Lying Less in Language Teaching (with Jessica Keller)

Subscribe on Android

To quote Sam Harris, "By lying, we deny others a view of the world as it is. Our dishonesty not only influences the choices they make, it often determines the choices they can make—and in ways we cannot always predict. Every lie is a direct assault upon the autonomy of those we lie to." So what of lying in language teaching? How honest are we with our students? How honest are schools with their teachers? And how can we be more honest with ourselves? We discuss with ESL recruitment guru, Jessica Keller.

Links and references to Lying Less in Language Teaching

Sam Harris' website (and podcast)

Transcription - Lying Less in Language Teaching (with Jessica Keller)


Tracy:  Hello, everyone. Today we've got our special podcast and then who has been on our podcast before is...

Jessica Keller:  Jessica Keller.


Tracy:  Welcome.

Jessica:  That's me.


Tracy:  Welcome, Jessica.

Ross Thorburn:  Jessica, thanks for coming on again. Do you want to introduce yourself very briefly for people that missed you last time?

Jessica:  Yeah, I've been recruiting for English language teachers and actually now other different subject teachers for both Asia and in the US for the last 13 years.

Ross:  Before that, you were an English teacher, a manager and the regional manager, those kind of things in Japan, right?

Jessica:  Yes, I did start as a teacher in Japan.

Ross:  Something happened at work to me fairly recently that I wanted to mention to you guys. We were talking about kids taking English lessons for about two hours a week and this person said to me that our school's competitors all tell parents, "If your kid studies with us, they'll sound like a native speaker after about two years."

Jessica:  Wow.

Ross:  I thought that's just a lie, right?

Jessica:  [laughs]

Ross:  Like a blatant lie. He said, "Well, we have to do that because that's what our competitors do. We don't really have a choice." I thought, "Well, surely that's going to lead to so many other problems."

Anyway, it reminded me of this quote that I heard from Sam Harris who if you've not listened to him before, you should check out his "Waking Up" podcast.

Sam Harris:  It's amazing to me that we have to get back to a place where being out of harmony with what is demonstrably true pays a penalty.

The value we have to all embrace is we have to care to be in register to the truth. Especially, people who are in power, whose decisions affect the lives of millions, we have to care when they are in register or out of register with what's true.

Ross:  Yes, therefore, we can talk a bit about lying and how lying comes into language teaching, recruitment, Jessica, which you're an expert in, teaching, training, management and all those things.

Tracy:  What the main areas today we're going to talk about? Lying?

Ross:  I think we can talk about when we lie and then how we can maybe lie less or at least be more honest.

Jessica:  Especially in sales. The nature of sales and recruitment for that matter is also just, of course, trying to get people to buy into something. Having a situation where you're trying to sell the benefits of something as opposed to being you listing all the negatives and all the positives.

We don't necessarily think of that as lying all the time, but if you're openly leaving information out, then it can be really deceptive.

Ross:  Let's first of all talk about lying to students and then maybe how we can lie less. Then secondly...

Tracy:  ...we're going to talk about lying to our teachers and how honest we are in teacher training and management. Then last...

Jessica:  ...also about lying to ourselves.


Lying To Students

Ross:  Let's talk about lying to students. When you, Tracy, taught adults before, what did you feel maybe that people weren't honest about or teachers were not honest about the students?

Tracy:  I think when the teacher is trying to give students some feedback, especially with adult learners. They have to make sure how much corrective feedback you are giving them because they don't want to lose face in front of other classmates.

Even though they made mistakes they have to make sure, "Oh, yeah, really good. Well done," but actually, they didn't do a very good job.

Ross:  I guess it depends. If you praise someone maybe for trying something, that's honest but I have seen teachers say, "Oh, how else could you say X?" The student says something that's completely wrong and goon. Then the teacher says, "Yeah, well done. That's great." You can still say, "Oh, thanks for trying," or "That's interesting but not quite. But I think..."


Jessica:  "Oh, good try. But here's what it actually is," or something like that.

