Thanks to “Impolite” Students

This is a post I drafted in the last few years. It’s just three examples of students taking the time to set me straight, and of me taking the time to listen. I didn’t post it right away because I was concerned that it might be taken out of context and misunderstood as an indictment of me as a terrible teacher, or of my students as aggressive jerks. Neither is the case. My concern has not gone away, but what I wrote still rings true to me. In the spirit of stepping up like my students did, here’s the post.

Working for years in Minnesota, followed by years in super-supportive ESOL departments in Maryland, all with mature and gracious adult ESOL students, I am blessed with a whole lot of positive feedback in my professional life.

I don’t know if it’s that I’m originally from near New York City or if it’s just a personality quirk, but at some point, a lot of positive feedback rings a bit hollow to me. I know I’m not perfect, so receiving criticism matches my world-view way better than praise does.

Too much positive feedback can actually make me uneasy. What aren’t they saying, and why? Is everyone just being polite? What are they hoping I’ll figure out? 

But here’s one thing: speaking a reasonable and relevant truth is not necessarily impolite.

And here’s another thing: it’s okay to be impolite sometimes. We don’t intentionally step on people’s toes in our day to day lives because that would be rude and cause pain. But if we’re walking along and a motorcycle is suddenly hurtling toward us, we leap out of the way even if we land on someone’s toes. That’s an extreme case, but the point is that some things are more important than manners.



I owe a lot to the few students who have stepped up and told me some of the “impolite” things that I suspect many other students were thinking. Their willingness to risk stepping on my toes has helped me see class from students’ point of view and adjust my teaching accordingly.

Circulating from Student to Student

Early in my assistant teaching days, in addition to gauging how pushy I should be in helping my students, I was also figuring out the balancing act of helping everybody in a limited amount of time.

One lesson, I wound up addressing quite a few of one student’s questions with her. It took a long time. When I finally moved on to the next person, she told me frankly that I shouldn’t have spent so much time with the first woman. She pointed out that many students were waiting for my help and that it wasn’t fair to give too much time to one individual. She said I should have addressed one or two of the first woman’s questions, then checked to see if anyone else needed me. Then if not, I could work more with the first woman. Talk about specific feedback! No arguments from me then or now.

Before this conversation, I had seen this circulation balancing act as my own internal struggle. But the student’s comments made it clear to me that my class is paying more attention to that kind of thing than I’d thought. And I wasn’t giving them enough credit for understanding our need to work with everyone even when they still have more questions.

Overwhelming Written Comments

Back when I was lead teaching an academic writing class, I spent what felt like an eternity writing comments on my students’ diagnostic essays. We had a relatively small class and I’d decided to use that as an opportunity to start everyone off with a generous amount of personalized guidance.

Unfortunately, to one student, my comments somehow came across as sarcastic. I’m not 100% sure how it happened, because I remember being genuinely impressed with the essay and saying so. I was surprised that I had caused offense, but I accepted that I had and made amends accordingly.

I think that the problem was in how I’d made my comments: they were intended to be plentiful, but instead they were long-winded, which made them arduous to read and left too much room for incorrect interpretation. My takeaway there was to make sure future comments were short, plain, and focused.

Another takeaway I gleaned from that situation was that students don’t see our comments as a gift, no matter how generously they’re intended or how valuable they are. They’re overwhelming, they hurt, and students often don’t know how to implement them. I needed to be more judicious and practical with my comments.

Confusing Speech

When assistant teaching, I was having a writing conference with a pretty fluent student. After asking for clarification of something I’d said a couple of times, she exclaimed in exasperation, “Why can’t you just talk normally?!”

As I’m sure you can guess, the problem was that I was talking normally. Conversationally, even: many words, lots of linking, natural speed, meandering point.

It’s questionable whether I should alter my normal talking speed or prosody in the very last level of EAP before direct enrollment in mainstream college courses. But I think the cognitive burden of listening to my natural speech would have been manageable if I had just made sure to be direct and terse rather than chatty.

How many other students were too polite or too overwhelmed to get me to rein it in?

Overall: Focus

I feel like all three of these “sidekick slaps” came down to my losing focus in the moment. I wasn’t meeting my students where they were. I wasn’t respecting that more is not necessarily better. I wasn’t as direct and organized as I needed to be.

