An uncomfortable lesson

This week’s lesson was tricky.

The warmer was innocuous enough – or so I thought. We played ‘Give Me Five’: five teams, five categories (read one-by-one), with learners required to think of five items within that category and write them down. The first team to write down their answers – and have them checked – wins.

Things began to fall apart with the example category: ‘Things in a town’. The quickest team reeled off their five words, and one of them just happened to be ‘hospital’. This was enough to anger one student in another group (let’s call him ‘Learner A’), who complained that in Oxford, the hospital isn’t in the town centre… so the winning team was actually incorrect. I explained that I didn’t name a specific town – and if we wanted to argue specifics, the hospitals in Oxford are inside the ring road anyway! – and that the winning team had given correct answers. There was a little tension in the class at this point, but no more than you’d expect from a (surprisingly competitive) team game.

The first non-practice round of the game was ‘Vegetables’. Perhaps I should’ve known better. The quickest team included ‘tomato’ in their list, and I allowed it – saying that some people say ‘tomato’ is a fruit, while others say it is a vegetable. This was enough to provoke the wrath of Learner A, who loudly complained to his team members that the game was ‘stupid’ and I should at least ‘communicate the f***ing rules’. The atmosphere was tense, to say the least.

I asked him to repeat what he said to me – and he chose to remove the expletives. I calmly explained that we were playing a game, and that I made the rules. I re-explained the rules, and then told him that if he didn’t want to play, he was welcome to leave. Lessons are run by volunteers, and attendance is also voluntary. No one was making him play the game.

Learner A folded his arms and retreated to the corner of the classroom, and eventually the game came to an uneasy conclusion. When we split the learners into two groups as usual, he went and sat with the other teacher – ultimately participating in a disagreement with another learner that resulted in the second learner storming out of the class. My half of the class continued as normal (save for a slightly controversial discussion about the countable nature of peas), but nevertheless I couldn’t shake that uncomfortable feeling. Since the lesson, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how I could have managed the situation more effectively.

Did I do the right thing by telling the learner that it was my classroom, and my rules? I have never said that before, even when confronted with particularly disruptive groups of teenagers, and I didn’t like saying it. I am a firm believer that lessons should be learner-led, rather than teacher-led, and I think that lessons work best when everyone (me included) learns something. It also felt more than a little ridiculous for me – a 28 year-old woman – to say this to a 50-something man. Had I already mentioned that Learner A is middle-aged…?

I think that someone had to say something – and, as I was leading the warmer, it needed to be me. Other learners were looking uncomfortable, and I did not want Learner A to ruin the class before it had even begun.

That said, as soon as I finished speaking, I felt that a little bit of the FELLOW magic had been broken. FELLOW is a relaxed environment in which it is supposed to be enjoyable to learn English and get to know people from other cultures. It is not supposed to be a place where the teacher leads, learners follow – and definitely not a place where the teacher has to admonish learners for their behaviour.

I’m not sure what I could have done differently. Should I have selected less controversial categories? If even vegetables are controversial in this class, was my warmer doomed from the very start?

What would you have done in this scenario?

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