Timing is everything
Absenteeism. Tardiness. Poor quality work. Just some of the challenges that greet our team members every day. How do you solve a problem like Maria? Not by cutting up the curtains and staging a puppet show. No. I think Herr von Trapp may have been closer to the truth than the failed nun.
This year we are rushing into the academic year trumpeting the need for high standards and high expectations. Tellingly, we -and I’m being regal here- are meeting resistance from the troops. Let me explain: for years we have been ground down by students bumping into class late. It’s not a big deal – most students chuckle when their wayward peer blunders into the classroom, causing the teacher to stop what she’s doing and wait until the miscreant has taken a seat. It’s not a problem for the students so before long, it ceases being a problem for the teacher. It’s something we work around. We have perennial discussions about the need for regulation: don’t let them in if they’re any later than ten minutes…but some of them have children…what about if the bus is late…why should we allow them to come ten minutes late…we need to be consistent. I know that other places waste the same words on the same discussion. In the end, we restate the policy that has remained in place for the last fourteen years, but the very act of discussing it will lead to some seasoned old lags complaining that we are always changing it and that they can’t be expected to keep abreast of what is going on.
I’m at an age now where I think about what I would expect if I was spending thousands of pounds on a course to improve my goddam English – a language that I care not a jot for (I’m putting myself in character here, people). I’m vain enough to go to a gym and I can think about what it must be like to be able to afford a personal trainer. So I let my imagination go wild: Trainer A is a really nice guy. I book sessions of an hour and turn up typically ten minutes late. He sets me some warm-up exercises to do for the first twenty minutes of my time. He always understands my lateness. Look at me – I clearly enjoy the occasional pack of muffins; why would I turn up on time? Clearly physical exercise and me were never really meant for each other. Now we begin the hard stuff. As I begin to break a sweat, Trainer A says to me, “Hey…Secret, if it’s too heavy, put it back down. You don’t want to be straining too hard; you’ll look like a right mess with that sweat staining your t-shirt. Just do what you can…well, without pushing yourself.” My mind kicks in as I try to lift the heavy weight. Hey! You know, he’s right. I don’t think I’m going to be able to lift this any more. Aw crap! Let’s leave it for now. I put the weight down. “Phew! I’m pooped. Let’s do something else.” “Hey,” says A, “You’ve really pushed it today. Good for you. Let’s spend the next ten minutes cooling off.” I last a couple of weeks and then jack Trainer A in because he’s useless. I console myself with Oreos and cheese. Every ten minutes.
In swans Trainer B. A bursting waistline sends me scurrying once again for professional intervention. Trainer B rings me up ten minutes before the session: “Where are you?” she wonders, “I just went into the gym and thought I’d find you warming up. Is everything OK? Are you coming in today?” I get the message that B is expecting a little more of me than I was planning to give. The next session, I am in the gym twenty minutes before our session. By the time the session starts, I have broken a mild sweat, my heart is thumping and my face is glowing. Trainer B sets out her plan: fitness is about progressive overload, she tells me. Every time that I’m there, I need to be giving more than the previous time. I need to be lifting heavier weights or I need to be lifting the same heavy weight more times than I was lifting it in the last session. I think back to the previous session when I shook out eight trembling lifts. She wants me to go for nine this time. As she watches me like a hawk, she prods my elbows into the correct position, barks at me to keep my core tight, tells me to shift my feet, reminds me to squeeze my shoulders. When I get to eight lifts, she is reminding me that there’s still one more. As I push, my arms waver; they get half way there and begin to shake like a rope bridge over the Grand Canyon, she touches my elbows with her fingertips and somehow channels energy into my arms and now the weight goes up, up, up. Her fingertips stay in place and the arms slowly descend. “ONE MORE TIME!” she says. I think I am falling in love, but for now I say, “I can’t!” She tells me that it isn’t optional and up we go again. At the end of an hour, she tells me that I need to go and stretch. I’m wondering how I can get off the bloody bench. She’s great. Before long I am turning heads at the beach.
Alles klar? Trainer A is nice but useless. Actually, he’s not even nice. He’s lazy, unprofessional, unmotivated and unworthy of calling himself a personal trainer. He is utterly alienated from his profession and sees the clients as an interruption in his day. The message he gives is clear: “You are wasting my time and yours, but you pay me to be nice to you. You are unworthy of my expertise.” Trainer B, on the other hand, is shouting out, “I see you as a challenge and I am going to rise to it; your approach to health and fitness is destabilising my view that everyone can get fit and healthy and I am not going to allow you to do this. In order for me to carry on in my life, it is vital that I can get you performing at the right standard. I am going to tell you what those standards are and I am going to make sure that you understand that if you do not meet those standards, it is not because I am the one who is shirking.”
You really don’t need me to elaborate on the relevance of this to language teaching, do you? But you know I’m going to…we need to make it clear to students that lateness and absence is simply not an option. How late is late? Well, if the lesson begins at 10, any time after 10 is late. That’s not fascism, that’s simple logic. But they can come late if they’re there within the first ten minutes, right? Well, if you want to muddy the waters, yes. But you need to challenge them about it and tell them that it’s not good enough. Ten minutes late is ten minutes late. Or are you admitting that the first ten minutes of your lesson are basically taken up by arse-scratching?
Some teachers do not like this zero-tolerance approach. It’s been sniffily dismissed as ridiculous. The suggestion that one minute late is one minute too much has been met with snorts. Mon dieu! I think polyglottally, Have we internalised such low standards? When did that happen? Might this not be the reason why lateness is a perennial problem? Might we not be communicating the message that we understand why students might not want to be in a rush to attend our classes? Might we not be reaffirming their view that English is a necessary evil? Might we actually share their view of this noble endeavour? I think they’d be forgiven for thinking so.
But we’re infantilising the students by being so demanding has been another objection. Really? Is punctuality and respect for the group something that we expect only from infants? If that’s the case then I have got my child-rearing arse about head. I tended to be more tolerant of the Secret offspring when they were tiny tots and a lot more demanding once the years hit double figures.
I think that too much tosh about affective filters and too flowery an understanding of humanistic approaches is to blame for the current state of ELT. I also think that the way we employ people (fixed term contracts, low pay, high instability) means that teachers don’t always have an incentive to invest the energy in upholding and maintaining high standards. It’s a lot of extra work if you think that you are paid to come in, teach and get out. Added to that the misunderstanding that students need to be cosseted and indulged if they are to be open to learning or that we have to struggle to accommodate the desires of our chargelings and we have a recipe for dross.
Students are part of a community and, for all the talk of equality and shared responsibility, the truth of the matter is that the teacher is the only one who is paid to be there. The teacher is given the responsibility of ensuring that the community works well together and that the joint endeavours of the community are aimed at developing the linguistic proficiency of the members of the community. Part of this job, I argue, is making sure that standards are high which leads to expectations being high. The teachers job is to manage the learners and to help them manage their learning. We’re not managers, was the retort.
Well, what the **** are you then? I silently wondered.