When the teacher doesn’t like you

IMG_3799My son was wandering around with this book the other day. He’s 7, so he’s about the same age I was when it was given to me. I’ve told him the story before of how I got it, and his eyes went round as saucers. Even though I tried to tell a simplified, matter-of-fact version, he got quite agitated and upset. I tried to reassure him – but I guess it upset and agitated ME at that age, so maybe that’s just normal.

I had just started the first year of what they called ‘junior school’ (the British equivalent I think is Year 3, or Year 2 in Australia). I was 7, by the very skin of my teeth, the youngest in the yea130Xr. I was also hugely excited. I had a canvas satchel of my very own, an extensive collection of pencils in various stages of sharpness, a yellow eraser in the shape of a die, and a pen whose top you could twist to tell various times tables. I also had a red Silvine exercise book, ruled with pale blue lines, with conversion charts on the back and a rhyme to help you remember days of the month (30 days hath September…). I was super-keen and totally ready to go. I was a 7-year-old kid, with bunches and sensible shoes, and the usual interests and woes.

Then I started in Mrs B’s class. She was a sixty-something, sturdy, grandma-ish old lady, with white permed hair and spectacles. And actually she WAS the grandma of a girl in my class (yes, conflict of interest). This girl, Mrs B’s grand-daughter, was all Alice bands and long blonde hair, Mary Jane shoes and the sharpest pencils you ever saw. I can’t remember anything else about her – I think she was nice enough to talk to though.

The perfect grand-daughter and I sat across the aisle from one another. On the first day we had to draw margins in our brand new exercise books – something I had never done before. I kind of stuck my fingers a bit over the edge of the ruler, so my first ever margin came out like this:


The perfect grand-daughter’s margin was…perfect. It was held up for approbation. Mine was held up for the kids to laugh at. And they did laugh, uncomfortably, probably glad not to be on the receiving end and hastily rubbing out mistakes with their die erasers.

After that it was lots of little things. Never getting picked but always getting picked on, every a wobbly line, every wrong answer. Never getting praised or encouraged but watching another person (guess who) get picked over and over as the best example, the group leader, the answerer of questions. Every single day feeling stupid and vaguely anxious about what I might do wrong this time.

I wasn’t a troublemaker – far from it. I have some ideas but I can’t know for sure why she should dislike me so much. However, her dislike was real and palpable. Other students knew about it and felt sorry for me. I remember this as a really unhappy time, though I never told anyone about it. Maybe I didn’t think anything could be done. But this is the incident that stays most in my mind:

294bfbd8974aeb1f9ed993c9e2a4f996I had a little flask in my bag for my over-diluted orange juice. It was something like the picture on the left, but mine was an ugly off-green thing, possibly with some Sesame Street scene stuck to the front. The flask had a screw-on white plastic cap, and a white plastic cup that fitted over that as a lid. The cap wasn’t screwing on properly. I’d noticed it earlier and done my best to screw it on tightly. Obviously I hadn’t done it well enough.

My flask was in my school bag, and everyone’s school bag was at the front of the classroom, all in a heap, ready for home-time. The teacher started to hand the bags out – and it became clear that there was a leakage somewhere. There was little puddle, slowly spreading down the uneven classroom floor to the back of the room. Some bags had got wet.

The teacher was furious. She rifled through the bags till she found the guilty party.


I was terrified. The other kids knew it was mine of course and were turning to me with wide eyes, waiting to see what would happen.


I was so scared of her that I actually had an out of the body experience – that’s how I remember it. A little girl with a bunches walking slowly to the front, everyone staring. You could have heard a pin drop.


clashofthetitans-medusaShe actually spun me round to face the class, holding the dripping bag aloft like Perseus with the head of Medusa.

Back in my body again, I just covered my face with my hands. I couldn’t bear everyone looking at me. She tried to prise my hands off; I wouldn’t. Then the bell rang for the end of the day. Students came up and took their bags – eyes covered, I felt them moving around me, trying not to touch me. When they were all gone, she made me get paper towels and try to blot up the mess on the floor. Then I took my guilty bag and terrible self and fled.

