Monday, 20 June 2011

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ELT Blog Challenge - An Interview With Beth Cagnol

If you haven’t heard of it yet, the premise of the ELT Blog Challenge is simple.  Ask one of your favourite PLN people 5 standard questions, which you’ll see below, and from there, get to know them in ways that you might not otherwise have the chance to on twitter or other social media.

There were many highlights at this years IATEFL conference, but for me, in terms of pure enjoyment, the Pecha Kucha evening couldn't be beat. The standout performance was undoubtedly the 6 minute French class given by Beth Cagnol, the president of TESOL France. It was hilarious, and genuinely useful for me as I live in Brussels and cannot speak French. Ever since then I've been using "Pardon" for every situation!

I couldn't believe that Beth hadn't been interviewed for the ELT blog challenge, so I had to step up and ask her. I knew her answers would be interesting and entertaining, and she hasn't disappointed. So please allow me to introduce a natural entertainer, the first lady of TESOL France and the future first ELT stand up comedy teacher... Ms Bethany Cagnol!

Beth working it on the promenade

1) If your students were to label you with 3 adjectives, what might they be?

Committed, compassionate and uninhibited.

I’m committed because I love nothing more than seeing my students connect and become empowered.   I'm compassionate because I know what it feels like to struggle to learn a new language.  Seriously, I spoke Tarzan French when I moved to Paris nine years ago...
[pointing] baguette….ca…oui…merci.

My students will tell you I'm uninhibited; I'll do anything it takes to ease the tension and stress of language learning. I have this great game where I encourage students to take on bizarre roles, such as “You like to smell paper,” “You count all the buttons on a person before saying hello,” “You have to collect DNA from everyone you meet. (e.g. hair, skin etc.)” And they really run with it! And when they can laugh at me they aren't so afraid of taking risks and laughing with me."

Beth having her DNA collected

2) What would we find in your refrigerator right now?

Right now? The “working me” essentials. My fridge is familiar with two different “MEs”. The “working me” and the “vacation me”. The working me fridge has basic staples like pasta, salad, steaks, milk, eggs, a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken and a bottle of Ruinart champagne for Friday nights. But the vacation me fridge is packed with unpronounceable ingredients.  I have an adult class that likes to pick recipes out of the Joël Robuchon cookbook and I have to cook whatever the students choose, send them pictures and ask for advice on which wine to drink with it.  They make me cook some of the weirdest, and yummiest, stuff!

3) If you weren’t a teacher, what might your profession be?

A publicist. An event planner (though, maybe not for weddings).  A florist (though maybe not for weddings). A stage or music manager. A personal assistant. A stylist (though maybe not for weddings).  And in that order too.  And on the side I would be a jazz lounge singer (currently working on that one).

4) What do you find most difficult about the teaching profession, or What has been your most difficult class as a teacher?

My most difficult class! Oh Lordy, I’ll never forget it. I was in the fetal position in the language department director’s office.  Tearing at my hair. Really!  I was given a group of university-age students who had a retched reputation for exhibiting behavior that we normally see in zoos.  I laid down the law and it completely blew up in my face. They mutinied.  For the entire semester, every time I entered their room, I felt like I was being asked to walk the plank.  While this happens very rarely, I think dealing with discipline issues (with all ages!) is one of the most difficult aspects of English language teaching.  

Beth's students showing off a treat from Ken Wilson

5) What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read way too many times?

The movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Steve Martin and Michael Caine. I know it practically by heart. I love the bit where Steve Martin is in prison in the south of France.
Martin: I didn't steal any money! She just saw me with another woman! You're French, you understand that!
Inspector: To be with another woman, that is French. To be caught, that is American.

And now for the encore...

6) Can you tell me a bit about where you teach, and how long you've been there?

I like to juggle. I’ve liked it since I began in 2002. It keeps me on my toes.  Being freelance, I teach in about five different places during the week. These include public and private higher education institutions and private companies.  I specialize in what the French call “deblocage.” I help the students come out of their shells.  I get the biggest rush when a student tells me they’ve been “debloquéd” thanks to my classes.

