Personality Matters in One-to-One
– Ann Loseva
The one-to-one classroom is a meeting point of two personalities. Not convinced that the teacher’s personality should be a shadow that completely yields or that being an equal makes a lesson teacher-centred, the observations which follow have at their center the idea that in a one-on-one class the teacher’s personality matters.
Observation #1: My 1-to-1 classroom is unplugged and adaptive.
It took several years and many factors (an increase in confidence being most meaningful) to start feeling more or less at peace with classes going their own way, the way the two personalities in a lesson shape them. As soon as I looked up from a coursebook and into a student’s eyes, I began to notice more of what our class could bring. In this light, my belief now is that there hardly is a better place to test teaching dogme style than a one-to-one class. For me as a non-native teacher of English, the teaching style I’ve deliberately chosen is still demanding in every lesson I give. Going light on materials we use, taking advantage of flashes of “lesson sparks” and turning them into conversations, being focused on every line my students produce – all of these require a certain attitude, as well as experience. And as experience goes, a series of such lessons might easily become a mess of a course. At first, I was too happily blown away by all the potentials and freedom this approach gave me, so no wonder that I kept falling into the trap of having no aim or direction. At this point I’m still not fail-safe as a teacher, but with time have collected a list of tips for myself and worked out a rough scheme of potential course scenarios. The strategies I use include:
Talking about the student: The first class revolves around finding out as much information as possible about the previous language learning experience of a student, its impact, its footprint and basic feeling about English it has left behind. We discuss details, reflect on the effectiveness of methods a student can recall. We pinpoint the situations of current language use and prioritize skills to improve. It’s absolutely necessary to set a realistic aim and objectives to go with it. We also take our time to mind-map the areas of interest, curiosity and “mastery” of a student – which means answering questions like: “What are you good at? What do you know a lot about? What’s in your Facebook feed? What do you need to talk/ learn about?”
Structuring the course: According to the information I find out during the first chunk of lessons, I will usually create an online space for our classes, which for me acts as a way to “hold” the course together by keeping communication with the student in a back and forth regime. I usually feel after one or two classes what fits this particular student. My suggestions include regular emails, Facebook or a shared Google document to accompany the classes, but I’m always open for any other ideas. In the recent year or so I’ve been trying out various ways to get students reflect on their learning on a regular basis, which I now see as a very important feature of my class. Students are informed that the course is flexible and negotiating its contents is one the keys for making progress. To make that work, though, I ensure we get back to learning priorities regularly and revisit our aims. The latest introduction for me is working more seriously on building up a retrospective syllabus for each class I teach. I’m still in the process of figuring it out for myself, but I hope it will help me avoid messing things up and being disappointed.
Advice to myself : On a practical basis, I’ve learnt not to cry over a lesson plan that doesn’t become useful for several lessons in a row. That only means we’ve found a new direction for the learning, and being “present” in a class and aware of the turns it takes for me as a teacher is much more important than following plans. I’m prepared to get sidetracked, use the digressions and their emergent language, as well as recurrent mistake patterns.
Observation #2 My 1-to-1 classroom is hopefully a space of shared trust.
Teaching one-to-one has taught me to be open to, recognize, appreciate and value idiosyncrasies. There’s no other type of class where personality matters more. A match is not quite the same as building good rapport. It presupposes even more understanding, trust, sensitivity to your student’s concerns, unfeigned interest, and a genuine desire to help. Under these conditions, a teacher is at his/her most vulnerable in a one-to-one classroom. I don’t support the conventional opinion that a teacher should put on a cheerful mask as he/she enters a class. That sounds hypocritical and unfair to both students and teachers. It is definitely easier, but something that pays off emotionally in the long run. I want the 60 or 90 minutes I spend with my student to be a comfortable time for us both, so I shake off any pretense. It does take courage to get the message across – that I’m a teacher but I won’t know the answers to all of the sudden, often untimely and illogical questions. Yet this is how I suggest we should both learn, in a flux of a lesson, as dynamic or low key as my student and I will be on that particular day. And I hope I’m ready to realize that every day of class is another day. Once my class becomes this space of trust, I believe I start seeing the students I teach as interesting people with views that should be respected but which I don’t need to agree with, influence or impose my values and beliefs on. A one-to-one class is ultimately a place of concession for me.
Observation #3 My 1-to-1 classroom feeds my curiosity.
I enjoy the private lessons I give on a very egotistic level, too. I crave surprise, and the format and style of such classes never fails to provide me with amazement and revelation. More than just that, I’ll admit here to being also a greedy and selfish teacher, so I ruthlessly exploit lessons to quench my thirst for knowledge. Together with and from my students I learn the things I’d never know. The diversity of my students’ backgrounds (to mention just a few – advertising, technology, logistics, insurance, tourism, HR, medicine) opens up parallel universes to me. The tricky part here is realizing for yourself and then putting up with the apparent truth that you don’t know more than your students do, so the roles of a teacher and a student are not so rigid. Once you’ve come to terms with this, it takes no more than a deep breath to start learning from your students’, from the best of their skills, from the depths of their professional scopes.
Here are a few things I have recently done which I would never have imagined myself doing had it not been for my private students include …
- I tried my hand at a certified exam test for auditors (CIA) and answered several questions correctly, at sight.
- I’ve been offered a job at a senior management position which entitled me to helping bring some brand new snacks to the Russian snack market.
- I know in detail how the alcohol import industry works in Russia.
Naturally, I don’t practically need all that, but the realization that I can have a chance to peek into some other reality than my ordinary teacher’s life is always too tempting for me to resist.
A one-to-one class can get very tense, especially if you are over personalizing the process. However, I still think that interpersonal skills, being able to sense the moods and their swings can change learning, both for the better and the worse. For a teacher in a one-to-one course there are always options to choose from. There’s the distant way, which is safe and pleasant: teach the material, be amiable, respond to the learner’s needs and be free till next class. And there’s this shaky, uncomfortable way in which you remain yourself, bring your self into the lesson and share on equal terms. Which way you go is up to you.
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