I’m delighted that Sue Lyon-Jones (@esolcourses) has agreed to write a guest blog for me. The following piece is a really wonderful description of how someone who understands what learners really need can turn unteachable students into people who enjoy learning and benefit from it.
Teaching the unteachable
I stumbled into teaching completely by accident, around fifteen years ago or so.
My son was about to start school, and I’d decided that I would take a gamble and have a stab at becoming a full-time writer, instead of a part-time hobbyist.
I’d had some very modest success at writing for theatre and television, and with a sitcom in development, I’d foolishly assumed that within a short space of time people would begin knocking on my door making me offers that I couldn’t refuse.
Pretty soon people did start knocking on my door, though sadly they were only market researchers and Jehovah’s Witnesses – so in the interim, I’d started hunting around for a job to plug the gap between becoming a writing sensation and Desperate Scousewife.
Liverpool wasn’t exactly a great place to be if you were hunting around for a job in the 1990s and pickings were very thin on the ground, but eventually a classified ad in the evening paper caught my eye.
A local training outfit were looking for someone to help teach word-processing and basic skills to teens on a Youth Training Scheme.
Although I didn’t have any formal teaching qualifications back in those days, I had a HNC in Business Studies that just about qualified me to stand in front of a classroom by the skin of my teeth, so I decided that I’d give it a go.
I had a telephone interview with the learning manager which seemed to go very well, but he called me back later with the news that someone with a PGCE had come along and they had offered him the job.
I thought that would be the end of it, but he rang me again the following Monday.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to eat humble pie,” he said. “The teacher we took on quit the job in tears at the end of the first day. I don’t suppose I could persuade you to give it a go, by any chance?”
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I said yes.
The learning manager had described the trainees I’d be working with over the phone as being a “bit of a handful”, which turned out to be a major understatement…
The majority of my students were kids who had either been excluded from school because of disruptive behaviour, or who had dropped out of the school system of their own volition and spent several years truanting before landing in my class.
To put it bluntly, they were kids that the education system had written off as being unteachable for some reason or other.
I doubt that any of them really wanted to be there, if the truth be told. They were only there because they had been forced to sign up for some sort of training scheme to qualify for unemployment benefit, and my course was the short straw they had drawn.
I could see that I had my work cut out, and then some…
My brief was to teach them to read and write, do simple sums, and grasp the basics of health and safety, so that they could be sent out into the workplace without posing a danger to themselves or other people.
With the benefit of hindsight, the fact that I had never undergone any kind of formal teacher training probably worked in my favour. I think that if I’d approached the job from a conventional angle and tried to assume a position of authority, they would have shut down completely and I’d have never got anywhere with them.
What I did instead was to sit down and talk to them, and ask them questions about themselves and the kind of things that they were interested in.
I suspect that for some of them, this was the first time that a teacher had taken a genuine interest in their personal opinions and they were so gob-smacked by this turn of events that the majority of them opened up and began to communicate.
We continued this dialogue for the first couple of weeks, during which time I learnt the following:
- underneath all the bravado, bluster and teenage posturing they were basically good kids, really
- some of them were actually quite bright, but had had their confidence knocked out of them by lousy teachers and other adults who had repeatedly told them they were stupid
- very few of them had positive role models to look up to
- most of them had no aspirations to speak of and their future plans hadn’t been mapped out any further than spending the next year or two hanging round the streets
- many of them had serious issues going on in their personal lives of some sort or other that they were struggling to deal with
Once we’d established that I was a very different proposition to the teachers they’d had before and I’d gained their trust, I set about tackling the stuff that was on the syllabus and we began to work through it.
If an untrained observer had walked into my classroom back in those days, they probably wouldn’t have noticed much explicit learning going on at all. Most of it was extremely well hidden within the general banter going on between us and the various activities we were doing in class that I’d devised to keep them busy and stop them going off the rails.
We studied maths by playing logic games and Fantasy Football, and practised budgeting by comparing the prices of clothes and CDs in different stores to see how much money could be saved by shopping around.
