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12 Points My 2-Year-Old Reminded Me of So I Can Manage My EFL Classes More Effectively

As an EFL teacher and trainer, some of my roles are to guide, teach, re-teach, remind, and share what I think is helpful to my students/trainees in their learning and development process. I am also aware of the significance of life-long learning so that I can continue in my career as an effective and up-to-date teacher/trainer. However, since my daughter turned two, I have also realized how important it is also to refresh what I think I already know and no longer spend much time pondering what now seems ordinary to me. In other words, my daughter has become the ultimate reminder in refreshing areas I thought I had learned once and for all and did not require my close attention anymore. One of these areas is classroom management, and here are 13 points my daughter reminded me to revisit in this area:

1/ When I went to pick up my little girl from a playgroup she attended for the first time, I found her on the ground, crouching like a cat as she often does when she is thinking about this favorite animal of hers. The rest of the children were all sitting around a table getting ready to drink juice. The caretaker’s first words to me were, “She is refusing to sit at the table; she wants to drink it in that position.” For the rest of the day, I felt like I had neglected my duties as a mother. Equally devastating was to discover that my kid was a rebel or perhaps a free spirit. She simply did not feel like drinking her juice at the table but like a crouching cat on the floor instead. What was I going to do? She was two and already a misfit! However, as I eventually got back to my senses, I realized I was forgetting something I had learned as an educator: everyone is different! Even though I do know how important it is for my students to work on a task I think they would benefit from, I am also aware that the way each student handles a task is different. Some may start, for example, answering questions in a random order while others do it in the given order. The important thing is that they perform the task at hand. So what if my daughter wanted to drink her juice crouching on the floor or while performing a headstand? Could the caretaker not manage her and the rest of the group so as to respect their individual differences? Then, she would have perhaps not been irritated by my daughter’s difference and, instead, enjoy managing a group of kids with respect for their ‘behavior styles’ or ‘learning styles’, as we would say in an EFL context.

2/ As a stay-at-home mom, I spend every waking hour with my daughter, except when I am abroad training or teaching or when she is in her playgroup. When I am with her, I need to plan my activities with her very carefully. None of the activities can last very long as my daughter’s span of attention is obviously very short at this age or she won’t take part in a given activity (drawing, for example) for a very long time. Even more importantly, I need to offer her a variety of activities each day. If I try to get her involved in similar activities during the course of a day, she will either refuse to participate or she won’t enjoy them as much. She will brush me off, her expression saying, “Spice up my life! Engage me and keep me interested!” Variety is the spice of the EFL classroom life as well. Planning various activities will keep students involved and therefore, make it easier for me to deal with behavioral problems born out of boredom. As it is with my daughter, planning a variety of activities for an EFL class does take quite a lot of time, but the benefits make it worthwhile. Also, if I offered my students activities that are not appropriate to their age, ability, or cultural background and only chose topics that interest me, I would be a total failure as a teacher and not be able to activate my students. It would be like asking my two-year-old daughter to put together a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle of a castle.

3/ Each day I feel that my daughter ‘holds a mirror to my face’. One good example is her imitating the way I say “Hi!” to her each day, mixed with enthusiastic giggles. How quickly she absorbs and reflects my behavior leaves me in awe. Another example is how she always wipes her mouth after eating, whether she needs to or not, making sure to imitate her father who is always meticulous about using a napkin to wipe his mouth at the end of his meal. All these reflections of us in my daughter remind me that I need to set all kinds of examples in class so that ‘unwanted’ behavior is minimized. If my students are not motivated to learn English, I need to ask myself if I am sufficiently enthusiastic about teaching. Am I motivated to teach English and to do so in a way that helps students use it effectively? If I complain about my students not participating much during lessons, do I look like a hard-working teacher to them? Bored students is another reality of classroom management, but do I look like I am excited about my job? Am I perhaps failing at injecting enthusiasm into learning? When managing latecomers or those students wanting to leave early, I need to ask myself: Do I go to class on time? Am I setting a good example? Have I set rules regarding this? Do I give my students the impression that I want to finish the lesson as quickly as possible and leave early? Or do they want to leave early because they do not find the lessons interesting? As Bruce Jenner, a U.S. track and field athlete succinctly put it: “If you’re asking your kids to exercise, then you better do it, too. Practice what you preach.”

