Teaching angst it’s not all flowers and kittens… this TEFL malarkey you know!


Confidence in teaching (for me anyway) is such a fragile thing.  A Sheffield friend/ former colleague has tried to reassure me that angst about one’s personal adequacy in the job is a necessary core-value for teaching. Well, maybe, but inexplicably it wasn’t one of the assessed core-competencies when I was doing my FHEA submission.  If angst is a inversely proportionate to brilliance, then I must be doing mighty fine…

Generally in this blog I try to be positive, honest too, but positive, and it occurs to me that perhaps that is to tell an incomplete story about the TEFL experience. I am by nature quite reflective and self-critical I think.  If I have a good lesson I feel great, and then panic I can’t repeat it, if I have a bad lesson I feel inadequate as a human being.  It is ridiculous.  It is disproportionate, I know that rationally, but what you feel subjectively and emotionally is a whole different ball game.

Case in point.

So last week, can’t even quite remember when, I was expecting four to come to the session, but only two did.  Because I was still hanging on for the other two, and to be honest, really needed them for interactive elements of the session to work, I delayed doing any ‘book work’.  Instead, I got out some postcards of Sheffield that I usually carry with me ‘just in case’ for exactly this sort of eventuality.  The two students concerned were happy to look through them.  They asked  loads of questions, I got them to put the cards in order of preference and then we talked through what they did and didn’t like.  It felt fine at the time.  Lots of language, lots of conversation, a break from the more tedious elements of the book.  They seemed engaged and it was good to get some cultural comparisons.

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At the end of the session, I let them each keep their favourite postcard, and I also let them each choose a coin.  They seemed fascinated by the small selection I’d brought in.  I thought they’d want a shiny new ten pence piece, but for reasons I didn’t entirely get, they favoured the small 20p coins.  One was incredulous that the coin was dated 1982 and particularly wanted the ‘really old one’.  Not that old surely?

Point is I got through it all OK, English language was used, we had an interactive activity, it wasn’t text-book related particularly, but I think it was legitimate.  It was fine until… afterwards I mentioned to a fellow volunteer that it was hard work keeping it going with just two instead of the expected four.  (For the record I did keep it going, but I did feel like I was generating most of the energy).  I also said I’d not done text-book based stuff as a consequence.  They responded with a glib ‘you seem to do a lot of that, that’s not good‘ and the (ridiculous) point is, I felt completely crushed and undermined.  Self doubt rushed in.  What if they were right?  What if I’m not good?  What if that was an inappropriate response?  Maybe I should have pressed on with text-book stuff?

So essentially, the tsunami of negative thoughts swelled in my head out of all proportion, until it’s gargantuan breaking wave crashed down on all my confidence and shattered such little self-belief as I’d been hanging on to. I felt terrible.  I spent a lot of the next day googling ‘I’m a crap TEFL teacher’ and ‘bad day teaching’ and ‘lot my confidence in the classroom’ and basically catastrophising the whole thing.

It took another lesson (which went absolutely fine) for me to put things in perspective. Hang on a minute.  Why is my confidence so fragile that it can be knocked by an unthinking remark from another volunteer who has never seen me in the classroom and may have an entirely different approach to me anyway.  We are teaching ‘conversational English’ we are asked to use the topics in the book, but it is not an examined syllabus and we are free to adapt and evolve and deviate from the text-book as much as we wish. It is positively encouraged.  My students brought my confidence back.

We returned to the (thankfully now dead topic) of feelings.  I asked my students each in turn ‘what do you feel when you come to CWF for your English class?’  They gave appropriately sycophantic responses.  One student in particular was in full flow.  ‘I feel happy, because my classmates are friendly and funny and kind’.  ‘What about your teacher’ I prompted ‘Ooooh my teacher, my teacher is lovely!  She is funny, and beautiful, and she makes me smile. I am so happy in English.  If I am sad it is always good to come.  I learn so much.  I can speak English much better, she is so wonderful’.  I stood with pantomime self-congratulatory gratitude, acting with exaggerated embarrassment that they should say such lovely things about me.  Another student interjected before I could go any further ‘wait‘ she called ‘we need to know – who is your teacher?’ Touché !  The implication was, it couldn’t possily be me?  It was hilarious.  I love my students they are smart and funny.

So the point is this.  I have had down days, I have had days when I’ve had a wobble about my teaching, more than a wobble. There are times when I could scream in frustration or sob silently over my keyboard at how hard it all is.  However, for the most part those times pass. They are part of the experience I suppose, and when I am not tired, and I’ve had a good session I can put it in perspective.  Honestly, I think it is because I care about what happens in the classroom that I fret about it if things aren’t perfect every time.  Some other teachers have complete confidence in their skills, I don’t doubt that they are for the most part competent, but truthfully, I don’t see them as innovative or creative in the classroom, they aren’t teaching in the style I would like to deliver.  If you take risks, you will make mistakes, but I think the returns are higher too.   There is room for both our approaches I’m sure.  We were told right at the start here that students benefit from having a mix of ‘book-centred’ teachers and ‘interactive more free flow teachers’.  I always want to be the latter.  I want my classes to be interactive, I want my students to share, be curious and get involved.  Consequently, I am off-piste a lot of the time.  I should not allow myself to feel undermined by comparing myself to others who have an entirely different sense of what they want to achieve.  As always, the problem is in my head.  Another thing to feel angsty about.  Oh well…..

Oh, and another thing.  Even if I do have a session bomb, which hasn’t happened yet, but may well do.  The thing is, my students are forgiving.  If I go to a conference or seminar as a delegate, and go to a session that doesn’t quite deliver I don’t hate the facilitator or speaker.  I don’t storm out throwing accusatory shouts over my shoulder at them for having stolen an hour of my life that I’ll never get back and for having wasted my time.  No, I just think ‘I wonder if there are free muffins anywhere?’ and off I go.  I suspect it is the same for my students (not the search for free muffins, there aren’t any at school but the ‘it’s forgotten’ bit.  The overwhelming majority of the sessions have been fab, but if it falls flat, I think they just go home and never give it a second thought, after all tomorrow is another day.  Always.

Also, it’s not like I’m a petulant president with a propensity for provocative tweeting and narcissistic tendencies that might bring about global destruction at any moment.  I’m just another TEFL teacher in Cambodia, finding my feet.  Let’s keep things in perspective people.  My sphere of influence is small.


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