Playing Counselor

In my job I get to meet a lot of people from all walks of life and all ages. It’s fun because you never know what’s going to happen in a given day until you walk in the door. (That can also be a bit terrifying, but hey, hazard of the job of an English Conversation Teacher.)

However, once in a while you plop down, ask the student how things are going, and they respond with a, “Well, my spouse is currently in the hospital, my child failed to get into the high school we wanted and my parents are ill.”

Then you glance at your schedule and realize you’re one-on-one with this person for the next two hours and realize: this will not be a teaching session, it will be a counseling one.

Teachers adopting additional duties is nothing new; in every culture across the world they don’t merely teach you math or history. They also provide guidance to students who need an extra nudge, acting like a babysitter or, in extreme cases, almost like a parent toward the kids they’re helping. The sad thing is, a lot of us don’t really get training or a chance to mentally prepare how to handle a situation like this.

Never mind handling issues that other people are experiencing; I’m barely equipped to deal with my own! And I imagine a lot of teachers are in the same boat as me, whether they’re working full-time in a public school or in a university or in a conversation school abroad. But you do start to realize a few things as to why this happens, especially in that last case.

First off, it’s “safe” to vent in a second language. The student feels that whatever they say, nobody else in hearing shot is going to be able to understand it, so their feelings are private. This is even with others walking by who also study the same language. In addition, in many of these schools there is the illusion that you, the teacher from another country, can’t speak the local language, so who are you going to tell? In that sense they know that whatever they say won’t go beyond closed doors.

Secondly, most of these people are not looking for advice or help from you. I have never had someone bluntly ask me what to do after sharing things with me. Instead, they want an ear. Make sympathetic noises, try to distract them from whatever’s bothering them, give them something fun to chat about for an hour, and you’ll have more than done your job and they’ll leave the class having unloaded a bit.

Thirdly, it’s hard to see these situations coming, especially if you’re in a situation where students don’t have a set schedule for attending classes. Even if they do come to class regularly, they might seem perfectly fine one day, then spill their guts to you the next. Take it in stride as best you can and try your best to get back to the lesson at hand as soon as there’s a lull in the venting.

Again, most teachers are NOT trained for these situations- including me- and there are so many variables on what you might experience. As best you can, know your students, know your school, and worst case scenario, know how to flag someone else down to come in and help you if anything happens that makes you particularly uncomfortable.

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