Why do my students question me?

Summary: Who's in charge in the classroom?

Almost all teachers come across a student, student personality type or even whole nationality or age group that meet their grammatical explanations, suggestions for self-study or ideas on how much error correction they need with a sceptical look or even a "That's not right". With other types of people the fact that they do just as they are told or agree with everything you say could just as easily be hiding the same attitude. By looking at some of the reasons why these feelings of doubt can exist and/ or be expressed, I hope also to show how teachers can cope with this issue through changing their approach, showing the students what they want to see, or simply getting a sense of perspective. In terms of getting a sense of perspective, I should also point out that teachers usually get the benefit of the doubt rather than doubt every time they step to the front of the class, and this article is strictly about dealing with the few problem students or few problem situations that can come up. Another general point worth making is that the teacher does not have to be the source of all the solutions to these problems, and with things like showing students how much experience you have got the school can easily play their part in sending your CV to the HR department of in company classes or advertising the general minimum standards of all their teachers.


Reasons why students might doubt their English teacher


1.        They've caught you out before

You might think that a student catching you out on something is only a sign that you are human, but to some students teachers aren't supposed to be only human! This attitude could come from having an infallible teacher before, or from having one who seemed infallible by never taking student questions, only saying what they had prepared and/ or giving wrong explanations with a totally confident attitude. Alternatively, they might only need one mistake from you to confirm one of the prejudices mentioned below. You can avoid or at least delay these problems by: checking everything you are going to do with dictionaries, grammar books and the teachers' book; preparing what you are going to write on the board before the lesson; taking student questions right at the end of the class and answering them next week when you have had a chance to look them up; and showing off you knowledge of the things you do know very well. By the time you do eventually slip up, you should have gained their trust sufficiently that they will forgive you. If not, you can try to limit the damage by saying that is one thing that you have particular problems with and have always been better at grammar/ punctuation/ knowledge of English literature.


2.        They trust their previous teacher, who taught them something wrong

Some possible reasons why they trusted their teacher more than they trust you are given above and below, but it could also be that they just need time to get to know you. That being the case, you could just tell them you insist, leave it alone for a while and come back to it later in the course. Alternatively, you could tell them or show them statements from books, website or other teachers who support you. You could also try and find a nice way of explaining why the previous person had a different idea, like "That is a little old fashioned now" or "British English has become more like American English and less like what he/ she said nowadays". These approaches also work if they trust the previous teacher's explanation because it is easier to understand or fits in with their own misconceptions about grammar etc.


3.        They think you are too young

Lying about or not mentioning your age is an option, as is clothes, facial hair and hairstyles to make you look older. Alternatively, you could try and partly make up for it by making sure they know your qualifications, marital status, number of foreign languages spoken, number of years living abroad, famous companies worked for and/ or teaching experience. The secret then is to slip that information into a normal class format without it seeming like you are making a point of doing it.


4.        They only trust qualifications/ they don't think you are well enough qualified

This could be due to cultural misunderstandings, e.g. not realising that a 3 year British degree is a full degree or not understanding what a Diploma in TEFL is (even many native speakers don't!). There are lessons in textbooks on education systems in different countries where you could try and slip in this information if you can. Alternatively, they may be right that you have far fewer qualifications than a school teacher in their own country's school system would need. You could mention having taught in state schools in your own or other countries, or qualifications you have that mean you could do so. If you can do it really carefully, you could also tease out any negative feelings students have about their country's education system, despite all the great qualifications the teachers have...


5.        They only trust experience/ they don't think you've been teaching long enough

First of all, never tell paying students they are your first class since you qualified to teach. Although they might think that is cute when you tell them and be supportive, anything they don't agree with in your classes will end up being your fault rather than theirs. If they ask you, you could try including your training period as part of your teaching experience and slipping in anything else that might make up for it such as studying English as university or studying foreign languages. You could also try comparing yourself to others (in a non-defensive way), for example by pointing out that their last teacher was in the same position when they started teaching them as well.


6.        They only trust native speakers

Although like all of these this is a problem that occurs much less than, for example, students not understand grammar explanations, some of the times when it can occurs can be totally unjustified ones like beginners whose non-native teacher is seven levels above them or even native speakers whose ethnicity makes their students doubt them. This is a notoriously tricky one, but people who get this reaction could use CDs with native speaker voices for all modelling of language, provide lots of correction, and try to show the advantages of being non-native such as having had to learn the language yourself. Lessons on "multiethnic Britain", "English as an International Language" etc. can be very difficult to get students interested in, but can serve a purpose in tackling this misconception if done well.


7.        They have a bad impression of native speaker teachers

Again, most native speakers actually get away with far more than they should rather than being doubted, but as more students have previous experience of unqualified native speaker teachers and the local press pick up on this for genuine or nationalistic reasons, these feelings have become slightly more common over the years. The solution is again having the qualifications and experience that they would expect from a non-native speaker, keeping your mistakes low through preparation, showing off what you do know, and showing an effort to learn the students' language and culture.


8.        They have problems with your gender

Although men of certain cultures and personality types not listening to women in the classroom gets the most publicity, romantic or family history can also produce arguments the other way round. I would love to be able to offer a solution to this in a few lines, but I am afraid this one stumps me!


