Through my teaching I have close contact with a number of teenagers through my small, conversation-based groups and private classes.
Most arrive tired and stressed, which can make things difficult, especially during exams, which seem to be every five minutes (though I'm pretty sure what they call exams here is what we called tests in my day and country - the terminology itself surely increases stress).
At times it feels frustrating, as they are disconnected with the learning process and either want to get back to studying or do anything but focus on learning English.
Time to change
But I've learned that trying to make them focus or chiding them for not making a minimal effort does not work and it is me who has to change how I behave and interact with them.
So yesterday I experimented with a coaching technique. All teachers, usually without formal training are a mixture of coach and psychologist, as well as teacher, and I have had quite frankly remarkable results (surreptitiously) applying techniques I have learnt.
After all, as I explained, people come to me mainly to improve their spoken English, and coaching is all about asking questions and listening carefully to the answers, to be able to ask better questions and have the person identify and solve their own problems.
So I began with a good linguistic challenge: the word "challenge". This is a unique word and so far I have found no translation which satisfactorily transmits its full meaning, in the six languages I have studied (not counting my foray into Japanese, which has equally or more untranslatable concepts).
I will go into the reasons for this in another post to avoid an interesting but distracting tangent.
After discussing what students understood from the word, and having clarified both its meaning and its use in modern language, I then asked them what their biggest challenge was.
Predictably, I suppose, the first answer I got was "a new iPhone"! By which they meant, of course, persuading their parents to buy them one. A chance to teach #firstworldproblems.
Another talked about wanting to get into a popular summer camp they had been going to for the last few years.
Eventually I got them to go a bit deeper by asking them how they felt. This awakened feelings of overwhelm and stress. On probing further, they expressed feeling of sadness and worry.
Having identified a challenge, they eventually agreed that they would like to feel less stressed. I say eventually as there was a perception that if they stopped feeling stressed, they would stop doing anything!
It's like there's an on/off button with study - all or nothing.
I explained that you could release the stress and still achieve what you want. In fact, it is much more productive and effective to work without stress, which can, of course cause all sorts of health problems, mental, physical and emotional - not to mention shutting down the spiritual connection with your higher intelligence.
While stress serves a purpose in alerting us to danger, the automatic physiological reaction, preparing for fight or flight, clearly serves no practical purpose these days, and exams are certainly not a life or death situation, however dramatically adolescents perceive them.
Having explained that there were ways of getting everything done - more effectively - without stress they were willing to entertain the idea of letting it go. Again, I use questions rather than dictating, along the lines of "if you knew there was a way to get everything done without stress, would you take it?"
I had also asked them to explain why they felt sad and worried. For example,
- "I worry about getting bad marks" (student)
- "Have you ever got bad marks" (me)
- "Not Anna" (classmate)
Anna (not her real name) proceeded to explain how her P.E. teacher once advised that he would not be coming to class the next day so they would not have the exam. But that the mean substitute teacher made them do it anyway. Since most of them had not studied, they lost easy marks, made worse by Anna's injury which meant she might fail the subject.
Of course all of this is both irrelevant to the question - her marks are always very good - and clear projections of what might happen (failing) and the consequences (she was not so clear on what these might be, either...) And even if she did fail, I think she eventually agreed that, at 14, the consequences were not that serious.
In reply to these reasons for feeling sad or worried, I pointed out that these were projections into the future (worries), with or without influences from the past (memories), neither of which exist - only the present moment exists. And you don't know what will happen, so it makes little sense to project and "live" in some imagined future, or relive past memories as if they were still happening.
The feeling exercise
On an impulse, I thought I would try teaching an exercise I learnt in Paul Scheele's brilliant Abundance for Life course, for Learning Strategies Corporation, my favourite source of human potential trainings.
This exercise has helped me recognise that all feelings are simply energy, and we can reclaim the power in that energy by appreciating it for what it is, free from judgement about whether it's a "good" or "bad" feeling.
When I use it, I actually find the feeling dissipates - but I feel more energetic and sometimes hugely motivated to take action. It will be an important part of my book on emotion management I'm picking up again.
Anyway, getting students to close their eyes - properly, and keep them shut - is almost impossible at first. No-one has ever done this before with them and it feels silly or strange, funny or just pointless.
Yet I know the power of moving the focus to the inside, for people of all ages. In the UK, now, many state (publicly-funded) nursery schools, as well as private, have kids start the day by sitting down, quietening down, closing their eyes and focussing on their breathing.
Mindfulness in the classroom
Practising mindfulness has been shown to bring many benefits and schools introducing this practice have seen increased levels of happiness and learning and a reduction in tension.
So I will persevere. I have seen results with other students and will be using mindfulness and other related practises increasingly in my sessions (I have never liked calling them classes, the word is too formal and rigid for what I do!)
This first session with my 14-year-old girls was ad hoc, but did deliver the immediate result of creating raucous laughter, a nice change from the stressed girl furiously doodling before me.
So I let the exercise end naturally, without insisting too much on finishing it. Things have to flow and imposing only generates resistance.
What was great for me, was that after a couple of sessions where I felt I was beginning to lose control a bit, I had more engaged students, talking more in English.
It may have felt a bit strange at first, but my goal is to let them know I am here for them, that it is a safe place where they can let go. A place where they can explore themselves and things they don't usually have the chance to at school and often at home.
A few students have parents who already practise mindfulness and meditation, and this makes things resonate much more, of course - while building more trust in me as a guide for their kids.
I will post an update as I continue to develop this approach with my students.