Your place or mine?




Teacher with students in schoolFiona Thomas is an EFL blogger and Director of Education at Net Languages, a large online language school. Here she talks about the impact the location of classes has on the teacher-student relationship.

Most teachers view the prospect of teaching a new class with a mixture of excitement (an opportunity to do things differently, a chance to learn new things) and a certain amount of anxiety: Will the students like me? Will they like each other? Will the class be a success?

Irrespective of whether the class is a one-off, a substitution or a class lasting a whole term or academic year, most of us worry about how the class will go. But, when preparing for the new class, how many teachers or managers reflect on how the class dynamics and the relationship between the students and the teacher are affected by where the class is actually held?

According to Charles Handy (1993, Changing Organisations, Penguin, London, p.170) the location of a meeting (or class in our case) gives out certain signals and these signals affect the way people behave and interact with each other. Take, as an example, a teacher who is called into the Director’s office. By choosing to hold a meeting with the teacher in the Director’s office, the Director is (consciously or not) reinforcing the power relationship which already exists between a director and employee.

Depending on the purpose of the meeting, this can be used to great effect. If the meeting is disciplinary, the choice of venue will effectively emphasise the authority of the director to discipline the teacher. If the meeting is for another purpose, for example to bounce ideas off a teacher, the choice of the Director’s office as the venue for the meeting will not be as conducive to an open and frank exchange of ideas or opinions as meeting in a classroom, teachers’ room or other more neutral place.

So, let’s take this theory and apply it to where classes are held. A language school territorially belongs more to the teacher than the students. So, in terms of the student – teacher relationship if a teacher gives a class in his/her language school, this naturally emphasises the teacher’s role and authority in the class in relation to the students. Consider how much easier it is for a long-established teacher to assert his/her role in a new class full of new students who do not know each other if the class is held in the teacher’s language school compared with starting a class in an unknown venue with a group of students who already know each other.

For newly-qualified teachers (NQTs) giving a class to an already established group of young learners on the students’ territory e.g. in a state school, is a tall order. More experienced teachers will be equipped with a series of strategies and the required confidence to help manage the class and compensate for this more threatening environment.  So, where possible, when dealing with classes of younger learners in which discipline can be problematic, managers would be advised to assign NQTs classes in the language school rather than sending these teachers out to off-site locations where the teachers are at more of a disadvantage.

The same is true, although different, with classes held in companies. Teachers giving classes in a company walk into an already established set of roles and power relationships between the students in a class. The teacher, as an outsider, cannot challenge these roles and much of what he or she will be able to do in the class and his/her relationship with the students will be conditioned by these pre-determined relationships.

As for online classes, although giving online classes requires a different set of teaching and management skills to face-to-face classes, if the student attends the class from his/her home and the teacher from his/her home or language school, the territorial factors which can influence the teacher-student relationship and establishment of roles are, on the whole, neutralised.

There are obviously many more factors which influence how the teacher – student relationship and roles develop. However, by being aware of these territorial issues, teachers can anticipate and try to adapt how they manage their classes according to where their classes are held. Managers in turn should take this issue into consideration when deciding which teacher to assign to each class and how the location of the class could affect the amount of support the teacher might need.

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  1. Fiona, hi! I was particularly interested to read this, with you dealing with an online environment. Surely that ‘neutral’ territory can be exploited in that context? It’s very true, however, that NQTs have a pretty tough ordeal when they first head out to teach in companies, and in terms of the dynamics, it’s an issue that I probably havent addressed sufficiently (overtly) on training courses, although many of the getting-to-know-you activities don’t need much adapting to work well. It’s a good reminder!
    Nice post – thanks!

  2. Hi Rachel, yes indeed, Students in an online environment tend to open up much more to their tutors than in a FTF context. They definitely seem to have a more personal relationship with their tutors and as a result are probably happier to do things which in a classic FTF class they might feel uncomfortable about doing e.g. experimenting more with language, asking more questions. It would be interesting to explore this further.
    Thanks, Rachel

  3. I agree with you Fiona when you say “Students in an online environment tend to open up much more to their tutors than in a FTF context”.

    That’s always been my experience and I imagine it does (perhaps subconsciously) have something to do with the online environment being a kind of neutral territory, and not one so obviously belonging to the teacher.

    Also perhaps subconsciously, lots of students having their first experience of online learning seem (a) a little frightened of the whole thing at first but many of them are then (b) pleasantly surprised how they did “open up” more — and both to the tutor and their peers.

    Important to have a “social space”, for socializing activities, I think, and not just online…

    • Hi Tom, your point about having a “social space” is very interesting. Curiously, we have had a lot of problems in making our “social spaces” successful and I wonder if it has to do with the fact that our online courses are designed to work one-to-one (student and tutor) rather than in groups. Group-based courses usually place much more emphasis on contributing to forums and group discussions and if the students have built up a good and more personal relationship in these “social spaces”, I am sure that these activities are much more successful.

      So I wonder if our students see “socialising” as irrelevant or a waste of time in the context of the courses they are following. The few tasks in the courses which ask the students to interact with other students on the forum are the ones that they like least (according the feedback we receive) and as a result, we’ve made them optional.

      However, when group interaction is required, maybe this “socialising” takes on a different dimension and is perceived by the students and tutors to be important to help build up a supportive group dynamic?

      So, is a student’s willingness to “socialise” dependent on the context (online / FTF), the design of the course (one-to-one / group), personality traits, cultural influences …..??

      Not sure … but it is definitely a very interesting area to explore!

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