Teaching unmotivated students

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Unmotivated Students

Post by serendipity » Thu Dec 09, 2004 6:32 pm


The longer I'm in this business, the more strongly I feel that we're making too much of an effort to make our lessons interesting and to motivate students. If there's little intrinsic motivation, if appeals to reason don't work, if trying to capture their attention doesn't work, then for God's sake just fail them and have them deal with it.

A couple of miles up the road there's a toilet paper factory - it used to supply the local market with toilet-paper, and not one of the managers working there wasted a thought on learning a foreign language - until, one day, it got taken over by a Swedish competitor who required the management team to fly up and to present their facility to them. They objected saying that they didn't speak Swedish, and when they were told that they had to do their presentations in English, they complained that they didn't speak English either.

The retort was sharp, to the point, and immensely motivating; "Learn it, or you'll be fired and replaced by Swedish managers".

They did, no further questions asked, no motivation on part of the teacher necessary. That's the sort of reality that our students grow into - let's stop pampering them.

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Post by woodcutter » Thu Dec 09, 2004 11:53 pm

Ja! I am in agreement with the poster in Austria!

Not only are there a good number of people almost impossible to motivate, but when we devote our lives to playing the clown or making it all ultra-easy we are letting down the (probable) minority who really, really want to study and are prepared to do the necessary spade work and go through the necessary embarrassment. The more we do that, the less students will come to class with an attitude likely to bring them success in learning a language.

Unfortunately, perhaps most people come to class wanting a social life, or with a very vague fancy that they would like to learn, or because their seniors make them come. We have to deal with this, we have to accommodate it, we are paid to do so. But we shouldn't let the strategies we need to deal with this blur the different strategies that consitute really good instruction to the committed learner.

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Post by fluffyhamster » Thu Dec 16, 2004 1:08 pm

I don't know how many would agree or disagree with the comments made in the last two posts - all we can ultimately say is that having to learn English (and perhaps also a third language, that of the head office) is a "fact of life" now in the international business world.

I'd just like to point out, however, that the thread was initally about high school students, who are perhaps more entitled to feel that they are being forced to learn English (that is, I don't think we can always expect there to be strong intrinsic motivation within this age group). :wink:

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Post by serendipity » Tue Dec 21, 2004 8:56 am

Well, I think nobody's seriously expecting a *strong* intrinsic motivation here, but what one is legitimately entitled to is a modicum of *respect* for one's efforts, out of a sense of common courtesy, and I think this is something that highschool students can be expected to muster up, no matter how much they resent "being forced" to do something...

Joy comes through mastery of a skill, after all, and expectations that learning has to be *fun* at every given point of the process are unrealistic - just as expectations that working life will be a sequence of tasks that they choose voluntarily and take delight in all of the time.

I strongly feel that we do students a disservice when we bend over backwards to meet their expectations and cater to their whims. They have to get a glimpse of the joy that being able to communicate worldwide is for *us* and of the confidence it gives us while travelling, the glory of reading books in the original version, the knowledge that we *can* write in English and all the rest. If they feel a sense of awe and envy at the sight of *us* deriving joy from our skills, all the better.

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Are you teachers for real?

Post by fb902350 » Tue Jan 11, 2005 9:36 am

well, what can i say, firstly I must apologise in advance. Also i haven't read all the posts, because there were just too many, (at least i'm honest)

I don't think of myself as a great teacher, but certainly a good one. I teach middle and elementary students in Korea, and when i came to this school, two months ago, they too were very unmotivated, but i coped.

The ideas that many people have (not all) sent in seem completely pointless to me, and actually i'm surprised that a few of you are even english teachers, but anyhow...

}Cooking food? what? how can you teach them whilst cooking, you are just wasting their money, and, or time.
}Attitude to lesson, get off his/her back, its very nice to say this will solve everything, but it won't, you need ideas for improving the class first.
}Magic tricks? i'm really laughing now, as you teach them useful language.
}qualities to be an effective teacher... hahahahahaha. thats gotta be a joke!
I won't go on with this, but you can't go into a class and make a fool of yourself with middle school kids, as someone said, you need respect from them.

