Seeing the Student in Front of Me

Hegel looking like he'd like to invert himself out of an uncomfortable situation.

Hegel looking like he’d like to invert himself out of an uncomfortable situation.

The other day I was teaching a standard test prep class.  For anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of of this particular standard test, the way perhaps some people are also interested in how water-boarding simulates drowning, you can check out the finer points of the STEP test here.  Usually, I use the test as a jumping off point for more traditional language classroom activities.  You know, things like:

– Communicative activity: take a dialogue from the standardised test and have the students personalise it and practice it in pairs.

– Vocabulary work: Have students run through a series of multiple choice questions, identify unknown vocabulary words, and working in small groups create new sentences using the vocabulary words.

– Negotiation/language awareness: Have students solve a set of questions (usually 3) and then, in English, discuss the answers they chose and why they chose them before doing to a group consensus and checking their answers.

– Language Awareness: Pass out a batch of questions compiled from previous tests.  Students try and find two or more questions which are testing knowledge of the same grammar point.  Answer the questions and generate a grammar rule which can help them quickly solve similar questions in the future.

But before I have the students study, I like to take a baseline of where they are.  So last week, all the students took the listening portion of the test individually on their own computer in the computer lab.  I wrote on the board that they were supposed to take the test from beginning to end.  They were not to stop the audio or rewind it.  And when they finished, they were to correct their own test and provide me with the scores.  I walked around and just made sure that they had found the correct files on the server and were moving along.  One student, lets call him Mr. M, seemed to be progressing slightly slower than the other students.  After about 40 minutes, when all of the other students had finished the test and were checking their answers, Mr. M had just started answering questions on the last part of the test.  I sat down next to him and tilted my head in that way that signifies I’m curious about something (and which lately so infuriates my daughter…and perhaps has always infuriated my students as well without me ever noticing).  Mr. M raised his eyebrows and his mouth formed this small circle of surprise.  Perhaps you know the look, the one that usually follows an accusation like, “God!  How, in one afternoon, could you have possibly eaten that whole jar of guacamole dip which I was planning to serve on Saturday?”

Mr. M’s look of guilt mixed with surprise led to this conversation:

Me: Mr. M, did you pause the recording while you were taking the test?

Mr. M: (looking like he just jingled a prison cell door and found it unlocked) No, I didn’t pause it.  I never paused it.

Me: Did you rewind the questions and listen to them more than once?

Mr. M.: I couldn’t understand what they were saying.

Me: Hmmmm…. (and I am sure my head tilted a bit more, which, according to my daughter means I am angry and which only serves to infuriate her further)

So here I was looking at Mr. M and thinking, “How could he have simply ignored everything I had instructed him to do at the beginning of class?  What is wrong with him?  What is wrong with all these students that they justcan’tfollowdirectionsanddotheonelittlethingIaskthemtodosoIcangetabaselineand…”  And in the middle of my crazy-anger-James-Joyce-has-infected-my-though-process mental ramble, I stopped thinking and looked at Mr. M.  He was now kind of slumped over and looking at his shoes.  I’m pretty sure that guilty ‘o’ shape of his mouth had been replaced by a ready-to-be-reprimanded frown.  And then I felt this kind of sudden weightlessness.  As if I was floating just a few centimetres above my chair.

Me: So the test was pretty hard?

Mr. M: I didn’t know almost any of the answers.

Me: Yeah, I know how that feels.  I hate it when I can’t understand things in Japanese.

Mr. M: I didn’t feel like I was learning anything, so I rewound the questions until I could understand them.

Me: That’s great.  I’m so glad you’re keen to learn.

Mr. M: (Looking up at me)

Me: Probably, if we get know what your score is on the test without you rewinding your answers, we can find out which answers are the most difficult and then we can make a really good study plan.

Mr. M: (nods)

Me: How about this, tomorrow will you take another test.  This time do you think, even when you can’t understand a question, you can keep moving along with the test until the end?

Mr. M: (smiling) Yes.  I can do that.

