The trouble with ELT is that it’s all too personal. To practise the present perfect you ask questions such as What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve ever experienced?. To recycle vocabulary you ask: How are you feeling at the moment? Are you a hard-working person or are you lazy? To teach ways of expressing the future you ask your students about their ambitions and future plans. All in all, we interrogate and/or eavesdrop all the time. We think that to meet all the communicative goals and aims we simply have to do this. But what if we ask questions or set tasks and we are not prepared to hear the answers/outcomes.
Earlier today, when introducing the concept of stereotypes in an intermediate class, I gave my students the following task: I gave them cards with expressions on them, for example, a typical Czech teenager/pensioner/teacher/student/mother/man/etc. Their task was to describe these categories using sentences such as I usually sit in the park feeding pigeons. I am always short of money. The other student in the pair had to guess. Then I got them to share their answers as a whole-class activity. I was particularly curious to hear what they think about a typical Czech teacher. This is what one student came up with: I yell at my kids all the time. They don’t like me and they laugh at me when I’m not there. I do the same work over and over again and I’m badly paid. I have two months of holiday…
Although the student was allegedly describing a primary school teacher, all of a sudden, I desperately wanted to defend my job and tell the students that by no means do I feel this way. It eventually turned into a fruitful discussion but still… It got me thinking. Should we ask questions like this.? I mean, in fact, it wasn’t personal. It was me who made it personal. But you never know what to expect so you’d better be prepared for the worst case scenario.
In the same lesson, we read an article on how foreigners see a typical Czech. It was a tongue-in-the-cheek blog post (not the most recent one, by the way) and in one paragraph, it described how a typical Czech woman dresses. For example, it mentioned spray-on jeans and big cleavages. It was a group of 17-year students and at some point, it got a little embarrassing for me ( I felt the blush on my face) when one boy mentioned the cleavage thing and then inadvertently looked at me (mind you, I was wearing a regular T-shirt!). I know it’s a very natural reaction; when talking about hairstyles, you will probably look at the other person’s head. Anyway, to make things worse for myself, I realized I was wearing tight jeans (as were many other girls in the group). What I mean is that sometimes, things can get a bit embarrassing in an L2 classroom no matter if somebody’s remark is meant as an insult, which is a rare case, or if it’s totally harmless. You simply have to develop a thick skin.
Once a teacher trainee I had observed was quite sad after the lesson. Her question “Are you bored?”, addressed to a teenage boy, was rewarded with an instant answer: “Yes”. I later explained to her that she shouldn’t take it personally (yes, I of all people!). If a student is bored, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a boring lesson. Plus I reassured her that he probably didn’t even mean it. Either he might not have wanted to elaborate on her question or he did not understand. Or he was just being very insensitive. I didn’t tell her that she shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.
To sum up, being in a language classroom is pretty dangerous sometimes. And the ones in danger are not only the students but the teacher as well. 🙂