So after slagging off others ideas, i guess i should show a few of my own...
The start of the lesson is vital, i always start by forcing my students to chat with me, about what they like, music, games, food, and what they did the day before. They will get used to the chatting, and so will talk more and more. If they don't enjoy this at first, they will in a few lessons!
After this, why not get them standing up a bit and walking around. my students get the most fun from a competitive board game, maybe making two lists with headings such as adjectives/nouns, then just give the students 4 minutes or so, to list as many words as they can.
Sure this game may seem pretty pointless, but it gets them thinking in english.
Also i would always keep my students working in changing groups, never on their own. you're probably there as a conversation teacher, so make sure they do conversation!
Constructiong dialogs can be great for any level, i can do this with almost anylevel of kids, and this is the english they need. dialogs/roleplays in a 7/11, bookshop, restaurant etc.
Don't give too many handouts, this disheartens them, makesure the most proficient students model sentences before the worst, you will just embarrass them.
Cut down on any writing they do in class if the students also have korean teachers. Speaking is what they pay western teachers for.
You can also threaten your students with more homework, though it is probably better to reward good behaviour with less homework. thats the motivation they need!

Nobody is impossible to motivate, though i accept it can be very hard.
Sorry if this post was a bit aggressive, i'm not like this in real-life. but come on... meaningless sentences about theory are a waste of time.

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Post by pullingmyhairout » Tue Oct 10, 2006 7:30 am

I share the scepticism of the last few posters. I do not subscribe to the custard pie and red nose school of education that some people here favour. I've been 'teaching' in a Chinese high school since May. I handed in my notice this morning, with the intention of leaving this joke of a job at the end of November.

I come from an industrial background. Having achieved some measure of financial independence, I decided to try something new for a while. I've now 'taught' (I use the apostrophes deliberately) in China at both ends of the scale, expensive private school and state school. I can only come to the conclusion that EFL, in this country at least, is a cynical racket designed to bilk as much money as possible from credulous punters. These schools are failing to deliver on their promises, not through lack of funding but through incompetence, complacency and corruption. People paying money for their children to attend schools like mine (discretion prevents me from naming it), are not rich, and they're being conned.

This is a state school, but parents also pay 1000Y (c.£70) per student per term, in the belief their kids are getting extra language tuition and exposure to foreigners i.e. me. There are 3000 students at this school so, in addition to the usual state funding, this school is also raking in three million yuan (c.£200,000) per term, a fantastic sum of money by local standards (a teacher earns 1500Y/£100 month). It is difficult to see what this money is being spent on, other than the fleet of expensive vehicles used to ferry around the upper echelons of the school hierarchy, and cosmetic decoration (e.g. a marble gateway of Tienanmen Square-like proportions that was erected at the school entrance this summer).

It certainly isn't being spent on teachers and teaching materials. There are no books available to me, and classes consist of 60 students, completely mixed ability, jammed into a room that's only just big enough to take them. This sums up the ethos of the school - smoke and mirrors, style over substance. It quickly became apparent that my function here was not to be a teacher but to be a foreign face, available on demand for exhibition to parents to convince them this is a good school for their kid. There were no expectations of me - no course structure of any kind to follow, and no inclination to give me one. I was told 'just teach them.' There has been little or no observation of my teaching, although I recently found out that each class has its 'monitor', a little quisling who fills out forms on my performance and reports back to the school.

At first I tried to engage some kind of dialogue with the Chinese teachers, so I could make my lessons relevant to whatever they were teaching. They simply weren't interested in me. In my time here, the local teachers have made no attempt to get to know me as an individual human being, despite numerous approaches on my part. Social contact has been limited to whooping it up at official functions (at the school's expense, naturally), where I could be wheeled out for photographs that are subsequently used in school propaganda literature. I've been in contact with previous teachers who also found this to be the case.

