My admission that I have taught in Sarajevo is often met with raised eyebrows. I usually start by pointing out that it’s peaceful now, the war has been over for some time, and it is actually quite a nice place. The people I met were friendly and tended to have remarkably good respective senses of humor. I taught at a private language school — so although I did in fact become involved in some volunteer work at one point later — my main job was much like other TEFL jobs.
Essentially, teaching in Sarajevo is really not that different from teaching in any place…but just the fact that I’m making this post implies that there is something to be said. Also (fortunately) there aren’t that many post-conflict countries in the world — by which I mean countries where your students have experienced conflict in their own lives. But I feel the gist of this post can relate to any country or even group of students who have had an extreme or challenging experience which seems hard to imagine, relate to, or understand.
My main advice would be to give some thought to the topics you bring up in class and the questions you ask. A recent conflict or other extreme experience may well come up in class anyhow, or may just be mentioned in passing, but some topics may lead right into it…questions on “life-changing events” or historical events students have witnessed or detailed discussions on family or even on foreign travel or experience living abroad may be topics to be careful with among students who may have lost family members or been refugees.
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In the end though, your students are people just like you, and tiptoeing around things (for example, not teaching family vocabulary as a co-worker once proposed) is a bit patronizing. Students know that an English lesson is not a psychotherapy session and are not going to get into details on harrowing experiences. “Before the war” came up a lot, mostly in passing, in my classes; not because students loved to talk about it but because the war coincided with drastic social, economic, and political changes.
My experience in Bosnia makes me even more interested in exploring other post-conflict countries; I found the warmth, friendliness, and hospitality of people who had often been through such difficult experiences remarkable.