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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Choosing between truth and flattery

Enthusiastic response: While teachers should pat the back of their young charges for a job well done, they must also be tactful when they point out mistakes.

Enthusiastic response: While teachers should pat the back of their young charges for a job well done, they must also be tactful when they point out mistakes.

Sometimes teachers are caught in situations where they heap praises on students  for their effort, yet hold back their honest comments for a job that is not up to mark.

RECENTLY I met up with Lyn, a former colleague whom I hadn’t seen in a number of years. After talking about all the things that had been happening in our respective lives recently, Lyn mentioned that she had been one of the many English teachers who had to attend a series of English language classes as part of the Government’s efforts to improve English language proficiency among teachers of the subject.

I was a little surprised at first because for as long as I had known Lyn she had always struck me as a competent English teacher who was proficient in the language.

But instead of the feeling of indignation I had been expecting from her at having been listed alongside many other far less proficient teachers as requiring an up-skilling in language and teaching competence, Lyn merely laughed it off good-naturedly.

“Never mind lah! Perhaps I’m not as good as I thought I was or maybe just bad in taking tests anyway, I’m sure I’ll learn something new through this course. There’s always room for improvement.”

Lyn had many funny stories to tell about what went on in these language classes which kept us laughing for a while but after some time I sensed a fleeting shadow over her face.

“I have learnt quite a number of new ‘things’ about teaching English, made a lot of new friends too, so on the whole, it’s been pretty good. However, there is just this one little thing that’s on my mind.

“I didn’t think much of it at first but lately ... don’t know why, but I keep thinking about this especially when I go back to deal with my own students in school.”

It turned out that the thing that Lyn was not entirely comfortable with were the comments given by the trainer sometimes after the presentation of certain completed language assignments by course participants.

From time to time the teachers who were undergoing this language training programme for teacher development, were required to present the results of their work in either written or oral form to the rest of the class.

“I could see that some of the teachers were really trying.” said Lyn. “Their presentations showed that they had put in a lot of time and effort and that they were serious about improving their English competency.

“Our course instructor was extremely encouraging, in fact to a fault.

“He was lavish with his compliments and praises at the end of every presentation or when someone said or did something.

“Very, positive reinforcement in fact I wonder why I should have this uneasy feeling perhaps it’s just me who is stuck in the mud but still, ” Lyn laughed a little self-deprecatingly.

“I mean I can understand his reasons for such positive comments after teachers had finished their assigned presentations.

“Using words like fantastic, if their work was moderately good, is perhaps okay, but to praise something as ‘brilliant’ when it was so full of errors is unbelievable.

“There were wrong use of tenses, no subject-verb agreement, wrong prepositions and sentence structure.

“Even when a presentation was so bad that some of us squirmed in our seats, our course facilitator would nod his head and flash a smile as if it were the best example of spoken or written English!

“Don’t ask me why, but I actually felt like I was being being patronised. Do I sound like a bad case of sour grapes?” Lyn asked.

“Maybe I am but then ... I mean I can understand his reason in wanting to encourage the teachers and not make them feel disheartened or worse still, embarrass them in front of their colleagues by pointing out their errors and deficiencies.”

To an extent we all do that too don’t we, to the students we teach? We don’t want to discourage our students by pointing out each language error and so, we overlook a lot of flaws in their use of the language simply because we want them to keep trying.

“We want them to be proud of what they have achieved so far, even if it is far from acceptable standards.

“I’m okay with that. I think it’s a good thing. But don’t you think even good things have a cut-off point, a boundary line?

“I wonder sometimes what will happen if we tell our students the truth — that their grasp of grammar rules is so bad and unless they do something about it, they will never be proficient in English despite the number of big words they use in their essays.

“Or should we just let it go, let them go, in fact, thinking that they have mastered something when in truth they are indeed a long way from home?”

I thought about what Lyn had said later and remembered the different occasions I had listened to presentations and read publications in English, which seemed to have been done by someone who was still grappling with basic rules of grammar.

They were as a matter of fact, delivered by Malaysians with impressive degrees behind their names in the field of English language teaching and learning.

Has this also been the result of yet another form of delusion where we believe that we have achieved standards that we haven’t?

A delusion which continues to be reinforced by being told how “fantastic” we are, which may not be the case most of the time.

It is probably a difficult question to answer. When do we offer praise and compliments to those we teach, so that they will continue to be motivated and seek to do better?

And when do we have to be brutally honest with them and tell them that their performance was way below acceptable standards?

Perhaps the answers would also be related to our knowledge of how much effort was put into the project, and how much of a students’ self-esteem and inner motivation hinges on the comments that he receives from his teachers.

Achieving that balance, where we can be upfront with our students and yet, not in a way that crushes their spirit but challenges them further, would also be a mark of our success as teachers.

Tags / Keywords: Education , teacher talk , MALLIKA VASUGI


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