Why oh why?

I wanted to tell you that it was not correct but the activity was going so slowly that I didn’t want to prolong it by interrupting. 
You may try to guess who uttered the sentence above. Or I may well reveal it right away. It wasn’t the teacher – it wasn’t me. It was one of my students; one of the best ones, I should stress. The thing is that I wasn’t concentrating enough, or I may have been concentrating on something else, and I overlooked a minor mistake somebody had made while we were checking an exercise. The strong students are always alert; they are watchful, like on tree stand hunting. As they have nothing better to do – they were the first to finish and thus they are a little bored – they have plenty of time to look around and listen while others struggle to get their answers right. Despite paying close attention to the struggling student, I may easily overlook the incorrect or imprecise part. I usually do realize it a couple of minutes later and I try to fix it by telling the class apologetically; however, I do so only when a minor mistake becomes important because the language item is the focus of the exercise. In a mixed-ability class like this, the response I usually get from the crowd, in the form of an almost inaudible and incomprehensible mutter, is usually something along the lines: Oh dear, didn’t I say it? And I respond, amused but rather impatiently: “So why didn’t you tell us if you knew? You would have made things easier for me – for all of us”. And then the same student adds: “I wanted to tell you that it was not correct but the activity was going so slowly that I didn’t want to prolong it by interrupting”. Now I don’t know whether to thank the student politely or shoot another impatient look at him. This was a reproach in disguise, of course. I wonder why incidents like this make me feel so frustrated. But then I sit at a staff meeting and the boss claims something we all know is wrong. But nobody dares to object openly; either because they don’t want to upset the boss or because they want to go home as soon as possible. That’s when I think of the cheeky student and I’m grateful for his honesty. 
There’s another thing that bothers me. I feel rather schizophrenic about my attitude towards my almost grown-up students. They are 17 or 18 so I feel I should treat them as adults. I shouldn’t reproach and scold them. But there’s this thing about homework, latecomers and disruptive chatting; what should I do when 50% of them haven’t done their homework? Shall we check it with those 50% or leave it till the next time, when everybody has completed (copied) it? I know that for some students homework is a waste of time, but is it fair not to require it from them? And what about the latecomers? Not only is tardiness violation of the school rules and latecomers will officially be punished anyway, but most importantly, it is disturbing and impolite. Also, I feel really embarrassed when I have to scold an 18-year-olds who are chatting and laughing out loud because something hilarious has caught their attention. The other day one of the students almost had a nervous breakdown after somebody had laughed out loud and she thought they’d laughed at her. 
I think I know why these things bother me. I think it’s because deep inside I wish I could gain control over everything in the class, which I obviously can’t. I like discipline but I hate enforcing it. I hate bossing people around. I want everybody to be happy, including myself, which is not possible, of course. The thing is that if you work hard and plan a lesson thoroughly, you somehow expect that things will go according to plan. But why can’t I just apply all the wonderful tips EFL teachers share on the internet? Why can’t I just teach the language the way I think is best for my students? Why is teaching so complicated? Why is it not straightforward and predictable? I really hate to ask questions you’d expect from a novice, and I hate the feelings of powerlessness after so many years of experience. Well, maybe I should be thankful for all those feelings in the end. Perhaps, without them I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the successes. How would I actually know a lesson went well without having experienced a feeling of despair and failure? Would I want to improve my teaching if I thought there is nothing to work on? There’s no point in answering suggestive and rhetoric questions. But it always helps me to ask them…. 


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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6 Responses to Why oh why?

  1. annloseva says:

    The many questions you're asking seem an emotional outpour, I think it's good and helpful. I don't have answers but I have a couple of comments.

    I know just the type of older teens you're talking about. Last year I had a group of that sort: nice guys that could occasionally be reasoned with but too often were frustrating in the same ways that you mentioned. A couple of times I just took a seat in a corner of the room and sat there with a look of exhaustion and disbelief of the kind of mess my class had become. I think they took pity on me. After that several more times when I felt desperate thanks to their behaviour they could sense it and catch it in my look – and the most reasonable ones hushed the most active. It was pleasant. It took time, and they are indeed very good people.

    In connection with this, “I want everybody to be happy, including myself, which is not possible, of course.” – you're writing. In my view (and remembering your comment on my pear post), it's just as possible as potentially liking everything. =) So, isn't it possible for those with a zen state of mind?))

    Thanks for writing this post.


  2. Kevin Stein says:

    Hi Hana.

    Thank you for this post. You've caught almost all the things that have been pressing down on me in my classroom over the past few months. I just wanted to let you know how much the following resonated with me:

    “But then I sit at a staff meeting and the boss claims something we all know is wrong. But nobody dares to object openly; either because they don't want to upset the boss or because they want to go home as soon as possible. “

    I had to stop reading and just think about this for a while. My students are just like me. At times they are impatient, frustrated, or just plain bored. And it's nice to be reminded there is really no reason to expect them to behave better in a situation than I would.

