How friendly should a TEFL teacher be?
There is an old TEFL adage: no learning without fun – but no fun without learning.
Whether we’re teaching adults or children, TEFL teachers are running a class. We are responsible for discipline, and the reason there has to be discipline is that without it nobody learns anything.
A class of half a dozen adults can become unruly and unfocused if you let it slip from your grasp, so it is important to be clearly in charge. If you choose to tell a joke or in some other way lighten the atmosphere, that’s good – a fun class is, generally speaking, a good class.
However, it can be puzzling in a different culture when the teacher-student relationship you have taken for granted (because it’s how things were when you were at school) suddenly seems somehow wrong. In certain cultures there is much more of a divide. While in the UK teacher-student, just like salesman-customer, has become less formal, with a conscious removing of barriers such as the desk, in other places the student doesn’t feel comfortable with such an equal balance.
Forms of address have to be taught, too. The tendency of my Spanish-speaking students to call me “Mister Chris” can sound quite cute at first, but if you let them do it with you, they will think it’s the correct form of address. I explain that if it’s Mister anything it’s Mister Morvan (and then get them to pronounce that correctly, which isn’t easy sometimes), but I would rather be just plain Chris – and not Crees, either, because I am not an ironed fold in a pair of trousers or an unwelcome bit of damage to a piece of paper.
A Chris can demonstrate the difference and turn it into a bit of fun, and those of all other names just have to work out something for themselves.
The crucial thing is to get the message across and make them stop the Mister First Name business, because it immediately marks them out as a slightly comic foreigner, and we want to avoid that at all costs.
As a kind of bonus, any discussion has your students thinking in English and trying to speak it. What they call you may not be that important to you, but it’s all learning – and something like this can be amusing for everyone.
Good manners have to be taught as well as language – our idea of good manners, that is. If we offer someone a glass of water and they just say “No”, that might be acceptable or even standard in their culture, but in English it sounds rude. By explaining this to them, “It has to be no thank you”, you are doing them a favour.
It’s important to emphasise that although you know they are not bad-mannered, out in the big English-speaking world, hosts in private households, waiters, receptionists and so on will think much more highly of them if they use please and thank you.
Students are often grateful for this kind of tip, because it makes their life easier when they weren’t aware they were doing anything wrong.
We’ve all heard the stories about hand gestures that can be wildly misinterpreted in other countries, and it is true. It’s something everyone has to be aware of when abroad.
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