Ross:  You're not giving them a lot of help by telling them they're right when they are actually wrong. [laughs]

Jessica:  Yeah. Also, I think to the original point you had about sales if you're setting an expectation to the parents of the kids who are going to sound like native speakers, and the kids have that pressure, obviously, they're going to be manufacturing and trying to live up to some expectation.

That's not really realistic. It almost encourages a lie in some ways and the teachers also for maybe passing them along.

Ross:  I think that maybe we do have a bit of a lie in general that's like language learning is...We make language learning out to be a little easier than it actually is. I think in schools often will paint a picture for students that's a lot more optimistic than actually should.

Tracy:  That's a really good point, actually. If we just look at the people who can speak fluent foreign language, they definitely put a lot of efforts and it's not just one year. For example, I studied English for 29 years maybe.

Ross:  [laughs]

Tracy:  29 years. I still made mistakes.

Jessica:  I have a friend who's sending her daughter overseas for four weeks. The daughter is taking one year of high school language study. My friend is convinced her daughter is going to be fluent and I'm like, "Aargh."

Ross:  After a year?

Jessica:  After one year of high school study and four weeks overseas.

Ross:  Wow.

Jessica:  She's like, "Well, it'll be really intensive." I'm like, "Yeah, I don't know about that."


Jessica:  "Maybe you're right." I'd love to be wrong on that but it's that people have again these expectations that it's going to be easy to do.

Ross:  That's so interesting. I wonder where that comes from.

Jessica:  I think sales is partly the blame, for sure.

Tracy:  Yeah.

Ross:  [laughs] Yeah, absolutely. I also wanted to mention here something about how honest are we to students about what people actually say.

Jake Whiddon, who's been on the podcast a couple times, he was telling me about he hang out with his daughter for the whole summer. He said, "I watch my daughter play with dozens of different kids and never once did I hear her say, 'Hello,' or 'How are you?' in either English or Chinese."

I thought, "That's so interesting." The first thing that we know how that works. The important thing you can learn in English is, "Hello, how are you? I'm fine, thank you and you?" The majority of people that we teach those phrases to are kids, but actually kids don't say that.

Tracy:  I partially agree with that. I always hear foreigners talking to Chinese kids if the kids can speak English. They always say, "Hi! What's your name? How are you?"

Ross:  That argument is self‑justifying. The only reason they ask them those questions is because they know that's what they've been taught in school. I see your point, but I think with that those are interactions between adults and kids. For kids, the majority of interactions they will have will be with other kids.

I think what someone really needs to do somewhere, is make up a corpus for children, and find out what the kids say to each other, what language the kids actually use. Then we could start teaching children some language that's going to be genuinely useful to them right now as opposed to learning a bunch of stuff that, when they grow up, they'll be able to use in 15 years' time.

Tracy:  Fair enough.


Lying To Teachers

Ross:  Let's talk about lying to teachers. One of the reasons that I was very motivated to leave a previous job was, I found out that the Marketing Department, that marketed to teachers online, have much higher salary on their online advertisements than their first‑grade teachers actually get.

That struck me as being so dishonest. I was much more serious about finding a job somewhere else. What do you think is the argument as a business, or as a school, why you wouldn't do that?

Jessica:  Why you wouldn't lie about the salary?

Ross:  Yeah.

Jessica:  I feel like that's something you can pretty easily punch a hole through. You don't want to be a dishonest company. As much as you want to get people on board and you want people to be interested in your job more than any other job, if you're known in the industry for being dishonest, then that's going to come through pretty quickly.

If you advertise a salary of a certain amount, and then you get a job offer that's significantly lower than that, you're going to feel pretty disappointed, right?

Ross:  Yeah. Absolutely. How honest do you think schools should be when they're hiring teachers? Like you're saying, you do want to sell the benefits obviously more that the disadvantages. Equally you have to talk about some disadvantages in order to be transparent and give people an accurate picture of what life's going to be like.

Jessica:  For example, I've had jobs in the past that I've recruited for that have split days off or split shifts in the salary. I haven't put that in the job advertisement, but I'll talk to them about it.

