2 Nov 2011

Recalling Nunan: Action Research & A Grain of Salt

I have no doubt he had done this drill before - it was so well-executed. The purposeful transition from transcript-to audio-to video. He had us hooked. The resulting collective arrival at understanding a certainty for him - both an eye-opener and aha! for us. As they say, David Nunan had it going on.

In those early days of my teaching career, the idea that I would willingly analyze, evaluate, and (egads!) criticize my own teaching seemed foreign...and terrifying. I was just trying to find and keep a good teaching job and not screw up TOO much. What Nunan showed us in his seminar that day, that teachers are imperfect, that he was imperfect, and that it was worthwhile, even vital, to explore these imperfections was frankly, beyond me.

Fast-forward fifteen years or so and those early insecurities have long been quashed by the thousands of classes I have facilitated and the students I have taught . That's not to say I don't get the occasional butterfly or sinking feeling of  impending pedagogical disaster but, generally, I like to think I'm on pretty solid ground in my classrooms and with my students.

What happened a few weeks ago, while not shaking the ground exactly, was a gentle Nunan nudge, a reminder that what I may perceive as a well-run classroom stuffed with great learning and instruction, may indeed be a dud, or worse, a missile with no target - set to explode in the wrong place at some inopportune time.

I was subbing for a colleague, off for some long-put off and vital dental work. My colleague is a pistol and she knows her stuff but within minutes of starting the class I knew the students had turned on her. Throughout my lesson, there were furtive looks and an undercurrent of energy that smelled like excitement. Predator on prey. I can't explain why I knew this bloodlust wasn't about me. I can't explain why I wasn't surprised when I was pulled into the office later and told that there had been a mutiny after my lesson and that they were demanding my colleague's pretty head on a stick.

This all made me feel quite sick.

My years teaching ESL to adults have taught me many things, including: 1) ELT is a minefield like no other teaching field - with cultural, racial, individual, financial, and political overtones of every sort 2) ELT professionals are sometimes treated by students and administration alike as if they are dispensable, disposable (the "you speak English therefore you can teach it" mentality) 3) A successful classroom is sometimes not about skill and experience but a "good match" 4) Adult ESL students can be fickle.

Never in a million years would I imagine a mutiny in a college Physics class. Or a university German course. Why does criticism seem so much more accessible in ELT? Most of us in ELT embrace Nunan's action research philosophy with gusto. Perhaps too much gusto. Perhaps we haven't asserted ourselves and established our profession as a profession. How else can I explain a group of adult language learners demanding a different instructor for no other reason than they thought they were missing out on something?

I do know what happened that day and I don't need any formal action research to explore it - my personality and approach were better matches to the students' perceived needs. I was no "better" or "worse" a teacher than my colleague. They simply believed that my approach was better-suited to their needs. They believed. Is perception everything?

As I said to my colleague that week, while she kicked herself over and over, the one piece she could own, the single thing some action research might have revealed is:  why didn't the students talk to her about their concerns?

 My colleague is an exemplary teacher. What her students thought they had missed from their coursebook and lessons had been well-supplemented with more current, relevant, and interesting material. As students, they couldn't recognize that. And they shouldn't have. That's the teacher's job.

Nobody's perfect. Definitely not me. Not you. Not Nunan.

That said, we are educated, gifted, progressive, reflective, intuitive, experienced, creative, and skilled educators, facilitators, guides, and mentors. It's time to own what we know.

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