Welcome to my IATEFL talk – Harrogate 2014

from being a teacher to

Part 1

What does it mean to be a role model for teenage students?

Teenagers are leaving childhood behind and they’re beginning to see themselves as individuals with their own tastes, preferences, weaknesses, and strengths. This may be a painful experience for many teenagers as they realize their parents no longer fulfill all their emotional or social needs. They  must now seek experiences outside their family circles.  As social beings, teenagers are now more self-conscious of their looks, personality traits , and their need to be  connected and accepted within other communities as well.

On their quest for individuality, teenagers  need people they can look up to and those who would make good models to help them decide who they’d like (or not like) to be.

Surely,  as language teachers, we have to be up to the task of providing good, positive models — language and attitudes. However, we tend to think that all you have to do to become a role model is  set good examples and we usually come up with a huge list of do’s and don’ts:

Don’t be late for class, have a positive attitude, don’t be rude to your students, use nice language, teach them respect, don’t shout…

We lead busy lives ourselves in a busy, noisy world. We greet our students as they come in and we get down to business: we check homework, we correct their grammar, and we set homework. We plan for success and positive outcomes.  Despite all our concerns,  we don’t always think about the different ways we impact our students.

In our busy, noisy lives we tend to think that do’s and don’ts are enough.  We believe that at the end of the day what matters is what they’ve learned and what we’ve taught even if the former does not really match the latter. However, we need to go beyond all this if we really want to become role models for our students. We need to find ways to help our students cope with a host of feelings such as loneliness, anger, anxiety,  and all their highs and lows, which may spill over into the classroom and surface as misbehavior and negative attitudes towards us and their own peers. Most importantly, we need to reflect on our social role as teachers.

meu video closeup

We need to find  strategies to connect with our students in ways we’ve never tried before.

Let’s start then with my story:

viagem iatefl 2014 196

This is me. I’m a 15-year-old teenage girl who barely looks 14. I’m short and  skinny. I look happy in this picture. I remember posing for this photo and I am having a good time at a friend’s house. I do the usual teenage things: I hang out with my friends, I listen to music, and I play handball in my P.E. classes.

jogando handball

This is me playing handball. Well, not exactly my thing as you can see. It’s a terrifying experience. I’m way too feeble to catch or throw the ball. I’m clumsy beyond belief. My life revolves around books and daydreams.  I’ll move on with my life holding a strong belief that sports aren’t for me even though I like tennis. However, I keep it a secret  for fear of being ridiculed.

Well, at least until the day I met a tennis coach. I’d made up my mind about getting fit so a neighbor drove me to the local sports club. There were many options to choose from: swimming, aerobics, and … tennis. Maybe it was the sun, or perhaps my uncounscious, secret wish to play tennis  that attracted us to the tennis court, but somehow we ended up there. The tennis coach happened to be a friend of hers and you can imagine what happened next.

So we engaged in a conversation about tennis and its benefits. We started discussing the schedule and the fees, but I felt that the coach wasn’t only interested in talking about it. She was interested in my story and everyone has a story to tell,  so I told her my story.

No one ever took the time to talk to me like that. She took the time to ask me some questions and listened to me. She got deeper and made more and more questions as we talked about the reasons why I’d never tried it before.

She made me realize that I was actually afraid of doing it and that I didn’t believe I had the potential to do it. Looking back, I trusted her when she said I could do it. She instilled in me the belief that I could do it.


This is me today. And this is my tennis coach,  Annemarie.

I’m not the best tennis player in the world, but I can surely play tennis. There’s nothing wrong with me. My old beliefs are long gone.

What she did was  show genuine interest in what I had to say and unpack my beliefs by asking the right questions, which definitely helped her build rapport with me. And here’s a definition of rapport:


The cool thing is that it’s a skill we can learn. But we need to start out from somewhere. What about listening to our students?

Carl Rogers talks about empathic listening and the importance of reacting to what someone is saying by helping them verbalize exactly what they feel or have in mind. Ask the right questions!

Listening is a skill we already have and it can become a powerful tool to understand our students and show them they have a voice and that we’re listening to them. Still,  rarely do we take the time to listen to our students.

Here’s what an empathic listener does:

  • builds trust and respect,
  • enables the disputants to release their emotions,
  • reduces tensions,
  • encourages the surfacing of information, and
  • creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem solving.

And here are important characteristics of empathic listening:

  • willingness to let the other parties dominate the discussion,
  • attentiveness to what is being said,
  • care not to interrupt,
  • use of open-ended questions,
  • sensitivity to the emotions being expressed, and
  • ability to reflect back to the other party the substance and feelings being expressed.

Source: http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/empathic-listening

window to the world

And above is  my metaphor for empathic listening.

It opens windows to new understanding.  We need to know what our students’ model of the world is.

What’s your metaphor for empathic listening?

Part 2

tools for empathic listening

When we interact with others, we don’t always realize that we have a number  of tools at our disposal. Seeing, speaking, using a number of approaches to get to know our students better. But listening is essential to understand others.

