A critical incident reflection on a critical incident post…

This one is a response to a blog post by my colleague, Cathy, whose blog lives here: http://cathywint.posterous.com

I feel obliged to say, for other readers, that Cathy and I work together on CELTA so obviously I am hardly objective on this one! I also want to steer this away from a “how we work together” response (just think “creative car crash”, that would do it). Anyway, the post, which is this one: http://cathywint.posterous.com/reflecting-on-a-critical-incident , is a critical incident reflection about, by my reading of it, the standards and expectations placed on learners: a sort of inverse of the roles and responsibilities. So here is my response which sort of went beyond being a comment at the bottom. But do take the time to look at it! So apologies for the second person, but this is mostly addressed to Cathy…

What was interesting here for me is the lesson to take away from the incident isn’t necessarily that you should or could have done anything different but rather that this is about consistency of approach and expectation. I don’t mean this in a sense which might be perceived as critical of anyone, but when a course has one tutor for a part of the course who then changes for another part then that will affect the way the learners react on a course, even if those tutors are rigorously precise in their shared expectations. But if there is even the slightest slip in those expectations then all sorts of what are basically behaviour management issues can occur: a simple example would be two teachers with different approaches to mobile phones in the classroom. Teacher A bans them outright, but Teacher B doesn’t care. Learners don’t know what to think, and so no approach wins out and Teacher A has a tough time because they have placed (different) boundaries on that behaviour to Teacher B.

You were, rightly, going in with a particular expectation for how a particular course was being run, the learners had been used to a different set of expectations, and therein lies the problem: a team/departmental/managerial issue rather than an individual one.

There are communication issues as well: assumptions that you had and would read email before a lesson, and a bit of rotten luck perhaps is to blame, as you say you would normally read it. Also the assumption on the part of the student that they would be having their normal tutor that day: again, inadequate communication between all parties here.

But also what about levelling some of the blame here on the trainee? Not being funny but as soon as the course finishes, they will be trotting off into the mean and nasty world of FE. All this cuddly supportiveness will evaporate overnight. God forbid they may go and work for a private organisation in which case they will be dumped right in the deep end. Either way, they will be expected to organise themselves for a teaching session (which is one of the roles and responsbiities of a teacher). Being ready for the communication / IT breaking down, a fire breaking out, and indeed just stuff breaking generally in all directions. And frankly, assuming that your tutor will arrive with your materials ready printed for you is simply naive, at best, and arrogant at worst.

One of the flaws of teachers generally is the assumption that we could have done something differently in order to get better performance from our learners. And that is indeed usually the case when it comes to the classroom. But there are certain times when actually the fault lies with the student. I can think of at least one trainee (not on your course or mine) who was given support above and beyond the call of duty, opportunities to retake and the whole shebang. But they refused to respond appropriately and came very close to fail before accepting a deferral. The responsibility there lay with that teacher. And the same here. The responsibility lay with her for doing that key aspect of the job. It shouldn’t be your responsibility to check emails on your day off (although perhaps this wasn’t made clear to the trainee?). And if the session starts and 9.30, and you are first on the list then you assume that you too are starting at 9.30, don’t you?

There are ESOL students who arrive to every class expecting the teacher to provide a pen and paper because their last teacher always did so without comment. There are the international students who arrive at a course and expect that they will end the course in one month as an advanced learner. (Here’s a genuine anecdote: a former colleague in a private language school was once told, by an imperious learner, that because they, the learner, was paying, they were the customer and the customer should get what they want. My colleague’s response? To point out that they were paying for his professional knowledge and skills and that therefore they should listen to those. Apparently it worked and shut them up), there are ESOL learners who just expect that it will happen without them actually doing any work, regardless of what you say. The teacher trainees who have deadlines set and checked and set again, chased and discussed and tutorialed until the cows come home,and yet still hand it all in on the last but one day of the course.

In short, students can be and often are wrong, in spite of what the teacher has done. And I think we can lose sight of that, given the rhetoric of the educational establishment. Even if you factor out all the attendant complications like socio-economic background, culture, gender and so on, it still comes down to the learner and the teacher, and there are limits to what the teacher can do if the learner isn’t interested or doesn’t want to take responsibility.

Which brings us back to the situation at hand: honestly,there’s not a lot you could have done. Asked for more info earlier from the course tutor? But you assumed that you had been given it. Checked your emails even more obsessively than usual? No comment. Communication broke down, primarily, and there was a mismatch between what you expected and what the learner expected. if you have complete control over those expectations, then that is one thing.

But then I would say that wouldn’t I?

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