Sensitive Subjects in TEFL

Some things are better left unsaid.

There are certain subjects which should – in general – be avoided in your English teaching classroom, especially when you are working abroad and are (effectively) a guest in a foreign country.

These subjects include:

  1. Sex
  2. Religion
  3. Politics
  4. Taboo Words‏‎

The simplest rule is not to teach any of the above subjects. Avoid them in the classroom and you will not run into trouble.

If, however, you are determined to teach a lesson involving one or more of these subjects, then you will need to be 100% certain that you do not overstep any cultural or social boundary which may lead to problems. Always check with your DoS beforehand to find out what you can and cannot teach in the classroom and don’t stray from those rules.

Sex in the TEFL Classroom

In many countries it is a taboo subject in any classroom and no teacher can discuss it, let alone a foreign “guest” teacher. In some countries it is downright dangerous to discuss it in classroom and there is also the issue of “mixing” different sexes within the classroom itself.

For example, in role plays in certain countries it might be awkward if as a teacher you selected a boy and a girl to work together. Common sense prevails here: if the students look uncomfortable at having to work together then change the plans.

Bear in mind also that even if you can discuss sex (or at least male/female relations) in class it might still be incredibly taboo to venture into gay relations. LGBT is stifled in TEFL because too many countries find it distasteful so do not venture into areas unless you are sure it will not cause problems.

On the subject of sex, many cultures have different norms regarding body language, personal space and physical contact. What is common in one country may be breaking a taboo in another. Learn the DOs and DON’Ts before you go and stick to them; in other words, follow what you see others doing and don’t bring your own set of behavior to the new country.

Religion in the TEFL Classroom

Be careful with this one. It is true that some teachers have been arrested and suffered as a result of teaching their own religion in a different country. You need to leave your personal religion at home when you step outside your front door.

If you happen to be teaching in a religious school (perhaps a Missionary School) then as long as you abide by the school rules you can use religion in the class but still be careful and bear in mind that the students are likely to go home and tell their parents and friends everything which happens.

And once outside the school in public, keep your religion to yourself. This is especially true in the more extreme countries where religion is very much in the public eye (many Muslim countries, for example).

Politics in the TEFL Classroom

The same is true for politics as for religion. Avoid it where you can.

There may be occasion, however, when you need to teach politics. This is likely to happen if you are dealing with an older class who may be immigrants to your country and with elections coming up people are talking about the subject and the students want to learn.

Or possibly when you have older students who naturally may wish to discuss political issues in their English class in much the same way as they would discuss politics at home or in a cafe with their friends. In cases like this, try to keep as neutral as possible. By all means discuss the issues and stances from the different parties but always try to keep the discussion balanced and factual. Don’t allow, in other words, your own feelings into the matter.

Taboo Words in the TEFL Classroom

Taboo Words (i.e. swearing) are tempting for teenage students. They often want to learn what certain words mean and sometimes try to use them to impress their friends.

As a general rule of thumb, don’t even go there!

Sometimes you will find that a student will already know the meaning of an almost universally recognized taboo word like fuck and innocently stand up and ask you what it means. The best strategy for dealing with something like this is to say something like:

I know what it means but it’s a bit hard to explain. I’ll tell you what. I will tell the Director of Studies/School Owner/Course Director that you were asking about it and get them to explain it to you properly in your own language.

This is often enough to keep the student quiet for the rest of the term!

However, there are occasions when there is a legitimate need to teach taboo words. We would suggest always running this past your DoS and making sure what you will teach is both necessary and acceptable in the culture and circumstances of the class.

Useful Links

Taboo Words‏‎ and TEFL – more about swearing in class

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Posted in How To Teach English, Teaching Around The World, Teaching Materials.

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