I have piled my soapboxes high
Sometimes I get taken aback by how much self-serving cant there is in the world of ELT.
Hahaha! How’s that for an opening line! Part of my brain tells me that it’s time to write something that most people could never agree with. The world of blogs is full of confirmation bias and homophily. Homophily, for those of you who are wondering what on earth I am on about, is a self-aggrandising way of saying that birds of a feather flock together (which in turn is an example of the Eason-Rosen effect that says that when put together/if words rhyme/ they’ll be more convincing/most of the time). In other words, people tend to come here and read this blog because it tends to chime with at least part of the way that they think. We tend to unfollow and unfriend those with whom we disagree and we actively search out and stick around those people who think like us or seem to say what we want to say. Where’s the fun, eh? I used to tell myself that I blogged to be disagreed with and have my biases challenged. Then I realised that I am not the kind of blogger who gets much dialogue in the comments pages – unlike that damned Mr Thornbury whose every blogging moment gives rise to interesting and varied debate.
So today, I start with an observation that will hopefully rile some of you and challenge any perception you might have of me that I am a nice person to be around: Sometimes I get taken aback by how much self-serving cant there is in the world of ELT.
Self-serving cant, you say, can you give us an example? Can I?! Can I?! Can I?! Oh, yes I can! Let me set out my stall with some examples of the more obvious manifestations:
1. My students wanna…
BULLSHEEEEEYUT! You don’t know what “your students wanna” most times. I find that nearly all of the time, when a teacher says “my students wanna…” they mean, “I wanna…” The students are the tool for the realisation of their desire. Where I work I am surprised by the high frequency that reported student desires mirror almost exactly what teachers would really like to do: students wanna go for trips to coffee shops; students wanna use this particular type of book; students wanna do next to nothing in class; students wanna watch a movie. Pretty much always students wanna do things that require the teacher to do next to no work in the preparation of their class nor the design of lesson plans, nor the recording of assessment. If students wanna do anything and I am expected to believe it, I wanna see some evidence that this is really what they wanna do.
2. My students are happy therefore I am a good teacher
Way to set the bar down low. Students tend to be happy, in my experience. A teacher’s lot is surely more than maintaining the status quo? Where I work, the expectations of students are that they will come to class, they won’t be too challenged, they will have fun and they will go home. Many teachers are happy to go along with this. Pardon? We’re supposed to what? Help people CHANGE? Oh. Listen, I know how it goes. I have to squeeze improvised cover lessons into my management chores. I use my insight to deliver a class that is low n teaching quality and high on persuasive flourishes. Students tend to enjoy my classes because I bounce around, making jokes, astounding them with original insights (most of which may be wrong) and chivvying and chiding them towards doing things that alone they would be unable to do. But it’s all bloody smoke and mirrors. I would be the last person to say that I am a good teacher, but I think my students think I am a good teacher because they leave the class happy. Like a bitter and twisted clown (hmmmm), the happiness of the children means nothing to me. It is quite simply a useless measurement. You want me to think you’re a good teacher? (“No”) Find another way of proving it to me.
3. My students get good results in exams. I am a good teacher.
No. This is an example of causal attribution bias. Ooh, I love science and its ways of putting things. Causal attribution bias says that when one thing follows another, the tendency of the brain is to jump to the conclusion that the first thing must have caused the second. So, I teach a class; they all do well in an exam; it must mean that they all did well in the exam because I taught the class. OH PLEASE! Come and join us on Planet It’s Not All About You! Might the students not have been smart already? Might the exam not have been easy for them? Might they not have done some hard work (quite possibly because they found your classes to be utterly lacking in purpose or helpfulness)? Your students got good results because they answered the questions in a correct and criteria-matching manner. Nada mas! The only conclusion that you can justly reach is that your teaching does not appear to have disadvantgaed the students in any way. If you want to use this argument, you are going to have to accept personal responsibility for all of those students whose exam success is not quite as meteoric. Happy? I wonder why not…
4. The book isn’t the right level for my students.
Well, blow me down! When you come to me and tell me this, what is it that you want me to think? That I have somehow selected the wrong book? That the authors of the book are amiss because they didn’t have the particular mix of students in mind that you now find sat in your class? Because let me tell you what I really do think: I think, why are you in my office, wasting my time, bleating about the most obvious sodding fact that anyone could come up with? Eh? Eh? GET OUT!!! I have emails to answer, classes to cover, timetables to write, staff to speak to, students to appease. I most certainly do not have time to listen to people saying what is more accurately transcribed as, Hi. I don’t have the time, skills and/or inclination to think about how I can use this resource to help meet my students’ expectations. I know that it looks as if I am listening to you and giving due consideration to your scathing criticism of Panacea Upper Intermediate, but secretly I am thinking very, very disconfirming things about you.