4/ I am sometimes selfishly impatient with my daughter. When we work with flashcards, I want her to quickly remember the words the next day. I keep forgetting that she has her own pace and even though she is internalizing what we have been working on, she may not be ready to produce it. Each EFL student has their own unique pace, too. I may forget this and complain about not being able to manage those who are slower than the rest of the students. Or I might complain about those who finish early. The need to be ready for the possibility of having students with very different paces sometimes escapes me. As a result, when planning my lessons, I might forget to incorporate solutions to this anticipated problem. I should, instead, have extra materials for the fast-working students, and ask the slow-paced students to focus on three questions instead of four in a given task and thus not rush them into producing language they have not fully internalized yet. Adjusting the rhythm of my lessons as much as possible to fit a variety of paces will eventually help me manage individuals who might otherwise lose their sense of being in a language lesson if they are either rushed or under-stimulated.

5/ I don’t always get enough sleep with my two-year-old still waking up once or twice every night to drink milk. In the morning, even though I am usually quite cheerful, I cannot always be enthusiastic about the activities I do with my daughter. She quickly senses this and loses her enthusiasm, for example, about a book we are reading. If I am thrilled about a character and the lessons we might be able to draw from her, that thrill will show itself in my daughter’s eyes and behaviors as well. With my EFL students as well, my lack of enthusiasm about the subject matter or that day’s lesson plan will reflect itself in their attitude. If I am not excited about my choice of text or the way I choose to process it in class, my students will also lose interest in them. If, on the other hand, I am on top of a mountain and waving my flag euphorically, this will encourage them to join me in that feeling. Enthusiasm automatically makes learning easier and more fun, which, in turn, leads to more effective classroom management spurring those students who might otherwise get bored.

6/ My daughter, just like any other two year old, lives in the moment. There is no past or future for her. I need to be there in the present with her or I will be constantly split between what I do with her and what I plan to do in the next 15 minutes or the next day – unnecessarily exhausting. My daughter immediately senses if my mind is divided between what I am doing with her and thoughts about something else and loses enthusiasm for what we are doing. She must be feeling neglected – her mother is not fully interested in being there with her. To be able to teach effectively and manage my classes smoothly, too, I need to leave all of my thoughts about the past, the future, anybody or anything else outside my classroom. Otherwise, my students, just like my daughter, will sense I am distracted and will be less involved in the lesson of someone who herself cannot concentrate on the task at hand. If their teacher (or mother) is not willing to prioritize them at least while they are together, to support and enrich them in the little time they have, why should they bother? If I am not 100% in the moment with my students, I deserve to be labeled an ‘indifferent teacher’. An uninvolved teacher yields nothing but a group of uninvolved students who will consequently be harder to manage.

7/ Sometimes a long and well-planned day out has to come to an abrupt end because while we are supposed to be doing fun things together, my daughter suddenly wants to take a quick nap. At this point, I need to take her needs into consideration, be flexible, and make the necessary changes. In an EFL classroom, too, I need to constantly keep my students’ needs in mind and be flexible with my plan. What is the point of teaching a plan stage by stage if students are not benefiting from it? The tasks I planned may turn out to be harder than I anticipated, so I need to adjust the level of difficulty or leave out the tasks completely, directing students to do something more appropriate to their level at that point. Flexibility in the classroom is crucial. Otherwise, students who are not able to do what they are expected may become discouraged and start misbehaving, rightly proving difficult to manage.

8/ Even though I try to provide variety, my daughter and I also have activities that are the same every day. These are what I call ‘non-negotiable activities’ and make up our routine – brushing her teeth right after waking up, reading before bed, and the like. My daughter knows that these have to be performed each day and she feels secure knowing what to expect. Establishing a routine of activities with EFL students is as important. Just like my daughter, certain students prefer to know what to expect and therefore feel safer in the language lesson to which they come with some anxiety. Establishing a routine also helps me with classroom management. My students sitting in a horseshoe shape as soon as they walk into class is a non-negotiable rule which allows me to go into pair work without wasting time rearranging the seating. A routine which has become an essential part of my language lessons is starting with a five-minute lead-in activity during which students might discuss a topic in pairs. Students know that this is intended to warm them up to the topic of the lesson and to help them start thinking in English. Knowing why it is useful to start a lesson with a lead-in activity makes them feel comfortable as to what to expect at least during the first part of the lesson while simultaneously avoiding me the necessity to explain why we do this particular activity. An established routine with established consequences keeps ‘unwanted’ behavior in check and allows the lessons run more smoothly.

