Sunday, January 25, 2009

3 Things I Learned From a Dreadful Teacher

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

My early excitement about learning English was extinguished in a flash. I was nine years old and eager to learn English, but my teacher was dreadfully uninspiring, bored with teaching, and oblivious to the effects of his sarcasm.

The French teacher described in David Sedaris’s “Me Talk Pretty One Day” is, I imagine, the female equivalent of my teacher.

After my first English class, I was convinced that:

  • I should be ashamed of every mistake I make. (Yes, my teacher would sigh and roll his eyes at our mistakes.)
  • My errors are funny to others, so it is better to be quiet than to make a fool of myself. (Yes, my teacher would comment sarcastically on pupils’ errors and the class would laugh.)
  • I have no talent for learning languages. (My teacher would explain grammatical structures and I wouldn’t be able to use many of them correctly the first time.)

Many language learners feel vulnerable or mentally limited when their communication skills, so essential to adult life, are reduced to simple sentences, single words, even gestures. I find that learners’ apprehension can be lowered if they are made to feel genuinely comfortable in the classroom, but also if they are informed about the ins and outs of the learning processes that they are experiencing.

In my classroom, I do three things to create an atmosphere conducive to learning:

  • Instill a sense of safety. I try to give my students senses of safety and confidence so that they feel free to experiment with language.
  • Turn errors into welcome learning opportunities. I try to get my students to view their errors and mistakes not as failures which should make them ashamed or which deserve ridicule, but as clues to their unique language abilities.
  • Instill a sense of progress and accomplishment. I encourage my students to be patient with their own learning processes. I create activities that will allow me to demonstrate to students that by the end of every class, they are capable of expressing themselves a little bit better, and that their efforts have paid off.

Luckily for David Sedaris, his French teacher’s comments–“Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section” and “You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain”–turned out to be motivating for him. Entertaining as it is, his story, as far as I know, presents a rare picture.


Comment from Maria Spelleri
January 25, 2009 at 11:38 am

Loved your blog post, Ela. We always read “Me Talk Pretty One Day” in my high intermediate EAP reading course. Students have a lot to share about what makes a teacher good or bad.

You know what I really love? When the students get so comfortable that, as a class, we CAN laugh at each other’s truly funny errors and no one feels bad. There is a lot of humor in learning a language, and it’s great when students loosen up to see the humor, laugh at themselves, and move on.

Thanks for a great read.

Comment from Ela Newman
January 26, 2009 at 5:19 pm


I’m glad you enjoyed my post. It’s great to know that “Me Talk Pretty One Day” is so popular in ESL courses. I use it in a writing class when we brainstorm ideas for our argumentative piece in which we defend or criticize the teaching methods that the French teacher seems to enjoy. I’m always curious to see what students’ ideas are. Will they find anything positive about her approach? Will they share similar stories? To my surprise, some do appreciate one or two things about her. They point out the outcome, saying that in a way, she was inspiring enough to stir some genuine motivation in at least one student.

As for humor in language learning, you are absolutely right. It is really something when students recognize and accept the fact that they are, in a way, playing with the language; they are experimenting. I also remind them that we make funny mistakes in our native lanuages. It’s all part of life.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Maria!


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