This is from 2009. I republish it here because the end of this article ties in very neatly with what Nathaniel Hardt recently wrote (published as a post here yesterday and added recently to the Primer hard link) about the dangers of mixing our way of teaching with the textbook.
This article, which I just happened to come across, is a strong cautionary tale against mixing what we do with the textbook and really supports each single point that Nathaniel made. As such, this is one of those rare posts that gets pretty much down to the nitty-gritty of what teaching is all about, not to mention that it kind of freaks me out about what happened to this person when she tried to mix the two and how she would have been a lot better off if she never tried to do it.
Here is the post, again, from 2009:
I got this email today from a gifted young TPRS teacher who calls herself a “recovering TPRS geek”. What follows (my responses in italics) is a disarmingly honest report of something that she went through last year with TPRS, one that makes me very proud to be in association with such people who possess a level of transparency in what they are doing professionally that is regal:
I’m really grateful for all you are posting such diverse opinions here. The more facets of the diamond that we see, the more brilliant this thing gets. And the more room there is for all kinds of people to succeed with TPRS, even recovering geeks like me.
That’s ripe. A recovering TPRS geek. Nice.
Geek: There was a student from last year who kept me from figuring out my difficult class. It was a girl who is super smart, and one that another teacher told me later could really set the tone in a class. She was one of the best students in the class. Things were so easy for her. One day, she decided to play dumb. She refused to answer some simple question that she almost certainly knew the answer to. The class sensed it, too, because, as I went around the room, the next six or seven people just gave me a sullen ‘I don’t know’ or just refused to answer.
Then it spread. There was another girl who would say biting things. I remember one time I was doing the “Class, there’s a problem!” thing. She blurted out, “What’s your problem now?”
Me: This is brutal, but you will survive such exchanges with these undeveloped human beings – that’s what teenagers are – and you will outpace their closed hearts with your own open heart. How unfortunate it is that teachers who always play it safe in their classrooms may never know the thrill of patiently overcoming an event like this. We who have gone through these fires are truly lucky people!
Geek: Then there was the boy who should never have been in my class… a bored and angry native speaker who refused to do work, follow instructions or show up for detentions. And he had something of a following. “Why should he have to do the work when he already knows Spanish?” It spread a bitter tone throughout the class.
Me: Yes, big error on administration’s part there. Huge. No excuses for their error. There are, of course, things that we can do to include that kid’s expertise into our classroom process. Plus, you can always differentiate such kids into the grammar/writing thing. I have met few native speaking teens who have complete written control over their own language. Such kids should therefore be either a) helping with the WTC game or generally helping us ask questions (maybe some day they will teach their language based on what they learned in your classroom!), or b) doing individual work to learn how to write the language that they only speak well now.
Geek: That student didn’t come to the front of the dissonance until November. It just kept spreading until it became a nightmare. I actually had to leave school one day, and I think it was partly a reaction to the stress. Something really strange was happening to me, and the students could tell and were making fun of me.
Me: This is real. A teacher having to leave school in the middle of the day because of stress is real. It deserves more attention than it gets because you didn’t leave that building that day because you are weak but because you were in a situation that was mentally very dangerous to be in. Your story is so big, so primal. You did the right thing in leaving. You should have been shown unequivocal support by your colleagues and administrators in your building that day.
Geek: Someone gave me the Fred Jones book. I’m grateful. I can see this helping me turn around. Any other suggestions? How would you have handled that first girl? That was on the subtle side for me, since there’s no tangible way to prove she actually knew the answer. It’s just that everyone in the room knew it and played on it.