7) Where did you teach before there? Have you ever taught in any other countries apart from France?

I wish I had teaching experience in other countries! I taught piano and musical theater to teenagers back in my hometown in Virginia.  But it was in France I fell in love with ELT.  I’ve dabbled in teacher training in Poland. LOVE that SO much.

Beth's students presumably cooking up 
something delicious (well they are French!)
8) How did you become involved in TESOL France?

I arrived at TESOL France’s doorstep in 2006 for the Best of BESIG. It was my very first teachers' conference.  I knew right away I wanted in: watching it all come together, schmoozing with the top-notch speakers, the technical know-how, the nitty gritty, the adrenalin rush in the wings. All of this was familiar to me thanks to my years of theater experience.  I jumped in, head first, and co-organized the 2008 and 2009 Conferences with Ros Wright and graduated to organizer of the 2010 and 2011 events.  I’m convinced organizing conferences it is the best way to meet the best and the brightest in ELT.

9) Your Pecha Kucha was one of the highlights of this years IATEFL conference. Have you always enjoyed performing? Have you ever considered stand up comedy?  

[Blush] Thanks! I had a blast doing that PK. Stand up comedy?! Heck, why not!  I first got up on stage at the age of 5. I played a bush that sat on stage in a local production of the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Since then I’ve acted and sung in loads of shows.  It plays a huge part in my teaching experience.  Back in 2002, a language school boss said it best. He took me aside right before one of my first classes and asked, “Beth, do you like being on stage?”  … “Yup” I replied.  He winked and said, “Then, you’ll do just fine.”

Beth working it on the promenade part two

A big thanks to Beth for the interview. Be sure to have a look at the interviews in this challenge, including my interview with Ania Musielak here at:

Follow Beth on Twitter: @bethcagnol and read her blog.

And you can see Beth's Pecha Kucha among all the other great presentations on the video below:


  1. Really interesting read, James! And what an inspiring subject!! I love Beth's recipe idea - I'm definitely stealing that one. So agree about the performance aspect of teaching. I found that quite difficult at first, but I'm shedding my inhibitions all the time!

  2. Thanks for interviewing me James! And thanks for your comment Andrea. Steal away! Gros bisous to you both.

  3. Fun 2 learn a bit more about one of my Parisian musketeers. And yes, that Pecha Kucha was SUPER memorable.

    We Oui !

  4. Loved learning more about Beth, so thanks James! And you certainly sound like the perfect teacher for the 'deblocage'.

    And yes, her Pecha Kucha was unforgettable. I plan on arriving in Paris in November lip-farting and saying "Pardon" and "Oh-la-la" all around ;-)

  5. Hi Beth and James,
    I really enjoyed reading this interview. Watching Ken's session from TesolFr on Satuday, it was clear that Beth enjoys being on stage, and this explains it! I loved watching her pecha kucha and was killing myself laughing :) (even as French speaker, it was useful too!)
    I'm really hoping to be at the conference in Paris to meet Beth first hand, especially after this interview!

  6. This is one of my fave interviews so far. Did anyone notice that Beth doesn't keep yogurt in her fridge? This must be a first for the PLN. I can totally see Beth doing stand up. She's hilarious online and on stage. Her PK was unforgettable, even if I don't remember the words we learned.

  7. Thanks for the great comments everyone!

  8. Hi James

    Thanks for the great interview!

    Beth - you are a very inspiring lady and I loved your fantastic PK in Brighton. Definitely one of the highlights of the whole event for me!

  9. Thanks again for the sweet sweet comments everyone! I'd be happy to do a webinar before the TESOL France Conference so you can touch up on those French noises. Just say the word and we'll make it happen. We'll just have to figure out how to write out "lip fart" in IPA for the webinar chat box. ;-)

    Merci beaucoup!

  10. "Steak" is in your work fridge! That cracks me up. As do you... :)



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