I don’t know what would have happened if she had stayed as my teacher for much longer – but miraculously, when the next term started Mrs B wasn’t there, and neither was her perfect grand-daughter. In her place came a young woman with long brown hair, a shapeless hippy dress and a guitar. I just thought she was wonderful. She was so kind, so interested, so fun – I’d never had a teacher like that before. I felt like a dark cloud had lifted and I was back to being a normal kid again.

We all did a project on something or other that term – something that wasn’t about just neat margins and correct addition. Mine was on wild animals. I remember telling her how funny it was that a mandril was not only an animal but also a kind of ship’s captain, and her trying to break it to me that I was getting my mandrils and my admirals mixed up. Anyway, I got a prize for that project. It was the Ladybird Seaside Notebook and in the back it had this message in green felt-tip pen:


So the book that my little 7-year-old is wandering around with means a lot to me. It represents how I learned about the importance of kindness, patience, interest and fairness in a teacher.

Look. I don’t expect teachers to feel the same about every student. It’s inevitable that as human beings we have (sometimes instinctive) likes and dislikes for particular people – but as professionals, how we feel and what we present is different. We cannot play favourites and we must not use the inherent power imbalance in the teacher-student equation to intimidate, demean or self-aggrandise. It’s not crazy to say that anyone in a ‘caring’ profession, and that includes doctors, nurses, childcare workers and aged care professionals, needs to fundamentally like people and believe they are worth it. Anyone who doesn’t or who is picking and choosing who is worthy of help or not, is doing a disservice to themselves and to the people they are supposed to be helping. There are other jobs out there you know.

But maybe I just feel strongly about this because of my experience. What do you think? *Is* teaching a caring profession? Have you had any experiences that can shed more light on the issue of teacher-student relationships?

How to make your students cry (Part 3)

Reading the signs

Don’t worry, this post marks the end of Blubfest 2014. But one of the best things about embarking on this little blog series has been hearing other people’s stories. While I still cringe at night thinking about some of the things that have happened, I can rest a little easier knowing that other people are doing the same thing 🙂

The lovely Anne Hendler (#makingkidscrysince2002), reckons she’s the Wicked Witch of the West for all the times she makes her students cry: “No, you can’t change your seat. Yes, you have to do your homework. No, you can’t go to the bathroom every five minutes. If you do that again, I will call your mother . . . ” But she added: “To be fair, they sometimes make me cry, too.” Ain’t it the truth. [You can follow Anne on Twitter @AnneHendler, and she also writes an excellent blog – reflective, honest and thought-provovoking.]

Anna Loseva wrote: “In the recent 2 years I’ve made 2 adult students cry in class. In both cases no extra discussion material was necessary, just my impertinence and directness in asking questions about holidays and weekends, and my thick skin. Was it terrible? It was.” [Anna’s Twitter handle is @AnnLoseva, and she blogs at http://annloseva.wordpress.com – there are some real gems here, expected and unexpected, so do have a wander through.]

And Laura Phelps (@pterolaur) wrote: “I’ve had grown men weeping in class. I once had to stop a physical fight. I remember one particular group of 16-18 year olds – mostly unaccompanied minors – I had for a year, I asked them to prepare three-minute presentations on anything they wanted and loads of them went really personal and ended up in tears. And I count myself lucky for the hundreds of stupid comments I made that ought to have ended in tears and somehow didn’t.” [Laura is a writer and teacher, and her very funny and always interesting blog is here.]

What struck me about these stories though was that in most cases teachers are just pootling along doing the sorts of things that English teachers do, when BAM! Drama strikes. So is there a way to avoid this?

Scene 1:

Class of young adults in London in the 90s. In an effort to shoehorn in some contemporary cultural content, and as a “treat” for the students, I had prepared a listening lesson on Creep by Radiohead (I said 90s already, right?) Not wanting to get too personal, I deliberately stayed away from discussing “relationships”, and focused just on who was singing/about what/if they liked it, and some vocab follow up work. However, playing the song through for the first time I realised that one of my favourite students, a beautiful, smiley Italian girl, wasn’t actually just incredibly focused as she bent over her paper, hand over her eyes. In fact, her shoulders were shaking alarmingly. Yep, she was crying her eyes out.

