I started drafting this entry thinking about everything I had been told during my initial training and early career about the necessity of having high expectations of my pupils and how I had tried to put it into practice: the ways I had succeeded, and the ways those early attempts didn’t quite work.
Then, I thought about my move into ELT and how one of the earliest articles my first overseas employer shared with me, before I had even moved to Spain, was about ‘Demand High ELT’.
Finally, it hit me: what do my students expect of me? That was what I wanted to reflect on in this month’s writing challenge. And to ask myself whether I meet their expectations.
They expect me to “know my stuff” … and, like all teachers, I don’t always know my stuff. I can’t always anticipate their questions, and if I haven’t ever been asked, or needed to consider, a specific aspect of a specific expression, I might not know the answer to their question, in that moment. As I’m a language teacher and not a bilingual dictionary, I regularly don’t know ‘how to say [insert decontextualised Spanish word] in English’! Ultimately, it’s OK to be human and not always know, but I think honesty is important.
They expect me to be honest … This can be tough. Unlike when I was preparing pupils for GCSE, most of my exam preparation students don’t have an external deadline by which they must sit their exam. They can enter the exam when they are ready. Many, of course, have their own aspirations about when they want to sit their exam and this often coincides with the end of the academic year. In recent weeks, I’ve had to have a number of difficult conversations with lovely students, who have worked hard, and tell them ‘Sorry, you’re not quite there yet’. This might not be easy to hear, but it’s the honest, professional thing to say.
They expect leniency … And this one can be very tough, as well. They don’t want me to be a prison officer, they do need me to be understanding and compassionate, but they also need me to expect the best of them. I’m sorry if it’s cliché, but I think especially in these trying, pandemic times, my students are expecting a bit of leniency. But to link to the previous point, expectations need to be managed. It’s fine to be lenient with students who are having a hard time because I don’t want to add other unneccessary pressure, but I also need to ensure that they know this will have an impact on their progress towards their own goals. This is a difficult balance to tread, and especially so as I’m working outside the mandatory education sector: I cannot oblige students to do homework, so accepting lack of submission has to be done carefully.
They expect me to be prepared … I am always prepared. Part of being prepared, in my opinion, is being prepared to go off road. These are the moments in lessons that I often find most exhilarating. A warm-up discussion doesn’t dry up, you let it go on beyond the alloted time, you scrap a preparatory vocab task because, the speaking task shows they don’t need it, you show them the video and they do the listening comprehension and during feedback one of the students asks about an interesting language point, you glance at your watch and realise that the planned grammar task isn’t necessary today and you can pick it up in another way in the next lesson. Instead, you deal with the question and then ask students to come up with some examples of their own using the language point for further practice. Their intial interest in the topic hasn’t waned, so you skip ahead to the end of lesson discussion questions and give more time to another speaking activity. Thus, I’m always prepared — the material ready and checked, appropriate timings worked out — but mostly, I’m prepared to let go of my preparation!
They expect to be challenged and supported … A lesson that doesn’t stretch them, that doesn’t offer them something new, that doesn’t present them with a challenge is quickly criticised. Students want to feel as though they are doing something different or learning something new. Yet unsupported challenge leads only to frustration. They expect to be gently carried to loftier heights, not dumped unceremoniously on the peak of a mountain without the necessary safety equipment.
They expect fun … Yes, “even” my adult students. I rarely play games with adult students because, frankly, their competitiveness and enthusiasm scares me a little! Gap fill grammar tasks suit certain kinds of students (I know, I’m one of them!), but I’ve yet to meet a Spanish ten-year-old who wouldn’t rather (unknowingly) drill grammar structures through a game of battleships!
And, what do I expect? From working in education, with all age groups, in private and public settings, in three countries, I’ve learned to expect the unexpected!