speaking in the teenage classroom

As any experienced language teacher knows, getting students speaking in their second language can at times be difficult. This is never more true than when teaching teens. The amount and reasons for this reluctance can vary in scope and intensity but the inevitable result of students who refuse to talk is lessons which feel difficult and lack-lustre. Despite all our preparation and planning, we seem to do all the talking and our students seem bored and distracted. All our work and enthusiasm hits a wall of dismissive indifference.

As a consequence we chastise our students for their apparent lack of motivation; at first lightly and then, as our frustration grows, with more insistence until finally we can add resentment to to our students’ existing indifference. At this point the invisible barrier between teacher and student becomes palpable and seemingly insurmountable.

Why aren’t our students taking?

What we often don’t realise is that, to our students, that barrier has been there all along. It is only now that we the teachers finally feel it. So where does this barrier come from? To understand what it is that keeps us from connecting with our students we have to put ourselves in their shoes; only then can we hope to break these barriers down.

Life is complicated. We all know this. What we can forget as we grow older, however, is that it has always been complicated. Even though these days we have bills and taxes, work and responsibilities, we have always been finding our way in life. Back at school it was the mystery of inter-personal relationships that fascinated us; how we fitted into the microcosm of school society and it’s myriad dynamics. It was all-consuming, the most important question that life had to offer. It was beyond simple studies, far bigger than trivialities like the origin of life or the universe – it related to our inner psychology, our self-image and the perception of us by others. And let’s be honest, very little time needs to be spent with a teenager before the importance of “self” for them becomes very clear. All joking aside, however, it is safe to assume that there is more going on in a classroom than the teacher is aware of.

How we learn our place in the larger world of school and who we are as people we learn largely through trial and error and the observation of the sucesses and failures of others. It is a sad fact, though, that at that age errors can be harshly judged and mercilessly ridiculed and this can have devastating effects on the receiving adolescent psyche.

And now we, as teachers, enter into this psychological pressure cooker and ask our students to participate in an event where they know for a fact that they will make errors; perhaps in front of the very elements who might ridicule them. In addition they have to walk a fine line – to be bad is to be open to ridcule but to be too good is to risk other criticism; we have all heard words like “Swot” or “Teacher’s pet”, for example, and worse besides.

What can we do to prevent all this?

We can therefore see that the teacher’s job is far more difficult than we even first expected and that before learning can occur we have to create a space apart from ‘school’ where the same rules do not apply – a place where students can feel comfortable enough to assert who they are as a person with confidence and create new ideas of who they are as a group/class. This can only happen when the teacher acts as a guide, an enabler and this requires a connection and trust in a person they have always seen as “other”. The very label of ‘teacher’ puts us on the other side of the ‘wall’. Breaking that wall down is clearly going to be difficult and what we will begin to look at in the next part of this series, “Ownership”.