Can mini-essays by fictional frustrated personal trainers help students work harder in Zoom breakout rooms?

Well, can they? I have no idea but let’s start with a fictional mini-essay from a fictional personal trainer.

I love my job. I really do. It gives me a chance to put my hard-earned knowledge and experience to use. I also enjoy helping people and I think I can be a positive influence. Of course it’s also great that I can often see the results of my work. Sometimes it’s quite dramatic and the changes come quickly. My work as a personal trainer is generally rewarding but it does sometimes leave me wanting more.

My biggest frustration is when my clients waste their time and money. Specifically, it’s frustrating and disheartening when I give clients exercises to do and things to work on between our sessions and they don’t do them. Believe me, I know when they haven’t done the work.

Some trainers told me that I shouldn’t care about this because I get paid no matter what the clients do or don’t do outside of class.. I can understand this but I still find it saddening. I mean, they paid the money and took the time to book a lesson. Then, when it’s time to work on their own they suddenly lose motivation.

Honestly I feel bad for my clients but also for myself because I truly want my clients to succeed! I wish they would seize the day and make the most of their time and make progress towards their own stated goals. I think everyone knows that the benefits from just meeting with me a few times a week are marginal compared with actually doing the assigned exercises and making sustained progress. I think clients know that I choose the exercises based on their fitness, challenges, progress and overall goals. I spent a lot of time learning about the human body and this field and . 

It seems clear they want to improve but I cannot understand their thinking when it comes to not putting in the work between sessions. These are not children. They are adults who made a choice to change their lifestyle but can’t seem to follow through. The notion that they’d devote the time and money for classes but not put in the work outside of classes is odd to me. I am not sure I can understand where my clients are coming from.

Perhaps I should be, or should try to be, more empathetic. This workout stuff comes pretty easily to me (unlike, say, algebra). Maybe my perspective is too narrow? Maybe they don’t actually care about progress as much as I assume they do? I know it’s ultimately up to them. 

In any case, it’s quite frustrating and disheartening. I don’t really have any ideas or strategies for dealing with this situation, which is also frustrating. I am at my wit’s end. 

My idea was to use this text as a sort of a way into the discussing issue of students not being so active in breakout rooms.

I might give students a gist question about the trainer’s issues before some specific questions (and maybe even some language work. .I’d be sure to ask students to think about solutions to her problem. I’d also ask what they might say to the clients, if anything.

I’d collate the suggestions for the trainer and comments for clients. Then comes the big reveal. Some of these ideas could be related to our current situation. Which advice for the trainer applies to the teacher? Which comments for the clients apply to this group of students. Discussions of these final questions would likely and ironically occur in breakout rooms.

Notes:

  • Not that it really matters but this has not been a huge problem for me as yet.
  • If you find any language that seems off in the “mini-essay” it’s either because of my own bad writing or I tried to shoehorn in some terms that students in a particular class might be studying soon.
  • I thought including such terms could make it seem a bit more like a language learning activity and not a drawn-out way of expressing frustration.
  • I realize some might say, “Hey man don’t worry if students are not active in breakout rooms during a pandemic” and I get it.
  • If anyone tries this or a variation, I’d love to know how it goes!

Questions:

  • Do think the text is a bit too preachy? Too blamey? Too whingy?
  • Do you think students would know the reason for introducing the text before that reason is revealed?
  • Would you consider doing something like this if you were faced with students who are inactive in breakout rooms?
  • How might you modify or expand on the sequence?
  • Can mini-essays by fictional frustrated personal trainers help students work harder in Zoom breakout rooms?

A tale about rapport and changing teachers during the same course

A long time ago I worked in what was called an immersion program at a language school attached to a university (a unigwon, as it’s sometimes known) in Seoul. The program lasted 20 weeks and students were there for around 30 hours a week with 4-5 different teachers for 4-5 courses (with reading, writing, fluency-focused speaking, “practical English,” and media English as courses that come to mind). With this schedule and system it was perhaps inevitable that burnout would be a factor for all involved. I remember teachers discussing how weeks 13-17 were an absolute slog and how students completely lacked motivation and interest in those weeks.. As I rose up the ranks and accumulated power When I had some ever so slight say in how things were done around there I suggested that after 10 weeks we could change teachers to help prevent burnout. I also thought it would be useful for students to have different teachers for a variety of reasons.

Question break: What are some non-burnout reasons for changing teachers in the middle of such a term?

This policy of changing teachers was not universally lauded but some teachers liked it. Students were generally on board with the policy but there were some growing pains and learning moments. Issues like “This is not how Bob did warm-ups!” and “Can’t we play more games like we did with Suzy?” arose from time to time but were mostly well-handled by explaining that we had a range of teachers and that students will benefit from experiencing this range in terms of practices and perspectives.

Question break: What additional issues would you imagine in such a situation?

An issue that came up from time to time was one of rapport. Sometimes students and a teacher just click and it can be hard for anyone to be not that teacher. Even if everything was fine with the new teacher the students might just miss their teacher, or who they were with the former teacher, or the whole vibe of the class.

