Welcome to the BESIG World Blog. Each month we’ve got a different guest author lined up who will be sharing thoughts and experiences on teaching business English from countries around the globe.

  • Out on a limb: Freelancing in Finland

    In the second episode of our two-part feature on business English in Finland, trainer Lynn Nikkanen shares her experiences of forging a teaching and writing career in the nordic country. Originally from England, Lynn is now well-integrated into Finnish society and has an established in-company client base who appreciate her experience, flexibility and creativity, as well as a prolific career as a course book writer. Lynn tells us about how she became a freelancer and shares some tips on how to make a success of it. She also talks about how she got into course book writing and what the day-to-day work of creating course book material entails. Although she may sometimes feel like she´s "out on a limb", Lynn stays in touch with the rest of the ELT community through professional development opportunities and training courses online.

    Lynn Nikkanen

    Lynn Nikkanen works as a freelance in-company business English trainer in Helsinki, teaching mainly one-to-one. She has also co-authored over thirty course books for a local Finnish publisher, primarily for the upper secondary school market. Since completing an MA TESOL by distance learning, she has recently completed the Cert ICT and Cert IBET courses, both thanks to online learning programmes (and a particularly long, dark winter). She is currently working on new multi-format English grammar material with three Finnish colleagues, and bracing herself for yet another peripatetic and parky winter season on the business English trail.

    CH What’s it like to work as a freelancer in Finland?

    LN: If my memory serves me right, I was nudged towards full-fledged freelancing when a government training centre discontinued the language teaching side of their operations, and the clients I was teaching stayed loyal to me. I was very wary in my early teaching days of ‘poaching’ clients from the language schools that employed me, but it wasn’t uncommon for students to enquire about continuing lessons on a private basis, and if they took the initiative, I was inclined to say yes. In essence, language learners form a ‘verbal agreement’ with their teacher, not with the language school that provides the teacher. However, as unbusinesslike as it sounds, I have no formal channels for marketing my services and generally rely on goodwill and personal recommendations to retain existing clients and obtain new ones. This makes freelancing as precarious as it is liberating. On the one hand, you can choose where, when and whom you teach to a large extent, and negotiate decent rates of pay along with the syllabus. It’s also possible to build a direct and open working relationship with training managers, without third-party interference, which can sometimes just confound arrangements. On the other hand, it’s a vulnerable position to be in as it’s impossible to match up to the marketing muscle of large, established language training companies and the range of services and on-site facilities they provide. The only way to differentiate myself from the competition is by offering a highly personalized service with equally high availability (i.e. willing to work evenings and weekends). In addition, there are no such niceties as holiday pay or sponsored professional development when you freelance and, of course, you can’t afford to get ill. Yet despite the inevitable drawbacks, I’m willing to wager that once a business English teacher finds their feet, or gains a toehold, as a freelancer, they are unlikely to revert to working for a language school.

    CH: What advice would you give to other teachers who are thinking of turning freelance?

    LN: I don’t know anyone in this neck of the woods who starts working directly with clients before putting in time with a language school that procures teaching hours on their behalf. In spite of the relative job security that this offers, I would definitely advise teachers to strike out on their own–but only after notching up considerable classroom experience and cultivating a personal reputation for professionalism, coupled with flexibility and the ability to get on with anyone and everyone. Professional qualifications and experience are a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for success here. In fact, I can’t emphasize the relationship-building aspect of freelancing strongly enough. Perhaps it’s because I teach predominantly one-to-one that sensitivity to the affective variables seems to be such an important factor in gaining return clients or ‘regulars’. At the expense of stating the obvious, learning a language can be a humbling experience for professional adults who suddenly find themselves verbally incapacitated in the L2, and they are more likely to put in a sustained effort with a teacher they like and in whose company they feel at ease. This is especially true for the job-experienced learners I teach. Many have very good receptive skills after ten years of English at school, but tend to be inhibited about their productive skills, and need a fair amount of encouragement and empathy to dispel so-called language anxiety and an over-preoccupation with accuracy.

