Nobody anticipated that Susan would hurry from the classroom in tears, but it didn’t take us long to understand why. We were teachers-in-training, participating in a demonstration lesson about how to warm students up to a text before they read it. The text was about an unfortunate young man who fell overboard from a boat. Our trainer was a little too good at helping us imagine what it would be like to feel we were drowning. He was so good at it that he triggered memories in Susan of a recent incident at the beach when she had been swept away by a strong wave.
Since then, every time I walk into a classroom (to teach), I feel as though I am walking on eggs. What experiences do my students bring with them that might trigger a similar reaction to Susan’s? More broadly, what in their lives outside my classroom, might hinder their learning inside my classroom? Very often, I find, I really don’t know. But I have developed a few ways to find out.
Learning the Hard Way
Fast forward a year or two from Susan’s dramatic exit from the classroom, to one of my earliest teaching experiences in Japan. I’d been asked to take over a high-level writing course in the middle of the year. The goal was to have students learn how to write extended essays. Believing that the best way to learn to do something is to do it, I had them write extended essay after extended essay. It worked! They got better at it. It was only at the end of the year that I understood what I had done wrong, when one kind (and bold) student pointed out to me that students in parallel sections of the same course were being assigned roughly one eighth the amount of homework I was handing out. My methods worked, but I had certainly cracked more than a few eggs by failing to take into account the other demands on students’ time.
Starting the next year—somehow I was allowed to keep the course—I instituted a regular feedback system whereby students spent the first five minutes of each lesson writing, anonymously, about the homework they had done for me and our previous lesson. They told me what they were not understanding in class and what I was not understanding about their lives. I tried to reply to their comments before the end of each lesson. The more I understood about the expectations and experiences they brought to the class, the better I could tailor my lessons to that particular group of students. You won’t be surprised to learn that the first adjustment was to reduce radically the number and size of homework assignments.
No Longer in Kansas
This was, incidentally, quite different from my own experience of being a student. On my first day at university, I was introduced to a professor who said: “I’m interested only in your brain and your right hand” (these, I should explain, were the days when homework assignments were hand-written). “He,” the professor continued, indicating a man on the other side of the room, “will take care of the rest of you.” And that is just how it turned out: the professor who took care of my studies proceeded from the assumption that any issues in my “outside life” would not impinge on my studies, as I would take any I couldn’t solve to the man across the room.
The most basic lesson of modern-day neuroscience, however, is that the brain and the body are one and inseparable. We can no more separate our students’ experiences outside the classroom from their learning than I could separate my brain and right hand from the rest of me.
Maslow and Student Needs
Which brings me to Maslow. His Hierarchy of Needs (see also our Think Tank issue on Maslow) lays out for us very clearly the physiological and psychological issues that need to be addressed before learning can take place. The lower-level needs begin with the physical. So, when students in a lesson just before lunch began to respond to my “How are you?” greeting, not with the expected “I’m fine, thank you” but with “I’m hungry,” I developed the habit of taking a bag of snacks with me to class. When a student tells me she is “sleepy today,” I engage her in a serious conversation about her sleep habits and how they might be impacting her learning. Nutrition and sleep feature prominently among physiological needs.
Higher up Maslow’s Hierarchy are social needs. When pairing up students for a simple getting-to-know-you information-gap activity on the first day of class, there was no way I could have known that Ms. A had recently broken up with Mr. B and he was far from happy about the breakup. No way I could have known that he would refuse point-blank to speak to her in the lesson and she would dissolve in tears. But if that had been the seventh or eighth week of class, I would have had time to pick up on the clues about their out-of-class relationship and might have hesitated to pair them together.
Even higher up the Hierarchy is the need to feel respected. It may seem to be a simple matter to show respect to our students, and often it is, but when the teacher and students come from different educational and social backgrounds (as happens often in EFL) and bring with them different expectations of what will happen there and what proprieties need to be observed, an impression of disrespect can easily be created. I found this out the hard way when I casually sat on a desk to talk to a student and was later asked by a local colleague: “Do you really think anybody will want to use that desk for studying after you have touched it with that part of your body?” No wonder the whole class seemed distracted by my behaviour. I don’t think they learnt much English that afternoon.
So, the more I know about where each of my students is coming from and what needs, commitments, expectations, and preconceptions they bring with them, the fewer eggs I will break and the more effective the learning that takes place in my classroom will be.
Just Tell Me How
So, how do I find out about my students’ lives outside my classroom? Well, the first few ideas should be obvious from the stories I have told so far:
- Watch them. Who interacts with whom? Who are the loners? The couples? Who habitually comes late? Whose mood seems to have changed recently? Who has a designer pencil case? Who doesn’t? Who is a big Snoopy fan? Who has suddenly changed their whole way of dressing and presenting themselves to the world? This kind of information can be most useful in deciding how to approach each student, how to pair or group them, what to have them talk about, and, often, what topics to avoid.