Classes consist of sixty students, ranging in ability from quite good to (more commonly) useless. In the latter case, even a three word sentence is beyond them, despite receiving daily English lessons from Chinese teachers for at least three years (and in many cases six years). I get one lesson (40 minutes) per week with each class, such that I 'teach' a total of c.1000 students per week. In such circumstances, it is difficult to see how I can help them - do I teach the five kids in each class who want to learn, or the 20-30 that don't and merely disrupt the classroom dynamics?

There is a perception that the Chinese are automatons, obedient little drones who do what they're told. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have observed Chinese teachers (and yes, it took some persuading on my part before they'd let me), and in their lessons the students are indeed quiet. There is a very good reason for this: their lessons are all geared up to passing exams at the end of each term. Competence in the subject is not required, you simply have to pass the exam. Many of the students who are passing these exams cannot construct even a simple sentence, but their teachers don't care. The required percentage pass the tests, so they are OK. Bad grades for a student lead to problems at home, something to be avoided.

In my lessons, this all goes out of the window. I am here simply to earn parental revenue for the school, and no oral exams take place. The students know this. Lessons are an exercise in crowd control, a legacy I've inherited from previous 'foreign experts.' There is little backup from the school; I am the foreigner, so long as I turn up for the lessons it doesn't matter. Again, previous teachers also found this to be the case. I've been more successful in controlling the kids than my predecessors, perhaps through a combination of more interesting lessons, shaming the local teachers into helping me with discipline, and full volume bollockings of entire classes when the situation demands. Control is one thing, but teaching? No, any constructive education in this classroom environment is impossible.

It's a great shame. In each class there are some genuinely good, able kids who have the ability and want to learn. I could help these students. However, the school quickly vetoed any suggestion that I could assemble smaller classes of streamed, able students. All the parents are paying 1000Y per term, so all the kids WILL be 'taught' by the foreigner.

The school system here is failing many of its pupils but, ultimately, the students themselves need to be disciplined and take responsibility for their own actions. The good students that I do have in each class are succeeding despite the education system here, not because of it. Ask yourself: why?

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Post by Sally Olsen » Tue Oct 10, 2006 6:35 pm

How would you provide an education for 1.3 billion people then?
Last edited by Sally Olsen on Thu Oct 19, 2006 6:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by fried jiaozi » Fri Oct 13, 2006 5:58 am

To Sally Olsen - from your question, I am assuming you think it is unfair of 'pullingmyhairout' to criticise the situation he is in if he cannot provide a solution to the problem. However, i also work in a Chinese school and wholeheartedly endorse what 'p...' says. I am a qualified teacher with many years teaching experience but i was not asked about any of this when I was employed, no-one has asked to see my teaching certificate and noone has taken up my references. I too am told to teach whatever i like - no curriculum and no monitoring. I too have an impossible situation with large, mixed ability classes. I am doing my best but am not getting very far. If I can keep all the students from putting their heads on their desks and get some of them talking and the majority to enjoy my lessons, I feel I have done well. Our parents too pay a lot of money to send their children to this prestigeous school. It is not money well spent. I don't know the answer to your question but that doesn't mean we should not question what we are doing. To begin with, staff meetings and some form of liaison between Chinese and foreign teachers would be a good idea. I am completely on my own. Noone knows or cares what I do. We should not pretend problems do not exist but openly discuss them and work out ways together to solve them.

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Post by Sally Olsen » Fri Oct 13, 2006 6:00 pm

I agree that we should openly discuss the problems. I did not imply that you should hide these problems and just continue. I genuinely want to know what to do. The gentleman's opinion before mine was to quit. That is definetely a valid one. If all English teachers in this situation quit or went on strike or protested in some way that is allowable in China, then things would change. If you meet with your colleagues, things will change. If you instituted oral exams in China things would change because the oral classes would be of some value to the students. If someone pointed out the corruption it would stop perhaps. If someone met with the parents and pointed out the difficulties, they would stop perhaps. Now you are going to tell me why all these things are impossible, I suppose.

