Some teachers love to teach children. I dread it. A lot. I’m not saying that children are not lovely, but I have the misfortune of being a person who gets bored extremely easily. Couple that with bad knees and a bad back, and it just isn’t for me. So, I’ve spent the 14 years of my ESL career teaching adults. The great thing about teaching adults is that they are more knowledgeable about the world, and you can cover a much wider breadth of topics with them in class.

Or so you would think.

Breaking from the norm

I work in language training schools, which typically have a class called an “English Corner.” Have you ever taught an English Corner? They are my absolute favorite type of class to teach, but I know many teachers who despise them. They teach the following topics in some form or another, on a continuous cycle: shopping, traveling, food, hobbies and a bit of business English here and there. These topics are necessary, of course, but a teacher can only go through the cycle so many times before the teacher, and likely the students, become bored.

Yet, though these topics are a bit dull, teachers continue to focus on them, and schools continue to push them, because they are safe. Language schools are businesses, and as such, they don’t want to rock the boat too much, or deal with topics that have a chance of being found controversial in class. So, this leads to teachers joining their new school, teaching the topics they’ve taught before at other schools, and then scratching their heads after a few months about what else they can do revolving around those topics; what new spin they can place on them. The teacher starts scrambling every few days to find another variation on the same topics, and thus the dislike of English Corners springs into being.

As I said earlier, I get bored easily; so, I like to consistently challenge my students with new ideas, theories and debates. I enjoy introducing topics relating to divorce, cloning, intercultural marriage, war, nuclear disarmament, etc. I relish the opportunity to introduce these topics in class, and have students dive into new ideas and theories, as well as asking some guiding questions to challenge certain ideas the students might have. Some teachers don’t like that, because they are purists when it comes to the role of being an English teacher, and believe that teachers should just stick to teaching English. I’ve never liked that idea. My own sense of logic tells me that a teacher should not only teach the language, but prepare the student for different ways of thinking when interacting with people from different cultures. Otherwise, I believe we are opening the door for the student to potentially get into hot water when traveling abroad, trying to make foreign friends or trying to do business.

That being said, there is a real concern about saying the wrong thing in class, and potentially offending the students, thus causing trouble for the school. So, how do we get around that?

Set the Framework

I was fortunate enough to have a fantastic manager that taught me this fairly early in my ESL career. He was blunt with me, and told me that I have a polarizing personality, because I tend to be very open and direct with my opinions, and this leads to students either loving or hating me, with few in the middle ground. Combine this with my habit of teaching topics that are a bit controversial to more conservative students, and it was a recipe to stir up trouble. He identified this problem, and taught me to ‘set the framework’ as a proactive measure to avoid potential issues.

Let’s break down what ‘set the framework’ means. In essence, you need to set, or reset, expectations from your first point of contact with the students. If you are new to a school, and you know you have a certain style of teaching that might surprise or challenge the students, or might just be different from what they are used to, then you let them know this early on. You don’t shock them with it in class suddenly. The same concept should be applied if you have a certain type of personality that might turn some people off, or have a specific style of humor that is hard for some people to digest. Let people know this early on, let them know what your real intention is, be open and honest about it and let them know that they can be honest with you if something you say rubs them the wrong way. People get angry when they are surprised by something that is perceived to be unpleasant, or don’t fully understand something.

By setting the framework, you are mitigating the surprise and lack of understanding. It is useful in a variety of situations, but let’s just dive into a couple that I find teachers deal with the most often.

The first regards using a new methodology, or teaching style, in class. Many students that you will teach in certain areas have grown up with a style of education that is based on rote memorization, and just following along with what the teacher says. This style of teaching is not conducive to learning a language well, but since the students have followed it for a number of years, they are extremely comfortable with it. Now, imagine that you are a teacher well trained in language acquisition techniques, and you know precisely how to help the students improve in their language abilities by leaps and bounds in a relatively short period of time. Without warning, you go into class and implement those techniques early in your tenure at your new school.

You’ve just knocked students out of their comfort zone, and they don’t understand why. What is the feedback likely to be? You’ll likely have some students running to their local teacher, study advisor or course consultant and complaining about it, and it will be the local staff member who needs to put out the sudden fire. If, during your first classroom interaction with the students, you had explained to them your methodology, and why it has been proven to work, and your genuine desire for them to improve, then that fire would likely have not popped up, because you’ve explained your methodology and taken away the element of surprise, and allowed your students the opportunity to prepare for the discomfort.

