Here are some notes I’ve jotted into my brain about teaching English as a required subject to undergrad students.
- Coming Down Hard Can Help. The other day in the classroom I was trying to do attendance. There were a few students near the front who were very polite, went quiet and listened. Well, I halted the roll call. The people in the back kept talking. Finally, I yelled, “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaa!” which is the Korean equivalent of a somewhat harsh, “Hey you!” Then I wrote the words polite and impolite on the board and taught them what they were being, and what I expected of them. It was a last-ditch attempt at making them at least be polite to me as their professor. But I was shocked to find that they didn’t clam up. They immediately began to behave, but they were also far more responsive and participatory than usual, and have been a pretty good class since.
- Cool It. Forget about pace, and if necessary, forget about your planned lesson. You need to be able to drop all that and make sure that the students really understand what you are trying to get them to learn. Slowing down, listening carefully while they are practicing together, and also just calmly, slowly explaining whatever point you’re working on is essential. It’s better they learn two-thirds of the book solidly than all of it poorly.
- Ask A Lot. But Don’t Expect Much. Balancing many different levels in a class is difficult. Some students are quite advanced, but for some reason neglected to test out of the course into a higher-level course. Then there are the students who can’t speak a single sentence. Finally, there is a small segment of the student population who is outright terrified of you because you’re a foreigner to whom they must speak English. So it’s important to balance the challenges you present to the class. When creating an exercise, or even having students simply perform an exercise from the text, it’s good to tailor it to the class. For example, in my classes students tend to work in pairs or in groups. When creating the groups, I always make sure that there is at least one advanced student in each group. This allows you some processing time with each group, because when you’re not available to explain something. the advance student can explain it or model it to the group. Also, I tend to add little challenges, like, telling students to create 2 more questions than are included in the exercise. The advanced students do this happily, and the less-advanced students either learn from that student, or else don’t have time to get there. So it works out for everyone.
- Fabricate Motivation. This goes for both teacher and student. Many average college students tend not to care so much about their English. So it’s important to give them some sort of incentive to study. I tend to use the mark as an incentive. When a student excels, I commend them and then I point upward and make a rising tone sound that students all know, from the first day of class, means “you just improved your mark.” When a student does something very poor, like repeatedly refuses to make a full sentence after many times practicing, or stops practicing when I am not on his or her side of the room, or fails to do assigned homework, I make the reverse sound, which is like a falling bomb ending in a splat noise. They all know this means, “Your grade just got a little worse.” As for me, when I lack the external incentive of a student who is working hard, I too must create my own incentive: sometimes it’s to encourage the nice kid who is trying hard; sometimes it’s to meet the challenge of getting this room of freshmen all doing the work they need to do to be able to make a single proper sentence; sometimes it’s about challenging myself to get 3 or 4 very hearty laughs out of the group, or teach something in a new and interesting way. Sometimes it’s just to make this time, which is required of both me and the students, a fun, interesting, and different time during the day of both the students and myself.
- Think It Through. Yes, the girl in the tight jeans is painfully cute. Yes, the dumbass who didn’t do his homework is annoying as hell. And even a teacher notices that. But there is a kind of mindtrick that one must always play on oneself, and that is, to become the professor when one walks into the room. I don’t know how to explain it beyond saying it’s something that, if you do it right, nobody doubts or fails to notice. Even the slackest of students defer, at least nominally; they pay attention and they shut up when you are present. And it has to do with something that goes on in your own head, and which you project by the way you speak and act. While you’re not acting, you are playing a role, and by playing it well you do communicate something to the students. Beyond that, I don’t know that I can explain.
As you can see, this is quite different from my old style of teaching; but it’s suited to the context and it’s developing well, in my opinion.