The first meeting with a student is always decisive for how our teacher-student relationship will proceed. Getting it wrong means wasting a lot of time getting it right, and sometimes it never gets right. When I started teaching, I had only experienced ‘that first meeting’ on the side of those there to learn.
I don’t have a speech I repeat to all students. Now that, thanks to experience, I understand how it works, I let myself go by instinct. But there is a question I ask everyone: why do you want to learn the English language? Thanks to one of my long-time students F., I learned the importance of this question.
Here’s the story.
It was a new institute, a new class, and I had my freshly printed Cambridge Qualification. It was my first leap into the void as an English Language Teacher for Adults. I was halfway through the welcoming speech to the class when the door opened. A lady who immediately made me think of Queen Elisabeth II, neat, well-dressed, wearing valuable clothes but slightly out of fashion, came in. She looked very uncomfortable and looked like she wished to be invisible. She apologized for being late and took a seat at a far back desk.
After presentations and the due information about my course, I started asking one at a time: ‘Why do you want to learn English?‘ F. was the last to answer: ‘I have recently lost my husband and have the feeling that if I don’t learn English, the world will cut me off.
As I learned sometime later, she was seventy-five when we first met. We had weekly classes for five years. First, at school and after, I went to her home. When our meetings broke down, at eighty, F. could read, watched films that she found appealing, and had long since started an e-mail correspondence with a friend of hers who lived in the USA, all in English. But she didn’t speak English. She used short sentences to greet, agree, deny, or ask for a repeat, just enough to be part of the conversation.
F. had chosen her path before she met me, even before enrolling in the Beginners’ Course I held that year.
In my experience, every adult student has a clear idea of where he wants to go and what he needs. My role is to accompany them on their journey by giving them tools, materials, and tips to make the voyage easy, profitable and fun. It has also rarely happened to me that someone, having reached their goal, has continued, and those, few, have always set a new target.
So, why do you want to learn English?
Don’t lose sight of your destination, and please remember that you can change it whenever you want.
© Photo copyright Patrizia Verrecchia. All rights reserved.