rpc3 – the descriptive challenge

In my previous post I challenged out #RPPLN crew to describe a negative (or challenging) experience they have had.

Anne Hendler, Hana Ticha and David Harbinson all provided brave and supremely informative insights into the moments in a classroom that affect us all.

Josette LeBlanc  and Zhenya Polosatova went there own way and provided a perspective on interactions that will get you thinking.


I too will follow in Josette’s renegade footsteps. The following will be a description of an experience I had in the classroom. There is quite a bit of self introspection mixed in as well if you’ll be so kind as to indulge me.

One thing about reflective practice (and something our #RPPLN has consistently shown) is that the “rules/directions” we follow are guidelines, not instructions.

That said, here goes.

I walk into my second class of the day straight after the completion of my first, which happens to be in the next classroom over. I love my first class of the day. The dynamics of the class and the rapport the students and I have built together has been fantastic. I always leave with a smile on my face. 

It’s an intermediate class. There are 15 students on the roll, but attendance is sporadic and averages about 7. Students are all young adults or adults.

The second class of the day is full of great students as well. However, I actively feel my enjoyment and happiness leeching into the atmosphere as I walk into the room. The second class has some very strong personalities. It also has a few quite meek ones. It demands constant attention on my part, to make sure the dominant members don’t take all my attention. 

I’d like to focus on an interaction I have had with my two biggest talkers. 

This experience comes after the class has met a number of times. It or something similar has happened a number of times throughout the course and is one of the big reasons maintaining the enthusiasm and verve from the day’s first lesson has become so challenging. 

One of the students in question is by far the oldest in the class. He is also not a native Korean, in a class full of native Koreans. The other student is nearer the age of her classmates, but has been a previous student of mine on two separate occasions. We are friendly and both frequently join weekly coffee/lunch sessions I have as open invitations to all my students. 

It's like listening to politicians speak past each other, with worse grammar and no vitriol.

It’s like listening to politicians speak past each other, with worse grammar and no vitriol.

Both of these students are quite gregarious. They love speaking. They both tend to dominate the conversations they are in. They both have major difficulties with listening comprehension. They both demonstrate very low awareness of their own speech or of the speech with whom they converse. 

With these challenges in mind I come into the classroom. These two students are always the first in the room, and I try to give them as much of my time as possible before the class proper begins. 

On this particular day I felt more acute frustration than normal at my inability to replicate the great atmosphere and dynamics of my day’s first lesson. I was annoyed that errors and mistakes noted and worked upon many lessons over were not being noticed by the students themselves or their peers. I was confused as to why peer noticing was working so well in the first lesson of the day and failing so miserably in the second. 

Today I entered the room and spent the break chatting with my eager beavers. When the time came and all students had assembled we began our “free time” (a short period at the beginning of class when students can don their metaphorical language hats and settle in for the day).

During this time students are to chat with neighbours, or friends, or me about whatever they’d like to talk about. On this day, eager beaver 1 & 2 had little intention on halting their conversation with me. In previous classes I had tried to use this energy to spark other students into comment. Many are very reluctant to talk.  Today I saw all the other students sitting around our circle looking bored, with their heads down, as my two dominant speakers maintained their line of questioning with me. I repeated many times that it is “free time” and that this is their chance to talk about whatever they’d like to talk about with whomever they wanted to talk to. 

I repeated these instructions with little avail. 

I allowed my frustration to show with the tone of my voice, even though I maintained my smile. I cut off the two in mid-concurrent-sentence.

slow downSTOP! Thank you. Slow down. Listen. Please. Slow down. Now it is free time. Please talk to one of your classmates. Try to listen to yourself. Listeners, help the speakers notice errors. Mistakes are A-OK! Let’s fix our errors! (We had talked about the difference many times. We also discussed the need to fix our errors and how helpful we could be to each other in working towards that goal.)

As I did this with a tone of a parent speaking to a child, with a forced smile pasted on my face, I was ashamed of myself. My eager beavers responded with graciousness and smiles. It certainly did not stop them from wanting to interact. Neither did it stop them from attending my coffee/lunch sessions or generally hurt the rapport within the class. Nevertheless, I was disappointed in my reaction. 

As we moved on into other activities I replayed the whole experience back in my head many times. I haven’t been able to let go of that ill feeling, that is until I read a couple of Josette’s recent posts on compassion training and self-lovingkindness.

mindfulness-roadWhen I think back on this experience now I see myself seeing the hole in the road coming (even though I wasn’t in a mindful enough place to see it in real time). That knowledge led to more self abuse. That is, until I recognised my large step forward in regards to my own mindfulness.

I had seen the hole in the road. I recognised it immediately upon falling in. I mitigated some of the possible negative outcomes by handling the fall more gracefully than I might have done in the past, when that hole would’ve had me at sixes and sevens. All positive steps taken.

