‘It’s a great day to teach’

by Rebeca Bianca Durigo

A student comes from hundreds of kilometres away, on his holiday, just for his bi-weekly 90-minute English session. Another one finally breaks the surprisingly longstanding, not to mention downright bad, habit of relying solely on classroom input and starts doing plenty of extra work, thus making much more visible progress. Yet another continues to attend and fully participate in whatever is left of an in-company course as soon as she gets back from a five-month overseas assignment, despite the fact that this long-term absence makes it impossible for her to get the IH diploma she covets.

We may think that these situations, along with similar ones that will easily spring to the mind of teachers all over the world, must stem either from some kind of innate zeal for language learning in general or English learning in particular or from an extremely high though externally dictated motivation to improve their English (to pass an exam, conduct business, become adept at networking, negotiating, brainstorming – or thought showering, according to the newer, more politically correct name). If so, we’d, of course, be right… in part. Two of the aforementioned students have no knack for languages which means many activities don’t come easily to them at all – so I guess any degree of zest is out of the question. As for the extrinsic factor, it’s there all right – most learners we work with need English for at least one pragmatic reason, usually having to do with transactional communication. Still, the question remains: could nothing else be behind said extraordinary student gestures?

At the risk of stating something that is certainly not new, I’d say that this is where the affective factor comes in. The simple act of being imparted knowledge is not and, I dare say, will never be enough for learners. Especially in the absence of passion on their part, they need to see we, the teachers, are passionate about what we’re teaching or, better yet, about teaching itself as well as feeling our support and encouragement throughout a process that can be quite unnerving for some. And genuine support and encouragement is obviously dependent on our having a positive attitude towards them.  It would be neither the sort of naïve, delusional optimism which is blithely ignorant of the fact that for every four diligent students there is probably one who is not nor is it a hubristic attempt at a magical teaching remedy for all classroom ills i.e. whatever the students do, I should still commend them – that’ll surely work. It would be a matter of purposefully selective realism by taking note of both the strengths and the weaknesses of students, but also focusing on the former as well as on what we can do with respect to the latter.

Take, for instance, the case of an Upper Intermediate learner (who I guess we can call Maria, a typically Romanian name) that seems to have great linguistic instincts but at the same time an Achilles’ heel since the confidence given by this aptitude prevents her from investing time and effort in what she really needs to work on, e.g. very bad spelling or a better grasp of grammar structures that she has picked up watching movies. Now, if I were Maria, I’d definitely want a teacher who, while appreciative of my talent, doesn’t easily grow tired of helping me see the need to work on spelling and grammar until (s)he finds the one that finally triggers a response. I’d want my trainer to think ‘In what other tactful ways can I help my student with remarkable potential improve this and that?’ and act accordingly, rather than ‘If only my student did that/listened more/tried harder…’. I remember this is what my secondary school physics teacher did. He tried virtually everything to assist me with the principles of electricity – examples, questions and visuals; what eventually worked was reenacting and exposing some of the MacGyver TV series’ physics myths!

I think this type of positive attitude, reflected in bona fide appreciation and concrete action points is actually one of the unique qualities that IH teachers everywhere can boast. It’s also one that I’m seeking to develop more fully and translate into everyday classroom practice. What has worked so far?[1] Well…

  • writing personalised messages of praise next to test scores, with one or two suggestions attached. This has also proved a less overt teaching opportunity, a valuable one nonetheless: such a message helped a few learners finally remember that the preposition which complements “congratulations” is “on”
  • bringing students into the limelight by asking them to shed light on the topics they’re experts on, ergo much more knowledgeable than I’ll ever be, like audit benchmarking and oil drilling techniques. It goes without saying that acknowledging such know-how reduces the weaker learners’ anxiety over not faring nearly as well when it comes to English
  • encouraging students to write for pleasure in English by having a pen pal (usually me). Such correspondence, however brief the messages, has helped me to gain an insight into specific problem areas that aren’t easy to spot when working with a large number of students simultaneously and then to deal with them at the appropriate time – an interesting example of this is the curiously common tendency to translate mother tongue idioms word-for-word into English ones
  • learning to be less bothered by, and consequently draw less attention to, stuff that I have no control over (the late acquisition of the third person singular ‘s’, for instance, which used to drive me crazy)
  • inviting students to be ‘teachers’ during revision sessions, an experience that they find challenging but also enjoy tremendously.  I usually take pictures of their board work and give learners their teaching souvenirs at the end of the course
  • having short but regular ‘problem sessions’ in the students’ native language, allowing a time and place for them to ask questions about lessons in L1 and thus minimising potential frustrations over its usually restricted use in class
  • last but not least, being more tolerant of students’ idiosyncrasies when they occasionally manifest themselves, just as I’m sure they are of mine.

Granted, there is the risk of all this care given to the affective factor being perceived as a sign of weakness or somehow associated with over-leniency, which is of course to be avoided. Most teachers would agree, however, that a positive attitude is a definite strength. After all, it takes great strength to always look for even the smallest reason for praise, to deliver constructive feedback and refrain from irrelevant criticism, to motivate by every means necessary, and to constantly strive to build – never demolish.

So, more often than not, the right thing to do in the classroom is, apparently, the kind thing, which may also prove the very thing that makes students travel a long way only for our class and finally start doing much needed extra work or say, ‘So what if I don’t get a diploma? I still can’t miss my English class. It’s a great day to learn’.

Author’s Bio: Rebeca joined IH Bucharest in January 2011, after an intense period of collaborative meaning-based translation. She strongly believes learning should be enjoyable and strives to create and look for materials that students find compelling. She has recently put together a compilation of video materials and presented a Jane Sherman-based workshop on activities to use them with. Outside of teaching, Rebeca is still besotted with translation and writing, as well as Victorian fiction, historiography, big dogs, and volunteer work.
[1] I have my IHC tutor, IH mentor and Guy Cook’s solid advocacy of Translation inLanguage Teaching (Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 131) to thank for some of the following ideas.