I always ask myself this question:

“Behind disruptive, negative behavior, perhaps there’s something I don’t know.”

Of course it’s  easy to interact and create rapport with people who are like us, students who always smile and enjoy being in our classes.

happy happy

These friendly,  accomplished students  aren’t  the reason why we are here right now.

amedeo modigliani
Modigliani’s portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne with Necklace, from 1917,

This girl  is the reason why we’re here today. She is the indigestible member of our group, a piece of work, she is the one who gives us a hard time.  She refuses to interact with her peers during pair work.

We all have beliefs about our students and this is what you’re  probably thinking:

i believe

And deep inside this is what you’d like to ask her:

“You hate my classes, don’t you?”

But this is exactly what you dare not ask because you don’t want to confront her or be on the same footing. Still,  you need to find out and maybe it’s time for a little chat after class. Here’s why you should do it:

We create myths based on our perceptions of the world. We forget that these beliefs are often a byproduct of  our very own experiences, not someone else’s experiences.

So here are some questions based on the principles of empathic listening you can ask to challenge your own beliefs and hers as well so that you find some common ground.


Let’s focus on the following words I have chosen:

I’ve noticed’ means that I see you; you aren’t just one among so many students I have.

I avoid using words like ‘hate‘ and I use ‘don’t like‘ because I don’t want to bring up strong, negative feelings into the conversation;

I feel‘ means that I have feelings and that my student’s negative behavior affects me as well. Teenagers may find it difficult to put themselves in someone’s shoes. We need to remind them that teachers are as sensitive as they are;

We can do something about it‘ signals that we can  work out the problem collaboratively.

I’ve chosen ‘exactly‘ because people tend to overgeneralize things when they talk about a problem. The idea here is to help them focus and narrow down the options so that we know exactly what is bothering them.  Are the topics not interesting enoughIs it about her partners? Are there language issues involved? Is it because my student is afraid of exposing her spoken English?

Put simply,  overgeneralization is ” a mental skewing wherein a person sees a sole occurrence as an invariable rule, so that, for instance, failure at attaining one job will predict an ongoing trend of defeat in all jobs.”

Source: http://psychologydictionary.org/overgeneralization/

Here are a few more examples of overgeneralization contained in discourse:

We don’t like your classes.”

“This always/never  happens.”

“I’m a failure.”

How would you challenge these beliefs?

Perhaps because your student behaves as if she hates you, your very behavior reinforces  her negative feelings towards you and her peers. One distortion leads to another and it can be especially damaging because it creates a vicious cycle that is difficult to break after some time.

It’s rather complex because it’s not only about  challenging your beliefs about your student. Ultimately,  it’s  about helping her challenge her own beliefs about herself and others. What’s more: This is about change and compromise. Here are the questions you  need to ask yourself:

‘Am I  really ready to change?

Am I ready to get (negative) feedback from my student?” 

Roughly, there might be two types of reactions to feedback from students:

(a) We  secretly scoff that students might actually point out any relevant, real  issues in our teaching that we find hard to admit. This mindset means that we’re not ready for feedback, let alone empathic listening. It can get even worse as people can read our thoughts: Facial expressions, emotions, and things we say between the lines can give away our real intentions and feelings.

(b) We might overreact and express strong negative feelings. Sometimes people can be rather harsh and really assertive. In this case, hold back your tears and anger before you decide to talk with your student. If she’s given you hell today, don’t talk to her immediately after class. Schedule a meeting with her for your next class rather than  talk with  her  on the spur of the moment.

I asked myself all these questions before I decided to talk with my student. Of course, I could have simply ignored her and moved on, but my answer was ‘yes’ to those questions.   So, one day  before I began to pull my hair out, I  asked her to stay after class. Here was her side of the story:

  • She was 2 years older than the rest of the group.
  • They were all from the same class at school. She wasn’t in their class at school, so she felt singled out.
  • That’s why she didn’t participate in pair work activities.
  • Her previous teachers didn’t use pair work activities;
  • She liked her other teacher better (deal with that, Teresa). They had group discussions instead!

We finally made a deal: I told her we’d carry out group discussions in which she would participate as a moderator and in turn she would try to interact with her classmates. She realized that the more she interacted with them the less singled out she would feel. The cool thing about this conversation was that I didn’t push her. I just shaped my questions in such a way that both of us were able to unlock our beliefs. We realized that both us needed to change. We needed to compromise.

 Part 3

colors and shapes

We come in different shapes and sizes,  but  we can work collaboratively and I think these are values we can pass on to our students and anyone who we happen to guide in our lives.

If we help our students improve their listening skills and listen to one another empathetically, I’m sure we will create an atmosphere of mutual respect and reverse things  even when it’s all gone pear-shaped, as the British say. What’s more, students will see us in a different light because we care.

Last but not least, I’d like to leave you with this story, which captures the importance of others and how they impact us:

teacher man


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