Ross:  I think the advertisement is an advertisement with the route, but the interview is when you can get into those parts of it.

Jessica:  Well, admittedly, I know people will be less drawn to an ad if they see it. It's easier just to have a conversation. It's less concrete.

Ross:  One other thing that I wanted to mention here, related to lying to teachers and being honest to teachers, is I used to work with someone who thought that best way to give feedback to a teacher, who had a complaint, was to tell them, "Oh, hey, Jessica. I observed your class. I thought it was absolutely perfect."

"There was nothing wrong with it all. Well done. You're such a great employee. By the way, you might want to read about error correction. That might be something you'd be interested in learning about."

This person thought that would be the best way of getting those people that, for example, have a problem with error correction or got a complaint about not correcting enough errors. That would be the best way to get them to improve. Do you not think you're denying that person some avenue for development? That's important information that that person has a right to know.

Jessica:  Yeah. I am certainly glad that when I was a teacher, it was a while ago, I received feedback on complaints. Lying about something they've received is also deceptive and condescending, like, "We can't tell you this information, because we're afraid you might crack." Right?

Ross:  Right. How weak do we assume that people are? That they can't handle even direct criticism, just passing on of something negative.

Jessica:  It also could be that managers fear of conflict. I guess it could be their own thing.


Lying To Ourselves

Ross:  Last one. Lying to ourselves. Something I've wondered with teacher training that we could do to be more honest about it is follow up with people a long time after the training. I think that we often in teacher training courses measure the success by how well the teachers meet our own standards on the course.

Whereas I think, what we need to do more on that is call people up six months later, or a year later, and go like, "How did this help you find a job, or improve in your job, or get promoted?"

Jessica:  Or, "Did it help you?" [laughs]

Tracy:  Yeah.

Ross:  Or, "Did it help you at all?" Because, maybe it didn't.

Jessica:  It's the same with interviews and recruiting. We think we have a really good idea of this person. I do think generally we do, but we have to remember it's not exact science. I remember hiring someone that I was...No, I didn't even hire him.

Ross:  [laughs]

Jessica:  I took him over from another recruiter. I helped him with the last stages of his arrival. I was like, "This guy's going to be a complete failure." He completed his contract, and he was eligible for rehire, which blew me away, because he was not someone who I would've wanted to work with. There's people, who I've thought would be great, and they didn't even last probation.

Ross:  That's something I think that you do that's really great in recruiting. You find out the results afterwards. It's not just like, "We hired this guy. I thought he would be OK," and that's the end of it. You have this great system where you hire people, and then you can find out if they lasted six months, or a year, or if they got promoted, or what happened.

It's not just that it's an amazing tool, but I think yours is a really amazing job of getting that feedback and plugging that information back into the system to help you make even better decisions in the future. For a while, when someone got fired, that you hired, did you not go back to your interview notes? Or get your staff to go back to your interview notes and go like, "What did you miss?"

Jessica:  Yeah. We still do that. We look at anybody who fails probation. We look at what happened. We definitely analyze. It's a post‑mortem, I guess, of everyone.

Ross:  Imagine if we did that with training as well. We did a post‑mortem like a year later.

Jessica:  It's not like, "If this teacher fails, it's a fault of the training."

Ross:  I was more getting at the idea that what the course teaches as good teaching is different from the reality of what schools expect. I think that there is a value in training course like teaching excellence or something as we see it.

Also, there's got to be part of this. We're preparing you to go and get a job, and be successful. If we're missing out some skills that actually are going to help you succeed in a sort of a semi‑corporate school environment, or whatever environment you're going into, then maybe we're missing out on something there.

Jessica:  True.


Ross:  Cool, all right. Jessica, thanks again very much, for coming on.

Jessica:  Thanks for having me. It's great to be back. Can't wait for my next trip up here.

Ross:  Yay. [laughs]

Tracy:  Oh, great. Bye.

Ross:  Bye.

Jessica:  Bye.