T’s Personal Talk Time

Joanna Malefaki’s post about T’s personal talk time (TPTT) made me think and inspired to write this short entry. Note: In her post title, the ‘T’ stands for Teacher, and in my post below for both Teacher and Trainer.

Do I answer personal questions when my learners ask me?

First of all, let’s see what is ‘personal’. This seems to be… a personal question! The degree of what is personal might vary — from any information about yourself (things like where you are from, where you had worked before, whether or not you have a family of your own, etc.) to your beliefs and ideas about politics, economy, religion, other things. A lot would depend on how I myself feel about the topic, or how sensitive I am about something at the moment.

There are also cultural differences, of course. For example, asking about age in the part of the world I am from is considered to be rather rude (especially if it is a question to a woman) but then in Asia it is a matter of learning how to address someone (the level of formality), so knowing the age from early on in a conversation is important. Depending on where I am, my response to that question might vary: from a joke or change of subject in the classroom here in Ukraine, to a specific answer in the Korean classroom. (this is perhaps an exaggerated example, but hope you see what I am trying to say). Another example is about being polite and answering a question about what I ate for breakfast (Korea) may seem quite unexpected or personal in another context — again, so much depends on a culture!

The group I am teaching is also something to consider: as Teresa mentioned in her comment to Joanna, ‘there are groups that are more personal and intimate, and others in which a more distant (but still friendly) stance is required’. I can’t agree more: it is hard to set a rule for myself in how open I want to be, because the people I am with are different.

I often prefer to keep silent in class, for various reasons. The most obvious one is that if/when I am quiet, the learners (or course participants) can speak out and be listened to. Also, when I am not talking, I can hear more. It is, after all, not ‘my time’ – and I am a firm believer in student-centeredness in all respects. (wrote a post about this on ptec blog some time ago)

Please don’t get me wrong — I am not just silent all the time. I do believe that sharing something about myself can help establishing and maintaining rapport and healthy group dynamics. I briefly looked up the definition or rapport, and found this one from oxforddictionaries.com: a close and harmonious relationship in which the people or groups concerned understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well. I think that if we talk about ‘real’ or genuine rapport, then the ideas and feelings shared in the group need to be real (‘personal’!)

Again, depending on a culture where the learners are from, there might be a need for personal chit-chat warmer, or even developing a skill of small talk as ‘a conversation for its own sake’ (according to Wikipedia**)

** I especially liked the part in the Wikipedia article describing the Purpose of Small Talk — a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance

Other (random) thoughts and questions

While writing this post I realized I kept asking myself various questions on this topic. Decided to share them below, and hope some of them could become an extension to the discussion.

  1. Does using an international ELT course book automatically mean getting less personal in the classroom? I am thinking about “PARSNIP” (which as you know is an acronym of topics that global course books avoid – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -isms and Pork). Does never touching the topics that are potentially ‘unsafe’, embarrassing, etc. ‘block’ being genuine and personal?

  2. And then does not using a course book open the door to the discussions and topics leading to potential controversy and even conflict, if real personal views are shared?

A side note: one great resource (with 52 activities and ideas that are ‘non-PARSNIP’) I enjoyed reading is a book by Lindsay Clanfield and Luke Meddings (can read about it and buy it here)

  1. There is a belief (which is also one of those I can relate to) that if the teacher is being open and genuine in a discussion, it helps students to open up and communicate more openly. I am wondering if this is something that (most?) students really need to be able to do in English, or is this a perceived need that we teachers see as our duty (or mission) to help learners with?

How honest are you in your classroom? How open? How personal do you get? Do you consciously think about answering potentially personal questions from your learners while planning a lesson? Does the extent you are going to ‘open up’ in class impact the choice of topics for a lesson you prepare?

Thank you for reading and thinking together with me!


