woman down

DSC_0140Last Friday was one of the most devastating teaching days I’ve had for a very, very long time. In the middle of my first lesson I felt like vanishing into the thin air, or, as I haven’t found the magic cloak yet, simply walking out of the classroom. After the lesson, I broke down and shed some tears. I had to be efficient because only ten minutes later another lesson started. So I had it quickly and efficiently done with. Had two more or less pleasurable lessons with my third year students who feel like friends by now and with whom no horrible surprises tend to come up. And then, to finish the day with an elegant let’s-close-the-circle, had one more lesson which made me cringe, weep inside, shout inside and hate every teenage student on the planet (don’t worry, it only lasted till the end of the lesson)

The me, who was driving back home that Friday evening, was a beaten woman. The despair, the anger, the hurt, the overwhelming disappointment made me want to crawl to a shelter and stay there healing my wounds. Although the reflective practice mode started to push its way in, I discarded it. I decided to stay down and feel the weakness. To let it wash through and over me. I somehow felt that this time I HAD to give the pain its time and share and not fight it off immediately.

Today, two days after the bullet sent me down, I feel like getting slowly up again. I have the will and the energy to take this big monster into pieces in order to understand what happened.

So here it comes, reflective practice in the making! I decided to share the first lesson with you. I know that doing so will display my weaknesses and shortcoming as a teacher, but, as Bréne Brown has so beautifully said

There’s nothing more daring than showing up, putting ourselves out there and letting ourselves be seen

It’s a class of 16 older teenagers. I have been teaching this class for seven months by now. We have had our ups and downs. There have been lessons that hoist me up on the clouds. And then there have been some that I wouldn’t like to teach again. The students  have EXTREMELY mixed levels of English. Some are getting close to B2 and a few struggle somewhere between A1 and A2. Some speak almost fluently, others stare at me blankly when I give instructions. This heterogeneity is something I keep struggling with day in and day out.

Anyhow, in the morning of that notorious Friday, while drinking my morning coffee, I found a great article through twitter talking about the verbalization of the English nouns. You can read it here. I found the read so interesting and entertaining, I decided to share it with my students. So when I walked into the classroom, I wrote on the board – Do you salad or sandwich?, looked quizzically at my students and asked what they think of this sentence.

Most seemed still so profoundly asleep that no movement came from their desks. Two students looked at the board, and one showed what I thought was a sign of surprise. We had a short exchange of opinions, I talked a little bit of what I thought was an interesting phenomena, but soon stopped as no interest seemed to be stirred.

Then I tried to make a link with the topic and asked where we could possibly encounter such a sign … (the topic of the lesson was advertising). Out of the 16 students NOBODY had a clue. And that’s when it dawned on me – this lesson is doomed. Full stop. And I still had another 1 hour and 20 minutes to go.

I consider myself a rather confident teacher, but there are moments when my Achille’s heel gets a fatal blow and I lose the grip.

I pushed the students further, giving them hints, until one girl saved my face and answered that it could be in a café. I grabbed her answer as the straw to save my life, gave a ridiculously enthusiastic yes! and moved to my main lesson plan. I wrote advertisement and commercial on the board, asked them to figure out the difference (which they did) and then invited them to recall a recent commercial they had seen. I asked them to tell their partners what had been the product or service advertised, who had been the target group and what kind of adjectives they could possibly associate with the commercial. Out of eight pairs, four started talking in English, two in French, and two kept their mouths shut. When I went to their desks and asked which commercials they were thinking about, they shrugged their shoulders and responded that nothing came to their mind. I tried to help them a little proposing places and occasions but no answer came. The collective feedback was a disaster.

By now, I felt I was whizzing down a water slide with nothing to stop the final drowning. I had lost my students (well, I hadn’t been able to join them in the first place), I had lost any confidence I thought I had, and I felt a growing animosity in the classroom.

We then moved on to the reading part. I saw it as a ways to gather my thoughts, to calm down and think of the best way to continue this lesson. I wrote down some questions I asked them to find answers to while reading. And as usual, encouraged them to highlight any new or interesting vocabulary. The article was full of shocking and incredible information, but none of the students seemed to think so. There was no reaction whatsoever, no raised eyebrows, no questions, nothing!

You might actually finish this story yourself by now …

The final activity which I was sure would take up a lot of time and hopefully stir a considerable amount of interest, neither lasted long nor excited most of them. (there were some exceptions – bless them! probably students finally woken up …)

When the time was finally up, I felt like collapsing right there and then. I felt no relief, only disappointment, anger and hurt. As usual, I immediately started scrutinizing my own actions to find where I had taken the wrong turn. Probably, immediately in the morning, when I decided to wake up. Shouldn’t have 😉

So here you have it, my shameful and disastrous lesson! I am in the middle of working on this script right now. Rereading, editing, rearranging. I am trying to find a new path to tread with these students. I’m looking for a new toolbox. And I will keep you posted!