This doesn’t mean I’m never focused; it means that when I’m not focused, it shows.

I know where to go from there, and that’s a good feeling.


Real feedback is not always positive. Criticism is not always sandwiched neatly between two positives. But insight is always valuable, and who better to give us insight into what our students need than our students themselves?

May I keep listening and keep learning.


I’m pretty sure none of the students I referred to in this post are aware of this blog, but just in case: guys, thank you for making me a better teacher.


Photo Credit: cmjolley on Flickr

You’re reading Thanks to “Impolite” Students, originally posted at



As an ESOL teacher in Maryland, I was pleased to attend the annual Maryland TESOL conference a couple days ago.

As always, it was a nice experience.

I’d say that the theme of my conference experience was a dearth of presentations that were applicable to higher education.

And the uncomfortable corollary: if I want something to be there, I need to consider providing it myself, even though I’m just me.


The keynote was about students with limited/interrupted formal education. It was well-considered and well-presented, and I thought she made several good points about literacy- and school-related cultural differences between many of our students’ home countries and the USA. But overall, her topic was not new to me and I don’t know that she added a whole lot to my schema. I also don’t know how relevant it was to higher education students and classes. I mean, we have SLIFE students, but I didn’t leave the presentation with ideas for how to work with them more effectively within the confines of the syllabus-led courses we teach. I was hoping for more than this from a keynote.

There were three breakout sessions, and I only attended one specifically relevant to higher education. This session dealt with a very specific study of a very specific group of international students, and though it was interesting, I didn’t feel like I walked out of that session with any insights that were actionable.

The other two sessions I attended were both interesting as well. The first session was about public schools. It was a stellar presentation – easily the best of the day. But since the public schools are peripheral to my professional life, the likelihood of my ever using information from this presentation is low. The second session was about corpus linguistics. The speaker’s energy for her topic was contagious and would have sparked anybody’s interest. However, I was already interested, and I was disappointed with how much time she spent on the mechanics of using the search functions on the corpus websites. She did give a couple of activity ideas which I might be able to adapt to my future classes, but I wished for many more ideas and much less of the assumption that my students had the time and/or inclination to play with the corpus tools in or out of class.

Though I had a great time and feel that it was a pleasant use of my personal money for my professional development, I was a little disappointed to walk out of the conference with nothing that was clearly actionable in my current work setting.

Feeling Disappointed? Get Busy!

Again, none of this is intended to be a complaint. I think it’s more just a long-winded justification for wondering if it’s time for me to step up and present. Not because I think I know more than the people around me (I’m pretty sure I don’t!), but because this is the kind of gap we ourselves need to step up and fill. And I think it was a gap. I can’t be the only person who was looking for more higher-education-related sessions – I’m just not that special!

So I’m trying to think through what I wish had been there. What would I have loved to have attended?

  • grammar anything (I’m a grammar geek), maybe particularly re: academic writing
  • advanced grammar review for teachers – clause types, non/restrictive commas, etc.
  • the color vowel chart (I’m a pronunciation geek, too)
  • tips on teaching/tutoring essay writing
  • academic activities based on corpus linguistics… that could fit into a syllabus class
  • cultural presentations (i.e. Cultures of West Africa 101)
  • how to run a small-scale study
  • how to run a large-scale study
  • grading essays efficiently
  • working with your college’s librarians
  • working with your college’s tutoring center

Many of these are enticing to me because they represent gaps in my knowledge and experience. I could not present on many of these topics, at least right now.

But several on my list are my interests/hobbies. I’d like to attend sessions on them in hopes of going deeper. Perhaps those would be subjects to consider presenting on next time, in case anyone else is interested too. And if nobody else is interested, that’s OK! I’ll go attend someone else’s and learn something new!

How do you figure out what to present on? And when you’re “good enough” to present?

You’re reading MD TESOL 2017, originally posted at

Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey


One of my departments has all of its teachers do a really, really smart thing.

About a third of the way into the semester, teachers hand out an anonymous survey to their students. The results are for the teachers’ eyes only, for the sole purpose of getting the lay of the land and seeing if any changes can be made to improve the semester.