About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/.
This entry was posted in Teacher Reflections and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to T’s Personal Talk Time

  1. Hi Zhenya,

    I’d like to think I comfortable with this kind of thing – deciding whether to reveal personal information (of different kinds) in class. But this wasn’t always the case. As a teacher starting out in Spain and then teaching my first years in further education in the UK I was most definitely not comfortable with it!

    I think the level of comfort and degree of personal information that a teacher is willing to share with their students is something that comes with experience (both of the classroom specifically and life more generally).

    Let me have a go at answering your questions.

    1) I am of the opinion that course books are really bland, and it’s interesting to note how things like people who identify as being LGBT being completely absent from course books (and in fact even being ‘air-brushed’ out of publications). There’s an interesting section in a talk given by John Gray http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/seminars/breaking-ice-addressing-lgbt-issues-esol-classroom (number 2 at around 4:20).

    Personally, I think it is hard to be personal – even in the most simple of ways like asking opinions about real things – with a course book, especially if that book is produced for a global audience.

    2) I’d say there’s more possibility for this kind of personal talk coming up if you remove course books from the equation, as there is less ‘space’ taken up by these imposed materials and ‘curricula’. But it’s not a given. I think you can have teachers and teaching contexts that would restrict personal sharing just as much as if there was a bland course book dominating proceedings. Of course, there will be other situations where personal talk is more welcome and even forms an integral part of the course.

    3) This is for me an important thing to consider. I think we do want to foster the environment where students feel comfortable expressing themselves, but without fear of being mocked or insulted for it. I think we need to teach students to be accepting of other points of view, able to discuss them without posturing or proselytising.

    I think there is a difference between teaching students using what we think as a basis and expecting them to think the same (which is wrong in my opinion) and teaching students how to think. The latter is very much needed and even more so in the times we live in.

    Thanks for the interesting Thursday morning thoughts! (at least, morning here in the UK)


  2. Zhenya says:

    Hi Mike

    Thank you for reading and stopping by to leave your detailed and thoughtful (and so prompt!) comment.

    I certainly agree with what you said here: ‘the level of comfort and degree of personal information that a teacher is willing to share with their students is something that comes with experience (both of the classroom specifically and life more generally). Well, perhaps to me it would be ‘becoming more and more comfortable with revealing myself’ (never being 100% at this point)

    Thank you for answering the three questions from my post (responding below in the same order)

    1) Very true that (international) course books are as neutral and ‘politically correct’ as it is only possible. Indeed, as in the link you shared, a lot of topics are not even nearly there. A lot of topics being ‘real’ for the students in the specific classroom. I wonder how a skillful/experienced teacher might shift the focus in a lesson and encourage more open exchange of thoughts. For example, asking the students how they would feel if it was Simon, not Simone, in the picture mentioned in the video? Yes, it is hard to be personal 🙂

    2) If I understand you correctly, you are saying that it is not just a course book, but any curriculum, and oftentimes, a culture (of a school, or a country) that limits the real/genuine communication in the classroom? If so, then perhaps a mission of an EFL/ESL teacher could be removing those limits, or at least helping students see another side? I think this is becoming a deeper question, especially if we think about the interaction between the beliefs and values of the culture (teacher’s, students’): how much do students need to touch the topics in L2 that they don’t usually/culturally talk about in L1? How does it help or hinder their language learning?

    3) Yes, teaching students to be accepting of other points of view is a great goal. Doing so through modeling (and being able to accept the point of view of the students) is even better. Teaching students how to think (critical thinking?) is something that attracts me – again, the question is, how can space be created inside a curriculum, for example?)

    Thank you for taking this conversation to another level, and for making me think more. Indeed, a good Thursday (late) morning!



  3. joannamalefaki says:

    Hi Zhenya,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. I think what is interesting is that personal or too personal has a lot to do with culture and this is something that needs to be taken into consideration when teaching. Personality of the teacher, age/personality of students and group dynamics also determine how personal a question/ conversation can be.
    Regarding course books and whether they have material that can be viewed too personal, I guess it’s up to the teacher to decide what’s appropriate and what isn’t.
    Great post!


    • Zhenya says:

      Thank you for the inspiration, Joanna, and for leaving your encouraging comment! Agree that there are quite a few variables to think about (or maybe thinking about all those is too much?) I am optimistic about teacher’s ability to make connections to (most?) topics in a course book, or at least initiate a discussion for the students to voice what they think.

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Zhenya,

    I’m not sure whether this falls into the right category, but one of the things I don’t like is when my students criticise or doubt my pedagogic decisions. Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate constructive criticism but kids can be quite rude (because they are kids). The trouble is that I often take their rude behaviour personally. This is one of my imperfections, which I’m constantly working on – through reflective practice, for example.

    Otherwise, being a very outgoing and extroverted person, I would have to try really hard to find a question I would consider personal, or too personal. Don’t ask me about my weight, though. 🙂

    What concerns me more is what kind of questions *I* should ask my students and where the limit is. I mean, being a very outgoing and extroverted person (and quite humorous too), I realize that what I consider acceptable may not be acceptable for some of my introverted students, for example. Not that I’m tactless or something, but it’s happened to me a few times that I put my foot in it when I touched on, say, romantic relationships. I remember I once made a teenage girl cry (totally unintentionally, of course); I said something quite innocent but, apparently, I touched on a very sensitive subject. I immediately apologized, but I couldn’t help feeling guilty so later on I talked the girl’s mum about the incident. Luckily, she reassured me that I shouldn’t feel bad about the situation – the girl was going through puberty and she took things personally. But I’m more cautious now.

    I hope I didn’t get too off-topic.


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Hana

      Thank you so much for the comment – and I think you are totally on topic in what you are saying!

      Your first point is about how you might react/respond to some critical comments from your students (about your teaching, that is, not your personality) I see that you are taking your job seriously and personally and therefore treating the comments coming from students sensitively (not that I learned it just from this paragraph, but when you wrote it, it became more visible, so to say). Question about this: does it mean that you don’t like them asking about your pedagogic decisions (doubting them, etc.) or you don’t like them telling you what they think (about an activity, a lesson, etc.)? I mean, explaining the purpose for students, or justifying the decisions, or … anything else?

      I think I mentioned it already in my comment to your post, but it seems to me that the ‘reverse’ approach you wrote about recently and letting students see the final destination of a unit provides this safe space for feedback (constructive feedback, one would hope!) because students are entering the ‘why’ of the tasks you choose for them?

      I smiled reading about ‘the weight’ point (I think this is the topic I would try to avoid discussing with anyone – including students/course participants). On a serious note, it is great to be an extrovert – helps a lot in teaching, I think.

      Now, I really liked how you turned the question about being personal in class and spoke about asking students to share. How much is ‘too much’ and is there a limit? I think if we talk about personalities (humans) here, there is no such rule or recipe. The example you gave reminded me of a situation I had when I was teaching a group of adults (beginner level) and at the point when the task was to draw/share their family tree one woman burst into tears. She then explained that she was in the process of getting divorced and felt really sensitive about any reminder about it. How can one know if this is a ‘taboo’ for now? The same about kids who lost a parent, for example – and there are so many more topics that become a problem for this or that reason. Is it tactless if we touch them? How are we supposed to know?

      It is great that you talked with her mum and clarified what it was about. As you yourself said, being more cautious and aware, and watching our students, listening to them might be the way to go. Well, not really ‘the’ – as vague as this solution could be – but at least a strategy?

