An Interview with Vicky Loras

I’ll start out by acknowledging that I’ve never met Vicky and yet through the power of social media, she shares so much of her life.  Native to Toronto, Vicky now lives in Zug, Switzerland where she enjoys all kinds of learning adventures.

Having interactions with her serve as a daily reminder that we live in a big connected world. While I’m accused of always being “on” because I’m an early riser, Vicky is always online and active hours before I am.

Doug:  Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Vicky.  

Vicky: My pleasure, Doug – thank you so much for asking me! I am very happy to be on your blog, which I love reading and learning from.

Doug:  First – living in Switzerland begs this question.  You’re an English teacher – what other languages do you speak?  

Vicky: Well, I am also fluent in Greek, as my parents are of Greek origin and my mom insisted we learn perfect Greek – that went with going to Greek school every Saturday when we still lived in Canada (later on we eventually moved to Greece). I have been living in Switzerland for three years and even though I haven’t actually ever had proper language lessons, my German is good enough for me to communicate on an everyday level. I do tend to speak Swiss German more than High German (the German of Germany). I also speak a little bit of French (but I understand much more than I speak). I am currently on another language learning adventure!

Doug:  What is the language of choice that gets you through the day in Zug?

Vicky: Swiss German – but because I live in Zug, which is a tax haven here in Switzerland, it is rather international, as lots of multinational companies have their headquarters here – so a lot of people also speak English. The problem is I carry my English accent into German, so people are so kind that they immediately switch to English, without my even asking them to! I have lately started asking them to stick to German, because then I will never learn!

Doug:  You work as an ELL teacher in Business.  How important is it to your clients that they can speak in English?

Vicky: The last two years, a lot of English-speaking companies have been moving here to Zug, because of the lowest taxes in the country, as I mentioned earlier. My students are mainly bankers or businessmen, who need English to communicate with their foreign clients.

Doug:  Is the goal to make them completely fluent in English?

Vicky: Most of the times, they need to speak and write in English at a really high level, often learning the respective terminology in English (I have learned a great deal in banking and business terms from them too!).

Doug:  What is your philosophy about teaching English to your clients?

Vicky: That every minute of their time is worth their coming to our classes and that they leave our lessons feeling that they have learned something important. I know that a lot of them sacrifice their lunch breaks or time away from their families during their long days at work. I want them to feel that their time has been invested well.

Doug:  What role does technology play in your teaching?  

Vicky: It plays quite a big role – a lot of my students come to class with their smartphones, tablets and laptop computers. We use them as much as is needed – they use technology to look up words, they bring in articles, they search for things during the lesson that they want to share with the rest of the class. There they take ownership of the lesson, as they start talking (which is exactly what is wanted – I need to be heard as little as possible! They need to do the talking).

Doug:  One of the “funny” things that people with smartphones have is suggestive spelling.  Indeed, there are many websites devoted to images of this.  How does the ELL learner deal with that?

Vicky: Sometimes it can be very confusing for them, sometimes it serves as a clarification or reassurance that they know the correct answer and not the one that comes up in suggestive spelling. Sometimes it also helps them with their spelling, as English can be tricky!

Doug:  Before Christmas, there were many commercials for computer language tutor programs as products that people could buy to learn a second language.  What is your opinion of software like that?

Vicky: Well, the truth is that sometimes software can help them tremendously. I still believe that their learning needs the teacher to be more well-rounded – there are far too many learn-it-yourself, learn-it-perfectly-in-six-weeks methods out there, which rather confuse them than help them and they end up feeling frustrated. If they use them on the side, complementary with their classes and other resources, then I think they can find them useful up to a point.

Doug:  Recently, you attended a conference in Turkey and you shared some beautiful photos from there.  Do you see more visits to Turkey in your future?  Do you speak Turkish?  If not how did you communicate?

Vicky: It was my first time in Turkey, in Istanbul more specifically. Even though I stayed there for only four days and was there for a conference, I managed to get around and see places. I felt a very strong connection to the place. The architecture is amazing and the people just captured my heart. They are constantly smiling and always so willing to help you out! I don’t speak Turkish at all, apart from hello, good morning and so on. I was with other fellow educators and friends there, so they served as translators when help was needed! Overall though, most of the people spoke English – and a couple even spoke to me in perfect Greek, after I shared my origins with them! That is the new language adventure I have embarked on: I am currently learning Turkish with an online program, but will soon start having lessons as well, with a teacher! I am so excited and I am really enjoying it so far.

If all goes well, this year I will be there again twice for conferences again, once in May and then in December most probably. I hope I have many opportunities in the future to see other places too!

Doug:  Sitting here in Canada, it’s easy to see that English is the language to learn and our school system requires a certain amount of French.  Do you have a different perspective living in Europe?  How many languages would you recommend that parents encourage their children to learn?

