How to Survive Awkward Moments in the TEFL Classroom

If you thought junior high was embarrassing, just wait until you become a TEFL teacher. The TEFL formula is a magic formula of being in a strange culture, speaking a different language, and standing up in front of a classroom, which leads to… DISASTER!

Okay, I’m kidding. The magic TEFL formula actually leads to mind-opening experiences, heart-warming moments, and personal growth. But you’ll probably have a few embarrassing mishaps along the way, and that’s all part of the fun. Read on for our top TEFL disasters and tips on how to deal with them.

(Note: The following true stories were collected from Bridge staff and alumni. Their names have been withheld to protect those involved.)

1. The unfortunate language mishap

What happened: You find yourself in a situation where you have to speak the local language, and a simple vocabulary mix-up leads to colossal misunderstanding.

I was sitting in the teachers’ lounge during break, and the local teachers asked me what my favorite food in Chile was. I had recently tried a shellfish delicacy called “picoroco,” which is a large barnacle species found in the south of Chile. But I got confused and called it “pico rico,” so it sounded like I was referring to a “tasty” part of the male anatomy. Needless to say, the entire room doubled over in laughter.

How to deal:

Your best bet is to laugh it off. Most locals will understand that this was a harmless language mishap, but they will definitely enjoy a laugh at your expense….or several laughs. And they may remind you about it. Every day. For the rest of your time at the school. Just remember, they are laughing with you…

2. The lesson plan gone awry

What happened: You planned a fancy lesson involving photos or media from your personal computer, but a file mix-up turns personally revealing.

For my class of Moroccan teenagers, I queued up some of my most eye-catching photos from my travels, and put them in a folder on my flash drive. I planned that students could look at photos and create phrases like, “I think the beach is more relaxing than the city”. After I introduced the lesson, I drew the students’ attention to the TV and clicked start to begin my slideshow. 

The next thing I knew a student was asking enthusiastically, “Teacher, is that you?” I looked up in horror to find that I had hit play on a randomized slideshow of all my personal photos, which included me in a bathing suit and shots of my boyfriend and I drinking beer. I scrambled in horror to make it stop, wondering what might pop up next as my class of conservative, Muslim teenagers stared at TV with rapt attention.

How to deal:

First, take a deep breath. The more nervous you get in front of the class, the more quickly things can spiral out of control. Next, calmly deal with the situation. Change the photos, apologize briefly to the class, and move on as quickly as possible.

3. The cultural misstep

What happened: You didn’t know there was a rule, and you broke it. In a bad way.

I was teaching in the Middle East and I had to connect to the internet at a specific time to register for classes back home. I was desperate to find a nearby cafe, and my friend recommended one. Once inside, I ordered a single-hosed hookah to justify taking up space and bandwidth. I noticed two middle-aged men play backgammon across from us. Well, I say playing. They had abandoned their game to stare at us.

I took a second to survey the room. Men playing cards, men sipping tea, men murmuring to each other, men giving confused stares, men, men, men… oh no.

In the Middle East, a cultural norm is the “man cafe.” It’s not like someone posts a sign that says “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” but that’s basically the gist. I had just very clearly stumbled into one.

How to deal:

This type of disaster requires skilled handling that will vary depending on you, the situation, and any risks or safety issues involved. In this case the writer decided to hold her own, stay at the table, register for classes, and finish the hookah. In other cases, an apology and quick exit may be more appropriate.

4. The vomit incident

What happened: You were teaching young TEFL learners, and somebody {insert bodily function here} in the middle of class.

My class of fifth graders was playing a fun game of “Whack It.” I wrote vocab words on the chalkboard, and when I called out a word, students raced to whack it first. When it was Yonathan’s turn, he ran up to the chalkboard, stopped, and threw up everywhere.

Horrified, I ran out of the classroom and proceeded to evacuate my students into the hallway screaming, “We have to get out of there!” as if a bomb was ticking inside. Poor Yonathan was humiliated.

How to deal:

If you are teaching youngsters, be prepared for a few moments of chaos in the classroom. Just try not to panic more than your students do! As the teacher, it is your job to remain calm. In this case, moving the students to the side and sending someone to fetch the janitor would have been sufficient.

Did we scare you away? Just think of how much fun it will be to tell your very own TEFL story around the campfire someday. And remember: the willingness to fail, embrace disaster, and be vulnerable in front of strangers makes us better human beings. So go have fun, and bring your sense of humor.