Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
By Nicholas McKay

ESL teacher in China

ESL teachers are continuously multi-tasking.

Whether it’s giving instructions, describing new content, or planning for an upcoming meeting, there is always something on a teacher’s mind.

Because of this, ESL teachers can inadvertently overlook issues students are having.

The term for this is ‘door-slammers’. This is when a student talks to a teacher, only to receive an unhelpful response. This inadvertently alienates students from their teacher.

Chinese students learning English are already challenged by the language barrier and cultural differences. Therefore, alienating students is the last you thing you’d want to do!

Let’s for a moment play a little game. Below are three examples of student-teacher interactions. Can you identify which involve door-slammers?

Student: I’m worried about the exam.
Teacher: Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!

Student: My dog died yesterday. I don’t think I’ll be able to hand in the assignment on time.
Teacher: That’s too bad! I still expect your assessment tomorrow morning.

Student: I don’t understand the task.
Teacher: Weren’t you listening? Pay attention next time!

Could you identify which were which?

It might surprise you to know that each of these are door-slammers. Are you responsible for saying anything similar to your students?

I myself have been victim to this.

I had a music teacher in my senior years of high school. I was experiencing difficulty with some of the theory. So, I asked for help.

His response… ‘You are absolutely pathetic! I have explained this already! I will not do so again on account of you!’

I have remembered his words to this day. Door-slammers are very memorable.

The best way to stop using them is through an empathetic reaction. Many people today, however, are quick to sympathize.

Imagine a group of people feeling down. Beside them is a narrator, explaining to them that they are feeling down. This is a perfect example of sympathy.

The truth is, it isn’t easy for a student to ask for help. They should be applauded for their courage. What students really want though is a solution.

The relationship between teacher and student has always been unfair. In short, it’s like a see-saw. Teachers are at the top; students are at the bottom.

In using empathy, a person needs to adopt the feelings of the person they are talking to. They need to put themselves in the other’s shoes.

A number of teachers I have met believe doing this will undermine their authority. Students however, will be fundamentally grateful.

Imagine the following scenario in an advanced English class: a student comes up to you and says they didn’t understand the lesson. Chen, a boy they don’t get along with, irritated them while the teacher was discussing exam preparation material.

A sympathetic response would be:

Teacher:  ‘You poor thing. I suggest you go home, eat something, and study your notes. You’ll do great!’

As you can see, it’s not particularly helpful. An empathetic response would be as follows:

Teacher: ‘I’m sorry to hear that. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I understand that must be very frustrating.’

Student: ‘Yes, Chen is so annoying.’

Teacher: ‘I understand you and Chen have never been good friends. Do you think talking to him about how he makes you feel would be helpful?’

Student: ‘Perhaps. I normally just try to ignore him.’

Teacher: ‘Chen will never stop unless he’s aware of how his behavior is affecting you. Do you think arranging mediation between you and Chen would be beneficial? Then perhaps, you, Chen and I can find a solution together.’

Student: ‘Yes, that would be good.’

Teacher: ‘I’m glad to hear that. Now, you said you were having difficulty with exam preparation. I understand this would make you feel stressed.’

Student: ‘Yes, I’m worried I might fail.’

Teacher: ‘Feeling anxious is never enjoyable. Tell me, which parts of the exam are you experiencing difficulty with?’

The student will then respond. In the above example, the teacher was neither judgmental nor dismissive. Instead, the teacher was supportive, and willing to listen.

When I began teaching, I found I sometimes did not listen. I had a script already prepared in my head, and followed this to the letter.

I had a student in one of my Media classes. I asked him why he refused to do the work. He replied, ‘Why should I do the work when I’m going to fail anyway?’

My response? ‘If you don’t do the work, you’re going to fail.’ The inspirational speech by Bill Pullman from Independence Day this certainly was not!

When speaking to students, ESL teachers must be attentive. Pardon the stereotype; communication is key.

Returning to the above example, the teacher asked many closed-ended questions. These are questions that only require a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response.

Normally I would advocate not using these. If you can use an open-ended question, by all means, please do so! However, in the example, the teacher helped lead students to the answer.

A student can sometimes feel as though the world is on their shoulders. They have work troubles, relationship issues, familial responsibilities, huge expectations, etc. Their lives are, simply put, like a Shakespearean drama!

Just by listening, considering their feelings, and understanding what they are going through, you will be able to beneficially help them. After all, we were all students once, right?

How do you respond to your students' needs in China? Do you sympathize or empathize? Please comment below.

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