      Thank you for adding a new twist to the topic – I am really enjoying to think about these ideas! 🙂



      • Hana Tichá says:

        I suppose that I don’t like it when my students doubt a pedagogical decision of mine and I’m not over the moon when they tell/show me explicitly 🙂 Seriously, I teach young learners and teens, who are sometimes reluctant to do stuff just because it requires some effort. But I know why I want them to do it and even when I explain the reasons behind my decision, they can’t help striking a defensive pose anyway. I’m fully aware of the fact that it’s perfectly natural and that it’s their right to do so, but I sometimes struggle to not take it too personally. Now, who’s actually being childish in such a situation – my students or me? 😀


        • Zhenya says:

          I don’t think it is childish at all (if this does not mean that we are both on the same ‘defensive’ line sometimes?) – to me these words sound like you are being very honest with yourself and aware of the decisions you are making (including the decision not to explain the decisions) Thank you for the comment – and the smiles! 🙂


  5. Hello Zhenya,

    I wrote about this https://throwingbacktokens.wordpress.com/2011/03/20/personal-disclosure-in-the-korean-classroom-do-you-or-dont-you/ in 2011, and now thanks to you and Joanna, I was able to revisit it.

    Reading it and the comments that accompanied it, I realize that I wrote from a very specific context. The fact that I am me (I can start the list of identity markers but I’d rather not disclose that 😉 ), and that I am in Korea made it so that sharing this information was part of the rapport building that you mentioned. If any other identity marker were different, I may not have been able to write the post as I did.

    Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on my beliefs Zhenya!


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Josette

      Thank you so much for your comment! I loved the post you are referring to (and it is interesting to see how so many years later it actually seems that you wrote it in response to the questions I was asking – I did find the answers!)
      There are several quotes I would like to remember from your post:
      1) ‘By accepting the questions instead of opposing them, we become part of their way of doing’ – yes, yes and yes: each culture/context has their own way of thinking, and communicating – and the questions asked are a proof of this. It takes a lot of courage and effort to be able to accept this truth and adapt our own way.
      2) ‘part of cultural dance is knowing what to disclose and how to disclose it’ – I think it is related with (1) above but is wider than only questions and answers. Doing so and being/feeling your natural/authentic self – this is a real art to me.
      3) ‘From my perspective, by refusing to open up about myself, trainees will feel less inclined to do the same.’ – I agree (just ‘blocking’ this type of questions does not help any group dynamics. I also think this is perhaps different for a group of students and a group of teachers – I mean, working with teachers is also modeling what we might do in a real classroom (and that is a part of skill/awareness they are looking for in a trainer?)

      You did write from the specific context in that post – but each of us can only talk about the specific contexts we come from/teach in. Yes, on the one hand we are limited to that context, on the other hand, however, learning about it in depth means that we can be more helpful to the learners in it. I am really interested if things changed for you in the years between that post and now, and what else you noticed about the ‘Western’ way and the ‘Korean way’ (the terminology us used in the same meaning as in your post)

      Thank you very much for sharing your experience and reflections!


  6. annadelconte says:

    Hi Zhenya,
    I teach in a multicultural context. We appear to have no polite rules in the ‘parent group’ that I work with. We seem to know everything about everyone!! Sometimes I wish that I did not know as much as I do about their lives.
    They enjoy hearing stories about my children and grandchildren as they help them feel connected to me. I do not tell them everything!
    At the moment i am trying to have conversations with them about setting boundaries for their own and their children’s behaviour so that they can raise loving, responsible citizens of our world.
    It is not a set course. I am adapting a few texts to meet my purpose and asking some leading questions. (We always seem to go off topic but at least if they are powering the conversation and I am gently steering it they are practising their English and thinking about their role as parents). It’s a haphazard approach but the group varies from week to week in composition and number. The program needs to be flexible and personal.


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Anne

      Thank you very much for visiting my blog and stopping by to leave a comment! It is great to hear from someone working in the multicultural (multilingual?) context. As I understand, you are working with adult students of English – and it seems that there is a lot of trust and understanding between you and them (going beyond just learning the language, in a good way)

      You wrote: ‘They enjoy hearing stories about my children and grandchildren as they help them feel connected to me.’ – again, sounds like a warm cosy homey atmosphere, where people are feeling safe and secure to open up. To me it is only natural to talk about such topics as raising kids, for example – because this relationship allows to discuss what really matters. Personally matters.

