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For quite a while now, I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen (a low-ish number, as you can probably imagine) that any proficiency I have as an English language teacher is partly due to having spent a good few years Games Mastering various role-playing games, and I’ve gone so far as to suggest that GMing (or DMing, or Storytelling, or whatever) is the best way of building up a TEFL teacher’s skill set short of actually being in a classroom.

The slightly odd thing is that, to all intents and purposes, it looked like I’d stopped playing RPGs for good in 2004, a couple of years before I even considered going into teaching. Now I’m teaching for a living in the week and running a game session at weekends for pleasure, the parallels are even more weirdly apparent. Permit me to share a few of them with you.

I’m not sure there is any practical value in this, by the way: becoming a Dungeon Master would be an odd way of going about your CPD if you were a teacher, and I wouldn’t advise basing your career choice on the fact it’s vaguely like something you enjoy doing in your spare time. Nor am I suggesting a language lesson and a game session are functionally the same activity, because they’re clearly not.

Some role-players yesterday, obviously. (No drinks allowed in my class.)

Some role-players yesterday, obviously. (No drinks allowed in my class.)

All Right, The Obvious Differences

1. Money.

Language teaching is a professional transaction, obviously: the students are (indirectly or otherwise) paying you to provide a service to them. Gaming is a social activity for which nobody gets paid (apart from that guy with the beard who’s being employed to run Apocalypse World on Roll20, of course).

That said, I’d say a more relaxed lesson is always better than an up-tight one, and a too-relaxed game session has problems of its own. I suppose what I’m saying is that gaming is a social transaction with an implied social contract of its own, which I’ve heard argued is something too often left implicit or unexamined. I agree with this.

2. Numbers.

Nearly every game I’ve ever run has had two to four players; I’ve never had a positive experience (or indeed a prolonged one) GMing for six or more people, nor have I ever played in one (unless you include a mass Masquerade LARP event I attended in Huddersfield in 1996). Three’s very much on the low side for a group class, and I’ve taught as many as sixteen people with no major problems. Conventional GMing of any quality becomes impossible, I would argue, once you hit about eight players.

That Said, Those Similarities

1. Many Different Flavours

In the same way I wouldn’t prep for a Vocab class in the same way I would a Grammar class, or indeed conduct the lessons in exactly the same way, I wouldn’t prep for a session of D&D in the same way I’d get ready to run Numenera. There’s a spectrum in TEFL lessons of accuracy as opposed to fluency – correctness as opposed to communication, to simplify just a bit – as well as a wide variety of different types of activity you could conceivably include: games, controlled exercises, free conversation, and so on.

In the same way, there’s a spectrum in RPGs, this time with the almost-pure-tactical wargame (complete with maps and tokens) at one end, running through to the almost-pure-storytelling rules-light type of game at the other. I could also go on about different GMing and game styles, like Sandboxing, Railroading and Illusionism, but that’s a substantial topic that probably deserves an in-depth look of its own.

In short, what you mean by both ‘a lesson’ and ‘a session’ can include a variety of different things, depending on exactly what you’re doing.

2. Differing Expectations

‘I want to learn about prepositions, not just practice conversation,’ says the language student.

‘I want to break heads and steal treasure, not talk about my character’s background,’ says the gamer.

In both cases it can be a serious problem if different group members have very different ideas as to what constitutes decent use of their time, or if they have an idea of what the teacher/GM’s role should be that the teacher/GM doesn’t actually share: if they think the teacher is just there to deliver language clarification which they passively absorb, or the GM is just there to procedurally implement an inviolable ruleset, there will be trouble. They will object to a communicative task-based teaching style, they will equally object to a more actively-GMed scenario. In both cases the trust relationship is very important.

In TEFL it’s standard to talk to a class if there seem to be potential problems and manage expectations – I think this is partly because there is money involved and there is an understanding on everyone’s part that the class will take place, no matter what. In gaming the same types of discussions only ever usually happen on the most superficial level, even when it comes to fundamental things like game duration and attendance.

3. Latecomers and No-shows

My workplace has various policies for handling people who don’t turn up to class, or who turn up late. Given the choice I marginally have less of a problem with people who don’t turn up at all, as this is less disruptive to the people who’ve come in than having to integrate someone who appears half-way through the lesson.

