TEFL: Engaging Students vs Engaged Students, and what you can do about it.

Man, I wish I could be at home, playing video games right now…
Not everyone is going to want to study, even if they know they should.

I’m on my way to two small, in-person classes for business professionals at a company that, being based in Quebec, is mostly francophone yet deals extensively with North America, Europe and Asia for its supplies and occasionally has anglophone customers and contracts. The two classes are fairly close in level, with one being only slightly higher than the other, yet the progress of the students are pretty starkly divided by class. One class slogs along, the other almost flies. For the fast class, I have to deliberately build in longer and more complicated activities and discussions, but this oddly takes little time as they’ll enjoy almost any activity. The other? I can spend twice the time planning to cover half the materials. This also happens with my single-student contracts; some eat through my materials with joy, some barely scratch the surface and seem like they’d rather be anywhere else most days.

The difference here is one of engagement and creativity. The class that’s really ready and excited to be there always gets more out of their classes. They either do more overall (grammar, vocabulary) or dig deep into the nuance of the class: what is the difference between, “I went once,” and, “I’ve been once”? Now, boring material can put even the most excited student into a coma, but students who are themselves truly engaged still participate more even during “boring” bits. And again, they do better. So any teacher worth their salt is going to care about and encourage student interest and engagement. It’s why I WILL spend double the time planning for students I know aren’t that excited about taking English courses. It pays off in better classes for everyone involved. Because when they’re bored, it isn’t exactly fun for me either.

So how much engagement can a teacher provide, and how much should the student be doing? How much responsibility does each person have in this? This question is key to teaching (and burnout), and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking about it. I primarily work with adults, usually business professionals who are fairly self-motivated and who choose to pay for English lessons. This is a lucky situation as I don’t have to provide the drive too often. My students are already trying to fit in language practice or use it in regular circumstances. They are more engaged than the typical high school student forced to sit in a class, or a worker being pushed into language exercises by someone else. And when I do have a less excited student? I personally double my efforts to entertain, cajole and inspire. I’ll research their interests like a high-level spy who’s about to go under-cover to infiltrate their world. I’ll play Devil’s advocate on a subject they’re passionate about. I pull out all the stops. And it’s pretty fatiguing sometimes.

Creativity is often the key to engagement in these types of classes; if the student isn’t providing it, I am. English lessons (or lessons on any foreign language) are inherently about asking, “What if?”. What if you want to tell a story about your past? What if you want to talk about possible vs impossible solutions to a potential problem? What if you need the bathroom but the toilet is clogged? You have to anticipate conversations that may never happen, and their variations. That’s what you practice in a language class. It’s a creative endeavor, so it’s never surprised me that my most-engaged and quickest-learning students also tend to be a bit more creative. 

Here is the catch – even as a pretty creative person myself, I can only put this much energy into my less engaged classes because they are the minority for me. It takes a lot more time and effort to teach students and classes that lack the creative spark. If all my classes were disinterested, I’d be much more tired and probably able to do less classes. But this is the reality for many teachers: dead-eyed people, forced into a topic they care little for, making the 45-90 minutes drag by for everyone. 

In schools, in large businesses, in immigration centers, people take courses because they need to, not necessarily because they want to, and it reflects in how much they engage with the language, which directly effects how much they learn and then the teacher’s perceived “effectiveness”. So teachers who can’t find the energy to really, really motivate students may be seen as ineffective teachers, when the students themselves ought to be contributing more. At least in my opinion. So, many teachers get tired, frustrated, and burn out, or they may simply give mediocre classes in order to preserve their own sanity. 

Are there any tricks? Of course! If you search on any search engine, you’ll pull up dozens. Some I find to work well, others are a little gimmicky. So the ones I personally use are below. I’ve used them all, both with individuals and small groups, and none requite too much set-up, but do provide inspiration and make the student use their mind in an interesting way.

  • This one is key! Try to really think about and communicate WHY learning English is useful/fun/cool for your students. Will they really use it? Will it really benefit them? Don’t pick 100% serious examples, make sure there’s some fun stuff in there too
  • Tongue twisters! Good for tired students, they require little creativity but help get the student ready to pronounce in English. Some are also funny. These work well because the students get to laugh at you doing it too.
  • Taboo! Especially great for groups but also individuals, I keep separate sets depending on vocabulary level. People love this game, mostly. Choose job cards if your students seem bored by the more “typical” noun cards you get. “Politician” is always a hit.
  • What’s the difference between saying x and saying y? I’ll give two very similar sentences with a small difference (verb tense, neutral vs emotionally-charged verbs/adjectives) and help my student really dig into the nuances of word choice. Have a few on hand. This tends to be shorted, but is good for over-achievers who aren’t super-creative.
  • Read a poem and discuss. Poetry is all about layers of meaning, and there’s a style for any taste. Better for open-minded or ultra-critical classes who care about nuance. It also helps students feel comfortable discussing opinions and taste.
  • Make me say x. Pick a word (no/yes, and other very-common words work well) and challenge your student to trick you into using it while you try not to! Or do the opposite of they’re a bit creative. 
  • Draw the description! Have a student describe something they recently saw and try to draw it based on what they say. Great for prepositions! Ask them to pick a scene or room, not a small object (that’s too easy). 
  • Fake news. I will tell them a “story” I heard on the news and gradually make it more and more strange until they guess I’m making it up. Then I ask what’s really happening and let them take over. As I don’t usually watch news, this is a great place to get them to explain things in detail to me.

Overall, teaching students who are already engaged is far, far easier. It’s why I really enjoy most of my private classes – these people tend to be invested and engaged. But learning how to catch the interest and imagination of less-enthusiastic students is equally important. Games, open discussions, and centering learning-points around subjects students care about can help, though ultimately a teacher cannot force a student to learn if they’re truly disinterested. And so, while encouraging teachers to engage is important, the teacher should not be 100% responsible for engagement; students need to come ready and willing to learn.

If the teacher is doing a lot to really work with the students and the students aren’t responding, it’s ok to not take the blame as a teacher. I still remember a student in a group class telling me, quite pointedly, that her employer required her to come, but that she had no interest whatsoever in English. While I tried to show her how valuable English could be and find out why she was so resistant to it, I had no luck. She stared at the wall, ignored group activities, and we usually had to simply act as though she wasn’t there in order to do anything. It was terrible, but no one can force someone to do something they don’t want to do (without physical force or coercion anyway, which I don’t use for obvious reasons). So rather than wasting my energy engaging her, I focused on the group members who really did want to be there. They did well, she did nothing, and that was that.

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