Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Thought it would be easy...

I had a brief assignment in ASE 2 today: to get students to reflect on a short section in their textbook, about the difference between direct and indirect expressions. It was really basic-- read & discuss in groups, then pull together to run through an exercise or two. Bland.

There's a particularly good student in the class-- call him Herman. He's an experienced teacher, his command of English is excellent and comes from a culture similar to that of the United States. He's a great asset to the course, but one of the challenges in teaching it is to make it worth his while. He knows a lot of the stuff already, and frankly he's a better teacher than I'll ever be.

So, as I was mechanically going through the exercise, asking for feedback, Herman suggested that the issue of "indirect" vs. "direct" statements isn't nearly as important as simply being a good teacher. Some teachers are blunt. Others beat around the bush. Just depends on your style.

His comment questioned the validity of doing the exercise at all. And for him, the exercise really was meaningless: it was targeted at other students. I was faced, suddenly, with the problem of having my authority challenged.

1) I essentially agreed with Herman. The time wasn't being spent very valuably, these mechanical exercises weren't doing anybody much good.

2) I realized it was my fault. Some of the Asian students in particular really do need to think about the way they construct their statements, as well as their tone of voice, because these accidental traits are things that many American students find confrontational. This is to say, the exercise had a good purpose, but I'd failed to draw out and emphasize that purpose.

3) I really had no interest in making Herman think that the exercise was important to him. My goal was mostly just to finish the task and move on. But, I felt this need to re-establish control and authority.

4) It's really bad to be forced to defend a position that you don't particularly agree with, or one that you haven't thought out in detail.

5) "You must listen to me because I'm the teacher" is unconvincing and weak.

So, what should I have done?

1) reflect more on the exercise. I thought I knew why speech directness was important, but it turns out that I didn't.

2) briefly present it to the class before plunging into the exercise. "This is about speech directness. While it's only one component of positive communication, it is nevertheless something to think about. What are different ways we might get the same information across? Why might we employ different strategies?"

3) refrain from turning it into a methodology. Indirectness vs. directness is not simply a matter of "when A do B." It's not a formula for creating perfect communication. Rather, it's something to consider.

4) place it in context. Acknowledge the importance of other factors.

5) If I had done all these things, I probably wouldn't have had a student challenge the importance of the exercise. Nevertheless, I would have had a good sense of why I believe it matters, and would have been able to make an effective case, rather than taking Herman's criticism personally.

Things did turn out very well. Herman was aware that he'd made me uncomfortable, and he apologized. I'm really glad he did this. Even though I was in the wrong, so to speak, his apology created the chance for interaction that wasn't based on our previous debate. We were now discussing not the content of our earlier interaction, but rather its context.

I'll have to think more on how I might have restored a positive relationship, had he not apologized.

I told Herman not to feel bad about making me uncomfortable. I told him that while I do feel the exercise has value, he's not the one who really needs it, and so I can see why he finds it a waste of time. Rather than try to re-establish my authority, I reminded him that I'm an apprentice, and that he's an experienced teacher. "I'm in training here. Give me feedback!"

This was, I believe, a good way to approach it. He's a better teacher than I am. And if I try to hide that fact and assert my superiority, not only will I fail but I'll create a good deal of tension. Having acknowledged his expertise, I hope to take advantage of it. And hopefully some of these mechanical exercises will become more meaningful if he sees them as a chance for him to evaluate me as a trainee.

"So you want me to push you?" he asked as we were walking out the door.

"Yes!" I replied. "Some day I'm going to have bad students confronting me, and I want to be prepared."

"I know," he said. "You'll get students who don't care how you feel, and the little fuckers will do anything to make it difficult for you."


Blogger Julia Elvarado said...

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1:29 PM  

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