TPTT: Teacher personal talk time

How personal is personal?

The other day I saw a question in a Facebook group I am a member of. Somebody asked, ” Do you answer personal questions when your learners ask you?” This is what I am going to talk about here today. (Advice to reader: time to pour yourself a cup of coffee 🙂 )

My first question is, what is personal?

I mean do you consider your age personal? Information about your marital status? How tall you are? Where you were born? Cause if the answers to those questions is YES then, OMG, my students know loads about me!

For me, personal is a bit more personal. Let me explain what I mean. I tell my students things that some of you may consider personal. For examples, my learners often ask me, ” Miss do you have a boyfriend?” I say, ” No” then they smile and say, ” Well, I have an uncle… ” They know I am color blind. Health is also personal info, isn’t it? But being color blind affects my teaching, so they need to know this as well. They know when my birthday is, they know I started painting.

I talk about politics and religious beliefs. My struggles as a student or my battle with the scales. I do not consider this personal information. My learners know a lot about me and I know a lot about them. Our ‘personal’ talks do not dominate our lessons, but they do help us connect.

Does language learning have anything to do with being connected with your teacher? Well,  of course. I have one buzz term for you. Rapport. If you ask me, rapport is all about knowing who your teacher is and having a good relationship with him/her. This leads to a good atmosphere.  It is also about knowing your learner. Knowing my learners also helps me understand why they may not have done their homework one day or why they are sad or happy.

Are there cases when personal questions may make me feel uncomfortable?  Yes, and I then say, ” well this is something I would prefer to not discuss with you” and they respect that, and that’s the end of that story. There are also occasions where my learners say, ” My mum doesn’t know this miss” and then I say, ” well, I think you should tell her first and then me”.

Personal chit-chat warmer

Every time I have a lesson with a learner I ask them, ” So, what did you do today?” and they tell me. We have a bit of a chit-chat. I get to know their likes and dislikes. This helps me as a teacher. It enables me to decide what I can or cannot try with the particular learner. It also helps me avoid issues/ topics that are ‘uncomfortable’. I once had a learner who had recently lost her father. Knowing this information was the reason why I decided to avoid talking about the nuclear family. It was too soon.

Bottom line is. We are not from outer space. Teachers are people who have lives. If a student wants to get to know me a bit better, he/she can. I only share what I feel comfortable sharing. I do not think I should be on a pedestal or that by saying how old I am I am being unprofessional. I am not saying my way is right or wrong. I am just being me.

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If you have read this up to this last line and feel like commenting, please do. I really am interested in knowing what you consider personal and what not.

A few days later……

I have posted this in several groups and there are some really good comments around. Please copy paste them here as well, so everyone can read your views. I would really appreciate that!! Thanks!!

Till next time……

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10 thoughts on “TPTT: Teacher personal talk time

  1. Do others find conversation about the ‘personal’ or that become ‘personal’ are powerful learning situations for ESL students? There seems to be strong motivation to pursue understanding, links with body language are clearer and more easily understood in ‘personal’ discussion. The experience also provides great incentive to increase vocabulary. It should not need to be said, but of course professionalism and a strong appreciation of morality, compassion and humanity should be part of the classroom experience of the ‘personal’. Exploitation of any kind should never be part of it. Sensitivity and a sense of humour can be invaluable. Understanding of local cultural values and beliefs doesn’t hurt either.
    I run various ‘Business English’ courses at a SEA university and regularly invite students to provide comment or questions on any issue – personal, social, political etc for discussion. In three years here I have seen only two other foreigners/westerners in this very large region. Students have little or no opportunity to use their developing language skills regularly. Hence my ‘anything goes’ approach.
    To be judgemental or ‘high-so’ (perceived arrogance) about any attempt at conversation or its content would be so retrograde. The experiences and benefits for the students are just too important.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Michael!
    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I totally agree with you! I think that ‘putting ourselves out there’ and allowing our learners to express themselves can be such great tools/assets in the classroom. Teaching is about learning your learner as well. If they want to tell me something, they can and they do. So do I. Of course there are limits, but telling my learners for example, that I really struggled when I moved from Australia to Greece and sharing my experience about the challenges and even bullying is something I feel needs to be shared! So, I talk about ‘personal’ stuff!

