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Spring Fever

Category: Methodology

A soft breeze blows across the Spanish capital. Now the days stretch out into late evening, and as winter slowly relinquishes its grip, people shed their heavy clothes. The mild sunshine awakens new inklings as lightly-clad residents mingle along the crowded streets and plazas. The temperature is rising and new blood courses through our veins. There can be no doubt about it: we’ve got spring fever!

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William Christison
William Christison.

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The arrival of the season of growth is a joyful moment, whose effect no-one escapes, yet it’s also a time when we see attendance fall. It seems like the natural order of things, impossible to resist, a no-brainer: would you rather be sitting in a classroom?, or relaxing in one of Madrid’s thousands of outdoor cafes, sipping drinks with friends on a mellow spring day?

Yet there are things we can do to encourage attendance, though they’re hard to think of because I myself would rather be sitting in the sunshine with friends and refreshments. But it seems first we can discuss with them their motivation for studying English. They need to be reminded to keep their eye on the ball. Why did they sign up for the English class? Have they reached their goals? Will dropping out cause them to lose what they’ve gained?

Actually the latter is all too common: on-and-off EFL students are legion. But being forever the optimist, I think I’m going to be the one teacher that really makes a difference and motivates them to stick it out to the end and make some real progress instead of being one of the numerous intermediate-plateau students who basically just manage to maintain the same level.

Another thought: avoid giving too many “fun” classes. It seems so natural: they show up to class, but their thoughts seem elsewhere, so you think, “They’re not up to some real learning, so I’ll give them speaking activities and a song”. Then, surprise surprise, attendance soon drops because they figure they’re not missing much anyway. So you see?, you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

So these are my ideas for not losing students to spring fever: remind them of their language goals, and give them “meaty” classes, where they really come away with something. If you have any ideas or comments, I’d love to hear from you.

Rob in Madrid

I’ve been pretty lucky this year, had some classes were attendance was mandatory and the rest were longer term class where those still attending are the ones planning sticking it out.

One interesting change I notice is with the teens I teach, right before a major holiday none of them show up, but I have to sit in an empty room for the duration of the class in case one shows up. Last major holiday I figured what the hell, it’s been 20 mins no ones here so I headed off to do some photocopying and a few days latter got a complaint that a student showed up and there wasn’t a teacher!

btw I enjoy your blog, not many esl ones out there

Hi Rob,

I remember a few years ago I worked in an academy that required teachers to hang out in the classroom for half the class in case someone showed up. I remember I used to always carry around crossword puzzles and books in case that happened. I looked forward to it in those days because it meant some time for myself. Now that I’m self-employed I feel more anxiety when company students start missing classes because it may mean they’re going to cancel the class. I like long-term reliable students.

Thanks! I’m glad you like the blog. I’m actually doing this slightly selfishly: I’m writing the blog I myself would enjoy reading, not really adapting it to an imaginary reader.

Steven Starry

Hi David,

I know what you mean. I tend to use a little “teacher psychology” with students as well, maybe too little (I tend to take them “seriously”), which is why I still make the wrong call from time to time. For instance, I agreed when a good long-lasting and loyal group of students wanted to get together for a Christmas lunch during the last class before the holidays last year, but as I walked back to my car after the class when we set up this “date”, I had the feeling they were going to end up cancelling that class, which they did. Sometimes, good ideas don’t work out for the reason you mentioned: “because they figure they’re not missing much anyway.”

Though I think that most of my own classes generally turn out better when they’re planned with some sort of pedagogical aim in mind, I also think that I do better in general when I am able to react appropriately to the odd situations (barriers and opportunities) that tend to pop up. For example, in the last month, I’ve had different students worrying about having spent the night in the hospital for extremely high blood pressure, another injured his knee playing tennis and may need an operation, and yet another had a big problem in one class with her adolescent daughter calling on the cell phone because she’d had a falling out with a friend.

If my students are thinking about something, I can do one of two things, I can try to distract them from it back to the lesson, or I can take a break from the lesson and talk about their personal problem, which is where some of their attention (back in the back of their mind) is going to be whether I like it or not - which will deteriorate my lesson along with the long-term memory of it. It just cannot compete for harddisk space with the other more personal problems.

By the way, I think that beautiful spring days are good time to do lessons or talk about holidays and tourism when their minds are already on that kind of stuff.

But, also, I agree with you that you need to pinch students by the ears and get them back to their lessons from time to time. We do have to try to keep them on track because they do tend to forget their goals kind of like people forgetting their New Year’s resolutions.

Hi Steve,

You make a good point: you need to have lesson aims, but you also have to be flexible when something unexpected comes up, whether it be students having more problems than you anticipated with a reading or whatever, or a student with personal problems. I know this is obvious, but it helps if you befriend them as much as possible – sounds like you’re doing that if you’re going out to lunch with them – so when they do have problems they feel free to talk to you.

But TEFL teaching is full of traps (and the uninitiated think it’s so easy!), and one is being overly flexible, in this case you can’t let one student turn your class upside down. Yeah, be flexible, listen to the student with the problem, empathize appropriately, you may even expose them to the lexis they need to discuss the issue in English; but eventually get back to your lesson aims. It’s all balance, isn’t it? Can’t be too rigid, can’t be too flexible.

Steven Starry

I agree. I just had an image come to mind of now being a tightrope walker on top of being a juggler and unicycle rider. Oh, I almost forgot, all of that while parsing the “present perfect” to the tune of “Wonderful World”. Don’t forget to keep smiling! By the way, check out “jesters” at: .

David Overton

Hi Steve

Yeah, maybe some students come from a pampered, video game generation and expect English classes to be lively, dynamic and fun, all the time! They expect to be entertained by the court jester, who is walking a fine line, just like us. But as responsible teachers, we need to see that they do some real learning, and like it or not, that often means doing grunt work: “no pain no gain”. But to get the balance we’re talking about, the hard work can be offset by “fun” activities like games, songs, videos, roleplays, and debates (even though  they may not be on the same day).

I’ve taken to discussing these issues with my students; for example, if we’re doing a grunt activity and eyes begin to roll and loud unsuppressed yawns fill the air, I’ll interrupt them and ask them if they know why we’re doing this. I’ll ask them if they agree that the lexis they’re being exposed to is dead useful. I find if you talk to students like this, if you “lay bare your devices”, if you make it crystal clear what the aim of the activity is, students will often come around, albeit at times reluctantly, and start putting in the effort they need to learn English.

By the way, I think our discussion is related to the issue of learner training. Students usually need to “learn how to learn” a language, and this often involves training students to “notice” collocations. This is a lot tougher than you think. Students intuitively see language as strings of isolated words rather than as words that often go together; for example, the students will see a phrase like, “I’m watching my weight” and they’ll ask what “weight” means, but they’ll miss the very important collocation, “watch my weight”. So you can watch TV (see TV), and watch your weight (control your weight). So what’s more useful for the student: to just know the word “weight” or to know “watch your weight”? If they only know “weight” they’re more likely to speak Spanglish and say something like, “What’s your weight?” instead of “How much do you weigh?”

In any case, we need to help students learn to learn by making then aware that they’re going to have to use elbow grease, by raising their awareness of collocations, and by encouraging effective independent study such as reading out of class.

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