Skip to content

Are we too nice for their own good?

February 16, 2013

Generally speaking, English language teachers are a nice bunch. This may be partly because teaching attracts people who like helping people, but it is also certainly due to the impact of humanism on language teaching. Humanism didn’t just provide us with a bunch of “wacky” methods like suggestopedia, total physical response and the silent way. Books like “Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class” (Moskowitz 1978),“Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways” (Stevick 1980) and later “Classroom Dynamics” (Hadfield 1992) have been hugely influential in shaping our belief that being nice to your students impacts positively on language learning.

Nowadays, we have the Dogme approach, which values the individual learner over materials and is heavily influenced by humanistic ideas, as Scott Thornbury has happily admitted here.

Demand High ELT, the latest focus of discussion for ELT methodology, suggests that teachers are too focused on teaching and not enough on learning, and claims that we need to pay more attention to what is actually going on with our learners – humanism coming to the fore once again.

There is obviously a lot more to humanism than just being nice, and this is where I think we may have gone wrong. Over the years I have witnessed, or been directly involved in, situations where the teacher is nice in a bad way. Here are some scenarios which may be familiar:

  1. A pre-intermediate student says he needs to get 5.5 in the IELTS exam next month. His teacher doesn’t tell him this is impossible.
  2. A group of students are doing a writing test under assessed conditions. They cheat blatantly. The teacher allows this to happen.
  3. A student tells her teacher that she needs to drop her kids off at school on the way to class in the morning, so she’ll be 20 minutes late every day. The teacher says that’s OK.
  4. A student is currently studying at Intermediate level and wants to progress to a pre-university course in social sciences the following year. The teacher does not advise against this.
  5. A student frequently uses L1 in class, rarely contributes to activities and never does her homework. The teacher uses a guidance tutorial to ask if she is happy with the course.
  6. A student struggles throughout an intensive course and makes very little progress. Rather than tell the student they need to repeat the course, the teacher allows the student to progress to the next level.
  7. Despite being told by her students that they want to be corrected more, a teacher avoids correction during most activities, claiming he doesn’t want to interrupt the flow of communication.
  8. Despite a “no food and drink” policy in the school, a teacher likes to take a bottle of water into the classroom and feels the students should be allowed to do the same.
  9. A student asks to be excused from class the following day because he has an appointment with the Home Office (he shows the letter and everything). Marking the student absent will impact on his visa status, so the teacher marks the student present for that day.
  10. A student, who is an asylum-seeker, tells his teacher that he spent his last money on his bus fare to college and doesn’t know how he is going to feed his family for the rest of the week. The teacher slips him £10.
  11. In the middle of a grammar clarification stage, a student walks in late, comes up to the teacher and says she needs help to fill in a form for the job centre. The teacher interrupts his own lesson and starts to do this.
  12. A teacher is 5 minutes late for class. “It’s OK, they’re always late anyway,” she says, giving bad public transport as the reason and implying that it’s not the students’ fault.

What the above scenarios all have in common is that they display teacher behaviour that is too nice. By this I mean that the teacher’s actions are in some way detrimental to the student’s learning or to the learning environment. Here are some further explanations:

Moral Hazard (8 and 12 above)

This is a favourite term of one of my former colleagues. What it means is that by behaving in a certain way yourself, you are morally unable to expect certain behaviour from others.

Slippery Slope (3, 9 and 10)

If you treat one student in a certain way, you open a can of worms in terms of other students feeling equally deserving of similar treatment.

Fear of Upsetting (1, 4 and 6)

This is a very common symptom of being a nice person – it’s difficult to break bad news. But learners sometimes need to be told things they don’t want to hear; otherwise, misconceptions about their progress or goals are tacitly being confirmed. This invariably leads to a negative outcome.

Facilitator no more (2 and 7)

There are some classroom situations where the teacher’s role is not to facilitate, but to enforce. An obvious example is during an assessment, but it also applies to certain learning moments. There are times and places during lessons where teachers need to tell rather than encourage, and I feel teachers sometimes hide behind pedagogical justifications to avoid this duty.

It’s not me, it’s you (5)

When a learner is not behaving the way the teacher wants them to in class, there’s a tendency among reflective practitioners to blame themselves. It’s certainly true that the teacher creates and maintains the conditions for learning. However, in a communicative classroom that promotes active learning, the students need to take on some of this responsibility. Many teaching contexts place a heavy focus on customer satisfaction – giving the students what they want rather than what they need. If you really believe in active learning, promoting learner autonomy etc, this sometimes needs to be enforced. Guidance tutorials are not just for asking students what they think, they are also for telling them what you think.

Social Malpractice (11)

In Scotland the Social Practice Model has had a huge impact on community learning and development, particularly on the teaching of literacy and numerously and consequently on the teaching of ESOL.

In a nutshell, social practice is really just about identifying learners’ needs and using them to shape the content of the course, which is all well and good. However, some teachers have interpreted this as meaning they need to let their students dictate the content of every lesson. Scenario 11 is an extreme example, but I have known it to happen. By being nice to one student and accommodating her needs, the teacher is messing up the learning of the other students, who may be really into the grammar stage. Furthermore, this approach can lead to an incoherent and unbalanced syllabus.

I’ve been thinking about this topic recently because staff and students at my college are starting to think about next academic year. This involves reflecting on progress made so far, identifying good/less good practice (on the part of students and teachers) and setting realistic goals for the future. With this in mind, and thinking about conversations I’ve been having recently with colleagues, it seems that the hardest thing for us to do as teachers is to stop being nice (I include myself in this!).