The types of questions the department suggests:

  • Do students feel they can succeed in this course? What support do they need?
  • How is class time going? How could the teacher make it more effective?
  • How is homework going? How are the assignments, directions, and deadlines?
  • How are major assignments going? Are students prepared in class to complete them? What could be improved?
  • Are students getting feedback? Is it understandable? Is it helpful? How could it be improved?

Remember to ask for specifics and for suggestions. They might not all be workable, but at very least they help you see the students’ point of view. Point out that general statements like “this class is too hard” are not useful, especially coming from anonymous sources, because you have no idea what is too hard about it.

Now, with a survey like this comes the fear of negative feedback. What if everyone hates my class? And since this is during the semester, you’d still have to work with a group of people who may have told you you’re not doing as well as you thought.

My advice is: handle it. You’re an ESOL teacher – you’ve handled awkward in the past, and you can handle awkward this semester, too. It’s just not that big a deal.

And the rewards are significant: free professional development, very possibly a topic to present on at the next local ESOL conference, and most importantly, the potential to make a comeback and teach an epic class that really reaches your students.

Even if your department doesn’t nudge you in this direction, give it a try! Don’t wait till next semester to make positive changes!


Photo CreditAshley Van Haeften on Flickr

You’re reading Activity Corner: Fourth Week Survey, originally posted at

Book Review: Deep Work

508024134_140I recently read Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport.

It was a good read and made me look differently at what I want to do and how I go about it, but mostly, how I allocate my attention. I recommend it to anyone who feels that they don’t have enough time, which is high praise, because that’s most everyone I’ve ever met.

The main premise of the book is that it’s really important to carve out uninterrupted time in our days to focus on tough problems, ignore distractions, and do the hard work. He calls this “deep work,” and contrasts it to the shallow work of reacting to email, refocusing after interruptions, attending meetings, engaging on social media, and so on. He argues convincingly about why deep work is valuable, and writes extensively about how to go about it (e.g. scheduling, how to limit shallow tasks), as well as how to boost your concentration skills to make the most of your deep work time (e.g. meditation, memorization work).

I have to admit that it was a bit hard for me to get into it: as a stay-at-home-mom who can’t use the bathroom without getting interrupted, the multiple stories of single men retreating from the world for months at a time to incubate their genius in silence felt kind of like Newport was flipping me off. I’m glad I kept reading anyway, and I encourage you to do so as well. I think he’s just trying to be engaging by talking about so many extreme examples at first. In Part II of the book, he really delves into the how of deep work, and includes many suggestions and examples of people working deeply to great effect without abandoning their other responsibilities.

ESOL-Related Thoughts

Are we employing deep work strategies to perform our best as faculty? How could our departments support deep work of both full-timers and adjuncts? How can we as individuals harness it?

Are we fostering or impeding deep work in class? With our assignments? With our LMS expectations?

Is this a topic worthy of mention and coaching in our classes, like information literacy and plagiarism and critical thinking?

Excerpts from this book be a worthwhile text to use in an advanced class. The writing is pretty direct, has a strong voice, and makes really valuable points as well.


In case you’re interested but aren’t going to be reading the book any time soon, Newport has some talks up on YouTube, and he’s a great speaker.


You’re reading Book Review: Deep Work, originally posted at



Taking Notes


6016780468_67a298ed8eUnrelated to teaching, I began bullet journaling this year. It’s kind of a thing, but having done it for several months, I see why it’s popular.

The idea with a bullet journal is that it’s for everything, so I took it to class with me. And rather than just say to myself, “that activity my lead teacher just did was so awesome, I’ll definitely remember it whenever I begin lead teaching again,” I went ahead and jotted them down. I collected way more ideas than I’ve written up for this blog.

While I was jotting, I also took notes on student reactions to all sorts of things – activities, assignments, assignment review, conferences, etc.

And while I was thinking about those, ideas popped into my head speculating as to why their reactions were so different than what I’d expected, or other interesting activities, or different angles for lessons, and even blog posts to publish in this space.

Taking notes helped guide and expand my thinking about our class in a way that I hadn’t expected. I went from wanting to feel a bit more organized as a stay-at-home mom, to poaching great ideas from my lead teacher, to really pretty deeply considering the intersection of the students and the syllabus.

Also unexpected: I’ve reread my notes several times already. Since they’re in my bullet journal and I always have my bullet journal on me, rereading happens pretty organically.

I’ve already characterized assistant teaching as amazing professional development, and I found this semester that taking notes took my learning and reflection to another level.


Photo Credit: matryosha on Flickr

You’re reading Taking Notes, originally posted at


Learning to Meddle

As I mention basically every post nowadays, I’ve been assistant teaching for a couple semesters, and it’s completely awesome.

I think I did a fine job in my first semester. The class was pretty small and pretty quiet, and everyone kept to themselves. I mostly worked with the same few students, though I did try to touch base with everyone each session. Sometime near the end of that semester, one of the students I helped all the time said something funny. When I smiled, she remarked that it was so nice to see me smile sometimes because I was always so serious. I really enjoyed that semester, and I was chagrined to find out that I was hiding it so well!

So this semester my number one goal was to come across as less grave and more friendly.

At first, this took the form of just making sure to smile even if I felt awkward.

And I’ll be honest, I was feeling very awkward about offering help. I mean, I’ve always been more than happy to help anyone who asks, but I figured that not everybody wanted my help. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted the assistant’s help when I was a student. And did it make sense to interrupt people’s trains of thought to see if they had any questions? I personally dislike being interrupted.

So I walked around remembering to smile, and helped out the few people who flagged me down.

But one thing I could do a lot as an assistant was observe. And as I observed this class, I realized that the students in this group were interacting with each other all the time, and that this was deeply connected to the very positive, energetic feel of the class. When I first described it to my husband, I exclaimed in disbelief, “They meddle with each other! And they like it!”

I realized that there was a significant divide between our cultures and expectations. And I figured that if they liked being meddled with, my respectful restraint probably came across instead as standoffish, even when I smiled.

The only way toward my goal was to join in the meddling.

This was definitely outside of my comfort zone. I’m kind of shy, and I fear being annoying. And it was extra unnerving to treat people in a way I was pretty sure I wouldn’t want to be treated. But I did it anyway.

It went so well.  It was an absolute joy.

The response was immediately 99% glowingly positive. I had to work a little bit on one person, but we got there in the end.

And I learned so much.

I learned to check that people understood the task’s instructions right away. (This is less obvious during class when I understand the teacher’s directions perfectly.)

I learned that talking face to face with one person or a very small group had much more impact than speaking from the front of the room.

I learned to go ahead and interrupt.

I learned to gently joke that if I did their writing for them, I’d be getting the grade.

I learned to have them remind me that they were next in line to work with me.

I relearned some basics for about the 600th time: to always start from what they know, to use examples, that they won’t remember what’s not written down, and to speak reasonably simply to reduce their cognitive burden.

I learned to help without leading. And I learned that leading is very distracting.

I learned to reach out in a way that I’d somehow missed before.

I’m grateful. And I’m looking forward to learning from my next class in the fall.


You’re reading Learning to Meddle, originally posted at

Ending with the Beginning In Mind

3526550845_d4e3d14c85As class starts to wrap up, here are some of the end-of-semester thoughts that are on my mind:

  • what are their lasting take-aways (content and impressions)?
  • are they prepared for their next courses? How do I know?
  • am I proud of myself? Why?
  • what did I learn?
  • am I prepared to teach/assist better next time? How?
  • feeling sad that an enjoyable routine is coming to an end
  • feeling inspired to fill that time in great ways this summer
  • feeling excited to assistant teach again in September

So looking back, looking at now, and looking ahead. Thinking, feeling, wondering.

The funny thing is, right now I can’t actually imagine what it’s like to be at the beginning of a semester. I’ve been there, you know, a lot. It just feels a universe away from right now.

I’m guessing that as the summer comes to a close, I’ll be wondering what it feels like to be at semester’s end as I start to face an unknown new one.  So here’s where I’m at right now, Future Emily!

Looking forward to the last few sessions of a great semester, and looking forward to writing Beginning with the End in Mind in a few months!


Photo Credit: Nicholas Canup on Flickr

You’re reading Ending with the Beginning In Mind, originally posted at