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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

July 16, 2009

My students' English skills- it's not up to me

*I have edited the title since the original seemed just a little too...acerbic, especially when my blog is being hosted on a website where it might give off an unwelcome image

OK. Before you declare me negligent in my duties, unfit to be entrusted with the nation's youth, or lacking the basic sensibilities expected of a teacher, after reading this blog entry title, hear me out.

Maybe it's the hammer-like humidity of the summer, when the promise that sparkled at the beginning of the academic year has dissipated into the routine, even the banal, by the close of the semester. Maybe it's the fact that I've been suffering from a badly herniated disc and resultant sciatica which has, as of this blog entry, reduced me to a hospital bed with minimal
movement. Maybe it's the jaded culmination of twenty plus years of teaching swelling into cynicism- but many would also call it honesty.

OK. I know some teachers, especially private teachers of children who have developed and mastered their craft who feel honest-to-goodness joy at the growth and success of their young learners. More power to them. I can understand their enthusiasm. The glow on a child's face when you and they both know that a new skill has been mastered, can be heart tugging. It's a little like that moment when your child first gets control of their bike and you feel the tears well up. I'm not immune to, or unaware of, these Kodak moments.

But it's hard to feel that way at a university. First, you have a few hundred students, changing each year- maybe even each semester. It's hard to establish a personal rapport to the extent that you develop some emotional attachment. The students also tend to be more jaded and cynical too. This might be based on age, previous educational experiences, or the large classrooms (those who teach advanced tutorials and/or seminars or act as thesis advisers may
well feel differently). English too may be a required class when their academic interests are really focused elsewhere such that English becomes a class to merely get through. Regardless, personal attachment is more fleeting at the university level.

There's another factor too- one that reflects a personal pedagogical maxim. It's not up to me if the students don't become skilled at English or not. It's up to them. At this age more autonomy and self-motivation should be expected and if the student doesn't hear the clarion call of commitment towards English, then so be it. That's their choice. It's a little like being a counselor. If the counselee shows no interest in improving their own condition there is little or nothing you can do to help. And you can't let other people's priorities consume you as a professional.

Now don't even think for a second that this means I don't care about the quality of my classes, of giving my students the best lessons possible within the structure provided. Every class is well-thought out, meticulously prepared, with all pedagogy carefully groomed for maximum educational impact. I make a big effort in my classes both on the motivational/keep interest axis and the transferable skills/educational content axis. I find it anathema as a teacher to throw out some textbook assignment and have students work away while I skulk at the front of the class, looking at my watch and trying to will the minute hand to lunch time, when I will take a three hour off-campus lunch because I don't have any class after lunch. Not even
close. I am, as the sports cliche goes, giving it 110%. After a class or activity that didn't go well, I am like the hockey player who, after having given up the puck and heading to the bench will bang my stick against the boards and sit with my head down, determined not to make the same mistake again.

Nor, despite the title of this blog entry, does it mean that if and when students come to me for help or advice because they really want to take a step forward in their English abilities that I will be indifferent or standoffish. Far from it. I will feel pleased that they are making a choice or commitment and will do my best to offer advice and help but no, I don't feel excitement at being a part of their 'English adventure'. If they want to take a step forward I will be there for support but, again, I really don't care whether they make that choice in the first place or carry it out because that is ultimately up to them.

Yes, when a student comes to me after taking an advanced test, license or other qualification in English, or uses English to have a positive, mind-expanding experience out there in the world, again I can feel happiness for the success- but it is muted. It is not joy. It is not like the piano teacher who tutors a special talent and becomes so engrossed in the prodigy's successes or failures that they effectively become emotional extensions of their pupils- the kind where Sensei's tears of joy or sorrow are regularly shed.

At a university it is almost impossible to get that emotionally committed or involved with individuals (in fact, in some cases this could actually be dangerous). Here, professionalism usually manifested in creating pedagogically-sound classes, giving learners the best possible basis for, to use a sports cliche yet again, students to take the ball and run with it themselves. I can help set a foundation, but whether they use that foundation to drive down the field for a touchdown, is something I remain, for the most part, detached from.

I bet I'm far from being the only one.

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