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Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching
Humanising Language Teaching

An Emotionally Testing Time

Tandy Taylor, UK

Tandy Taylor spent the last 20 years working as an ELT trainer, teacher trainer, trainer trainer, materials writer and course director. She spent 6 years in Egypt, 2 years in China, 3 years in Laos and 3 years in Ukraine. Since 1997 she has specialised in ESP and has worked on a number of military English projects in Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Montenegro and Switzerland. She is currently working as a maritime English teacher trainer, tester and materials writer and also works as a consultant with the IMO (International Maritime Organisation). She is based in Glasgow but frequently has to travel abroad. Since she took up her new position in the maritime sector last November (2006) she has set up and led training courses in Malawi, India, Latvia, the Philippines and Russia. E-mail:

ELT teachers are an unusual breed. We get used to being cultural chameleons and can usually adapt pretty well to our nomadic lifestyle - two years here, a year there, three years and then time to move on. Because of this itinerant lifestyle it's easy to become complacent. Especially, when you've been doing it for as long as I have (20 years) and also happen to teach cultural awareness to multicultural crews working in the Maritime sector.

So anyway, when I was told I was going off to the Philippines for a month to conduct a Maritime test of spoken English training course I felt fairly relaxed about the whole thing. After all, in general people from the Philippines tend to be relaxed, polite, hardworking and generally very easy to be with. Plus, you don't have to worry about any real communication problems as English is so widespread.

So there I was in a training room with ten Philippino Maritime instructors. I'd spent a few days demonstrating how to conduct an International Maritime test of spoken English and it was now their turn to put it into practice with me as an observer. We'd managed to rustle up a very willing supply of Maritime cadets who were eagerly awaiting their turn to be guinea pigs. We were two minutes into the first oral test and still at the personal information stage.
"So, tell me, where do you live?" the instructor asked.
"In a boarding house, alone maam" the cadet replied.
"So when was the last time you saw your family?" the instructor continued.
"Three years ago maam" the cadet continued.
"That's terrible! You must feel so lonely, especially living alone like that" the instructor went on.
"Yes maam, sometimes I find it so difficult to deal with my emotional distress."
Oh God! Had I really heard that exchange? The cadet sat there looking dejected and I had dreadful visions of him being found later hanging by his neck.
"Yes, but at least you have your friends around you to help" the instructor said reassuringly.
"Yes, that's correct maam" the cadet replied perking up slightly.

After the demonstration we had the feedback session.
"Do you really think that was an appropriate form of questioning to take?" I asked the group.
"Yes" they all replied in unison.
Well, that took me aback, I wasn't quite expecting that one.
"Really? But it was so incredibly personal. You were pushing buttons that were triggering off such an emotional response." I went on.
"So? What's wrong with that?" one of them asked. "What's the problem? It's normal."
"But it was like rubbing salt in the wound the way you did it" I answered.
"Yes, but that's the reality of his life" the instructor argued. "We really don't understand why it bothers you so much."
It was the first time in ages that I'd felt out of my depth and at a loss what to say. They really didn't get it. O.K. I thought, it's probably a one off and the chances of it reoccurring are few and far between.

So the next day, there we all were again and it was the turn of someone else to do a demonstration.
"So tell me something about your family" the instructor asked five minutes into the test.
"Well, I was abandoned by my mother in the street when I was a baby and I grew up in an orphanage sir" the cadet replied.
"So you've had a very hard and difficult life" the instructor responded.
Oh dear God I thought, not again! Surely this couldn't be happening a second time?
"Yes, I've often been very sad sir" the cadet replied.
"I can imagine! Every day must have been a real struggle for you" the instructor went on. "But you've entered a new and better phase now."
"Yes, that's right sir"
After the demonstration I turned to the participants.
"Tandy, we know what you're going to say, and actually we think you're wrong."
Me? The cultural awareness expert wrong? I kept quiet, I really needed to think about this one.

The next day I was working 1:1 with a very experienced Maritime instructor called Gabriel. Again, we were doing oral testing and it was his turn to demonstrate. The cadet entered the room and sat down and soon we got onto the inevitable "Family" question. My heart sank when the cadet started to talk about his family:
"My mother is very sick and I have seven brothers and sisters all living at home, I'm the eldest because my father is dead."
"You must feel really bad being so far away from her and I guess feeling helpless sometimes" Gabriel went on.
To my horror the cadet suddenly broke down into racking sobs as he desperately tried to fish out his hanky. I felt like bursting into tears myself and I sat there squirming feeling totally inadequate. Should I stop this now, do something and intervene? I don't know what stopped me, but instinctively I just felt it was the wrong thing to do. Gabriel just sat there calmly looking at both me and the cadet sympathetically.
"Imagine how proud she must be of you now" Gabriel said quietly.
"Yes, she is sir."
"And now you have the chance of a good future" Gabriel continued.
"Yes, I do sir."
Gabriel went on "You're guaranteed work, and you can soon give your family the practical help they need."
"Yes you're right sir."
By the end of the demonstration I think I was in a worse state than the cadet. I felt like a wet rag and totally emotionally drained myself. Gabriel turned to me and said:
"Tandy, I know what's been going on and that you feel very uncomfortable with the line of questioning that we take. But I think the problem is with you, not us. You British seem to find it hard to deal with emotions, you run away from dealing with these intense situations. We Philippinos are emotional, it's normal to cry and show our emotions, especially cadets of this age. And it's normal to ask questions like these. We don't feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. You're the only one in the room who seems to have a problem dealing with it. You have to remember a lot of these boys have had sad and difficult lives. This is their chance to talk about it. This test is a wonderful opportunity for them to open up about these things. They have a strict regimented existence and they feel grateful that someone is showing an interest in them and their lives."
My God! He was right, somehow this test had been turned into a weird psychotherapy tool. But what we were seeing was real communication taking place over real-life issues that affected them deeply. I had been transferring my own beliefs onto them. Just because I found it uncomfortable viewing and difficult to deal with I had assumed they did too. My God! And here was I teaching cultural awareness! I was going against the very principles that I teach in my own seminars.
As I left the room the cadet approached me and patted my arm reassuringly.
"Thank you" he said.
"What are you thanking me for?" I asked genuinely surprised.
"For asking me those questions" He replied.


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