Saturday, October 26, 2013

The unteachables (Goodbye, Posterous!)

I`ve been meaning to write something about my most challenging student for a long time.  I met her about 10 years ago when she was a bank executive.  I went to her bank twice a week to teach her. She was an absolute beginner, and she had to learn English because of her job.
        We liked each other immediately. We were of the same age, both married, two children, same background, a lot of topics in common.....But, her process of learning English turned out  to be a long tiring frustrating journey. Consciously, she realized how important it was for her to learn English. Subconsciously, she hated it. All her obligations were more important than learning English. Instead of having two 90-minute meetings per week, very often it was reduced to  60 minutes. I was chatting to her  secretary for half an hour before her obligations let her have English. She did her homework usually at 2 am after everything else had been completed. And we didn`t have the problem with her lack of time for English only. She found it difficult to learn even the most basic things. She didn't have an ear for English. I kept encouraging her, I am always very supportive, especially with the slower students. I told her that the talent for learning languages could be connected with music. She was surprised, she said she could sing very well and had been the best student in her secondary school at Russian. It was my turn to be surprised. So what was wrong with English?
         After four months at beginner level, we moved on to elementary. After yet another four months I was desperate. I tried every possible method to bring her closer to English. Of course I never let her see my despair. She was blaming herself enough.  Going on to pre-intermediate level at that point would have been a terrible mistake and she had to move on because of her company. And we came up with this brilliant idea to detour to Business English elementary. Nobody else did it but that was her cup of tea! Still, don't expect too much. Her timing was still tight. By the end of this course I could say she was on elementary level. We repeated the detour with pre-intermediate level.
        So after 5 courses, and imaginary 350 classes of English (close to 300 in reality) she was a very weak pre-intermediate level. Still, after so many classes of English, frequent frustration and occasional enlightenment, she didn't give up.  She had a special black leather bag where she kept all her English notebooks and she always carried it with her. She believed she would sometimes use it when she had time. She took it to all her holidays! I told her she had to break the barriers she put up against English. 'You are like a boxer, with your fists up and you don`t let any English there .' She liked that very much, she agreed it was true.
         And then her bank went to a different language school but we stayed in touch. By that timed we became really good friends. We went out for lunch or a cup of coffee. She did another five or six courses of English. She  thought I was her lucky charm, so before her every exam we met to do a kind of revision. She said I made her more confident.
          There is still some bitter feeling of failure when I think about this. I still don't  understand why she didn't make a greater progress with me. I thought maybe she would be more successful with some other teachers. And during her next six courses she changed six of them, with even less success. She always regretted 'the good old times when only the two of us were in her office'
           I was thinking a lot about my friend. Is it possible that there are students that we can call `the unteachables`? I had a few similar experiences as I teach adults, but none was so drastic and so personal. Why is it that despite our great efforts some students make such a slow progress? Can we explain everything by `talent for languages` and the lack of it?

          About three years ago I came across Steven Krashen`s theory of language acquisition. And there in his Affective Filter Hypothesis I think I found a part of explanation My friend obviously had her affective filter up and only rarely we manged to lower it, despite the good will on both sides. Her motivation was somewhere there, but huge amount of anxiety and low self-esteem played their part. I am not sure this discovery could have helped me to teach her  more, I just wish I could have found a way to lower that affective filter.
(This was written in January this year and published on Posterous. Pity it is no longer with us)

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