Master of all-Guest post by Claire Hart

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: 


12 thoughts on “Master of all-Guest post by Claire Hart

  1. a needed post that discusses a perennial issue for many ELT teachers i am sure, thanks.

    point 4 in your list is an example of exploring a solution with your student, so one can get the student to find a solution for the next class. online corpora tools are great for this kind of language question.

    i recently had a situation where it was not my language knowledge that was called on but my (assumed by the student) business process knowledge! more specifically how to manage a multi-national team. instead of trying to draw on my long forgotten studies in occupational psychology i got the student to think about previous incidents and to try to work from there. i must admit i did quite enjoy the class but it left me feeling kind of ashamed that we did little formal ‘language’ work.

    • Hi there,

      Completely agree about the usefulness of technology in this situation. I´m just getting into using WordSmith corpus tools and really appreciate what they can do.

      As a Business English teacher, I´m also frequently asked for explanations of concepts and processes. If I don´t feel that I can give an adequate explanation myself, I would use some technology to help me out, take a look in a dictionary of Business English terms that I have, or, and I think this can be a very effective strategy, use the learners as a resource, as you did. The chances are that Business English learners have more experience of business processes than we do, so tap into what they DO know. Shift the focus back onto them and get them to think around the idea or concept they need an explanation of while producing English.

  2. I completely agree with your six points at the end of the post.

    I regularly have problems with forgetting words in English, probably at least once a week, even though I’m currently teaching in England. I actually think it’s good for students to realise that you are human and not a computer with instant access to every piece of information they might need. If you joke about it (Sorry everyone! It’s a good job I’m not an English teacher!) rather than going into panic mode (Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that. Now what do I do? Should I tell them?) I’ve found most students are understanding. It also helps them to feel better because they don’t feel like they have to know every word they need all the time – it puts you on more of an even footing.

    If you have internet access (including through 3G on the students’ phones), a great thing to teach the students to do is to look up something very specific, like ‘limescale’ on Wikipedia in their language. Then, click on ‘English’ on the left to find out the equivalent word. It doesn’t always work if there’s no entry, but if there is, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be the word they need. For example:
    This also gives them a skill they can use outside class when you’re not around.

    Hope that helps!

    • Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for your comments, they definitely help!

      I really like your approach of using humour in this situation and I think I´ll borrow some of your responses for next time.

      I´ve never used Wikipedia in the way you suggested before, but it sounds like a great idea and I´m definitely going to try out. Luckily I have internet access in one form or another in nearly all of the rooms where I teach.


  3. Hi Claire / Phil

    Needless to say everyone has their own style, image and beliefs which they use to sell themselves and which they project and promote in the classroom. For me, initially my learners (or most of them) probably do see me as a / or expect me to be a ‘know it all specialist’ (especially as my learners are information & knowledge hungry Germans too). However, I have never and never will sell myself as an English language guru to my learners. First and foremost, like everyone else I am a human being who makes mistakes and does not and will never know everything, Secondly my style is more like a facilitator of the group (one of the team if you like). Also I don’t take mysefl too seriously. So taking all this into account, when I do drop clangers I don’t need to worry about saving face. I am just open and honest and move on. Also, I certainly dont worry about losing respect or personal cerdentials as the positives and effective contributions I do bring to the lesson far out weigh the knowledge gaps and little harmless mistakes I make.

    • Hi Karl,

      Thanks for your comment.

      There´s a tendency in German to place a high value on expertise and titles, but I agree with you that, nevertheless, we shouldn´t be setting ourselves up as English language gurus when we´re with our learners. I agree with you that we can establish good rapport with our participants by showing them that we´re human too, we´re just like them, and there´s no “supernatural” teacher/ learner divide. I think this point is becoming more salient as Business English teachers tend to be doing less traditional “teaching” and more “coaching” with their participants.

      I completely agree that we should focus on the effective contributions we make to our learners´ learner experience and the fact that these far outweigh any clangers we may drop from time to time.



      • Hi Claire

        Thanks for your reply. You mention rapport and building relationships. In my humble opinion a strong, open and trusting relationship where being vulnerable or making mistakes can actually be embraced. These aspects to me are imperative to effective learning and teaching. Once you have this, making mistakes or not having the knowledge isn’t a major stumbling block. For example just on Monday I was asked, when do we use glad and when do we use happy? I couldn’t give a satisfactory answer. This now becomes a prompt and opportunity for growth. So what do I do? Take action, find the answer (using technology or my network), provide the answer to the learner. Realtionship & trust grows 🙂 Alternatively encourage the learner to find the answer as homework.

        Thanks for the interesting and important post.


        • Hi Karl,

          Completely agree with you there: rapport and effective relationship-building is key. I read somewhere that warmth and openness were ranked quite a bit higher than language or industry knowledge by business English learners when they were asked what makes a good teacher. I think that says a lot.



  4. It’s hugely important that students know we make mistakes, we can laugh at our mistakes, and we can learn from mistakes.

    Some mistakes in life are big and can’t be undone. Usually, language mistakes are pretty harmless. And, language mistakes can create some funny mental pictures.

    • You´re right Janet. In the grand scheme of things saying “close” instead of “closed”, as I did is pretty harmless, and doesn´t impede effective communication. Likewise, our learners need to know that their mistakes are harmless too and, in fact, making mistakes and being corrected is a great way to learn a language (it´s certainly how I did a lot of my German learning).

      As you said, some mistakes create funny mental images, such as the mistake one of my learners recalled her German colleague making, he said ” I have an ass up my sleeve”, while in a meeting with some international colleagues, when he, of course, wanted to say “I´ve got an ace up my sleeve”. He made this mistake because the German word for ace sounds extremely similar to the English ass. This did provoke some laughter among the group, and all of them will now be sure not to make that mistake themselves!

  5. I know some teachers are “afraid” of letting on that they don’t know everything. I have no such qualms. If I don’t know or am not sure of something I’ll say I’ll find out and let them know the next lesson. If I make a mistake, I’ll let them know as soon as I can, too. I frequently admit that I’ve forgotten a lot of words, especially everyday words, of stuff you see in the supermarkets, for example, because I don’t “see” them, living in Spain.
    Great post!

    • Hi Chiew,

      Sounds like you have exactly the right attitude. I don´t think any of us should have any qualms about admitting that we don´t know everything either.

      I have exactly the same issue here in Germany, I only “see” everyday words in German, and I think this situation influences us English teachers living abroad, how we think and how we communicate more than we usually realise.



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