Frank’s frustrated teaching


January 27, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

“How was the lesson?”

“ Awful!” – said Frank. “It’s hard to teach someone who doesn’t even bother to bring a pen, isn’t it?”

Encouraged by attentive eyes, Frank continues:

I started this one-to-one lesson with a little “get to know you” Q&A. It didn’t really work. How this can NOT work puzzles me.

It didn’t work because I tried to start up a conversation but had only monosyllabic responses in turn. I might be exaggerating but, talking about his work, his home country, his routine, etc, didn’t give me any ‘teachable moment’. Emergent language seemed not to emerge and the scaffold was dismantled.

All in all, I wasn’t able to do what I do best, which is built up a lesson from authentic conversation.

Conversation was not really an affordance in this particular case. Frank’s decision: bye, bye Dogme*, see you in another lesson.

Next step seemed to be trying to engage the student with a resource, something he could read, watch, or else. Based on his profession I decided to present him, which he didn’t know. And based on my experience, there hasn’t been an adult English learner who didn’t get thrilled about TED when first introduced to it.

We watched a 5-min video, cherry-picked by me, and already used in dozens of lessons. The student enjoyed it but didn’t have much to comment. We went over the script to give him some vocabulary, and… well, whatever (Frank makes that whatever look which speaks more than a thousand words).

And there I went again in a series of questions connecting the presentation to his life, but without much responsiveness from the other end of the table. I noticed he had an iPhone and told him to get the TED app; also, I asked him what kind of apps he had that could ‘in a pleasurable way’ help him learn some English. It turned out he only had games. I gave him a couple of suggestions which were received with a nod and a smile, but… whatever.

Technology was not really an affordance** in this particular case. Frank’s decision: bye, bye, tech, see you in another lesson.

Gladly, there was only ten minutes left, which I basically spent telling the student that he had to engage with authentic materials because one lesson a week is too little contact, and told him a couple of times ‘come on, talk to your work mates’, because he didn’t – because his English was bad.

But if he doesn’t care to improve his English, then why is he taking lessons? It’s hard to understand. He seemed nice, I mean, he was not grumpy; he was actually quite smiley and somehow enthusiastic about being in the lesson. But when it came to have some ‘learning attitude’, I don’t know… really… why he didn’t have any.

It’s incredible how learning attitude influences teaching attitude. I’ve always tried to achieve what Carl Roger’s called unconditional positive regard, and it’s a principle I really think teachers should aim at. But boy, sometimes it’s just sooo hard.

I’ll probably not teach him again soon, or maybe I will. In fact, a small part of me wants to. But the rest of me, thinks that if there’s a next time, I’d probably just photocopy a unit of a coursebook, pitched at his level and on his apparent needs, and that is going to be the learning material.

No Dogme and no tech. This is, in the end, what most teachers in the world do, isn’t it? So, it shouldn’t be so bad.

I’m just thinking Frank is in a very privileged position, and that he’s complaining for nothing, because the kind of difficulty he had is pale in comparison to how the big bulks of foreign language classrooms work. He had one ‘difficult’ student, whereas some teachers have 50! (at the same time!) !!

But I’m also thinking that if for Frank, an seasoned teacher, it’s kind of easy to just abandon what he believes is good teaching and get back to photocopying some worksheets and just follow the rubrics; imagine for teachers who work in more difficult settings? Even if, like Frank, they believe in a Dogme approach (conversation-driven + emergent language) and in the use of technology to enhance stimuli and engagement; teaching can become so exhausting that it’s just much easier for teachers to follow a coursebook and photocopy random worksheets.

*Dogme is an approach to teaching English language teaching

**Affordance is a term that has been used in Complexity and Ecology of language learning/teaching/research. See articles in the Complexity page of this blog


13 thoughts on “Frank’s frustrated teaching

  1. Rob says:

    Hi Willy,

    This is one of those “I wish I had been there” situations for me, meaning I feel I could’ve turned things around for Frank and the student. But that’s probably over zealous on my part, and I certainly don’t mean to disparage Frank or the student. It’s just that dogme is so personal – and personalized – that reading accounts of other people’s lessons often leaves me wanting to try my own hand at it. According to my (personal) interpretation of Scott’s comments over on the A-Z, which I’ve also posted on fb and the ELT Dogme list, it comes down, in the end, not to technique or procedure, but the people in the room. These two people should meet again, in my opinion, and then you could, should you so wish, let us know how it goes. Maybe Frank and his student can talk about how the last lesson (this one) was for them?


    • Hi Rob

      Firstly, thanks for posting Scott’s comment on FB, I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

      As you said, it comes down to the people in the room, that’s also what I think. But there are times when people don’t ‘connect’. And in this particular case it was a one-off lesson; but if there’s ever another one I will try to talk to any or both of them again.

      • Rob says:

        Hi willy,

        Sorry I didn’t pick up on the full context of your teaching/learning situation first time around. I agree with Tyson about the interests of marketing trumping good pedagogy. You and your students need to bond somehow, and how can that happen in such an environment? Perhaps I’m just old fashioned though.


  2. Initial thoughts –

    – first meeting one-on-one?
    – establish expectations?
    – determine a plan of action?

    • Tyson, I don’t know if you’ve experienced this type of course structure: the one with no structure.
      This happens because the student books a lesson whenever he wants, usually once a week for 3 or 4 weeks. Then he takes a month off, etc. So, it’s very difficult to assign him ONE teacher, they keep changing. For this reason it’s not practical if every new teacher assigned to this student has to do a needs analysis and all.

