d.). Cameroon: Statistics. Retrieved May 31, 2010, 2010, from


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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.

How learning Spanish changed my life: A personal story

April 26, 2010

A few days ago I was sorting through some old documents. I came across this piece that I wrote for the students of a Spanish class I was teaching at Mount Royal University a few years ago. It explains the positive effect learning a second language had on me, acting as an anchor and source of inspiration at one of the most stressful points in my early adulthood. Here’s the story I shared with my students:


As I look around our classroom, I see tired faces, drained by too many exams, work schedules that are too hectic and lives that may not give enough time for fun, rest and relaxation. As we draw closer to the end of the semester, the crunch is on to cover material, plow through assignments, and study for finals. The focus shifts from the process of learning and discovering, to the need to reach the finish line in whatever way spells success for each of us.

I wanted to take a few minutes to share a story with you. I know you are busy people with busy lives, so if  this isn’t a good time, set this story aside and come back to it later.

The story takes place in 1992 in Madrid, Spain, where I was studying in a summer immersion program for international students. I had taken one year of Spanish in 1991-92 at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, where I graduated that May with my B.A. in English. The winter semester had been hell on wheels.

I was hit by a car the night before classes were scheduled to start in January.

My boyfriend of a year and a half, who was with me at the time of the accident, broke up with me a month later, saying that when he saw me get hit he really couldn’t have cared if I lived or died. He moved out the next day. I lost a job because I couldn’t get to work while I was recovering and I wondered how the heck I was going to pay the rent and buy food. I missed a few weeks of classes. My grades were sliding and I was panicking.

When I made it back to classes in February, I was sitting in Spanish class one day and the instructor brought some forms to class. If anyone wanted the chance to go and study Spanish language and culture, we could fill out a form to apply for a beca or grant, compliments of the Spanish Embassy. I thought, “Yeah, man, anything to get the heck out of here for a while!” I filled out the form.

I more or less forgot about it, as I was trying to put my life back together through the rest of the semester. One day in May, just before graduation, I got a letter from the Spanish embassy. Of course, I couldn’t read very much of it, but I guessed that it wasn’t a rejection letter, because it wasn’t just one sheet of paper. (Ever notice how letters telling you that you didn’t get something are only ever one page long?) There was a whole bunch of stuff in the envelope. So, I took it to school the next day and asked my Spanish professor to tell me what it said. “You got it!” She said. “You’re going to Spain!”

The beca covered tuition, books, residence and food. I didn’t have the money for the plane ticket, so I sold everything I had, worked some extra hours at one of the jobs I still had and gathered the money to go. A week after graduation, I was in Madrid.

There were a few hundred students in the program, from all over the world. The Spanish embassy gave away a limited number of scholarships each year to different countries. I later found out that I was one of two Canadians selected that year. We were placed in classes according to level. After studying Spanish for one full year, and making it out with a decent grade, despite the challenges of the second semester, I was not prepared for the experience. There were 18 different levels of classes. My placement test determined that I would be in level 17 – the second lowest of all the classes.

My classmates were from Europe and the Middle East. The other girls in my residence were from all over the world. The only language we had in common was Spanish. We found that if we wanted to make friends we had a choice: only associate with other people who spoke our first language (in my case, English) or try to make friends in Spanish. The result was a linguistic hodgepodge – people ended up communicating however they could, in whatever language they could. We communicated what we could in Spanish and helped translate for each other in whatever language we could… English, some Danish, some French, some Arabic… whatever we had as a group to help each other understand and bridge our linguistic and cultural gaps.

Two of the people who ended up in our circle of friends were Salim and Imad, both from Jordan. Salim was in my class and Imad was in the class of one of my Danish friends who was much more fluent in Spanish. We toured the city, went for coffees, studies and did all the normal social things that students do.

It was July of 1992. In the scope of world events, the Gulf War was still fresh in everyone’s mind. I remember the day that they announced the war. As I watched TV, I thought, “But… there wasn’t supposed to be a war in my lifetime…. World War II was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Isn’t that what our parents fought for?” But the Gulf War happened and I was pinned to CNN through most of it, just like everybody else.

One day near the end of our program, after a few weeks of gaining language skills and solidifying friendships with the people who had come together in our social circle, I summoned the courage to ask Salim about the button he wore every day on his lapel. It was a photo button of Saddam Hussein’s face.

I was curious about why anybody would wear a button of Saddam Hussein. After all, the guy was a maniac! But Salim wasn’t a maniac…. I just didn’t get it. When I asked him about it, he said, “He’s my hero. He helped our people.”

From there, the conversation took off, in broken Spanish, as we discovered each other’s point of view, the perceptions we had gained from the media, and our stereotypes about each other’s part of the world. The conversation took place on the steps of the Muslim students’ residence. The Muslim students were segregated to accommodate their dietary needs and to provide for quiet at regulated prayer times. The males lived on one side and the females on the other. Foreign students were not allowed in the residence, so if we wanted to visit, we did so on the steps of the building. Some nights there would be students out there with guitars, singing. Other times, there were groups of students chatting and studying. That night, a small group of us talked about war, terrorism, our heroes and our opinions, stereotypes and attitudes.

