Learning to Laugh

For six years I was a social worker in Chicago.  I worked with clients with severe mental illnesses, teen runaways, young men at high risk for HIV transmission.  I learned a lot and often times found myself wondering how the powers that be (my bosses, the health care system, family members of my clients, my clients themselves) could possibly let a guy like me do an important job like this.  I worried about if I was doing enough.  If I was making unfixable mistakes.  If I was a pretender.

During this time in my professional life, it was my good fortune and plain dumb luck to be teamed up with Thomas Dunning, a veteran social worker and golden-haired prince of a man with the quickest smile in the city of Chicago.  I remember the first time I expressed my fears to him about the job I was doing.  Instead of a furrowed brow and the serious leaning-in response I expected, Tommy D. sat back in his chair and laughed.  The warmest laugh you could imagine.  A deep bubbling laugh, sweet like honey; a laugh that rose up and wrapped you not in shame, like some laughter does, but in joy and understanding.  And after he laughed, Thomas Dunning asked me, “What makes you think that what you are doing is so important?  That you are so special?”

I don’t want you to get the wrong impression.  Tommy D. did not always laugh.  He cried like all of us cried when we lost a client, when a teenager came to us broken and needing to be put back together, when the world was just too dark.  But it is his laugh I remember and miss most of all.  It was his way of reminding me, of reminding anyone who cared to listen, that we are not the centre of all things.  That while what we do might be important, it is not the final word, or even the most important word.

There is all kind of advice for us language teachers, things we should and should absolutely not do in our classrooms.  One of them is, ‘Never laugh at your students.’  Social workers get similar advice about never laughing at their clients.  Like all advice with the word ‘never’ in it, this advice is mostly worthless.  Tommy D taught me that it’s almost always OK to laugh.  Avoiding laughter wasn’t going to help anyone.  What I needed to do was find a way to laugh, my own way to laugh, which helped my clients feel safe.  It is the same laugh I carry within me now, the laughter which, I hope, helps my students feel safe as well.

It wasn’t until much later that I realised Tommy D., my first real mentor, was teaching me something much more important.  It wasn’t just about laughter.  It was about all rules which tell us ‘don’t.’  Rules which tell us  ‘don’t’ are the simple way out.  Don’t-rules are someone saying, ‘Hey, don’t think too much about about it.’  Don’t-rules are the simple path which cuts us off from finding our own way.  The real path to growth is rarely about believing in a list of don’ts.  Thanks to Thomas Dunning, I started to see how real growth began when we looked at all those don’t-rules, and tried to figure out when and why they sometimes need to be do-rules.

[The new iTDi blog is out .  From the beginning of March, I’ve been the acting editor/curator.  This issue, the blog posts are all about people like Thomas Dunning, people outside of ELT who have influenced us as teachers.  I hope you will give it a read, and perhaps join in the conversation by sharing an ‘Outside Influences’ story on your blog and linking to the iTDi blog.  This is my first time taking responsibility of something as large as the iTDi blog.  I am hoping not to make a total mess of it.  But while I’m worried, part of me knows it’s going to be just fine, just as long as I find a way to, at least once in a while, laugh at myself, and everything else going on around me.]

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.