9/ When disciplining my daughter, I believe in being firm with a warm smile on my face. Even though I am open to the idea that children need to be left alone to freely experiment through play, some things are ‘off limits’, like tearing the pages of my books or coming too close to the oven. I have also set some rules with my daughter at home. For example, she can watch her favorite cartoon for only 15 minutes a day. If she does not stop at the end of the assigned period, she may not watch it the next day. By being consistent and enforcing the rule and the consequences, I find it easier to manage my daughter’s unruly behavior with other rules she needs to obey. She needs to learn there are things she is not allowed to do or have whenever she desires. I am very firm and polite and I make sure I don’t scare her off by, for example, yelling at her not to do something. I raise my voice slightly and flash her a loving smile – I show her that I mean business. In EFL classrooms, too, one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. When students are not behaving in the way they are expected to, I change the tone of my voice from the teaching mode to a more authoritative, disciplinarian tone. At this point, even though my students might not like this version of me, what is more important than my popularity is the fact that they need to follow rules so that their learning is maximized. Over time, my positive firmness gets to be respected and understood by the majority of the students. This, when done with consistency, as I have to for the next 16 years with my daughter, will allow me to manage the learning of my students positive control over it. Just like the rules I set up for my daughter, in EFL classrooms, too, with specific rules set up with specific consequences attached to them, I am always consistent in applying them. Even if the person breaking the rule is a very good student who rarely causes problems, I enforce the rule to show the other students that I am fair. Being consistent about rules requires me to be more like a well-rooted tree that won’t flinch in harsh weather. I will only make exceptions after careful consideration of the circumstances. Otherwise, I will consistently continue to place limits and control over my students and this will, in the long run, foster competent behavior and lead to higher achievement motivation.

10/ I try to empower my daughter by giving her choices in, for example, the shoes she wants to wear on a particular day. Thus, she remains her own person preparing for a future of an indefinite number of decisions she will have to make on her own. Having made her own choice and decision, she becomes responsible and may learn a valuable lesson if her choice was not a particularly good one – like open-toed shoes on a rainy day. In EFL classrooms, I also need to empower my students by allowing them to make certain decisions at some points of the lesson. A good example is asking them to set up classroom rules while I guide them to agree on the best ones possible. If they create their own rules, then they will feel a greater level of responsibility to follow them, and if they do not, they will more readily endure the consequences. Putting the responsibility on them automatically leads them to be more mature and thus easier to manage in class. In the long run, I will have accomplished one of my duties as a teacher: provide the society with mature individuals who can take the initiative, make their own choices, and are aware of how their choices impact on their lives and/or those involved in it.

11/ When a problem starts consistently arising with my daughter, I have learned not to ignore it so it doesn’t develop into a much more serious one. For example, not wanting to share her toys has been happening very frequently. I can’t just assume that this is going to wear off as she understands the concept of sharing. I need to constantly remind her of the beauty of sharing with others so as to ‘carve’ this important part of being human into her head. In EFL classrooms, certain problems pop up on a regular basis, too. Some students might be unwilling to take part in activities. Others might question the usefulness or the interest of the activities and materials being used and others yet may be persistently late or never do any homework. There might a student who never contributes in pair or group work. In such cases, just like I do with my daughter, I have a friendly chat with these students and this may help with any of these problems. I take the time to talk to them in private and tell them how I see the situation. I try to explain the rationale of the activities and materials I use to those who question their validity. I may try to pair the student who never contributes to pair or group work with different people. In other words, whatever the problem is, I will keep looking for a solution to it. Otherwise, a problem which is ignored, just like a growing snowball, might turn into an avalanche unnecessarily disrupting my lessons.

12/ Each day with my daughter is unpredictable and this energizes me as a mother. As a linguist, I find it fascinating to see how, each day, she learns a new word, which I have not necessarily used around her but she has accidentally picked up from someone else.One day I might put an object next to its picture and name it, and when she sees the same picture, even if the object is missing, she still remembers the word, having made the connection between the picture and the object only the day before. The unpredictable thrills me and allows me to enjoy motherhood more. Unpredictability is an integral part of language lessons, too. I might be ready to face a certain anticipated problem but there are still going to be moments when a student will ask a question about a language point that might puzzle me and require me to look it up after class. I may design a task thinking it is going to work really well and it either does not work at all or it works even better than expected. All these surprises keep me on my toes and allow me to take each day with my students as a journey which might be thrilling with some unpredictable ‘bumps’ on the way. Accepting the fact that I will have to deal with unpredictable events allows me to see classroom management of the unexpected not as a hurdle but as a blessing in disguise.

EFL teachers, mothers, those who work with young learners – are there any other points I can add to this list?

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