Scaring students on the first day

The other day I was talking to a friend who also just stared the fall term at a university here in Korea. We were talking about schedules and plans and the weather and all sorts of things when my friend said, “I do enjoy scaring freshmen on the first day.” I was a bit surprised by this bold and potentially sadistic confession so I pursued a discussion on this by asking, “What do you do?” while not really knowing what to expect. What sort of scary tricks did he have up his sleeve? Did he dress up as a clown? Did he make them dress like clowns? Did he scream and yell? Did he make students do push-ups? Did he lecture them on the impermanence of life? Did he share statistics about youth unemployment in Korea? Did he have students march to the top of their desks or the building and recite poetry? Did he tell ghost stories? Did he explain how hard the course would be in a voice that would make a movie drill sergeant proud whilst getting bits of saliva on their first day of school outfit?

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His response was not as exciting or cruel as I might have been expecting. He said, “I just use a stern voice on the first day. You know? Lay down the law.” That didn’t sound very harsh to me, and I found myself joining in, saying, “This is not high school anymore.” I think my friend could see I knew where he was coming from and he added, “They need it.”

I thought I was following my friend’s line of thinking for a minute there but then I got all wrapped up in my own thoughts. I wondered more about the scariness, thinking maybe he had students come to the front and do scary shit from minute 1, day 1.

Here I started to wonder exactly what students need at the start of the term. Do they need clarity or fear? Is fear a good way to get to clarity? Is it better to be feared than loved? Is warmth and rapport more important than fear? Is fear just a tool to help students get on board in the early stages so that rapport can be developed later on? Am I thinking too much about rapport because of the KELTchat on this subject?

I pondered the aspect of us both being “native” English teachers in Korea so maybe there is something here about the perceived roles of teachers and how serious our classes are or are perceived or expected to be. My friend sort of confirmed this by adding, “Some students expect it’s going to be a happy happy fun fun time, and sometimes it is, but they expect me to be like their HS English ‘teacha.’ Charades and all.”  I don’t really have anything against charades or high school or other previous teachers but I can see the benefit in letting students know from the start that this is something different and that their previous experiences are not a always great match for the tasks and expectations here. I suppose recognition could be scary for students, yet I suppose I am still mostly uncomfortable with intentionally scaring students.

I think I can see a few benefits to (slightly) scaring students at the start. One is potentially weeding out the students that are not there to learn and thus whittling down the class roster to a more manageable number. Another thought is that it is probably better for students not to be unexpectedly overburdened with the workload. Regarding interpersonal connections, there can be a nice feeling when the barriers break down over time. I think students can sniff out teachers that are trying to be overly friendly or chummy from the start and this might be annoying or distracting. Just some thoughts, of course.

My friend seemed particularly interested in expectations and helping students change their expectations about the course. He said his first year students, “think the writing topics will be along the lines of describing their bedroom and the process of making ramyeon so I have to set a serious tone from the get go, then open up some as we go along, especially when there are so many in the class.” His points sort of reminded me of the old, “Don’t smile till Christmas” advice younger teachers used to get. I am not sure I put much stock in that but I also realized every context is different.

What do you think of all this? How do you go about balancing between a serious and friendly tone? Do you wait until issues arise before laying down the heavy and reminding students that they are in a serious place?

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7 comments

  1. EAPsteve (@EAPstephen)

    Interesting! I get both positions. I think the impression I try to give off is professional. That means a few different things to me than it might mean to others. Part of it is not trying to be too jokey/smart at the start of the course. I used to try to be jokey but it was just awful really. Now my idea of professional is showing them that I am doing a job and I am competent. Also means giving clear overview of what is involved. I think friendly can be included in professionalism but important to distinguish between “friendly” and “being your friend”. The latter is very problematic, while my understanding of the former is probably something closer to “approachable”.

  2. Marc

    This is ace. I can be very Snape-like in my teacher role. You should see me at the astronomy tower. Anyway, we have our new school year in April here in Japan and this year I was decidedly less Snape-like and much more open about what could be expected. I suppose I approached it like an orientation to a computer program. “Fall asleep in class and the teacher android will tear up your attendance card after the third reminder” (‘reminder’ not ‘warning’). “Come in and do the work in class and you get top marks for participation and attendance.”

    We started with poster carousel presentations in groups from the get go so they knew the class was not Gap Fill Till Eyes Bleed 101 and that the ‘shy’ students knew talking was involved (actual shy kids never mind talking to small groups. ‘Shy’ kids just think they can do nothing and pass). So far, so good. Amazing rapport with four classes and good rapport with the rest. They appreciate that I don’t accept bull for excuses but that I don’t penalise them for being human.

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  4. ljiljana havran

    Thanks Mike for an excellent post. 🙂

    Making balance between a serious and friendly tone, or between being strict and warm and helpful is actually the most difficult/sensitive part of teaching. I’ve never believed in such a teaching where students are feared, or where teachers are intentionally scaring.

    The first day of class is the time to introduce yourself and the course, gain the students’ interest, and foster teacher-student rapport. I am sure that students need clarity and not fear, and that teachers should create a relaxed atmosphere conducive to learning. I also feel that teachers should behave the same way they will behave for the remainder of the semester.

    It is true that in a dominant bureaucratic and authoritarian model of schooling today (critical awareness is not a primary characteristic of the majority of schooling today) teachers are often expected to be very strict and scaring (especially in the first classes), but I will never agree that it is good for anybody, as no one ever did anything awesome or great because they were ordered or feared.

  5. Maria Theologidou

    What an interesting post, Michael, on an issue that I have often pondered for a long time. For starters, I think that as teachers we often have preconceptions regarding our role. Being strict is -unfortunately- one of them. I’ve come to discover that those who try hard to be strict and make sure they have got “the right message across” are normally the ones who fear a lot about the image they project to others. No one has actually questioned their role in the classroom, but their insecurities take over and are ultimately reflected in this behaviour of fear and intimidation .
    Then again it’s true to say that the notion of being strict or funny is subjective and can be interpreted in different ways. I’ve always started my classes in a semi-humorous tone, but there have been times when my attempts to break the ice failed hard. Humour is culture, society and personality based, so there are lots of things that can get wrong despite the best of our intentions.
    I feel that what matters the most, especially with first classes, is honesty. I’m the type of person (and teacher) who believes in cultivating a climate of mutual trust and understanding. I want my students to know what I expect of them and I try to build an environment where everyone feels comfortable. First lessons are crucial to me because they set impressions and experience has shown to me that first impressions are normally the hardest to change.

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  7. Tyson Seburn

    I mimic a few of the sentiments in earlier comments. I don’t think it’s about ‘scaring’ so much as setting an adult tone of academia, intellectualism, and professionalism. I think one purpose is to promote the idea that EAP programs are part of the university and expectations are like those of any other class, which in itself is a scaffolding of the rest of their university (at least coursework) experience. This doesn’t preclude friendliness and support though.

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