      This is a situation I experienced many times teaching one-to-one Business English for students on a “pay-as-you-go” kinda course. And it’s very difficult to determine a plan of action longer than 3 hours!

      • No, I haven’t and it sounds ridiculous. At best, it reminds me of private tutoring in Korea, but even that had some consistency. Obviously if these lessons are so random, neither teacher nor student should expect any real progress to be made–a marketing-created class, really. The student might as well be paying for a friend.

        Having said that, if there is at least a consistency of once a week for a a month, it’s still reasonable to talk to the student about what their expectations are for that time and what the instructor wants the student to do.

  3. phil2wade says:

    Yes, been there with 121’s but also entire classes of 15-40 students. I think I’d be similar to the student as I’m a shy language learner and afraid to make mistakes in the L2. The answer to ‘why is the student…’ could be any of the following:

    1)He doesn’t want a class
    2)He is shy
    3)He has no confidence speaking
    4)He just doesn’t feel comfortable
    5)He doesn’t know how to express himself
    6)He’s from an education system that is based on teacher lectures and so this student-centred method is a shock
    6 1/2)Thus, he’s used to exercise after exercise
    7)He may be grammar-oriented due to the above and expect grammar and tough classes
    8)He’s never had a 121 before
    9)He just needs ‘thinking time’

    I had this not too long ago with 35 students. The main problem was that they didn’t know anything except student issues (they did study 40+ hrs a week) so I had to feed in content on news/popular knowledge and then teach them how to expression language and finally draw out opinions. I also gave the input stuff for homework so they could take their time and also formulate their ideas. One student, after 20 weeks, said “I think I know how to make my own opinions now” but some still couldn’t and used to repeat other students’ and teachers’ opinions.Pretty weird but they were so afraid of saying something wrong. Thus, my motto was ‘there are no wrong opinions’.

    So, advice for your teacher:

    Don’t give up. This is a learning opportunity. Like Exploratory Practice. Find out why it isn’t working by talking to the student. After all, you can’t force your teaching style on a student. The class should be a blend of student and teacher.

    Start next class by talking about the class, setting goals and being honest “look, I’m not happy with…I want to help you improve…What do you want to work on….How would you prefer to learn?’

    Isn’t this VERY Dogme? We all say we are student-centred but are we prepared to completely cange our approach to suit the student? Perhaps this is the highest form of Dogme?

    • Hi Phil

      Re: what they can do next, take a look at my response to Tyson.

      I agree with you that a class should be a blend of what student and teacher think is best practice. I try very often to explain to students, in simple terms, why I’m ‘unplugging’ the lessons, or otherwise. And I also like to know from them how the think they learn better. I think it makes a difference when we involve our students in pedagogical decisions.

      In the particular case above, I know the student is French, so maybe points 6 and 7 are true. But not the most difficult ones.
      I think that if it is the case of 1 and 5, then it is a hard nut to crack.

  4. phil2wade says:

    Hi Willy,

    Cheers for the reply. One of my 121’s is all of my points and thus it has been a bit painful. Add to that a prescribed syllabus and materials which the student didn’t want. I started trying to do what I was told, then just said “this isn’t working, what do YOU want”? Thus, now the course is completely different and doesn’t match the DA or NA but I get “that was a good class” and “I enjoyed it” a lot.

    I have some classes similar to what you mention where I teach a lesson and then have no idea if I’ll teach them next week and if I do it will be a different day, time and maybe not all the same students. For this I have to do individual classes and use the warmer as a mini NA. Problem is that I have to stick to the topic as it is given to every class so that in theory anyone can teach any class but they will still get the same lesson (topic/content). But, yes, I do it in own (Dogmeish) way.

  5. Ed Pegg says:

    I also had a similar learner over the last couple of weeks and he was very hard work for a while. he was probably suffering from nearly all of the issues Phil described.

    Then, this week, something amazing happened. He’s a software developer and I’m experimenting with software design so on Monday I told him about my experience and asked him how to build a management information system. He glowed, took a pen and starting writing numbers on the board. He used words too so I could do something.

    The next day he was already in class playing on his laptop and he immediately showed me the code he had written last night. He was now engaged. Since then the lessons have been a joy.

    I had asked him about his job before but never showed him I understood it. As soon as I did that, the tone of the lesson and his behaviour completely changed.

    When learners don’t appear to have hot buttons it can be really difficult, but in my experience, if you keep digging, everybody has a story.

    • ‘everybody has a story’ – this is perhaps one of the things every teacher should be really aware of and trained to tap into not only for the benefit of the learners, but of the teachers themselves.

      nice story Ed, thanks for sharing!

  6. I think as a teacher to find out the best way to stimulate students is very important. Teaching is not a task to fulfill but I think it’s a responsibility to really involve students in the teaching and learning process. In China teacher often stimulate students with getting a higher grades in exams but it actually doesn’t work or it may stimulate students for a short of time but it will not work in the long run. Teachers should find a way that could stimulate students from inside and make the students believe that what they are learning right now is worth working for and also have fun in the process.

    • You’re right, to foster intrinsic motivation as well as, or more than, extrinsic motivation; and to focus on and praise process and not only product. Big challenges, especially in China I imagine.

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