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The Pressurecooker Classroom

Students are interesting creatures. Teachers too! There are all kinds of complicated interactions that happen inside classrooms, the kinds of complications that don’t often happen in comparable ways in other parts of students’ lives. It can be like a pressurecooker of all kinds of different energies, and as a teacher, you’re right there in the thick of it, sometimes without any idea how to direct it all! Good classes usually find a way to direct it themselves. Me, I find giving students as much autonomy as possible, within clear a framework, is the way to go. But even so, the different energies that resonate through a classroom are sometimes surprising.

This is especially true for students who are in classrooms where they’re speaking foreign languages. Struggling to express themselves, but also getting to know the person they are in a foreign language, is an interesting process. Of course, when you suck at the language you’re speaking — like I do in French and Korean — then there’s not much I in identity. There’s just the struggle of speaking. But as time goes by, people tend to get past that and discover that the person they are in that other language can differ slightly — or the differences can bleed through into one or the other languages.

Identity in another language — especially one that seems (1) radically stripped of the compass points of politeness that guide so much conversation in Asian cultures — can be a strange thing. Women who might just nod politely or keep quiet speak out when they hear older men saying things they perceive as sexist. This is a good thing, mind: if language learning truly is liberating, I’m all for it. (But if it is, then TOEIC would be far from the madding front.) People also find themselves being sensitized to different etiquettes, like the often-discussed Korean bluntness about appearance. (2)

Of course, for me this is all part of the point of learning a language — the weird mental shifts it invites, the struggle for clarity, is good for people. Would that I could dedicate myself to it more energetically — the learning part, I mean. But it also requires a kind of careful acceptance of things in the classroom. I sometimes notice things that my students do, think, or feel which, on a personal level, perturb me.

When someone praises a politician who turns my stomach, it’s hard not to come out with a one-shot takedown on that praise, but I keep it to myself. When someone says something sexist or homophobic, at most I illustrate how some people in the room might object to the comment, with a simple question. (A guy named Mike Hartman taught me that using the Socratic approach will get more flies than just telling people off.)

This is one of the great undiscussed stresses of the EFL/ESL profession. While lots of teachers I know have commented online about how it’s important not to humiliate or mock students in class — something you’d think more teachers would catch on to, for goodness’ sake! — and why it’s important to keep some things to yourself, very few talk about the psychology of keeping your feelings about this kind of stuff bottled in.

One of the fundamental points about dealing with this kind of energy is that you try to let it out in as many ways as you like, but none of it’s going to be as effective as doing the one thing you truly want to do: to tell the student who’s behaved in a way you think is offensive exactly that fact. Of course, there are situations when people do come out and say this, but often the result is, predictably, bad. At best, people feel a little weird and talkativeness dies out for a bit; at worst, the students circle the wagons and there’s no getting into camp for you for the rest of the course. The risks and negative effects are such that the incentive is to keep it all in, but of course, it surely doesn’t dissipate that way.

This reminds me of the British SF author Richard K. Morgan’s response to why his novels are so ultraviolent. He answered that for many years, he was an ESL teacher in London, and that he spent his time trying to make his classroom a welcoming, comfortable, safe place for students the Arab fellow who declared that it was too bad Hitler didn’t get to finish what he started, or where a Korean who’d been in London all of a week, I think it was, declared that “British people are lazy” in comparison to “hardworking Koreans.” Morgan said that all those years of bottling up the annoyances and repressed replies to ignorant, racist, or otherwise bigoted classroom discussions gave him a lot of negative feelings to vent in other ways, such as in his fiction. I’ve also heard comments from students over the years that have shocked me, but only have responded to the ones I felt potentially insulting to other class members, or which I couldn’t, in good conscience, let by without a comment: praise of Hitler (which made me ask, sarcastically, what was so bad about his buddies Tojo and Hirohito); absurdly sexist comments, like that the woman’s place is in the kitchen (“Do you agree, ladies?” was my response)… that sort of thing.

Not all the energies are negative, mind you. Some are just surprising, like the guy who’s sympathetic to gays and thinks they play basketball very well, or the young lady who responds positively to the male classmate who is hunting for a girlfriend and very obviously got her in his sights. Even the oddball nature of a Chinese exchange student who blurts out, at any mention of Taiwan, the phrase, “Taiwan is part of China!” can be amusing sometimes.

But there are moments that give you pause. For example, when a student flirts with the teacher.

