Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teaching Ghouls

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


There were spooky rubber spiders strewn across the walls, and eerie paper witches on little wooden broomsticks hanging from ceiling.  It was a pre-Halloween workshop for our English tutors and a scene fitting to the topic of discussion that evening, namely, An English Tutor’s Worst Nightmare: What It Would Be and How We Could Banish It.

The workshop began, and after only the slightest of promptings, the several tutors had pieced together a quite sad and scary picture.  The image centered on a tutee, and a sorry one indeed.  This student was fifteen minutes late to the tutoring appointment, distinctly rude when making the acquaintance of the tutor, sharply offensive in body odor, completely lacking in written work and other materials, and, during the tutoring session, generally unresponsive to the tutor’s advice as well as hyper-critical of the respective teacher’s instruction.

With this horrifying specter before us, we proceeded to the workshop’s corrective phase (or perhaps better the exorcistic phase) and began to brainstorm ideas on how to cope with such a situation effectively and professionally.  Composed of some bright heads, the group quickly generated a good little list of measures…

Reflecting on that workshop a day or two later, I started recalling the various obstructive and oppressive ghouls that we, ESL teachers, so often face in our working lives. Examples include:

  • The Fiend of Exhaustion (born of working harder at teaching than students are doing so at learning);
  • The Fiend of Inadequate Training (born of being assigned to teach courses that we haven’t been formally prepared to teach, and sometimes with little guidance and few materials);
  • The Fiend of Restriction (born of the inability to create curriculum or select textbooks);
  • The Fiend of Scattered Skill Levels (born of assignments requiring the teaching of large and multi-level classes);
  • The Fiend of Homelessness (born of teaching part-time in two or three schools and not feeling a sense of belonging to any one institution);
  • The Fiend of the Top Stair (born of an absence of prospects for advancement);
  • The Fiend of the Glazed Look (born of teaching too many students who are chronically tired or motivated solely by the necessity to satisfy educational wishes of their parents).

The principal fiend here, it occurred to me, however, must be The Archfiend of Zero Development (born of conscientious and laborious pedagogical effort which is not rewarded by signs of improvement, for instance progressive post-test, or post-course test, results at the end of a term).

This ghoul can threaten, and when it prevails, it prevails over precious life-hours of teachers and students alike.  Of course, such victory is rare or unheard of at the level of entire large classes, but at the levels of sub-groups of students and individual students it is, as most of us know, heard of.

Fear of this ghoul motivates me, for if I were truly to allow him the upper hand, I would feel as if I’d joined the miserable Sisyphus and his stone in the underworld.

To my mind, we owe it to ourselves and our students, our students and ourselves, to combat this ghoul with all our instructional, even tutorial, might.

At the risk of eliciting creepy talk, any thoughts, any teaching nightmares lately?


Comment from Bahare
November 7, 2011 at 1:42 am

As I teach in a small town in a third world country (Iran), every day I struggle with what you described as The Fiend of the Glazed Look (born of teaching too many students who are chronically tired or motivated solely by the necessity to satisfy educational wishes of their parents). we have classes full of young energetic teenage boys, they enjoy nothing but girls, soccer and computer games and they don’t need English for these!!!The course book subjects are very boring for them, you know the usual stuff traveling, health care… and their mothers expect them to speak like president Obama after finishing this course!!During the class they make million jokes and text each other about their girlfriends, I really like to use this subject to teach them sth but since we live in an Islamic country we can’t discuss girls,I really love my class but I’m running out of ideas for them and Their class is a nightmare!!!

Comment from Ela
November 8, 2011 at 8:04 am

Yours do sound like less-than-desirable teaching circumstances. I remember teaching a group of 12-year-olds who were “strongly encouraged” by their parents to take extra English classes in late afternoons. They were good kids, but simply felt tired at 6 p.m., which is when the class began. What usually energized them a bit and sparked some interest were tasks involving competition so I often resorted to such activities. Perhaps that would work for your students?

May the Fiend of the Glazed Look visit your class much less often… .

Comment from Christian Sennett
January 1, 2012 at 8:58 am

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