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Post by c-way » Fri Oct 27, 2006 5:39 am

Yes, I am.

Having taught in China, but now teaching in Japan, I encountered the same kind of 'just for show' role that is given to foreign teachers described by the posters above. And, yeah, it sucks to know that a huge part of the reason that your classes are not nearly as effective as they could be is not you or your students, but the structure and constraints put on you by your school.

While these are not things that are impossible to remedy, they are things that are impossible for a foreign English teacher alone to remedy. China, as well as Japan, are very top-down societies. And the kind of changes that need to be made to improve the general level of education, not just English education, in China are sweeping changes that would affect their entire perception of what 'education' is.

Those kind of changes are ones that would need to come from the top of the education ladder, not the bottom. And certainly not from the foreign teacher who will be summarily criticized and ignored as not 'understanding' the culture of a country that by and large is still very isolationist and weary of outside influence. Simply put, in China, your boss doesn't give a crap what you think and you are as replaceable as a role of film. And if you don't speak very good Chinese to express your criticisms and ideas for change directly, its highly doubtful that they will be received seriously, if at all.

I believe the key to keeping your sanity and integrity as a foreign english teacher is knowing that this is the framework within which you will have to work, and not beating yourself up about the shortcomings of your class that you can't change.

If you are currently a teacher who agonizes over how to improve your class and reach your students in a meaninful way, don't fret. That's a sign that you care, and I think that's the first step to becoming an effective teacher. I now find myself at a next step where I relax more and have a thicker skin to the inadequacy and inefficiency that surround me. Some things I see in my class (I would gladly shoot the person who thought up cell phones) still get me worked up, but now I leave that frustration at work, and the cleaning lady takes care of it. The hard part for me right now is staying motivated to make interesting lessons and teach with energy, knowing that the return on my investment is relatively small, and each week some investments are a loss.

I'm reminded of an amusing metaphor; 'shoveling sh*t against the tide'. I think one of the most difficult things about teaching in China is knowing that you're the only one on the beach.

fried jiaozi
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Post by fried jiaozi » Fri Oct 27, 2006 6:30 am

Here Here! (Or is it hear hear?!!) :)

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Post by Sally Olsen » Fri Nov 03, 2006 5:22 pm

Small things you do add up though. In Mongolia, I protested against the younger women teachers being used as cleaning ladies by insisting that I also do my share of the cleaning of the English room. My "stand" was protested by the bosses who thought "elderly" ladies should be served by the younger ones and they begged me to reconsider as it wasn't part of their culture. I just bought a vacuum cleaner and did my share. When I left my male boss carried my bags in front of me to the train to show the whole community that ideas can change and he could adapt. If you don't know, men in Mongolia used to walk ahead of the woman who carried all the shopping. The young people are changing the fastest, particularly the young women and walls can fall. I thought the Berlin wall would never fall. I thought the problems in the States with African Americans would be there for generations and we would never see an African American in the White House. You just do what you can, throw your pebble in the pond and you will have more effect on the situation that you can imagine.

As for cell phones, I have taken to text messaging my students and telling them to pay attention. Works wonders.

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Post by fluffyhamster » Mon Nov 06, 2006 10:54 am

So you *beep* *beep* *beep* away in classes, Sally? You might want to take a look at the 'Teaching bad language' thread on the Business English forum, then! :lol: :wink: :D

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Post by tryingtostaysane » Wed Nov 22, 2006 3:45 am

Hello all. Just been reading the posts in this thread and wanted to add my 2 cents +gst worth. I have been here in China now for 5 years. I agree with much and also disagree with much of what has been posted. I am not going to try and say what is the best way to get through to the kids, as some things work for some, but not for others.

