Why empathy, communication and support are key to helping your students

by | 7 Aug, 2018 | 2 comments

Understanding how your students feel is the first step to helping them feel comfortable and welcome in your learning environment.

“Brambor”, she said.

We all dutifully repeated “Brrrramborrrr”.

“No, listen again, brambor“.

And so we tried again “Bramborrrr”.

“Good! Now, jahoda”.

“Jahoodaa” we copied.

“Try again, jahoda”…

It was the first class of my CELTA in 2013. With 11 other students, I had signed up for the course affectionately known as “Helta”. It was going to be a killer three months, but after the course had completed we would graduate with the Cambridge English Language Teaching of Adults certificate. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language, but there’s nothing like being reduced to words like potato and strawberry to understand that speaking another language, such as Czech, is incredibly hard. That’s what we felt that evening in 2013. Helpless. And stupid.

When we got to know everyone in the course, we realised of course we were not helpless, nor stupid. But that experience, as well as several others, has convinced me that deep in the fabric of helping students learn is empathy. I’ve never forgotten that class because of the way it made me feel. In that 30 minutes, I felt more acutely the challenges of students who have to learn English, in a way that the 13 years of working with international students prior to that I’d never felt. So that’s my first point, if you want to teach inclusively, you need to try and engage your empathy.

Engage your empathy

I’ve rarely (if ever) met an educator who doesn’t appreciate diversity in the classroom. Regularly one of my U:PASS leaders will comment “I’m learning what it means to help people really different to myself” in their fortnightly reports. We enjoy and celebrate it when students are individuals and we can get to know them, but we are all human and bring a particular set of experiences to our teaching and facilitating. Even the most analytical and logical of us is still a person with emotions. Ignoring the powerful emotional responses when helping people to learn is failing to engage at least half the person. So why not go out and try and learn something completely new? Feel the experience of being a complete novice, and translate that back to the learners who you are teaching.

Following from that, how do we understand how to help facilitate and encourage inclusive teaching and learning? How can we be most effective? That brings me to my second point.

Ask

There are a lot of ways of asking students now that are anonymous and without risk to them. A quick check of an online Facebook group such as “UTS Confessions” will show you that students are happy to be really direct. So why not ask your students to give you anonymous feedback on your inclusive teaching style? I’m sure the team at the LX.lab can give you many other options.

You can also be more direct and less anonymous – one of my U:PASS leaders reported several years ago that he had a student in economics who was struggling with the supply/demand curves that seem such a massive part of that discipline. The student had a sight disability so it became a simple process for the leader to make sure the axes for the graphs were drawn big enough for the student to see. Another leader emailed the worksheets to the student each week, so they could make sure that they could use their screen enhancer to make the content big enough for them to read. So why not just ask your students to tell you? The ones who need flexibility or adjustment will contact you.

Create a supportive environment

There’s nothing that shuts students down more than fear of embarrassment or judgement. I love the work of UTS’ own Associate Professor Nick Hopwood, who plastered his rejections all over his wall. What a great example of showing vulnerability and encouraging others to show vulnerability!

Every semester I teach between 20-50 new U:PASS student leaders how to facilitate student learning in a collaborate way. I run a 2 day workshop program and during that we also talk about time sheets. Time sheets are tricky. They require careful entry, navigating a complex system, remembering the rules of when to claim, etc. My leaders are typically high achieving, perfectionistic and slightly anxious, and very keen to show me that they can do the job. But there is a palpable sigh of relief when I explain if they get a timesheet wrong, I’ll just reject it. They can resubmit it. It’s fine. No need to stress. Articulating that it’s ok to make a mistake, indeed, I expect them to make a mistake, makes such a difference. It relaxes the environment.

Similarly, being patient with students is gold. An occasional part of my job is to do brief drop-ins with students. These students typically are presenting at HELPS anxious about an assignment and doubting themselves. In about half the cases, they are an international student, and typically those students are anxious about their English. You can see the visible relaxation when they realise I will slow it down for them, I will be patient and encouraging, I will be human and helpful. I love watching the anxiety disappear and in its place a sense of confidence appear. It’s easy to get frustrated with some students – we all know that. But it’s amazing how care and encouragement will help.

So there are my tips for you to create an inclusive teaching environment: engage your empathy and push yourself outside of your own learning zone, ask the students what helps to support their diverse needs, be patient and encouraging, and make it okay to make mistakes (and even expect them) in the learning process.

Feature image by Sean Kong

2 Comments

  1. Amanda White

    A great article Georgina!

    Reply
  2. Tienne Simons

    A useful and oh so human bog post Georgina. Keep writing. I think you might have a few more relevant posts in you yet.

    Reply

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