I’m a chameleon, so what?

Veiled chameleon, photo by Billybizkit
They say you need to individualize classroom instruction. In other words, since each student has their individual needs, and their identities are unique and complex, you need to treat them as individuals, not as members of a group. It’s not that I don’t agree, it’s just that I want to say that from time to time it’s interesting to zoom in and reflect on a group as a whole. Although a group consists of individuals, it’s an entity itself, with its unique, complex characteristics. 
It’s obviously not a revolutionary revelation that each group has a different dynamic. But now I’m not talking about specific behavioural patterns or relationships within a group. I’m talking about the way you deliver instruction; the way you teach a particular group. There’s little doubt that it makes a difference if you teach adults or young learners, if you deal with a big group or a small group, or if you have just one student. But that’s not my focus either. 
At the moment I teach English to six different classes. The youngest learners are in class 2 (12-year-olds) and the oldest ones are in class 7 (17-year-olds). There is no point in comparing these six classes as groups because they are at different levels of proficiency. However, I can’t help juxtaposing, say, this year’s class 3 with the last year’s class 3. The result of such a comparison is intriguing; apparently, I’m a chameleon type of teacher.
Imagine English as potato mash but I’m feeding you diced potatoes, at least for the time being. This is what I thought and uttered the other day, and this metaphor more or less reflects the way I’m teaching English to class 3 now. Here, I serve grammar items one by one – like diced potatoes (or McNuggets, to use Scott Thornbury’s terminology). It’s because I believe they learn best if the language is presented step by step. They can’t take in more. My contention is that they feel confused when they don’t know why something works the way it does. They need explanations, translations, graphs and lots of examples. I don’t want to sound too narrow-minded or biased, but to me this is the only way to draw their attention. This is the only way to help them succeed. 

The last year’s class 3, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the ‘puree’ style of teaching from the very start. They didn’t want to be served potatoes; I fed them bits of the puree immediately; maybe because somebody else had already fed them diced potatoes before. One way or another, they usually got it when I dealt with grammar issues implicitly. I could throw new language items at them and they had no problem to understand and respond. I’m not saying that all of them felt the same way but generally, they loved group discussions, project work and collaborative learning in general. I didn’t need to worry that they’d stop using English if I didn’t keep an eye on them all the time. They explored and discovered. They experimented. They spoke a lot, and they didn’t seem to care about mistakes. They were eager to get their message across, no matter the cost. They were independent and autonomous and came to each class with more knowledge than I’d taught them because they were genuinely interested in the language and voluntarily got exposed to it outside school. All in all, I felt like a totally different person/teacher in this class. That doesn’t mean I felt better or worse that in the other one, though. I just used different techniques and skills with this group. I applied different methods. I could experiment myself. I could be creative. 
This first group seems to prefer diced potatoes and that’s why I serve them. But as I said before, I see any language as puree or mash, where the potatoes finally blend and merge with other ingredients. Ultimately, you can no longer distinguish one ingredient from another in the mixture, and, I suppose, this is the time when one starts acquiring a language, rather than learning it. So I believe that once the learners get a grasp of how the language system works, some day, they’ll be able to dip in the puree. 
Switching from an atomistic to holistic style of teaching, and vice versa, is not a problem for me. Within one day, I change my teaching style the same way a chameleon changes its colour when adapting to its new environment. I blend in with the surroundings and adjust my teaching to match the spirit of the group. I don’t know if my approach is right but the transformation is natural and inevitable. I’d like to think that I follow my intuition; that the learner is more important than the method, but I may only be volatile and fickle. I may lack consistency or aherence to principles. Some ELT professionals may even consider me a herectic, but by some inexplicable force, I’m driven to teach a particular group in a particular way.
So now when I ask myself what kind of teacher I am, I can no longer give a definite answer because it largely depends on who I’m teaching at a given moment. My teaching can be highly communicative in one class, while it can be more traditional in another. However controversial it may sound, I believe it actually helps me grow as a teacher. It broadens my horizons because I can try out more strategies and techniques than if I only stuck to one way of teaching. Anyway, what else would you expect a chameleon to say? 🙂
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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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2 Responses to I’m a chameleon, so what?

  1. lizzieserene says:

    I'm really very curious now, if grammar is potatoes (mashed or diced) then what is vocabulary?

    On a more serious note, it is probably possible to say that we are not only different kinds of teachers to different groups of students, but also in different parts of a lesson.

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    I think you asked a very serious question, Anne 🙂 Honestly, I think it's when you stop drawing a dividing line between grammar and vocabulary that you get the mash. I was actually referring to a mixture of both, which are present, for example, in functional language, collocations, or chunks of language. These can be treated and looked at as separate vocabulary items but in fact grammar is embedded in them as well.
    Over here, I think we tend to teach grammar separately, especially at the early stages of L2 learning and we present lots of empty, useless structures because we believe that our students need to understand the system first. We present sliced potatoes such as, *I went to the cinema yesterday, I will go to the cinema tomorrow, I’m going to the cinema now*. Some of us believe that our students can’t use a phrase before they fully understand how it’s formed and what every single component means. We think that we can present chunks and idioms once or students are more advanced. I fully understand this policy but I’m not 100% sure it’s the right approach. Nevertheless, I do what I do, often against my strong beliefs. I hope this makes some sense to you 🙂

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