Tuesday, November 1, 2011
All Students are not the Same
By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
After about a million years teaching adults, I have gone over to the dark side. In September, I started a new job as the English as an Additional Language Immersion instructor at a private British school in Belgium. This means that now I spend my days with students who are 11 to 16 years old. What’s the big deal? Teaching English is teaching English is teaching English, right? At least I had thought so, since so many of the evening adjunct instructors in my college in the USA had been public school teachers by day. I was about to find out how wrong I had been.
Thirteen is not the New Thirty!
Teaching children is not the same as teaching adults. For starters, kids cry all the time. Just last week, a boy cried because I gave him a (much deserved) 20 minute detention. Another boy cried because I took away his cell phone in the class. And another boy cried because he got in a dispute with another student and he felt I wasn’t listening to his side of the story.
At first, I took each incident of bawling seriously. After all, if an adult cried in my class (on the rare time it happened in my 16 years of teaching) it was a big deal. But, kids, especially pre-teens (are they called “tweens” now?) and teenagers are hormone-filled, emotional messes much of the time, and after a bit of sobbing, everything returns to normal remarkably quickly.
Pick up your Pen. Open your Books.
Another big difference I have noticed is that children need to be told to do everything. Nothing is common sense to them. For instance, I read announcements to my class every morning. I have to stop after each announcement and remind them that if they want to join the world drumming group, they should make a note in their planner so that they remember when and where to go. Adults, for the most part, already know this. I never had to configure a rewards system to get my adult students to remember to bring their dictionaries to class every day. In fact, when I taught adults, I just assumed that if they didn’t, for instance, bring a pencil, they would figure something out. They usually knew how to organize their papers (perhaps by tossing them in the trash) without me sitting them down with a hole-punch. Well, surprise, surprise, this kind of knowledge isn’t innate.
Could I do it?
However, I think the biggest difference I have seen between young learners and older learners is the resilience my students display on a daily basis. I am not suggesting that adults don’t have the ability to deal with a demanding linguistic situation, but I am constantly amazed by these kids in a way I have never been by my adults. Can you imagine being moved from your home without any control over where you are going or why? Can you imagine, then, being plopped down in a job in your new country not speaking a word of the language and being expected not only to function, but to succeed at your work? Remember, you don’t know anyone else and no one speaks your native language. Good luck! One of my most delightful students, a boy from Indonesia, is in this very situation, except instead of work, he is expected to thrive in a competitive academic setting. And, in spite of the tremendous pressure of this situation, he manages to smile and laugh and make friends. His mainstream teachers seem to love him and he is doing well in the classes he is taking.
Often, because it is “just school” we may underestimate the stresses faced by these students; however, in spite of a little crying from time to time, they handle pressure with grace and good humor that would send many adults spiraling toward therapy. I am constantly amazed by these kids, especially when they remember to bring their dictionaries!