Aug 7, 2008

Favorites and the Opposite Thereof

They are not all equally loved, supported, or even admired.

I'm a teacher, and as a teacher, I have favorite students. I had a hard time admitting this to myself for some time. For a while, I held onto the untenable ideal that a teacher should support and nurture students equally, like a parent or Jesus or something. You know- all that Good Shepherd type bullshit. But, this model and ideal, admirable as it appears, does not accurately describe reality.

There are some students who just get it, and I find them absolute joys to teach. I don't mean that they necessarily have high levels of English. What I mean is that they learn well. They use the English they have to communicate effectively, eagerly make new language items their own, and consciously find connections and links in the language. These are the students who can guess words from context, who use expressive (if inaccurate) language to communicate their ideas, and who are capable of quickly making the language part of themselves. I have several students like this, and I really appreciate them.

There are others, though.

I like to think of myself as a pretty effective teacher and communicator, and I think that I've cracked open a few hard nuts in my time. However, there are a few (I want to emphasize few) students whom I've had that I grudgingly must describe as "really fucking thick." A common thread, I've noticed, is an infuriating lack of confidence, a lack of creativity, and an ingrained belief that English is "difficult." Many of these students seem absolutely petrified of being wrong, petrified of sticking their foot into something so "difficult." They sometimes freeze to the point where they will stare at their text book, not talking to me, not talking to their classmates, and stay silent, afraid of mistakes they have not yet made.

I've told several students that mistakes are a natural part of language learning. Also, I believe that language is communication, not grammar or vocabulary. The primary purpose of English is to communicate your ideas. I tell them to concern themselves with communication in the broad sense first, and to make refinements later. I've gotten some promising results with this sort of explanation, but on a few, it just doesn't take.

By de-emphasizing the bugbears of grammatical perfection and rote vocabulary memorizatiion, I've found that I can boost confidence in people, but only to a point. I don't have some sort of magical Tony Robbins Success Ray that I can zap my students with and turn them into world-beating go-getters. I can only encourage them to the best of my abilities. And damn, does it suck when the best of your abilities isn't good enough. To try, and try, and try with a completely unconfident student is infuriating.

To be honest, I sometimes feel slightly cruel. Think of a P.E. teacher, looking at a track, admiring the fast students and thinking of those in last place as lagging losers. That P.E. teacher would be a real bastard, right? I've wondered if I'm any different, if I'm a sort of intellectual bastard for having my preferences. But I doubt if anyone has a big enough heart to escape that feeling, to be free of favoritism for the strong and lack thereof for the weak. I seriously doubt that there is a teacher out there who really does love, support, and admire all their students equally and benevolently.

Not only cruel, though, but I also feel slightly ineffective. Obviously, they were able to learn some English- enough to be able to have a basic conversation with a native speaker. I've wondered why, with these unconfident, uncreative students, I'm not able to duplicate or emulate the conditions in which they learned the basics of English. I strongly suspect that at lower levels they used Japanese as a crutch (which I don't think is necessarily a bad thing) and cannot adapt when that crutch is removed.

While I do want to help these few (yes, I want to reemphasize few- most of my students are just fine) students, my general sense of sympathy can only extend so far. I've found myself indulging in contempt for some of them, wondering how on earth they could exhibit such a sheer lack of balls and imagination.

I cannot pick and choose whom I teach, though. These people come to the school, pay for lessons, and I'm professionally obligated to somehow meet their needs. While my favorite students (the smart ones) and the average ones are no problem, my only choice is to reconcile myself to the fact that the "really fucking thick" ones are part of my routine. They exist, they come to class, and I need to try something with them.


Sydney said...

I used to wonder the same thing in language classes in college about my classmates. I was far more forgiving about Italian than French, because I felt like I had an advantage in Italian in already speaking French. Oh crap, I can't remember the word for "face." Well, it's "visage" in French, and "fa├žade" is like the face of a building. So maybe "visaggio" or "faccia"? (The answer is "faccia." On the test I chose "visaggio" as my guess, of course, because I will always choose wrong when given two options.)

But in French, I had no sympathy. So many English words are loan words. If you guess and make an "English" word sound French (as it probably was to begin with), you're right like 60% of the time. And you can guess correctly another 10% of the time by using a Latin root. How do I say "teeth?" I'm pretty sure that's not a French loan word. Okay, a tooth doctor is a dentist, and toothpaste used to be called "dentifrice," so I'm going to guess it's something to do with "dent." (And in fact, "dent" is French for "tooth"!)

But the worst was a Slovenian (Slovakian? I can't remember) girl in France in the Foreign Kid Classes. With the other foreign students outside of class, she did okay. She could express herself tolerably well and was willing to work out little snags of understanding. But the second she got into class (or, no doubt, had to communicate with an actual French person), she became paralyzed with shame. She almost couldn't give her little prepared speech in the "Conversation" class (it was more like "Public Speaking" but whatever) even though she'd practiced at home. And when the critique came, she started crying preemptively. Crying! In class! At 21! But the instructors were very nice. They said that her problem is that French is a monotone language and she's speaking it too musically, which was a very nice way of saying "cut it out with the word-level stresses; they don't exist!". In contrast, the next speaker was Fei, an ebullient Chinese girl of probably 18 or so, who laughed at her first critique, "But not that monotone!" and was completely unfazed by the whole experience.

So here is what I'm wondering: do you think some of your thicker students are unduly bothered by your native fluency? If you were Japanese-American and native in both, would they have the same problem? What if you were a non-native speaker? Are they imaginative in other areas? Is there any way to evaluate that? In my placement test in France, they gave us a scenario and asked us to write a little one-page story about it. I got level 2 scores on grammar and spelling, level 3-4 on vocabulary, and level 4 on imagination. (Evidently no one else used metaphor or simile, which strikes me as weird because it's such a great way to stretch your limited vocabulary. Don't know how to say "she had dark green eyes?" How about "she had green eyes like the jungle at night." So very very lame, but it seems impressive because you're supposed to be focused on grammar, not on creative description.) And I got placed in level 4, which was perfect because you can always get a second-language spell check for your computer and learn to be more diligent about checking for gender/number agreement between verbs and nouns.

Kori the tomorrow lady said...

I think part of it, Sydney, is that students here are often really really tired. Most students tend to think I'm a wimp if I express the desire to consistently get more than 7 hours of sleep a night. A whole lot of people function on 5 hours a night.

For me, personally, if I was functioning on even half as much sleep deprivation as the average worker/student, I would also want to just find the right answers easily and get through the material.

It's also a culture of not wanting to stand out. Many students have told me about how they work hard to succeed but not too hard because if you are at the top of your class, everyone tries to kill you.

Chickens kill both the weak and the talented.

but anyways, that's why I love working with 3 year olds.