Twenty things in twenty years – Part Two: troubling trouble when trouble troubles you!
There are plenty of things that you generally don’t learn on a four-week CELTA course: how bizarre many of the staff rooms you’ll later find yourself in will be; how rife the illegal photocopying of published material is around the world; how you’ll probably end up inventing Dogme by accident one morning as you stumble into class having not slept a wink and quite possibly with either an illegal or at least a severely impaired bloodstream; how sooner or later you’ll find yourself subjected to threats / bribes / tears / offers of sexual favours as students desperately try and blag attendance certificates or better test results or placement in a level they absolutely don’t deserve to enter. I could obviously go on and on here! However, the one thing that perhaps more attention should be paid to on initial training courses is the subject of today’s reflective post wherein I look back over what’s now twenty years of teaching and try to work out what the hell I’ve learned about the trade: the kind of trouble that can erupt – or fester – in EFL classes and how we as teachers might best tackle them. In other words, how to trouble trouble before trouble troubles you – and the class you’re teaching!
The moment that I came to realise the importance of developing strategies for doing this came unpleasantly early in my teaching career. I’m somehow managed to blag my first real paid teaching job at St. Giles Central in London and had a lovely Intermediate-level class that I was doing every morning. They were predominantly Asian, with students from a wide range of different countries. The first week or so went really well and then the evil effects of continuous enrollment reared their head the following Monday when the door opened fifteen minutes into class and in walked a medallion-wearing living breathing stereotypical Italian male, complete with unbuttoned shirt and such a copious amount of hair on display that I’m prepared to believe it may well have been a chest wig. “Francesco Celotto from Milano” he announced, as though this in itself merited a round of applause. “Come in” I smiled, before adding “You’re late!” He then surveyed the room a couple of times with a look of increasing unease before uttering the immortal lines “Ma dai! But it is all the Japanese in here” It was at this point I realised we had what could only be termed a situation. It was one of those moments where you suddenly sense just how much is riding on what you decide to do next. Say nothing, and you’re essentially colluding with this ignorance. Come down heavy and you’ve got one very pissed-off new student who’s lost face and who now hates you. What to do? What to do?
In the end, I smiled and said “Not quite Francesco. This is Dilokpol. He’s from Thailand. And this is Henu, from Indonesia. This is Lily from Vietnam, and this is Chen Chen from Hong Kong. This is Agnes from The Philippines, this is Nan-Joo from South Korea and oh, this is Kenzo, who actually IS from Japan, so one out of seven. Not bad, not bad. And which part of Spain were you from again?” – a question which caused Francesco to look incredulous and to insist on his Italian origins. “Exactly”, I pointed out. “Where you’re from is important to you, right? And it’s the same for everyone else in the class, OK?” Firm but friendly smile tinged with just a tiny touch of menace. Move on.
I’m not sure how I knew to do this or what led me to make the choices I made in this instance. As I’ve already said, it certainly wasn’t anything my initial – and let’s face it. most CELTAs are VERY initial – training had prepared me for. There’d been no suggestion there that TEFL was going to be anything other than a constant holiday camp roller-coaster ride of great big neon FUN. I suppose I’d just developed – unconsciously up until this juncture – conflict resolution or deflation skills the way that most of us – by living! Life, whether we like it or not, comes with conflict in-built and whether it had been avoiding school bullies, recognising who not to stare at too long at football matches, working as a bouncer in dodgy London pubs whilst at uni or going through relationship break-ups, I’d somehow gotten to the stage where I was able to defuse this potential bomb in such a way as to show the Asian students in my class that I’d noticed the affront and wasn’t prepared to accept it, whilst also somehow keeping Francesco onside with a kind of firm humour.
This was one of the most crucial lessons I learned early o in my teaching career and, having survived this baptism by fire, I was set to be able to survive similarly testing encounters over the years to come. Now, I’m not suggesting that this was the only way of dealing with this situation, but it worked for me and the combination of stern / serious and kind / inclusive has stood me in good stead. Obviously, failure to develop ways of ensuring parity and equality in class; of ensuring students are not allowed to offend or abuse each other – or at least do not get to do so without being aware of the fact that this is what they’ve done; of ensuring that you as a teacher are in charge of the class and are able to meld its disparate elements into something resembling a cohesive whole can all lead to disaster . . . to lessons slipping out of your control; the factions developing; to outright mutiny; the upset and anger; to complaints and possible even dismissal. All of which ought really to suggest that we start taking our innate conflict-handling abilities a bit more seriously on initial training courses and at least allowing space for some discussion of how and when they might best be implemented.
As the years have gone by, I’d like to think I’ve honed the way I deal with conflict into an even more effective technique, which is essentially two-fold and involves (a) diffusing tension by turning arguments inwards towards new linguistic input and (b) if I think something is particularly wrong or offensive, politely saying that I disagree and explaining why. To wrap up this post, one quick example. A year or so ago, I was teaching a multilingual Upper-Intermediate group here in London. The word DISCRIMINATION came up in an exercise we were doing and one student asked if it was like racism. I explained it was kind of similar, though mainly limited to unfair treatment – rather than abuse or violence – and also mainly limited to the ability to get jobs, promotion, housing, and so on. I then said that in some ways it was also sort of bigger than racism as you could face discrimination if you were black or Asian, but that you could also FACE DISCRIMINATION or BE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST ON THE GROUNDS OF gender, so it’s harder for women to get some jobs; on the grounds of sexual orientation, so it’s harder to get work or housing if you’re openly gay and so on. At this point, a student said “Gay is like homosexual?” to which I replied “yes, but homosexual is quite old-fashioned and most homosexuals usually prefer to be called GAY”. The student then said something along the lines of “I hate the gays. They must die” – to generally fairly stunned / bemused / upset silence in class.
“Well, you’re entitled to think what you think, and I’m not here to change your mind”, I began, “but personally I think you’re wrong. I have plenty of gay friends and it’s not nice to think you want them dead. There may even be gay people in this class, for all you know. Anyway, you can think what you think. It’s up to you. In the university, though, if you say things like that can get you kicked out. You can be thrown off courses if you make HOMOPHOBIC COMMENTS.” I then explained the concept and wrote up on the board the following:
You can be kicked out of the university for making racist / sexist / homophobic / anti-Semitic / Islamophobic comments.
There followed a brief discussion of each of the concepts and a discussion about whether nor not similar rules applied in higher education institutions in their countries. Interestingly, and I’m certainly not claiming that this kind of thing happens all the time, at the end of the class this particular student came up and apologised and said he’d never had a discussion about any of these issues before and had never met anybody ‘who knows the gays’. We then had a further talk which took in things like ‘why the gays like men’ and the like – and no further comments of this nature were ever heard in my class again.
This defusing of potential heat by turning it inwards towards the teaching of new language has worked for me thus far.
Long may it continue to do so.