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07 November 2012


Have you ever let your emotions come to the surface while working? A couple nights ago, I am ashamed to say, I experienced frustration at my students and I just feel awful thinking about it *cringe*.

I teach two classes at the moment: a TOEFL preparation class and a lower-intermediate English language class. TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language, and it is usually taken by those who want to enroll in an English speaking University, those seeking an English based degree, those who want to work in an English speaking environment (usually in the West) or those who are entering local universities that require a more fluent level of English.

At the centre I work at, students are not allowed to register for the TOEFL preparation class unless they have completed approximately 8 levels of English. This is necessary, since the TOEFL is aimed at fluent speakers with some ability to command the language.

It's my first time teaching TOEFL and I have 3 students. Two of them informed me that they have finished up to level 6 and the other other told me she has reached level 2 (I'm not sure why she was able to register for the class).

I've been teaching them for about 3 weeks and everyday I dread the class. Being a teacher, you get a buzz or a high when you teach a class and the students leave with more knowledge than they came in with. Or when you see the lights above their heads light up. With my TOEFL class, I feel I'm stuck in a vicious cycle and I'm not able to come out of it. I try to explain things to them but usually end up telling them the answer - not the ideal teaching method.

So on Monday we were discussing the difference uses of a noun. This is a tricky topic and one I would not have thought about were it not in the book. Let me give you an example, the word "music" can be made a noun person by changing it to "musician". The word "mile" can be made into a noun thing by changing it to "mileage". Now, I don't remember learning this at school in this manner. What little memory I do have of learning words tells me that I learned them through dictionaries and through what I was doing at school or conversations with people.

So like I said, a particularly tricky grammar point. I point the students to the Appendix at the end of the book, which has some exercises about how to change words to noun persons and noun things using specific suffixes. Then I tell them we'll work out the first example in our book together. The sentence reads:

"In the evening he relaxes in front of the fire and writes long poets."

Poets is circled in the book because it is incorrect. So I ask my students (there were only 2 that day), what is incorrect about this sentence? 

And they just don't know. 

So I ask, what do poets write? 

And they are like.......pottery? 

I'm like, close, but it's a different word. 

And then one of them says to me "well I'm not sure what poet means, is it a person or a thing?" 

I'm like (!) it's a person. So what does a poet write? 

No response. 

So I'm like, a poet writes poems. 


Ok, let's try some other exercises. 

"He had several critics to offer about the new play."

So, is this sentence correct or incorrect? 


Well, what's a critic? 

And one of them says to me "I don't know, what is it?" 

And I'm like, where are your dictionaries? 

Blank stares.

I've been asking you for three weeks to bring your dictionaries to class, I've asked about 10 times, tomorrow, if you don't bring your dictionaries, we won't have a class 

Deer caught in headlights...on of them says "I have a dictionary on my phone.." 

Excellent, bring it it out. 


We eventually work out (ie I tell them) that critics needs to be changed to criticisms. And by this time I am showing my frustration at them, and they are just getting more and more wound up (really, really bad for a student since it causes them to lose confidence and the ability to retain information). I've spent 3 weeks mainly giving vocabulary and grammar lessons, when this was a class meant to be for students who have more than the basic level of English and just want to learn test taking skills. Furthermore, I expect that they would be more serious about this exam considering they are all trying to register for Masters courses.

Anyway. We look at the next sentence:

"The company hired a statistic to prepare marketing studies for the new product".

I ask, correct or incorrect sentence?



The company hired...

...why is that incorrect?

Blink prepare...[is incorrect]..?


What does hired mean?

I'm not telling you. I feel like I'm telling off my children.

The student with the dictionary finds the definition and we eventually finish the examples I had set (we have more luck with sentences that have act which should be changed to actor and music which should be changed to musical).

The more frustrated I became, the more impatient. And instead of teaching, like I am trained to, I was repeating myself over and over, WILLING them to understand. Ineffective and incorrect. I felt terrible.

After the class one of the students apologised saying "I am so sorry, today I felt I was stupid" and I was like "no, you are not stupid, I am just frustrated that I have been asking for dictionaries in class but no one brings them in."

I felt even more terrible. You shouldn't have a student apologise to you after class. I knew I had failed them. My job was to teach them and all I'd done was cause tension and stress in the class.

I went to seek the advice of another, more experienced, colleague, to ask about how I can teach my students to recognise how to change words correctly. 

And he calmly (which further made me feel guilty) told me that their vocabulary is limited. He said I, as teacher, need to model the examples, and start with simple words, like compose = composer = composition. And that sometimes (for example in the case of jumping from critics to criticisms) I will just have to tell them to memorise the word. He said "you probably just memorised it, you don't remember how you learned it"; and it was true. And when I explained that they weren't bringing their dictionaries, he said, always comment on the positive, so if someone brought a dictionary, comment on that, not the negative.

All of this made sense to me. And made me wonder why could I not have shown that understanding and compassion in class :(


1 comment:

  1. I agree with your colleague . Teach these students as if they are beginners and not as level 6 who are getting ready for TOEFL. More examples and demonstrate how the prefix and suffix can change the word. Start with easy examples: like music..musician,art..artist
    Good luck Saba . You can do it :) practice and repeating helps a lot


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