Reflections on a Lack of Composure

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Last week I had an incident with a student that, not only was I extremely disappointed with myself for at the time, but has continued to trouble me since.

What Happened?

I was conducting a lesson in which the students were asked to analyze cultural differences they perceive between Korean and Western (more like American/British realistically) culture. One of the tasks asked the students to work in pairs and imagine they were a native English teacher just arriving in Korea, what difficulties do they think they might encounter in their first month in Korea?

All of the students accepted this really quite difficult challenge, except one girl (let’s call her May), who simply wrote ‘nothing’. When I asked May about why she had only written ‘nothing’ she replied ‘because Korea is perfect’. At this point I should have questioned May more about this, perhaps I could have personalised the situation, asked May what things she thinks I might find difficult, ask her if there is anything at school I might find difficult, explained that doesn’t mean it is a bad aspect of Korean culture, but just something I might find difficult, I should have supported and assisted her. But I didn’t do that, instead I told May that I was extremely disappointed she had that attitude, that every other group had handled the task very maturely and that she might be a bit embarrassed when she hears the feedback from the other groups. I’m sure you now understand why I am very disappointed and surprised by my reaction.

Why Did This Happen?

This is something I’ve thought long and hard about, as it is just not like me. There are two things I think I need to consider here, first of all why didn’t she deal with the task maturely, and secondly why didn’t I handle the situation with more empathy? I think in order to understand this I need to share a bit more context. May is in a class I have a particularly good rapport with, not only this, but May and her friend come to see me and chat with me almost every day, they often bring a small snack for us all to eat together, or sometimes I have a snack we all share. May and her friend are always very mature in the things we discuss, she lived in a native English speaking for a large part of her life, and we like to discuss the differences in the education system and in life in general. Over the 7 months period I have been May’s teacher I have therefore got to know her very well, and she has got to know me very well. Despite this I both hope and believe I have never treated May or her friend with any special consideration or differently to any other student, until this incident.

So why, if May has always been so mature, did she not handle this task maturely? Well, there are a huge number of reasons. She’s a 17 year old girl, she may have argued with her friends and so was feeling down (in retrospect I noticed she wasn’t sitting with her usual friends), she might have had a hard time at home, she might be feeling stressed about mid-terms, it might have been for attention as she knows I don’t like it when students aren’t trying, perhaps other students had teased her about the fact her and her friend often come to see me outside of class, perhaps she didn’t properly understand the task, maybe she really believed there was nothing difficult, the list is endless.

Why didn’t I handle the situation with empathy and understanding, as I normally would have? I think because of how well I know May, and the rapport I have with her, I had higher expectations. I remember when I saw that she had written ‘nothing’ feeling quite shocked and taken aback. When she then repeated this sentiment to me verbally I think I felt both disappointed and let down, I felt let down because of all students to handle the task in this way it was her. Normally I would always give the students the benefit of the doubt, I would presume that they really were just struggling with the concept of the task, but because of how well I know May I knew this wasn’t the case. In other words, because of my relationship with her I treated her differently, more negatively, than I would another student.

What Now?

I guess this is where I would really welcome any suggestions. I really feel like I have let May down. Of course, she may have just gotten over it, she could be upset about it, she could be feeling let down, I’m really not sure. I haven’t seen her since Friday and this week is mid-term exams so I won’t be seeing her class until next Friday. Perhaps I should just let it blow over and learn from my mistake? Perhaps I should speak with May about what happened? Perhaps I should apologise to her? In the past 3 years this is a situation I haven’t found myself in before; it would just be such a shame to allow what happened to affect my rapport with May in the future.

UPDATE


Hi,

first of all thank you so much for all the wonderful comments, support, advice and general positivity!

I was going to replay to each comment indivudally but I figured there was no point writing the same thing over and over, but I really do appreciate all your comments so much.

Anyway, to the point! I decided to speak with the students concerned on Friday after she had finished her last exam. I explained to her I was sorry for the way I reacted and that I felt I should have helped her with the task rather than saying what I did. At first she seemed a little bit shocked, I’m not sure how often she has been apologised to by a teacher in the past! She accepted my apology and told me she was relieved as she thought I was upset with her. We then had a good chat about her exams and other stuff and that was that! Everyone concerned was happy 🙂


Thankyou again for taking the time to read and comment on my blog!

Alex

Comments

Gemma
07/10/2012 18:10

ah I think you’re being a bit too hard on yourself, teachers are only human and bound to come out with natural reactions even if they are not always appropriate or the right reaction.
If I were you I would give May some extra praise / attention in the next class and if she doesn’t react well maybe speak to her and see if anything is wrong.

I know teenage girls r sensitive but I’m sure she’ll forgive you this one time. Looking forward to the next instalment…..

Reply
AlienTeachers
14/10/2012 05:11

Hi Gemma,

thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, I’ve updated the blog with the outcome of the situation.

Kindest Regards,

Alex

Reply
14/10/2012 05:33

Hi Alex, glad to hear you sorted it out and cleared the air. I bet she was surprised to get an apology from a teacher, sure that doesn’t happen often!
Gemma.

07/10/2012 19:12

It’s natural for a good teacher to worry what they did wrong! i had the same thing happen…it was the final day of class with me forever and one nice student was really grumpy and wouldn’t even talk to me. Later I found out she had split up with her boyfriend.

Looking back I think this is the student’s problem, not yours. I don’t know how old she is, but teachers have to try to avoid bringing their problems and homelife into the class, and students should to. It’s not always going to be possible, and it depends on the circumstances but, the students don’t have a right to take out their problems on your class.