We learnt English by picking at bits of various texts that I’d knocked up on a geriatric version of MS Word, which were peppered with grammar and spelling howlers.
We learnt that if there is an accident in the workplace, then the number to dial for help if you live in the UK is 999, and not 911…
If the students stayed on track and we got through the material we needed to cover before the bell went, then we would end the lesson by swapping jokes and stories with each other.
Luckily, I was left pretty much to my own devices and I had nobody breathing down my neck telling me what to do, as my approach to teaching was rather unconventional to say the least, and I suspect it probably would have raised an eyebrow or two in some quarters!
Although I did put a fair bit of time and effort into planning my lessons, I don’t remember ever putting anything much down on paper in the way of a lesson plan that couldn’t be fitted on the back of a beer mat.
Which was just as well, as that was often the way that things turned out…
The same goes for reflection and evaluation. Things I tried which didn’t work got junked, and the things that did work got filed away inside my head somewhere, in case they needed to be pulled out and used another day.
The students seemed to enjoy my lessons and behaved themselves quite well on the whole (though they did have their moments!) and the attendance and achievement figures for my class were well above average.
After I’d been there a couple of months or so, the learning manager stopped me in the corridor to congratulate me on my classroom management skills.
“I don’t know what you’ve done to your students, but you seem to have put the fear of God into them,” he said. “They must be terrified of you, because they don’t give you anything near the amount of trouble they dish out to everyone else…”
(Translation: they haven’t tried to burn down your classroom yet)
I found myself both astonished and amused by this, in roughly equal measures.
I’m barely five foot tall in my stocking feet and the idea that I could somehow manage to instil terror into a bunch of truculent rebels without a cause who towered over me struck me as being pretty comical.
I couldn’t see myself getting anywhere trying to browbeat them, even if I’d wanted to…
I replied that to the best of my knowledge, I hadn’t done anything other than what I was being paid to do, i.e. teach them.
The students came and went and by hook or by crook, I managed to coax most of them up to the standard where they left clutching a certificate of achievement in their grubby mitts… as did the other dedicated and committed teachers I worked with back in those days.
In other words, they weren’t unteachable at all if you were prepared to put the required effort in.
Granted, there were a few that fell by the wayside and dropped out, but there were also a couple of very notable successes as well.
I remember one student in particular who went from not seeing the point of education at all when he joined my class to itching to head off and study for GCSEs and beyond by the time the course was over.
It was the most rewarding job I’d done up to that point by a mile, and I continued chugging along quite happily until the company director decided that he wanted to make my post full-time and permanent. That wouldn’t have worked for me, so I said my goodbyes and headed off for pastures new.
So, what does this all have to do with ELT?
Well, firstly… thinking back on it, it strikes me that what I was doing all those years ago was not a million miles removed from Dogme, really.
I also think that although the CELTA made me a better teacher and gave me more strings to my bow, the time I spent with those students probably taught me as much, if not more about what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom as the formal training I was to undergo later.
I’d like to finish off by sharing a few things I learnt about teaching from those students.
Although I’m sure that there is nothing earth-shatteringly new to report here and these things will have all been said by others many times before, I think they are important and worth repeating, nevertheless.
- There is no such thing as a “one size fits all” lesson. Students are individuals and need to be treated as such.
- Find out what your students’ interests are and what motivates them, and work those things into your lessons.
- Listen to your students and be sensitive to their needs.
- Create a positive classroom atmosphere and make opportunities for fun – students who are having fun rarely (if ever) misbehave.
- Praise your students sincerely and often for good work done.
- Don’t spoon-feed your students – they need to be challenged and encouraged to think for themselves.
- Be a mentor to your students; nurture their hopes and dreams and encourage them to aim high – if you have low expectations of your students, then they will live down to them.
And finally (and perhaps most importantly)
- There is no such thing as an unteachable student. All students have potential – the key to unlocking it is making a connection with them and finding out what makes them tick.
Sue is a freelance ESL & IT consultant, & runs the free online English site http://www.esolcourses.com.
Banksy photo credit – http://www.flickr.com/photos/cdevers/4602001717/in/set-72157623923780977