    “I feel really embarrassed when I have to scold an 18-year-olds who are chatting and laughing out loud because something hilarious has caught their attention.”

    I have the same issue. Often times I just wait until they quiet down, regardless of how long it takes hoping that the keen students will express their displeasure and things will slowly balance out towards the side of students stating on task. So far there hasn't been much balancing out going on. But much more silence from me.

    “I really hate to ask questions you'd expect from a novice, and I hate the feelings of powerlessness after so many years of experience.”

    I sometimes (often) wonder if I'm in the wrong profession for just this reason. I've come to realize that part if being a good teacher is recognizing what (and what not) I can control in my classroom. And the longer I teach, the smaller the “me” box gets. But lately I'm thinking that it might be a good thing. Maybe it helps me focus more on the “student” box and be a bit more than I did before.

    Anyway, sorry for this rambling reply. I just want to say thank you again. Your post meant a lot to me.



  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks you for your comment – pertinent and thought-provoking as usual. I’m glad to hear that the group you had last year helped you overcome your frustration. I don’t think it’s typical for a group of teenagers to take pity on the teacher, at least not openly. In my experience, they can be very sensitive and considerate when you deal with them individually, but they tend to exhibit herd behaviour, which rarely manifests compassion and sympathy. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel these emotions. On the contrary, the more moved they feel, the more laboriously they try to hide it.
    Anyway, regarding happiness, I know what you mean when you mention a zen state of mind. Yes, I should choose my words more carefully next time unless I want to be caught in the act again 🙂 No, seriously … what I meant was that by making myself happy I may sometimes make other people unhappy and vice versa. Demanding and maintaining good order and discipline, for example, can be good for me as a teacher, but my students may find these oppressive acts. On the other hand, uncontrolled mess (read a meaningless fun activity) can be great for the kids, while I suffer as a professional.
    Well, needless to say, after pouring out my heart on my blog, the next teaching day was fabulous. I dunno, there must be some regularity, some pattern or something: bad – good -hopeless – fabulous…. I promise I’ll figure out some day 🙂



  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for your wonderful, heartfelt comment. I feel a little guilty about the fact that I’m glad to hear that similar issues have been pressing you recently. But I hope you know what I mean. I’m simply glad to hear that there are people out there fighting the same enemies – the feelings of despair and frustration.

    I’m happy to hear that so many issues mentioned in my post resonated with you. It’s because I had actually been reluctant to publish the post at first; I’d felt it is too emotional, too trivial and too unprofessional. But apparently, my worries turned out to be trivial – not the post itself.

    I love what you say about your students: “My students are just like me”. Wow, that’s the point. They are like us indeed, and we keep forgetting it. They have the right to complain, to feel exhausted, confused, angry and offended. They have the right to express those feelings openly as well. Why do we think they’ll just follow our instructions without questioning them? This also refers to the latest post of yours, which I read earlier today. A great one, by the way.

    I also find it interesting what you say about control. Yes, it’s important to realize that there are things which we can’t control. I know that letting certain things be will make me feel more relaxed and happier, but it’s so hard. It’s so hard at times.

    Thanks again for your comment. It made my day.



  5. Clare Tyrer says:

    I train teachers. Last week I had spent hours planning a lesson on skills. I had tried to include some interesting discussion topics, some activities to try out, some 'gimmicky' technology for them to gawp at in awe, etc. However, I was disappointed and, if I am being honest, upset that the trainees did not engage with the material as much as I had hoped. In fact, by the time we got to the end of the 4-hour session (which felt interminable), I almost felt like throwing in the towel and walking out.

    It was only on reflection that I could look back on the lesson in a more objective way. The class takes place in the afternoon/evening, they are working full time and doing my course (with no remission from their timetables), they are not used to my 'style' and way of doing things, it is September (the busiest time of the year), etc. I suppose my point is that we get worked up over things because we care but there are so many other variables to consider that we need to step back sometimes and not take things too seriously. I don't always take this advice but I need to…


  6. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi, Clare.

    Yes, there are so many variables and this makes teaching so unpredictable. After so many years of experience, I should be able to predict most of them but I simply fail from time to time. It's not enough to take the variables generally; it's not enough to take into consideration that now I'm dealing with teenagers so I have to do this and this. Every teenager is different. Even when you teach afternoon classes it does not mean that your students will always be tired. That's not how things work. As you say, reflection is the key. We need to step back. For me this stepping back means writing a post and reading comments from teachers and trainers all over the world who have similar experience. This really helps.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.



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