9.        They only trust books or other media

The most annoying example of this is when students trust a 20 year old dictionary or electronic dictionary with single word translations against you. The only solution here is to battle them with a thicker and more impressive book, either by taking it into every class and showing that one student or everyone the relevant page, just mentioning what book or how many books you have seen what you are saying in, or bringing photocopies of information supporting what you were saying in the previous lesson into every class until they give up questioning you. Alternatively, if you have been published they might be suitably impressed that all your future statements are accepted as the written word.


10.    They can't accept alternatives

Some students have problems accepting that "Present Continuous" and "Present Progressive" or "Have a bath" and "Take a bath" are both equally valid and want to be told which one is better. Refusing to do so could occasionally lead to you losing their trust. If you really can't bear to say something is better when it isn't, saying "In my school we learnt...", "Where I come from/ in my family we usually say..." or even "I personally prefer/ usually use..." are all fine, as students are usually only listening for the last part anyway.


11.    They can't accept "It depends"

This problem (e.g. students wanting to be told that "If I was you" is wrong, not just that it is less formal) and the solutions are similar to the problem above.


12.    They can't accept that there is no explanation/ that it is just coincidence

Again, this situation is rare, but it can happen that students come up with difficult or random questions like "Why do ‘there' and ‘their' have the same pronunciation and different spelling?" and will only put up with so many brushings off. Like the two problems above, if you have a particular hatred of folk etymologies and "native speaker intuition" you can probably get away with starting all your explanations with hedging language such as "Some people believe that...", "I once heard someone claim that..." or "The only possible explanation I can think of is..." as long as some kind of explanation follows.


13.    Their own language is more prescriptive

This is one of the most common cultural disagreements and/ or misunderstandings in the EFL classroom. While even the most "grammar Nazi" of teachers who screams every time they see a misplaced apostrophe in an English greengrocers must accept a descriptive view of grammar if they want to pass their MA, a student whose country has a Royal Academy who decides what is right in their language or has an education system that teaches them that dialects and other variations in speech are not acceptable anywhere but the home (if there) is unlikely to ever agree. First of all, you will need to know what the prescriptive rules of English grammar are, however little based in reality they are. You will then be able to give students explanations like "Some grammar books say..., but most native speakers say..." or "Your university professor might pick you up on it if you write..., but in business correspondence it is perfectly acceptable".


14.    They've taken your self-depreciating jokes seriously

Either due to more cultural differences or due to them looking out for any weakness for reasons written in other points here, there may be some students who will not see the funny side to having an English teacher who says "Silly me, I always make silly spelling mistakes like that". Alternatively, they might be charmed by your Mr Bean sense of humour; you'll just have to work that one out as you go along...


15.    It's due to a different tension

Although one of the other points here might be the trigger, it could be that the main reason the student is arguing with you not only has nothing to do with the grammar point at hand but also little to do with the teacher. Even more than completely unconnected problems in their personal life, tensions in the school but outside the classroom like problems with their host family or school admin can often cause tension in the classroom. If that is what you suspect, try talking to the admin staff in the school and/ or having tutorials with the students in which you mainly talk about their studies and then slip in some other questions about what they think about the school. Alternatively, you could tackle the topic of what you think the problem is connected to in a thematic class, e.g. host family rules for modals of obligation


16.    They are used to being deferred to/ listened to

For example, maybe the student works as a teacher and can't switch off when they come to your class. In a communicative classroom you should be giving students a chance to give their own ideas during grammar work anyway, and then make your own explanation something that fills in the gaps or adds something to what the loudest student had to say. You could also try and get having their say out of their system before that stage by having a formal presentation or other whole class discussion which they can dominate for a couple of minutes.


17.    They just like arguing

Due to their culture or personality, arguing with their teacher might not be a sign of something bad at all, but simply a way of them thinking through their ideas or showing that they feel relaxed and at home. If so, just make sure that everyone gets involved and that it doesn't carry on past its useful length.


18.    It's a wind up

It could be that students just enjoy trying to catch you out, and maybe not even in a malicious way. And if you remind them of their little brother at all, driving you to distraction with their pointless arguments might also appeal. The best approach seems to be just to laugh along with them.


19.    They want to catch you out because you are never wrong

Another less than productive but perfectly natural human feeling that could come out in the classroom is wanting to catch a smarty-pants (= you) out. If you don't want to lose your grammar invincibility, you can give students this satisfaction by letting them test you on something else such as your world knowledge.


20.    It's revenge

Them trying to find fault with you could be revenge for you correcting them, knowing more about their country than they do, or just because of general jealousy for what they see as a nice lifestyle only (?) teaching 25 hours a week and living in a foreign country permanently on holiday (?).


21.    They really do know more than you

Hopefully I have not given the impression in any of the points above that the aim of classroom interactions is to make students accept everything you say and never speak back. Quite often you will find that you were wrong or at least did not explain yourself very well, and when you are not in a combative situation with students there is nothing wrong in admitting to them and/ or yourself that you were wrong and finding out better information before next time. You can also anticipate this by studying things that students often know more about than teachers, such as grammatical jargon, old fashioned and formal written language and prescriptive grammar rules.

Copyright © 2008

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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