In some cultures, teachers are revered as all-knowing beings that everyone else should treat deferentially. They have “the knowledge” and they impart it to their students- great! I´m sometimes called a teacher, I´d like to call myself a teacher actually, but the people I work for and the HR departments in the companies where I teach prefer to call me a trainer. Does this mean that I´m still omniscient, that I still have “the knowledge”? Sometimes I´m not so sure. What is “the knowledge” anyway? Whose knowledge is it? Where does it come from?
I´m familiar with the oft-repeated maxim: The teacher is an expert on English (or on language) and the participants are experts in their area of work, but to be honest I don´t always feel like I´m an English expert. What qualifies me to claim to be an expert on English anyway? I have a Masters, but not in applied linguistics, not even in English or any other language. I did a 4 week CELTA course where the highlight of the linguistic insight I received was finding out that mermaid is the only word in the English language where both syllables are stressed equally!
My Achilles heel in this respect is the fact that I don´t spend much time speaking English outside of the classroom. I speak German with my partner, I go shopping in German, I go to the cinema in German and socialise in German a lot of the time. A few weeks ago one of my participants asked me for the English translation of the German word for limescale and I really couldn´t remember it because I always think about limescale in German; it belongs to my domestic German world, not my business skills oriented English world. Two weeks ago I wrote close circuit television on the flipchart when it should be closed—I found this out later after having googled it because I´d had my doubts. I wasn´t sure what I should do in this situation, not wanting to lose face in front of my learners, but also not wanting them to find out for themselves that I´d made a mistake. Just a little thing like this, could lead them to lose confidence in me and my abilities as an English teacher, I thought. Why should they trust me when I write other words on the flipchart in the future?
So what did I do about the limescale and the closed circuit television, a very edifying combination if ever there was one? In the case of the limescale, I stayed cool, I explained that the reason why I couldn´t think of it immediately was because I usually think about household things in German, not English, and said that I would find out later that afternoon and email them with the correct English word, which I did. A couple of weeks later, when the same group we´re struggling to find a word they wanted, I pointed them in the right direction and then tried to defuse their frustration by making a joke about the fact that even I can´t always recall the English words I want straightaway—as they had seen during the limescale episode—and I´m an English teacher. With the closed circuit television incident, I wrote a line in the email I sent them with the feedback sheet from that week´s lesson, saying:
I just have one clarification to make from yesterday´s lesson: the full name for CCTV is in fact closed circuit television, not close circuit television.
The participants all accepted this and were even appreciative of this “clarification”, after all, getting clarification from your teachers tends to be a positive rather than a negative thing when you´re learning something, doesn´t it?
What is the best advice for dealing with the fact that you don´t know everything about everything all of the time?
1. Accept that this is the case
2. Try not to let it bother you
3. Point this out to your learners together with the fact that the same goes for them
4. Use technology to help you out, e.g. access the internet to clarify facts, spelling, translations in the classroom (if possible)
5. Own up to any mistakes you make as soon as you can
6. Use these errors as a means of encouraging your learners not to feel inhibited because they make mistakes with their English
What do you think?
Do you agree?
Can you add something else?
Do your students see you as the expert of all under the sun and how do you respond to it?
You can find more great posts about teaching English and Business English at Claire’s blog: