I just had a post included on The Special Needs Issue of the iTDi Blog. If you’ve visited my blog before or read some of my earlier posts, you probably know that I work in a school with a pretty unusual student population. Most of the students (about 80%) suffer from School Refusal Syndrome. It’s not the same as truancy. My students didn’t skip out on school. In fact, if you ask them most of them will tell you that they really really wanted to be in school. There were just other factors, usually emotional or family related, which made getting out of bed and to school everyday a bit more than they could pull off. My iTDi blog post introduced 6 things my students have taught me about how to help create a safe and nurturing classroom environment. It’s not a very long blog post, so if you have time, I would be very happy if you gave it a read. It will also help make this short post make a bit more sense, as it is suddenly going to start with:
7. Get ready to apologize, often and sincerely: My students rarely argue and never full on fight. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a spat in class. Which I used to think was pretty odd as I was hearing an awful lot of apologies throughout the day. It took me a while to realize that it was because of the apologies that I was blessed with a peaceful classroom. You see, my students do get in funks. They can be short tempered. They can willfully ignore each other. But instead of getting angry, they usually just say, “sorry.” I’ve asked one of my students about this and she said she says sorry because that’s how she feels. She’s sorry because she didn’t do a very good job of noticing her friend’s mood. And you know what, I think this is a pretty good place to start off from when talking with someone who is in pain. If, after a second thought, a student who I had dismissed as being unmotivated or lazy or tired or any one of a hundred negative labels, seems like they might be in some kind of pain, then I start off by saying, “I’m sorry.” Sorry that it took a moment longer than it should have to notice. Sorry that I might not have the time we need to talk right now. Sorry that as an important member of our learning community, you aren’t in the best shape to learn today. Lots of meaning to be found in one short, “I’m sorry.”
8. Have puppets in the room and have no rules about those puppets in the room: OK, this is less about reflection than it is about sheer luck. I was running a special seminar on how to teach young learners of English (as in 3 to 5 year olds). I had about seven hand puppets lined up on a bookshelf. My high school students were practicing a role play and one of the shyer girls picked up a hand puppet (one of the frogs at the top of this post actually). She raised the pitch of her voice and started saying her lines while acting her part out with the hand puppet. Since that day, students have used the hand puppets during drama class, role playing home stay situations, or even during free talk time. Sometimes when students use a puppet, they are hamming it up and everyone laughs. But sometimes they are using a puppet because they just can’t find their voice without it. At these moments, my students don’t laugh. I have not made any rules about the puppets. They are in the room to be used as the students see fit. And “as the students see fit” is often the very same thing as “as the students need.”
Anyway, that’s #7 and #8. Numbers 1 through 8 are on the iTDi blog. There are also five other posts by some of the most thoughtful teachers working in ELT. I hope you will find the time to read them all. They are a big part of the reason why I’m proud to be a part of iTDi.