Here's to the weak students

The trained eyes of the experienced teacher quickly scan the students on the first day of class. This is the first lesson of the day – a 2 pm group of dozing teenagers experiencing the typical post-lunch torpor. The ‘usual suspects’ are all there: the hair-flipping ‘patricinha’, the quiet nerd, the know-it-all attention seeker, the restless troublemaker, the slouching bum (who hasn’t got his books today and will probably most consistently not bring them to class throughout the term!). Next is a group of 8/9 year olds and again the very experienced teacher immediately recognizes the ‘little devil’ who can’t sit still for 5 minutes, the absent-minded ballerina who dances gracefully around the classroom during storytelling time, the quiet introvert (who will probably develop into the quiet teen nerd), the clown, the bully. Uff! A short break in a long day and at 7.30 pm the same teacher meets his/her adult students. Again, the experienced eyes scan the group and there they are: the uptight middle manager with fossilized pronunciation problems who needs to learn English to save his job, the university student who still behaves more like a teenager than like a “young adult”, the lady whose daughter and grandchildren live in the US and who just needs to learn enough English for her regular visits but wants to know absolutely everything about verb tenses. Pronto! At the end of the first day the teacher’s got them all figured out. After all, that’s one of the greatest benefits of experience!

If the picture above is not familiar to you then you are either a novice teacher with very little experience or you are not in the teaching business at all. However, if you have been teaching for a while, I’m sure you have – even if unconsciously – labeled your students in an identical or similar fashion. It is a way to put order to chaos: categorizing people gives us the illusion that we are in control despite the fact that deep down we know - or should know - it is just an illusion. Consciously, we know that people are multi-faceted, unpredictable, uncontrollable. As uncontrollable as our human impulse to control the world around us to be able to make sense of it. And because it is a ‘natural impulse’ it might seem harmless. But it isn’t. Actually, it is potentially very dangerous.

Whenever we try to reduce people to ‘manageable chunks’, we neglect their individuality and diversity; we fail to perceive their complexity and, consequently, they WILL surprise us and we WILL eventually realize we are not in control. And the worst thing is that we will fail as educators because our limited vision will prevent us from helping them develop their full potential – the very potential we have disregarded.

One of the most frequent ways of reducing our students’ potential is to label them as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’. Whenever I hear these words used to describe students, I must confess that I flinch and fret about how these notions may affect their development. You may argue that seeing a student as ‘strong’ does not reduce their potential; on the contrary. Fair enough, but it might influence the teacher’s judgment of this student in a way that their mistakes might be constantly mitigated and not dealt with adequately. And this can obviously affect their development. But I’m sure you see how potentially harmful labeling a student as “weak” can be: they might always be seen as the lost causes even if they are working really hard and making steady progress right under our nose.

The point is that all human beings have stronger and weaker abilities in all areas. Actually, the same abilities may express themselves as stronger or weaker at different times and under different circumstances, depending on our specific state of mind, feelings, mood, and might even be affected by elements like the weather, our diet, what we read in the newspaper that particular morning.

As a teacher, I have also fallen into this trap more often than I’d like to admit. Just to offer one anecdote (from many I could have picked), I once had a student I had labeled as “a lazy bum”. He always scraped through levels, never did anything but the bare minimum amount of work and because of that he was definitely not one of my favourites. From my perspective, he was certainly one of the ‘weak’ ones. When he was about to graduate, he told me he had decided to take the CAE exam. Believing that ‘honesty is the best policy’, I immediately told him he would not be able to pass the exam if he did not change his attitude to learning and started working harder. Deep down, however, I was sure he would not pass. Still, he joined the CAE prep group I was teaching and because he had always been “the lazy bum” to me, it took me some time to notice he had indeed changed. But one day, it dawned on me that he was the only student in that group who was doing absolutely everything I asked them to do: all the writing tasks (and rewrites), all the homework, all the mock tests, never missed a lesson. Lo and behold, he eventually got a B on the CAE. I was ecstatic and surprised and so was he. The day he got his CAE result he came by the school to give me a box of chocolates and thank me for “believing in him”. I thanked him for proving me wrong and learned my lesson for good.

My intention in sharing my personal experience and point of view is, of course, to contribute to debunk the myth of the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ student. Not only because of the devastating effects it certainly has, but because, on the one hand, it belittles students by reducing them to meaningless, disrespectful labels and, on the other hand, it exposes a common practice among teachers which goes totally against one of the pillars of education: the unquestionable fact that we are all multiple, diverse, unique. By now, it should be common sense that such inadequate, harmful behaviour is unacceptable but, sadly, it is still going strong in our midst despite all the literature and research findings that prove it wrong. As a fellow teacher, I urge you to refrain from labeling students in any way. On the contrary, I urge you to make it a daily goal to always find out new things about your students, to always look at them with fresh eyes and an open mind and set out to surprise yourself with their uniqueness. I am sure they will appreciate it, benefit from it, and feel inspired to see you in your uniqueness as well.

Monica Freire is a Troika managing partner.

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