Siding with students

AJ commented on this post about siding with students, and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

I believe a teacher should be on the side of the students in the same way that a parent is on the side of his/her children, protecting them against the forces that would harm them, limit their liberty, their right or ability to enjoy their own learning, defend their right to choose and direct their own learning, to be the authors of their own lives, at least for the time they are with you; to allow them, encourage them, to pursue their own interests, combine their interests with their learning.

Most students, tho, won’t tell you what they are interested in, at least not right off the bat, particularly in a culture which values teacher/student status differences (a vertical society) and where silent acceptance is a sign of deference and politeness. So the teacher has a job to do: to find out what they interests are, their strengths, their talents. To do that takes time, and of course you need to develop a relationship with them. My colleague and I do this, partly because we are genuinely interested in our students (or most of them…), and partly in order to decide what kinds of materials (reading, listening materials, for instance) to provide (we still don’t have many reading materials on sports, travel, or fashion, 3 popular topics amonst our students).

A relationship is obviousy required. And a teacher needs to be on the students’ side in order to defend students against what some call “the institution”, perhaps the EFLer’s equivalent of “the Man”, the forces that would deny students their freedom, that would tell them what to do and how to do it, what to learn. The teacher needs to play this defensive role because these forces attack the first part of the equation, the need to allow students the freedom to pursue their likes and interests.

But here’s my question: what do you when students have been so brainwashed by the system that they themselves do not wish to claim their freedom? They may not want to tell you what their likes and dislikes are, and may consider questions about these to be an infringement on their privacy. They may not wish to be drawn into discussions of their likes and dislikes, of their preferences in learning. “Just teach me,” they might say, “and let me decide whether I like it or not. If I do, I’ll stay, if not, I’ll leave.” They just want to be told what to do, and hope that the teacher will make the process of taking the course as painless as possible. The teacher may wish to open the door to their cage, but they may not want to fly out. They may interfere with the teacher’s efforts in this regard, because they’ve been so brainwashed that they automatically subvert and sabotage whatever the teacher does, even if the teacher has their freedom and best interests at heart!

One could say it is a presumption on the teacher’s part to assume that students need freeing, or that the teacher’s vision of freedom is necessarily one that the students will like or identify with, or the one they should have.

It’s not easy to correct a friend’s English, because you’re their friend, not their teacher. Try correcting your spouse’s language (okay, once in a while, maybe, but on a regular basis?) Becoming the students’ pal, their chum, on their side against the big, bad authority figures, you limit your options; quite apart from the absolute certainty that some students will see your desire to be “on their side” as weakness, and exploit it.

It is just as undesirable as becoming their parent, a role that many young people will ascribe to the teacher anyway.

In terms of I’m OK, You’re OK, I (the teacher) don’t want to be locked into the role of either Parent (“Stop that! Do as you’re told”), nor Child (“Ooh! That’s a bad word! Want to know some more bad words?”).

Today, for instance: one girl in my class is a complete bubblehead: she attends irregularly, is often late, pops in and out of the room (this in itself is perfectly acceptable and common behaviour in the class she is in) to talk on her cell phone, never does much work, never pays attention when announcements are made, like requirements for passing the class, dates of important events, etc. She came in to class late today, sat down, and 1 minute later had disappeared into the ladies’. Coming out from there she spent 5 minutes talking on her cellphone in the corridor. I engaged her in conversation and asked her what she was going to do that day, what materials or activities she wanted to use in class. By this time her friends had arrived and so they had a pow-wow about it. I left them to it. 5 minutes or so later, I was asked to explain to them how to play a board game they had selected. I explained it and they seemed to understand. Next time I look over there, bubblehead is on her way out the door, clutching her cell phone. I move to head her off, but she dives into the ladies’ (again). Next time I notice her she’s in the corridor chatting with two friends. I steer them towards deciding what to do in that class. Video, they decide. OK, videos are over here… While I’m showing our video corner, bubblehead wanders off, but I stay with the remaining two. Later, I accost her in the corridor again (coming out of the …. ladies’). She’s working on an SRA reading card, she tells me, and indeed there’s a reading card on her table. I never actually see her working on it, tho. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing her working on anything… In 90 minutes, what has she accomplished? And have I truly assisted her, or connived in her (self-)sabotage? How would you respond?

Another example: a boy looks a little aimless. I try to engage him in conversation, ask him about himself. He doesn’t really answer, but produces a piece of paper and says this is what he did today. It’s a piece of handwritten English, with a title “My Grandfather”. “You did this today?” Yes. “What’s this red ink on it? Someone’s corrected it?” Yes. “Who? When?” Teacher. “Which teacher?” Don’t know. My sister is a university student in *** University. “Your sister. She corrected this?” Yes. “So you didn’t do it today, did you?” ….. No…

How would you respond?

To be truly on the student’s side means, to me, being prepared to do what it takes to help them to succeed, and win (whatever a “win” would mean for them). It means responding to them as an Adult, avoiding the traps of responding as either Parent or Child. I’m still figuring out what that would look like…

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