That being said, the best piece of advice I can give a teacher who is going into a new school is to talk to the local staff members about the methodology that the students have been exposed to, and the classroom rules and guidelines that are already in place. Once you’ve identified those two things, then you can consider what is different in regards to how you will conduct your class, and then have a list of items to be introduced during your initial classes, setting the expectations of the students.

Managing Expectations
The second issue is a bit trickier, because it goes beyond the students’ classroom experience, and into how they’ve previously interacted with people. You walk into your first group class in a new school. You have two dozen students looking at you with expectation and excitement. You are the new exhibit. Then, you open your mouth and tell a joke. It bombs. The students are shocked, but they recover and think it’s a one-off. Then you tell another joke later on, or exhibit a certain personality trait that the students find off-putting, or just have no experience dealing with. Now, this isn’t to say that you’ve done anything wrong, or said anything really offensive, but the students may have never encountered someone like you, with jokes or a mannerism like yours.

In your country, your mannerisms and humor might be commonplace, but what about in your new home? If, as part of your self-introduction to the students, you had explained your personality-type, mannerisms and sense of humor to the students, as well as gone on to explain that these things are common for people where you come from, and you hope the students can embrace it as part of learning a new culture along with the language, then you have effectively adjusted their expectations and minimized the initial shock potential. This will lead to few complaints, and a smoother transition into your new school. If you also explain to them that they can be open and honest with you, as you would like to be with them, then they are more likely to give you feedback directly when you do happen to accidentally step over the line.

That being said, you also need to look at it from two different situations. This first situation is when you are coming into a school that has been around for a while. In this situation, it is vitally important for you to understand that the culture of that school has already been established. The initial teachers set the tone of that school, and if, for example, they were all conservative, it will be even more difficult for students to adjust to a personality type that might be more open. When going into a new school, feel out the tone of the school, and identify what aspects of your personality or humor might conflict with that tone, and be sure to cover that when setting the initial framework with your students.

The other situation is a bit easier, because it is when you are coming into a new school, or a new branch of an existing training company. The tone hasn’t been set yet, so there is a lot more flexibility in terms of student expectations. Personally, I love this situation, as I am able to get in there and influence the tone of the school early on in order to create a more open and fun environment, where students are able to joke about anything, and have really solid conversations about a variety of topics in class. It’s still important to set the framework in this situation, but you can breathe a bit easier.

In my career, I’ve had trouble with both my humor, and introducing a new style of conducting class, but that trouble always occurred when I had failed to set the framework with new students, and then they were surprised by, or confronted with, something outside of their realm of experience or expectation.

This leads back to what I’ve already said: People only tend to get angry when they are surprised, or don’t understand something. Since learning about this from my previous manager, the problems have disappeared. I’m still the same as I’ve always been, and my topics have even probably gotten a bit more controversial, but because I set the framework when students first meet me, then they are able to open more and embrace something new, because I’ve set their expectations for it. This has lead to my English Corners having large turnouts at the schools I’ve worked at, with me having the pleasure to see many students actively growing and embracing new ways of thinking, and improving their English ability as they begin to enjoy the process.

The Pros and Cons: 25 Engaging Topics for Adult ESL Students
Throughout this article, I’ve mentioned controversial topics a number of times, and you can find 25 of those in my workbook. ‘The Pros and Cons: 25 Engaging Topics for Adult ESL Students’ deals with topics not typically covered in adult ESL classes, but does so in a way that minimizes controversy, and encourages the students to ask questions themselves, so you don’t land in hot water. The workbook is focused on getting the students to use English as a tool to do a variety of tasks revolving around those topics, as well as engaging in in-depth conversations with each other. Each unit is structured in such a way that the busy teacher can grab it and head into class with minimal preparation and stress, and each unit is also designed to maximize the amount of time students talk, thus building fluency.

You can download a free sample of The Pros and Cons: 25 Engaging Topics for Adult ESL Students from my site at If you like what you see, and are outside of China, you can pick up a copy from Amazon at

If you are in China, you can find it at Teacher’s House at

If you prefer PowerPoints, I’ve got you covered on those too! Visit or to stock up on some affordable and professional PowerPoint presentations for your adult ESL classes!

About the Author:

Shawn Wilkes
Shawn Wilkes has been teaching in the adult ESL industry since 2006. In his free time, he enjoys reading fantasy novels (especially The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan), watching anime, doing Sudoku puzzles and gaming. He currently resides in Shenzhen, China.
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