      You said: ‘Sometimes I wish that I did not know as much as I do about their lives’. – I think I can relate to this (on an intensive training course teachers often share something very personal because they feel the need for it, and the trust was built to do so safely). I also know that such atmosphere requires a lot of active listening, and emotional effort. But then again – creating genuine relationships with people are worth it? (maybe that’s one of the reasons we are in this profession?)

      Going ‘off topic’ in such a course makes so much sense to me! After all, the whole idea of choosing/bringing a topic for the lesson is to help/motivate learners to use English and communicate. If the learners are actively prompting the teacher what they would like to talk about, it would be strange not to follow their lead?

      Thank you for leaving your comment and making me think (and making me envy for the dynamic – flexible and personal – learning environment you are working in!)


  7. ljiljana havran says:

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Zhenya. I told you on Twitter that I found your point about the cultural differences interesting because I learnt something knew (about the Asian students), and also because I think that it’s very important to be familiar with the social etiquette of the country you live and teach in.

    I fully agree that “sharing something about ourselves can help establishing and maintaining rapport and healthy group dynamics”. There are some personal information that are relevant to the course and I want to share with my students at the beginning of the first term: how I would like to be called by my students (e.g. in Serbian secondary schools it is common for teachers to be called “professors”, so I always explain that it is quite ok that they call us “teachers”), my educational background, why I am enthusiastic about my job, where I taught English before etc.

    I love spontaneous talk and discussion in class on various topics, and I encourage the students to be open and to speak their mind. I don’t think it is possible to predict every question that could arise in class while planning the lesson. I also believe that teachers should express their own views/opinions on the topic if they expect their students to share their own. It is also very important to develop some techniques for dealing with some potential conflicts provoked by some difficult questions (in my country these Qs are usually about politics, economy, religion, gay marriages, etc.).

    There are some personal questions (e.g. about age/weight/marital status/income, etc.) I’m not comfortable responding to, so if a student asks something like that I usually smile and politely change a subject.

    Thanks again for your great post 🙂


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Ljiljana

      Thank you for the comment! Yes, a lot about a culture, and as you said, its social etiquette.

      You example about what you share at the beginning of a course (specifically, about how students can/need to address you) reminds me about another difference between Ukraine and ‘the West’. In our L1, teachers are usually addressed by their full first name and patronymic (middle name based on one’s father’s name). This means I would be Yevgeniya Alexandrovna. If you teach in a private language school (or if you feel that less formal approach is appropriate) you ask students to address you by the first name. This is sometimes a struggle for older audience, but is quite exciting for kids and teenagers. (they are feeling closer to you somehow). Such a small thing, but I found that being ‘Zhenya’ in my classroom is a lot more fun 🙂

      Yes, you put it very nicely here, and I agree: ‘teachers should express their own views/opinions on the topic if they expect their students to share their own’. Also, the topics you listed as ‘difficult questions’ are similar in our countries. I would not try to have a discussion/debate on those (because the personal reactions might hinder the rapport and therefore learning)

      Thank you for the comment and more ideas shared – I am learning from these discussions so much! 🙂


  8. ljiljana havran says:

    Thank you for your reply, Zhenya (I like your name very much, I guess it sounds something like our name – Ksenija?)

    I’d also like to add something to my comment: teachers must be very careful when expressing their opinions on some topics, not to impose them on their students (they must not teach Ss what to think). They should encourage them to think on their own, share their opinions, listen to other people and respect other people’s different opinions on the topic (which is in some situations really difficult/demands a lot of skill).

    I agree with you that our countries have similar “difficult questions” and understand you completely when you say that you would not try to have a discussion/debate on those questions now. I understand you and I’m with you (with all my heart).


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Ljiljana

      I know it has been a long time since you wrote this comment, but I could not leave your warm words without a reply.

      Re the names: yes, there is a similarity (rhyme) in the names Zhenya and Ksenija – we do have that name here, actually.

      Re the sensitive questions: you are right, need to be careful sometimes. Thank you for your words of support!

