“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” * – Part II

Below is a follow-up to one my post entitled Close Encounters of the Third Kind – Part I”,  which went online precisely on March 3, 2016. In it, I attempted to describe how terrified I was by the prospect of having to teach a group of kids exiting childhood and stepping into the much dreaded adolescence, at least in the eyes of a large number of teachers, parents, coordinators and educators of all sorts who are somewhat in charge of not letting things get out of hand.

The account I am about to share below involves a now 16-year-old boy I’ll call Pedro so that his identity remains anonymous. It describes how putting the students themselves in charge of their own behavioral and language improvement is quite often much more effective than unnecessarily involving their parents in the problem. This, of course, is not to say that parents should not be contacted if their child is misbehaving or not acting in conformity with school rules. Naturally, common sense must come into play depending on the severity of each case. What I am trying to advocate is that a friendly and private heart-to-heart conversation with the student him/herself can yield a much better outcome in terms of building trust, commitment and rapport.

When Pedro first came to me as a student, about a year and four months ago, he was 14 and a rather quiet and work-shy boy with a clear I-couldn’t-care-less look on his face and attitude towards learning English. He was falling way behind the class in terms of both handing in his workbook on the due date and also submitting homework online. I was getting really worried because the midterm exams were drawing near and he’d only be able to sit both the written and oral tests after having completed and turned in all the assignments. To make matters even worse, he had just been diagnosed with severe myopia and had started to wear these humongous glasses, which he kept flipping up and down while looking at me. Just like this:

I took this behavior as a clear attempt to annoy me and make me lose it! Anyway, that’s the idea that kept crossing my mind. Trying desperately not to go insane (or wild), I developed a strategy which helped me to avoid looking at him at all costs. Whenever I had to look at him (to uselessly lead him to think I wasn’t paying attention to his clowning around), I either looked at the very top of his head or the tip of his chin. I guess it did the trick. After three classes he quit doing it – either because he got tired of it or because he noticed his provocative behavior was being totally ignored (though I must say nothing could be further from the truth than this… I was going totally insane).

Back to the homework business: In order to give him one last chance, I bent one of the school’s rules that establishes that the deadline to submit all homework to be eligible to sit the exams on their due dates without having to pay a fine and wait for the second sitting is the class before the review day. I was quite confident he would bring all his late work; he sounded really serious and committed when we last spoke about it. To my surprise and disappointment, he came to the review class without having done any of his late homework.

After thinking for a while, I realized that waiting until the end of the class to decide what to do about his defiant behavior was probably a better idea than sending him to the principal at the beginning of the class. The review lesson went smoothly and surprisingly counted on his active participation. However, when the lesson was over and all the students were leaving the room, I asked him to stay explaining that I had to talk with him in private. He looked a bit scared, but didn’t say a word. We waited until all the students had left the room to start our brief conversation.

I asked him what had happened. I said, “In our last conversation, you promised me you would submit the two late online essays and finish the two incomplete units in the workbook. Why didn’t you?” He remained silent, as if he was the only person in the room. I was getting more upset… After a little while, he muttered, “I don’t know…” 

Not really sure I was doing the right thing, I asked him to follow me to the principal’s office. He silently walked behind me out of the classroom and towards the stairway. We had made it down to the landing, when from behind me, I heard him sobbing. I looked back and saw what was once a tall teenager look small and cry like an 8-year-old child. The time it took us to cover the few steps left before reaching the ground floor was enough for me to make a decision that would ultimately change the way I relate to adolescents these days.

We walked past the principal’s office and went straight to the back of the school, where there are a few tables and chairs for anyone wanting to have a break to go to and relax. We sat down right opposite each other and I waited a little while before I asked him, in Portuguese, of course, to tell me what was happening. I decided that tapping him twice on his left shoulder and leaving my hand on it for a few seconds might help build more trust between us.

He was still crying, but he eventually managed to calm down as he poured his heart out. Here are the most relevant and impacting things I learned from him:

  • His parents had recently divorced and were not on what one would refer to as good terms;
  • His relationship with his dad had always been difficult, which resulted in his not wanting to talk to or spend time with him;
  • He wasn’t doing particularly well at regular school, so his mom had threatened to “return” him to his dad if his grades did not improve. This for him was the worst of all nightmares.
  • He had decided that he would put all the needed effort into improving his grades so he didn’t have to be “sent” back to his dad;
  • Naturally, the above meant putting English homework assignments aside.

On my next post I will describe how I managed to balance this student’s very specific (and urgent) needs with the school’s requirements and rules regarding homework and being eligible to sit tests on their due dates.

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Edmilson Chagas

Edmilson is a teacher, teacher trainer and materials designer. He has been involved with ELT for 32 years and and currently works for B.A. English School in Goiânia, where he teaches advanced levels and preparation courses for international exams. Former president of Braz-Tesol Goiânia Chapter, he is now a board member of Braz-Tesol Teacher Development SIG. His interests include reading, writing, translating and CrossFit.

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