Try thinking outside the box

When faced with a class of unmotivated students, what can we do? Miss Eunice Tang’s experience shows that sometimes what we need is a bit of thinking outside the box.

Eunice recalls:

Imagine you’re a year 2 university student, with no teaching experience, knowing nothing about the school where you are going to do substitute teaching, and the students that you’re going to teach. You’re now facing a class of 40 students, some lying on the desk, some talking to each other, some looking out to the window… and you’ve to stay there for one month. How would you feel? What would you be doing?

 I was kind of frightened. I knew nothing about teaching, and the students knew virtually nothing about English. There were already too many WHYs on my mind, so I thought I had better not ask WHY they were not interested in English, but WHAT I could do to motivate them. 

For example, in the first lesson I asked them to tell me what they enjoyed doing outside class, as I was thinking about how to link their interests to mylesson design, and how to make my teaching “useful” to them. Then, as they liked online games, when I taught vocabulary about shapes, I asked them to describe some of the weapons in the online games using the words that we had learnt together. Towards the end of the unit, they
even played the role of sales assistants and did a group presentation in English to sell the weapons to me! There were of course a number of errors in the talk, but I emphasized that mistakes were not to be feared and they should feel good for what they had achieved. Also,  I would wrap up an activity with suggestions for improvement and asked them to re-try it. Just like football players who spend hours practising before they could win, they also had “rehearsals” before giving their best presentation. And they liked this metaphor.

 I would chat with them during recess to know more about their world and ask them what their other lessons were like. I sometimes wondered: “Would they enjoy learning more if the other teachers changed their practice?” It was not quite possible to make every single lesson great fun to the students, but if they all knew that I had put in thought and effort;
they would give face to me by being cooperative, even though they might not change
their attitude towards learning English overnight. 

At the same time, some of them started to sit more properly … some would begin to take notes. Still, No one would put up their hand, but some of them would approach me during recess or after class.  

At the end of the sub teaching, I asked the students whether they felt bored about my teaching; I said, “You often looked expressionless, why?” They said, “English is difficult;
so we would not answer for fear of making mistakes; but we appreciated your teaching; we began to see the importance of English. One of the students said, ‘If I learn good English, I can go to certain websites to order certain weapons; or play online games ‘. Another student said he would sometimes choose the English version when visiting a website, the first time he did that in his life.  

And the key to their changes? I found that they were affected by the classroom atmosphere. If they felt secured, they would want to listen and speak more. They wanted someone who would bother to spend extra time on them and think in their shoes. Sometimes it’s important for teachers to get out of the box and think from the students’ point of view.

To listen to this story, narrated by Miss Eunice Tang herself, go to:


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