I recently used this video to demonstrate verb forms in presente indicativo, to my Dad, who’s learning Spanish. I love this song as it’s easy to learn, catchy and cute! One thing about the video is jarring though, that is Teresa Rabal in her role as the teacher directly and repeatedly saying ‘No!‘ to the children when they answer incorrectly. (Thankfully, she’s not really a teacher, and I’m guessing by their behaviour in class that those students are probably actors, too!)
Although, as a student, I value honesty over politeness always – I’d much rather Rabal’s “No! No! No! No! No!” approach than a “well, not quite, but well done for trying” tact – as a teacher I am much more careful with my young students’ feelings.
We now know, because science has proved it, that Social Pain is experienced by human beings in the same way as physical pain. I think anyone who has ever experienced bullying, had their heart broken or been wracked with guilt over a terrible mistake or bad decision, probably already knew this to be the case. There is already ample proof of a link between physical and mental health, with depression being linked to a 50% increase in the risk of death from cancer. The relevance of this in relation to our teaching and our students’ experience in their classrooms is important. Simply put, if we make our students feel embarrassed, like they’re not smart enough or incapable, we’re as good as physically hurting them.
In January of this year a student joined my class after being told by his English teacher at school that he hadn’t passed the first trimester, that he wouldn’t pass the next, and probably wouldn’t pass the one after that either! He is 13 years old. His response? To avoid the physical pain of failure. He just stopped trying. He felt stupid, singled out and victimised by his teacher and understandably didn’t want to make any more effort in the subject only to be told again by his teacher that he just wasn’t as smart as his classmates. His mother, absolutely despairing and not quite knowing what else to do, took him to us for a trial class.
Our methodology is based on approaching English as a necessary but easily accessible tool with which to build on other skills and abilities. At the time of his joining the class we were mid-way through a project looking at the idea of practice and perseverance as being attributes possessed by everyone that allow anyone to do anything they want to! Our case study was seeing how Persian-style rugs are made and then each trying to make his or her own.
We don’t ban Spanish in the classroom, we don’t chastise for mistakes in grammar or pronunciation, we don’t force the kids to do an activity they don’t want, they always have the option to sit out.
In short, we don’t say “No!”
That’s not to say we allow anything. There are ways to say “no” without saying “No!”
My new student loved the activity and planned his project out on paper, asking for the materials he needed using Spanish, or describing the objects, or simply just pointing, until, through repetition and slowly understanding that he was in a safe environment where saying the wrong thing wouldn’t cause him pain, he started experimenting with, and improving his English. He learnt all the necessary vocabulary, how to put it together to make relevant questions, and how to use it to express his opinion and give advice to fellow students. And he barely realised he was learning it! Despite his teachers grim predictions, he passed the 3rd trimester.
There are many who argue that this kind of mollycoddling doesn’t prepare young people for the real world, and it’s a valid point, though I would argue that you can teach young people to manage their emotions and provide support for others. Preparing young people for the world is teaching them as much as you can, as best you can, and that means them feeling safe and secure in order to learn whatever it is you have to give them.
We don’t see stabilizers on a bicycle as mollycoddling, or swimming with armbands. We allow the students to feel safe in the water, first.
It’s worth keeping in mind, that when you isolate a child, make him stand in the corner, ignore him, allow others to ridicule him, make him feel lesser than his peers, he feels it. Physically. If you agree with no longer employing slapping or the use of the cane in the classroom then surely you can also see that there are other, less damaging ways to say “No!“