There’s no real big lesson here.  I’m sure that there are many many teachers who don’t struggle with seeing the student in front of them.  I’ve had mentors who just instinctively knew where a student was at and were always willing to let go of their teacherly expectations and do what was best for the student.  I’m not one of those teachers.  But the other day, for at least one moment, I slipped into that space.  I realised that making Mr. M feel bad for not following directions was going to serve no practical purpose.  And I wonder, how can I find my way back to this kind of space more often.  Because being a teacher isn’t about trapping students like Mr. M in a box of guilt, but showing them how each and every step, the stumbles made out of anxiety as well as the confident strides of understanding, are all part of the journey of learning.


11 thoughts on “Seeing the Student in Front of Me

  1. Excellent post.

    “Mr. M: I didn’t feel like I was learning anything, so I rewound the questions until I could understand them.

    Me: That’s great. I’m so glad you’re keen to learn.

    Mr. M: (Looking up at me)”

    The big-picture moment: Sure, he may not have followed directions, but he demonstrated learner autonomy because, as you said, he’s keen to learn. He did something for himself instead of just letting the questions run by. Good for you for showing that you know what it’s like to not understand something and that he isn’t really in trouble.

    Tell you what: I’ve been told I’m a “born teacher,” but the intuition isn’t always there. Posts like this help me remember to consider the people in the room. Thanks for writing it.

    *By the way, I introduced my high school students to the Tanka poem about strawberries and we had a quite a good time discussing what separates–and unites–boys and girls. Stand by for a post about it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Kevin,

    I’m often sad that I’m not one of those teachers who make their instructions sound and be a fixed thing just for once. Really, I’m so flexible that I think I’m actually spineless.

    I seem to find other ways to make students feel bad though.

    Thanks for writing this post, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking a peak into the visual form of your mental ramble. It looks very interesting.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anna,

      I used to think it was a pretty great thing that when I told students what to do, I pretty much took a no excuses stance. But now I’ve come to think that much of the atmosphere of the classroom, and my relations not only with the student in front of me, but all the students in the class, depends on honestly caring about the individual student I’m talking with. So I often have to leave behind the whole idea of “a fixed thing.” I guess what I’m saying is, as you are wishing to move towards a less flexible thing, I’m trying to stretch myself into some flexibility. Wonder if there is some kind of speed measurement for flexibility and fixity?

      And I’m glad you enjoyed the visuals of the rambling. Although I probably should have had an escalating font or something as well.



  3. Hah, I love how you represented your James-Joycian thinking! That’s my mind sometimes too. All those words mashed together like a solid wall. But it didn’t stand for long, the conversation that followed was quite open, beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and I love you metaphor of the wall of my private rant which didn’t stand for long. It’s nice to catch a glimpse of the kind of teacher I would like to be all the time, or at least a bit more often.

      Good luck in the Corpus Linguistics MOOC, and I look forward to reading more about it on your blog.



  4. Really nice post. I loved your honest description of what was going through your mind when you saw that Mr. M wasn’t doing what he was instructed to do. One of my teaching beliefs is that we have to meet our students where they are at. It isn’t always easy. This is a cool example of how you did that with this student.

    I wonder if you would call that weightlessness that you felt “detachment”? (As in getting your ego out of the way so you could really see what was happening with Mr. M and then respond in curiosity and open-mindedness).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello WIlma,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. I think the floating was a feeling of ‘detachment.’ I hadn’t really seen it in that way before, but I think your description is exactly right. The ‘I’ of my eye kind of fell away and instead of getting angry, I could just focus and try and find out what was going on. Do you have any tips for how to reach that kind of state when teaching? Actually, that’s kind of crazy question, so huge. And probably something for an entire series of blog posts.


      Liked by 1 person

  5. That’s a great question, Kevin. There probably are many ways to reach that state of detachment when teaching (a series of blog posts – what a great idea!) For me, the concept of absolute positive regard for my students has helped a lot and also cultivating a genuine sense of curiosity. A kind of “hmm, I wonder why they are doing that?” when students are off-track.

    Liked by 1 person

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