Individual egos, crazy for love
These days I have been counselling teachers who are struggling with their classes. Students come to me and reel off a list of complaints about teachers: the class is boring, we only ever use the book, the teacher doesn’t explain things to us. I speak to the teacher: some students have been to see me. They say that they are unhappy because X, Y and Z. Can you talk to them? The teacher feels attacked: they rarely use the book; they try to get students to find the answers to their own questions; the accusation that they are boring the students hits hard.
I am really just going through the motions. I think I know what the problem really is, but in my office I am not really allowed to speak my mind. Luckily, I am not currently in my office.
The real problem, thinketh I, is that the teacher doesn’t really care for the students. GASP! How can it be? Yay! ELT, like pretty much any other set up where people sell their time and expertise, also alienates its workers. The teacher is alienated from the students in their classroom. The teacher regards their job as being to provide learning opportunities for the students and considers that it is the students’ job to either take up these opportunities or leave them to one side. The option that the students choose is of no real interest to the teacher.
Students, of course, pick up on this. They see a teacher who is just going through the motions. They feel a teacher who doesn’t really get them as the wonderful individuals that they know they are. They don’t want to learn; they want to want to learn. Actually, they probably don’t even want that. The other unspoken truth in ELT is that most students don’t give a shit about learning English. You’d never pick this up from our literature. The picture that gets painted there suggests that students want to learn English and it is just a matter of finding the right things for them to do to help them. Certainly, in the classrooms that I have been in during the last 20 years, the number of students who had any active interest in the language does not get out of double figures. Fairly low double figures.
So now we have a teacher who doesn’t really give a shit about the students in a classroom where the students don’t really give a shit about the subject. Goodness me! How profane this blog is becoming…ever since I read an article that suggested that you shouldn’t modify your writing to get more readers…Don’t Be Frightened To Be Who You Are (Albert Einstein).
Is this a classic Mexican standoff? Who will shoot first? Who can possibly win? What is the way out? Hell, I don’t know! But I know how I appear to manage to avoid ever being in this situation. Here are some of my truths:
1. I don’t think you have to love the students. Students can be very frustrating. Not to say annoying, irritating, downright unpleasant and an outright pain in the arse.
2. I do think that you need to care about how you come across. Good teaching, it seems to me, is effective self-promotion. If we revert back to Aristotelian rhetoric, this is essentially what is meant by ethos: to teach (to speak, to persuade), you need to establish your credentials from the outset. You need to create an argument that students really need to know what you are going to teach them and, luckily for them, there is nobody who can explain it to them better than you can. I have been known to pretty much lay this argument before the students as it stands. I will sell my co-teachers, colleagues and professional peers into indentured servitude if it means that I have a greater chance of persuading the students that they should listen to me.
3. Now that students are listening to you, I think that it is important that you listen to them. Not in some all things bright and beautiful manner that says that we are all god’s chillun and all deserving of respect. But in a manner that allows you to pander to their egos and feel appreciated. Once their guard is down, they are ripe for manipulation. Everyone wants to be heard; everyone wants to be validated; everyone thinks that they know what they’re talking about; everyone wants people to laugh at their jokes. When you disagree with a student, do so in a way that allows them to show off how they are right and you are wrong. I think students like teachers who allow them to be “themselves” (whatever that means). Once they like you (or at least don’t feel threatened by you), I don’t think it matters what you do with them in the class…as long as you do it in the language they are supposed to be learning.
4. I think humour is key to being a good teacher. Although now that I have typed that out, I don’t know if I think it any more. Damn! I do think that humour is a uniquely valuable weapon in the teacher’s arsenal. And don’t get hung up on that metaphor – I do think that the metaphors of warfare are appropriate for teaching and learning. We are in a battle for supremacy – we need to be the authoritative source; we strive to control the battle. If we have people laughing, we have people who are engaged. Laughter is not enough, of course, but it is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
5. Perceived passion is also key. There are those who need to convince themselves that they are passionate about teaching. Really? What does that even mean? It’s just one of those bland operational descriptors that is supposed to signify I am a beautiful bright philanthropist. Take away the money and see how long the passion lasts. When some people fake passion for pecuniary benefits, it is also known as prostitution. BUT, I venture to guess that the best prostitutes are the ones who can convince their clients that the passion is real. So while I can opine (anonymously) before my peers that I have spent most of my time in ELT wishing that I could get out of ELT, one of the catchphrases that my students hear with some frequency is, “AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO FINDS THIS FASSSSSSSSCINATING?!?!?!?!?!” This line is usually delivered with the same kind of madly-focussed intensity that one finds in cokeheads. And, on reflection, as I am saying it, even I genuinely believe it. So I can be FASSSSSSSSSCINATED by the fact that a preposition is so called because it is positioned prior to a noun. I can be FASSSSSSSSSCINATED by the fact that schwa has a name that comes from the Hebrew/Arabic (depending on my audience) for “little”. I can be FASSSSSSSSSCINATED by the way that the definite article can radically change the meaning of a sentence. Or the etymology of a word. Or what a clause is.
