Emotional Intelligence | Main page on education

Why are you here?

One day I visited a private English class here in South America. I asked the 9 year old students if they liked English. Most of them said "no" or "so so". I accepted this. A lot of teachers won't like to hear something like this, and they will immediately react. They might say with shock, "No?! What do you mean you don't like English?! English is important! And it's fun!" But in this case the teacher and I just listened to the answers.

I then asked them why they came to the class and they all said, "My parents make me come." One boy was quite happy to tell me that. He said it with a smile. He is quite a bright boy. Probably he smiled partly because he knew it could be something we "adults" wouldn't want to hear. Partly because, perhaps, he was happy that someone asked him and seemed to care. I asked this same question "Why are you here?" to some teenagers later in another institute. All but one said their parents make them go and they wouldn't come if their parents didn't make them, except for sometimes when they wanted to, but not everyday.

Here are a few thoughts on this.

- Teachers typically don't ask students why they are there.

- They are not taking this into consideration as they teach, or try to.

- Thus, it is frustrating for the teacher because they may assume the student wants to learn whatever the subject is. (Or they may know the students are there only because they are forced to be, either because their parents send them or the school requires the subject.)

- Teacher gets frustrated, does not feel appreciated or cooperated with. This leads to expressions of frustrations and other negative feelings. Students then feel any number of negative things which might include: yelled at, disapproved of, rejected, scorned, punished, threatened, afraid, pressured, stressed, judged, insulted, labeled, etc. Not a great learning environment.

- By not asking why the student is there, or how they feel about being there, teacher misses an excellent opportunity to

a) connect with the students

b) show they care

c) get the students to help them make it more enjoyable (or at least less painful) for everyone

I did exactly this in Ecuador and it worked. I asked them why they were there and we talked about it. In that case it was not a private institute but it was a required course in a high school. The most "rebellious" students, quickly became my friends. (They literally invited me to go out for a drink with them after class.) I said something like "Well since you have to be here, what can we do to make it less painful?"

In my experience in visiting schools, most teachers who have taught for 20 years have never asked the students, "Why are you here?", and then really listened and tried to make some acommodation to the reality. They haven't asked, "Would you come here if you didn't have to?"

I recommend teachers ask these kind of direct questions and then ask for the students help in re-designing the class if necessary based on the answers. Later I would like to see the students help change the education system so they aren't forced to learn things which are boring to them. I would like to see the subjects be taught in more interesting ways, for example by making them more relevant to the students' lives. And I would like to see students have more choice in what they learn or have more input into designing and running the classes.

I know there are some alternative school systems, such as the Montessori schools or the Sudbury schools, so these kinds of ideas can work. I also plan to keep trying new things when I can and writing about the results.

S. Hein
July 7, 2007
Paysandu, Uruguay