Through the course of that conversation I found out that the reason none of the Jordanian girls had made friends with me was because they thought I was promiscuous. That summer, there was a drought in Spain and the thermometer hit 40 degrees Centigrade. I was melting. I wore Bermuda shorts and sleeveless T-shirts and sandals to class (not even “skinny straps”, just sleeveless.) In their minds, I showed too much skin and I was shameless. They were comfortable in their head-to-toe covering and did not want to associate with someone who “dressed like a prostitute”. Needless to say, few of them had experienced the harsh, cold climate I was used to, and nor did they seem to understand that I was struggling in the heat.

I learned a lot that night… about the Gulf War and what it meant to these people who had become my friends, about how other people perceived me and the culture that I come from and about what it means to be human. By the end of the night, none of us had actually changed our opinions, but we did learn a lot about each other and about ourselves, as we gained perspective, listened and shared.

I tell people that trip changed my life. After returning home, I decided to return to university to study Spanish, which my family didn’t really “get”, to say the least. But what changed my life wasn’t the verbs that I learned to conjugate (even though I do love verbs!). It wasn’t the grammar that I crammed into my brain so I could pass my final. It was the connection I was able to make with other human beings because I was able to communicate with them, even if was broken and jumbled and not very fluent.

I’ve lost touch with most of the people from that course, but I’m still in touch with a few of them. Last year, Lene, one of the Danish girls, came to Calgary to visit me. It was great to re-connect. All of us send and receive holiday cards, letters, e-mails and even the occasional phone calls with friends all over the world.

Since September 11, those that us who have remained in touch have re-affirmed our friendships with each other on a more regular basis. E-mail has certainly made it easier to stay in touch. Over the past few weeks, we have shared our thoughts on the new War that has erupted. Like the Gulf War, it seems to be the Middle East and North America that are the two big players. We watch what goes on and chat over the net about it.

But the e-mails are not just about the war. We talk about our lives, our jobs, our friends and family and other regular, everyday things. We talk about the ordinary stuff that makes up our lives. And the only thing that brought us together was a language course in Spain. My Arabic friends still don’t speak any English and I still don’t speak any Arabic. I suspect that’s the way it will always be. Spanish is still the only language that we all have in common. Our friendships have evolved and strengthened over the years. We wonder if we will ever meet in person again. Nobody knows the answer.  In the meantime, we enjoy the friendships that we have come to mean a great deal to us despite – or maybe because of  – language barriers, cultural and religious differences and half a globe separating us.

In the long run, it’s not about the verbs, the grammar or the vocabulary. Those are just the things you have to learn to pass the tests. The tests are little milestones you have to pass along the journey of this course. And within the context of the course, they are both your challenges and your markers of success. Your job is to rise to the challenge each time, even though you’re tired and getting burnt out. In the bigger picture though, the course is just a little milestone along your course of study. Your studies extend beyond the classroom, to the world and the individuals you meet along the way who are studying, just like you and me.

It is unlikely that any of you will have a story just like this to tell. Perhaps this course is the end of your Spanish language journey. But I know that you will have your own stories to tell, about things that would not have had the opportunity to experience, if you hadn’t made the decision to be a student. As our finish line looms ahead, let’s remember that in the bigger picture, this course is just one more milestone on the big journey.


Share this post: How learning Spanish changed my life: A personal story

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.

Language and Literacy Teachers as Leaders

March 18, 2010

Language and literacy teachers and tutors are instructional leaders. Every day they act as role models for the students that they teach. They are a source of inspiration, motivation and encouragement. For the most part, they also lead by example. When a literacy tutor teaches a learner to read, write and learn the alphabet, it is because they have also learned it themselves and they are sharing what they themselves have learned. Many foreign language teachers have lived and taught abroad. They understand the difficulties in grasping a foreign grammar and new vocabulary, as well as culture shock and learning how to “be” in a new place.

Here are 5 tips for celebrating your role as a Language Leader:

1. Share stories with your learners.

Humans connect through stories and shared experiences. Tell your students about your own experience as a learner, or a story about someone you know. Think of a student you have who is struggling. Then go back into your memory banks and find an anecdotal story about you or someone else that may help your learner in some way – to provide relief, inspiration or hope. I advise changing the names of characters in your stories, to protect the innocent, of course. But it OK to share stories about former students who have overcome similar difficulties and succeeded. Connecting through stories is a powerful way to lead.

2. Share your own tips for success.

Students sometimes struggle to find strategies that will help them succeed. One way they figure out what will work for them is to get tips from those who have already done the same. As a teacher, you act as a leader when you share your tips that will help others succeed. For example, I had trouble learning to roll my “rr” when I was learning Spanish. I had previously studied French and my “r”s were too far back in my throat for Spanish. I struggled with the new sound of the trilled Spanish “rr”. My teacher gave me the tip of practicing it in the shower. (Seriously!) I practiced every day in the shower until I could do it.

