Lessons Learned: My Biggest Mistake as a Foreign Language Teacher

“Live and learn”, “nobody’s perfect”, “we all make mistakes” – while these are well-known English axioms, there is an Estonian proverb that says, “The mistakes of others are good teachers.” So in the spirit of good teaching, I’d like to share one of my biggest blunders as a language teacher with the hope that less experienced teachers can avoid similar lapses in judgement and the ensuing years of lament (maybe a slight overstatement).

As a student of adult education, I had always been very interested in methods in critical pedagogy. So when I moved to the Czech Republic and began teaching groups of technically oriented adult learners, I was very eager to apply my newly acquired “expertise”. It was in my second year of teaching that I made the biggest classroom mistake of my career – I decided to experiment with popular education techniques in an adult TEFL context.

One of the goals of popular education is to give learners a voice and remove barriers through the employment of techniques that may include physical activity and drama.

Before I go on, I need to say that I still strongly believe in critical pedagogy and that popular education methods have their place in adult learning, just not in most of my teaching contexts.

To make a long story short, I had my adult learners walking around the classroom with their eyes shut relying on verbal directions from other learners to avoid colliding with each other and the furniture. Of course, what I ignored in my youthful enthusiasm was that these types of learning activities can be very threatening and embarrassing to adult learners if a sufficient level of trust has not been established beforehand. As a result, I lost students and to this day there are a few individuals in town who approach me at the local watering hole after a few drinks to remind me that they didn’t like the way I taught. Even now, almost 20 years later, whenever I think about that foray into the unfamiliar, I still cringe.

In those days I was still finding my “style”. Of course I had been taught that establishing trust was very important but, apparently, my desire to go above and beyond clouded my judgement. How could something as important as “trust” get overshadowed? Well, after years of reflection, I can now point to several factors connected with my own inexperience that certainly impaired my performance at the time.

So as penance for my infringement on the critical adult educators’ code of conduct, I would like to share several observations that I have made from my own teaching so that others may avoid similar gaffes.

Observation 1: Establishing trust should be the first and single most important goal of any language teacher – we must be open and honest with our learners and create an atmosphere where the learners feel comfortable doing the same in front of each other.

Observation 2: We should never assume, because they all share the same culture and are from the same hometown, that our adult learners already know each other or, much less, trust or are even comfortable with one another.

Observation 3: We must take care not to let well-intended enthusiasm overshadow our common sense.

Observation 4: We must get to know our learners and be sensitive to the limits of their personal comfort zones.

Observation 5: We must know and respect the cultural norms in the regions where we are living and teaching.

Observation 6: Although lessons should be fun and creative, we must be careful not to let the classroom become a personal laboratory for risky or threatening activity ideas. (See Observations 3, 4, 5.)

Observation 7: We should never underestimate the importance of experience and we should seek out advice from those who have it if we are blessed with the presence of mind to realise that we lack it.

In closing, it would be interesting to hear about some memorable blunders and lessons learned from other language teachers. Feel free to comment and share!

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