Sometimes Less is More (by Anita Kwiatkowska)

I can still remember my first Christmas lesson seven years ago. My 3rd graders were making little Santas from red paper and we were chatting about the presents they expected to get that year. Foolish as I was back then, I suddenly asked ‘Of course you no longer believe in…?’. No, I didn’t finish that question with ‘Santa’ as the bewildered look in my students’ eyes prevented me from doing so. You see, they still believed in Santa and if I hadn’t hesitated I would have made an irreversible mistake. I would have taken away their dreams.

So easy. So simple. That time I understood how vital what we say to our students is. We, teachers, have enormous power because what we say somehow becomes the truth or is seen as such. It’s an immense responsibility.

Here, in Turkey, the situation is even more complex. There are topics that you should never talk about with your students. Some time ago my adult group started a conversation about fasting during Ramadan. Most of the students were convinced that it’s a very healthy thing, the others refused to accept that. Eventually they asked me for an opinion and… I didn’t know what to say. Having two options: a) stating my opinion and b) refraining from taking part in the discussion, I chose the latter. Would they benefit from learning my point of view anyway?

One might call it cowardice or a form of escape but I think it was a wise decision. Sometimes it’s better to step down, listen and observe your students instead of spoon feeding them with ideas of your own. Sometimes less is more – that’s the lesson I learned from my students.


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22 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    This is so, true! It’s a tough line to walk–sharing enough of our opinions to build a relationship with students without sharing so much that we overpower their own opinions.

    Your Santa example is the perfect image to help us remember that our young students have a very different (and precious) world view. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. Sputnik says:

    This is a very good point. Generally, I try to minimise my opinions in class except with regard to football and blini! However, I think you do need to have some opinions, some kind of grit, otherwise you don’t exist as a person for your students.

  3. Marta says:

    You are absolutely right. Sometimes I’m too late to bite my tongue (as I’m rather hot-tempered) but I agree that you don’t always have to express your opinion. Especially with young people who then tend to agree with you (oh, yes!!! even with absolutely bizzare things I say). I don’t think that a classroom is a place for strong emotions. However, I like debates between the students.
    And I also think that less is more when correcting people’s speaking. As long as they pass the message I prefer them to speak than to be afraid of making mistakes. I might be wrong, however it works for my students.

  4. Barbara,

    I’ll repeat myself – thanks for inviting me 🙂


    I agree that you must have opinions of your own, not only as a teacher but as a person. The key is to know when to voice them 🙂

  5. As Barbara said this is a tough line to walk. I think it depends a lot on where you are, I mean, the culture and customs, and what people expect from teachers. In my case, teaching adults in Brazil, I’d only avoid giving my opinion if that would really hurt my students’ feelings, which in that case is what I’d do with all people, regardless of hierarchy (if this word still exists). So in class we can, and in my opinion we should, just be ourselves. At least here, when someone asks a teacher about his/her view on stuff like, abortion, gay marriage, swearing, or religion, they are not expecting a viewpoint to follow, it’s just out of interest and to talk about real things that real people talk outside of the classroom, a way to get away from the bookish kind of talk.
    Just last week I had this amazing class with a 24y.o. girl who wants to have 5 kids, and she asked my opinion on parenting, and I was like “I don’t wanna have children”, her perplexity made her pay so much attention to my explanation and then she had to make a real effort to argue with me (in L2), that by the end of the class she had learned and used many useful words and phrases about birth, environment, parenting, agreeing/disagreeing, etc.
    But again, this works out fine here, mayeb not there, and even here many teachers don’t feel comfortable in situations like this.
    Thanks Anita and Barbara for promoting the discussion.

    • Barbara says:

      You have a good point about cultural expectations. The main question I ask myself is, “Will this advance the objectives I have for this lesson?” In general, my objectives involve students talking more than I do, and talking to each other (rather than interacting with me). Obviously, with a private lesson, all the interaction is with the teacher, and then the objective is to draw out the student, and motivate her to use English in an authentic context (like trying to understand why you feel the way you do).

      A common new-teacher trap is to believe that students are fascinated by your beliefs, opinions and experiences (the foreign EFL teacher as rock star syndrome). It’s easy to believe that students are keen to pay to listen to what you think rather than remembering that you aren’t being paid to practice your English 🙂

      It’s not that I won’t share opinions with students, and I’m always happy to move in a different direction during class to take advantage of student interest–but I do try to think about how the discussion advances their language skills rather than mine…

  6. Yes, yes, yes! It’s good advice for all new teachers – think before you spend half an hour of class time explaining the rules of cricket! The students will probably nod politely, and go home thinking you are self-obsessed fool!

  7. I’m going to disagree on this one. The students were asking for your opinion. In effect, they were striving to make the communication meaningful. By denying your students your opinion you are saying that we are not actually here to talk, we are simply here to practice English and I want you to do more of that, so I’ll back off.

    I think in a situation like this the teacher’s opinion will spark off a wonderful discussion or debate as in the case Willy mentioned above. I’m also validating the students’ interest and desire to communicate. Not only do I want to help you learn English, I want to share myself with you because I’m interested in you as people.

