By Tory Thorkelson
Early on in my teaching career, I recall a colleague storming into my noisy middle school EFL classroom in Japan and yelling at my co-teacher because our students were happily speaking to each other in broken English while playing Grammar Fish.
Once the tirade was over, and my colleague had left, we tried to ask the students to quiet down a bit but both of us were having such a hard time keeping our faces straight that the whole class soon erupted in laughter.
This is one of my more pleasant memories of teaching middle school English in Japan and reminds me of why I am increasingly stepping back and letting my students do things for themselves rather than trying to be in control of every second of the class as some of my colleagues are known to do. For this reason, I would like to explain why I am becoming more of a LAZ(Z)Y teacher and how it affects my classes.
When I worked in Tourism, there was one very simple rule…leave your troubles outside work/at the door and focus on the visitor. As a Professor, I try not to bring my problems and opinions into the classroom. This does not mean that I do not tell students when their language and behavior might get them into trouble with people from another culture (e.g. I hate the term Foreigner.
It has zero positive connotations and serves to distance people from other cultures from one another.). However, I try to put myself into the minds of my students and understand where they are coming from before I judge their ideas and opinions at face value. That also makes it easier to explain why what they are doing or saying is wrong and hopefully helps them change it for the better.
I read a survey a few years ago that claimed that teachers and other educators should be “friendly but not a friend”. This was the most important quality according to those surveyed; even more important than being knowledgeable and other qualities. That has stuck with me to this day, as I see far too many colleagues who are either trying to be close friends with every student or trying very hard to distance themselves from their students as much as possible. Neither of these approaches works very well.
To take it one step further, I would couple that with Adam Grant’s ideas about givers, takers and matchers. I am very much a matcher these days meaning I will help students as much as they help themselves. They have my email, SNS ID and know my class schedule. If they need help, all they have to do is ask or knock on my door (where I post my schedule every term). If they do not, then they are on their own. That is what being an adult all is about.
Zealous and sometimes Zany
I put a lot of time into lesson creation and updating my materials. A class and its curriculum are never done in my opinion. It is ever changing and ever evolving and I am always trying out new material to see if I can make my classes better. Some work, some do not but that is the process of making better classes and materials.
I also tend to tease my students. I make jokes and use humour to get the point across in a gentler way than confronting them might do. It does not work in every class and with every group of students, but it works with most students most of the time and that is what counts for me.
I recently characterized myself as an M&M when talking to someone about my character. I think this is perfect analogy for my character as a teacher and a person. I come across as tough at first to try to get classes on track and in focus but – as the term progresses – I ‘melt’ and get less strict. This allows students to take control of their learning more.
It does not work in every case (I do have the occasional class that goes off the rails) but in most cases students rise to the challenge and go further with their learning than I ever expected them to.
In the end, your attitude and expectations shape the class experience for yourself and your students. No class is ‘unteachable’ if you are willing to experiment and give the students the freedom to take control of their learning and their classes.
There are downsides to this approach, but the payoffs for you and your students far outweigh them in my opinion.