“What should I say to an international student whose country is undergoing / has just undergone a very difficult situation due to an earthquake (or other climatic event), war (as either aggressor or aggressee), or political/military crackdown?”

This is not an aspect of class management CELTA necessarily prepares you for. My first question (privately, before or after class) would be “Are you OK?” and depending on your degree of familiarity with the learner, you could ask about family still in their home country. Giving learners space to express fear or anger – or any emotion – acknowledges the reality in which they find themselves and can help to build a supportive classroom environment. Interestingly, learners may find it easier to talk about emotive events in English due to lower (or looser) emotional attachment to the language itself.

Here, I feel it’s important to be sensitive to the needs of the learner and the communicative function of the conversation: in this case the function is personal/interpersonal (expressing thoughts/feelings or opinions) rather than directive/referential (asking for information or an explanation). So it would be inappropriate to correct the learner’s output or elicit the target language forms.

However, if learners themselves request language input in these circumstances, I would answer them as appropriately as possible; the bottom line in this situation being that the communicative function of the exchange is owned by the learner, not the teacher. Similarly, if the learner brings up the topic in class, perhaps asking here for language input, I would provide it: facilitating a supportive environment in which all learners can express themselves is key here, I believe.

In terms of wider class management i.e. when no particular military, political or climatic event is taking place, any lesson plan should take into consideration possible sensitivities to topics, interaction patterns, or activity types. Depending on the age of the learner and how well you know them, it’s generally a good idea to sound out whether it’s a topic someone might rather avoid in class.. For example, if you had planned a role play activity, those students who don’t want to be actively involved in the conversation could either ‘sit out’ the activity or play the role of scribe/editor (noting down language usage they found particularly strong, or conversely in need of correction). Learners may also prefer to play the part of an interviewer, talking to the characters in the roleplay about the situation, rather than take a more active, personalised, role.

Interestingly, the most difficult situations of this kind I’ve had to deal with didn’t centre around current conflicts, but related to incidents which took place during the First World War when Austria-Hungary started bombarding Serbia. Here I found it helpful to acknowledge and affirm all opinions as valid, but to underline the ground rule of mutual respect in the classroom. Ensuring that Students A and B were not placed in group work with Student C went some way to defusing the situation.

Kirstie Jackson Wilms worked as a face-to-face General English trainer in Oxford before moving to Germany in 2010, where she continued to teach (mainly) Business English online. She joined the Publishing team of an online training provider in 2018. Kirstie is CELTA and DELTA qualified and is currently working towards an MA in Professional Development in Language Education (MA PDLE). Her professional interests are in developing learner autonomy through materials writing and classroom practice. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading crime novels, and watching cricket. Check out her blog: https://tefl45.wordpress.com/