      Till soon – till new blog posts!


  9. ven_vve says:

    Hi Zhenya,

    I wanted to comment on Joanna’s post when it first came out, and then when I read yours I knew I’d be back even if it was going to take a while! 🙂

    I’ve read all the comments on this post with great interest, and here are my answers to your questions.

    1. Personally, I’ve never found that using an international course book prevented me from discussing personal topics with my students. I teach adults and undergrads (technically adults too :P) so there are no ethical constraints I would probably be bound by if I worked with kids, plus I’m naturally nosy and generally have no problems asking what might be considered personal questions. Or answering them. I preface potentially difficult questions with, “I’m gonna be nosy now, so please feel free not to answer if this question is too personal”. I also often teach/advise students to respond along the lines of, “Sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable discussing this topic”, whenever they come across a nosy person like me!
    About PARSNIPs – are there really teachers who feel that course books should include s**? This is certainly not a topic I’d be comfortable discussing, nosiness notwithstanding, and I’m pretty sure students wouldn’t either. S***ual orientation is another thing, but I don’t think that any of the PARSNIPs necessarily need to be in a book in order for these topics to be broached. One detail: I have “Taboos & Issues” by MacAndrew & Martinez, and like it a lot; have certainly used it with lots of classes, but have never felt the need to build a whole course around it.

    2. Not for me. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky with students. I have taught classes that relied more and less heavily on the book (generally depending on what the students’ employer paid for) and haven’t noticed that in either we tended to touch on personal (supposedly taboo) topics noticeably more or less often.

    3. Ha! That’s a difficult question. At this stage I think I would go with the following: most students are probably not terribly likely to need to divulge very personal info in English (but this does, of course, depend on what you consider personal). How’s that for a vague answer? 🙂 Sorry. Yes, I guess I think if a teacher is open/genuine, the students will recognize this. But it doesn’t always lead to being more talkative/communicative – some students are just reticent people when using their L1.

    Thanks for the post and for giving me the opportunity to express my views on this.


    • Zhenya says:

      Hi Vedrana

      First of all, apologies for the record-breaking time it took me to respond to your comment (over 2 weeks!). A whirlpool of family events, then Easter – and I could not even notice how the time was flying.

      Now, thank you for the comment you left. Reading it now I have a feeling that we are continuing a wonderful conversation (it is exciting to see the variety of ideas about this topic) Thank you for responding to each of the questions (will start with #3)

      Is [getting personal in class] something that (most?) students really need to be able to do in English, or this is a perceived need that we teachers see as our duty (or mission) to help learners with? – I like your answer (it does not sound vague to me!), and agree with this line: ‘most students are probably not terribly likely to need to divulge very personal info in English’.

      Question #1 was ‘Does using an international ELT course book automatically mean getting less personal in the classroom?’ – I loved what you said about the strategies (prompts?) you provide your students with when they don’t feel great discussing a topic. Re the course books, the quote of yours I support is this one: ‘I don’t think that any of the PARSNIPs necessarily need to be in a book in order for these topics to be broached’ (and like you, I like the book “Taboos & Issues” and have used it in class with adults)

      Question # 2 asked if not using a course book opens the door to the discussions and topics leading to potential controversy and even conflict, if real personal views are shared. You said you were/are probably lucky with students. I smiled, because this is something I say quite often. Maybe it is about working with adults, and maybe it is a strategy of treating books as materials to use (or not) rather than ‘the’ course, or maybe communication strategies and openness that help learning and discussing, or something else? I have a feeling now that there is a lot in common in our teaching styles, and I would be curious to see each other’s lessons 🙂

      Finally (and getting back to Q3) I agree that ‘if a teacher is open/genuine, the students will recognize this’. It might be on their subconscious level, and it might not lead to any immediate change, but fundamentally it might help in breaking ice and creating safe learning space.

      Thank you for the comment (a post actually!) and for making me think!

      Liked by 1 person

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