Welcome to the Jungle (Revisited)

Simon Pearlman, Director

Simon Pearlman, Director

This piece relates to my previous post about TEFL del Sur and it should also make sense if considered individually.

Most of us from Active Language, Cadiz, went to the 2014 Annual ACEIA Conference held in Seville. ACEIA is the Andalusian association of language schools. The conference is just one day and packs a pretty weighty punch. I’ve been lucky enough to attend the conference for the last 14 years and have seen it grow in size and scope as well as in it’s professionalism and quality. It’s a great day of full-on TEFLing. It’s also great to feel connected to colleagues throughout Andalusia and beyond and that we are all part of an industry, doing essentially the same job.

I focused my talk called “Welcome to the Jungle” on our most difficult primary classes, where it’s hard to get anything done and it can feel like an uphill battle. I wanted to look at whether or not we should give some of our primary students a special treatment. I firmly believe in an affective approach to teaching where care for our students is at the heart of what we do. To care, we need to work on our interpersonal skills where we look for ways to connect with all the students but perhaps especially with the most challenging of the cohort. If we want our students to be able to enjoy our classes and progress as they should, we need to address the issues. I’ll use the jungle analogy to mention some of the challenging animals that we might find in our ELT jungle. I should add that this is based on a class I had last year. I hope you can recognize some of the animals in your classes too.

The scorpion. A scuttly, hard to pin down and extremely bright creature that seems to be under-challenged, runs around, speaks in Spanish, refuses to join in and, at the same time, distracts others – despite it’s apparent high ability with the language. My scorpion didn’t seem to care about any kind of discipline system. What could work? I tried developing our relationship with little chats before and after class, I gave him responsibilities and lead roles to acknowledge his place within the class.

The baboon. Sometimes high and hyper and other times low and angry. A dangerous animal with a furiously pink bottom that can turn the class from good to bad in an instant. I encouraged talks with his parents, who supported us through regular and open contact, and a quality of contact that involved my baboon throughout.

The piranha. A student that occasionally bites and is sometimes aggressive with other students. This animal also has the memory we associate with a fish and never seems to retain anything. On top of this, my piranha was accompanied by parents who didn’t come to parents’ evenings and were difficult to contact. We worked on developing a classroom culture that enhanced respect, peace and love and I tried to give him enough space to express himself but kept him on a leash to try to protect the other students. (Interesting, a fish on a leash.)

The hippo. Usually a weaker student that is either not interested in English or perhaps finds English difficult and decides to just switch off and wallow in the shallows. My personal 6 year old hippo told me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t like me and wanted to move to another class. Even hippos have feelings, so I tried again to build a relationship; to notice and comment on positive things, to praise her whenever possible and to care for her in a special way.

So what happened? How successful was I?

I would love to say that it all went swimmingly. It got better for sure but was it perfect? No. Out of these primary students, one left the class (but now always stops and chats to me, often in English) and some students felt how our relationships grew. I hope the students acquired a voice and some responsibility both within the classroom and within themselves. Other students were just happier in class. Moderate success, I’d say and some stronger personal relationships.

I should add that there were ten other animals in the class; a delightful collection of house-trained dogs, colourful iguanas and chattering parrots. As I got to grips with the more difficult beasts described above, all the animals in this ELT jungle had more space too and, as a result, achieved more.

So, should we give special treatment for special children? While it might go against some of our notions of fairness and equality, yes, I think some children need some extra support, extra structure and extra loving in order to make that ELT jungle an easier, more harmonious place to work and to thrive.

If you would like to read more about teaching English in Cadiz, Spain, please visit our ELT Blog. For information about teacher training courses, please take a look at our teacher training page or contact us.

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