This semester I’ve had huge problems with twin classes of very passive students. These are mostly East-German adults in their twenties and early thirties who had vocational training e.g. as accountants or bankers, and are returning to college to get a BA on a part-time study program. Their English levels are very mixed, and they have to pass an exam. This is a compulsory class for them. We meet for 4 hours each on 7 days spread across the term. There is an online platform, and they are expected to do work at home.

For the most part, in class, they sit there like so many fish, expectantly, silently. And I try to energize and engage them, and give them things to discuss with each other (study on their own, pair up, then share). Yet if they ever do open their mouths to each other, it is to speak German. In any class of 30 about 3 will say something out loud in English, and another 3 will say something out loud in German. Any task I give them will take lots of discussion of how to approach things – all discussion among themselves taking place in German – and at least one group will need step-by-step hand-holding, and so bring the class to a grinding halt. Other individual students are far more advanced, and will be bored quickly and become disruptive. I know the initial level of English is quite low for some of them, though it’s hard to tell since many of them are real clams, but I really think it has much more to do with the way they tend to learn – most of them are introverted, and are used to learning content by heart. I’ve tried to explain that you can only learn English by using it, but my message is just not getting through to them. They’re not doing it. It’s positively maddening. I don’t have a solution.

My husband reacted to my frustrated description by saying “Sie lassen die Puppe tanzen” – they let the puppet dance”. So they’re pulling the strings, they’re in the drivers’ seat. It’s well over 30 in each class (officially 35 and 36, with some not attending and just taking the exam), and just me in front.

I have this vision that they’re treating me like a teacher in the GDR, someone to hide from, not someone to open up to. There is no sense of trust. That sense of distrust poisons our communications and makes me so tired I go home and have to sleep for 14 hours.

To be fair, one of the two groups is more communicative, and I do sense more trust and willingness to negotiate a solution, but the same learner types are prevalent in both groups. And just because they are ready to communicate doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to take responsibility for their learning progress. There are quite a number who are trying to test me to see how little learning they can get away with. They even told me point blank that they didn’t want to learn English, they just wanted to pass the test.

This is one of the main reasons I’m giving up my teaching engagement with this group after only one term, and after only 4 lessons with them. I really regret not being able to become a part of this institution, which is something I would dearly have done, as a freelancer ever on the lookout for good partners, but I can’t take any more. I have three more lessons with them, and will just lay low and try not to invest too much.

I gave them a model exam in class so they know exactly what to do for the exam. I’ve formed them into groups, so each group leader can approach me if they want to solve any problems.

They may have won their fight with me, sort of, but they’ve lost a great opportunity to learn how to learn English. I feel sorry for them, even as I’m licking my wounds.