How to listen: A guide for TEFL Teachers

The human brain is an incredible organic machine, capable of processing more data in any given day than we can actually comprehend. As we grow, we quickly learn to filter what information is important and what is not. With the rise of the internet age of business, we are exposed to more marketing materials than ever before. This creates a near-constant state of bombardment and information overload, often causing us to disengage as our attention spans are lower than ever before. In turn, this often results in engaging with our inner dialogue, creating internal distractions that switch the dial from listening to hearing. When reflecting on how this affects our teaching dynamic, this can result in miscommunication and unnecessary stress applied in the classroom and beyond. This week’s article serves to explore how to switch back to listening and the effects that can be expected in dialogue and relationships by doing so. 

The Oxford dictionary defines hearing as “perceiving with the ear the sound made by someone or something.” In contrast to this, the definition for listening is to “give one’s attention to a sound”. What a monumental difference this makes. As a professional freelancing coach, a large percentage of my time is spent listening to people; so, one would assume that I am quite good at it. I do believe, however, that the path to improvement is never ending. And since my introduction to David Clutterbuck’s Five Levels of Listening, I am constantly evaluating my own progress. As such I have to admit; there were a lot of internal blocks and resistance that made this piece difficult to write. Writing another fluff piece on “how to listen effectively” that might not work in the TEFL classroom wouldn’t be very effective. So, I’ve worked through my own limiting beliefs to serve you this fresh perspective into active listening for teachers. 

In terms of listening, there are two very distinct categories that most TEFL communications fall into. I have been lucky to have a variety of teaching opportunities in China and Thailand. From these, I have gathered the many experiences that give me a unique insight into the lives of teachers – and their students – in the classroom, the school administrative office, the learning centre and the home.  

There are days when that quiet kid decides to join the activity, gets the answer right and glows. Or those light bulb moments when a partner teacher understands your ideas and says something supportive that adds to it. Those goofy times when you riff off your TA, crack jokes that the whole class understands and laughs at. These memories are ones you might have expected, when you told people you were moving to China to teach English. 

Obviously, not every experience goes that way. I understand and can relate to the frustration of being talked at rather than talked to. Being given additional work without the explanation of what is actually required. Told to just figure it out because that’s the way it’s always been. Or worse, that it doesn’t even matter what I do because I’m just another foreign face. I empathise with just how quickly this results in internal resistance. To listening rather than hearing. Because I’ve been right there in that boat too. 

There is an unfortunate truth about all of these scenarios that many of us struggle with as foreigners. We always have a choice, even when it seems that we have no control over many of the situations thrust upon us. This is harsh because it generally causes one of two responses – aggressive resistance or powerless submission. The instant feedback that comes next is called a reaction and it triggers an internal block to listening. Through my observations and work with clients who are involved in the TEFL or education industry, this is the leading cause of the high rates of turnover of foreign staff. There are also external blocks to listening, like the environmental situation, but these are covered in the countless other active listening articles and videos. 

The third, alternative option is not often advertised; the option that I personally call Switzerland. The teacher who responds in this manner is calm, neutral and rational. They keep their ego in check and are careful to consider the possibilities before deciding on the best course of action. The feedback that this listener provides is called a response. Contrary to popular belief, I have observed that this has nothing to do with maturity and everything to do with self-awareness. The reason this isn’t regularly displayed as the best possible choice is because we are usually raised in a society where freedom of speech is valued more than listening.  

I describe this as a choice because as we grow in awareness, we get to choose how we react or respond. We get to choose whether we engage with impatience, judgement and Being present, observing our thoughts and acknowledging our internal distractions are skills that can be honed to become better at active listening. That doesn’t always work within the cultural and language barriers, but consider for a moment that you might be speaking with a human and that you control 50% of the conversation. If someone speaks and you don’t listen, you are choosing to neglect your side of the dialogue and your responsibility as a listener. This also results in a loss of face or respect for the speaker on a cultural level. And if damaging that relationship is the outcome you seek; you probably aren’t reading this post. 

Regardless of who the speaker is, check yourself. Take a full inhale and exhale before you open your mouth. That’s pretty much it for my advice on active listening. Because, by removing the internal distractions you open up conversational possibilities that may never have existed before. And that would certainly make me more inclined to listen to you. 

A Coach’s Classroom Takeover

In 2018, I left my TEFL classroom, transitioning into tutoring and literacy coaching before taking some time out for my professional development. I enjoyed working as a literacy coach because it met my passion for reading and my desire to inspire lifelong learning, while combining it with the skills I had picked up working in TEFL. However, I found that I wanted to push the inspiration for lifelong learning beyond literacy. After feeling burned out from the industry, I felt unsupported by my local expat community and I wanted to create a service for the many other expat TEFL teachers I saw burning out in the industry. I did some research, worked to get my first ICF accreditation and began working towards establishing myself as an independent coach. As I began building my business, I reflected on how I could work towards giving back and providing value through my unique perspective. This Coaching in Education series is one such response, so I wanted to take some time this week to “imagine if” I was to walk back into a teaching role today. 

As any good teacher would, we ought to start with lesson planning. As a coach, my intuition has grown from what could only be described as “teacher instinct”. I was that teacher that could be handed a lesson plan, quickly form a judgement on how effective it would be, and wing it when I just wasn’t feeling it. Nowadays, if I were to be handed such a lesson plan, I would scan for the teaching outcome or objective… and probably still wing it. Coaching has reinforced for me that the best laid plans can quickly be derailed. Instead I would take 5 minutes and work out some stepping stones or connections that might help my students get from A to B, but I wouldn’t necessarily share them with the class.

Every class that I ever taught started with a review usually in the form of a game, because it gave the students a chance to warm up while I observed their energy, who was missing and who was fighting with who. It also gave them a chance to get a quick win by celebrating something they already knew. In my opinion, acknowledging their accomplishments is something I consider so important that I have also carried it over to my coaching clients. It’s not often as adults that we stop to reflect on the progress we have actually made since yesterday, last week or last month. As a coach, and along my own journey, I find that taking time to do this reinforces the motivation my clients and I have to reach our goals. Today, I would still use this technique to build rapport with my students, developing trust and letting them know that I care for them and their goals.

Next, I would introduce the lesson objective by introducing a bullet point list on the whiteboard of what some measures of success would be. It would usually be something like “learn 5 new words, use the new words in a sentence, spell the 5 words”. As we discovered in a previous post titled Effective Goal Setting for Educators, by asking the students to set their own learning goals, it flips the responsibility over to them and encourages student autonomy. This also resonates with me as a coach, asking my clients to set their own measures of success for a coaching session, following the line of inquiry into why those measures are important and asking my clients at the end of a session how they will reward themselves when they have reached their success for the week. If I was to step back into the classroom now, the difference is that I would involve my students in the learning objective by asking them how they would know they were successful, rather than dictating this to them. Having also taught a variety of levels within one class, I would ask for 2 or 3 measures of success because I know that some students require more of a challenge.

Introducing vocabulary in the past might have meant holding up some word cards and asking students to repeat and point to the picture in their books. Now, I would begin by writing some simple sentences on the board to give my students some context clues. I would follow up by asking the class to elicit the possible meaning and why they think that. Then, I’d ask the class to vote by raising their hands if they agreed with each suggestion. By letting students vote if they think the suggestions are correct it involves the whole class, so even if students don’t know they may be more willing to get involved in the activity. This reminds me of one of the presuppositions of all coaches, that clients already have their answers or the resources to find out. As adults, we often don’t recognise what we already do know, or that we do have resources available to us in the form of people, knowledge, or experience. Sometimes it takes a coach to pull that childlike risk of saying something out loud or challenging ourselves out of us. 

Moving on to the grammar section, I would erase words from the sentences previously written on the whiteboard and play a memory game to get students to use the example sentences while I continue to erase words and have the class chorus the full answer. As a teacher, I found repetition one of the dullest required parts of a lesson, as did many of my students. So, I would usually find some way to add at least an element of fun to it by calling the answer and giving points to the team who was loudest, quietest or adding gestures and seeing which team was paying the most attention. The competition that this created was often enough to engage the most disruptive students. As a coach, my clients sometimes struggle with competition in the form of comparing themselves to others, or where they think they “should be” in terms of their goals. I work with my clients to challenge them to play that game with themselves instead. By comparing where they were a year ago to where they are now, clients can come up with their own empowering statements and oftentimes, when I repeat this back to them a breakthrough happens and their passion is reignited.

When ending the lesson, my students would always line up to receive their stamps and I would double up on this time by asking them to review one new piece of vocabulary again. This final review reinforced their learning while giving them an opportunity to try for one last bonus stamp if they could use the word in a sentence. If I were in a classroom now, I would scrap this idea in favour of asking my students one simple question and giving them a bonus stamp for answering- “what did you learn today?”. This enables the student to give feedback, possibly about the activity, possibly about the vocabulary or possibly about their own learning. As a coach, asking the very same question enables my clients to identify what helped them and sometimes that is enough to help them move forward.

I hope this post has served to show how easily coaching techniques could be modified to suit the classroom. While teaching and coaching are so similar and complement each other well, they are not quite the same. There is a fine line in the differences between teaching and coaching, which I believe is best summed up by looking at the two sides of coaching; the being and the doing. While both are equally important; one is a skill while the other is a mindset. The doing of coaching is akin to the practical side of learning, rather than the theory. It is in the asking of powerful questions, the use of mental exercises and the deep listening. The mindset embodied by a coach is similar, almost an extension of, the growth mindset that translates into the majority of teacher training. This leads me to believe that coach training would make an incredibly useful resource in any classroom or learning environment, especially within the TEFL or language learning context.

Let’s Talk About It- Teacher Burnout

Professional burnout has been studied for decades and was recognised by the World Health Organisation as a chronic syndrome. Dr. Christina Maslech, is one of the world’s leading researchers, professors and speakers on the subject of burnout. In her speech at DOES in 2018, she described how the term burnout may have originated from engineers. One example she used was the way that ball bearings burn out from being in an abrasive environment with no oil. One cause of burnout through a human resources lens could be the way some companies view employees as being in a sprint while employees are viewing their work as a marathon. Being fascinated by both of these metaphors, I wanted to explore how they apply, and what solutions can be found, within the TEFL industry. 

