Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Feel the (English) Burn
By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
I am not particularly athletic, but in order to counter my Belgian chocolate and french fry addictions, I have found that I need to exercise a whole lot. So, I recently signed up for a ‘boot camp’ type of class with several other expat women here in Brussels. On the first day, the instructor, a mild looking guy named Dan, had us doing hundreds (oh, I wish I were exaggerating) of lunges and these jumping jack/squat combinations that left my legs trembling. It was brutal. The next day and for days afterwards, my legs were so sore that climbing the stairs had me making little gasping noises and getting off the sofa involved my husband’s help.
So, as you might imagine, when I woke up on the morning of the second of these torture sessions, I was filled with more than a little dread. This time Dan had us alternating sprints up and down a long, cruel hill with planks and other contortions designed to do something called ‘engage the core’. About 2/3 of the way into the lesson, when Dan shouted that we needed to race up and down this hill yet again, I wanted to cry. I felt like I couldn’t face that hill again. As I lined up with the other ladies, I felt tired and sore and a bit sick. When Dan shouted, “Go!” I just wanted to go home. But, I ran. We all did. And, when we got to the bottom of the hill and Dan cheerfully told us that we would have a moment to rest and then run it again, I rested and ran again.
How does Dan do it?
As I was laboring up the hill, I couldn’t help but wonder at the fact that this young, kind, friendly guy was getting a bunch of women to run up and down a hill as fast as we could again and again. It was painful and awful, but we were doing it. How? How was he managing to motivate us to do this? Well, obviously there was a huge amount of self-motivation at play. We paid for the class and we were all there to counteract our own personal Belgian chocolate and french fry addictions. But, there was more than that. Dan did a couple of essential things to get us running and doing all those difficult core exercises that I think all good teachers do to motivate their students.Transparency
First, Dan made sure we were all clear on WHY we were doing what we were doing. Sure, it might be obvious that we are running to improve our health, just as we give students grammar exercises to improve their English. However, I think I need to remember in class to make sure students understand the specific purpose behind the activities we do, from the warm ups, to the gap-fills to the review games. Knowing why they are doing something makes the students so much more enthusiastic about doing it.
Second, Dan cheered us on. When my arms were trembling and hurting from holding a plank, Dan was right there telling me to hold on for a few more seconds. He kept encouraging us and challenging us to do our best. Even though I wasn’t able to hold certain positions as long as the other, more advanced ‘boot campers’, Dan still commented on my effort. The key, in my mind, was that Dan remembers all of our names and when he encourages us and compliments us, he does it by name. I found myself running faster down the hill when he shouted, “Come on, Tamara!” This is a good skill for all of us teachers to master. Learning the students names as soon as humanly possible (I shoot for remembering them by day 3) is key to making students feel welcome and motivated. I will never again underestimate the value of a simple “Good job!” to a student who is working as hard as he/she can. When Dan says it to me, I feel great!
Finally, Dan seems to get something that I still struggle with as a teacher. He understands that his job is to push his students to do difficult and painful things for their benefit in the end. He never apologizes for making us run the hill again and again. He never relents when we whine and mutter discontentedly. He just makes us run. Being an English teacher means encouraging students to do things that are uncomfortable and difficult. Learning a language is hard; there is simply no two ways about it. I would be doing my students no favors if I have the kind of class where they just hang out and ‘make conversation’. Though they might enjoy this, they won’t grow and develop as English users. I need to remember to push my students, even when they look mutinously at me, the way I was looking at Dan, because if I can make the reason for my actions clear and if I can balance praise with challenge, I can be a better teacher for them.