Katie Conoley was a young single female TEFL teacher in Santiago, Chile for one year. Through the course of her year, she had her share of fun, adventure and…meltdowns. Learn from her experiences and read on to get some heart to heart advice on how Katie kept the wandering eyes of some of her adult students at bay, and about other issues that she had with professionalism in the classroom. Also, if you’d like an employer’s perspective on how to deal with unprofessional behavior in your adult TEFL classroom, you can download my advice in a pdf for free by clicking on the download button below.
April has marked the third year back in the states. My nostalgic, glassy stare back at my year in Santiago, Chile fails to notice the smoggy cityscape, the crowded transportation, and the pungent tear gas. Instead, my memories are filled with late nights drinking cheap beer with friends, the sprawling Andes Mountains, and spontaneous trips to the beach. As soon as I’d set foot in this Americanized metropolis, I knew I’d found my temporary home for the next year. My mind swirled with preconceived notions of Latin America and how I would present my “vast” knowledge of the English language to these people that bustled by me on their morning commute to work. Now, when other eager, bright-eyed friends ask me for advice before they set off for their self-discovering international travel, I try to address my top five tips to avoid a few potential meltdowns (avoiding all meltdowns is laughably preposterous) when dealing with students.
1. Abandon Preconceived Concepts of Professionalism
Most cannot discern from my purposely-neutral American accent that I hail from the great state of Texas. However, from the utterance of my first y’all, I have been ingrained with the idea that a firm handshake, intense eye contact, straight talk, and of course a friendly disposition would advance my pursuit to teach undoubtedly. While Chilean students are usually very warm and amicable, my eager ambition could be perceived as slightly aggressive. Making the habit of assessing my students’ attitudes, career, and international experiences gave me a better understanding of how to approach my classes. A handshake or eye contact could be disarming for some, while a friendly disposition may seem like a sexual advance to others.
Once I was completely blindsided by an inappropriate email from a bank executive. I had assumed that our lively conversation and joking was purely platonic. Although I thought I had presented the epitome of a professional, yet a relatable teacher, I received an email stating that he would miss not only my honesty and company but also other parts of me that he would rather not say. I was scarred. What did I do to lead this 47-year-old married man with two daughters to think that I was eliciting this type of relationship? At times, even with a well-equipped utility belt of international competency and world-class professionalism, we still get surprised by a pervert. It happens to the best of us. Our appropriate responses are where we can shine. In my case, reporting this to my boss and ignoring any other contact that was made was the best move, instead of giving him a Texas-sized talkin’ to.
Draw Boundaries for Students
Naturally, this would follow my frisky student story. Students were the doorways to the culture I wanted to explore. They lived in the city where I had just begun living. They spoke the language that I wanted to speak. They frequented the places I wanted to frequent. As a foreigner, my students enriched my experience in Santiago. The business English classroom is fairly informal in Chile; even I had, on occasion, thrown back a cocktail or two at lunch during the week. The reality of me doing the same in Dallas during my thirty-minute break makes me audibly laugh to myself. No matter how relaxed and simply fun students may be, eventually, lines have to be drawn in and outside the classroom.
As a freshly arrived gringa, I assumed that since I would be teaching adults, they would show up on time, do their homework, speak in turn, etc. Wrong. I realized that my elementary days bustling around the playground are mirrored in adult life. In other words, we do not change all that much. Very quickly I learned that not having a clear idea of what would happen in the classroom usually ended up in unruly conversations that sometimes included students showcasing their knowledge of English racial slurs. Clear-cut classroom rules and expectations addressed at the beginning of the session make for smoother lessons. As far as socializing outside of the classroom, the best policy is to wait. Wait until they are no longer students. Getting wasted with the person that provides the money that pays the bills is usually not the best idea in the long run. Also, it can be slightly awkward reviewing subject pronouns with the guy you saw snorting cocaine at a club the night before.
Enforce Your Cancellation Policy
Along the same lines as setting boundaries, keeping students accountable goes a long way. Let’s look at the financial situation of an English teacher in Chile. I was able to earn a decent wage that funded my beer drinking, fruit buying, hostel jumping lifestyle for a year. My classes were the reason I could live in that beautiful country. No classes equals no fun. Once the habit of last-minute cancellations was accepted, it was difficult to retroactively grasp control. A few times, students would call me as I was eagerly running up the steps of their office building, to let me know that they had a meeting scheduled two weeks ago at the exact same time as the class. As much as I did not want them to perceive me as uptight, setting this policy was essential. After all, I had to eat, and more importantly, drink. My time is valuable too.
Prepare Your Lessons in Advance.
Head throbbing hangovers from last night’s binge at the local pub did not make for the best canvas to create lesson plans. As my year progressed, lessons became easier to manage. Most students struggled with the same grammatical concepts and they all loved to talk. They appreciated a well-crafted lesson plan which directly corresponded to the amount of confidence I displayed. Happy students signify more classes, and more classes result in more money. More money means more to enjoy. As a self-proclaimed, professional level procrastinator, gathering materials and preparing activities ahead of time took a while to grasp. However, once semi-mastered (keep in mind I am innately a procrastinator), I saw the rewards of my labor. Again, preparation kept students conversations in bounds without having to resort to explaining how certain words are inappropriate in every context.
Remember the reason why you’re here.
To be completely honest, my number one objective to move to Chile was not to advance my English teaching abilities. Of course, I wanted to improve in whatever job I had at that moment. However, giving instructions on how to use the present perfect to unenthused businessmen and women was not my main prerogative while the Andes mountains echoed to me from the East, and the waves of the Pacific called to me from the West. Even when days became long and tedious, I thought about where I was, the people I had met, and my plans for the upcoming weekend. When I was sardined onto the hot metro heading to my next class where the student had previously told me he could not stand his wife and had no friends, my mind would wander to the beauty that surrounded me.
Now, as I sift through my thoughts and experiences of teaching English in Chile, I focus on the great artistry of the country that ultimately changed my life for the better. While most of the time I had no idea what the hell I was doing, that uncertainty led me to some of the most cherished memories I have and the best people I have met. I hope you can learn a bit from my own meltdowns.
For Nathan Beyerlein’s, TEFL manager and Blog Editor’s, advice on how to keep classroom relationships professional, download the pdf by clicking on the link below.