Number one for English language teachers

Anecdote: An insensitive moment

Type: Anecdote

An anecdote from Cecilia Preller on the importance of always listening to your students until they have finished their story.

I've been teaching English to the Business students at the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia, in the south of Chile, and for more than 14 years now. I've been teaching to freshmen who scarcely know some very basic English. These students are usually both fascinated and terrified with the experience of having a class completely taught in English when they feel they are just beginning.

Some years ago, one of my students was taking an oral test which consisted basically of talking about his life by answering some questions. In general, he was supposed to talk about his routines (Present Simple) and current projects (Present Continuous). He was doing really well and when I asked him whether he had brothers or sisters, he answered: 'Well, I had a sister who was 16...' - I corrected very politely, trying to give him a little help: 'I have a sister...' - and so we went, up to the moment in which I gave up and decided to listen up to the end and then provide some corrections. All of a sudden he says: 'my sister was pretty, she studied very hard and got wonderful marks, she had many friends and we all loved her...' he stops and I (stupid me), again very helpful: 'What is she doing now?'. He looks at me surprised and he says: 'She died. She had an accident two months ago and I still can't believe it.'

I was so shocked at my lack of sensitivity but at the same I couldn't but notice how well he had used tenses and vocabulary, in spite of my interruptions and it was REAL LIFE! It was so important to talk about his sister and his pain that he could overcome all his difficulties with English (it wasn't easy for him). Of course I gave him the best mark and we went on talking in English about these terrible things and how they affected a family and how difficult it was to go ahead.

I know better now, so when a student becomes so involved in a very personal story, I just let them go on along with their own thread until they reach the outcome, and it is usually about something really important and transcendental in their lives.

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