From my experience schools in China are not much more than child care places so the parents can go out to work and the government does not have millions of 'latch key' kids running wild. Like Japan and other Asian countries, the school day is way too long and not needed. The constant bombardment of information the students are hit with, serves no better end then to make the student over tired and less willing to take on anythig new. And English is still a new thing here. Does China really need all the students to pass English and never be able to, or need to, use it? Or would it be better for only the interested (motivated) students to learn and actually be able to, and want to, use it?

In my time here as a teacher I have have worked from Primary to University and all I can say is that English is a failure here in the major part due to the large size of classes. I know this will cause anger among many, but I would suggest China cancel all English classes from Primary school and upwards and concentrate just on the Kindagartens where more can be done. They should start there and follow through the entire education process. Why? Because then they can have children growing with English from Day 1.

Yes, many Chinese teachers resent us foreigners because of the so-called large amounts of money we earn here. If only they could understand that I can get more a month on unemployment back home. Why do I do it? I enjoy trying to help students, I can have a better life style here with the smaller wage and as well I am married to a Chinese math teacher, so understand (but not totally agree with) the way they do things here.

I have seen many a Chinese English teacher (as well as other subjects) just give up and go through the day and not care about the students. I have seen and experienced the way students can give secret reports to the school that will ultimately have you demoted or fired. And all of this comes from the students who would be expelled in any other country, but here it seems only the rebels and troublemakers are listened too, or submit comments. I have had students tell me "it is your duty to teach us", but they forget the part about it being their duty to learn. In the recent mid-semester exams, my wife took test papers from two students and told them to leave. Why? She caught a smart student pass her papers to another so she could copy the answers. What was the reaction? The smart student proclaimed "I wasn't cheating, she was!" The Class Master complained and said "why are you so hard on my students?" And the school leaders said "please give the papers back or the parents will be very angry!" I guess if the government were to comment they would say something like "please let them cheat or else they will fail and never be able to pay taxes!"

My wife has been able to give me much insight to the thinkings of the average Chinese teacher, and it is easy to see that they only care about the "passing grade" and not much more. What would you think school leaders would say to the foreign teacher when he\she reports that they saw students openly cheating in a final exam. "We are sorry that you saw it happen" was the comment. Yes, like everywhere in the world there are people who cheat, but here it seems to be a part of their culture. When my wife was in hgh school she was almost failing at maths. Her teacher got angry with her and said, "I sat you next to the smartest in the class, why wont you cheat from him and get a better score?"

With this sort of attitude from the 'older' teachers here, is it any wonder that the students here today do not care much about silly things like English? Only when the very young students grow and improve, can English be accepted the same way as Maths, Science, etc. I think the most willing students I have encountered have come from the very very poor familes who have struggled to get their child out of the poverty cycle. They seem to appreciate what their families have sacrificed for them, and they try their best at everything, even English.

I guess I come off sounding like a very disgruntled ex-pat. Yes, at times I am\have been, but not because of the way things are here, but rather for my lack of ability to give up my western ways, and just become like a Chinese teacher. You see, I do care about my job, but I am just one person, and no matter how many "pebbles" I cast into the education pond, I don't seem to be getting anywhere. I guess that was the major reason for taking this current school year off and try to get my sanity and motivation back, so that I can start all over again next year. That and the fact we have a daughter who I can spend quality time with, and make sure she at least has a good English base while everyone else teaches her Chinese.

Cheers to you all and try not to give up the fight to motivate and teach your students. Best wishes for the coming festive season\s, Xmas, New Year and Chinese New Year.

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Unmotivated students

Post by trubadour » Tue Feb 13, 2007 2:40 am

This is a bump and an appeal to make this post a sticky - just a glance at the sheer numbers of views should be enough to persuade the moderators.

It's a fascinating discussion for all those at anytime involved in teaching students of this age.

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