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ESL Teaching: Getting Personal

Quiet street in Prague

I never took a business class in college, and I've never held a traditional office position.  However, I'm relatively sure that one of the first lessons of either experience would have been: keep your personal life separate from your work life.

Some people call it work/life balance.  Some simply warn against co-worker happy hours.  Some point their finger at office romances.  During my ESL days, I had to wonder: did any of this actually apply?

There seemed to be two approaches among the English-teaching crowd, and I flip-flopped on which method was ideal.  While teaching ESL is not in the running for the most professional position most of us will ever hold, it is still a job.  And though a couple frigid January days may have propelled me to dress rather unprofessionally in jeans and furry boots, I did try to approach most lessons with the mindset of the workplace.

My first roommate abroad shared that philosophy.  More of a private person, she could quite easily recount details of her students' lives, from the names of third cousins to preferences amongst the varieties of Czech beers.  But the relationship was not reciprocal.  She might have spent Saturday evenings gallivanting until the hour that the night tram reopened, or she might have been tucked into bed an hour after dinner.  That remained a mystery, because her teaching style probed her students to do the talking, while she took the listener's chair.

My second apartment-mate, however, was quite the opposite.  More of the cliche post-collegiate instructor, she arrived with a single suitcase and an extroverted nature.  When it came to swapping stories with her students, she spoke freely, without a single hold barred.  On the mornings she arrived at her lessons squinting at the daylight, her students knew the reason.

So the question remained: which method was best?  I suppose the argument can go both ways.  If you're teaching adults, then no superior checks up on you, and very often, you teach away from your school's actual premises.  My students trusted in these facts, as they unabashedly revealed to me everything from financial woes to bedroom secrets.  I could have easily done the same.

Then again, I had to ask myself whether I strived to cultivate a friendship or a student-teacher relationship.  For me, the answer was the latter, and in the end, I'm glad to have had the practice of maintaining at least a bit of professionalism.

Still, my more candid colleagues left with something I did not: some students became their closest friends.  Gossiping for an hour under the guise of teaching a lesson does sound more appealing than some of the one-on-one courses I taught.  As the people we meet so often influence our experience of the places we go, this is certainly food for thought.

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AirTreks Nico

Wednesday 23rd of December 2009

I also taught English abroad (in France) and I never thought--or was trained to think--the classroom was a place for jokey camaraderie or meandering from the lesson plans. I'd actually heard of a teacher that was fired for doing just that, using gossip as an stand-in for the school's lesson plan.

However! In my experience everything outside of the classroom proper was part of the "living abroad" lifestyle and we didn't take it too professionally. Joking around with students and fellow teachers was pretty much par for the course. It didn't help that the school hosted a Friday evening "po", or beer social, at the end of the week of classes for the students. Those pretty typically got out of hand, spilling off into the Parisian nightlife scene afterward.

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