This is Tim Murphey’s research, not mine (cf. Dörnyei and Murphey 1993: 127). Given how well it was received when I cited it in my talk at TESOL France, I decided it was worth blogging. Feel free to comment.
One of the hardest parts of my job is dealing with people who don’t play the game. Not so much people who “challenge” my “authority” as the teacher but people who just aren’t there. I often feel completely traumatised by the fact that students have fallen asleep in my lessons, I justify this by saying well I do teach Academic English at 8 am on a Monday to undergraduates who spend a substantial proportion of their weekend drinking… nevertheless… no matter how much I love my job or how hard I work at it I may always have to deal with people in my classroom who just aren’t there. That said, I have grown to believe that sound classroom dynamics are founded on mutual respect as opposed to a sort of disciplined participation which can sometimes take on a superficial dimension reminiscent of Coleman (1978)’s “teaching spectacles and learning festivals” where everyone jumps through the necessary hoops but how much real language that the learner finds within him/her at the end of the course remains a bit of a mystery.
“Lost” and “lackadaisical” were the labels that Murphey had for the present yet absent learners in his classroom. He did a personal experiment on these learners and labelled them “Young Einsteins”, having read that Einstein failed French and wondered if that was the result of a teacher not believing in him. The premise was that these students would one day do great things. They weren’t absent, they were just undiscovered. And he (Murphey) would help them be discovered by according them the necessary space and respect their brilliance commanded. He began to approach them with a certain air of reverence, was highly interested in whatever little participation they had to offer and basically moved them, in his own head, from learners who just occupied the space to participants with a unique place in his classroom. Over time, these learners began to establish more of a relationship with him, he got to know their interests, tweak his lessons, like we all do, to correspond to their needs and interests. Now I haven’t been able to work out if the fruit of this labour was more the result of lesson content or teacher attitude but something got them going and “lost” and “lackadaisical” became “assertive learners”.
I recently read James Taylor’s interview with Anna Musielak in which she mentions that her students sometimes find her too forgiving, a sentiment I can completely relate to. She also mentions the word “strict” she was talking about teaching teenagers. Again this is something I’ve experienced a lot as well and for the longest time I felt it was because I had a lot of trouble demonstrating authority. This feeling got so persistent that I decided to do an MA and unfortunately felt even less authoritative at the end of it. And then I stumbled upon the words of Ben Goldacre in his TED Talk Battling Bad Science (I am so sorry, I wish I were more hyperlink-savvy). And he describes “authority” as the weakest form of evidence known to man and I have always thought this and was so marvelled that he said it. There is something weak about authority, isn’t there? Especially when it is manifest as the unquestionable and intimidating teacher authority that we have all experienced at some point in our careers as students. In my observation, teachers who have command of authority and teachers who command respect aren’t one and the same thing. And if there’s one thing that Anna Musielak’s presence commands, it is respect.
I think that it’s interesting that Murphey uses Einstein in his experiment because there are all these stories about Einstein’s childhood, some have said he had speech trouble, others have vehemently refuted it, many believe he was misunderstood especially as a student but I think there’s one thing a lot of people agree on; that he challenged authority in a magnificently innocent way. I have always perceived him as a highly accessible and deeply human historical figure, regardless of how well one understands Theoretical Physics.
Does my student who once fell asleep respect me? Probably. Should I tolerate his falling asleep? Probably not. Will I let it slide if it happens again? Probably, and then fall into some sort of existential crisis about my inability to get my learners to engage in Academic English at 8 o’clock on a Monday morning. Am I right? There is no right. I am being myself and I identify with some of the things Anna said. We all have different experiences. And how much fun did we all have sharing experiences three weeks ago?:)