Benevolent Authenticity in the Language Classroom
Yusuf is a delightful young man. In addition to being my go-to student whenever thinking time descends into confused silence, his demeanor is respectful, positive, and considerate. He encourages his peers, completes assigned tasks, and smiles a lot. All the more surprising then was the melancholic face that met me one afternoon, stripped of its sparkle, and buckling under the burdens of life. “You ok?” I asked, to which a strained smile extended over his face, accompanied by an unconvincing nod. I knew better than to press for an answer. The class went on. A speaking task was assigned. I transformed into a teacher and began carefully checking for inaccurate language, demonstrating missing articles on my fingers, and encouraging learners to experiment with words. As I circled the class hunting for language to exploit, Yusuf opened up:
“Teacher, I crash my car.”
“Crashed.” I said.
A veil exists between the language teacher and her students. Language, culture, status, and institutional expectations are bound together to form a barricade that can prevent meaningful interactions and obstruct the formation of consequential relationships. Occasionally, a flash of a learner’s character penetrates the facade, or the teacher forgets her ‘role’ and gives of herself, resulting in the momentary dissolution of the classroom, titles, expectations, and learning objectives, leaving only sincere and potent human interaction. Sometimes, we are so concerned with being a teacher that we forget what it means to be a human. Occasionally, accurate language is more significant to us than learner wellbeing and holistic growth. Regularly, we reduce ‘education’ to ‘target language’, forgetting that it is as much our responsibility to inspire, energise, and awaken learners as it is to teach them how to form a topic sentence. Frequently, we enforce restrictions upon the humans in our classrooms that we would never dream of implementing in other walks of life (how many times have you told a friend that they must wait until the break to use the bathroom?). And perhaps most commonly, we see the names on our attendance sheets as ‘students’ rather than lives. We overlook the complex biographies of our learners. We fail to notice their fluctuating moods, their quirky character traits, or the difficulties that manifest on their faces. We are quick to recognise their struggles with the third-person s, but how much do we share in their dreams and goals, their likes and dislikes, their fears and anxieties?
For years, I have begun every course I teach by asking my new students about the characteristics they believe shape an excellent teacher. There are recurring answers. Learners appreciate a teacher who knows her stuff, who is funny and engaging, and who is not too strict but not too lenient. However, in deeper discussions with learners, it becomes evident that they are looking for something beyond clinical, contrived classroom interactions. They are looking for what I have termed ‘benevolent authenticity’. What does benevolent authenticity look like? A teacher who is naturally caring and genuinely concerned, not only for the learners’ grades, but for their growth as human beings. Teachers who speak about their own lives, their interests, their feelings, not just about the class content. Teachers who love their job and respect their students. Teachers who listen to what is being said, not just for accuracy and appropriate vocabulary use, but because it is an honour to be exposed to the thoughts and experiences of another being. Teachers who recognise that their role extends into the territory of coach and mentor and who invest of themselves in their learners’ growth. Teachers whose actions in the classroom are truly motivated by the emotional and intellectual needs of their learners, not just by what is expedient, natural, or easiest. Teachers who are reflective humans, not reflective practitioners. Teachers who are authentically good people, not just good teachers.
TESOL teeters on the precarious precipice that separates the lofty goal of education and the soulless world of industry and suffers for it. Lecturers, teachers, instructors, and consultants confuse one another, never quite cementing an identity, never quite understanding the breadth of their role. An English teacher must be informed about language, demonstrating a familiarity with how language is acquired and understanding the methodological underpinnings of her practice. But often we overlook what I consider to be the most important component of our role: intent. An excellent teacher acknowledges the scope of her impact and intends to selflessly facilitate the growth of her learners in any way she can. She puts her learners before herself, because at her core, she cares deeply about the humans in her class, even more than her learning objectives. Professional development must incorporate personal development. Skills are necessary but not sufficient to create an excellent teacher. Yusuf will probably forget how to form a regular past tense verb but I will try not to forget how I dismissed his life for the sake of a tense.
Human Beings above Syntax: Benevolent Authenticity in the Language Classroom
by Michael Fletcher