T’s Personal Talk Time

by Zhenya

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!