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to be nice, and I am also very aware of the positive impact of humanism on language teaching. Learners are individuals and need to be treated as such. Learners make more progress when they feel comfortable in the learning environment. Encouraging learners increases perceptions of progress, and perceived progress increases motivation. However, if being nice leads to unequal treatment of students, or allows behaviour that is detrimental to learning, or means setting up students to fail, or impacts negatively on other students and their learning experiences, then suddenly it doesn’t seem so nice any more.


Hadfield, J. 1992: Classroom Dynamics, in Resource Books for Teachers (series ed. Maley, A.), OUP

Moskowitz, G. 1978: Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class, Newbury House

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, CUP

Stevick, E. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways, Newbury House 1980

  1. Ken MacDougall permalink

    I’m not sure that 8 and 12 are examples of moral hazard so much as the teacher setting a bad example. The term comes from tax theory and was coined by James Mirrlees (who is Scottish and won the Nobel prize for Economics for his work on this). My understanding of the term is that it is when a teacher creates the space for students to transgress. If a teacher doesn’t check homework then that would create a moral hazard for the students in that there is no incentive to do the homework. A bit like paying tax in Greece I think.

    • Ok, Ken, you know better than me. I thought I had heard you using the term Moral Hazard in contexts similar to the ones I’ve described. I may have misunderstood, but I thought it was about the teacher putting him/herself in a position where they can’t morally expect behaviour from the students because they don’t follow it themselves. Is there another term for this, then?

  2. Mary Gorman permalink

    Well said Steve. Very thought-provoking, especially that apparently innocuous, ‘nice’ behaviours can have a detrimental effect on the individual, the other learners, or the learning environment. I really enjoy reading your posts.

  3. Paul Duffy permalink

    Interesting post. With some of the example, #1, #6, the teacher really isn’t being nice, as you point out. The students are being lied to and this is to their detriment. Other examples are just cases of bad teaching!

    I know it’s not really the point of the post, but the idea of not allowing students to have a bottle of water in the classroom does seem a bit inhumane (or am I just too nice?). I for one would not make it through a 2 or 3 hour class without a bottle of water and I certainly wouldn’t take one in and then forbid my students from doing the same.

    I think there are two sides to it though. Certainly being misguidedly ‘nice’ can have a detrimental affect to learning – but I have also seen examples of teachers being not nice (un-nice, whatever!), trying to enforce their authority where it isn’t necessary, implementing pointless rules for rules sake, all with no benefit to learning and with the sole effect of alienating students.

    The age of the students is also a crucial factor too. Teaching 5-year olds is very different from teaching 35-year olds!

    • Hi Paul,
      Two very good points. Sometimes it’s hard to enforce policies you don’t agree with. It’s particularly tricky if you end up with different teachers breaking different rules (eg “Paul lets us have water in the class, but Steve doesn’t”). Also, teachers need to be aware of why they have rules, and enforcing certain behaviour simply as a way of asserting your authority is clearly not the way to go. I still think that most teachers I know find themselves more naturally predisposed to niceness rather than un-niceness, though.
      Your point about age is certainly relevant to the issue of rules; this isn’t necessarily the same as being nice or not, though.

  4. Ken MacDougall permalink

    I’m just nitpicking about moral hazard. I looked it up again and it is really about asymmetric information in markets or something like that. Your overall point is spot on – ‘nice’ doesn’t mean ‘good’.

  5. Ken MacDougall permalink

    I can’t help reading my email alerts for this as ‘Steve Brown’s 70s Blog’

  6. Very interesting post. I’ve been in the weird position of having to be nicer than I really want to before. Happy kids = happy parents = more money for the school. It’s very frustrating sometimes to have to put profit before educational need. It’s nice to see it’s not just me who is worried about being too nice.

    • Hi Timothy,
      I agree that as soon as money is thrown into the mix, all kinds of problems arise. English is now widely regarded as a commodity, so students are clients or customers. If they are paying for their course they expect some kind of return on their investment. Logically, this return should be quantified in terms of how much their English improves, but because doing a course is an experiential process, all sorts of affective elements come into play as well.
      Over the decades, the English language teaching profession has tried to make learning fun. The problem with that is that fun doesn’t always mean effective. There are some parts to language learning that are not fun; exactly what parts and how big these parts are will vary from person to person.
      I wonder if we are victims if our own hype – people now believe that learning English is (or should be?) an entirely enjoyable experience, so when they encounter something that doesn’t meet this expectation they feel that something is wrong, that they are not getting a proper return on their investment. What do you think?
      Most of my students are funded by the Scottish Government, but that just creates a different kind of problem. Rather than (or as well as) keeping the students happy by giving them what they need, we also have to ensure our courses tie in with government policies, directives and recommendations.
      Perhaps another thing to consider is the simple fact that people don’t learn English “for the fun of it” any more. There are all kinds of instrumental reasons, mostly related to creating potential for increased economic prosperity. Does this mean we should be less ‘nice’ in our teaching? (“You want English? Well English costs. And right here is where you start paying – in sweat.”) or maybe we need to be more nice to our students to try and reduce the considerable pressure they are already feeling, keep the affective filter low and all that.
      I know we are working in very different contexts, but does any of this make sense to you?

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. It’s not me, it’s you « The Secret DOS
  2. Who owns our values as ESOL teachers? | tjhampson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: