When I was working full-time at a language school in London, I would take two classes a day. Each class had up to 15 students, and lasted about 3 hours. The classes would change every month, which meant that with every month, I’d meet about 30 new faces. That was 360 new faces a year; and 3,600 new faces in the ten years that I worked there.
That was my situation – I’m sure every teacher has different teaching circumstances. But, there is no doubt that as teachers, we get to meet many different individuals in our classes all the time. They come and they go, and for that short period of time that they spend in the confines of our classroom walls, we get to know a lot about them, sometimes quite intensively, before they disappear into the real world to live their real lives.
For some teachers, this ebb and flow of students might simply be a confirmation to them that there is no need to get personally involved and invest too much emotion into the job. But for many of us, teaching is not just something we do to pay the bills (or we certainly would have jumped ship and found a better-paying profession by now). We teach because we love the connections we make with our students and we take pride in being able to make a difference, to inspire, and to help and guide them along in their journey. We teach because we care.
How can we show them that each and every one of them is an individual that matters to us, an individual with their own stories, interests and lives. How can we show them that we care?
1. Remember their names and who they are
It may seem simple but it can make a big difference. It is said that a certain British Prime Minister was well-loved by the press because he would address each of them by their names and remember little pieces of information about them.
Our names are what identify us as individuals and separate us from others. Our names validate who we are and what we represent. Sometimes when faced with a class of forty students, each with names are seem difficult for you to pronounce, it can feel daunting, but remember that your effort to remember their names can go a long way.
If you need help trying to remember your students’ names, read my top tips here.
2. Find out why they are in class and why they need English
On Business English and ESP courses, it is the norm to do a thorough needs analysis with the clients before training commences. This often involves finding out what the student can do and would like to do in English. The needs analysis would cover questions about the communication situations in which the students need English and the skills they would need practice in e.g. Which of the following situations do you use English in? – Presentations; Meetings; Negotiations; Telephone calls; Emails; Socialising; et
Conducting a needs analysis seems less commonplace with General English courses, unless you count the obligatory needs analysis when the student arrives at the school, with some teachers falling into the trap of assuming that students of General English are simply learning English for no apparent reason.
This is, of course, not true. Every individual is in class for a reason, and this goes beyond the need to pass an exam or fulfill a university module. Some might want to be able to understand English pop music or films, some might enjoy being able to participate in the global conversations had on multi-player video games, and others might relish the ability to backpack around the world and getting to know fellow travellers via the English language.
Find out why your students might need English and what they would like to do with this communication tool. Who do they see themselves speaking to and how can this ability improve their lives, both in the present and in the future? Only when we know more about their needs and their wants can we tailor our courses to suit them.
We sometimes come into class with a lesson plan filled with perfectly-timed activities, and we jump from lesson stage to lesson stage trying to fulfill those lesson objectives. I once observed a teacher stop a group of excited students from sinking their teeth into a discussion about cars (which was clearly motivating for them) in order to get back to completing the tasks on page 32 of the coursebook.
In the hustle and bustle of our everyday working lives, the personal information that our students offer up in gap fill activities are merely grammar and vocabulary practice and the discussions that they have are but fluency practice. A teacher once said to me that we are in class solely for the purpose of language improvement and that pastoral care is not our responsibility.
But so much is divulged in those few hours we have with our students, and if we took the time and effort to listen, not just to the accuracy of tense usage and the suitability of their collocations, but to the information about themselves they are revealing to us, we can learn so much about our students as individuals and make a connection with them as a fellow human being.
Because caring for our students does not just mean caring about their language ability. We care because it makes our classes fulfilling, both for our students and for ourselves.