teaching professional people english
A long time ago (when I had a child in nappies – that long ago) a student came to class and announced that this was his last session because he had a new job. When I asked what had prompted his sudden departure he grinned broadly and said ‘it’s your fault!’. Six weeks earlier we had done a pairwork exercise comparing the merits of large, versus small companies. According to him this had inspired some serious reflection, resulting in a sideways career move. I do hope it was a success.
I hadn’t thought about this for years, but lately life has been wierd. Stuff that was supposed to happen didn’t, places I was supposed to be going this summer I’m not, and to top it all I’ve had two car accidents in seven days. A week or two ago by the time this goes to press. (Yes, I am OK. No, it wasn’t my fault.) It would seem that being hit from behind by a speeding lunatic is quite a tonic. Go figure. Anyway – the influence thing…
Influence is part of the teaching gig. You can’t get away from it. You may never influence anyone by what you say, but the way you are will definitely have an effect. Negative, if nothing else. At this stage in the academic year it’s natural to take stock, so see if any of this rings true for you …
Yes, I have been working with young adults. Males, mostly. The tone in my classrooms has improved markedly over the course of the term. Many types of extreme behaviour and language have disappeared, or been drastically reduced. Some of that is due to it not receiving any validation or reaction, and some of the improvement has come from students benefiting from opportunities to interact and think differently.
A lot of the aggravation people bring into the classroom is carry-over from school. For whatever reason, many men – not necessarily the younger ones – have not had the impression that their efforts (real or feigned) have been valued, or earned them respect. I have had the satisfaction this year of seeing the fear in a student’s eye the first time he handed in written work change to studied indifference. Yes, his written English was pretty poor, but when he wasn’t ridiculed or sneered at, he went home and worked on it. And yes, his attitude to me came along leaps and bounds too.
You haven’t lived as a teacher until you’ve announced the content of the end-of-term exam, and seen your class throw a paddy. A ‘dummy spit’ as they say in Australia. ‘We’ll all get zero!’ ‘it’s just an excuse for the school to make us come back in the summer!’ Yeah, right. But then you’ve not lived either if you haven’t run into them in the corridoor after the exam to have them smile at you and say, sheepishly, that they think it went okay. Respect says to people ‘you are up to it. Whether you think so or not. You are up to it because I say you are.’ Because I say so? Sure. I’m the authority on my subject, and I say that in my professional opinion you can do this. And then you prove me right. In spite of yourself.
With business students in one-on-one classes material is selected according to the student’s interests. I like to find articles and videos which relate to peoples’ work. Often I have found myself bringing technology or working methods to their attention which they claim were new, and which they have sometimes gone on to introduce at work. Job seekers have also gone away with new approaches and ideas as well as new skills. People underestimate themselves, and for some reason, a foreign language class is the perfect arena for some re-evaluation of self-image.
The self-image thing brings me to the limits of my influence. With some people, English lessons are the perfect place to grow in the area of self-perception, and for others, they are an opportunity to reinforce what they already think. Their primary motivation has a role to play here, as a student who chose to come will tend to be be open to ideas. The student who has to be in class to get the diploma is another matter. I am thinking of definite examples – try this one:
There is something vaguely disturbing about watching a man of forty-five categorise himself as too old to learn anything in English. To be fair, the job he was training to do doesn’t necessarily require it, but … too old at forty-five? Say you’re dumb, say you’re not interested, but please don’t start hammering down the lid of your coffin just yet!
Sometimes we do need to understand the limits of our influence, and respectfully ‘back off’.
Influence carries responsibility
Obvious? I think so. However, I’m not claiming to have any answers about how we should deal with that aspect of it. What I can do is suggest some ressources if you’re interested. First up a video. Persist. It is completely relevant to the question of influence, and how we handle it.
Next, some reading. Click here for a brilliant article from ‘The Art of Non-Conformity’