Punishing

book

Image courtesy of florian b.

I’ve waited a while before writing this post in order to protect the person who I am writing about. I don’t want anyone trying to guess who it was who did this. The point of this post is to make all of us think about what we do when we choose reading or listening material for our students.

One day, when I was having lunch, a fellow teacher was showing me a text that she planned on using with her class that afternoon. As I looked at the text, I wondered about the difficulty level and asked her if the students were going to be able to handle it. She exclaimed, “I know it is too difficult for them, but the students have been mentioning that the texts I have been giving them were too easy and they were finishing too quickly. I am doing this to put them in their place.”

I don’t know if my face was expressing it, but I was dumbfounded. I wasn’t sure what I should say in that moment. Why would a teacher punish her students for doing well by giving them something too difficult? Was it a control issue? Did she feel slighted by their comments? Not knowing what to say, I didn’t say anything and went on eating my lunch.

This event got me thinking about how we choose listening and reading material for our students. There are some who believe that we should be pushing our students by choosing more difficult material, while others feel that students should be reading or listening at a level only slightly above where they are at (ie. Krashen’s i+1). While I tend to fall in the latter category, I will give more difficult material from time to time, but only in small chunks. My reasoning is that students need to feel like they are progressing and when the material is perceived to be too easy, students will not be motivated to move on. On the other hand, large sections of difficult text on a regular basis will only cause students to become discouraged and give up. The same goes for listening.

My main concern regarding the encounter I had over that lunch time is in regards to the punishment meted out by the teacher. Maybe it was time for a more difficult text, but not as a punishment, and certainly not in the quantity she planned on using. I understand the frustration she was feeling when she heard her students complaining that they needed something beyond what they were being given, but to go to these lengths to “put them in your place” is just wrong. We need to put our feelings aside and look at the bigger picture. Her students were: a) wanting something more (ie. motivated to grow), b) taking control of their learning, and c) growing in their language skills. Yay! All good things! Sure, our personal pride can get in the way as we feel like students are judging us on how well we are doing in our job, but it isn’t about us. We are paid (at least most of us are) to help students grow in their language skills. When students express how they are feeling, that helps us know what to do next, not knock them down a few pegs.

I don’t want to come across as being judgemental here, but I worry that students will become discouraged and even quit. Listen to your students and put aside your pride for a moment in order to help them achieve their goals. Yes, sometimes they do know better than us in regards to what they need in order to grow.

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10 thoughts on “Punishing

      1. I honestly wish I could say now. But when the time comes, Nathan, I promise you… the answer will be now. Thank you for making my day even before it has begun here in Zug. Thank you very much!

  1. Hi Nathan!
    I was curious as you know to read why reading could be used as a punishment just as I mentioned on Twitter. All you saying makes sense and as usual your blogposts makes us think about the topic. Thanks for that.
    I’ve been a situation where learners thought they knew what they needed, and you know that I listen to my students, and I have also learned through the years that was not useful to try to argue with them otherwise. So allowing them to try it out themselves seem to help to find a balance between what they think they need and I think they need. It is also a way to tell me where they are when they are put in situation that proves to be higher level than they could deal with. I totally agree with you though that if the point (even unconciously) is to punish them, then there is no point of doing it. The whole process in my personal view is to allow experimentation to be a way to learn about what works and what doesn’t and maybe understand why. So, I have no idea of the case might be with the person who said that.
    In my context is very hard to measure what learners know or not know when comes to reading and listening. The amount of exposure to the language outside the class varies from one learner to another even when they are placed in the same book level. The needs also varies. I am learning how to work with my students instead of working for them. I have learned great deal this year inclusive on how to carry out action research with their own help. So, just something that your post made me think of. Thanks for sharing the story. I’ll reflect on the points you raise further. :)

    1. Thanks for sharing, Rose, As always, you have valuable things to share.

      I agree that experimentation is one way to find out what students need in regards to their reading level. The real goal is to get them reading and moving forward. Anything that gets them on that path is good with me.

      As you have noted in your comment, my main concern is the motivation for choosing the material she did. My feeling is that it shouldn’t come from a place of anger or power. Our choices should be motivated by support and encouragement.

      I would love to sit in on one of your classes sometime. I believe that I would gain a great deal from watching you work. Keep sharing with all of us your thoughts, struggles, and your (and your student’s) accomplishments.

  2. I totally agree with you Nathan. And agree with something else you said in your post, we should not get emotional about it. Taking anything they say personally will only serve to add to it.
    If I had someone to come and observe and help me see what is going on more clearly would be wonderful. I wish that was possible. Same feeling here, I know I would learn a lot from you too. I’m about to end this year (2-4 weeks to go and then a long vacation to reassess, learn new things myself, and get read to get back in class next year)! I need to come up with a way to record students progress in a more quantified way next year. If you have any idea regard this, please let me know. I may write a blogpost soon calling out for ideas from my PLN. Count on you!

  3. I really do wonder about the motivations of the teacher. I had a prof in university–a grad student with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove–who treated his students the same way (I know this because I had a friend, also a grad student, who would tell me how this other prof would routinely “laugh at his undergrads” in the grad lounge).

    I’ve always equated language learning, to a certain degree, with learning a musical instrument. With languages and music, you go through plateaus of learning: each “aha” moment after another, with (sometimes rather long) stretches of seemingly no progress. I know very little about Krashen, but I think the i+1 is simply putting those acheivable “aha” moments in front of your students.

    Expecting students to play Beethoven when they’re still working on their pentatonic scale is unfair; but playing a bit as motivation to see what is possible with determination, well I have a soft spot for that :)

    1. Thanks, Jeff! Yes, I agree that there needs to be more ‘aha’ moments. Those only come with the delicate balance of gently pushing students along without holding them back or shoving them over a cliff!

      Thanks for commenting. Come back again!

  4. “We are paid (at least most of us are) to help students grow in their language skills.” As an ESL teacher in a private institution, I face a different annoyance–orders/demands from a part time educational consultant to conduct my class certain ways, as if he knows the dynamics of my class. So I really wonder to whom we, ESL teachers, owe our ‘service’ obligations. As to setting up my students for failure (as a punishment), I won’t consider this because their failure means the end of my effectiveness as a teacher. I’m prepared to be replaced for not following ineffective strategies than have students spread rumor against me as an ineffective educator.

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