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.
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?”
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.