14 thoughts on “woman down

  1. Hello! I think it’s awesome that you have been brave enough to share… 🙂 I say that as I am sure many of us in this profession have had a day like that happen – where a lesson completely falls flat… and many teacher’s out there would be too self-conscious to want to share… in fear of being “exposed” as not living up to some standard of the perfect teacher. It’s happened to all of us – especially if working with teenagers 🙂

    So if nothing else… give yourself a smile for that. Don’t trash the lesson – it sounds like a useful one.

    In the spirit of reflecting, what might you do different the next time you had to teach that lesson?

    It sounds more like a challenge of this particular group & their motivation in general (the mixed levels obviously don’t help) It’s a group of teenagers, which I am no means an expert with – so let’s see… are they interested in learning English in general? Are they being forced to do it by their parents/school?

    • Hi Matt, and thank you so much for responding to this post, and responding so encouragingly! This is one of the perks that come with blogging. Having people out there who know exactly what I’m talking about and giving useful feedback.
      I appreciate your final questions a lot, too. And the last ones, hit the nail on the head! But first, what would I do differently…well, quite a number of things. I would love to use technology, to start with! When I started planning this lesson, I had an ideal in my mind that included some great youtube videos and a slideshow of ads, BUT, unfortunately, most of the classrooms are not equipped for that 😦 I would have loved to have enough spare time on my hands to browse through magazines and newspapers in order to bring loads of ads to the classroom …
      So, yes, I would have loved to invest more time into this lesson. And I will! Now I know what I want this lesson to look like, so I have it at the back of my mind, ready to be executed one day 🙂 But then again, with the number of lessons I have, and the family, it’s not always possible to afford the luxury of preparing one single lesson for hours …
      And now the second bunch of questions concerning motivation. Having so mixed levels within the same group frustrates some of the students at some point of the journey. i guess, it’s unavoidable. I cannot prepare workshops for different levels every week nor respond to every single student’s needs in every lesson. So, I guess we have to learn to work together, and it’s also up to the students to be inventive and find their way. As you might see from the blogpost, I do offer open-ended activities, so at some point it comes down to them. Having said that I do have to remind myself from time and again that they are teenagers who do not feel extremely enthusiastic about learning English Friday morning, but prefer planning their weekend instead. Which, of course, is not an excuse I would or could accept for weeks in a row. As for motivation, well, they do like English, but it wasn’t something they asked for when enrolling in our school. They came to learn graphic design.
      So, to cut the long story short – I, for my part, could make this lesson much more appealing (and I will) but students have to invest their part, too. It takes two to tango!

      • I started laughing reading your post as I know exactly what you mean – sometimes we put so much energy into the lessons we create, don’t know we? There have been times I researched things, printed papers out, laminated them, created sets of cards for groups, etc… sure that they would “love” the activity. Then for whatever reason it just doesn’t click with that group or that person. 🙂

        (Then comes the feeling inside of me screaming… “COME ON!! You gotta love this! Check out all the interesting extra material! There is so much to discuss…. DISCUSS! You WILL discuss… and you WILL love it!!)

        Of course I would never say that, and end up laughing at that part of me that wants to – but that’s just human nature I suppose. Over the years I think my skin has gotten thicker with that, and on a few occasions I’ve simply killed a lesson or activity if I see that it’s REALLY not going down well. I then take that chance to do a little feedback session with the group and try and align myself with their needs/wants — this often helps the rapport with the group as they like the fact that the trainer can read the group well enough to see there is a need for a change of topic/activity.

        As Paul mentioned below, many teachers would just not notice or not even care… and I think the fact that you did notice and that you do care is a wonderful sign. The students surely would see that as well.

        And yes – I also agree that we teachers tend to be really hard on ourselves and can be extra critical of ourselves… it’s a bit like a musician playing in front of a group. The musician might make all kinds of mistakes but most people in the audience will have no idea and don’t care… there is quite a bit of acting involved in teaching I guess 🙂

        Anyhow… look forward to checking out future blog posts!

      • “don’t we” I intended to say in the above post….. yes… I get paid to teach this language. :-p

  2. Hi Sirja
    I’m new to the ELT blogosphere, and I stumbled across you and your site as I was trying to find some way in to it. This was the first post I’ve seen by anyone on the list of new additions to my Google Reader…
    …and I’m glad it was… ! Such an honest and moving account. I feel your pain…

    If it’s any consolation, I think any teacher worth his or her salt has had multiple experiences like this. Teachers not worth their salt (and there are more than a few) probably have lessons like it all the time and just don’t notice or care.