6. Whoever controls the narrative controls the world. Yo! In a classroom, bucketloads of things are happening (NB the efforts to restrain the language). Even in the dullest P-P-P classroom, there are as many different understandings of what is happening as there are people within the classroom. Whoever manages to impose their narrative upon the collective memory is the winner. YEAH! PSYCHOLOGY, BITCHES! Whatever am I on about? Well, we all know that history is written by the winners…we do all know this, don’t we? Similarly, the teacher who successfully wrests control away from the students (and everyone else) and determines What Was Done Today In Class has a better chance of being seen as a good teacher than the teacher who just assumes that everyone will agree with their understanding. You have to be active about this. I frequently end the lesson by flicking back through the many, many, many IWB screens that “we” (see what I did there?) have written and provide a summary that brushes away all the rough cuttings and paints over the untidy seams. I control the history by providing students with a coherent narrative that leads us from the beginning through the middle and reaches the end. And because I am good at this, I manipulate the students to join me in this narrative-building. I start a sentence and pause to allow them to finish it for me: “And here, we were talking about Ra, the Sun God, because…”. By cajoling them into participation, I am making them complicit in my efforts to assert the dominance of my narrative. HA! HA! HA! HA! Today the classroom, tomorrow the world!
7. Don’t miss the opportunity to do something unique. When we started using IWBs at my place of work, I took time out to sit and watch YouTube videos about the damn things. I needed to find out how best to exploit them to make me look superior (note: not just to make me look good but to make me look better). And the best thing that I found was the fact that I could turn all my boardwork into PDF documents and email them out to the students. Why was this good? Because nobody else was doing it. I’m not an utter bastard and I shared this with my colleagues. But for a long, long time, I remained the only person who did this. At first, I was a sucker and I had to remember to do this in each and every class. It was a pain in the butt having to write out student email addresses and then remember to edit them as students changed class. So, like needed to be made simpler. These days, I edit the IWB screens before PDFising them. This helps me with goal #6. And I tell students that if they want me to send them the notes from today’s class, they need to send me an email asking for them. Now I just hit “reply” and attach. Typically, about a sixth of the students do this. That tells me a lot. But importantly, five sixths know that they should have (I make sure that they know this) and that the fact that they chose not to do this reflects badly upon them, but not at all badly upon me. I don’t rage and rail against them – I respect their right to not give a shit. But I make it clear that they have to be prepared to accept the consequences (and the responsibility for their consequences) of their apathy.
8. Understand that it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. And that’s what gets results. Language learning happens. Most frequently in spite of, and not because of, language teaching. Like our medical colleagues, we should be guided by the axiomatic primum non nocere: first, do no harm. The goal of all language teachers should be to provide an environment from which our students emerge unscathed. They should leave our classrooms not hating the language we have taught them. Everything that we do in our classrooms should be geared towards this end. We need to look at our individual practices and ask ourselves, could this in any way be causing students to feel badly about studying this language? And when the answer is “Sheeyut! I don’t know!” we need to ask the students how they feel. Activities that cause the students to feel negatively are in urgent need of a) being dropped b) being given a hard, hard sell to make students feel that although they are not fun, they are worth the pain. If doctors can convince us that some medicines are worth the discomfort, or personal trainers can convince us to suffer huge discomfort, then teachers can convince students that two hours spent agonising over a script can make you glow. In a good way.
9. Look. There’s no easy way to say this…to be a good teacher, you have to have a large body of knowledge upon which you can fall back. It’s no good having done a CELTA twenty years ago or having grudgingly eked out a diploma. Twenty years I have been doing this and I am still spending my hard-earned money on buying books about teaching and languages. I spend most of my hard-earned time (does that make any sense???) thinking about teaching, talking about teaching, reading about teaching or writing about teaching. Everything factual I read (well…nearly everything) I try to relate it to my life and a sizeable portion of my life is my job. Damnit. So I read books about psychology and ask myself what they have to help me with teaching. I watch TED videos about how psychopaths can be trained to overcome their brain defects and ask myself what this has to help me with teaching. I read about neuroscience and ask myself what this have to help me with teaching. I am not a sainted educator. I am someone who is looking for intellectually stimulating ways of staying interested in what I have to do to earn my bread and butter.
There is no #10. My time is up and I have to row the boat back to the shore. In brief, teachers of the world, if you want to avoid your students complaining in uselessly broad invective about your lessons, make them think you care; make them think you da shizzle; make them think there ain’t nobody quite like you. Look for as many weapons as you can to wrest control of the history-making and leave them laughing.
Ain’t no thing.