Recognising all of this leaves me in a better place the next time this particular hole presents itself, and even if I fall in again, I know I can be mindful enough to recover.

That knowledge is a massive weight lifted.

Thank you for reading and providing me a space to further explore. As others have noted, simply by “getting it out there” we see with far more clarity.

Some questions to consider:

What impact do I think my handling of these students had on their enthusiasm, desire or learning?

How might it have affected the classroom dynamic as a whole?

How might I better manage my expectations from class to class?

How could I have better managed the class as a whole to better serve each student as a whole person (how could I have tailored my lessons to better fit each students needs)?

And many many more…



10 thoughts on “rpc3 – the descriptive challenge

  1. Pingback: Reflective Practice: Challenge to Describe | Wednesday Seminars

  2. Thanks! I enjoyed reading this post for the attention it gives to a fascinating topic. I’ve had a similar problem with a student. He is male and the oldest member of the class (including me). In Central Asia age is a status, so I asked an older senior teacher to point out that he was talking too much and frustrating the others. He started listening more, but I still have to watch him closely!

  3. Thanks! It’s great reading about this because I’ve had a similar problem. A student was dominating – he was male and the oldest person in the class room. In Central Asia age is status, so I asked an older senior teacher to point out that the other students were frustrated. He was more self aware and respectful after that, but I still have to watch him closely!

    • Hi Harry,

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.

      I think that classrooms the world over have these students. They can be a hinderance or a massive lift to the general welfare of ones classroom atmosphere.

      One of my students was the oldest, the other, just supremely comfortable with me and a very gregarious individual.

      In following posts I will analyse this situation in detail, any questions or thoughts you have would be gratefully accepted. Hopefully they will help me better see and analyse with a more nuanced perspective. 😀

      Thanks again for stopping by and feel free to comment at will! The other comments here are links to posts by others in a group, all of whom are participating in this challenge. I’m quite certain you’ll find more posts of interest.


  4. Hi John, thank you so much for sharing this description!
    I really liked (and agree with) what you said in this post: One thing about reflective practice is that the “rules/directions” we follow are guidelines, not instructions. Also, I agree that by “getting [the story] out there” we see with far more clarity, and I could feel ‘present’ in your description.
    You said: ‘I allowed my frustration to show with the tone of my voice, even though I maintained my smile’ – I am curious what happened with your voice? Do you think the other students noticed the difference in the tone of your voice? How did you see they reacted (if at all?)
    As Harry pointed out, age is important in Korea, so I was wondering how old the students you are describing were?
    Finally, one of your questions to us readers was this one: How might I better manage my expectations from class to class? I guess this is one of the hardest questions to me personally, because it is a lot about the emotional side, the feelings I/we have towards the groups and individuals, and this is where it is difficult to stay objective. I am looking forward to what you are going to share in the future posts about this moment!

    And once again, thank you for starting this challenge series – they indeed motivate me think and reflect more!

    • Hi Zhenya,

      Thanks for stopping by with a lovely supportive comment.

      When I mentioned my tone, it was certainly understood by the class at large. One of my (many) failings in the classroom is that I can tend towards the more expressive in terms of my thinking/emotional state. Often times this is off putting, especially in Korea, where emotions are buried down deep. I believe I make up for this on some level by being the same with positive thoughts/feelings. At least I have found that with most students there is quite a bond struck (after they see through my brusque exterior and realize that my reactions are largely due to the fact that I am in “their corner” as it were and only wanting the best for them.

      In addition, I’d like to thank you for your final thought, on managing expectations between classes. This is an avenue of reflection I have spent much time on and still have no firm conclusions about a good way forward. Certainly an aspect of teaching that requires further thinking!


  5. Hi John,
    Again, you’ve come up with a situation that seems so familiar to me. This feeling of ‘guilt’ which originates from the desire to treat all students equally and, at the same time, give the stronger and/or more enthusiastic ones enough challenge can be an immense source of stress and frustration. But also, we want everything to go smoothly, according to our plan, which often spoils some of the spontaneity and eagerness our students literally glow with.

    No matter how creative and innovative teachers we are, we still need to feel some kind of control over the class and when things slip out of control, we panic (or at least feel uncomfortable). Classroom is not a totally natural environment and it can’t be – no matter what people say. Regardless of our preferences, we’re still the ones more or less in charge, which will always be reflected in the way we act. But because we know that it’s not what we really want, we suffer a little each time this collision of dreams and reality occurs… I hope my comment makes sense 🙂

    • Hi Hana,

      Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts on my writing.

      I totally feel you on the feeling of guilt you mention, and agree again with the idea that we like to control the classroom, even though that is not how things work 😀

      Much sense made, and sentiments greatly appreciated.


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