TEFL & Religion

I discussed religion with a student today.  That’s quite a rare event.  In France, as a result of the French revolution. the church doesn’t play a very prominent social role.   ‘Don’t trust those in power’, most French people say, sweeping aside questions about ecclesiastical and political power, tarring both with the same brush.

However, this is a land of paradoxes (e.g. secular, yet catholic) and the French can surprise – not least in celebrating 365 saint’s days each year:  My local church, for another example, recently held a religious mass in honour of Saint Peter, guardian of the local lake: ‘Etang-de-Berre’.  Then, following the service, his statue was carried onto the lake, on a huge sea-fishing boat, followed by a flotilla of smaller boats, in order to bless and protect the waters.  This certainly was a religious affair – although the music played on-board the boat carrying the statue was:  ‘Elle est si bonne, la bouillabasse’,  and the  ritual was preceeded by the spectacle of young men on bikes plunging into the canal off a specially built ramp.

This event, though, is an exception rather than a rule – in my French experience anyway.   In general,  I have found discussing religion with French people like walking into a conversational cul-de-sac.  There’s simply not a lot they have to say on the matter.  Perhaps because it has no place on the school syllabus.  On the other hand, I have occassionally had some very enlightening discussions with French muslims of north African origin.  And in these instances I’ve learnt a lot about the fundamental issues, and history, of Islam.  But for non-muslim French, religion is almost a no-go area.  Philosophy and sociology are more to their liking:  Montesquieu, Voltaire, Baudrillard, Jean-Paul Sartre etc.  These are the leading lights amongst the more profound French thoughts, with religion being castigated as a dangerous superstition responsible for countless disputes, conflicts and wars.   They may have a point.  I listen and respond – whilst trying not to argue too much whenever the subject arises – which, as I said, is rare.

Nevertheless, this particular student today raised a question about Northern Ireland’s history and this led me back to good ol’ Henry VIII, his six wives, and his barney with the Catholic church.  From here I explained the English swinging from catholicicm to protestantism, and back, between the 16th and 18th centuries, until catholic Charles II was thrown out and dutch, protestant, William III was invited in.  And it was William III, I told my student, who turned northern Ireland into a protestant region of the British Isles-thereby starting: ‘The troubles’.   Why not throw a bit of British history into the lessons, I say.    I just hope I got the history right?


Now, whoever wants to define religion is a brave man, or woman. Magic is easier to define, for it’s generally intended to bring about some desired, observable effect; whether by slight of hand or by recourse to supernatural powers.  But religion…?  That’s a toughy, and made even tougher by the fact that anthropologists, who enjoy such semantic games, are a hair-splitting bunch of academics each furnishing his, or her, own personal definition – which are then fought over to create a myriad of more (supposedly) precise definitions. Get the gist?  Is Durkheim’s ‘Sacred and Profane’ characterisation universally appropriate? Do supernatural powers need to be invoked?  How about Geertz’s ‘system of symbols establishing powerful moods and motivations’? What about the central issues of taboo and sacrifice?  What about religion’s function in providing ‘meaning’ to our lives ?  Luckily, I’m not writing about ‘TEFL religion’ – if such a concept exists!

On the other hand, rituals, values, goals, ceremonies and myths do exist within the TEFL world and we do need to be aware of cultural sensitivities in whichever national religious culture we may find ourselves teaching.  O.k  – this may not be so evident here in secular France.  But elsewhere in the world is a different story. Now, let’s take an example of a ritual within the TEFL world:

Anecdote 1

Slumped back in my chair with tired eyes and feet up on the table, I await my final one-to-one student of the day.   Marie-Anne, my American colleague, likewise is chilling out, and we idly chat and joke.  A buzzer then sounds.  This is a wake-up call and I lower my legs; straighten my tie;  metaphorically put on my professional hat, and go back to work.

Jean-Luc is standing at the front door.  I smile and hold out my hand.

‘Good afternoon, Jean-Luc,’ I greet, ‘Please, do come in’.

He enters and I offer him coffee, followed by small-talk.  We then stand face-to-face, nodding, awake to each other’s comments, until I suggest he follows me through to a teaching room where today’s lesson will begin.


Such is one example of a teaching ritual.  Probably it is one with which TEFL teachers the world over are familiar:  The routine, repetitive process of greeting students.  Yet, there is more to this than the inane routine of making coffee and idly chatting.  Such greeting rituals symbolize something of deeper importance.  The ritual welcomes our students by showing them respect and putting them at ease.  Why is this necessary?   Firstly, because they are being prepared to step over a line from their own linguistic culture to that of the language they are studying.   Secondly, they are being prepared to change social roles from working professionals to language students.  Thirdly, they are being prepared to be led to an inner sanctum where the teaching ‘magic’ will be applied.

All rituals, first noted Arnold Van Gennep in 1909, involves rites of separation, transition, and re-incorporation.  Applying this notion to the TEFL world we can say that teachers guide the students through this process as they arrive for lessons, study, then leave.  The first step involves a separation, for students, from their daily lives with their particular social roles.  Second comes the lesson itself.  This is the period of transition in which students undergo the learning process and linguistically evolve.   Third comes the saying goodbye rite at the end of lessons.  This process then re-incorporates students back into their normal social lives and roles.  This second anecdotes perhaps clarifies this point.

