Two weeks ago, I attended TESOL France colloquium in Paris, and more specifically, I attended Kieran Donaghy’s plenary session. The topic was utterly interesting, especially when you are a language teacher: empathy and the necessity of it.
When I was doing my CertIBET last year, my trainer used to say that a good teacher had to be genuine and empathic. A lot has been said (and written) already on the subject, notably by Sarah Mercer, so I am not reinventing the wheel here. Anyway, I was quite shocked to realize that, for some people, it was not necessary to remember students’ names. Kieran Donaghy pointed out the striking difficulty a student could have while talking in a foreign language to someone who didn’t bother learning his/her name.
Donaghy mostly teaches seniors, as I do. The relationship you can develop with senior learners is completely different than with younger students. I love teaching seniors because they don’t care of making mistakes, they are motivated (not because someone is forcing them to) and because they always have something to say. I guess it’s easier to become aware of the necessity of empathy while teaching seniors?
He provided some advices on how to develop empathy in the classroom. My dad calls it respect, more than empathy, but I guess we need to label everything now. We are teaching human beings, not machines, so it makes sense to ask them how they are when we see them. I teach English in a business school, and we established a routine: we all stand up, and we talk for ten or fifteen minutes about what’s going on with them. I know small details of their lives, they like to have a nice conversation in a relaxed way.
The problem is the teacher is seen as a judge, not a helper, most of the time. That what my younger students told me recently: “you want to help us?!” They were truly shocked, the way I was truly shocked to discover that learning students’ names was apparently not mandatory for everybody.
Kieran Donaghy also mentions the necessity, for a language teacher, to be fluent in more than one language. I was puzzled, considering the whole NS/NNS debate, but I wasn’t surprised either. It makes sense, if you think of it, to feel more confident with someone who can understand the struggle of learning a new language. I tried to learn German for years and I haven’t been able to utter a simple sentence without stuttering (my students love that anecdote). I am not saying that as language teachers, we must master several languages. But struggling to learn a language is a necessary step to become a more efficient language teacher.