When it happens in the classroom, the best response, I’ve found, is either to take it deadpan seriously for a few moments, and then burst out in a self-mocking giggle, or else to play along briefly, and then fold the thing into a serious point. Hell, I even used flirtation once as a form of teasing to point out that, “I have something to ask you…” said in a low and serious tone can have many more ambiguous connotations than, say, “Teacher, I have a question about the presentations next week.” That kind of interaction is almost always a social interaction — meaning it encompasses the group, takes the group’s presence into account, and happens in ways circumscribed by how the group will react. It’s unusual for such things to cause problems as long as the teacher knows the rules and colors carefully inside the lines, playing along, or joking, in ways that don’t kill the interaction but put it to good use somehow.

Still more unusual is when a student flirts with the teacher outside of the class — say, in the hallway on the way to class, when none of the classmates is around. Which is what happened to me today.

It wasn’t a big deal, of course, but it was odd. This doesn’t happen a lot to me, for whatever reason. (I’m a big guy, and that’s not a hot trait to Koreans. Or maybe the fact I’m engaged makes whatever few students who develop crushes or curiosity from showing it.) I occasionally get long emails from students — we all do, right? — that suggest the student is at that odd bornerline between looking up to me as a teacher, and respecting me or missing me during the semester break just that little bit too much.

The thing is, it’s almost always my best students who are the ones who do this. Not best as in my favorites, but best as in, they’re the ones who “get it” about what I’m trying to do in the classroom, who are really dedicated to improving their English and getting something more out of their education, and so on. Needless to say, most of the students who respond in this way are female — because most of the students where I teach are female, but also because most of the students who feel this way about language study are female. I have outstanding male students, but the pressurecooker in the title of this post has a different effect on them, and usually one much less fraught with issues. (It’s the unhappy male students who, like the very happy female students, are harder to handle.)

So I think it’s important to respond carefully to anything that verges on flirting with these students. Why?

There are two things. The (platonic) affection of teacher is a powerful carrot. Students who look up to and respect their teacher try hard, in part to please the teacher and win approval. They redouble their efforts, they focus on their studies, they achieve surprising things.

My first year in Korea, my roommate, a guy who spoke Korean pretty well, advised me that I needed to find a female teacher. Not a sleeping dictionary, mind you — his point was that the teacher didn’t need to be a girlfriend. All that was necessary was that I find an attractive female teacher, because having an attractive instructor of the opposite sex brings out approval-seeking behaviour, and in the context of language study, if increased mastery of the language triggers praise from the teacher (as it should), then an autocatalytic cycle will be launched: you’ll study hard because your teacher will praise you, and that will make you study even harder.

This, I believe, is one of the unfortunately under-discussed issues in language teaching. (3) Anyone you mention it to personally will nod his or her head, mostly acknowledging that it makes sense: motivation to study can’t be higher than when someone who you’re mildly infatuated with is sitting across the table engaging you in the language of study.

Of course it’s under-discussed! The ESL/EFL/TESOL/LSHMMAWCIFDLT field (4) is already fraught with too many cases of instructors messing around with students, or dating them, or doing scandalous things with them. Nobody would touch that issue with a ten foot pole even if the (ahem) hotbed (owch) of the ESL/EFL/TESOL/LSHMMAWCIFDLT field was not in those Anglo countries with the most puritanical attitudes towards sexuality (especially the US), with many of the teachers living in Asia, where foreigner-native relationships involve a rather remarkable number of interracial relationships which are viewed by other natives with varying, but everpresent, amounts of anxiety.

Yet everyone I know who hears about the notion that an attractive teacher can catalyze harder study has nodded and agreed. So what can we draw from this? Besides the fact I should be hitting the gym, as it will make me a better teacher?

Well, among many things — such as discussing which genders and how heterogenous the appearances of teachers should be, in terms of the decisions of hiring committees — it is apparent that teachers should be careful not to quash any mild student infatuations, while, of course, not doing anything to encourage them… not beyond whatever they did in the first place, like just trying to be good teachers. (5)

And the other thing? I switched from wearing my tweed jackets and khakis to my suits this week, just out of curiosity about the student reaction, to which I’ve been paying attention. The change in how they relate to me is both unmistakable and significant.

