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Coping with criticism

March 25, 2007

Hello again,
My recent posts and comments have touched a nerve with teachers. It might be helpful to consider some ways of dealing with criticism when it comes our way. If a teacher is ...

...working in a new culture, if the students are adults, then the chances are misunderstandings will occur and the teacher might be on the receiving end of the brickbat. If a student tastes blood and realizes he or she can really upset the teacher, then the situation is likely to escalate. The teacher needs ways of coping with criticism so that hurt feelings do not build up and undermine the self-esteem and confidence.

The teacher needs first to try to understand what the critic is trying to do. Is the criticism deliberately malicious, intended to hurt and humiliate? Or is it constructive and offered in order to bring about changes that will be useful for all concerned? I remember very well a student in a French university who explained to me that, although she could see that the main aim of learning a language was to communicate, in the French education system the aim was to pass an exam and this entailed reading comprehension and composition. She added ruefully that, while she enjoyed my lessons, she felt the group would not improve their exam chances unless I returned to the traditional lesson format. Although it went against my better judgement, I had to accept her point. The criticism was fair and helpful.

In coping with criticism it is best to play for time because your first reaction may be very emotional. Before giving a response to your critic give yourself time to consider if it is fair, if it is well-intended or meant deliberately to hurt. Also, bear in mind that just because one person has a negative comment to make, this does not mean that the whole class shares the view. Then ask yourself what you can learn from the critical comment.

Next make sure you have a strategy for handling the criticism. If you think the comment is maliciously intended then don’t engage any further than you have to, but acknowledge that the person has a right to their viewpoint. You could say, “you might be right,” “thank you for your point of view,” “I see what you mean and of course I don’t always get everything right.” With this technique you do not attempt to contradict the critic but neither do you indulge in excuses for your own inadequacies. You are not perfect but then who is?

If the criticism is justified but still maliciously intended, then accept the truth of the comment and say what you hope to do in future. Thus if you can’t answer a question on the spot, say: “I can’t give you a full explanation right now but I will check the points carefully and go through it with you next time.” In other words, don’t let the bad intentions stop you from handling the valid point in a mature and responsible way. Remember that the unpleasantness of the critic is their problem, not yours!"

You will notice that in neither case do you use the word “but”: you do not have to make excuses of any kind; everybody makes mistakes or falls short of perfection.

Finally, if the criticism is valid and well intended then you could seek the cooperation your critic. Say: “I can see that this is a problem, do you have a view about how I should deal with it?” This last technique is powerful because it attempts to make your critic your accomplice. But it will not work with people who have destructive intentions.
Remember too that criticism does not have to be overtly expressed; it can take the form of low-level insolence: a student who keeps talking to a neighbour, a student who deliberately ignores instructions, a student who is always late or loses books. In such situation you could try a group discussion about what behaviour is acceptable and why some behaviours are insulting not just to the teacher but the group.
Keep the comments coming!

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  1. jayne Says:

    Another incredible, intelligent and pactical post about an issue we all have to deal with, sooner or later in our careers.
    Thankyou Brenda, with all my respect.

  1. martin Says:

    I find the best way to avoid being shown up in front of a class is just to say that is how or what a native speaker would say!

  1. david Says:


    I work in a public middle school in Korea. I am the only foreigner. The Korean management makes it feel like it's as an 'us against you' deal.

    I co-teach with Korean English teachers. However, up until recently they did not help. Instead, they sit in the back of the class and did their own work and read. I was happy with this situation until they decided to actually participate in the classes.

    They don't talk with me except to order me around. They are receptive to any of my comments They have meetings without me. I recently received a nasty letter from the head teacher saying that if I don't allow the teachers to participate in the classes I would be dismissed. I have never prevented anyone from performing their duties. It is baffling.

    Communication is a huge problem and I seem to be getting the blame for everything. I have never co-taught. How can they expect me to do everything? I am at my wits end. I want the job without the management drama.

    Please help me I need advise.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Dear David,
    I can understand your feelings. Korea is a culture with a high power distance and it sounds as if you have been placed firmly at the bottom of the pecking order. If you can enlist some help from an English-speaking senior staff member, try to explain your feelings. Try not to appear arrogant but explain that you are very puzzled and need advice. Bear in mind that this may simply be a place that does not know how to cope with foreign teachers and is suspicious of them. It may, therefore, be better to look elesewhere to a school that has several foreign teachers.

    Explore this site for useful hints and tips:http://www2.ald.net/~roden/korea/pages/cult_f.htm/.

    Good luck!

  1. owen nair-marshall Says:

    I would like to go back a little way and give some economic input into teacher English in a foreign country and the amount of money involved in this.

    As we all know a salary is not always negotiated, that is there is nor prescribed salary, nor for that matter an actual work agreement that is bound in law.

    An example of the salary structure in a Chinese language school is about 6000 yuan a month (AU $1340p.month. Ask yourself would you accept this salary in GB.

    The argument is I am not in GB I am in China so I have a cost of living that is much less that GB.

    OK there is not an argument on that front.
    However, when one adds all the costs os applying for the position, obtaining TESOL quals,(The 4 week course), Flight insurances, travel costs,incidentals such as food that is purchased on the way, gifts, telephone calls to home, the costs begin to mount up.

    Course AU$3600
    Travel $2600
    Travel insurances $300
    Food on stop off $ 90
    Gifts $200
    Telephone to home $60
    Medication if ill $300
    Out of pocket $200
    Approx total Yuan 46,700

    A contract to teach is not a one year contract it is usually for the teaching period of 9 months. This then is 6000yuan x 9=54,000 yuan

    The economics do not add up sell yourself for short change, yes I know waiters who get this much in tips in a year on top of their salary of $40,000.

    You sell yourself short all your life. Learn the value of what it is that your are doing. Who is getting what out of it? The learning isn't and you certainly are not.
    Dr Owen Nair-Marshall

  1. Al Says:

    Re: Korean Middle School

    Having taught in Korea for some time I have to say that any foreigner is placed firmly at the bottom of the social order if s/he allows himself to be put there. As the saying in Busan goes, "We treat a dog like a dog". Since social hierarchy is (mostly) rigidly defined by prescribed status (age, gender, family, race), people will assume that if you are compliant it is because you must be so, not because you choose to be so.

    The situation is exacerbated in public schools which, lacking a profit motive, have no real reason to keep the foreign teacher happy or to keep them from quitting. If you teach outside of Seoul the situation is much worse. A lot of native English speakers go to rural public schools in Korea completely ignorant of the myriad social problems facing rural Korea, which has been sacrificed to Korea's rapid modernization.

    On top of this, many Koreans have, due to their history and national ideology, an ingrained sense of victim hood with the outside word. Your Korean coworkers may very well view this as a chance to take the foreigner down a peg or two, and to get revenge. If you are male, it will be worse, and if you are non-white it will be much worse.

    Two of my friends who taught in rural Korea simply accepted the animosity of their coworkers as the price of doing business - but they were long term residents of Korea who understood the cultural-political situation and who had also negotiated a very lucrative deal under the table with the board of education. They knew the lay of the land. If you do not have a lot of experience with Korea I would strongly suggest that you work in Seoul, no matter what the recruiters tell you.

    I actually have had nothing but good experiences with my work situations in Korea, but I do want to reiterate that you will be used as a whipping boy if you let yourself be.

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