Anecdote 2

From behind, his desk, which could be a dais, Michel stands and greets a semi-circle of business students before him.  Crowded into his office, student and teachers alike jostle to observe this small, informal, passing-out ceremony.

 As is usual, Michel congratulates the students on completing the course and slips in a few, regular, humourous remarks.  Then he steps out from behind his desk; shakes each student’s hand in turn, and hands over their course completion certificates. We, the observers, heartily clap.

Finally, to wind up the occassion, a few bottles of bubbly are opened and trays of dainty iced-cakes magically appear.  We all then stand around nibbling and sipping our drinks, whilst the passing-out students beam and grip hard their rolled up certificates.  Small talk, consisting largely of best wishes, passes between teachers and students.  Then there’s the hugs, thank-yous, more firm hand shakes, and all involved begin to drift off.


There it is.  A perfect example of the rite of re-incorporation.  Students have made their transitions into being more advanced English language speakers and with the training course over return to their normal social roles in their normal social hierarchies.  Arnold Van Gennep’s discussion of this process seems pretty spot-on.

In fact, when you come to think of it there are many occassions within TEFL life which come under the rubric of ritual or ceremony. Perhaps they’re within lessons themselves as students learn what behaviour is expected of them and act accordingly (e.g. paired work role-plays, feeding back to the class, collective error correction, ‘drilling-and-weaving’, fixed seating placement – if allowed to get away with that),  or perhaps the ritual is outside the classroom at the coffee machine, or during cigarette ‘time-outs’.  Either way, ritual is unavoidable in TEFL-for better or worse.  On the positive side, people know where they are and what they’re supposed to do; hence they feel comfortable. On the negative side, fixed patterns of behaviour do not challenge conceptions and may even inhibit the language learning process (a variety of paired and group work actively stimulates learning minds).

Rituals and ceremonies, thus,  are a designed blend of inter-active theatrics dosed with symbolic meaning.  Participants follow a ritual plan as if following through the script of a play.  On attending religious rituals we all enter into the spirit of the proceedings.  Students do the same.  They trust teachers’ directions and lesson plans .   Within religious or magical setting, ritual designers are the priests, imams, rabbis, or even witch-doctors.   In daily professional work settings it is: ‘The management’.    In TEFL, it is the teachers who plan the lessons and guide the students, perhaps under direction, to varying degrees, of the ‘DOS’s (Directors of Studies) who guide the teachers.

So, ritualists?  Yes.  That is role of TEFL teachers.  Lesson plans are ritual plans.  But religious leaders?  No. Absolutely not.  Language learning is not a supernatural affair and no gods, or goddesses, oversee the process.  Neither are TEFL teachers magicians; not really.  There is nothing magical in learning another language,  just study and practice driven by a desire to progress.

However, should you consider Buddhism, environmentalism, humanism and humanitarianism (life-views’ modus operandi) as religions, perhaps we might re-consider?   Definitions are always tricky and definitions of religion, as stated, are as tricky as any.  If TEFL teachers collectively follow a TEFL teaching methodology, based upon a collectively held TEFL teaching philosophy, and using commonly held TEFL symbols (e.g. grammar structure boxes, gap fill sentences etc.)  or ritual apparatus (e.g. whiteboards, cassette players etc.) to lead student to a ‘higher state’ of language acquisition – and the process itself is highly ritualized, could TEFL then not be regarded a non-supernatural religion?

This is just a rhetorical question.

4 comments on “TEFL & Religion

  1. It’s funny you mention Henry XIII and the history aspect. I often have that conversation with my students. Surprisingly, most of them don’t know about it.

    I think history is a big aspect to TEFL; language is linked to culture and culture, must be in some way, linked to history. I mean, how did it come about that customs such as using a knife and fork happened ? At some point, there must have been this switch in history. I don’t know when it happened myself, but there must be an explanation.



    Learn English the naturaly way.

    • english13 says:

      I reckon forks came into use as soon as hot cooked food burnt the fingers. No proof, but it seems logical to find something to spear it with. Never been camping and cooked bangers on the fire? Sure you have! According to wikipaedia, forks are mentioned in the bible: I Samuel 2:13. They also mention 31 different types of forks including a ‘spork’ and a ‘sporf’. Have you ever come across those before?

  2. Leyna Clarke says:

    Wow! I’ve never really put it into words like that, but I have always disliked “religion”. It sounds like a ritual. I guess some people need that ritual, maybe it helps them bring sense and order into their lives. I can think of a few rituals in my own life such as my first cup of tea in the morning and brushing my teeth. Without these things, life doesn’t feel quite right.
    However, spirituality is something quite different. It is part of myself, not what I do, but what I am. I am a spiritual being with a body. I live both in a spiritual world and a physical world.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Leyna

    • english13 says:

      Thanks Leyna – Spirituality and TEFL could be a follow up, now you mention it. Without facts and figures to support this next statement, from experience I would reckon that the TEFL profession employs a far higher percentage of teachers who have had some involvement with religion in their lives than statistics would show for the working population as a whole. I wonder why that is? You got me thinking now !!

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