Me: Fred Jones works for some CI teachers, and not for others. I am on the “not” side. I have to have more genuine buy-in from my students. This question travels to the very marrow of a teacher’s sense of who they are. Are you someone who will let a group of teenagers walk on you? Then perhaps you should do something about that, since you work with teenagers professionally. I don’t want to be too blunt here, but I don’t know how else to say it. Somehow, a few students wrestled control of the classroom from you. What you describe was a big problem for me for the first twenty-four years of my teaching career. So I know the hurt. I know the getting dizzy feeling and having to walk out of a classroom. Once in South Carolina I had to walk down to the beach at lunch in a kind of depression that I can’t even describe. On another occasion in that same year I had a weird psychic kind of mental battle with a student who was out of control and should never have been in my class. There was one minute of pure teaching hell with her, so long ago, when in the midst of extreme disrespect from her I put my left arm up in the air for some reason and it was jerked down hard immediately by some invisible really dark force. This is not an exaggeration. I know nothing about the occult, and don’t want to, but that moment convinced me that there is such a thing. The worst part was that the students saw it. So yeah, I get it and my heart goes out to both of us for what we have had to deal with in those situations. But that was long ago. Now, I have learned so much. I am able to use my Classroom Rules and jGR to steady the ship and demand good human responses from all my students. It is because I have gotten in touch, through the suffering that teaching can be and that only teachers can know, with my own personal power. For me it was a survival move. And yes, I have had kids turn on me as well when I announced that there was a problem, and in exactly the same way and even at the same time of year around November, just like you. I didn’t let it continue. Now, besides playing my wonderful Classroom Rules and jGR cards, I have learned to act immediately in such situations. Now I would say something like this to this person, and I would say it in front of the entire class the minute I realized that she had turned on me:
“Jennifer, I know that you are not happy right now in my class. I am sorry. I am working hard at being a good teacher for you and reaching you with this language so that you can be really good at it. Our class is not always going to be perfect, and there will be times when you want to do and say things like you just did, and maybe influence other students to do the same thing, because you are obviously a strong person with lots going for you. But, please understand that what you have said this week and the general mutiny that is going on this class these days is not good for any of us and I am going to see that it stops right now. I am now asking you to not pull away from my instruction in the future with sarcastic comments, and that we look upon my little speech here as my effort to clear the air. I will not wait to bring parents into this, of course; I will call them after school today or tonight to set up a meeting so that we can all come to an understanding of what I expect from my students in this classroom. What you are doing is not going to work in here past today.”
Then, I would certainly go to the phone after school or that evening and make sure I had a talk with the parents, explaining my situation in a calm and clear and professional way, asking them to talk to Jennifer, etc. I would have something in front of me that supports comprehension based instruction and I would refer to it in a calm way as I explain my professional approach to teaching languages. If the parents turn out to be in that general classification of parents who allow back talk from their children and support them against teachers without knowing what the position of the teacher is, which they almost certainly are because look at the daughter, I would schedule them in for a conference with an administrator and member of the teacher’s union in attendance.
That is what I would do. When Jennifer tells those others that a phone call was made the night before, that phone call will be the beginning of the end of that problem in that class. No phone call, no resolution – count on that. To repeat the key thought here: no phone call or meeting, no resolution. When you do this, you may “lose” the kid mentally for the rest of the year, but you won’t lose the class. In my mind it is certain that Jennifer tested you like that in order to get some control over the class, which we can never allow.
As time goes by, you will get so smooth in your instruction using comprehensible input that things like that won’t happen ever again. You will get to deeper and deeper levels of finding out where your core strength and personal power lie and you will use them in your classroom, never getting too close to kids to the point where they think you are their friend. There is a difference between having lots of fun with a class using a comprehension based approach and being friends with a class. Anyway, that is what has happened to me. I wanted my students to like me and so I allowed too much with them. My own struggles with getting in touch with my own personal power have marked my career. Sometimes I think that I was lead into this profession just to learn those lessons. Finding one’s personal power and exercising it in a classroom full of teenagers is not an easy thing to do. But no teacher who is going to make their career into a lifelong commitment, and who will in that way unwrap and enjoy all the benefits that lie in the treasure chest that teaching really is, is going to get away without having to fight battles like the one you describe above to some degree or another.
Geek: Thank you for that. It makes sense. I have thought about this so much. I had one kind of odd insight. I have to admit that everything I just described happened while I was struggling to figure out how to fit comprehensible input instruction into the textbook. That was like mixing oil and water for me, and I was circling a little (the boring beginner way…) and getting stuck mostly with the book. We started TPRS in November. These experiences with students are part of the reason I was so determined to start off with full comprehensible input this year – it’s the only way I know to get everyone engaged and involved.
Me: This is a supremely important point to share. I wondered about that above, because, usually, the kids are so grateful to not be in the book and so happy to be just talking about themselves in the target language. But I get it now! Now you have explained the secret – the book is so dead that it slapped down your circling and swallowed up and dampened and neutralized all the good things that you were trying to inject into the book. The book blasted away any chances of personalization. The book crushed the human element that always emerges in a TPRS class. The book was functioning in the exact opposite way it was intended to work – it was destroying any chances of moving the class up to the kind of high quality and light-hearted acquisition that we get in CI classes that are not tied into a book.