NATE2017| Robert A. Cote: My Life as an English Language ‘Teacher’: A Personal and Professional Journey| Talk summary

Posted: June 1, 2017 in Uncategorized

Abstract: This informative and entertaining presentation will use activities, stories and videos to explore the qualities of great teachers, Robert’s unusual personal and professional experiences as an English language instructor, and the important things he has learned to make the classroom a better learning environment for students.

At the beginning of his talk Robert asked the audience the following question:

What makes a teacher great?

Robert then shared a few quotes from a book by Joseph P. Batory, Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent (retired), which he finds very enlightening:

Great teachers are somehow able to effect positive change in all students who come to them, no matter what problems or lack of skills they bring with them.

Great teachers foster growth and inspire self-confidence in the students who have been written off, the ones no one else wants

Great teachers don’t squash dreams, they build them!

We also watched a video that teachers wrote to themselves on their first day teaching:

Robert went on to share his own teaching story:

He didn’t like school, especially high school. He hated his English grammar and literature classes the most – later he realized that that was because of the way they were taught. He never EVER considered teaching as a career. His first love is weather, and his first degree was in meteorology. Before teaching he worked as a scientist on a tiny island in Polynesia in a facility that destroys WWII weapons.

Then he came to Japan and there he was told, ‘You’re perfect to be a English teacher because you speak English AND you’re an America’. There wasn’t even an interview.

In 1995 Robert quit his job and moved to Miami, where hardly anyone spoke English but everyone needed to learn it. He volunteered at a farm workers’ migrant camp, where he taught basic literacy and numeracy – he was using their L1 (French and Spanish). He enjoyed that so much that he decided to get some formal training and applied to a master’s degree program.

He was told:

You don’t have the right background in linguistics, language education, or even English, but we’ll let you in as a probationary student. You have one semester to prove yourself.’

He applied to teach in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, one of the larges, most diverse and poorest school districts in the USA – again, on probation! He had one semester to prove himself and he needed a plan. He asked his students: who are your best teachers and why? He visited those teachers and asked to observe them teaching (and when they asked ‘why me’, he said, ‘because the students told me you’re the best’. And then he asked asked them, ‘why did you do that? He videotaped himself and discovered that he was standing in one particular zone of the class and tended to focus on the students at the front of the class. He also read Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms by Richards & Lockhart and answered every single reflective question there.

At the end of that semester he handed all of that in – the journals, the videos and what students thought about him.

The reply he got was very moving:.


Reading that, he realized that his only resource he’d drawn on to get there wasn’t even part of his MA programme – and this is a source that he has never underestimated ever since. 

Over time, his role changed significantly:

cote roles.jpg

And here are some key things that he learned on the way:

lessons learn

outside the box

In terms of the essay contests, first there was low uptake and little excitement, but an idea that really worked was to publish the essays they produced – having your abstract published in a book that you can show when you go home provided extra motivation.

Robert finished his talk with another inspirational video:

Finally, he asked us to reflect on a few things throughout the conference:



This was a talk that really put me in a contemplative mood and inspired me to think more about what I’ve learnt over the years. I think his experience of learning from great teachers and from the learners is very inspiring – I agree that this is invaluable resource, but Robert’s experience inspires to dip into it even more. 

After Robert’s talk, Svetlana Ter-Minasova made a comment that, for her, the key for teaching is love: love for the subject and love for the students. When he talks about teaching, Robert’s love shines through. 

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Robert for such a motivation presentation! Thanks a lot to continue sharing in Samara!

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