Stephen Greene

Portrait of a Student: Distracted but brilliant


Part one in an occasional series that describes some of the students I have had the pleasure (or misfortune) of working with and how I learnt to deal with them.

The Student

There is an episode of The Simpsons called ‘Bart Gets an F’ which should be compulsory viewing for all teachers.  Bart is in trouble for constantly failing exams and is under threat of having to repeat the year.  The episode looks at different learning processes, the way traditional education fails many students, the damaging effect educational systems have on teachers,  teachers’ values, the importance of parental involvement, and the futility of exams for many kids.

In one scene the long-suffering Mrs Krabapple is trying to talk some sense into Bart.  Bart zones out and can only hear ‘blah blah blah blah blah’.  Mrs Krabapple realises Bart isn’t listening and asks him to repeat what she has just said.  Bart takes a wild stab in the dark and guesses he is being told to ‘straighten up and fly right’, which is exactly what his teacher had been telling him and only serves to annoy Mrs Krabapple even more.

I have had numerous students in class who don’t seem to be paying me any attention whatsoever; they are looking out the window, doodling, flicking through notebooks or gossiping with friends.  And yet when I ask them about what we are studying they are able to give me the right answers and they do well in tests.  This annoys me because, I think, because it just doesn’t seem fair that people can go through life without seeming to put any effort into classes and still get the results.

How to deal with this student

The first thing I have learnt is to accept it.  Some people don’t need to be hanging on my every word in order to learn.  Everybody is different.  It might be quite boring, and maybe a bit scary, if I had a class of students all eagerly making notes of everything I said and nodding along to my erudite explanations and examples.  The only thing that counts is that people are learning.

Secondly, I have found that I can increase this type of student’s learning potential by providing them with a clear focus.  This focus might be an observation task, for example make a note of how many times I use the phrase ‘all right’ (I use it a lot), or it might be a language task, for example telling them exactly what to note down from the board.  I also try to use their names a lot just to bring them back to class and away from whatever planet they are on at the moment.

Sometimes, this type of student responds very well to challenges.  This is particularly true when the reason for their ability to drift off is that they find the class a bit too easy.  Finding out what challenge they will respond to can be a bit hit and miss so it is often a good idea to talk directly to the student.

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Stephen Greene

Stephen is a freelance teacher, trainer and editor. He has been teaching for over 20 years all around the world, but has been living and working in Curitiba, Brazil for the last 6 years. He writes self-indulging articles about all things associated with languages at

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