Humanising Language Teaching
Dealing with Conflict: Changing the Way I experience myself and Reality
Marie Pierre Beaulieu
There are quite a few approaches to language teaching which invite us to reflect on the role teachers play inside the classroom in terms of lesson planning, classroom management, teacher talk, group dynamics, error correction and feedback, evaluation.... I won't tackle any of these areas in particular but I shall take a look at the wider human dimension of teaching. At the end of How to be a Peace-full Teacher, private edition, Jim Wingate alludes to the therapeutic effect of teaching and to the fact that teaching is part of a healing process. He expresses the idea from the point of view of the teacher. Now, if the effect appears on the teacher's side I would say that it also reverberates around to include his/her student(s).
In this short article I shall share the small amount of experience I've accumulated over my first eight years of teaching. I haven't collected data as such but whenever the opportunity has arisen, especially in difficult situations, I've examined my attitude, underlying assumptions, the way I interact with my students and the possible mistakes I make.... Monitoring myself and how I interact with the pupils or people before me has invariably led me to the same observation - students mirror who I am as a private and professional individual, if there's ever a distinction between the two. Of course, this "mirror game" can be magnified or minimized depending on the material circumstances - the time at which and the place in which I teach.
Here the expression "mirror game" doesn't include the wish to establish an effective partnership with my students but refers to the interrelationship that fundamentally exists between teacher and student, between employer and employee, parent and child.....So what makes up the interrelationship of the "subject", or the one who experiences, and the "object" or what is experienced by the subject - external situations, individuals? Clearly, subject and object are intrinsically interrelated. If I work out and accept the implications of the interrelationship between subject and object in life this means that when/if I come into conflict with a student at school, I cannot dissociate myself from the situation and hold the student responsible for what is happening. Easier said than done, you may be thinking! You might then be tempted to rely on help from outside (ie a mediator) to resolve the conflict. If it works, fine! But I also feel that there's a need for a deeper approach which involves your whole being as an adult or a teacher if you are not to encounter the same situation with a different student.
The realisation of the interrelationship between subject and object underpins my approach to teaching and life on a daily basis. I have experienced and come to the conclusion that I will never be able to modify the attitude of a particular troublesome student, for example, if I solely focus on him/her and if I try to change him/her -the object- without at the same time reconsidering my relationship to him/her. In other words, the experience I have with a particular student, largely, if not completely, depends on the way I experience reality conditioned by my experience of the self/Self. So, when I come into conflict with a student, I'm just as responsible as the student for what is going on.
Defining the self or the notion of identity is beyond the remit of this short contribution but has to do with the way I identify with the different layers/references that make up the self - culture, education, family, heredity, name, concepts/beliefs, job, sensory perceptions, bodily functions... and something deeper, subtler that can hardly be defined/described with words. Still, if I attempt to define it for the sake of clarity, I might use the term "energy", energy that exists beyond and, eventually, sustains all the other more superficial, external layers of ourselves. Hence I feel that my only freedom as a teacher or human being in a difficult situation whether with a colleague or student or anyone else lies in my ability, sustained by personal practice, to modify the way I experience reality and therefore my Self. This is the only means I have and freedom I enjoy to improve the situation and embark on a healing process and possible transformation of the problem. I won't elaborate on what constitutes personal practice and personal development. It's a matter of individual choice. I personally attend teachings by Tarab Tulku Rinpoché, a Tibetan lama, on a regular basis and tap into the insights of books that have become, in some cases, life companions like The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoché, Editor Harper Collins. But I feel, at all times, especially in difficult situations, the need to remain connected to something greater than myself - some source or anchor.
So perhaps one aspect of humanistic (language) teaching relies on my understanding of the interconnections, interdependent nature of things and of phenomena, and on making it possible for me to change the way I experience myself and reality whenever/wherever necessary.