How to make your students cry (Part 2)

IMG_1821Don’t mention the war?

In the first edition of Headway Advanced (OUP, 1989) there was a chapter called “War and Peace” (mostly war). In the teacher’s book, the authors say:

We have tried to adopt a liberal, objective attitude to the subject, and although it can fascinate, it can also repel, so you need to exercise a large amount of caution in the way you approach this unit.

Take a minute to think about that.

I’m not here to slag off Headway – I actually love that book, which is why I still cart it round from country to country with me. But while it may not have been immediately obvious in the Eurocentric teen-heyday of EFL, it’s obvious now that a coursebook can’t dictate the objectiveness of anyone’s experience, and that such material may be, for some people, pretty damn subjective indeed. To say: “although it can fascinate, it can also repel”, is to assume that the teachers and students using the book are outside the reality of war, that the worst that can happen is that their sensibilities may be offended. Of course this is not the worst that can happen. Of course some people in a class of adults will have experienced the violence and loss of war directly or indirectly. Of course none of us are “liberal, objective” observers, no matter how distant we may feel – we are all part of countries and cultures that have had a role to play somewhere along the line and, as individuals, we continue to make our choice – do or do not* – every day. None of us is getting away with this.

That’s not to say that I didn’t use the chapter – it really is fascinating and has some great content – but I was very selective and VERY cautious (and it didn’t surprise me to see that it had disappeared from future editions). Maybe I could have used the opportunity to be a subversive teacher, to combine politics and pedagogy to critically examine perspectives on war in our current climate . . . but if that thought had even occurred to me back then I dismissed it outright because I couldn’t take the risk of upsetting any more students with my bad material choices. Maybe I just really wanted to avoid that and just teach English and not have to deal with any terribly un-British crying.

However, whether you use a Headway-style “objective” approach (Here are a number of words connected with defence . . . put them into chronological order) or adopt a blanket “don’t mention the war”** policy, the elephant is still in the room. Perhaps avoiding it prevents both teachers and students from learning from each other. Uncomfortable segue to . . .

In 2008, I was teaching on a TESOL course in Australia which almost entirely consisted of young South Korean females. The exception was a single much older Japanese lady, who unlike the others, had been a teacher for many years already. It would have been easy for her to feel alienated by the age of her classmates, by their inevitable use of Korean both in and out of class, by their lack of teaching experience – but no. She threw herself in 200%. She’d planned and saved for the course herself and she really wanted to make the most of it.

During the course, something of great significance happened in Australia: the Prime Minister made an official apology to the Stolen Generations of Indigeneous Australians. All classes were allowed to gather in the school’s reception area to watch this live. When we got back to class, my “So what did you think?” was met with an emphatic silence. It didn’t surprise me; they didn’t really know what it was about, and I could see some were itching to get back to their lesson plan, concerned about upcoming observations. But suddenly Akiko stood up and announced she wanted to say something.

I couldn’t really understand her at first. I could see she was upset, and my first thought was that something had happened between her and the other students that had upset her. In a way it had. In stumbling English, she said she wanted to do what she felt her government had not done properly, and apologise to the Koreans for their sufferings at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. She was crying.

I’m ashamed to say that up till that point, despite many years with Korean and Japanese students, I had never really considered their shared history or taken the trouble to learn about it. I don’t pretend to know much more today, but I have at least had my Eurocentric eyes opened – I’ve learned some things that I almost wish I hadn’t and I realise that even today the question of Korean-Japanese relations remains problematic. But at the time, even though I didn’t really understand how meaningful this was, I knew I was seeing something very personal, very vulnerable, very important. There have been tears in my classroom that I’m not proud of. But these ones, I was.


* Yes, that is a Yoda reference.

** A famous Fawlty Towers reference. If you watch the original clip, you may find the cringe-worthy offensiveness outweighs the comedy – I know I do. The series is a classic though and can, in its less offensive moments, be very funny. In any case, it’s been influential enough for phrases like this to pass into common usage.

How to make your students cry (Part 1)

MP900309634There’s something really horrible about seeing an adult cry in front of a room full of people. Students have cried three times in my classes. Two weren’t really my fault, but one most definitely was and can basically be summed up as My Worst Teaching Experience Ever. So let’s start with that one. Before I start, can I just say: this isn’t cathartic for me. I still feel just as crappy about it today.

Without boring you with all the background, I was a new and very young teacher (21), teaching advanced conversation to much older people who’d seen a lot more of life than I had. It was a long time ago and I can’t remember exact details, but my class on that day consisted of:

  • 1 African refugee, very well spoken and well educated (male) – henceforth X
  • 1 Serbian refugee, henceforth B, who had been in the resistance to Milošević and imprisoned for several years, forcibly separated from his wife and his teenage daughter (who nonetheless continued to act as a resistance radio operator). They never thought they would be reunited but miraculously all made it to England.
  • 1 Indian migrant, henceforth S, who had thrown family and tradition out of the window when she left her husband, and was now struggling to raise 2 children alone in London.

And me, a sheltered 21-year-old who felt threatened by high-level learners and had no idea how to teach ‘conversation’. I’d had a few typical coursebook topic conversations that felt like pulling teeth, and I got the idea that maybe ‘discussing an issue’ would break the deadlock (this was also how I had seen ‘talking’ modelled to me at school, and my teacher training hadn’t prepared me for anything different). So I went back to a ‘news discussion’ book that I had used when I was a teenager at school, and I chose a story that had resonated with me at the time, about a little boy who was kept in a hen coop until the age of 7 because his mother couldn’t admit to her community that she had borne a child out of wedlock (although this was disputed at trial).

Technically, at age 21, I understood about how this child’s bones had broken and re-fused in strange in ways, how he was unable to walk upright, how he had not been able to develop a human language. I understood something about the issues of societal and familial norms, community responsibility, language development, and attitudes to disability. But I didn’t truly feel the horror of it – not to the depth my older students surely felt it, or the way I feel it now, particularly as a mother of 2 little boys. I don’t have any excuse for thinking this was suitable teaching material. It obviously wasn’t.

The students were too horror-struck to say much. I pushed the ‘issues’ questions hoping to get more ‘conversation’, resulting in B saying that families need both a mother and a father (remember he had been separated from his family for many years) – resulting in S getting angry with him (remember she was trying her best to raise 2 children alone in a strange country). Resulting in shouting. Resulting in standing up and more shouting. Resulting in crying. Resulting in X standing up and getting involved. Resulting in more crying.

Man, that really escalated quickly. I felt like crying too. I have never felt so much out of my depth. B obviously didn’t want to argue with S – in fact, he was trying really hard to qualify what he had said – but unfortunately what he had said was exactly what she feared most and she was beyond calling back from being defensive and upset. I didn’t really know what to do, but I knew I was responsible, and I knew that the role of teacher still had some power, so I stood up, apologised to everyone for my fault in choosing such an inappropriate topic, reminded both B and S what a lovely relationship they had built up, emphasised that what had been said was not meant to offend, and closed the class. We were simply unable to continue at that point.

B and S left (maybe to have coffee, I don’t know – B was that sort of person, I don’t think he’d have let it go without fixing it as best he could). X stayed behind to talk to me and said “What happened today – that’s not what I signed up for, that’s not why I come to class”. I know. I couldn’t know more. I apologised more and made various vows for future classes and he was nice about it but when I got out I knew I had to go straight to my DOS and prepare him for the worst. Amazingly, he was really supportive. He didn’t diminish what had happened but he encouraged me to focus on what I had learned from the experience, and for that I really owe him.

I was terrified coming to class the next day. We were all so polite with each other. Nothing ever came of it but after a few classes and a few social things it was obvious that  we were being extra polite and inclusive because our relationship had changed. Something got broken that day. We aren’t just what we do in class, and what we ‘make’ students do. The classroom dynamic, the rapport between teachers and students, and students and students, is a delicate ecosystem. Be aware of it. Nurture it. Protect it.

Have you ever made your students cry?