Thomas Chai is the Senior Executive Chef of Tung Lok Restaurants in Singapore. He is, in fact, one of the celebrity chefs thronged by the media. In a recent television appearance, Thomas was asked to prepare a banquet with all his signature dishes for a person important to him. Thomas invited his English teacher.
When Thomas first arrived in Singapore from Malaysia, he was not able to communicate in English. He had to attend the in-house evening English classes. But then because of the long work hours, he was always late for class and sleepy during lessons. He felt very embarrassed each time he dozed off. Yet his teacher smiled, patted him on the shoulder and gave him extra lessons when he was free. When it was the last lesson before the examinations, the teacher called the four weakest students to her room and gave each one a card with words “I expect no less than 4As in your examinations” written on it. That meant straight A. And that was what Thomas achieved. Upon getting the result, Thomas ran to the classroom where lessons used to be held to announce it to his teacher. He was disappointed to find out that she had been re-deployed to another centre.
Eleven years passed and so when the teacher and student met at the banquet table covered with bowls and dishes of exquisite food, it was one touching scene. There seated was one elegant elderly lady with a broad smile on her face, then came in the meek soft-spoken student, Thomas. He approached her and they hugged. The next second saw Thomas feeling about his pocket and taking out a card – that very one his teacher gave him. In the gentlest voice, he said, “I got 4As. I thought you would like to know. Thank you for your confidence in me” as he handed the card to the teacher. All eyes were teary.
This summer I was in Singapore. When I was dining with my friend, Mr. Bert Koh, there Thomas was bustling around in the kitchen. Bert got excited and told me his story. We approached him with Bert pointing out that I am an English teacher. We had a photo taken. The next day, Bert gave me the recording of that television program and so I came to know the story of Thomas and his English teacher.
One teacher has touched a person and he in turn touches the world. Isn’t this amazing? And I am blessed enough to be in this enviable profession of teaching. But to be honest, I have not always felt like this in the long years of my career.
Too often in the past, when lessons were over, I collapsed into my chair grunting how students were unmotivated and unwilling and that teaching them was a total waste of my time. But with the passage of time, I was enlightened. Perhaps it was the reading of an article or the sharing I had with some guru or a talk I had attended or perhaps I had learnt it the hard way or had tasted the sweet fruits of some successes but trust me I have forgotten when and why I became converted. I have changed.
I no longer engage myself in depressing indictment of students’ hopelessness but instead I have become most critical of myself taking on the blame and the responsibility for their non-performance. I do not indulge in self-deceiving beliefs that my lessons are the best and therefore deserve their full attention, that they are lucky to be in my class and they should render their very best efforts to me, that they should be active learners getting the most from my lessons. These would be thoughts too beautiful to be true. And I know when such “paradise” scenario does not happen in my class, I cannot just conclude that my students are lazy and not worth my efforts and devotion. That could be the easy way out. But what would subsequent lessons degenerate into? Two worlds or more in one classroom – my pathetic cocoon world of profound knowledge and the students’ different worlds of their own? Hours to become days and days to become years? That is not to happen in my classroom. No, I would not allow that.
Biting the bullet
What takes place in an effective classroom is learning not just teaching. Too often there is teaching but no learning. Teachers, who are nervous, frustrated or are engrossed in catching up with the syllabus keep teaching regardless of whether the students are learning. Paying attention to the situation of learning demands adjustment, adaptation and even improvisation. All these may seem too much to ask for but that is exactly our responsibility as teachers – to foster learning. Teachers who are experienced or prepared should know their students well and should have taken every possible situation into consideration when preparing lessons. The crux of the issue is to bite the bullet - be accountable for the failure of learning in the classroom. That requires a lot of painstaking soul-searching. Admitting failure and accepting the blame is only the first difficult step. How to prevent future failure and ensure permanent success is the challenge.
We teachers often blame students for not paying attention to us but do we to them? Do we know what they are doing under the desks? Are they following the lesson or reading a comic book or text-messaging? Reflective teachers would try to decipher all those passive looks or nodding heads or absolute silence. In their little ways, our students are telling us that they are not tuning to our channel or are not even on the same planet as ours. In their various ways, they want us to know they are not learning and yet how often do we attend to all these signs?
“If they don’t understand, why don’t they ask? They just don’t bother!” says the teacher. No, they might not know they have the right. Or they don’t know where to start. Their behaviour is a conglomeration of years of pleasant and unpleasant classroom experiences. They might have been told off once they open their mouths. They might have been warned not to ask stupid questions.
And we have to admit that in many ways, classrooms have basically not changed much though the whole world around us has. Young people who are so used to all the audio and visual sensations would for sure find the traditional classroom one prolonged boring monologue. As teachers, we have to believe or if you don’t, then convince yourselves that all students are willing to learn and can learn, they just cannot endure the way they are taught. If we really want self-motivated students learning in our classroom, we ourselves must first be strongly motivated to learn.
No quick fix and definitely no panacea
Problem students or rather problem behaviour comes in all forms and severity and for all kinds of reasons. Teachers should never nurture the wishful thinking that there exists somewhere in the world a magical potion to cure all ailments. And what works in other classes all the time may instead bring havoc to another. A cocktail recipe might work more effectively than a single shot of a particular serum. We need to be alert, patient and appreciative of improvement however small or insignificant it might be. When it does occur, recognition is due so as to nurture its further growth.