5. The students in my class are not the right level for the book.
Splutter! Cough! WTF? In fact, WTFF? Aren’t you the same teacher who always tells me that they never use the coursebook and that they spend so much of their unpaid time putting together carefully crafted lessons for their students, the like of which will never be seen again? Aren’t you the same teacher who came into my office last week and told me that then it was the book that wasn’t the right level for your students? So, now the book is right, but the people are wrong? What exactly do you propose that we do here? Should we move the students down? Up? Sideways? Diagonally? Because…and here’s a mad idea…what I thought we could do, Pumpkin, would be adapt our teaching to meet the needs and expectations of the people sat in front of us? You know – the students? Yes! I know that in your head the class is called Upper Intermediate, but your head is the only place in the world where that term is an objective one. And do you know what we call it when your head is the only place where something is considered to be objective? We call it subjective opinion. And it means sweet fanny adams to me. When you say “upper intermediate” to me, I hear, “I don’t bother thinking too hard about what my students need. I just apply meaningless labels that were only ever dreamed up to eke more money out of the paying masses.” The book is too hard for your students? No – your lazy teaching is too hard for them. Spend a bit of time making exercises that help students negotiate the challenges of the materials you give them. Scientifically, this is called teaching and it’s what you get paid for.
6. Can I go home now? I’ve been in since Bullsh*t o’clock.
Hi! Nice to meet you. My name is Secret DoS and I don’t give a crap what time you got to work. You are a Grown Up and that means that if you decide to come to work at 3am, you are the only person who is to blame for this. I expect you to be here by a much more agreeable time and I expect you to stay at work -working!!!- until a reasonably respectable time later on. Anything else suggests to me that something is not right. I will trust your grown-up brain to come and speak to me about any challenges that you are currently facing and, if you don’t, I will seek you out and ask if everything is OK. But experience tells me that the people who trumpet most loudly about the time they got to work and the hours they put in at home away from the critical eyes of…well…of anyone tend to be the people who are working least hard. It is almost a case of protesting too much, methinks. In the meantime, there are people who work solidly and silently throughout the day who don’t bang on about it at all. I have news for you, Scoop: these are the people who win the quiet admiration of their colleagues, their students, their managers and, I think, themselves.
7. I work so hard and I am not paid for half of what I do.
I am going to appeal once more to the argument that you are a grown up now. If you work without getting paid for it, this is because you feel some sort of compulsion or necessity to do it. It is not because I demand it from you. My expectations are that you will come to work, do your job well and then go home. My expectations are that you will take the responsibility for monitoring your workload, prioritising it and doing it. When you find it challenging, my expectations are that you will come to me and say, “I find my workload challenging.” For what it’s worth, I think that it is entirely reasonable to expect an experienced ELT teacher to discharge their duties within the hours that constitute a normal working week. A new teacher may need to devote a fair whack of hours extra to their efforts. An experienced teacher who is juggling with other demanding responsibilities may find that they too have to spend longer than usual on work. But it is all a question of personal choice. I regularly do 12 hour days. I moan about it at times, but not as a general rule. I moan about the fact that the situation at work demands that I do 12 hour days and that nobody seems to be trying to fix this situation, but I accept that if I do 12 hour days, the choice is mine. I can always say no.
8. I do it for the students.
Really? Well, I’ll tell the owner that and I’m sure that they’ll be delighted at the prospect of saving £30K a year. Do it for the students? Really? Oh, come on! What are the students? Some sort of hopeless charity case? Some paragon of virtue and need that we need to exalt, place upon a pedestal and sacrifice a fatted calf unto? Let me tell you my motivation: 1. servicing my debts; 2. inertia; 3. challenge; 4. like working with people; 5. creativity; 6. feeding my family and housing them; 7. self-gratification; 8. fascination for the job; 9. self-improvement; 10. lack of alternatives. Now, I may be revealing a bit too much about myself, but I am going to bet that I am not particularly unique in my reasons for doing the job. I never say that I am doing it for the students. Because I know that I am really doing it for me and for those people who are important to me. I like my students and don’t want to upset them, but if push came to shove, I’d shop them all to the secret police and turn my eyes away from the Shrieking Fortress if it meant that me and mine would be allowed to live fairly peaceful lives. Does this make me a selfish little shit? Probably. Welcome to the human condition.
