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Unfinished Business: how I failed as a Business English teacher (and why that matters)


Blog challenges are either super-exciting or super-awkward to respond to. This is both. It’s awkward and unsettling and difficult to re-live failures, and this is what the challenge is about. But at the same time, it is exciting to see what I can now learn from my failure – and it would be great to know that I helped some language learners or teachers out there. If you manage to avoid my mistakes – or if you recognize them and step into them more consciously next time – then this post will be a success.
Let’s get to it.

1. “Business English? That’s easy. Wear a tie. Shine your shoes. Be nice.”

Six months after getting my CELTA, I learned that my first one-to-one business client was not coming back. After two lessons which seemed to have gone quite well, and – I was assured – through no fault of my own. I got over it and went back to what went well – taught normal classes, exam courses, did my translator training sessions. In a few cases, I became quite good at what I was doing.
I can’t really say I was unhappy about losing that business language class – the policy at the school was that “smart casual” was OK for everyday classes, but corporate clients required a different dress code – and a different approach altogether. Coming back to my smart casual days felt like being let off the hook. So at the time, I didn’t give it much thought.
That would come later.

2. “Dear students, you’re all fired.”

I walked into the boardroom and told my class that I would no longer be teaching them. I told them about the replacement I found, and what would happen next. I delivered my last lesson and walked out.
One of the happiest moments of my life.
This – over the five years of teaching – would become a pattern of sorts. I enjoyed all classes – even the kids’ language lessons, for some reasons – apart from Business English. Sooner or later – even when the course was going well and everyone was happy and making progress – something would give. Sometimes my clients would decide not to continue. Sometimes – in many cases – I would decide to “fire my students.”
I then moved out of teaching, but kept close to English Language Teaching business – and kept on thinking about learning languages in general. Recently, I began looking back on those language classes. Here’s what I learned – about learning, teaching, about myself.

3. Dear former Self: 5 things I wish I’d told myself about business language courses

  • “Being nice is overrated.” My rookie mistake: agreeing to (and with) everything my clients say. This, coupled with fear of correcting errors, led to some very nice, but very unproductive encounters: basically, my students would keep doing what they liked doing and never got out of their comfort zone. Or if they did and stumbled, they weren’t corrected or given another chance.
  • Wants vs needs: I started every course armed with what I thought was a needs analysis. And invariably, what I got was a “wants” analysis. Ask me what I want from my German course, and I’ll tell you only the things that sound nice and fun and not risky. Why should I think of case system, noun-adjective agreement, the passive voice? And yet – that’s what I need.
  • Motivation flows, but it’s hard to read. A group that looks super-prepared and ready for anything may walk into the room completely pumped out the next week – and yet, being professionals, they will put on a brave face and refuse to admit they just don’t care. A CEO who had been working on something big since the course started may have just got into a carefree, zen-like time at work – but, being used to the subdued nature of previous meetings, she will refuse to relax. Kids show this instantly. Adults won’t.
  • Follow-up is king. Most of the time, I like to know where I’m going, what’s next on the agenda – and I like to have some influence in these areas. My clients were the same. So promising a certain type of lesson – and then failing to deliver – is always going to be a huge disappointment.
  • Business matters. It’s OK to send a well-qualified language teacher to a business language course. It’s even better if that person knows a bit about the business her clients are in. In many cases, a keen desire to find things out was enough – but the best course I’ve had was actually one I knew something about and had an interest in. You can only fake it for so long.

4. Learning languages through business

If you’re a language learner, check out my post about language learning in business – and hopefully you’ll be able to recognize the above symptoms in your tutors!

(Photo credit: Creative Commons License Richard Rutter via Compfight)

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5 Responsesso far.

  1. I’ve never taught a business class, but frankly they don’t appeal to me. A colleague of mine once taught a two hour lesson on how to place an invoice. I’m sure that’s as boring for the students as it is for the teacher! But perhaps, as you say, teaching a business class in an area you’re interested in might not be so bad after all.

  2. Theodora Pap says:

    Every teacher has been assigned to a class that does not suit them. It’s either a business class or a pre-junior class with really lively 5-year-olds or a class with discipline problems. What we have to think about is whether we CAN do it and be ready to accept the fact that maybe we can’t… Nice post!

  3. Kirsty Stewart says:

    English-to-go.com’s free June lesson is a business English lesson. http://www.english-to-go.com/english/free_lesson.cfm

    This month’s intermediate level lesson is about a provider of ready-to-use office space that has teamed up with Shell Germany to open up workplace hubs and lounges in 70 petrol stations in and around Berlin. (Reading for information, brainstorming, expressions used with business equipment, present simple tense uses and forms).

  4. Hi Kirsty –
    Thanks for this. I’m trying to keep the comments section plug-and-advert free, focusing on discussion. But I’m keeping this comment in here because it actually relates to business English 🙂

  5. Kirsty Stewart says:

    Thanks Viktor. I really appreciated your column and your honesty. Business English has been something I have enjoyed teaching because I was able to draw on previous business experience.
    I’ve certainly had classes, both business and non-business, in which I dreamed of standing up and saying, “You’re fired!” to the students!