Dosage 1: Individualization
What our students hate most or take advantage of is when we teachers see them as a homogenous mass. Those seeking attention would be so disappointed when they discover to their dismay our eyes never fall on them. On the other hand, some others would feel so comfortable when they successfully remain invisible and anonymous amidst the big crowd. What can be more disastrous to happen than a teacher having to point at students and not being able to name them even by the end of the school year?
Students all want to feel that we are treating them as individuals with their names, character and needs well grasped by us teachers. We should never simply label students according to their performance. They are humans and should be treated as such with respect. Conscientious teachers would assess their students individually and set achievable tailor-made targets for them. Instructions are always specifically tailored to foster and exploit students’ talents. Students want caring teachers who have an eye on them in class, check on them, pat them on the shoulder in recess, jump in to help when hearts are broken, appreciate the slightest effort and regularly design a variety of learning activities and tasks that give them the opportunity to learn in modes that suit their individual needs, styles and levels. All students want to be positively challenged and not depressingly demoralized.
Dosage 2: Honesty, humour and humility
Often enough there are times in class when a teacher simply
has to be honest, honest that he is not in control, honest that he has spoken a
word too harshly, honest that he has wronged a student, honest that he cannot
answer a question posed by the student and honest that he has allowed his own personal
emotions to get in the way. Only when teachers are truly honest to themselves
and to the classroom situations will they be able to address the problems and
put classes into perspective.
There are ways
out. Teachers have to be humble and good-humoured and take the bull by the
horns. Humble because only the humble are open-minded enough to learn.
Good-humoured because a joke or a smile can save face when heat is rising.
These are moments when teachers should loosen the iron fist and look at the
students with fondness rather than impatience and frustration. Teachers nowadays
are all trained professionals armoured with techniques to handle all sorts of
difficult situations. As long as they remain calm and not irritated, they do
know what best is to be done. A word of apology to the wronged student, words
of confirmation to the one who shouts out the answer, a dramatized laughter, a
question rephrased for that “dumb” student who has his lips sealed, a promise
that you will look up for the answer to that “naughty” student who has asked
you a question you should know but cannot answer are all contingent measures
you know and can resort to.
Dosage 3: Compassion,commitment and conscientiousness
When in the classroom, teachers should see beyond the surface. Hostility can be a mask for fear. Compassionate teachers would respond to such hostility by persuading students to remove the mask and reveal their fear. Teachers should remain composed and restrained. Direct confrontation is a “face” matter and “face” is a big issue not only to the teachers but also to the students. While we want to maintain our dignity, so do the students. We should keep in mind that when we put students down in front of others, the entire class might turn against us. Shouting and screaming would not defuse the situation. The misbehaving students have to be allowed to respectably retreat from the confrontation. But this does not mean the teacher is to let him off. The case must be followed up when everybody is calmer and when contention is clarified.
These days, all teachers and not just those assigned counselling and guidance duties have to learn communication skills and counselling strategies. Adverse situations can happen in any class and anytime. It is not wise to wait for the cavalry to march in to your rescue. A mere command of the subject knowledge is no longer the sole criterion a teacher has to master.
For teachers to be able to “control” the class takes more than a kind heart. It takes strong commitment to the profession and a very conscientious attitude to constantly reflect on their teaching and update When a student is entrusted to us teachers, he becomes our responsibility. We cannot allow student not learning and not achieving though to what extent he does learn varies from student to student. We cannot have a student not being “touched” by us. Changes have to ideally take place intellectually and emotionally.
Booster dosage: Prevention is better than cure
Though there are always ways out of difficult situations, we should in the first place never allow them to happen. There is bound to be casualty whenever adverse situation happens no matter how good you get out of it.
In Hong Kong, teachers’ workload is so heavy and diversified that it is not uncommon for us to become forgetful. We might go back on our own words. We might lose our sense of relativity when we inflict penalty. We might be habitually looking at the same students for the whole lesson while neglecting the rest. We might not see hands raised a dozen times.
We have to make our “house” rules clear and stick to them. We cannot assume students know what we want and how they are to behave. Different teachers have different sets of regulations and hold different levels of tolerance as to what can happen in class. Students are faced with ten if not more teachers every day and they might get confused.
In order for each class to be effective, we have to be in our best physical and mental status all the time. We have to feel good about ourselves and in particular we have to be proud of our profession. Every day we should do all we can to step into the classroom at our best as this pre-determines the success of the lesson. We should be addressing the whole class and yet each of the students is to feel that we are looking at him as an individual person. When we see any breach of our house rules, we have to stop it at the start by a critical look made obvious to the offender and if the misbehaviour continues, we have to stop whatever we are doing and attend to the matter. We can wait for him to become aware of our disapproval. Short of these actions, we are sending the wrong message to our students and in fact we are encouraging more to follow suit.
I have been a teacher for over forty years. I cannot say I enjoy every minute of it. But I can declare that right now at my present position in school, I am at my most cheerful self when I am in front of the students as the English Language teacher and not behind my desk as the Deputy Principal. Teaching is instantly rewarding and it is even more so if you enjoy it. Teaching is tough but as we are touching souls, it cannot be easy.