Overheard in the classroom

Enough!!

In my job I’m lucky enough to get to observe lots of teachers – mostly teachers doing their initial training but also sometimes more experienced teachers.  I really enjoy observing (and being observed, usually) and feel that many teachers spend lots of time helping their students share and learn (naturally), but not enough time in each other’s classrooms, sharing and learning things themselves!  But in all this observing I’ve been doing, I’ve begun to notice a few phrases which I hear surprisingly often and which are starting to irritate me.

Here they are…

1. “Have you finished?”

Er, shouldn’t you know that, teacher?  Where were you while we were doing that activity?

I don’t think most teachers who I’ve heard say this are even aware that they’ve said it.  It just seems to slip out, like the teacher is just thinking aloud, like a sort of hint that ‘we really should be moving on to feedback now’.  But when it’s clearly meant literally, I can’t stand it.  I can’t see any excuse for a teacher not knowing how his/her students are getting on with whatever activity they’re doing.

The solution?  Monitor!  Get involved (but not too much – they’re the ones meant to be improving their English, not you).  Set up something for the students to get on with, then move around the class or position yourself somewhere where you can see and hear them, noting any difficulties they’re having or opportunities to develop the language they’re using to do the task.  And set up activities in such a way that everybody will achieve some feeling of task success, not just the strongest/quickest students.

Which brings me to the next teacher quotation that gets on my nerves…

2. “Don’t worry if you haven’t finished.”

Whoa.  Where’s the fire?  I thought I came to this lesson to learn and practise English – not to be hurried along so you can get through all the activities you’ve planned.  And I’m sorry, but I do worry.  What, am I stupid or slow because the rest of the class is already finished?  Am I doing something wrong that they’re all doing right?  Was that task supposed to be easy?

OK, I can see the good intentions here – you feel like it’s time to get on to the next thing in the lesson, maybe some students have finished the current task, and you don’t want anyone to feel bad.  (The more cynical view of this, of course, would be that the teacher him/herself feels uncomfortable seeing several blank faces and frowns looking back at him/her after doing a particular task and wants to get past this ASAP.)  But if I were the student who was always cut off before I’d finished activities, I’d feel a bit put out that the teacher’s planned progression of tasks seemed more important than my actually completing them.

The solution?  Have something up your sleeve to deal with early finishers, so the slower ones don’t feel like they’re constantly tagging along, trying to keep up with the big kids.  This will get pretty demoralising after a while.  I mentioned a few tasks for early finishers here.

3. “Was that difficult?/Did you manage?”

Again, I think I can see the admirable sentiment behind these words – caring teacher, wants to help students cope with tough language.  Fair enough.  But all too often I’ve seen these words followed by a hurried change of task, again, presumably with kind intentions of distracting the students’ attention from their lack of success with a particular activity.  Unfortunately for the well-meaning teacher, such attempts are usually wildly transparent.

And anyway, I think what really irks me about this one is more the phrasing – all this focus on “managing” and things being “difficult”.  It’s like how call centre staff are trained to ask, when people pick up the phone, “is this a good time to talk?” rather than “is this a bad time?” (because otherwise you’re giving people a way out when really you want to keep them on the phone to buy whatever amazing product you’re selling); I feel as though asking students “was that difficult?” is just inviting them to dwell on what they can’t do, rather than what they can do.

So all in all, instead of ‘how kind of the teacher to not focus on our failure’, this ends up reading as ‘Oh. OK.  Nevermind, I guess I’ll never be sure what it was about because we’re going to do something else now.’  Yes, trying to understand language is sometimes (often?) hard, but surely the teacher is there to help the students deal with it?

The solution?  Well for starters, draw students’ attention to what they’ve done well, what they have understood.  And secondly, prepare before the lesson for the various things students might want (not only need) to understand/look at more closely, and how you’ll deal with them.  Be willing and prepared to spend more time on things, allowing students to work through something until they’ve thoroughly understood what’s going on.  Then get into practice tasks.  Why should all listening lessons, for example, have to include just two chances to listen, once for gist, and once more for greater detail?  That approach has its merits, but surely it’s OK sometimes to let students listen again, and yet again, if they want to, to really feel like they’ve understood what they heard?  And turn it into a dialogue between students and, where necessary, teacher, rather than effectively a comprehension test.  (Note: This reminds me of an interesting post I saw on Scott Thornbury’s blog a while ago that mentioned the possibility of allowing students to probe a text again and again until they’ve fully understood it.)

Whew.  Just had to get those off my chest.

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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

6 comments

  1. Great post and tips. However, as a state secondary education teacher, I think that these questions (especially the first one) are sometimes unavoidable. I work with large groups (over 30 students) and it is really hard to monitor them all, so asking if they've finished is the only way to roughly check how many of them are done. Anyway it's not just what you say, but how you do it and how your message is perceived. Whenever I ask question 1, I don't mean to urge them, just check how they're doing. Besides, I'm talking about compulsory education and teens, so you must deal with things other than tasks, that is, indiscipline, distractions, interruptions, different motivation degrees, etc, so you can't really stretch out allotted time ad infinitum. Anyway, I completely agree that everybody should be allowed to accomplish the task, not only the quickest.I also agree with your view on question 2: how can you really tell kids not to worry even if they haven't finished what you asked them to? Would we tell that to, let's say, a surgeon before stitching up a patient?And, for the last question, even if I think sending positive feedback is always better than focusing on the problems, I don't really think it's that bad; it sounds to me more like a teacher's filler.Your remark on how listening activities are normally organized is just sharp: I have never understood why recordings are to be played only two times.@pacogascon

  2. Hi Paco,All fair points. I should've specified the context in which I've heard these comments – typically in classrooms made up of adult students, rarely in groups bigger than 12. So I see less of an excuse for the teacher being distant/unsure of what every student's doing. Of course there are other factors to be considered when there are more/younger/undisciplined students in the classroom!It's also true, as you observed, that whatever teachers say, a major factor is how they say it. But that's precisely what bothered me about utterances like "don't worry if you haven't finished" – despite the teacher's well-meaning tone, I think many students would still worry!Anyway, thanks for the comments and glad you liked the post. :)Laura

  3. Hi Laura,I enjoyed reading this post. As someone who does a lot of observing myself, I really see where you're coming from.I have to say I am with you 100% on "Was that difficult?/Did you manage?". I simply cannot stand this question, or its shady relations "that was difficult, wasn't it?" or "I know it's difficult, but..". On a recent CELTA, I saw a trainee even apologise because of the opposite… it was too easy… for 3 of the 14 students in the room. My reasons for such a dislike are that either the teacher has badly misjudged what they're doing and is so undermining themselves by telling everyone or that they don't have the skills to work with the emerging situation. Now, on a CELTA, both could very easily be true; however, there is still no need to actually tell the class that! I agree with the strategies you outline and the need to sometimes make sure that *everything* is understood, particularly if the learners want this – we are, surely, helping them develop their skills after all. They can also write their own Qs for other learners and then swap papers and listen again, for the new information.And the fact that listening lessons actually involve as many as two opportunities to listen to the text is not something on initial teacher training courses we can take for granted, regardless of what's in the plan…Chris

  4. Very good. I understand the comments others have made, but I think you highlight the sentiments underlying the phrases very well, and I agree with you.

  5. Hi David, thanks for the comment! Re-reading this post, I wonder if sometimes I'm being too harsh. But I think it's important to be self-aware as a teacher, and to appreciate how students (might) perceive what you say to them even when you mean it in the best way.

  6. Pingback: IntrovELT: guided reading and writing | Lauraahaha

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