I’m looking at the goofy smirk of someone who’s delivered a burning comment, minimizing, derisive. Defiant whispers in my intimate classroom setting, being interrupted, receiving groupfuls of disgusted stares. Perhaps without realizing, my students can be decidedly unprofessional. Deers in headlights turn aggressive. “I don’t understand you” leads to uncomfortable feelings, and the instinct to deflect and lash out with a cutting remark.
I’m no stranger to the vulnerable insecurity that arises when your language is symbolically taken away. Suddenly confronted with the inner discord of translating a rainbow of thought into black-and-white, just to be understood. Not to mention that in France, classic pedagogy is infused with the idea that you can always do better, no matter how good you think you are. Liberté, Egalité, Critiquez. Make a mistake, and pay for it. The language classroom is no different.
Many of my students have lived the trauma of classroom humiliation at the hands of the all-powerful Teacher. Being shamed for the crime of being wrong, the hurt when classmates chimed in to further deride them. They’ve been trained not to ask questions, to expose a vulnerable moment. It’s easier to shut down. A common student response, be they 8, 18, 38, or even past retirement age.
Interactions with me can make ancient antagonistic feelings bubble up. I am seen as a critic, an insolent interloper, imposing my language–deemed simple, inferior, lacking nuance or artistic merit–onto my student. I become the symbol of their Old Rival.
English itself becomes a fetish object. Adored, yet feared. Necessary, yet despised. Simple, yet frustratingly irregular and nuanced. A language of countless verbs, a language of action. Not like French, a language of adjectives and lush description. English, a language that contains far more words than theirs, with double meanings and endless colloquialisms. Many don’t understand the true complexity of operating in a language where you cannot translate word-for-word.
In those moments of student frustration and corresponding contrarian response, I’m no longer speaking to an adult member of society, but to an insecure child, that lashes out with an antagonistic “I know what YOU are, but what am I?” This speaks to my inner child, who hates to be told what to do, is tired of people lording their authority to minimize and patronize me, to diminish my intellect, my language, my heritage.
No, I refuse. It does a disservice not only to myself, but to my student, if I am no longer present. My role is to facilitate, unblock, decode this system, to break it down into sensical, ordered, comfortably logical bits. Not to field proverbial spitballs. So I wait out the emotional hailstorm, extracting linguistic information.
Storm dies down. Move in, execute my grammar lesson, administer study tips and friendly goodbye’s. Deep breath.
If only they knew how often I must become the emotional bouncer, keeping out the riffraff.
Eyes closed, breathe deep
Ashamed confusion, deflect
Look askance instead.
Self-absolved, no duty to try
Intellectual curiosity is dead.
Autopilot, flapping jaw
Blabbing to a wall
Deaf ears, blind eyes
Why am I here at all?
Disinterest plus passivity
Birth of escape fantasy
Hubby at the wheel
Elope to the absurd
To where words pay for meals.
In class, one-to-one with a young woman. Her limp ponytail drags between her slumped shoulders. I’m patiently listening to her gulpy, whispered half-responses. Gently, I ask for a full sentence, and she’s staring down at the table, cold. Out of my peripheral vision, the television in the next room plays a special report: death rituals in some faraway country. The desiccated, hollow, toothy face of a man’s dead father comes up onscreen. My eyebrows twist in morbid fascination as he explains the bathing and offering of food and cigarettes to the mummified body of his father.
My attention whips back to my student, and I tune back in. It’s been almost a full minute of silence. I rephrase in favor of a black-or-white question. She continues staring down, frozen in time.
The full-length window facing the sidewalk buzzes with passersby. One figure looks in, then turns and stops. Staring at me through the window, vulgar, slack-jawed, grimy canvas vest, clutching a tattered shopping bag. I flush when my eyes meet his, and hurriedly tune back in to my student, who is just finishing her carefully composed response.
My eyes crinkle with a plaster-toothed, dry smile. “Great,” my voice creaks.
“Yeah, when I was in New York on business…”
“Those 2 weeks I was in the U.S…”
“The food is terrible… all those hamburgers and hot dogs…”
“American culture? What culture?”
“There’s not much history there, is there?”
“Ugh, that American accent… I can’t understand a thing!”
“The thing about Americans is…”
I mold my teeth back into a stiff-lip chiclet smile. Heh, heh. Very amusing. They look so comfortable, self-assuredly snickering at a caricature of a country they love to shit on.
I observe with fascination the smug joy in their eyes, the derisive wheezy laugh. All driven by a glaringly misguided, yet gloriously seductive need to be better than.
Why should I rain on their shit-parade? I wouldn’t dare spoil their moment of naive delight by questioning their pseudo-intellectual, stunningly brash hubris. There are indeed plenty of things to criticize, sure, but they’re pulling at low-hanging rotten fruit. The bland revelation is too simple, too deliciously satisfying to resist.
Is this how they go through life? Satisfied with a facile, self-serving version of reality, with no desire to learn more?
I’m not offended at their (perhaps unintentionally) injurious comments; that would be too easy. No, I’m learning. This is a pernicious trap of logic, a hasty generalization. Such exchanges remind me to work to avoid this pitfall myself.
