My students were really nice this term

It all started with a tweet.

No, it actually probably started in March when I met this group of students.
Or earlier when they signed up for classes?
Or even earlier when they joined the program(s) I am teaching on?

This spring I taught about 45 students (in 5 groups/classes) and this was probably the nicest collection of students I have ever taught in my nearly 15 years teaching. I don’t meant the hardest working (though they were up there too) I mean the nicest. I have, of course, met lots of great and nice students in my day. In this case I mean the 5 classes I taught were all generally nice as a group.  Even the students I might not individually rate as super pleasant or agreeable were nice to their peers and were positive additions to their classes.

If I had to describe this niceness I might be a bit at a loss but I think it is related to genuine kindness and concern for other humans (including but not only me). Maybe there is an element of appreciation for and understanding of others here, too. I also think it might be related to being nice to be around to work with. No personality clashes or nobody making it very difficult to get on with our purpose of being there. Heck, I don’t mean to say this term was devoid of weird or WTF moments. I don’t want to say it was a breeze, I just want to say the students were very nice.

In response to the above tweet, The Newbie CELTA Trainer  (aka ) wondered if I had also been the best teacher I’d been ever. I honestly don’t believe that was the case. I was somehow reminded of the post I wrote in 2012, “Was I a better teacher in 2005 than now?” This term, I think I was solid and decent and ok and whatever but I know it was not the best I’ve been or my best, in fact. In response to Newb’s question I said, ” hmm I might have been the nicest I’ve ever been” which is quite possible. Yet, I honestly don’t think my niceness was much of a factor here. Really.

Before you chalk up these positive vibes to me and my niceness or teaching or whatever (and become one of the first people ever to accuse me of being humble) please consider:

  • 3 of the 5 groups are very well bonded because they spend a lot of time together in the majority of their classes and thus the group dynamics have already been solidified
  • I didn’t do much overt group dynamics stuff with 1 of the other 2 groups.
  • I cannot pinpoint anything I would have done very differently to past years in terms of teaching in general or team building specifically.
  • Maybe they weren’t even nicer than previous years and I am just basking in the glow of some sweet personal emails I have received.

After a short discussion on Twitter, Newbs asked another question. Regarding the reasons for students’ niceness this term he asked, “What is the first thing that comes to mind?” I appreciated the question and but found it slightly hard to answer with a character limit so here we are. The things that came to mind were clear expectations in one program (translation/interpretation) and more international students in the other (International Studies). There are surely more to it but these are the reasons that came to mind immediately.

The interpretation/translation students tend to be extremely hard working and goal oriented. It is a rigorous 2 year program and the students work incredibly hard. I feel that perhaps in the past some students were not ready for the realities of working so hard and thus their attitude (and thus niceness?) suffered as a result. To be honest and fair most of the students I have worked with in this program have been great students as well as very nice people. It seems that each year the students are getting nicer and nice. If I had to speculate, it might be because the selection procedures are more focused on who can survive and thrive in the program rather than just those with excellent English ability.

In terms of the other program, International Studies, I pointed to more international students as a factor in the niceness increase. I think this is part of the point. I just think this time there was some good luck with very nice and sincere students from around the world. Actually, thus far most of the students (and probably even more of the international students) I have encountered in this program have been very nice. Yet, somehow this term the international students seemed even nicer than in the past. It was as though there was an influx of very nice students from around the world. China was very well represented in this niceness. My thought here is that the niceness was pretty random and those students who came this term happened to be nice.

As I type this, I am thinking maybe the Korean students, including the one I called  Yeajin in a previous blog post, are also nicer than in past terms as well. Is it because they are younger and less jaded? Because they really want to be in graduate school? Because they can see the immediate importance of English in their lives? Or maybe just because they are very nice people. I guess that is my final answer.

I think it was simply luck my students were so nice this term. Rather than analyze more I think maybe I’ll just be happy with the niceness and hope the next term is similar.

Update: I’d like to reiterate that I have lots of very nice groups and students in the past few years (and since I started teaching).  This year it just seemed that all 6 of the groups clicked well and I felt like writing this. So spring 2014 was a term filled with niceness, which doesn’t mean that other terms weren’t or that other classes or individuals were not also excellent and nice. If one of my former students happens to be reading this I hope it didn’t cause you to think you were not nice or were part of not nice groups. My take here was that every group this term was super excellent is all. I’d hate to think there were any hurt feelings or misunderstandings.

 

Discussion Questions: 

  • Is the niceness of students an important factor in your and their success?
  • What does it even mean for a student to be nice?
  • Are there ways to help cultivate a higher niceness factor (NF) in your groups? What do you do? Does it help or matter?
    I co-wrote this piece on group dynamics a while back. Would these ideas be good for improving NF?
  • Is it impossible to be strict and demanding and have nice students?
    (based on comments from  on Twitter)
  • Have you ever had a year or term were all the students were nice? How about naughty? What do you think were the factors in this?
  • Do nice groups even exist? Or is it a natural teaching skill to help groups gel well?
    (paraphrased from ‘s question on Twitter)

 

 

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14 comments

  1. Matthew

    Great post! It’s interesting, re: the translation students, that nice = hardworking. The diligence of students as boon for the teacher, and it’s an easy jump to ‘a kindness’. Perhaps because we see it as part of our job to ‘motivate’ our learners – if they are self-motivated, they’ve essentially done part of our job FOR us. Nice, indeed!

