Stories From The Trenches 3

In the mid to late 90’s I was teaching new immigrants to Canada, downtown Toronto. It was a government program and all new immigrants with lower level language fluency would get paid for up to a year, if they regularly attended language lessons. I’ve written previously about this, here.

It was a great time. Friday potluck dinners with dishes from every corner of the globe (I mention this first, since I’m such a gourmande). Bright-eyed, enthusiastic adult students that were like little lost puppies and us teachers, their new Canadian step mother or father. Often, us teachers were their first friend, the first Canadian they got to know well.

One day, I was teaching a standard lesson using a required video from immigration Canada. I hadn’t watched the whole video prior, just parts. But it seemed safe enough – it showed new immigrants being interviewed at the airport by government officials and then other interviews after arriving.

During the video, one of the students, a quiet Vietnamese man left the room quickly. I was wondering what was wrong, it wasn’t what he’d ever do. He was a dedicated student, to the nth degree. His sister quickly followed behind him, rushing after him. I didn’t understand what was happening but followed them out of the class.

In the hall, I found him crying and his sister holding him. He was visibly upset and shaking. I caught the eye of his older sister and then left them alone, in this private moment.

Later, I found out the problem. They both (and I apologize, I can’t remember their names) were refugees who had spent over 7 years in a crowded camp in Hong Kong before coming to Canada. During that time they both had worked very hard to study and get an interview to enter a Western country. Finally they got an interview with Canadian officials. However, during the interview, the brother was so nervous he couldn’t speak very well, he stuttered and had a terrible difficulty communicating. The officials were also not too kind. He left the interview quite scarred and thinking he’d blown their chances. Luckily, they were accepted as refugees.

After this, I was always very much more on the ball about trying to find out more about my students. I know you can’t know everything but you should try – we teach students, not subjects or topics. Further, and I always stress this when I do workshops about using video, always watch all the video before showing in class. Watch it with a thought towards your students and how they’d view the video. Lastly and most importantly, it made me see how powerful a thing language is, even a second language. Our identity is so wrapped up in it, it is a conduit for power and expression. There are some languages, like Vietnamese, like Japanese, where it is so very difficult to form the sounds of English. So very difficult to speak so you’ll be understood. This can be very discouraging and even traumatic to students who despite their hours and hours of practice, can’t make any ground and be understood better.

I often wonder how they are doing – this brother and sister that overcame so much and worked so hard in my classes. Worked so hard and taught me so much.


Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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2 Responses

  1. Dr. Farook.C.T. says:

    It is really touching. As a Teacher I had a similar experience which was posted in face book. Let me copy it
    Many teachers are very proud of identifying the students as “dull”, “troublesome” “worthless” or” numskull”. This attitude has a negative influence on the students. They may have their opinions about the teachers also. But they will not express it explicitly. A teacher is a mentor and not a villain in the classroom. The teachers are expected to take care of those students who are lagging behind in the classroom. They must give a chance to express themselves. A good teacher must also be good listener.
    I would like to express my own experience as a teacher in one of the Govt. Colleges in Kerala (India). I was teaching poetry to the Pre-degree students in a class of more than 60. I had the false pride that I was one of the best teachers of English in that college. So when I found that a boy was in sound sleep I lost my temper and asked him to get out of the class. After the class he came to the department to give an explanation. He was timid at the same time confident by appearance. He told me that he had no father and he had died earlier when he was appearing for the school final examination . He was a fish seller and after his father’s death ,he was the only earning member in the family. He had to look after his mother and two sisters. Every day he had to rise up at 4 a.m. in the morning to collect fish from a distant beach and he would be selling fish till 7.30 a.m. Thereafter he had to rush to college by bus and sometimes he would be late. That day he was so tired and he could not control himself from sleeping. So he wanted to apoligise for his misbehavior in the class and he promised that he would not sleep in my class further. I felt verybad of myself. Was that a misbehavior? I could not control my eyes being wet with tears. He opened my eyes . I should not have sent him out without getting an explanation from him. It was not a mistake . It was a sin in my teaching career.

  2. ddeubel says:

    Thanks for that insightful story. I think many, many teachers have experienced the same in some way. It’s not a sin if we learn from it. A student misbehaves and we punish without thinking of the underlying cause and seeing the misbehavior is only a symptom of some experience and condition out of the school’s, the teacher’s even the student’s control. We should always have our “radar” on, so to see these sort of situations clearly.

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