This Teacher Used This One Awesome Trick When Teaching and You Won’t Believe What happened Next (or how I learned to get learners talking in fewer than ten photocopies)

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet¹

What do The Japanese Civil War, Batman vs Superman and “Tidying Guru” Maria Kondo have in common? No, they’re not my most favouritest things (though thanks for compliment that I’m tidy) but are, in fact, some topics that I’ve learned quite a lot about recently. And not because I looked them up. So where did I learn about them? Not from New Cutting Edge or Business Result, not from meticulous lesson preparation or seriously bespoke planning, nor from the estimable onestopenglish or Reward McNuggets Intermediate  Resource Pack, but from the remarkably able source of… my students.  I was all ears. And faces.

All the World’s a Stage

In 1957, Erving Goffman published his book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. In it, Goffman argues that an individual presents themselves to the outside world to try shape the way they are in turn perceived. Thus, all of us have a lot of selves and we choose which one we wish those around us to see, depending on the situation we’re in. A person does this for a number of reasons, such as wanting “[an other] to think highly of him, or to think that he thinks highly of them, or to perceive how in fact he feels towards them… he may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud… or insult them.”². Or, in teaching terms, to get them to learn.


@foster_timothy, ELTPics


So who I am when I teach is not who I am when I write this, work on a CELTA or Delta or meet a new colleague for the first time. I perform a self and put on a face in each instance, one I feel is the best fit for the social context. It’s not that I’m hiding anything; I’m just presenting another self because the stage has changed and the audience is different. I can’t be Anthony if there is no Cleopatra, but I could be Bogart to your Bacall, or Superman to your Batman.

Bat what? Bat who? What’s a Gotham? Who Cares?

I have a confession to make. I concede here, in front of these witnesses, that I know very very little about Batman vs Superman because I could not care less about Batman vs Superman. I’ve tried caring less, really I have, but it is actually impossible, making the fact that there developed a forty-minute scaffolded speaking activity about the film a seeming contradiction. The learner had been to see it, loves DC Universe stuff, and brought it up. I asked who won and found that it was a little more complicated than that. The learner tried to explain, faltered, kept going. A bat sign appeared in the sky above the lesson. My help was needed.  I put on one of my invisible masks.

That Awesome Trick

There is no trick – I defrauded you using a self I’m not proud of – but there are a couple of points to make about the practicalities of the above for language teaching. As a Dogmetic teacher, I’m supposed to listen to my students and take an interest in what they have to say. Sometimes I genuinely am interested, but not when superheroes are the topic. But it’s not about me; it’s about the learner. If they want to talk about superheroes, I will do two things that some people are not comfortable with (and which are my two top tips for teaching 121s, by the way), but which are part of a teaching self of mine:

  1. feign interest
  2. pretend to be more or less completely ignorant of the topic

Of the three topics I mentioned at the start, I was a combination of those two things for each one. The Japanese Civil made me genuinely really curious and I knew a little about it already.  I knew, for example, that Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for centuries, but I did not tell the learner this; rather, I used my ‘ignorance’ to encourage his explanation.  Batman vs Superman piques no interest for me, but I knew that Ben Affleck had directed it, roughly what the plot was and that some reviews had been less than favourable. I still pretended I knew virtually nothing about it and that I would like to see it to prompt some speaking. Marie Kondo was of mild interest in terms of the concept, but I genuinely knew nothing about her. My face was still enraptured with curiosity as everything from her best-sellers to how to part with sentimental items was clarified for me. Each time, I had to act to get the learner to speak; each time, the lesson developed in this direction and they talked a lot. Each time rapport was good and each time mini emergent syllabus points, er, emerged.

Person (n)… originally “mask, false face,”*

*(that’s true³)

So how to put on that mask and get away with it, without causing offence or hinting at any suggestion that you might just be faking it, a devious actor with a learning end in mind? Here’s some ten points to bear in mind:

  1. You’ve got to mean it – you might not be interested and you might know a lot about the topic, but you need to avoid that coming across and in a non-condescending manner.
  2. In 121s especially (but all classes if possible), take clear notes about the learner (family, job, etc.), with lists of topics discussed and return to these when necessary. Read them before every class so you can refer to them where necessary.
  3. Back-channel as you would if your friend was telling you something really interesting. Lots of “huh?”, “reaaaly?”, “I seeee” and so forth.
  4. Ask questions about the content of the discussion, questions someone might actually ask if they genuinely wanted to know more.
  5. Use your face and gestures to show curiosity, fascination, learning, astonishment, surprise, disappointment, disbelief, gratitude… all at the right (but not same) time. As if you really were all those things.
  6. Vary your intonation, but keep it risingly curious often.
  7. Maintain eye contact. Don’t stare anyone out, but keep the eye contact natural.
  8. Prompt and ask for further examples/illustration by getting parts of what’s been said deliberately wrong.
  9. Try not to yawn and get good at rubbing your eyes back to wakefulness (coffee?).
  10. Rephrase points and ask for further clarification: “you mean that… xyz?”, “so that was before the…abc”.

So there you have it. All your learners are different, so make sure you leave time to prepare a face for the those different faces that you meet. And if you think me cynical, you might be right; but, why not ask the learners if they enjoyed the lessons or whether they’d prefer page 28.


1. T.S. Eliot (1920) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: (accessed 27/7/16)

2. Erving Goffman (1956) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Monograph 2, Edinburgh.

3. Definition from The Online Etymology Dictionary: (accessed 27/7/16)