    In terms of job security, some recommend carving out a specialist training niche for yourself as a freelancer. This may well be true, but in a small (and expensive) country like Finland I think it’s important to gradually broaden the scope of your freelance offering by diversifying into related areas such as materials writing or translating, which usually calls for making a longer-term commitment to the host country. My teaching experience is limited to Finland, but settling here and getting a real feel for the local teaching context and language have helped me to branch out into publishing and copy-editing – and working round the clock when all the work descends at once. Freelancing can make you reluctant to turn work down, which can sometimes leave you swamped.

    CH: How did you get into materials writing and what are the differences between creating materials for your own learners and for course books?

    LN: I got into materials writing when a language-school owner, who was working as a materials writer himself for one of the local publishers, heard me using pop song lyrics to engage a teenage student. This serendipitous incident resulted in him asking me whether I’d be interested in writing material for a lower secondary course book series as they were looking for a second native speaker for their writing team. I went along for an interview and was hired. Twenty-odd years down the line, I’m still working on course book series, but mainly for upper secondary schools today. These are books that students study during the three years leading up to their matriculation exams. We work in writing teams composed of native English speakers and Finnish teachers of English. Each eight-book series plus accompanying material takes about five years to produce, and then has a ‘shelf life’ of about six to seven years maximum. What this means in practice is that as soon as you finish one series, it’s time to start planning the next. The national curriculum is drawn up by the Finnish Board of Education, but there’s plenty of room for manoeuvre and creativity when it comes to methodology and course content.

    Apart from not having to follow a prescribed curriculum, I’d say that the biggest difference between creating materials for my own learners and for course books is that about fifty per cent of the reading texts and all the listening texts are purpose-written for the books we produce, especially during the first two years of upper secondary school. After that, we place greater reliance on authentic articles and literary extracts, and as writers we are also liable to pay the copyright fees on the material we select. Luckily, I never have to script texts for my own learners, only tasks or framework materials. I’d go as far as to say that all EFL teachers are materials writers by default, and it’s only a matter of time before we jettison the course books and start tweaking and tailoring material to fit. I can’t read anything these days without wondering whether it could be adapted as lesson material. I’m sure you know the feeling!

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  • Focus on business English in Finland: the parky and peripatetic lives of two teachers

    This month we´re bringing you a two-part feature on business English teaching in Finland, as seen through the eyes of two practitioners based in the Nordic country. Finland may not be renowned for its high concentration of business English training, but it is known as a country where education has a high priority and the teaching professional is highly respected.

    In the first of this two-part feature, Claire Hart talks to Marise Lehto, who some of you may already have already come into contact with in the Twittersphere--she´s an active tweeter and PLN supporter--or on the conference circuit--she will be presenting two workshops at the IATEFL BESIG Annual Conference in Stuttgart this November. Marise is a New Zealander with her own company, Marise Lehto Associates, which provides English language teaching and business coaching. She is constantly seeking and developing ways to increase learner and teacher engagement and the efficacy of the corporate training and coaching she provides, and one of her special interests is action research and how it can be instrumental in that process. In this interview, Marise shares some insights into what inspires, guides and motivates her as a business English professional.

    Marise Lehto

    Marise Lehto founded ‘Marise Lehto Associates’ www.mla.fi in 2010 and is currently studying for an MSc Educational Management. Her research interests encompass:

    • developing sustainable learning models through a systemic thinking approach – models that are the foundation for a successful and adaptive learning culture
    • a social constructivist view of learning through an interactionist framework
    • post-method critical pedagogy and the implications for the second language classroom

    She is driven by the desire to learn, question everything and challenge the status quo. Her learning philosophy is reflected – quite literally - in her company logo and she is a strong advocate for continuing professional development through the medium of action research.

    CH: What is it like to be a business English teacher in Finland right now?

    ML: It’s very exciting! Right now the profession is in a state of fast moving change and the demand for highly qualified TESOL teachers - not just to teach, but also to design highly specific courses - is growing. All our courses are designed around a 6-7 stage structured yet flexible learning cycle and we work closely with the key stakeholders to negotiate suitable learning outcomes for all. The learners themselves range from A1 right up to C1.

    CH: And what about Finnish students´ motivation?

