Here goes another confessional type of post of an insight that has graced me recently during class. I can only hope that I impart at least as much knowledge as I receive during the sessions I share with my students but by being a teacher I have definitely become a student in spirit. The scenario I attempt to depict below may sound a bit over-peculiar but, what can I say, just bear with me…
This particular student of mine (about to turn 40) tends to get caught up in intellectual (mainly socio-political, historical and economic) musings that spiral into neverending tangents delivered (in half mother-tongue, half target language) with increasing speed and intensity—as if trying to convince me of something or simply, I guess, to indulge at last in the pleasure of being listened to. Sometimes I manage to curb his enthusiasm and focus on ’’learning’’ but it takes a lot out of me as well as him. His harried and excessive style is draining us both. Whenever I attempt to tweak the grammar and vocabulary he is misapplying, he reflexively (rather mindlessly) interrupts me to correct himself out of a compulsion to save face, I think, and to buffer the judgment he feels I make about him in that moment…
So, right before his arrival before our last session, just to let it ripple though, I started ’’airing’’ some of the frustrations he triggers in me—on paper as well as through a raised voice in the privacy of my office room: Why can’t he just stop and listen? Why does he feel compelled to convince me of his intellect (value)? Doesn’t he get it that he has to do this for himself, not me. When will he finally get it that this is an English lesson he pays for and not my friendship or approval of him as a person? Does he come here and pay for a sympathetic ear or to actually practice English? Etc. I felt annoyed. Curiously though, the second he stepped inside the office I was set and resolved, I was grounded and present with him like never before.
I was resolved to listen. And I listened. And I noticed that the only time he relapsed into the usual pattern of his rushed semi-lecturing fugue was when I slipped and there was a wobble in my poise, that is to say, whenever I shifted into humoring him rather than listening to him. Quite a recognition: Yes, he may well be attending for other reasons than he thinks and we agreed, that is he may want to be heard more than he wants to actually pass that language exam, but I saw my own baggage in a flash too. Similarly to the incident with the other student I wrote a month ago, what I recognized in this instant was that we were mirroring each other: in a (reverse) way I was doing the very thing I felt annoyed by. Let me explain.
During our conversation I felt the compulsion rise in me several times to interrupt and correct him and to suggest words he seemed fumbling for but, this time, I decided to stay put against the grain of the compulsion. As a result he wasn’t interrupting me and spiraling out of control so much. It hit me: in essence, I was as taut and harried as he was. But now, for a change, I managed to focus solely on his needs rather than mine. While, for instance, he was fumbling for words I silently weighed in my mind whether he really needed to be interrupted for a word or related a grammatical explanation and I realized that he actually didn’t, he would just nod and take notes and repeat the correct version but it would slip right through without repercussions, he would quickly rush back to the argument he was making.
What was truly poetic about the whole situation was that among other things we were talking about the issue of paranoia and how that may derive from anxiety (which Machiavellian politicians so masterfully escalate and exploit). Indeed, in the midst of our interaction I’ve recognized my own brand of paranoia that, in effect, triggered my student’s.
I’ve never really felt secure in my role as a teacher and I’ve been caught up in manifesting the symptoms of this insecurity rather than focusing on the needs of my students. /Quite probably this is a natural part of the process, though, for nobody starts out as an accomplished expert who can focus on the needs of their clients and not feel insecure at all about the value they have to offer/. In the case of this particular student when I feel compelled to humor him rather than simply listen he immediately senses my absence and feels a threat and snaps into fugue-mode, in other words: as I recoil, he grasps and as he grasps, I recoil.
Again, simply by stopping myself, I’ve learnt an invaluable lesson of the power of presence. Presence tells me what others actually need in contrast to what I think (I need to do to deliver what I think) they demand. In the classroom this translates into focusing on my students’ needs rather than on meeting my own needs for approval as a legit E-teach.
Looking back on my previous sessions with this particular student now I can see two men lost for the most part in their own anxieties interfacing only for brief moments on the surface of language learning. I don’t know how it will continue but I don’t think we’ll be enmeshed in trading wisdom any longer. I see my task primarily as finding ways to link his priorities to (learning) English, to help him integrate it into his daily routine, to smuggle it into his life under the cover of the issues and things he invests in and cares about more, to help him make it relevant for himself—or just the opposite: to help him let it go.
/Now that I reflect on this I feel that the mirroring might go much deeper than I actually think. The people who work with me stick around probably because they are partners in the games I play with myself through them. If I were more formal and distant and ’’professional’’ I wouldn’t trigger personal things in anybody. But I just cannot do that. Although I maintain a gap I am rather intimate in the way I engage others. I demand communication and true communication involves emotions which, as we all well know, tends to get quite messy. Definitely, the second language as a context is merely the tip of the iceberg. The real context is relating to the (self through the) other. And what I can also clearly see now in retrospect is how I actually scared away some of my students because of getting caught up in an anxiety-driven spiral of escalating expectations (we felt compelled to live up to). They wanted to impress me because I wanted to impress them or more accurately they felt compelled to impress me because I felt compelled to impress them. I lead, they followed. Some couldn’t keep up, some didn’t resonate. Nothing is ever personal./