Saturday, 26 September 2015

On Developing "The Look"

Teachers are made, not born. One thing that each teacher needs to develop is a Look. No, not a fashion or style of dress that will for better or worse be associated with them, but rather a very particular expression on their face that can communicate exactly what they wish to say without requiring words. Parents commonly develop a variety of Looks for different purposes, but in the context of English classes, the primary purpose of the Look is to remind learners to, "Speak English, please".

The Look is not supposed to communicate, "Only English is acceptable." Really, there's nothing wrong with speaking a language other than English, even when you're in Canada. There is nothing wrong with speaking another language even when you're both in Canada and in an English language classroom. Truly. Good pedagogy doesn't ban the native tongue; it makes use of it. However, the native language needs to be a resource, or a tool, to help the students learn English, not an easier way to accomplish the discussion task that the teacher just assigned. Where will learners practice English if not in the classroom? And how will they improve if the teacher doesn't push the boundaries of their ability?

So, in keeping with the friendly rapport that I try to maintain with my students, I have developed my Look to communicate specifically, "Please, I know you're capable. Why are you being lazy and cheating? I would appreciate it if you spoke English for now, as you can speak your own language later."

It would appear that something went awry. Judging by the responses I've been getting to my Look lately, it appears to communicate, instead, something along the lines of, "English, precious, or I'll have you for dessert."

The first instance where I realized the potency of the Look was during a pair-work exercise. I was sitting at my desk at the front of the room, when I heard a pair speaking Spanish (it is almost always Spanish). I didn't feel like getting up, so I merely sat there with the Look on my face pointed at them. Almost immediately, the quiet student on the right, Manuel, who is brand new to my class, looked up and locked eyes with me. Then, without moving his posture or breaking his gaze, he slowly reached out his hand and put it on the arm of his speaking partner, Miguel, like a parent calmly, coolly telling their child to get behind them while they stare down a threatening animal. Miguel, warned by the hand on his arm, followed Manuel's gaze and caught sight of my Look, still pointed at them.

He nearly fell out of his chair.

After collecting himself, he switched to English and pretended nothing had happened.

The second instance where I realized the potency of the Look was the next day during another similar pair-work exercise. This time it was Mariela and Marcos chatting gaily away. Normally, Marcos doesn't show a lot of shame for his behaviour in class. He takes little issue with challenging or teasing me and I generally have to ask him twice to do something. But, as I began to approach and cast them the Look, he snaked a protective, cautionary hand onto Mariela's arm, using as little movement as possible.

Mariela caught sight of me and stopped dead. After a few sheepish moments, she began translating everything she had just been saying.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me; my students have told me before that I have a very expressive face. Why, when I asked a former student whether I was good at keeping a neutral expression when I'm displeased, he immediately burst out laughing and replied, "We see the hell in your eyes."

Nevertheless, I don't feel like my face is shocking. Indeed, it wasn't originally. For my first two semesters, I was just a noob. I had to use words to ask my students to speak English. This semester started out the same, but my Look has developed meaning that it didn't have before. I've heard so much Spanish in the past year that I can discriminate it from English across a crowded room with just a few whispered beats. As a result, my sunny "English, please, student X," has became much more frequent, much more confident, and I have become, to all appearances, omniscient, as I often it fling it across the length of the classroom to a quietly murmuring pair. I don't yet have eyes in the back of my head, but my ear is forever hovering just over your shoulder. I know whether you've been bad or good.

Meanwhile, my students are like guilty dogs who know they're not supposed to be on the couch, and as a consequence they've grown particularly adept at sensing the Look that tells them they've been caught. Verbal reprimands have become optional.

I'm evolving as a teacher. Next up: developing an overused tag line.

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Me: A "boutique" is a small store that sells fashionable clothes and accessories.
Manuel: Like Salvation Army!