    There are so many variables to keep in mind when preparing a lesson, and a lot of them are totally unknown and unpredictable: student motivations, what happened to them before the lesson, some kind of inscrutable group dynamic affecting the class that day, etc etc etc etc.

    I’ve often had the experience of taking in something new – an activity or an article – quite enthused by it, and then watching in dismay as it ‘goes down like a lead balloon’ and I die on stage like an unfunny comedian. Or something that stimulated and excited a class a month ago can fail to ignite an apparently identical class next time. Who knows why? Sunspots? Biorhythms? Maybe I wasn’t wearing my lucky socks?

    I guess all we can do is ask ourselves what we would have done differently, if we had the chance again. That, and not beat ourselves up, just resolve to try again.

    Students, we should remember, are much more forgiving of a “bad” lesson than we are. I am sure plenty of the language lessons I went to as a teenager were dreadfully done, but I neither noticed nor cared at the time 🙂 That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to make our classes great – just to say that a lot of the judgement we feel coming from the students is imagined.

    Perhaps one of the dangers of using the internet to research teaching ideas is that we come across what sound like great ideas everywhere, and somehow get the sense that everyone else is having wacky and amazing adventures in their classes, and we’re the only ones walking through mud sometimes.

    That’s why posts like yours are valuable, and I appreciate this one! Chin up, and good luck next time. I look forward to hearing about happier times soon 🙂

    • Hi Paul,
      And a trillion thanks for your answer! Made me laugh, made me nod my head, made me pat my head and say, “See!” I absolutely agree with your comment. I especially liked the part on students’ and teacher’s take on the lesson. On how we, the teachers can beat ourselves up on what we thought was a bad lesson, whereas the students may simply move on to the next part of their day. It reminded me of some statistics I once read (cannot remember where) on how long teachers and students pondered on a lesson they had just finished. The difference was almost hilarious 😉
      So once again thank you and i am looking forward to reading your posts and hearing from you!

  3. I can only add that I’ve been there too! Don’t know if it’s biorhythms 😉 but without doubt a good class is at least partly about chemistry. Like any other interaction, sometimes everyone is sparking off each other, and sometimes they just aren’t. What I will say, and it’s easy for me to say not having been there, is that perhaps when you decided it was doomed, you in fact doomed it, that the students picked up on your projection that it wasn’t going to work. (though they’re just as responsible as you for making sparks-or not). Because it sounds to me like all the ingredients were there for a useful and engaging lesson. Not least a motivated and dedicated teacher.

    • I know EXACTLY what you mean, Rachael! I have been already told that I have a funny way of influencing people’s moods around me 😉 if happy, then make everyone so, if …. ouch. So, yeah, maybe I sent out some distress signals and students were not comfortable nor able or willing to deal with those. Yes, absolutely. I guess it was one of the many bitter ingredients that slipped into the potion.
      Love your insights!

  4. Emotions are definitely contagious, and there’s a theory that people who feel and express emotions more deeply (and I’m guessing that’s you) are more likely to cause others to ‘catch’ them. Fascinating stuff, I think ,anyway.

  5. Hi Sirja,

    I can totally relate to your story. I also tried an advertising lesson with teens which included watching some funny adverts and then them making their own advert. Even though they did it all and the end product was great it wasn’t a topic they were greatly interested in and it took a lot of coaxing from me to get them into it!
    Don’t blame yourself too much, we all know how teens can be and sometimes even with the best will and lesson in the world it’s impossible to get a reaction from them!
    Something I’ve found useful is getting some reflections from the students – at the end of class get them to write a reflection on a post it note, for e.g. complete the sentences – today I felt… or today’s lesson was… this was you can get some idea of why they reacted the way they did, maybe they were all up revising the night before or maybe they are worried about something totally unrelated to your class.

    화이팅 as they say here in Korea! (fighting = you can do it, chin up in Korean)


  6. Dear Gemma, so nice to hear your voice here! Just yesterday, before going to bed, I read your blogpost on starting a lesson. I loved it, and thought about what you wrote a lot…and then I woke up this morning and there was your comment here 😉
    I like to think that sometimes it’ s simply chemistry that wasn’t there, that the students were thinking of something completely different, that they don’ blame me for a nuisance lesson … However, with this particular class there’s more to it than that. All these different levels give me a total headache and I know there’ s quite a lot of frustration in the air. right now my brain is working 24/7 trying to figure out what’s the way foreward. i will definitely keep you posted.
    Thanks again for stopping by and look forward to reading your posts.
    Best greetings from ( still snowy) Switzerland.

  7. Pingback: Pet peeves and new #ELT blogs | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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