The role of a TEFL teacher - part 1

In my previous post, we questioned if our teaching contexts and our pre-defined expectations of TEFL teachers all play a part in influencing the roles that we assume and what we have come to expect of other colleagues. While the roles of nurse, counsellor or pastoral care provider might apply to some and not to others, are there other roles that are more universal to all TEFL teachers?Here are some of the different roles we take on when we walk into class everyday. How many of these do you identify with? How many of these do you think accurately portrays what we do to those new to the industry?

TEFL Teacher 2 1

The Clown/the Entertainer/the Actor

While we may not agree with relying entirely on performance to get by in the classroom, it’s hard to deny that the teacher who isn’t shy about making a fool of themselves and who has a talent for acting often has the advantage of being able to motivate their students more effectively. By opening up and not taking themselves too seriously, the clown/actor serves not only to entertain the students and ensure that they stay awake during class, but also to set an example for students to be open and adventurous with tasks, discussions, and language use. This helps foster a relaxed classroom atmosphere that is conducive to language learning.

TEFL teacher 2 2

The Perfect Party Host/the Facilitator

When throwing a party, the perfect party host does not dominate the centre-stage with self-indulgent performances. They skillfully make the guests feel like the most important people in the room, and what better way to do that than to get the guests to talk about themselves, and to listen attentively.

Unfortunately, not unlike the classroom, there just aren’t enough party hosts (or teachers) to share amongst the guests. And so, to do this successfully, the perfect party host needs to introduce newcomers to those who can make them feel welcomed, to ensure that guests are paired up or grouped with people of similar tastes or interests, and to oil the interactions with appropriate conversation starters and provide enough fodder to keep interesting discussions going.

The job of a good party host is by no means straightforward or simple, but when the job is done well, the guests would hardly even notice the hard work and the amount of multi-tasking that goes into it.


TEFL teacher 2 3


The Moderator/the Talk Show Host/David Dimbleby

In the UK, we have a TV programme called ‘Question Time’ where politicians, journalists and grassroot leaders would be invited to sit on a panel and give their opinions on controversial current events raised by the audience. The presenter of the programme, David Dimbleby, sits in the middle of the panel, nominating members of the audience to ask their questions and ensuring that members of the panel are each given airtime to voice their opinions.

But one can truly see Dimbleby’s skill as a presenter when arguments get more heated than usual, or when questions start to border on turning into personal attacks, for this is when he would step in and subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) mediate the debate, diffuse the situation or even create a diversion that segues into a different topic, without making any of the participants feel like he’s taking sides.

A controversial topic often makes for a good discussion in the classroom, and to purposely avoid such topics could mean missing out on meaningful speaking practice and language input. In order to manage a controversial discussion in the classroom, the skills of a good moderator/mediator like David Dimbleby could come in very handy.


TEFL teacher 2 4

The Disciplinarian  

We can spend all our time waxing lyrical about the merits of teaching and the precious angels we have as students, but occasionally (or maybe a little more than occasionally for some), we are faced with a student (or students) who simply won’t co-operate.

We can dismiss those who arrive late and demand to have you explain what they have missed in detail, or those who dominate conversations, or those who ask irrelevant questions as being less self-aware or socially versatile, and perhaps deal with them by having an honest conversation outside the classroom.

But there are those who might prove to be a bit more of a challenge. They are those who intentionally create havoc in the classroom, do not hesitate to put their fellow classmates down, and show little respect for the learning environment.

Would this call for a telling off? Or some form of punishment? Or could an incentive of some sort elicit better behaviour from them? Or perhaps we could take a leaf out of Maria Von Trappe’s playbook and win the difficult students over with love and understanding (and a good dose of singing and guitar-playing, Tommy-and-Tina-TEFL style). Whichever way we decide to adopt when dealing with such students it is perhaps safe to say that a certain level of firmness and seriousness is needed when ensuring discipline and co-operation in the classroom.

TEFL teacher 2 5

The Expert

There are multiple areas that TEFL teachers are expected to be experts in…and each are is almost as different from each other as the subjects on the different Masters courses on offer. Here are just some of them:


The Linguistics Expert – The teacher is first and foremost expected to know their area, in this case, language. The teacher needs to understand how language works, to be well-acquainted with the workings of lexico-grammatical and discourse systems, to know the best way of explaining lexico-grammatical patterns, and to be familiar with the manipulation of the muscles of the mouth to produce the desired pronunciation of words.

The Language Acquisition Expert – The teacher needs to understand the language acquisition process so that they are able to successfully implement appropriate methods of teaching to help their students acquire the needed speaking, listening, reading and writing skills in the most effective and efficient way.

The Assessment Expert – Teachers, especially those working for a school, are often expected to help in the process of placing students in the right level, recommend students who should (or should not) go up or down a level, and implement motivating tests that allow students to take pride in their progress. This naturally includes placement tests, achievement tests, but also every day progress testing. With a move towards the holistic testing of the learner’s communicative competence and the implementation of the Common European Framework (CEF) descriptors, straightforward right-or-wrong black-or-white discrete item testing is gradually falling out of favour, leading to a need for the teacher to become more of an assessment expert than ever before.

The ESP expert – Knowledge of the student’s field of work (failing which, genuine interest and a healthy curiosity would be vital), whether it be chemical engineering or Roman archaeology, is important in helping students use English in their workplace.

The Communications Expert – Teaching English isn’t simply about teaching lexis, grammar and pronunciation. There has been more and more focus on the discourse of the community of practice that students will be using English with. This means that the teacher will have to help students become better communicators when presenting, telephoning, emailing, negotiating and interacting inter-culturally in English. But in order to train a learner to become a better presenter, does the teacher have to be a good presenter to start with?

The Critical Thinking Expert – The tasks and discussions encountered in the classroom, in coursebooks, and even in exams like the IELTS, often require students to categorise and analyse the given information, think about the subject critically, and then to present an opinion that is clearly backed up by persuasive logical arguments. Some might claim that this isn’t strictly about language use, and could sometimes border on moral and social education.

tefl teacher 2 6

By choosing to become a TEFL teacher, have we automatically chosen to take on these roles? Are these roles that we are expected to fulfill? Who are the people with these expectations? Are they our employers, our students, or our colleagues and fellow teachers? Or are they responsibilities that we have imposed on ourselves?

Can you think of other roles that we assume everyday?

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. 

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: