Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to

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The trouble with ELT is that it’s all too personal. To practise the present perfect you ask questions such as What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve ever experienced?. To recycle vocabulary you ask: How are you feeling at the moment? Are you a hard-working person or are you lazy? To teach ways of expressing the future you ask your students about their ambitions and future plans. All in all, we interrogate and/or eavesdrop all the time. We think that to meet all the communicative goals and aims we simply have to do this. But what if we ask questions or set tasks and we are not prepared to hear the answers/outcomes.

Earlier today, when introducing the concept of stereotypes in an intermediate class, I gave my students the following task: I gave them cards with expressions on them, for example, a typical Czech teenager/pensioner/teacher/student/mother/man/etc. Their task was to describe these categories using sentences such as I usually sit in the park feeding pigeons. I am always short of money. The other student in the pair had to guess. Then I got them to share their answers as a whole-class activity. I was particularly curious to hear what they think about a typical Czech teacher. This is what one student came up with: I yell at my kids all the time. They don’t like me and they laugh at me when I’m not there. I do the same work over and over again and I’m badly paid. I have two months of holiday…

Although the student was allegedly describing a primary school teacher, all of a sudden, I desperately wanted to defend my job and tell the students that by no means do I feel this way. It eventually turned into a fruitful discussion but still… It got me thinking. Should we ask questions like this.? I mean, in fact, it wasn’t personal. It was me who made it personal. But you never know what to expect so you’d better be prepared for the worst case scenario.

In the same lesson, we read an article on how foreigners see a typical Czech. It was a tongue-in-the-cheek blog post (not the most recent one, by the way) and in one paragraph, it described how a typical Czech woman dresses. For example, it mentioned spray-on jeans and big cleavages. It was a group of 17-year students and at some point, it got a little embarrassing for me ( I felt the blush on my face) when one boy mentioned the cleavage thing and then inadvertently looked at me (mind you, I was wearing a regular T-shirt!). I know it’s a very natural reaction; when talking about hairstyles, you will probably look at the other person’s head. Anyway, to make things worse for myself, I realized I was wearing tight jeans (as were many other girls in the group). What I mean is that sometimes, things can get a bit embarrassing in an L2 classroom no matter if somebody’s remark is meant as an insult, which is a rare case, or if it’s totally harmless. You simply have to develop a thick skin.

Once a teacher trainee I had observed was quite sad after the lesson. Her question “Are you bored?”, addressed to a teenage boy, was rewarded with an instant answer: “Yes”. I later explained to her that she shouldn’t take it personally (yes, I of all people!). If a student is bored, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a boring lesson. Plus I reassured her that he probably didn’t even mean it. Either he might not have wanted to elaborate on her question or he did not understand. Or he was just being very insensitive. I didn’t tell her that she shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

To sum up, being in a language classroom is pretty dangerous sometimes. And the ones in danger are not only the students but the teacher as well. 🙂

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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5 Responses to Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to

  1. Haha yeah, I can relate to some of those, especially about the two month holiday etc.

    This new school year we’ve got a few new teachers. They all seem to take everything personally and get upset over comments and things the students say. To the extent that they want to stop certain classes!
    I really think a thick skin is essential in this business. Luckily I was a mechanic for ten years before becoming an English teacher. I’ve seen and heard it all, not many things get to me now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. swisssirja says:

    Yes, yes, yes! This post definitely resonates with me! Actually, I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot recently, as I have had some rather curious instances in my lessons where I felt how quickly an ‘innocent’ speaking activity can transform into an embarrasing or painful recollection. I remember one very shy, introvert boy, who made some brief comments about his childhood and then refused to elaborate making me feel that he’s had some awfully tough times as a little kid. So now I always ask students whether they feel comfortable sharing their stories or not. Plus, I always insist on the possibility that they can make up their stories.

    I’ve grown quite a thick skin over the years, but the thing that has transformed me as a teacher the most is YOGA 🙂 I know, Hana that you tried it too. Do keep up the practise because it can do wonders 🙂 I feel so much more grounded and calm in my lessons now. And one thing I’m extremely happy about is the growing ability to not take things personally. Gosh, this IS a life saver! Big hugs from the Alps!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks a lot for your heartfelt comment, Sirja. I’m so happy this post resonates with you, especially because it’s a very personal one. I agree; it’s always better to ask prior to a speaking/writing activity if students feel comfortable about sharing something personal. Sometimes you can feel some kind of obstacle without asking and, honestly, even asking may often be threatening for some students. I mean, saying “no” can arouse interest in the class and lots of unwanted attention aimed at the student who refuses to talk about stuff everybody else is comfortable with. Well, teaching isn’t easy, is it? 🙂 Yes, yoga is very helpful indeed. I too feel more grounded and comfortable, which, by the way, any physical exercise can do to a person. Also, I’ve lost some weight recently, which, quite unsurprisingly, does a lot of wonders for my mental health and confidence too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jana says:

    Yes… the tricky part is skating on thin ice when talking about topics we normally consider “everyday”, usually family matters etc. Of course I try to avoid taboo topics but still… I teach adults mostly and I´ve gotten myself into all kinds of embarasssing situations. Like when I asked one lady (who I knew was married) something about her husband and her prompt reply was “I have no husband”. My first thought was “oh my god did he die” but I didn´t say anything and tried to steer clear of the topic but I must have looked pretty confused so she explained. She had just found out about her husband´s lover so she was in the process of getting a divorce and going through a stage of hatred – hence “I have no husband”. Apparently, all the others in the group knew since they were colleagues in the same company.
    Or me asking “who has ever flown in a helicopter?” and a young man answering “me – as a child after a car accident” – again, I didn´t see that coming as an answer to a “grammar” question.
    It´s about to get even worse – I once had a yound lady in my class who in her childhood witnessed her father murdering his wife – her mother. She never wanted to speak about family and fortunately, said so at the very beginning as I had no clue about this until much later.
    The worst experience ever, though, was when one of my (older) students got a phone call in the middle of the class. It was from the hospital, informing her that her daughter had just died.
    This is the tough part for me. Not the situation being too personal for me, but for the students. I´m never sure if I deal with it right.

    Liked by 1 person

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