As a teacher I passed that same tip on to my own students, telling that that practicing every day for just a few minutes is important. The method of doing it while doing something else that is pretty routine and does not require much “deep thinking”, also helps to decrease anxiety. It worked for me and my students tell me that it works for them too. They appreciated the tip! Every teacher has good learning tips. What are some of your personal success tips that you can share with your learners?

3. Show your humanity.

Adults have this thing about failure. Children are less self-conscious about it until they learn that it’s bad to make mistakes. Adult learners may have feelings of shame or stigma about what they don’t know. As a Language Leader you want to show your learners that it is not only OK to make mistakes and not know things, it is inevitable! What we don’t know creates a space for us to learn in. No one knows everything and we all have the capacity to learn. When you’re working with your learners find ways to take yourself down off whatever pedestal your learners may want to put you on and show them that you are just as human as you are.

4. Laugh with your learners.

Along with showing your humanity comes laughter. I tell my students about the time when I was giving a presentation as a young college-age student who was studying Spanish. I concluded my presentation, which was an anecdote about my experience studying abroad in Madrid with the line, “Y al final me quedé bien embarazada.” A few people in the class broke out into laugher and my teacher stifled her laughter. What I said was “I finished up good and pregnant”. What I meant to say was, “At the end of it all, I was really embarrassed.” Oops! Needless to say, there was no pregnancy involved, but there was embarrassment – both during the initial incident and during my class presentation. And I learned to say it properly in Spanish – “Me dio mucha vergüenza.”

I share that story with my students so they can see my humanity. We have a good laugh over it and hopefully, they learn from my mistake!

5. Encourage learners with a “can do” attitude.

Every now and again we all become discouraged. When this happens, it’s easy to say, “I can’t do it”. As a Language Leader, your job is to say, “Oh yes you can!” I tell my students that I am actually a very slow learner, which is true. I tell them about times I wanted to give up and didn’t. I tell them that by tapping into their own personal determination and perseverance, they will learn to read and write the way they want to. They will learn their verb conjugations. More importantly, they will empower themselves to gain new skills and experience the world in new ways – that their effort will be worth it.


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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.

3 Key Elements of Leadership

February 3, 2010

Leaders are everywhere. They are business owners, executives and managers. They are teachers. They are parents. Sometimes they are children. Anyone can be a leader. Some people think that being a leader is something that comes with a particular job or vocation. I disagree. After having studied leadership for a number of years, I am convinced that most of us have the capacity to improve ourselves so that we can either become leaders, or improve the natural skills we already have.

There are three key elements of true leadership. The first is to set an example by living it. Many years ago Gandhi said “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”.  No truer words have ever been spoken. In order to lead powerfully we must first demonstrate the attitudes and behaviors we expect and want from others. This may seem simple, but how many times how you run across a manager whose attitude is “do as I say, not as I do”. These people may be managers, but they’re not leaders.

If you’re a business leader and you want your staff to dress professionally, you set the example by arriving in a suit every day. If you’re a teacher and you want your students to turn in their homework on time, you give them back their corrected assignments in a timely manner. If you’re a parent and you want your children to make their beds, you make your own bed in the morning. No excuses. Leaders live the example they want others to follow.

The second element of true leadership is to inspire others and give them hope. You can turn on any news channel today and see stories of death, despair and terror. It is true that terrible things have happened in the world. Leaders will acknowledge the reality and ask themselves what they can do to keep the human spirit thriving and growing? The answer is often found in hope.

There may not be easy answers to every situation. But there’s always a reason to hope. The resilience and strength of the human spirit are powerful. The strength of our spirit can help us overcome tremendous pain and grief. It is what allows us to continue to love and be loved when we feel all is lost. Leaders recognize this and remind others of it.

Finally, leaders empower others. Everyone has hopes, fears and dreams. Leaders encourage others to pursue their dreams and help them overcome their fears. This means working with others to help them understand how to prepare for success and then make their own dreams reality.

Once when I was coaching a very capable director of an international language program at a university. She expressed frustrations about lack of funding, too little time and too few resources. I replied that as an educational leader, her focus was her students. Educating and empowering them was at the core of her value system, and her work as an educational leader. If she forgot this, then potentially hundreds of students would walk away from her program disillusioned, rather than vibrant with new potential. Realizing this was true, she resolved to do  whatever she could to improve her program so students could continue to grow and learn as a result of it. She later told me that was a pivotal conversation for her, as she realized that her first order of business was to serve her students and help them become the best they could be.

Leaders look beyond themselves and their own wants. With compassion, honesty and guidance leaders will help others to reach their maximum potential as human beings in whatever way they can.

These 3 actions: living the example, inspiring others and empowering others are keys to success and genuine leadership.

See Dr. Eaton speak on this topic on YouTube:


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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.

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