    The heart of the matter is not whether they will benefit from your point-of-view. The heart of the matter is that you will have meaningful and purposeful English in your classroom. If you are not willing to partake in the discussion, why should the students?

    I very much disagree with Barbara’s second comment as well (although I thought her original comment was a very good one). If the students were not interested in your opinion, they wouldn’t have asked. Any good teacher will respond appropriately to their class. That means both reacting to student desire to know and moving on if they aren’t interested. It also means not dominating the discussion unless you want a listening lesson rather than a speaking one.

    You are right that some teachers talk about themselves way too much, but I don’t think that is a problem Anita or other experienced teachers will have.

    Would we like the students to get more practice than the teacher? Of course. But what’s better, meaningful and purposeful communication or communication simply as empty practice?

    Now, you’re also bringing up the idea that we shouldn’t force our opinions on our students. The teacher holds a place of power in the classroom, not to mention the power that comes with knowing the language and we have to be aware of that when we enter into meaningful discussions that are potentially contentious. However, I think an experienced teacher can state their opinions in a way that doesn’t disenfranchise the students or appear to give the final word.

    • I think, Nick, you are teaching mostly adults? Whereas perhaps Anita and Barbara are thinking of young learners. I teach mostly first year university students, and I approach them quite differently to the businessmen and women I used to teach. Maybe a factor.

      • Good point Darren, I do tend to always be thinking about adults, but I personally don’t think that changes the situation here. Meaningful communication is meaningful communication with children or adults. If they want to talk to you, then let them.

        • Barbara says:

          I think the key words in Anita’s post were “sometimes” and “experienced.” It isn’t always appropriate or necessary to keep our opinions to ourselves, but sometimes it can be the best choice. And, experienced teachers can make the choice.

          There are many ways to engage in meaningful communication, even without involving opinions or controversy. Any time we have a purpose in communication (to tell about ourselves, to get information, to play a game, etc.) it’s meaningful.

          Most of the time, if my students ask my opinion, I’ll give it. But sometimes, when my honest answer would derail the discussion or switch the focus from my students to me, I’ll remain quiet. It’s the choice I make as an experienced teacher.

          • Hmm, valid points. When it comes to derailing a discussion I’ve had instances where I’ve had the same thoughts. Usually my tack is to tell them I’d like to hear the conversation play out and then I’ll give them my opinion as it starts to wind down. This way they get the speaking time and, most likely, once you add your input you might get the topic rolling again.

  8. Room 3 says:

    That is very interesting. Me and the other kids in room 3 will look forward to seeing more posts. Come see our blog. We will love to hear from you.
    From Lewis (Room 3 student)

  9. eisensei says:

    Hi all,

    First of all, thank you Darren for giving me this link; I was very surprised to see that someone else had started this discussion just before I did. What are the chances of that?

    After reading the comments, I noticed that all of you seem to be referring to in-class situations, but what about out-of-class situations and the spontaneous conversation that arises therein? Should we always be on teacher mode?

    Also, Darren, referring to your comment on my blog about this question, you mentioned that you teach first year university students and that you are old enough to be their father. In that case, it may be more difficult to get close to students, and perhaps it could be argued that it would be in fact better to keep some distance, but what about those teachers who are still in their twenties or early thirties? Should they, too, keep the same distance?


  10. eisensei says:

    Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I think you made a very good point about the fair exchange of personal information, and I think it’s worth considering in and out of class. I also appreciate the idea because it’s not about keeping distance per se, but about making sure that everyone is involved fairly in the discussion.


  11. darren says:

    Well, steady on! I am TECHNICALLY old enough. I feel I must point out that I’m still a freshfaced thirty something. But as Barbara says, to the kids we are all ancient….

  12. Hmm… I’m with Nick and quite emphatically… except for the kids and Santa thing – no point really.

    But with adults as in the example that Anita gave above I think it’s really awful and actually to be frank, dishonest and really quite mean – they wanted an opinion not an soap advertisement.

    The line can be skated on finely as in “I’m aware of the health benefits or “I’m not aware of the health benefits and will look into them – it’s an interesting point” – “I personally don’t agree but respect those who do” we all know that many cultures fast so just shirking the issue – you’re in the classroom, you aren’t the textbook.

  13. Karenne,

    In that particular situation it made no sense for me to give my opinion for one basic reason: the students were already divided into 2 ‘for’ and ‘against’ groups. If had expressed my ideas I would have automatically joined one team and they would be the ones who ‘won’ the discussion. What would be the point of that?

    Obviously, there are situations when we, as teachers should/ have to speak our mind. I remember taking active part in debates about communism, for example, having lived it through myself. Your pregnancy story is yet a better example.

    On the other hand, there is an issue of conformism. To cut a long story short, I cannot speak openly about certain issues in my present situation. I cannot even write here why. But if you want to know, don’t hesitate to email me 🙂

    • With the major limitations on free speech (legal or, more often, simply social) in Turkey compared to other countries this is a very valid point and I’d agree with you. I think perhaps that is a topic for another day and, for those of us in these situations, offline :P. However, nothing makes me angrier than the limiting of my personal freedoms in the online sphere on top of the daily issues that arise in our everyday lives.

  1. March 16, 2010

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