In 2019, the World Health Organisation defined burnout as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. There are three key symptoms to burnout which are feelings of exhaustion, cynicism (distancing from one’s job) and reduced professional effectiveness. Burnout can affect other areas of life but the root cause is always related to occupation. Some of the common ways I have observed chronic workplace stress affecting teachers are the pressure from teaching large classes of students, ever increasing demands of the parents, feeling unsupported by their school or company, lack of recognition and value for their ideas and performance, having a heavy workload of classes without adequate reward or compensation, and being constantly on edge waiting for plans or events to change at the last minute.

According to Dr Maslech’s research, there are six key strategic areas of job-person fit that should be considered in the conversation around teacher burnout. They are workload, control, reward, community, fairness and values. In TEFL, there are a variety of teaching environments with varying requirements in each of these areas. While workload, reward or compensation and fairness are obvious and measurable factors, I have observed that control or autonomy, community and values are often overlooked. Teachers who feel that they have no control over their classes, lesson plans or work they are contributing often feel like their ideas are not valuable. This can be combined with a lack of community if their voice is made irrelevant by their partner teacher, team or leader. And, when their personal values are out of alignment with the school’s values (or they aren’t clear on what those are) it creates insecurity and uncertainty about their place. As mentioned previously, this can go on to affect their life outside of work, and this often directly affects their sense of belonging and even their identity.

Oftentimes, teachers ignore their internal resistance from these scenarios because they feel that it’s “just part of the job”. While this may be true, it forces the teachers to become like the ball bearings in the metaphor described earlier. If the school or company is the abrasive environment, then the oil required is the release of pressure or peace of mind which the teacher experiences. Maslech described the effects on the human ranging from disruptions of personal life, physical exhaustion, sleep deprivation, long-term stress and health problems, loss of self-worth and meaningful achievements, anxiety, burnout, depression, and in extreme cases even suicide

These factors affect professional effectiveness so it is in the best interests of the teachers, their students, and the schools for teachers to have access to support to address the issue of burnout in education. Unfortunately, I have observed that many of the corporate training centres and leaders in the TEFL industry have a belief that teachers are replaceable. The ones who burn out are those who “can’t stand the heat, so they should just get out of the kitchen”. This However, this is not an effective long-term business model. Rather, this creates a toxic work environment where job security, support and control are very low while the workload demands increase. This shifts the problem to the teacher without dealing with the root cause, which often saves the company management from having to accept any responsibility.

Of course, it would be fantastic if the abrasive environment that is the TEFL industry were to start valuing their humans as their most precious resources. Unfortunately, as teachers, that’s not something we have a lot of control over which often leads to further frustrations. And I have seen those frustrations, more often that not, develop into a negative attitude towards an entire country. This then begins to erode at the very core of our identity, forcing us to question our belonging in a society that doesn’t welcome us, to go home to a society now estranged from us, or to leave for a other environment only to start from square one and find it’s a different flavour of the same sandwich.

However, there is something that is within our control. It’s not easy, but when we begin to look at the internal environment we can choose to learn the skills to metaphorically apply the oil. This is the point where many teachers reach out to me; I call it “I know I need things to change but I don’t know how”.  It starts by disconnecting from work. Being engaged in the teaching profession is not just about the way we show up to the classroom. Time is also required for planning lessons, preparing materials, communicating with parents and so much more. This is why taking time to actually step away and disconnect from work allows your brain to take a breather and relax. I highly recommend using the STOP tool at the end of a working day. STEP back, THINK about your win for today, ORGANISE your thoughts for tomorrow and then PROCEED to turn off the lights and move on with your life outside of work. 

There also needs to be a clear distinction between what is acceptable and what is not. And, we need to be able to communicate these boundaries clearly and assertively. As this links to many other areas of life, this can be highly sensitive and triggering.

Disclaimer: If you feel like this could be you, I recommend having a trusted, non-judgemental person listen as you work through boundary setting. It could be a friend or family member or a therapist. I am not a trauma specialist and I am not a trained medical or mental health professional. 

However, as a coach, I work with my clients to highlight and draw out the skills that help them to overcome the overwhelm. We talk about the fears holding them back, we explore their limiting beliefs and we weigh up the consequences of their choices. As a result, my clients often walk away with increased awareness, confidence, and hope. They learn to develop better coping mechanisms, stronger resiliency and stress management skills that they can continue to use to combat stress leading to burnout for the rest of their lives. 

So, the solution to the burnout problem? Disconnect from work, set clear boundaries, know what you want, and use the tools and resources available to you, like coaching. In exploring burnout, sometimes we realise what’s required is a total career change. Sometimes it’s a location change. Sometimes it’s a lifestyle change. But without first stepping back and acknowledging that the problem exists in the first place, we can’t begin to manage it and move on.