Fear *not*

Among the 14 drafts existing on this blog and scaring me off with the menacing look of their titles, blank pages and ideas loosely hanging in the air, there’s one about fears. So I’ll get done with it first.

This post you’re going to read now will inconsistently tell a story of one my big professional complex or maybe a chronic fear.

The fear of silence in the classroom.

 

***** Noise *****

My impression is that teachers pay attention to noise their students make: useful EFL-type noise (speaking English in class in various situations), and a range of potentially annoying types of noise, which may cause discipline issues, seriously get on a teacher’s nerves, or have neutral effect.

I thought I am creating noise, too. And only some part of this noise is of the useful ELT type.

I haven’t measured my TTT percentage and I’m unlikely to do so unless (1) pressed to do it (2) suddenly curious about this percentage. TTT, like pretty much any other relevant ELT acronym, is not my point here. I seriously think I’m faced with a psychological “wrong”, and a kind of paradox, too. In outside of classroom life I’m happy to be engrossed in silence. Hearing no people speak, as well as no TV or music on, is not a problem for me, on the contrary, it’s a soothing time.  Then what’s happening with my brain when I enter a classroom?

I attempted to search for possible reasons for my panicky fear of hearing no human voices for 60-90 min with students. There’s one reason I liked best, and it is about silence standing for this teacher’s uncertainty.  My association, wherever it comes from, is that silence means a teacher losing grip of the lesson. As a consequence, the room gets filled with a heavy air of expectations, which a teacher then needs to come up to. This whole explanation that I formulated for myself looks so wrong when typed. I realize now, at this moment when I’m not teaching anyone, that I don’t need to have full control of my class all the time, I realize that. But as soon as a lesson begins, I’m not so wise anymore. And so I make some noise.

 

***** How I sort of taught, in silence, and what it sort of taught me *****

This part of the draft dates back to as long back as November 2013.

I had to “teach” 4 classes of/for another teacher who was absent that day. I say “teach” or sort of teach as I agreed (with myself) to mostly use the lesson plans that teacher had left for me. That meant assigning the students a set of tasks to be completed on their own. I didn’t really manage to totally “disappear” from those lessons, but a positive 80% of the classtime I did, and that was how I discovered silence for the first time in my teaching career maybe.

I had the space to observe, take a distanced look and reflect. Teaching (?) a lesson I didn’t prepare. Teaching (?) a lesson my teacher self was not much involved in (how do you like that statement?). Teaching (?) a lesson that didn’t have me in its plan. Teaching (?) a lesson I wouldn’t have agreed to plan myself.

So observing students do the work was happening. As I’ve said before, they had a set of tasks to do on their own in class. The room was silent: flipping pages, reading, thinking, writing. That was happening. I saw one student doodling in the squares of her notebook, and I was mystified. Several students were in a sort of a daze. They could have been thinking, or taking the time to shake off any thoughts, or formulating ideas, or maybe they were plain bored. Whatever their particilar silences stood for, it was beautiful to observe. “Next week I’m going to try the same with my students” – I thought, and that had to wait till April (see the link at the bottom of this post).

 

Another interesting insight that came from watching those students at work was my realization of how I’m perceived by students who are not my students, who are not familiar with my teaching style and habits, good and bad. I mean they really didn’t seem to care. They didn’t have expectations for this class from this teacher, they were unaffected by this teacher’s ways. I didn’t matter for them, and that made a difference to me.

It made me think that the importance of a teacher is only a valid point under certain conditions. I imagine you come to teach my class for an extended period of time – will the students show different results? will they learn better? how will your teaching ways affect their learning? I’m oversimplifying, but to me so much comes down to the impact of a personality of a teacher on how students do in their learning. I do believe this impact is so large, and well maybe not necessarily always positive.

 

Other, random points I noted during that silent teaching/monitoring learning:

1) Questions: Do they need me all the time? Do they need the sense of “activity” all the time? How much group work do they need?

2) Come to think of it, when I’m writing blog posts or articles I like to be alone. I need this type of space to read, think, process my thoughts, and write them down. It’s a prerequisite for the writing being done – silence at my workspace.

