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7 Questions on Leadership with Judy Thompson

Name: Judy Thompson

Title: CEO

Organisation: Thompson Language Center

I am passionate about forwarding education and fostering learner autonomy.

After years teaching Adult ESL traditionally a flash of brilliance changed my life. Written English and Spoken English are not only different, they are unrelated. I began unpacking the way English conversation works in every situation – no exceptions. The patterns had to be simple and consistent as children figure them out on their own. A system for teaching Speaking emerged. English is Stupid, Students are Not (EiS) was released and before long EiS found her way into countless classrooms in 60+ countries.

“I learned more in 1 hour with your book than I learned in the last 5 years!”

- CPL Clément Pineault

ESL teachers smitten with the program encouraged me to write more including the English Phonetic Alphabet Workbook. Then they helped me create How Do You Say? the pronunciation/spelling Dictionary and App based on sounds and listening.

2009 was pivotal, I started Thompson Language Center, spoke on TEDx, joined LinkedIn and realized I'm not a teacher, I'm a coach. Coaches start from where the client is, evaluate their skills and experiences and get them to where they want to go. Coaching is customized, expedient and accountable.

My career exploded. I wrote for OUP, coached executives and spoke internationally. Highlights are uniting thought-leaders, founding Language Coaching Associations and hosting Education conferences. I've met loads of savvy, dynamic educators committed to forwarding ESL.

I'm most proud of my work for Syrian refugee hosts. My workshops for them inspired the Backpacker’s Guide to Teaching English. The series enables coaches to teach speaking effectively with no other training.

"It’s not a backpacker’s guide, it’s the definitive guide. clear, practical, something every aspiring or seasoned teacher needs." - Stephen Collings

English is forgiving. If I never do another thing in my ESL career, the Backpackers Guide to Teaching English is enough.

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Judy's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

The frustration – when you hold the solution to an important problem that can help literally millions of people and it is met with resistance. Industries do not simply recognize the value of an idea, grab it and run with it. You have to go to where they are and appreciate how much they have invested in the way it is now before you can enroll them in new possibilities. Don’t take pushback personally. Some people are open, and some are not (or not yet). Change takes patience and perseverance.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

By accident. I landed a great job teaching Adult ESL for the Board of Education. I worked with a terrific group of teachers but noticed no matter how long the students attended school or how hard they worked, they never learned to speak English confidently. My students were counting on me to teach them to speak English so they could assimilate, feed their families, belong… in a new country. And I wasn’t doing it. Teaching the content I was trained to teach (grammar) didn’t make a difference. I wasn’t sure what to do about it, until a beginner student whose English skills were too low to measure (pre-benchmark) came up to my desk and asked, Teecha, you me vashrum? Without hesitation I said, Yes. My life would never be the same. Nothing in her utterance was accurate, not pronunciation, not grammar, nothing, yet I understood her perfectly. (I guessed washroom and I didn’t have to go). Intelligibility lies outside of the easy-to-mark, disjointed bits about English I was taught to teach. Turning my attentions to figuring out how conversation really works, a few simple truths came to the fore. Six basic patterns underpin all successful English conversations and school doesn’t necessarily address any of them. (These patterns are what toddlers figure out on their own.) I started teaching only the patterns.

By the end of the next semester (10 weeks), my entire afternoon Intermediate class got jobs. I thought this was terrific. But they saw no need to come back to school. When no pupils enrolled in the Advanced class, it was a nightmare for administration. You are screwing up our school, my supervisor informed me. I was invited to leave my wonderful job. Tough moment. I wasn’t wrong, but I was in the wrong place. I made a pitch to the local college and Sheridan hired me to teach my own program Speaking Canadian English. The course ran for years. The textbook I wrote for that course was English is Crazy (rebrand). It was a big hit and continues to sell worldwide. TEDx invited me to speak, and the rest is herstory.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

Throughout the day, I keep a running list of things I want to do at some point. Reach out, answer emails, return calls, shop (a different list), outline an article… The work list is always at hand. I’m an early riser and a bed maker. Often before I get dressed, I hit the list. By the time life takes me away from my desk (any time after 11:00 a.m.) I have already done about five hours work. I may or may not get back to work that day. I take great pleasure in scratching out completed entries. My list for tomorrow was generated throughout today. I take long walks every day and I read every night.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

I am passionate about my cause and believe being honest with people shows them respect. Not everyone appreciates this. Directness can land as insensitive, even rude. Offending people does not forward my cause. Colleagues like Prashant Jain, Rita Baker, Daphne Russell, Brennan Lister… graciously express strong, divergent viewpoints and I strive to express myself more mindfully, like them.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

Thrive by Grant Lichtman is a step-by-step guide to how schools will win the education revolution. While there is wide acceptance that education has not kept pace with the demands of the 21 st century, few individuals or organizations knew what to do about it. Grant has successfully transformed hundreds of schools and boards and Thrive is his success formula. It’s a game changer. The problem is no longer that we don’t know how to update education; it’s that we choose not to.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

It’s a few little pieces of advice but:

Follow your heart, believe in yourself; you can be right when everyone else is wrong.

My father used to quote an old saying, It’s always darkest before the dawn. Knowing your best moments follow your worst ones helps you through challenging times. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. You’ll get there.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

Prashant Jain is a programmer and a successful corporate trainer who believes the people in the trenches have the solutions to big, underserved problems. He developed the WizTango education platform to give nobodies like me a bigger voice. Pronunciation, speaking English is a big problem for more than a billion people on this earth and he reached out to me in November 2020 to see if my pattern-approach was a good match for his online software. It was He needed a roadmap for speaking English and I had one.

Prashant is a well-connected global citizen. In no time, he had loaded my program onto his WizTango facilitated learning platform and ran numerous beta tests in India, Japan and Taiwan. I was curious to see how this business professional with absolutely no formal training in teaching English, was going to ‘facilitate’ (whatever that meant) English teachers in disparate cultures. The answer was seamlessly. I don’t have to know anything about English. Prashant explained, I have to know how to facilitate. The lessons are in the asynchronous part of the program. I believed him, but I still had no idea what he was talking about. Then I watched him do it.

Participants read their prepared answers to the group in zoom sessions of 20-25 people. Regardless of the answer or the content or the construction errors, Prashant listened carefully and made positive comments. Thank you for your contribution. I never thought of it that way before. Your spelling is great… He never corrected. He only validated, asked questions and related what they were saying back to the topic (contextualized). I watched him do it hundreds of times. The beta tests were a series of four sessions. By the second session, participants were sharing comfortably. By the third session they were self-correcting their grammar and their speaking issues. By the last session they were all conversing confidently and effectively in English.

We are never too old to learn. In my 60’s I learned about facilitated education. I will never teach (tell people what to think) or coach (work one on one to improve specific skills) again. Facilitating is group coaching, and it works in any subject, in any culture. It’s listening, validating, engaging (questions) and contextualizing. Facilitating is educating compassionately.

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