Humanising Language Teaching
Preamble to a letter from Robert Feather to Mario Rinvolucri
This is an opportunity for two teachers to get to grips with and learn from their day to day experience of teaching particular individuals or groups. It involves the two finding a quiet room and an agreed time (say 20 to 30 minutes total). First one teacher describes "What happened in the class this morning." Or " What I felt about the class this morning" and the other teacher listens sympathetically but does not interrupt (or only neutrally in order to promote the other's explanation). The listener may then make a short comment on the speaker's description (the nature of this comment will change as the rapport between the supervision partners develops). Then the procedure is reversed. The two should keep scrupulously to time limits, and each person should get an equal time. Probably the two teachers should not know each other's class because this means the response (in terms of body language or empathy) will be less directly involved, and hence provoke no differences of interpretation of any particular event in the lesson being described.
If my experience is anything to go by, the nature of the descriptions and comments will change from day to day. It will be illuminating to see what different states your supervisee is in from day to day; one person's description of a lesson will influence the style of the other person's description, which means that the two are learning that there is not just one way of perceiving events in class – in other words this is an opportunity to borrow another person's way of perceiving!
The following is a letter I sent to Mario following our two weeks of mutual supervision:
I think that our mutual supervision may have brought me some solutions to the problems I wrote about in my letter to you on Humanistic Teaching. First, thanks. It was good to exchange thoughts and words about our reactions to our classes and to the situation of a mutual supervision. It was good to get to know you a little better on a day-to-day basis and to see that you were different every day in mood, physical presence, the kind of discourse you got involved in and in many other ways. I suppose I was too. I am hopeful that what was said by both of us has allowed me to understand my relationships with others in a different way, both within and outside the classroom. If so, then it has been brought about by a number of aspects of this activity: what you said about my kind of discourse, what the situation of being in a one-to-one led me to think and say, what the freedom to experiment with this situation allowed me to think, being able to observe your way of understanding what went on in class and expressing that understanding
The feeling of having discovered something new is sometimes an unreliable indicator of truly having discovered something new! What I am writing may be a result of a sense of fulfilment automatically called up by and required by having engaged in a series of sessions such as ours over the last few weeks. ie. There is an implicit expectation that a mutual supervision of this sort, being in some ways parallel to a therapy session, should lead to an outcome which should be expressed in terms of a major breakthrough. Of this I am wary because it feeds back into the same syndrome I have been trying to escape, to wit the sense of being the junior partner/passive one/learner, the sense of having my identity sucked out of me in class, of being non-existent. It was this feeling which I was mainly complaining about in my previous letter. If you buy into the customer/supplier relationship as a teacher you may end up losing a sense of being able to offer anything because the nature of the service being provided should be as close to what the customer(student) says he/she wants as possible, however arbitrary and ineffective that may be from the language learning point of view.
But perhaps all this issues from being too proud to admit that I have learned something! I shall be able to give an answer to these doubts only after a time when I have been able to try out some of the insights I believe I have gained.
Basically, what I'm going to try to do is to see a lesson as a story which can be told from a number of viewpoints -- the teacher as narrator and the student as internal narrator are the two starting points. The teacher can focus on him/herself or the student as protagonist or the teacher can tell several parallel stories happening simultaneously, each with a different protagonist ie. How the teacher saw the student moving through the lesson, How the teacher thinks the student saw the teacher moving through the lesson, How the teacher saw him/herself moving through the lesson, How the teacher thinks the student saw him/herself moving through the lesson And all the interrelations between them. This means I will have to pay close attention to the student - the way he/she speaks, facial expression, volume, speed,tone of voice, clothing, movement etc. and NOT JUST THE LANGUAGE. This is the key. Not to reduce the relationship to language teacher and language learner as if it were possible to be in the same classroom for hours on end and to remain in the reduced role identification by the financial relationship between teacher and student.
So, I shall attempt to construct stories in 2 stages. First I'll collect images (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory? -- tactile not being allowed in our culture!) of the student. I will put these images on a screen I'll erect in my mind. This screen will appropriately be both for viewing the other better, but also for protecting the viewer. Having a screen will be a different model of relating from the model of empathy as a merging. I think I have previously seen the word humanistic as a call for empathy of this type and have run the risk of being drained. In any case merging is foetal, anachronistic, nostalgic rather than adult.
The second step will occur at various stages throughout the lesson and after. It will be a selection from among the significant images already collected. Then I shall fashion a story. It will be a story that does not claim to be the truth because the truth is a totality of events and this will unashamedly be a selection (perhaps with extrinsic motives such as entertainment, which also is fundamental to stories), and other people could have constructed a different story out of the same material or out of other details that they had collected as significant. It will be necessary for me to trust my of own ability to select.
What I hope all this will enable me to do is to see differences, responses and developments and will allow me to enter a relationship with the student which is more of a negotiation between adults rather than a relationship of dominance and subservience. This does not imply insincerity -- the conscious deployment of personality traits in order to manipulate a person -- instead it should lead to an increased responsiveness to a complex relationship. I think that recognition of another person's characteristics may in itself be sufficient. Any action based on a conscious theory of human behaviour at this stage will only be a blunder. Recognition is powerful. The recognised one will recognise the recognition and hopefully the recogniser in return.
As I said last week, I am sceptical of stories and of the origin and motive for story-telling. My scepticism is, in brief, based on the idea that a story can be invented to show the teller's superior wisdom, that stories have a momentum and persuasiveness even if the moral content they contain is wrongheaded, that stories impose a particular pattern on experience and one that always moves towards an end, which makes the listener end oriented as opposed to now-oriented. However, last week I noticed the positive side to story-telling -- it is mnemonic, it encourages sensory acuity -- and both of these give the substance to the teller in terms of their feeling that they have passed and are passing through a substantial world ie they exist. So I'll try it! Who knows what will happen!
Hope your roses will appreciate your efforts of the weekend.