Emergency response:

When the song finished I quickly grouped everyone to check their task, and unobtrusively channelled her outside. In the corridor, she just leaned back against the wall and put her hand over her eyes. I rubbed her arm in feeble British fashion. I asked “Are you OK?” (more Feeble Britishness). She nodded. I asked “Do you want to tell me about it?” She shook her head. I asked, “Do you want to take a break?” Shake. I asked “Shall we just stop – we can do something else?” Shake. “OK, we’ll just finish this off as quickly as we can and then we’ll go onto something else. OK?” Nod. “If you ever want to talk to me about this, you know you can OK?” Nod. Eye-wiping.

I never learned what the reason was for her unhappiness that day. She was her usual self the next day, and while I tried to follow it up with her, I obviously wasn’t the person she wanted to talk to about it.

Could I have avoided this?

I don’t think so. It was just bad timing – wrong song, wrong day, wrong person. You never know on what particular ordinary day someone’s heart may be breaking.

Scene 2: 

Full-time CELTA, Monday Week 2. I am the trainer. In a four-week course, it was the first and possibly only session explicitly and exclusively on teaching listening skills. After a demo lesson we get into the nitty gritty of the staging and aims, and I utter the magic words “blah blah blah blah activate schemata”. The trainees look at me like if it was the middle ages I’d be in the stocks and they would be pelting me with rotten fruit. I open my mouth again and a lovely, older lady just says, “Stop! I can’t – ” and – tears. She is overwhelmed. [There is nodding and muttering]. They have all worked too hard over the weekend [more nodding and muttering]. There’s too much new information, there’s too much jargon [pitchforks waving]. It’s too hard to prepare lessons and write assignments and take in sessions. And so on.

Emergency response:

It’s a fair cop, guv. I stopped the session and just took the time to hear them, sympathise, get the venting done and finally talk through some strategies.

Could I have avoided this?

Yes. Though probably not by much. CELTA is a great course, but it can be a bugger of a course. Listen to mumble mumble, copy someone else’s notes, write generic assignment and go home with nice shiny certificate – no. You have to be firing on all cylinders in all different aspects, all the time. And echoing Anne Hendler here, that goes for trainers too – we’ve all had a few watery-eyed days. It is stressful. But I reckon these tears are OK. It’s good to get it out and good on you lovely older lady for saying what everyone was feeling and putting it out there. Too often on intensive courses emotions can go the other way and turn into resentment and antagonism, so I vote lacrimonious not acrimonious (I really, really wanted to say that). However, in later courses I tried harder not to overload trainees with information and metalanguage – to slow down, signpost and support – and I was much more aware of the existence of those bubbling emotions and more ready to address them before they got to the point of bubbling over.


So all in all, over the 3 posts in this series – this is what I’ve learned on how to (not) make your students cry:

  • Sure, engage learners by personalising content – but be wary of making it too personal or things can really escalate quickly (see Part 1). If you given a reasonable amount of thought to how students might respond to your material, and adjusted accordingly – well, at least you don’t have to feel too guilty when a student starts crying anyway.
  • It’s important to talk about genuinely meaningful topics, however PARSNIP-y* – (see Part 2) . . . but sometimes people just want to go to their English class, learn a few expressions and go home. Nothing wrong with that.**
  • In that couple of minutes’ space you have for chit-chat at the start of a lesson, it is absolutely worth taking the time to look each student in the eye and just try to get a feel for what signals they are putting out that day. It’s easy to blaze in all bells and whistles, busy being ‘dynamic’, caught up in what we want/need to do in class. But sometimes I’m sure some invisible flags are waving, and if we pay a bit more attention we just might be able to read the signs.



*PARSNIP-avoidance is a well-known formula in the course book/teaching materials world. It’s an acronym meaning don’t talk about Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms (e.g. racism, sexism), or Pork. Lots of people have written knowledgeably and critically about this, including Scott Thornbury, Steve Brown, and Luke Meddings – in fact Luke went on to write a whole book (with Lindsay Clandfield) on subverting this sanitised  approach.

** Anna Loseva has written about this dilemma here.

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?