  2. mikecorea

    Thanks for commenting, Matthew. I think maybe I didn’t share my words carefully enough. I didn’t want to say that hardworking = nice for these students, but just that the trend seems to be towards getting more well-adjusted students everyone would be happy to work with (and not just diligence or English knowledge or something). I apologize for the confusion.

    I think the connections you make are interesting and maybe close to the truth but also maybe not what I wanted to say.

    I guess what I wanted to say was that maybe the potential for people becoming “not nice” is limited when students are there for the “right reasons.” Does this make sense?

    What does nice mean to you?

  3. ljiljana havran

    Great post, Mike, and a very interesting question: “Is it impossible to be strict and demanding and have nice students?”

    It is possible to be strict and demanding and have nice students, but only if you are lucky enough to have a group of students who are self-motivated, hard-working, sincere and “who are there for the right reasons”. (What an ideal situation!)
    Can you imagine, for example, an English teacher working with a large group of mostly non- motivated, and not so hard-working and sincere teenagers who are there very often only because their parents wanted them to be there? Is it possible, then, to be strict and demanding, and have nice, satisfied students/parents? (customers’ satisfaction, you know) Hmm, I’m not sure it’s possible…students are mostly nice, but when it comes to grading, the problems arise.

    I’d also like to add that I’m pretty sure your teaching experience and “a natural teaching skill to help groups gel well” were contributory factors here. I do hope you enjoy the next term with a similar group of students 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Ljiljana! Thanks for commenting and sorry for the delay in responding.
      I appreciate your wishes for nice groups for me in the next term. I hope so too!

      My belief is that the niceness of the students is not soooo directly tried to the strictness of the teacher. I think of course some connection/correlation is possible but I think it is perfectly normal to have nice groups while being a strict teacher. I don’t think strictness on the part of the teacher eliminated students’ niceness.

      You asked about an English teacher working with a large group of mostly non- motivated, and not so hard-working and sincere teenagers who are there very often only because their parents wanted them to be there. I might be too naive but I don’t think this precludes strictness on the part of the teacher. I suppose maybe we need to know exactly what we mean when we say strict. 🙂

      I don’t wish to minimize the importance of customer satisfaction or the challenges that we can face as teachers of course!

      Thanks again for commenting!

      • ljiljana havran

        Hello, and thanks for the reply, Mike. I completely agree with you that strictness on the part of the teacher does not eliminate students’ niceness. Strictness and consistency are actually very desirable qualities of a good teacher. What I wanted to say here (and I should have been clearer and more precise about “strictness” in my comment), is that I think that the teachers who are more demanding, i.e. their teaching approach/style is more demanding (e.g. get their students to think and discover things by themselves >> use inductive way of teaching, insist on speaking a lot of English in class, have higher standards than the other English teachers at school), can face problems when teaching English to young learners who are only interested in grades and not so much in learning.
        I’m very interested in the topic: demanding high and being liked by your students, so it would be wonderful if you could write a post where teachers could share their experience and thoughts on this IMO very interesting topic. Thanks again 🙂

  4. Matthew

    I see, thanks for the clarification/expansion. Could it be due to a change or shift in the recruitment or marketing or something similar done by your program? Does somebody down the hall in admissions deserve a round on you?

  5. Matthew

    1 Is the niceness of students an important factor in your and their success?

    Yes, in that I feel much more motivated to put in that extra effort as the teacher if I like them and how the class feels socially. It’s important to them because the more a class ‘gels’, in general, the better for learning.

    2 What does it even mean for a student to be nice?

    I’m not 100% sure! But the top of my list is that they ENGAGE. They seek feedback, they respond to questions, they put forth effort. Personality quirks are less important, and I DO see my students as learners first, people second, in some sense. That is, if someone is personally disagreeable, I don’t let that affect the way I facilitate learning for them. Or shouldn’t, anyway! And if they are ‘nice’ in general, that shouldn’t actually affect my assessment or treatment of them in the teaching and learning context. I’m sure is has/does to some extent, but this is my intention.

    3 Are there ways to help cultivate a higher niceness factor (NF) in your groups? What do you do? Does it help or matter?

    Hmmm..how to maximize NF. Hold on, let me do a search of the major ELT/SLA journals. Wait…no mention of NF! What am I to think? ;P

    I think fairness and transparency facilitate the NF in classrooms and over courses. A class might be ‘tough’, but as long as exactly HOW it’s tough is acknowledged and a sense of fairness and transparency in assessment etc. is maintained, the course of normal human proclivity towards connection and compassion can proceed without too much artificial stuff and competition/distrust etc.

