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?