Sunday, August 25, 2013

Time Out!

So far, nearly every class I've faced in the new job has had at least one 'naughty' kid who makes the whole lesson go painfully slow and frustrating. These are not slow kids - their level of English is usually reasonable. They're not obstinate participants either, in the sense that when called upon to do an activity or contribute to class, they usually begin to do so quickly and competently - they want to participate. The problem is that they lack self-control and deliberately pervert the intent of the lesson by getting out of their seats, running around, fidgeting, disturbing or constantly talking to classmates (in Chinese) and everything else you could imagine a nasty little urchin reaching for on such a disruptive mission.

On the face of it, you could assume that these are merely bright children being insufficiently stimulated in classes that are pitching below their level and so they are misbehaving out of boredom. There might indeed be a degree of that going on too, and that is something I have to consider in my regular reflection sessions. However, the core of the problem, as I see it, is that the children have not been raised (academically speaking) to be courteous and responsible classmates. They have not cultivated the Right Mind of a civil and conscientious student. Okay, granted, they are only ten years old and it might be a bit much for me to expect such grown-up behaviour from little kids, but put another way, that means they've been exposed to five years of inadequate (one might even say abusive) classroom environments resulting in deficient study habits. No doubt a decent portion of blame rests with their parents too, of course. We have some parents who dump their unmanageable child off at a campus as soon as it opens and picks it up as late as possible to buy themselves a day of freedom from the monster they've created. Even if the child has only a few hours of classes at that campus, it is left there all day to terrorize and disrupt. Where's the War On [classroom] Terror squad when you need them?

It's not all of the kids, by a long shot. Most of them are adorable, conscientious, diligent and a delight to teach. The problem lies with a tiny minority (a single child or usually not more than two per room) who are deliberately bent on disrupting the lesson and the teacher as much as possible. This ruins the fun & learning for the other children and darkens the mood of the teacher. If left unchecked, the blackened teacher will devour his next class, angels and all. When we've approached campus management about this problem, we've been given the same response each time: "There's nothing we can do about naughty children. Deal with it. It will be better in the future. Trust me. <Big Smile Saying Get Lost Now>"

This is a depressing situation to walk in on; to be handed classes that were not cultivated with adequate discipline, right etiquette, good morals and diligent study habits. It makes me appreciate even more my prior colleagues' persistent indoctrination of these traits into the minds of our pupils. Thanks, guys! :-*

And I take my hat off to any such professional and conscientious colleagues in my new job.

I've spoken to several of my new colleagues (Chinese staff) about this problem now. Some dismiss the possibility, thinking in their hearts that the fault must lie with me because they don't see such behavioural problems when they take the class. While I may still indeed have much to learn about child psychology and classroom discipline that my ten years as an English teacher has not yet taught me, I consider this response to be naive at best and insulting and malicious at worst.

Instead of pretending that there is no fault, try instead sitting in on a few lessons to observe what behavioural problems the foreign teacher is talking about. In this way, you can give appropriate suggestions to the foreign teacher and admonish blatant misbehaviour in errant children as it happens. I'm not asking for presence in every class, but currently there is a disconnect in the minds of the children between our classes and those of the Chinese English teaches. The kids see our classes as game time only, treating them as a circus.

I have sat in on several Chinese lessons in my short few weeks in this new job and the same kids were much better behaved in their classes than they were in mine. One reason I believe for this is the use of the Chinese language spoken by the Chinese English teacher. When an admonishment is sharply barked at a kid in his native language (L1), he can't help but understand it and instinctively comply with it. Additionally, he knows that if he doesn't curb his behaviour then the teacher can inform his parents, or at least threaten to. The kids know we foreign teachers do not have this power, so they take this as license to misbehave with impunity.

Kids merely laugh at a foreign teacher who tries to threaten in English - picture The Simpson's "Santa's Little Helper" watching Homer screaming at Bart. Not understanding the words involved, he's left with Homer's oafish arm waving, reddened face and incomprehensible gibberish. Comical. And that's the problem. Instead of receiving a cautionary message for the child to calm down and pull his head in, he bursts out laughing and steps up the comedy act with increased hooliganism. It takes a patient teacher to respond to that with less than exasperation.

Of course, the take-away here is: Don't raise your voice and wave your arms around. Doing so merely makes you look just like the clown you're trying to distance yourself from in the first place. Instead, address the kid with silence and a closed body posture (arms down, square-facing, plain or stern face, and hold eye contact) and use corrective gestures to cease his current behaviour and lead him toward your desired behaviour. Silence is a much more devastating weapon than shouting. There are myriad other behavioural correction tools in the trade too, like tracking smilies and frownies on the board per kid, and rewarding participation & good behaviour with points (e.g. stars on the board) that have some real-world value somehow (e.g. 50 stars buys you a pencil sharpener, etc). And I do all that and more. But the abhorrent little delinquents I bemoan here today merely shrug their shoulders and smirk in indifference when I remove a star from their name for committing a transgression. They understand there is a rewards and punishment system, but they don't care to be a part of that system. It's very much like these kids have been placed outside of the system or have worked their way out themselves over the years and, looking in on it from the outside, they feel no connection to or love for it at all. Lost pupils.

I have successfully rebuked bad behaviour with short commands in Chinese. I think this will be a part of my effective strategy in future, but it would be sad if this were my only tool; sadder still if the need for it were to persist. Such a situation would indicate a failure to properly address the source of problematic behaviour, relying instead on this poor, blunt-force treatment of the symptom only.

Officially, of course, the foreign teachers are forbidden to use Chinese in class, which would take even this recourse from us. I choose to believe that after ten years of doing this job, I know well the difference between effective & irresponsible uses of L1 in the classroom. I'll use the right language for the right situation and the students' needs.

So, I am left now with how to better handle the problem of deliberately disruptive children in class. I am looking for advice and support for this problem.

Then again, I'm in two minds about this. First, it's a weekend job and if management, parents & colleagues don't care to address the problem, then our efforts in this direction will not be rewarded (indeed, may be punished) and instead we will be resented by all players, leaving us drained and depressed. On the other hand, if I truly see myself as an educator then a big part of my job is to address the morals, behaviour & study habits of my students. To be told by management that we can't do anything about naughty kids is insulting because they are putting profits ahead of education at the cost of our sanity and the customers' true benefit.

Tolerance of bad classroom behaviour is academic negligence.