It’s kind of the same with games: I have less of an issue with players who don’t appear than ones who turn up an hour late expecting to be integrated into the ongoing story. One difference, however, is that players with spotty attendance make it incredibly hard to run longer scenarios that span multiple sessions: you have to build in natural ‘pause points’ where people could conceivably wander off and stop then, rather than ending on a cliffhanger (my natural preference).

The lesson has to happen for contractual reasons, even if most of the class are no-shows: everyone wants the game to happen, if at all possible, because they’ve likely been looking forward to it. But in either situation you have to manage people not showing up.

4. Spotlight Time

You have loud students and quiet students; you also have loud players and quiet players. They’ve all come for the same reasons and they all deserve to go away feeling satisfied. This is one of the situations where GMing can feel eerily like TEFL teaching: you find yourself almost subconsciously aware of how long it’s been since you spoke to each other person, and how long it’s been since they spoke at all. In most language lessons, if a person isn’t speaking they’re probably not benefiting as much as they could, and in most of the games I’ve played (which have primarily been done verbally), if someone’s not speaking much it’s a sign they may not be having a good time.

It’s basically the same skill, implemented for the same reasons. The smaller group size in gaming tends to make the task a little easier, though; this may be why I prefer a group of three or four myself.

Small game sizes also permits you to tailor things a little more to your individual gamers, something a teacher is ideally at least conscious of with regard to his or her students. Making sure a student has a chance to practise their pronunciation or a tense they struggle with isn’t quite the same thing as ensuring Dominic the vampire has the opportunity to use his hypnotic powers at some point during a game, but, again, it’s not entirely dissimilar.

5. The Full-brain Workout

This may be why I find both teaching and GMing to be such hugely satisfying activities, because both of them can be very challenging, but commensurately rewarding when things go well.

In both cases, your brain is operating in a number of different modes, switching between them rapidly to suit the demands of the lesson/game. In teaching, you’re variously monitoring the students, thinking about the pace of the lesson and how much time you’ve got left, adapting your plans on the fly to accommodate how things have gone and the time factor, improvising new activities as necessary, responding to unexpected student queries, framing a technical grammar or vocabulary explanation, running a skills activity or game, and so on. Some of these jobs are managerial, some are technical, some are knowledge-based, some are creative. You are never bored.

In a game, you could again be listening to the group discuss strategy or a mystery they’re trying to solve, implementing a complex rule involving numerous dice-rolls by yourself and different players, playing through a complicated combat requiring you to track things like initiative and the health and abilities of multiple antagonists, figuring out how to get the story to a convenient break point around the same time as the session is due to close, inventing a new encounter on the fly to nudge the players in a more interesting direction, role-playing the leader of the mutant tribe the players are trying to trade with, and so on. Again, there is a huge variety of different task-types, and again,  you are never bored.

I could go on to talk about different prep styles used by different flavours of teaching and role-playing, but I think this is the key thing that resonates for me. When I did my first teaching practices nearly ten years ago, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer number of variables I had to keep track of: ‘it’s like spinning plates,’ I would say. But gradually I mastered it, and I was eventually able to identify the strange similarity to GMing I think I’d sensed all along – because there’s a lot of plate spinning down the dungeon, too.

There is one more thing, too.

6. The C Word.

You can go to your lesson carrying a detailed lesson plan written out on paper, the rules for the third conditional freshly revised in your head, a sheaf of handouts six inches thick and every modern teaching app known to man on your phone or tablet.

In the same way, you can turn up to your game with every rulebook in the game, beautiful handouts, maps and miniatures for every encounter, the greatest dungeon ever designed, and beautiful crystal-effect dice of every size from d4 up to d20.

You can have all these things, and the most positive and accommodating group of players and/or students imaginable, but both your lesson and your session are not going to fly unless you have one other thing. Players and students always know when you’re without it, and don’t like it when you don’t. All the other stuff is just there to make sure you have it when you most need it.

And that thing is confidence in your ability, either as a GM or a teacher. It’s hard to acquire and easy to lose, but in the final analysis it’s the only thing that counts. I suspect this is something which is true much more widely than just in teaching or gaming, but in both these arenas you’re really confronted with that fact. And that’s probably a useful thing to know, whether it comes from conjugating infinitives or confronting infernals.

 

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