For whatever no reason, the administration in this language school believed that fostering a competitive atmosphere (including big bonuses for teachers who had the highest scores on highly subjective student evaluations from students and getting rid of those teachers with the lowest scores). This caused some problems in general and caused specific problems related to changing instructors mid-course. Teachers ended up angling to avoid replacing the teachers widely thought to be popular. Some teachers were excited to replace teachers perceived to be less talented/popular because it would improve their rankings. Those sweet sweet rankings were very powerful factors.

When I suggested this mid-course change of teachers policy it was mostly as a way to prevent burnout for teachers and students alike. Along the same lines, I thought it would be a good chance for teachers to re-use materials and activities for similar levels which I thought would reduce the workload. I hadn’t really counted on the evals and competition being such a big issue. That was not even my biggest mistake.

I still regret my biggest mistake (biggest mistake in this very limited context of the teacher changes at that particular institution). While chatting with co-workers I said something like, “I feel bad for whoever is going to replace me in class 1B as I get along with them very well. It’s going to be tough going.” I think that was an immature and probably arrogant thing to say (or even think). It was true that I did get on well with the group but there was no need to say that to others. When the next teacher heard an amped up version of what I’d said (maybe the grapevine twisted it to “She is going to struggle with that class because they love me so much mhahaha!) she was not pleased. I was clearly in the wrong.

I think I was also a bit in the wrong to frequently pop by that class during their breaks. I did miss them and get along well with them but I don’t think I needed to make appearances so frequently. I think they would have been better served if I was simply friendly in the hallways and such but was less of a common presence in their actual classroom.

I still believe that the idea of changing teachers mid-course was a solid one but I am not sure how well it worked out in practice. I know that my personal actions related to this one group were less than ideal.

That failing to follow instructions activity

“I am so embarrassed!” exclaimed Gayle (neither her name nor her English name), one of the strongest and most confident students in the class when we discussed the recently completed activity. I could empathize because I remembered hating it when I did it in a class as a student all those years ago. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the activity but I chose to use it in the last 2 short (pre-sessional) courses I’ve taught. 

The main reason I chose it  was because it was a sort of fun reminder about the importance of following instructions and reading carefully. I thought it was a pretty low-stakes way to share this friendly reminder. I thought this little eye-opener could have positive results in upcoming assignments (which it may have) and future courses.

I’d noticed that these students were not so great at reading the fine print or reading carefully, especially when it came to the minutia of academic writing. They were highly capable at creative tasks and in working well together but sometimes the small details evaded them. I felt that simply mentioning the importance of finer details related to assignments would not really stick or be memorable so I felt some sort of activity to help guide the students towards that understanding would be helpful.

I felt it was better to be slightly embarrassed now and to then remember to triple check such things as APA formatting their final assignments. I said as much to the aforementioned Gayle, in fact.

My misgivings about this activity were related to power dynamics and the possibility of making students feel bad or dumb for not following instructions. Paradoxically, the whole point was for students not to follow instructions and see the error of their ways. I still didn’t like setting up to fail like that but on balance I was okay with the decision as I feel like perhaps the negatives were outweighed by the positives. 

Another positive was the (slightly smug?) smiles of the  4 or 5 out of 24 students who did not fail the activity and were able to relax and soak in some moments of chilled out success. Maybe they’d seen a similar activity before or maybe they simply followed instructions carefully. It was fun to share knowing glances with these students even if it was not the most productive 5 minutes of their academic lives.  

I do think and hope it was productive or memorable for those who struggled with the activity. It’s of course challenging to measure the impact exactly but I can say that many students in their final reflections mentioned they will be sure in future courses to read the syllabus, rubrics, and assignment expectations extremely carefully. Others said that they’d triple-check the instructions and make sure every aspect was accounted for before submitting any work in their college careers. I felt like my message was received and felt a certain amount of pride about that.

You might be wondering, Dear Reader, what exactly is this activity I’ve spent over 500 words rambling about but have yet to name or explain in detail. Maybe you’ve seen it before. The initial instructions say something like “Be sure to read every instruction before you do anything” and then there is a list of instructions. The first few lines ask the students to things like write their name and the date but the last line says something like “Only do instructions 1 through 5.” That way students who did any instructions after #6 would have been unsuccessful with the activity. In case my brief instruction is not clear enough enough, here is an example. I called it a quiz but anyone who did anything (or nothing) received full points. I am not so harsh or sadistic.

Maybe you’d like to a filled out example? Here you are:

Thank you for reading! Comments appreciated. I wonder, what ways have you found helpful to guide students to pay attention to details? Is this something you’d address? Also, I am particularly interested in thoughts why you’d never do this with adults. I’d also be interested in other similar (but less embarrassment inducing) ways of getting to the same point. Additionally, if you think I’m being a huge baby and am overly worried about students being slightly embarrassed for a moment I wouldn’t mind reading that either. What I am trying to say is that any comments are welcome.