The sullen kid at the back of the class who doesn't want to be bothered. Keeps his head down. Develops a way to precisely mimic the movement of the student in front of him so he stays hidden. Fidgets uncomfortably in those rare instances when called upon. Looks to his giggling mates for support and then offers up an answer that has been whispered to him.
It creates an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved and may lead to less frequent intrusions from the teacher. That's the end result such neglected students hope for. And all too often teachers seem willing to go along with the classroom game of hide and...ignore.
The subject often comes up when talking to other foreign and Thai teachers. What to do with the individuals who supposedly "don't want to learn." It's a teacher's cliché that it's "better to focus on the ones who are interested."
No Student is a Lost Cause
After teaching at universities in Thailand for six years, I believe those forgotten students who seem satisfied to slip under the radar, avoid any classroom interaction and get out of Dodge with their final grade C, can in fact be reached. The role they play is out of habit, conditioning and long years of just getting by. In many ways the university English class provides the perfect setting.
Most faculties have at least one required English for special purposes class tailored for their undergrads. There is a false assumption on the part of many teachers that most students will have a modicum of English skills by the time they get to the post-secondary level. Together with increasing class sizes and the easy hits star pupils provide to a teacher's ego during a lesson, it becomes convenient to latch onto the chestnut about focusing on those who are eager to learn.
I've tried to disabuse myself of this default notion in a few different ways. It's not rocket surgery and it doesn't require grand innovative approaches like the ones seen in Dead Poets Society. It only takes a shift in thinking, an attempt to establish connections, and some encouragement for learners to change the roles they've grown accustomed to.
Giving Every Student an A
Years ago I read a self-help book whose name I've long since forgotten. There was one passage from the book that stayed with me and which I used successfully during my time as a teacher in Thailand. The author explained an exercise he called "giving everyone an A." No, this was not a how-to procedure on fabricating grades and becoming the most popular teacher in school!
"Giving everyone an A" is an easy technique in cultivating empathy. It goes beyond simply "putting yourself in someone else's shoes" and operates on the premise that most people want to do well in life and contribute in a positive way. You can practice this idea by trying to create an understanding in your mind as to how students got to where they are in terms of behaviour and ability. It requires you to ponder and consider everything that brought a person to their station in life and accept that everyone has a different set of fears, obstacles, and aspirations to deal with.
Far from giving students a free pass, it doesn't require a teacher to become a soft touch or lower his or her expectations. In my experience, the benefits have come from the almost subconscious understanding from pupils that they are finally being recognized. Whether from a teacher's subtle change in body language or follow-up questions that try go beyond the first superficial response, they sense something is up and a different dynamic starts to develop. This in turn leads to a teacher becoming more approachable and the possibility that students may seek extra help or clarification during or after class.
Once a more comfortable relationship has been formed, it can be strengthened by encouraging weaker students to set short-term goals that will help them to deal with the often too-difficult (but required) course book that has them ready to throw in the towel. Alternative seating plans in class also allow you to eliminate the safe haven at the back of the room. Circle seating or small groups provide more chances for interaction and more opportunity to gauge improvement. Small but useful steps that lead to a situation where you may be able to create interest and make progress with weaker students.
Make it Relevant
Moo avoided eye contact in class, ducked out a few times every period and tried to remain as anonymous as possible. The anxiety he displayed when I tried to elicit responses in class told me that, in fact, he was concerned. Someone for whom the course material and final grade were meaningless would let everything slide without a care. But Moo was obviously tied up in knots because he didn't have even the essentials or confidence to comfortably respond.
He was as resistant as any student I've encountered when I attempted to build rapport and find common ground. It's at this point for many teachers that rationalizing away further efforts becomes so appealing. I kept looking for an opening and finally saw what had been there all along. The accoutrements of rebellion that are more an attempt for youngsters to fit in than to separate themselves from the crowd. Underneath his engineer's smock, he always wore a variation of a t-shirt with the clumsy and over-the-top images of death and horror that seem to go along with every generation's popular heavy metal bands.
I introduced the concept of CD reviews to Moo. While the subject matter was far removed from the chapter we were working on, the grammar and language function were easily transferable. From there, I suggested he focus on a day-in-the-life of a sound engineer when an assignment called for writing a job description. I even ended up making a CD of some older metal bands from before Moo was even born and gave it to him one day after class. These developments took place over the course of four or five weeks.
I like to think those few simple gestures gave Moo some inspiration and encouraged him to look beyond the dry subject matter at hand. Judging from his change in attitude and his increased effort, I believe it did help. While he ended up only receiving a C+, (yet so close to a B) I felt it was a C+ well earned. And yet, what if I hadn't made that extra effort?
His frustration would probably have increased and little learning would have taken place. I believe no student is a lost cause. However, time constraints and other concerns mean that even within that group of struggling students some will probably get more attention than others. But limited success on the part of one individual may serve as a model for others and spur them on to try harder as well. Even if Moo didn't go on to become fluent, perhaps he had a positive experience and will pass on the notion that English can be used for more than just getting through a required course.