    ML: Finns are highly agentive learners but sadly, I still see what Carl Rogers refers to as the ‘serious social consequences’ of transmission style teaching. This is where grammar acts as the focus of the course and rules are taught in a linear type syllabus.It’s been the predominant method here in Finland for many years –even today! However, over the last 6 years I’ve developed a methodology that has resulted in a much higher level of engagement in the learning process and the results are inspiring! There’s been a distinct improvement in their level of self-efficacy, motivation, self-confidence as well as social interaction. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that they have truly embraced a learner-centered approach - the foundation of my teaching and learning philosophy. A true partnership in all senses of the word. But it has taken time to establish trust and mutual respect and the learners must feel safe – it doesn’t happen overnight. Context and congruence are the all-important keys plus other factors e.g. my beliefs about learning and this is what drives me every day:

    ‘to be a true teacher, you must be a learner first. Indeed, a teacher’s own passion for learning inspires their students as much as their expertise does’

    Peter Senge

    Lead by nature not just by name! The payoff is huge and I’ve had the pleasure of watching my clients develop into confident and competent English speakers and communicators.

    CH: What is it like to found and lead your own training and coaching company?

    ML: This was, without a doubt, one of the best decisions I have ever made.It came about by a combination of events: the right time, right place and the right skills. I was also driven by a strong belief that the cutting edge knowledge I’ve gained through my MSc in Educational Management was very much needed in the corporate learning community. The fact that I’m a positive agent for delivering change is incredibly humbling and inspiring at the same time. To say this is ‘what I do’ just doesn’t seem to cover it – this is ‘who I am’ and I consider myself very lucky to share my beliefs about learning every day with incredible people who are really open to the process of learning!

    All this gave me a solid base to build on with plenty of support from the local community, family and friends.Plus a healthy dose of kiwi style ‘can do’ attitude!

    Our company strategy is very lean and there are several advantages to this. First, we can leverage what we own – in this case our expert knowledge and intellectual property. This results in real return on investment for the clients as there’s no middleman to deal with. Naturally there were challenges to face but never give up, never give up, never give up’! When you have a clear and realistic vision and you know you can make a difference in people’s lives, then it will all come together.

    Also, the profession of ‘teacher’ is highly respected here in Finland. It means you’ve completed a 5 year Masters degree (mandatory to teach in public schools and universities). However, as we know, the so-called barriers to entry in the private language sector are virtually nonexistent - so having an MSc has really paid off. It’s no longer enough just to be a native speaker with a workshop certificate up your sleeve or a 4 week TEFL course. These are great starting points, of course, but clients want to see comparable and relevant qualifications for the teaching sector these days.I believe this is a good thing as it is moving us towards the ‘professionalisation’ of the TESOL sector that many envision and call for - and there are many amazing & inspiring leaders to learn from.

    CH: What advice would you give to others who might be thinking about taking the same step?

    ML: Interesting you should ask as I gave a presentation to a group of Finnish entrepreneurs recently and this is what I told them: do your homework, have a strong but flexible plan and make sure you have a good support network.

    CH: How did you get into coaching and how does it differ from language training?


    ML: I think we need to be very clear about where to draw the lines between these two. I make sure that I only offer coaching on what lies within my MSc Educational management, i.e. what I am qualified for, and I quite agree with those who state that you should only call yourself a coach if you are fully qualified. Otherwise it’s very disrespectful to those who are.

    CH: I know that you also enjoy being part of a PLN or Personal Learning Network...

    ML:: It all started with BESIG! I’ve met so many amazing people and have just started presenting and sharing the results of my action research projects: last year at the ESP conference in Ulm and this year I’ve got 2 talks at the BESIG Annual Conference in Stuttgart – I’m very excited! The benefits are many: an open all hours staffroom, insight, laughter and plenty of opportunities for learning!

    CH: So, what tips would you give to other teachers who are interested in building up a PLN for themselves?

    ML: One tip for face to face networking – have clear goals about who you want to meet and what you want to say. For example, last month I went to a conference where Leo van Lier gave a plenary. He has had a profound influence on my professional development and I wanted to thank him and talk about action research. I also attended a conference where I wanted to follow up on a presenter’s research so I made a point of introducing myself and initiating a discussion.

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