Teaching a group of business English students first thing on a Monday morning – short of going for a jog in sub-zero temperatures – is one of the surest ways I know of having to get out of bed and get into the swing of things snappily! I can’t say I look forward to the ordeal, but I can say that I don’t think I can remember a class which disappointed, and after which I didn’t feel energised. But perhaps I’m lucky.
However, when Kata asked me, as she always did, about my weekend on a particular Monday back in June, I really didn’t know what to say.
I’d had a nightmare of a time, spending most of it in a whirlwind filling in forms at a police station. It didn’t seem right to relate such personal issues to my students. But I knew her and the group well, and in any case, telling them would make a change from, “Great, thanks – yeah, we went hiking; I met a friend for coffee, and you?” etc. So I decided to tell them that on the Friday evening I’d had my briefcase with amongst other things my passport stolen. I told them how annoyed I was, and they were all ears!
Of course! It was only with hindsight that it dawned on me what a golden opportunity this was, and how much I could exploit it. After all, this was my upper intermediate insurance class; without hesitation, they started firing questions at me about the contents of my bag, the value of the items in question, exactly what had happened, whether I was insured, and so on. They then insisted on helping me fill in the claim form so as to get the best deal possible. I couldn’t have broken this news to a more sympathetic or expert group: They gave me insights into the industry I’d have never known otherwise! ‘In return’, we worked on form-filling, question forms, formal insurance language vs. everyday spoken English, the passive, and much more besides. My longer-term course plan was ditched for a few weeks, but during these weeks, attendance rose, and engagement and involvement was higher than it had ever been.
While I don’t intentionally generate major personal events to exploit in class, it’s surprising how, with a bit of thought, we can in some way or other gain a better understanding of what our students do through bringing our own or a friends’ experiences to class (have a think!).
With my insurance group, I found myself drawing on students’ expertise, and focusing on language relevant for them so as to reach a win-win situation. Although I ‘took’ the story to class, input over the next two or three weeks was based on the language they needed in order, in part, to be able to offer me professional advice.
Rachel Appleby has taught English for International House and the British Council in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Slovakia, and Hungary, where she now lives. She focuses mostly on teaching English to adults, in-company students and, more recently, to University students. Rachel works part-time at ELTE University in Budapest on the BA and MA programmes. She is also a Teacher trainer specifically for Business English, but also a CELTA trainer, and British Council EMI trainer.