Is “personality teacher” a term of abuse?
This combines two different articles, one for ELT New Think Tank, and one later one.
In the late 1970s the RSA Cert TEFL exam (as it then was) had a checklist for classroom observation. In the first section, items included ‘Appearance’ (Distinction / Pass / Fail) and equally controversially, ‘Personality’ (Distinction / Pass / Fail). It was generally felt that failing someone on personality was cruel in the extreme. Oh, how we railed against such a final and absolute condemnation of a would-be teacher. We rightly, and self-righteously, refused to check the box.
What about appearance? While I would have drawn the line at failing someone for being ‘ugly’ or wearing a tie that was too loud, I felt that it was reasonable to insist on socks if a male teacher was wearing sandals. Or at the minimum, clean feet and trimmed toenails. I recall an argument where a fellow-tutor felt that a candidate wearing a tiny mini skirt while teaching an all-male class of eighteen year old Libyans merited a ‘fail’ for appearance on a practice observation on the grounds of cultural insensitivity, let alone the problem of being taken seriously and maintaining order. Whenever she reached up to the top of the board to write she definitely had their 100% attention. The tutor was called a sexist, mysogonist and a leering voyeur, but I think he had a point.
Twenty five years on, and I’ve been out of regular teacher-training in the UK for many years, though I still do one-off talks. I still think about those boxes, because it brings up one of the basic dilemmas of our profession. Anecdote will have to replace research here.
I remember one male teacher. He would have got a resounding ‘fail’ in every skills-based box on the form. Clueless was the kindest thing you could say about him. But anyone who ever observed him would have had to put ‘distinction’ on the personality box. We had a staff of 140 at Anglo-Continental in those days, and he was among the five most popular teachers on the staff. Teacher talking-time? 95% at least. Language appropriate to level? Well, you try doing the to be or not to be speech from Hamlet with beginners. Awareness of student problems? Zero? He kept his classes thoroughly entertained, but his lessons were virtually a monologue. Student talking time rarely ventured above five per cent of the lesson. Any time a student started to speak their comments launched him on a long personal anecdote which always topped the students’ faltering points. Teacher popularity does not necessarily equate with student progress in English. But somehow, through sheer force of his enthusiasm, students in his classes progressed. Basically, he liked them very much and they liked him very much. Having said that, I suppose he was giving them tons of comprehensible input, and according to Krashen that should have been sufficient.
So on to case two (I’m trying to make it sound like serious research here). As a Head of Department, part of my job was to listen to and field student complaints. They queued up in droves to complain about a hapless middle-aged woman teacher. I had to observe her after each set of complaints. She always gave a meticulous step-by-step lesson. She tried to toady to me by doing Streamline whenever I observed her, but I suggested her lessons always failed on ‘Ability to adapt and extemporize.’ She would reply, ‘But you wrote the book and I followed it exactly,’ to which I’d reply ‘But I’ve never simply gone through the teachers’ notes point by point. You have to react to what’s happening in the room.’ The complaints continued until she inherited some money and left. I suspect she was lazy, knew how to teach in theory, but couldn’t be bothered unless observed. She might have ticked every other box on the form, but personality? Fail. A continuous dull monotone. No interest in the students.
Case three (Viney, Journal of Spurious Psychology, Vol XVIII, 1998. No not really). I’ve seen at least three teachers who had the power of hypnosis. The late-John Curtin was my co-author, and highly-skilled, but something else used to happen in his lessons. About twenty minutes in, the students began to sway slightly and … I’m not joking … to ‘speak in tongues,’ by which I mean English. He could elicit any amount of complex stuff from students at a low level. The next teacher would go in, ask a simple question and they’d respond, ‘Que?’ What he did was not, unfortunately, transferable.
So what about that ‘Personality’ category? It was removed sometime in the late seventies, and around the same time I began to hear the term ‘personality teacher’ being used disparagingly more and more often, and … um … I heard it directed at me . It was apparent that one type of personality dominated in my early teaching days, the cheerful loud extrovert, and it was my initial model. As that type was replaced, it began to get criticized.
The more I observed lessons, the more I became aware that there were many personality types that were effective in the classroom. I’d watch the same class with different teachers, and some students responded best to cheerful extroverts. Others were struck dumb, but came out of their shells with a quieter, more soothing and reassuring teacher. I realized that the answer was to be able to change your style for different phases of a lesson and that a style which fitted one group of students didn’t fit every group. With classes of young males learning to read and write in the Roman alphabet for the first time, strict discipline tended to get the best results. My ex-writing partner, Bernie Hartley, was a teacher in Liverpool in the early 60s. He always used to say in teacher training something like this. If you go in trying to be their best pal on day one, you’ll end up with chaos and turn into Hitler with a Bad Headache. But if you start off as Hitler with a Bad Headache and gradually relax, you can genuinely be their best pal by the end of the year. True.
There’s a line in the Blackadder sitcom, where Blackadder accuses his servant Baldrick of having the “personality of a whelk.” A whelk is a kind of mollusc, and if someone genuinely has the personality of a mollusc, a job like English teaching is not going to be suitable for them. However hard we try to remove barriers in life, someone with one leg is never going to play football professionally, someone not endowed with a degree of acting talent isn’t going to be a Hollywood star and someone with the personality of a mollusc is not going to be a teacher.
The best teachers and lecturers I’ve seen have often had an acting or performing background, and a high level of skill, naturally. I’ve also seen major figures in our profession give talks with unreadable visual aids while glued to the lectern, face down in their notes which they were reading word for word, speaking monotonously. Face it, if you take a group of trainees, ten per cent have the personality to teach without a lot of help, though you can greatly refine their efficiency and expand their range of activities. Another ten per cent are dire. No chance, whatever you do. But the reason teacher-training exists is that the remaining eighty per cent can do it, and can be improved. The too-often forgotten skills are teachable classroom performance skills.
Like actors, public speakers remember every syllable of bad reviews, and I’m still galled by a review of one of my talks that included ‘rides on personality.’ On that particular day, I had a blinding headache, 8-hour jet-lag and a hangover. What I did was apply professional performance skills in spite of how I was feeling. I didn’t ride on personality, but on the skill of appearing as if I had a personality. These skills can be taught, and should be. Another review mentioned that I was “affable and entertaining” which is not particularly insulting, but it still rankled with me as a slight put-down. I remembered the talk. Everything had gone wrong with equipment. It was touch and go whether it would work. I was in an extremely bad temper. Being “affable” was bloody hard work.
All the great teachers I’ve seen had one skill honed above any other- the ability to appear to be listening with total attention and sympathy to every word that a member of an audience or a student was saying to them. There are skills for doing this. They can be defined, they can be demonstrated and they can be practised.
I’m going to lift a quote from the head of a summer course where I gave an introductory lecture twenty years ago. At the end of her talk she said:
‘The greatest thing a teacher can have is genuine, sincere interest in everything your students are saying. And once you’ve learned to fake that, you’re a teacher.’