“Mm-hmm. Whatever you say. On to page 2…”
No, no no…
My class was meant to start 2 minutes ago.
I’m upstairs, fumbling through my bag, ripping through the contents.
Where is it…
I’m aggressively breathing, forcing air through my constricting airway. I feel flushed, my heart is racing, and hot tears are starting to erupt.
I find my homeopathy tablets and shove some under my tongue. Breathe, take control.
I feel trapped. I’m deeply uncomfortable. I want 5 minutes to go outside and breathe. I want to walk and keep walking until I get home. I want to walk straight out of this reality, if it means I can get myself back. But for now, I have to swallow those needs and do my job. The only thing I can control right now is my breath.
I crunch through what’s left of the tablets, take a gulp of water, and paste on a smile. I descend to greet my student, who looks a bit annoyed at being kept waiting. I’m 5 minutes late.
A thickly sweet voice says, “Thanks for your patience. Shall we begin our class now?” A body goes into a classroom.
Me dissolves. Breath remains.
“I don’t get it.”
Hands up in the air, head shaking, breath hissing in exasperation, body leaning back as far as humanly possible from the table. Downturned haddock mouth, brow furrowed, head slouching into a temple massage, fingers tense and aggravated.
It never ceases to amaze me, that this behavior comes from grown-ass adults: parents, doctors, lawyers, accountants, managers, generally functioning members of society.
Sometimes, I stare blankly back in response. No follow-up question, no attempt at clarification. I see expectancy and hope looking back at me; these are eyes that just want the answer, dammit!
When I see my adult students react poorly to frustration, I think back to my childhood. When my father spoke to me in Spanish and I didn’t understand, or when I had a difficult homework assignment, he’d nod his head in exasperation and exclaim: “Aprende!” Learn!
If only those were the magic words. “I don’t get it,” and instantly, you’re exonerated from the responsibility of mental exertion.
In a perfect world, I just give the damn answer, and we can all move on!
In the world of language learning, that just doesn’t cut it.
The moments of frustration, mental blanks, forgetting what we’ve seen dozens of times before… Years of experience have taught me that that is where true language acquisition happens. Learning to navigate through those difficult moments, to roll with them, not allowing them to completely block us: these skills differentiate between those who will succeed, and those who will not.
Alleviating a short moment of frustration by giving the easy way out does a disservice to the student. They are freed from the obligation to try, and thereby cheated out of an opportunity to learn. I want to echo my dad’s simple, yet timeless nugget of truth: Aprende!
I’ve been working in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) here in France for just over a year now. Of course, every student is a unique person with specific needs to address, but it’s difficult not to recognize certain recurring learner trends. I made some observations about my adult Korean students in a previous post, and it’s high time for a post about my adult French students.
One thing that I’ve noticed about my students is that they can find the process to be extremely demoralizing and stressful. Making mistakes and/or looking “ridiculous” in front of other people seems to be a fate worse than death.
It feels like it goes beyond the very normal element of shyness and hesitance to make mistakes. In the past year of teaching English, I’ve never heard so many apologies for making errors. I’ve never heard so many curse words muttered out of frustration, either. When it comes to learning English, there doesn’t seem to be much room for patience and forgiving oneself for not getting it down perfectly.
Is it related to saving face? Or unwillingness to “dumb-down” and flatten what would be articulately expressed in their native language, to roughly translate their ideas into a foreign language?
The number of students, especially higher-level ones, that revert to using French is surprising. Oftentimes, rather than using English to convey their idea with the words they can, they’ll ask me for a translation from French. Fortunately for them, my French isn’t perfect, and there are plenty of words that I don’t know yet. Those tend to be precisely the kinds of words they’re searching for.
I also find it funny when they are dismayed at the irregularity of English rules; it is a decidedly hard language to master. But now I’ve spent a long time intensively studying French, memorizing the maddening irregular verbs and genders that don’t make logical sense, along with the hugely different ways of interpreting and expressing time. French is a beautiful, intricate language that is also difficult to master. “Hello? French isn’t exactly a cakewalk, people!” It’s not unfathomable to learn a language with very irregular rules. Why the dismay?
I get part of their frustration. The English language education system here wasn’t terribly focused on promoting speaking skills and real comprehension. Now, more and more people are trying to make up for lost time in learning English for their job, to improve future prospects, or to facilitate communication while traveling. And learning English later in life seems to be a common regret.
The recurring word here: criticism.
Sometimes I feel like I need to be part cheerleader for my students, to tell them that making mistakes is normal, that it’s okay not to master a new grammar point just a couple days after learning it.
Of course, as a teacher, it’s my job to understand their needs and respect certain limits; but at a certain moment in time, I like to encourage them to push those limits. Speaking in short phrases, using the same old tired vocabulary/phrases that are sure to be perfect: in the end, they’re crutches that won’t be useful in getting through the plateau. And to illustrate the importance of breaking these habits, I tell them all the time: “You’re not a robot, so don’t speak like one!” In the kindest way possible, of course. I wouldn’t like to be a slave driver of a teacher: from what I can tell, they’ve had enough of that already.
Encouraging them to remember that English can be a pleasure, and that with it they can connect with a wider community of people, seems to give incentive and boost their morale. And that’s what I’m there to do.