No need to show anger/frustration at ESL students

Showing frustration doesn't help

Showing frustration doesn’t help

One of the best pieces of advice that I received early in my teaching career came from a Japanese administrator.  Over the years he had witnessed visiting American instructors showing their frustration with Japanese students vocally or through their body language.  He said that with Asian students, these demonstrations can have the opposite effect of what the instructors were hoping for.  According to him, only children or someone immature is unable to control their emotions, so the students will probably lose respect for the instructor.

I can say that in my 35-plus years of teaching international students, I’ve never been in a situation in which my only option was to show anger.  This isn’t to say that I’ve never felt inside like screaming; I just know that nothing would have been gained by actually doing it.

My “never show anger” mantra was recently challenged by a student.

We frequently have small-group discussion about a reading passage in one of my advanced ESL classes.  I structure these in a way that makes it very easy for even the most reserved students to be active.  (In a future postings, I’ll explain more how I do this and how I follow up to motivate them more.)

One student, Han, tended to make a minimal amount of effort during the discussions despite having demonstrated that he had fairly good oral ability.  Despite my earlier attempts to motivate him, last week, once again, he sat passively while his three group members actively interacted.  Fortunately, the other three did not seem affected by his dead weight, but I felt like yanking him out of the group.

I knew that I’d have to take some action before he left class.  I came up with three possible courses of action that I could take:

(Option 1)I could ask him if he’d prefer to not be included in group discussion.  (Students don’t want to be excluded, so I was sure that he wouldn’t choose that.)

(Option 2) I could tell him that he couldn’t be promoted to English Comp unless he could demonstrate his ability to be active in groups.

(Option 3): I could ask him why he had been so passive.  This is the one that I decided to start with.

At the end of class, with a confused or concerned look on my face (i.e., not a frustrated look) I privately asked him why he was so quiet during the discussion.  He pointed to a sore on his lip and said that he was embarrassed to draw attention to this, so he hesitated to talk, especially since his three group members were females.

Whew!  Once again, I was relieved that I didn’t over-react by pulling him from the group or threatening him before hearing his side of the story.

In the end, I told him that I understood and wouldn’t penalize him.  And I told him that I’d pay special attention to him during our next group discussions, so he’d have more chances to show me his energy and skills.  He assured me that he’d be more active.

David Kehe

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