All of this reminds me of a book I read long ago, at the recommendation of my first university saxophone instructor, Doug Gilmour. It titled The Inner Game of Music, yes, one of those Inner Game self-help books, but it was kind of useful. It’s about how a lot of the difference between being a mediocre performer and an excellent one is about what goes on in your head when you’re performing, practicing, and learning the skills involved in the game. Hmm. The Inner Game of Teaching, though, only brings up this article on JSTOR.

Which is funny: I wonder how much research has been done on education as a psychological activity, or in terms of the kinds of relationships and transient “communities” that form in classrooms or departments of universities, and how the roles played by various individuals therein factor into the learning process. All the theory and academic language of educational psychology I’ve seen has done little to address the fact that teaching and learning are primal, imitative, relationship-based activities. The funny, subtle factors involved could be both fascinating and surprising, I bet. Hmm. Maybe I should consider a PhD in Education after all.

As for that student who (I’m pretty sure) was flirting with me? I played dumb, reading the sentence deadpan, with the pretty obvious implication ignored as if it’d flown right over my head. I’m an alright actor when I need to be, and teaching, when you do it right — especially across a permeable language and culture barrier — always involves a little acting. Playing dumb neither encourages nor quashes anything, and keeps the classroom and the student-teacher relationship “safe.” And that’s really an important thing to make sure you do, for everyone’s benefit.

NOTES:1. It’s not that there are no rules for polite interaction in English, of course; they exist, but are different from in Korean in some ways. In Korean there are all kinds of explicit ways to show respect or to address one’s juniors or, in terms of rank, “inferiors.” In English, a lot of that’s just sort of implicit in decisions about diction, phrasing, and formality, so for some students, it looks as if English speech is not adjusted to differentiate between formal and informal relationships or whatever. They’ve told me so themselves. The funny thing is, they already grasp this, and can demonstrate mastery of it before it’s pointed out. For example, they will say. “Let me finish please!” when a teacher or much older student interrupts them, but will say “Shhh!” or even, “No, shaddap!” (with a big grin) to peers who interrupt them. Or so is my experience.And yes, they learn “Shaddap!” from me. Hee.

2. I used to wonder if it was more of a testing-the-boundaries thing, or maybe just a misinterpretation of Western etiquette, but from many examples of reported speech over the years, it seems to me that many Koreans are capable of quite brutal bluntness when it comes to things like appearance. “You’re fat!” or “Your nose is very big!” is something they don’t just say in English. (And well-adjusted foreigners don’t take such comments too seriously, either, I find.)

3. Maybe it’s fortunate that it is under-discussed, actually, since it could be taken as justification for the racially-discriminatory hiring practices followed at some institutions here. After all, there are almost certainly highly qualified English-teachers who are African-Americans, Indo-Canadians, and Arab-Australians. Whether you can get the average classroomful of Koreans of a given age to relax in their presence, or relate to them in this way, is another question. Thus, some business owners would argue, it’s good business sense to hire teachers whom their students canrelate to more quickly, and white westerns fit the bill in a theatrical sense, so they end up being hired preferentially because of good, rational business sense.

Now, I’d argue that, if indeed we do take for granted that more Korean students will have a crush on the white male teacher than on, say, the Maori female teacher, this attraction factor is more important in small-group or one-on-one situations than in bigger classrooms where things like classroom management, experience, and some basic understanding of teaching methods begin to matter more — and since the vast majority of English language teaching is to big classes, the gender, race, and je ne sais quoi hotness of the teacher matter less than those other qualifications. I’d also add that Koreans are like anyone: after enough exposure to people of some exotic or unfamiliar group, they tend to start to see past it to the person inside. Increased exposure could only do good, in other words, and the effect could kick in just as reliably after a period of acclimation, even in small groups. But it’s not use pretending that non-white, non-Korean people are not often anxiously perceived as somehow “more different” than white people, right from the get-go. They generally are, and it does take time for perceptions to move past that.

4. Let’s See How Many More Acronyms We Can Invent For Language Teaching, of course.

5. I also suspect that there’s an element of rules-reversal at work in a situation like that, where the student flirts with the teacher one on one. It’s not a grave reversal, it’s a playful one, and as such, it may be as much a way for a student to attempt to empower herself in relation to a male teacher. One could argue that such reversals are good, healthy, and natural in a classroom, where anyway, the teacher should be fostering great autonomy, and where it can enact a kind of “breaking free” of the strictures or whatever, a positive thing for students. Outside the classroom, in one-on-one situations, the reversals seem less functional to me, or at least, I’m not so sure about them.

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