Uncovering Einsteins…more of the fun I had at TESOL France 2011

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?:)

6 thoughts on “Uncovering Einsteins…more of the fun I had at TESOL France 2011

  1. First time a student fell asleep in my class, I kind of laughed. I think that’s a typical American reaction in the face of utter surprise (and mild fear). I didn’t know how to deal with it because it had never happened before and I’d been teaching for 5 years. Small class too, only 13 students.

    In the end, I said something to address it and moved on with the class, which by the way, was probably one of my most challenging in my 5 years teaching.

    You’re right… there is no right (smiling as i write that).

    I’d probably discuss it directly with the student after class if it happened again. Hmm… cheers, brad


  2. Divya, oh how I understand you
    I told you then three weeks ago I teach English to the students of Physics. I personally don’t find it boring in the least and do try a lot to unobtrusively share my excitement about the possible gREAT knowledge at hand, in various ways. Still I face these sleepy eyes. From time to time. Actually, at least 1 sleepy face a term!
    Does it disappoint me? it sure does. Do I believe HE’s an Enstein-to-be? I sure do! because ironically these sleepy ones have proved to be very original students, suggesting genuine ideas. I believe they respect me, I know that!
    Reasons for sleeping or simply “not being there” – various. the most common one – 3 hours of sleep due to the coming presentation of experimental data they hve to do for their MAJOR – Physics. I”m grateful they come to my class – 9 a.m. – at all, I truly respect that.

    One guy surprised me just this Tuesday. We had a speaking class – impersonating an international student who’s come to study science in Russia. AND he did manage to doze off in the pauses during the conversation!=)) einsteiny ability
    yet his ideas contributed a lot to the discussion, he was a valuable part of it, by all means..

    I approach each of the sleepy cases with fair amount of respect and..curiosity, why does that happen? poor dorm situation? so many reasons

    I’ve never slept on a lesson myself, still, when I come to think of it..Shouldn’t we ask our friends and former groupmates who did?..

    Thanks for this post! got me thinking


  3. Such a great post! And thank you for including me in it:) I think that if teachers respect students – both the little ones and the big ones – they will get the same treatment from them. But it is sometimes so hard to find the right path to “manage” a classroom…And can I just add – when I was stydying we had a lecture on philosophy at 7:45 in the morning…I had to get up at 5 just to get there on time, and I used to sit in the front row – the professor couldn’t see me as he was standing on a very high stage;) And I dozed off from time to time;) Bad me – I know;)


  4. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. 🙂
    Sorry Divya, I was asleep at the back of the class!
    Actually, although my eyes were closed, I was listening keenly, and my grunts which you thought were from me being chased by a monster in some nightmare were recognition of you hitting the spot!
    Great post.


  5. Dear David,

    Brilliant- love it:)!


    Path- great description, respect really is something we carve out over time isn’t it?


    I have often contemplated on exploring the sleep issue, I know a(n amazing) teacher who once dozed off while teaching, when I asked him if the students noticed he said “well, I think they did when my head hit the table!”


  6. Hi,
    Sorry I can’t get to your workshop on the 14th April.
    Talking about attitudes towards students I had an eyeopening experience at IATEFL Exeter
    I arrived late to a seminar which was in a small room with the door at the front. I was really hesitant about going in late and disturbing the talk, but I did go in anyway. The very warm “welcome” the speaker gave me as I walked in really floored me.
    I think it’s a very French thing this obsession with if-you’re late-to-class-it’s-the-end-of-the-world.
    Snapping out of that one and letting students who arrive late know they’re welcome seems to have made a difference for me (and has in no way increased the number of latecomers)


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