I think you handle it just fine to be honest. Don’t blame yourself for everything, you can’t control everything in the classroom. She was in the wrong and if she’s got any sense then she will come and apologize for acting like that.

Reply
AlienTeachers
14/10/2012 05:11

Hi!

thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, I’ve updated the blog with the outcome of the situation.

Kindest Regards,

Alex

Reply
Kristina
07/10/2012 19:19

If May has the experience of arriving in a foreign country to live, then perhaps you could have applied that context to the task. Ask her to think about what difficulties she or her family had when they first arrived in that English speaking place. Or turn it into an activity using CSC and ask student groups to create a poster & presentation of things they think foreigners coming to live in Korea will need to know or learn. They become the teachers by using their English to convey parts of Korean culture to a foreigner.

Like you, I have been here 3 years and feel very integrated into the Korean society. However, through doing this activity with more than 15 classes, I have ALWAYS learned something new, something truly helpful. I bet you will too!

In the meantime, find May and wish her good luck on her mid-terms, and ask her the Korean way to wish others good luck. She still loves you, I’m sure!

Reply
AlienTeachers
14/10/2012 05:11

Hi Kristina,

thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, I’ve updated the blog with the outcome of the situation.

Kindest Regards,

Alex

Reply
Barry Jameson
07/10/2012 20:26

Like Gemma, I think you are being to hard on yourself. Sometimes I have disappointed myself in how I have reacted towards students. I have been worried about how they will react next time they see me. On each occasion, by the time the next class comes round they have forgotten about it. If they were bothered at the time, they have moved on.

My experience of (albeit younger) students is they don’t hold a grudge. If you have built up a rapport, it can’t be ruined by one incident. It may be that she feels bad about her attitude and that she let you down. Who knows? If there is a problem in the next class, then it could be addressed but I imagine it will be fine..

I think the fact that you care, worry and have reflected on this incident reflects on you as a person and teacher.

Reply
AlienTeachers
14/10/2012 05:12

Hi Barry,

thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, I’ve updated the blog with the outcome of the situation.

Kindest Regards,

Alex

Reply
07/10/2012 20:40

Hey Alex,

I think I have something to share here, as I am pretty good at regularly putting my foot in my mouth. 😉

As you have already made clear you have given this a lot of thought and I believe that will help you in the future if a similar situation or feeling arises.

In terms of advice on this particular situation, I always believe it is best to be as open and honest as possible. If it is possible to have a conversation with her, I would explain that I felt disappointed with the way I responded, explain why I reacted that way, and that I now realize that any number of things could have caused her response to my task. I would be blunt and say I should have been more empathetic and will try hard to not make that mistake again.

Then perhaps have a small conversation to find out what exactly was behind her negative response to the task.

It’s a learning moment for you, and perhaps her as well. As we grow, we need to learn that everyone has faults, even the grown ups we respect most. The ones I always respected most, and still do, were always upfront with me about their mistakes. I try to follow suit.

I wouldn’t worry too much. You are a good person and teacher, and one moment can not change that.

Reply
AlienTeachers
14/10/2012 05:14

Hi John,

thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, I’ve updated the blog with the outcome of the situation.

Kindest Regards,

Alex

Reply
Matt Silva
07/10/2012 22:01

I’d normally write you something more personal, although others might benefit from reading the various reaction to this ‘issue’.

I say ‘issue’ because it is not a problem, but an opportunity to turn this scenario into a lesson for both ourselves, and the students.

You have quite accurately collated reasons for the students response, and further time spent pondering will be of little use. However, as you quite rightly point out, your response was maybe, something you didn’t necessarily expect you to give.

First and foremost, it was something between the two parties, and should be dealt with in such a way, and it could help you understand more why she gave such an answer, and therefore enhancing the relationship you already hold. After, and with her permission, I would suggest a class discussion about the subject, but this might raise further conflicts with you relationship with the student, as she might feel you are making an example of her, to the point of fun, (and where the discussion with her would prevent this).

The point of the discussion could be ‘what is perfection?’ so as not to be so brash in suggesting it is of direct consequence to her comment.
It would give the students, who are of a mature enough age to make personal decisions about the world and to formulate their own, credible opinions. It would also help you to understand where they are coming from with their thoughts, and as a class, to learn of other people’s opinions, too.
Listening to others is something I’m afraid my students seem to have little time for, and is indicative of their wider social groups, family, and many cultures as a whole..

What might you have said at that age, and how would you have considered your teacher??
M

Reply
AlienTeachers
14/10/2012 05:14

Hi Matt,

thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, I’ve updated the blog with the outcome of the situation.

Kindest Regards,

Alex

Reply
Lee Lalka
07/10/2012 23:11

I have more than once said or did something to a student or a group of students that I felt later I should have done differently. In every case, I have searched out the student or students and apologized for my actions, explaining to them why I was apologizing and why I did what I did, and what I think now I should have done.

In each case, the students were somewhat embarrassed and a bit shocked that I apologized.

I have grown from each occurrence, and thankfully they rarely happen. My students also seem to have grown as well. They respected what I did (apologize) and the air between us was clear.

I admire you for recognizing something amiss, and looking squarely at it. Most would dismiss it, or not even see that there was a “challenge”.

I wish you the best on becoming,

LJL

Reply
AlienTeachers
14/10/2012 05:15

Hi Lee,

thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog, I’ve updated the blog with the outcome of the situation.

Kindest Regards,

Alex

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