Vicky: Well, here in Europe it depends on the country. In Greece, for instance, parents insist that their children learn English as a foreign language and then it is usually German or French. Switzerland is a little bit more complicated, due to the fact that it is a country that has four official languages. Here in the German part, English and French are obligatory in school, but Italian is optional. A tiny percentage speaks the fourth language, Rhaeto-Romanisch.

As an educator, I try not to encourage this latest language craze that has taken over some parts of Europe. I believe that one or two more languages on top of the native language are enough. And I always insist that they never learn two at the same time.

Doug:  If you only could speak one language, would you be disadvantaged in Europe?

Vicky: Well, if it were English, no – it is the most widely spoken and learned language here. The most popular ones in Europe, let’s say, are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

Doug:  Do you find that students who know more than one language excel in school?

Vicky: It definitely helps them, especially in higher education, as they can branch out their bibliography even more and read more extensively on the topics they are studying. But I also believe that languages help them in expressing themselves in general, both in writing and in speaking, regardless of the grade they are in.  

Doug:  There must be some things about Canada and Toronto that you miss.  I know I’d have difficulty without my Tim Horton’s coffee!  What do you miss?

Vicky: First of all, I miss my family – a huge part of my dad’s family still live there. I have a lot of uncles, aunts and cousins that I terribly miss. Friends too.

Since you mentioned Tim Horton’s…I absolutely love Timbits and miss them so much! I also love chocolate glazed donuts and honey crullers there! Another thing I miss is the vanilla ice cream at Dairy Queen.

But I don’t miss my favourite newspaper – I read the Globe and Mail on my iPhone every day!

Doug: If you were to open a Swiss newspaper, what would the top educational stories be about?

Vicky: I would emphasize a lot on learning difficulties, such as dyslexia, dysgraphia and so on, as I believe they need more delving into. I would also like to mention the benefits of technology in education, when used properly and effectively and not for the medium itself.

Doug:  How far do you have to go from your home to see the mountains that Switzerland is famous for?

Vicky: Not too far. The closest one is about twenty minutes by train. There are such beautiful places in this small country – I feel as though I still haven’t seen a lot!

Thank you for the time for the interview.  It’s greatly appreciated.

You can follow Vicky’s Swiss adventures on her blog at: and on Twitter at @vickyloras

Hug an English Teacher

My mom had a plaque that was hung on the wall that said “Too late we grow smart”.  Growing up, I always thought it was something cool that she bought at a flea market but when I think now, it’s advice that makes so much sense.

In high school, I was a math nerd.  In Grade 13, I took three Mathematics, three Sciences, and grudgingly and under duress, one English.  I don’t have the report card but I do recall marks in the 80s and 90s in mathematics and science and a low 60 in English.  I’m pretty sure that, if I had the report card, there would have been an English comment to the effect “Could do so much better if he’d get off his ass and apply himself”.

It wasn’t that I didn’t take part in class – I think that I was like most normal kids – I got the impression English books were only important if they had been written by some dead guy.  Writing was important to get marks.  Every writing assignment generated the same questions….

  • how long does it have to be?
  • single or double spaced?

Good times.

At least I had the other subjects to keep my marks up.  After all, it was important to be an Ontario Scholar and get some money for university.

I got an education and life goes on.  Later, I started writing software just for the enjoyment.  They were “doors” for PCBoard software.  A friend of mine, definitely not a computer type, tried to install one on his system and failed.  His complaint to me was the lack of clear, coherent documentation.  He was right.  Writing is important so I spent some time remembering English classes and skills from the past, proofread/revised and ended up creating instructions that made sense.

I started teaching and made writing documentation a part of every computer science assignment that my students had.  I would have arguments with other computer science teachers who thought that this practice was a waste of student time.  After all, we were teaching programming.  Even the students didn’t agree with me.  I recall many times the comments “Siiir, this isn’t English class”.  (pretend it’s a diphthong to get the full effect)  I’d be forever pointing out that the actual programming isn’t the only job a computer science graduate might get.

What’s all this got to do with English teachers?

I do remember my English classes as being ones of drudgery.  But, I managed to retain at least 60% of what we were assessed.  Yesterday’s post about “Tips for Bloggers” and Edna Sackton’s 10 Tips for Reticent Bloggers“ brought back many memories.  I spent some time reflecting on what I had actually recalled.  Not bad for a math nerd.

I think of today’s English teachers and the sorts of things that they’re doing:

  • They read the classics and they read blogs – all for meaning;
  • They take Shakespeare to Twitter – and the world;
  • They teach how to do and interpret real research – not just the first page of Google;
  • They encourage editing – not some contrived exercise but via wikipedia;
  • They do group work – not just in small groups within the classrooms but with students around the world;
  • They encourage writing – not just for the teacher audience, but a larger audience through blogging;
  • They teach media appreciation – not just by watching a VCR tape from the media centre but by creating and assessing original content in the classroom.

Now, this is a subject I could really get in to.

Bless the modern English teacher.  They’re embracing a subject discipline that’s a moving target.  Go ahead – hug an English teacher.  They’re doing the things that will take our students to where they need to be.

…Doug (just another 60% blogger)