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  3. This was really interesting, Joanna! I suppose my main experience of sharing ‘personal’ information in the classroom is from secondary school, where teachers are conditioned not to share much information at all. But when I was a language assistant in Germany, I wasn’t that much older than most of my students, and I wasn’t technically their teacher, so I was quite happy to talk about quite personal things with them – what I did at the weekend, what my life was like back in England. I think that helped them relate to me as a person, as opposed to the walking dictionary that some teachers in the school treated me as!
    It’s funny that you publicised this post on the same day that I read this post by Lizzie Pinard, in which she reports on her current experiences learning Italian, and how she’s keen to find out more about her fellow classmates. I would agree with her and you – I think rapport is so important, particularly in smaller groups of older learners. http://reflectiveteachingreflectivelearning.com/2015/03/08/diary-of-an-intermediate-language-learner-part-2/

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  4. Yes, real information sharing, a real interest in students and real exchange of views is motivating, but there are limits.
    First of all, there is a cultural interpretation of how much is too much. How well do you understand the culture you are working in?
    Second, it’s possible to be quite open, encourage communication, value input, without discussing all your personal affairs. Indeed, if you focus too much on yourself, you are focusing less on the students. It’s easy to value and encourage their opinions with only light personal details. I’ve seen teachers discussing their divorces etc with students to degrees which were embarrassing to students, and certainly didn’t stimulate their communication.
    Third, there are some things that are not the business of an ELT classroom, but as a friendly (and caring) teacher, I’ve directed students to more appropriate help when they’ve told me about on going physical abuse in the home, etc. It’s not that I don’t care, or that I won’t listen, but I am not a therapist, and that doesn’t help their English (when they get very emotional, they switch to Portuguese).
    Fourth, there are groups that are more personal and intimate, and others in which a more distant (but still friendly) stance is required, such as large classes in a university.
    Professionalism is everything, and even vital for long term relationships of trust. Giving students details about your favourite colour and number of children is one thing, telling them intimate details is something else.

    Yes, you can get too personal and too involved.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Teresa,
      Thanks for posting the comment here as well. The cultural aspect is very important. People from different cultural backgrounds approach things very differently. So, again knowing your learner is very important. Talking to your learner about ‘personal’ stuff needs to be done carefully as you say. Age does affect how personal the talk will be. But things like age, favorite things or hobbies in my book are not too personal. Getting too involved is not good either. I really enjoyed reading your comment!!

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  5. In DOGME ELT, exploiting the students’ and teachers’ human potential is discussed, I believe what you are doing is another valid authentic purpose for language learner, and I’m sure it lowers affective filters, they know the person in front of them is not a robot. Great article, I feel it should be shared with new teachers because as a new teahcer, you never know what to do when students wanna engage in persoanl information. However, depending on the country, I would probably avoid sharing political beliefs.

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    • Hi Nati!
      Thanks for reading and commenting. re politics, something funny happened the other day. I was talking to one of my German learners (I am and live in Greece) and he wanted to know how people in Greece feel about the Germans, the Eurozone crisis and other ‘politics’. We had a very nice, calm discussion that was very interesting. Because we trusted each other it was also very respectful. I actually enjoyed the discussion and I think he did as well. If you ask me, it all comes down to how you and your learner mesh. If I had felt that this learner was very dominant or stubborn or etc,, I would have completely avoided the discussion.
      Thanks again,
      Joanna

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  6. Hi Joanna,
    This is something I’ve discussed a few times, but have never thought about writing a post on 🙂
    I particularly like this sentence from your comments “Teaching is about learning your learner as well.” It’s only fair that if we’re asking the students to share information about their lives, we should do the same, but we should only share the kind of information it is appropriate for us to know about them, as Teresa said.
    Sandy

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Sandy,
    I really make sure I am extra careful about what I discuss with my learners cause I really do not want to be viewed as too nosy or unprofessional. I think age and nationality may also affect how ‘personal’ you become.
    With my teenage students I often feel that they want to share with me things they do not want to share with the parents. It is very difficult to make them understand that I am their teacher and not their friend. They see me almost every day. They come to my house cause that’s where I teach them. I try to establish a good, friendly relationship and try not to overstep but sometimes it is very hard.
    I also wonder if it is cultural as well. I wonder if a British/ Chinese or German (nationalities chosen randomly) student is as open a Greek one. In Greece for example, talking about income, salaries (especially now during the crisis) is considered fine. I am not sure if this is “private” information for others though.
    Thanks for reading, commenting and all the support 🙂
    Joanna

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  8. Pingback: T’s Personal Talk Time | Wednesday Seminars

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