You’re a teacher and a business

The title I originally had planned for this post was maybe too long: “You’re a teacher and a business, so engage with your learner on at least two levels.” It does seem like a bit much.

Not every teacher is a business

If you volunteer or teach in a school system, then you’re probably not a teacher. When people read this blog, however, I imagine them working like I do: teaching adults (and some kids) for money on a freelance basis.

If that’s what you do, you’re a business.

Thinking like a business

This part of teaching is not easy for me. I can’t say “I have this mastered, let me show you the ropes.” Instead, I can say: “I get that this is important, and I know we all have to work on it.”

The thing is this: when you’re a business, your learners are customers. And they have certain expectations and behaviors. A customer knows that they are paying money for something. They don’t always know what. And, when the time comes to decide whether or not to continue paying for a course, they will look at it as a business decision.

Why do they come to the English lesson?

Most people begin coming to a lesson to learn English. Their boss told them they have to, or they have a four week road trip across Canada planned on their horizon. Either way, they start with a simple reason.

Once they are in the lesson, however, they continue coming because the lesson adds something to their life. Either they can see in some direct way how it makes their work easier, or it’s a fun thing to do to unwind after work, or maybe it’s a group of people they wouldn’t otherwise know who have interesting discussions.

Give them a reason to come

This seems like an obvious thing to say, but I’ve been guilty of forgetting this part of teaching. In (the former East) Germany, at least, students are so well trained by the school system that I never have to fight for respect to maintain control of the classroom. They come in, know that I’m the teacher, and behave.

But, even the ones who are learning English quit. It was eye-opening for me when one of my students told my boss “I was in Scottland this summer, and it really was easier to speak. But I don’t know what I’m learning in the English lesson.”

The moral for me is this: Students — customers — don’t always know they are learning. Looking at English as a circle, if the lesson spends most of the time close to the edge of their circle, where they’re working hard to keep up, they are liable to overlook how much bigger the circle has got. Instead, they’ll just remember that “it never gets any easier.”

It’s on you, as the teacher — and business — to take time to point out to them what they’ve learned. Go back to a conversation drill that was practiced several months ago and praise them for still having it mastered. Remind them how hard it was on the first day of the lesson. Even more, have something (a worksheet, a text, two pages in the textbook) that they can hold in their hand and say “we did this today.”

Most of all, once their English is good enough to have a bit of fun in English, make that a goal. Not for all the time, but for pretty frequent intervals. You can just have a great, rambling conversation. Take them to a virtual restaurant. Play a card game and make small talk in English. Do a one-teacher theatrical performance for them. The point is this: you should be able to remember the last time they were able to enjoy being able to speak English.

They will also come for a group

It’s probably worth writing a whole extra post on the fact that many learners come because they enjoy being in the group.

The point here is this: you should be good at keeping the group dynamic going and avoiding conversation topics (politics, religion) that you think will divide them. For this kind of student, English is something they find time for in their lives because it helps them relax. Other people do sudoku, these people learn vocab. Don’t spoil it.

This is an incomplete post

This is not something I’m great at. I can easily get too into teaching and forget the business side of things, or become too obsessed with “are they happy” to really teach well. But, the more I teach, the more I’m aware that it’s important.

Have I missed anything? How do you balance these two aspects of one job? Have I forgotten any important motivations that people have for sticking with an English lesson? Let me know.

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