3) Come to think of it, when I’m self-studying Japanese – silence is essential.

 

***** Less fear *****

Several months after paying conscious attention to my fear for the first time and looking at it closer during other classes, I think I can say I fear a little less. I’ve also been unintentionally practising sort of silence in my classes. I noticed the following habits:

At some point at a lesson I just stop and sweep my eyes over students, with or without a smile. In the middle of a  lesson I sometimes feel caught in the whirlwind of their buzzing and the activity that I keep pouring onto them, and I stop and take a breather. At any point during a lesson I may just stop and stare at them or into space.

Students’ reactions to any of these can be smiling if I smile at them (which I seem to most often inexplicably do), but the majority look puzzled, lost or expectant. There’s no pedagogical/ methodological/ psychological implication that I put into these odd moments. They never really ruined my class even when they came across as awkward, weird, or occured at a wrong time. They are also not really promoting the useful ELT-type of silent classroom time. But I don’t fear these moments anymore.

 

Thank you for reading. Here’s one of my recent posts describing useful silent time in my class once in April. I also encourage you to try sort of teach, for insights and whatever may come along.

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4 thoughts on “Fear *not*

  1. laurasoracco says:

    Hi Ann – I have also feared silence many times, and still do, I have to admit. Having started to teach more writing classes has made that change a bit -I know students are busy, just silent. My fear when there’s silence is that they are bored or that they don’t get it. The worst for me if when I ask a question, even as simple as “would you like to take a break now or in 10min” and I don’t get a response. That had happened to me a couple times here while students were busy writing and it really upset me, but I had to stop, and just ask them again -“joking” about how terrible it felt to talk to the wall. That’s a different kind of silence than the one you mention, but it’s scary to me.

    I also encounter silence when I ask questions to the whole group related to reading Q. Sometimes I like to do do before asking Ss to work in groups, and the silence is hard to deal with. There’s a gift that comes with it. I have to keep working on asking better questions. Hopefully these can help Ss think deeper about the subject or can help them make connections easier.

    Interesting post, Ann! Enjoyed reading 🙂

    • annloseva says:

      Hi Laura

      Thanks so much for this comment. It broke the silence of the comments section))

      I’m both sorry and glad to read you have feared silence) As always, it feels comforting to know I’m not alone. Thank you for sharing, and I know the feeling when a question you ask (which you believe is simple or casual) hangs in the air. They (students) must surely have their reasons to go silent in those cases.

      What a great line this is from you: “I have to keep working on asking better questions.” !! This is something I need to learn to keep in mind and actually put some effort into! Thanks.

      I enjoyed reading your comment, thinking about its message, and replying to it =)

  2. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Ann,
    I’m glad you’ve broken your silence about silence, and that you’ve noticed a change in your teaching style. I love talking (both verbally and in writing!), but I also enjoy those moments of silence. Like you:

    “2) Come to think of it, when I’m writing blog posts or articles I like to be alone. I need this type of space to read, think, process my thoughts, and write them down. It’s a prerequisite for the writing being done – silence at my workspace.

    3) Come to think of it, when I’m self-studying [Russian] – silence is essential.”

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of space in my lessons, which I think connects a lot with silence: giving the students the space to absorb the new language, and to process it in a way that works for them. I’m lucky in that I don’t have a prescribed syllabus which I have to get through, so I have the luxury of being able to take my time if necessary. It also helps those more introverted students, who perhaps feel overwhelmed by the amount of ‘noise’ that there might be in a lesson.

    I hope that silence continues to feature in your classes!
    Sandy

    • annloseva says:

      Hi Sandy,

      I was wondering if anyone feels the same as I do (as I was writing the lines about needing silence while writing and studying). So it’s interesting to note you share this need, which really is like a necessary habit for me. Quite as likely students could use this space as well… Introverted students, and possibly extroverts, too? I believe it is easy to get overwhelmed with noise and activity in an English class for any kind of temperament.

      I’ll continue giving myself opportunities to find a silent moment in class, and maybe try to make them quality moments)

      Thanks for your comment!

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