- Listen to them. For years, my Japanese students didn’t realise I could understand them when they spoke to each other in Japanese. Their unguarded comments proved an invaluable source of information about their true attitudes, preferences, and feelings, an insider’s guide to where the eggshells are thinnest. Even without indulging in this kind of ethically dubious subterfuge, listening to what students say about themselves, their families, and their lives, to each other, to you, and to others, can help you to map out the territory of their interests and concerns. Never more so than in a writing class, I find. My students seem to take it as axiomatic that they should tell the truth when they write. Having them keep a journal in English provides me with a window into their lives, as well as helping them develop writing fluency. Even regular, less personal writing topics can reveal unsuspected opinions or sensitivities. I credit a mundane substitution drill for alerting me to the fact that a quiet member of the class was a gifted ballet dancer.
- Ask them. Chastened by the experience of my high-level writing class with the outsized homework assignments, I started to ask students about their experiences and expectations of classroom life, sometimes in questionnaire form, sometimes just as a conversation starter: What is a good teacher? How does a good student behave in class? and, of course, What is a reasonable amount of homework? I have written elsewhere about how one such probing question led me to discover that many of my students collaborate on individual homework assignments as a way of making friends and deepening existing friendships, a goal they feel is more important than making progress in any particular subject (like English!). This not only changed my way of giving assignments but also alerted me to the important fact that in our lessons, although my priority is to teach English, my students’ priority might be something other than learning it.
Other ways to find out what students are up to when they are not in our classrooms will depend on specific circumstances, but the third one below should be possible for any teacher:
- Meet the parents. I understand that not every teacher has the chance to do this but I have learnt so much by meeting the parents of my students. One student looked permanently unhappy and pressured in class. One day she let slip something I hadn’t known before. Her mother is an English teacher. She didn’t hate English or the way I did my lessons (as I had previously suspected). She didn’t regret her choice to study English. She was simply feeling the pressure of high expectations placed on her as a learner of English by her Mom. That made a lot of sense even before I met her mother at a parents’ afternoon. At that same event, something clicked about another student. Always beautifully dressed and accessorized, she seemed very sensitive to anything said about her or to her. A brief conversation with her mother and I understood she is what in Japanese is called a “daughter in a box,” wrapped in cotton wool and protected from the shocks and harsh realities of the outside world. I will approach both of these students differently in the future. [I shared this “meet the parents” insight with my father, who was a primary school teacher in the UK, and he said “Well, of course,” indicating that what I had said was too obvious for words.]
- Be a student advisor. The man on the other side of the room on my first day at university as an undergraduate was a student advisor. His job was to take an interest in my life outside the classroom. My current school has a slightly more integrated system where teachers double as student advisors and, for the last few years, I have been privileged to play this role for a succession of groups of students. The role legitimizes short, one-on-one meetings with students during which I can probe, in some detail, the general question of how they are getting along. I have learnt so much about individual students by doing this that I wish I could play this role for every single student in my classes. My only problem with it is that my school’s very respectful attitude towards students’ privacy means I am unable to share the things I learn with colleagues who would benefit from knowing them. Neither can they share with me what they know. Sigh.
Finally, something I have started doing in the last year, for which I credit colleague and friend Steven Herder:
- “Fluency practice.” Happy with the success of an Extensive Reading element in my lessons, I was looking for an Extensive Speaking activity to help students improve their speaking fluency. Steven suggested something very simple yet powerful: Have students use their smartphones to record themselves speaking English for around a minute each night, before they go to bed. Quite naturally they talk about what they have been doing and what’s going on around them at home and at school. Occasionally they get around to hopes, dreams, and, very occasionally, worries. In addition to increased fluency and confidence for the students, a major side benefit of this activity for me is that I know much more about this cohort of students than any I have taught before.
 See the next article by Harumi Kimura’s on the major concerns of students at her university in northern Japan. Craig Smith also reported, in a long-ago research article, that, at his university in a metropolitan centre, incoming students’ main worry was how far they should go to disguise their regional accents (in their mother tongue) when talking to students from the metropolis.
Our jobs require us to walk on eggs. At times, we are required to cross a virtual minefield of difficult, potentially painful subjects. The better we know the terrain, the more able we are to avoid the pratfalls. But there’s more. We can use what we know about our students’ interests and proclivities to engage and sustain their attention, respond effectively to individual issues and concerns, and, in all ways, help our students to learn. Oh, and another benefit of knowing all we can about our students’ lives outside the classroom is that other people’s lives are just so interesting.
Stephen M. Ryan is busy learning about his students so he can teach them better, at Sanyo Gakuen University.