9. If things go wrong, it’s the manager’s fault.
OK. I don’t know quite where you ever got the idea that you are somehow born with the birthright to go apportioning blame and responsibility, but let me just say that anyone…anyone…who feels that they have the right to point fingers and blame others deserves to have those fingers bitten off and then inserted somewhere about their body for safekeeping. The cant that allows some teachers to blame others (sometimes their peers, sometimes their managers) while expecting to be protected from all criticism themselves is particularly hard for me to swallow. If things go wrong, Sweetness, the urgency is to try to understand why they went wrong and to work together to ensure that they don’t go wrong again. Fault and blame are never going to work. And when you tell me that something is all down to some sort of failing on my part, not only do I see you as some sort of repugnant ant-eating lizard, I also get the sense that you are exactly the kind of person that I don’t think should be in a classroom. Hell, push comes to shove, you are the sort of person that I don’t think should be in society. You are destructive, not constructive. And you will destroy anything as long as you are allowed to shirk all sense of personal responsibility. Get this: all of your other strengths, positive points, hard work etc…all turn to dust when you show me that you are not capable of exploring what more you could have done to achieve a more agreeable outcome. In short, the need to blame others is like a leprosy. You are not responsible for others, so don’t ever think that you have a right to pass judgement on them.
10. I am a perfectionist.
You are a control freak. I work around people who seem to take some sort of pride in being a perfectionist. I am not a perfectionist. If you have ever uttered those words without it being a sort of crushing confession about your own failings, let me tell you what the words I am a perfectionist mean to a non-perfectionist. They mean:
a) I have double standards. I demand perfection from other people and seek to explain any perceived shortcomings in my behaviour on the fact that, although I was perfect and had gloriously high standards, I couldn’t do my work because everything else was not perfect;
b) I will judge everything that you do and hold you responsible for anything that goes wrong because I am clearly never going to be at fault;
c) I have no grip of reality. It suits me to claim that I believe in perfection. Life may not be perfect, but it should be and therefore I can never be held accountable when things go wrong.
d) I am utterly inflexible. Things should be as I say they should be. If they are not, somebody needs to do something about it.
e) I demand perfection of other people. I define what is meant by perfection. When people don’t meet my standards, they are lesser beings. My standards can chop and change according to how I feel.
Yes, indeedy. If you are a perfectionist, you should keep it under wraps. It is not an admirable quality. It is a self-serving, hypocritical, antisocial, divisive, judgmental, inflexible mental disorder. When it is followed by the expression And that’s just the way I am! it means that you are utterly oblivious of the need to change. Please do not be proud of it. Say it only because you are admitting that you have got a problem and you are desperate to get some help.
And so ends my list. Teachers, managers, students: let’s end this nonsense. Let’s accept some fairly uncontroversial assumptions and let them form the basis of how we go about our work and how we interpet the actions of others:
1. We need to talk to other people before we know what they want. Any time we are making assumptions about what other people want, we are most likely saying what we want.
2. A good teacher is not a helpful concept. We should accept that we need to aspire to not being a bad teacher. We should constantly keep ourselves under observation and we should look for objective evidence that we are not slipping into being a bad teacher. Exclusively positive feedback needs to be taken as evidence that something is wrong. If people don’t tell you how you could improve, you won’t know how to improve.
3. As a teacher, you have accepted the responsibility of doing what it takes to meet the demands of the students you work with. If the book is wrong, change the way you use it; if the level is wrong, change the way you think about it. Work with the way things present themselves, not with the way you think they should be.
4. Take responsibility for your actions: if you decide to work extra or work long hours, this is a question of personal choice. If the situation is such that you feel that you must work an unfair number of hours to do your job to a satisfactory level, this is a matter to raise with your manager. If your manager tells you that this is not unfair, it is your personal choice whether you accept this or don’t. If you don’t, either get help or get out.
5. We work for ourselves, not for other people. We don’t do it for the students, we do it because it makes us feel good. Or we do it because it keeps the wolf from the door. Any time you catch yourselves deifying the students, ask yourself what’s really going on here. The students are just human you know. If you care more about them than you do about yourself or your loved ones, something is very wrong.
6. Don’t seek to blame others; ask yourself what you could have done differently to contribute towards a better outcome.
7. If you are doing a great job, you don’t need to shout about it, people will notice. And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. When all else is said and done, you are the only person who has to feel good about what you do.
8. It’s not good to expect perfection. It’s bad. Instead, seek perfectibility. In other words, always be on the look out for ways of improving any given situation. More specifically, always be on the look out for ways that you can improve any given situation.
9. Recognise that self-interest is more frequently at the heart of the way you think. There’s nothing wrong with it unless you start disguising it with some bullshit veneer that you are really doing it all for the good of others.
10. When others disagree with you, understand that they are nearly always disagreeing with your ideas, not with your right to exist. They are not right; they are not wrong. They have a different opinion to yours and that’s all there is to it. You don’t need to change your opinion, but you’d be a fool not to at least give some consideration to what others might think. If you decide they’re wrong, you don’t need to shout it from the highest roof tops. You can just go about your life, secure in this knowledge. They will go about their lives secure in the knowledge that it is you who is wrong. And the world is a richer place for these differences of opinion.