Number one for English language teachers

Poland: The lost art of listening

Type: Article

Rachel Studinski lays down the law with her teenage students – and reaps the benefits.

I was teaching the sixth lesson of the year with my pre-intermediate teens when I realized I’d completely lost control. They were supposed to be working on a past simple exercise. Two pairs were dutifully completing the assignment. The remaining ten students were catching up on their gossip (in Polish), launching wads of paper across the room and surreptitiously sending text messages under their desks.

“OK, close your books!” I cried, praying that my voice hadn’t reached a level that could be described as shrill. “It’s clear that we can’t continue this lesson. It’s too difficult for me to teach like this and too difficult for you to learn. I guess we need a class contract.”

They groaned. Loudly. Class contracts, I’d been warned, were considered ’childish,’ and were best used with adolescents as a threat rather than an actual tool (e.g. “Are you going to quiet down or do we need a class contract?”). But I was desperate. I persisted.

“In groups of three, please think of five things a teacher must do in a good English lesson and five things the students must do. In five minutes, we’ll share our ideas.”

To my surprise, they all put their heads together and set to work. I expected to struggle with suggestions like ’more games’ or ’no homework,’ and, as I monitored their progress, I did see those items on some lists. But mostly, their lists, and the conversation that followed, convinced me that I’d fundamentally misjudged what was important to my students.

They understood that English was expected of them but wanted dictionaries at all times. They hated it when I raised my voice. They wanted less reading, more speaking. But mostly, they wanted a break. Their English lessons come after a full day of school. They arrive and are faced with ninety additional minutes of struggling through challenging material. All they wanted was five minutes. So we came to an agreement: if the classroom became too noisy, I would silently look at my watch. When it was quiet enough to continue, I’d write the amount of time wasted on the board. If that number was under two minutes at the end of the lesson, they’d get a break in the following lesson. When we’d agreed on our respective duties, we signed the contract, and I crossed my fingers that it would work.

That was over a month ago and they’ve never failed to earn their break. In fact, most days the ’time wasted’ is less than 30 seconds. I never have to raise my voice. They keep each other in check. We still have difficult days but our honest discussion has deepened their respect for me, and mine for them. When they don’t like something, I explain why we’re doing it and they usually trust me. They’ve become the class I look forward to every week.

Teaching involves a lot of talking. But to do the job well, you also have to listen. I’m considering contracts for all my classes now. Even the adults.

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