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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #2 Develop a good relationship with the learners

Teacher talking with her studentsContinuing the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners series, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at the second of the 10 Commandments: Develop a good relationship with the learners.

Let’s begin with a story about stubborn donkeys, carrots, and sticks. There are, the proverb says, two ways of encouraging donkeys to move. One is to dangle a carrot at the front end of the beast and the second to apply a stick at the other end. Which is more effective depends on the nature of the particular animal.

What’s this got to do with teaching English? Well, where I live there are still a lot of people who think about motivation in schools in much the same terms, as a concept that depends on external rewards and punishments. And in some ways that seems common sense – what else is going to work?

Luckily, this isn’t necessarily true. Look at this quote on Goal Contents Theory a quick Google search found:

Extrinsic goals such as financial success, appearance, and popularity/fame have been specifically contrasted with intrinsic goals such as community, close relationships, and personal growth, with the former more likely associated with lower wellness and greater ill-being. (http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/theory.php)

Or, to put this another way, the soft skills involved in teaching can be much more powerful than the rewards students can see waiting at the end of their course. Relationships matter.

There are probably as many ways of having a good relationship with your students as there are good teachers in the world, but here are some things which you’d usually expect to see.

First up, listening.  The Scots have a saying:  Listen twice before you speak once. That seems to me pretty good advice for teachers, both in terms of dealing with any problems that crop up in class and when listening to students’ English – we should listen first for what our students are actually saying before listening for mistakes. And when we’re monitoring it’s a good way of entering into a dialogue (I’m looking at New English File Intermediate 4C, where students are talking in pairs about matters like ‘a teacher at school you used to hate, a singer you used to listen to a lot and who you still like, a friend you used to have but who you’ve lost touch with’ and so on). These are personal things and if we can listen and share them, that’s great. Showing an interest in learners as human beings is what it’s about here.

Of course there are many reasons to listen. Another is provided by one more great source of proverbs, anon: A good listener is a silent flatterer. Flattery makes us feel good, and properly listening (paying complete attention, maintaining eye contact, thinking about the message as well as the language) will foster self-respect and respect for the classroom.

Linked to this are a number of other features of good relationships. Showing sympathy for problems is important, of course, though how you go about showing that depends on who you are. And how far you might want to take relationships outside class is a personal matter, too. Some teachers I know will email their students (I’m old fashioned: they may even be befriending on Facebook, for all I know), while some wouldn’t dream of it. But even if the extra-classroom relationship is just a casual word in the corridor, then it’s a positive step.

And jokes, they’re apparently a good thing, too!

How do you develop relationships with your students?

Remind yourself of the 10 Commandments for motivating language learners and look out for future posts by Tim exploring the remaining Commandments.

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10 Commandments for motivating language learners: #1 Set a personal example with your own behaviour

Smartly dressed young woman smilingFollowing on from his first post, 10 Commandments for motivating language learners, Tim Ward, a freelance teacher trainer in Bulgaria, takes a closer look at the first of the 10 Commandments: Set a personal example with your own behaviour.

There were lots of responses to the last blog on motivating language learners. Thanks for all that – establishing a dialogue is such an important part of our professional lives.

It was really interesting to hear from learners like Bethanyx – more from the learners’ perspective is always welcome!  Many of the posts anticipate things I’ll come back to in later weeks (Paul Bishop saying that learners need to know the benefits of what they’re studying, Bindu writing about helping students think ‘out of the box’ and many more).

An interesting comment from Marluce in Rio to the effect that teacher efforts are all very well, ‘but (there is always a “but”) course books need to be used completely in my school, and we feel sometimes overloaded’. Agreed! Two thoughts.  One is that course books should always be the servant not the master; the other is that some course books are better than others, and it’s important to look for ones which are right for the students.

Generally the response goes some way to confirming what I’m thinking, that there’s a widespread perception – internationally, even intercontinentally – that our job is getting harder, or at least we have to find more ways of getting through to students. It’s a perception that may even be true…

Which leads me on to the theme of this post. I finished last time by outlining the 10 commandments of motivation as described by the Hungarian researchers Zoltan Dornyei and Kata Czizer. These were what they called ‘macrostrategies’, meaning I suppose that they are kind of general rules. The task I want to move on to now is to try to put some flesh on the bones, to see how we can actually put these macrostrategies into practice (which I suppose means coming up with some microstrategies, though a large part of me prefers the term ‘specific ideas’).

Take the first commandment of motivation which says ‘Set a personal example with your own behaviour’.

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