    4 I co-wrote this piece on group dynamics a while back. Would these ideas be good for improving NF?

    In a word: maybe?

    5 Is it impossible to be strict and demanding and have nice students? (based on comments from @phil3wade on Twitter)

    Absolutely (see above)

    6 Have you ever had a year or term were all the students were nice? How about naughty? What do you think were the factors in this?

    I don’t think that “all nice” group exists, just as the all naughty group doesn’t exist. There’s always variation. I suppose it’s statistically possible…

    7 Do nice groups even exist? Or is it a natural teaching skill to help groups gel well?
    (paraphrased from ‏@ITLegge‘s question on Twitter)

    If it’s a nature vs. nurture thing basically I’m all for acknowledging the truth to both and focusing on nurture if that’s the end we can affect. Some ‘bad’ groups take surprisingly productive turns if the right conditions are met.

    • mikecorea

      Matthew! Hello!
      Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my questions.
      Thank you also for forgiving me for the horrible delay in responding. I guess I am assuming that to be the case. Sorry for the long delay in any case.
      I think your comments and thoughts here are great and very thoughtful.

      I appreciate all your answers and thoughts above.
      To choose just a few to talk more about…

      Regarding the meaning of niceness you wrote, “I’m not 100% sure! But the top of my list is that they ENGAGE. They seek feedback, they respond to questions, they put forth effort. Personality quirks are less important, and I DO see my students as learners first, people second, in some sense. That is, if someone is personally disagreeable, I don’t let that affect the way I facilitate learning for them. Or shouldn’t, anyway! And if they are ‘nice’ in general, that shouldn’t actually affect my assessment or treatment of them in the teaching and learning context. I’m sure is has/does to some extent, but this is my intention.” I am not sure either! For me what you wrote about above is more connected to being “a good student” (another loaded and hard to define term). I think niceness as I mean and meant it is more like kindness to me and others. I think it is possible to be very engaged but not so nice, and vice versa. Just thinking aloud here.
      I really like your points about people we might find personally disagreeable.
      I think I can safely admit it does affect the way I teach. I feel I am more likely to go out of my way to be nice and supportive and not upset things. Wow. This is very interesting and somewhat sad. I am now thinking I am more comfortable being direct in terms of feedback with students I have a better relationship with. Gosh. This is worth thinking more about.

      I loved the reminder that, ” Some ‘bad’ groups take surprisingly productive turns if the right conditions are met” and I think this is a great point. Something tells me you are likely familiar with Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom by Dornyei and Murphey.
      http://books.google.co.kr/books/about/Group_Dynamics_in_the_Language_Classroom.html?id=KsXkNXBGvzYC&redir_esc=y
      Lots of great stuff there.
      Here is another link that might helphttp://www.academia.edu/1791966/Dornyei_Z._and_Murphey_T._2003_._Group_dynamics_in_the_language_classroom

      Thanks also for the emphasis on fairness and transparency. I think this is a really good point and something to keep in mind.
      Thanks again, Matthew. I am very glad I typed up this post. It was largely related to our discussion on twitter and the character limit there and your interest were nice nudges.

      • Matthew

        Hadn’t seem that Dornyei Murphey work, stellar! Tim Murphey in the recent Stevick book: got me. You’re right about nice vs good. I loved teaching in Thailand where ‘being nice to the ajahn’ is foundational – I KNEW I’d get gifts and praise and dinner and gratitude at class end. And I wondered “doesn’t this just flatten/make it meaningless?” But no – there’s always that extra stuff. It’s a good floor! Back in the US, the lack of ‘coded in’ shows of respect and energetic ‘niceness’ left me feeling empty. And not ME, not my ego, but looking at the overall atmosphere…

  6. mikecorea

    Hello Matthew, thanks for the response. I think it is interesting to compare niceness in different places as well as considering the cultural expectations of such niceness. I have had times when i thought gifts and gratitude were fake and meaningless but now I think I have soften up on that.
    (haha maybe switiching contexts a few times has done this)

    Thanks for the reminder of that Stevick book. It has been on my radar for a while now. Thanks again for the responses and exchange.

  7. mikecorea

    Hi Ljiljana, thanks very much for the reply and clarification. I think you raise some very interesting points. I think maybe lots of us have our own definition of what strict can mean. For example I am quite strict about being on time but very lax on other things.

    You also mentioned demanding and and high standards. I think these are interesting things to throw in the mix here and perhaps related but perhaps not related to what I’d usually call strictness. I think there is a good blog post in here somewhere! I am not sure if I can write it but maybe I will try.

    I think there is a lot to think about here and thanks for helping me frame the issues!

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Adam. I remember your post very well. I like your emphasis on motivation/motivating and I think this can help create a nicer (in all meanings) atmosphere.

      On Sun, Jul 20, 2014 at 8:30 PM, ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections wrote:

      >

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