Humanising language teaching and “being there” for students

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This time round, I'd like to give my take on humanising language teaching.

If I asked twenty English language teachers the question: “What do you do to humanise language teaching?” I am quite sure that I would not receive two identical responses.

The word humanisation can throw up dozens of associated meanings and synonyms. For instance, feel sympathy for, make something gentler and make something more humane. Clearly, one’s perception and understanding of the term humanisation can affect their pedagogical approach. 


I’ve just read a great article related to humanising language teaching by Mr Richard Pinner. Mr Pinner is a British Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at Sophia University in Tokyo. 

In his piece, Mr Pinner argues that teachers are not solely deliverers of information. Language teachers sometimes face “critical incidents” and “uncomfortable experiences” during the process of shaping their own teaching identity. Mr Pinner writes about a private student he had at the start of his teaching career who had been diagnosed with cancer. This girl raised the issue to Mr Pinner one day in class and understandably burst into tears.

For this student, learning English was a leisure-time activity. Hence, English was much more connected with this girl's ‘real’ self than some of her other social activities. Consequently, Richard could do little else but avoid becoming “a kind of speaking counsellor for her during her sickness”.

Naturally, Mr Pinner was very “uncomfortable” in the role he found himself in. Which teacher wouldn’t be? You can’t just abandon and ignore someone in need. On the other hand, where is the boundary which dictates how intimate a student and teacher can become?


I’ve nurtured many students on a one-to-one basis since I started teaching in 2006. Many had grave problems at work. A few were in unhealthy relationships. One or two perhaps could have benefited from seeing a therapist to address their lack of confidence and demons. I tried to advise and comfort some of these people. However, one young Polish man added a completely different spin to the term “speaking counsellor”.

A few months before I was due to leave the Polish city of Łódź, I took on a student who wished to brush up on his English with the intention of going to London to speak with his ‘idol’ pop star and, ultimately, kill her. He didn’t reveal why he wanted to learn English until about the third lesson. I sensed that something wasn’t quite right when I saw him for the very first time. But what was I to do? I didn’t want to suddenly reject him out of fear that he might harm me. Fortunately, the half-truth that I had too much work before leaving the country led me to cancelling our classes indefinitely. I never saw him again.

Coming back to Richard's article. I'm updating this post now to mention a long-term student of mine who has cancer. Just to mention that I knew where Richard was coming from when he gave his student "advice to eat lots of tomatoes, because [he] had heard they were anti-carcinogenic." I advised my student to consume anything purple, such as beetroot. 


Now that I have dealt with the emotional aspect of language teaching, I will move on to my own beliefs about how to humanise language teaching.

Over the years, I’ve written texts about my own life experiences, be it in the workplace, travel-related or getting used to unfamiliar cultures. 

The reason I started writing these texts was because I wanted to add a wholly fresh dimension to my teaching. Moreover, I had a burning desire to get away from ‘newsy’ articles and coursebooks. 

I fully believe that teachers should give their students a glimpse into their lives whilst trying to cultivate students’ social and cultural awareness at the same time. I’ve lived in four European countries and have so many stories to tell. I don’t write about my private life, which, of course, is the way it should be. All in all, I get the impression that my students look forward to reading about my experiences. I’m certainly enthusiastic about sharing them. 

One of the keys to humanising language teaching is helping students to find their own voices. When I send them one of my texts that’s full of useful collocations and other natural elements of spoken English, not to mention the occasional controversial opinion, I think they do become inspired to sincerely and confidently respond to my views. This is because they believe in both the method and my humanistic intentions.


What does it mean to humanise language teaching? Clearly, Mr Pinner’s profound experiences have led him to draw some convincing conclusions in regard to the role emotion plays in the classroom. Students often let teachers into their lives. As teachers, we should also let students into our lives, whilst remembering that there is a line that we should not cross. I think that my texts respect the threshold between linguistically beneficial storytelling and inappropriate intimacy.


Pinner, R. 2018. Why I Am and Am Not Just a Teacher: A Reflection on Teacher Identity and Classroom Emotion in Language Learning, Humanising Language Teaching
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