Posted by: Alastair Grant | July 20, 2011

Disappearing Act

The other day, I vanished from my classroom.

So there I was, with my students holding their homework in their hands, eagerly awaiting their next instruction… were we going to go through the homework together, as always, or was I going to try something else, which I was terrified was going to “epic fail”  before I’d even made it to the end of said instruction?

Background: for homework the students had looked up five words (from a text we’d been looking at) which they were unfamiliar with, and then put them into sentences.  Wow, Alastair, very clever… yes, yes, but it does get better, don’t Alt + Tab to Facebook yet.

I thought to myself – no, come on, don’t be Mr-Star-Of-The-Class-Attention-Whore again… (or I think Expert is what we TEFLers are supposed to call that role) who acts as judge, jury and executioner on every word that timidly peeps out of a student’s mouth.

I asked my students to sit in groups of three, show each other the words they had looked up and the sentences they had written… and er… that’s it. Then something weird happened.

My students started kind of… TEACHING each other. I don’t mean that in any kind of a coy way – really, it surprised me. They just did it and there I was thinking “how can I elbow myself back into this lesson?”  I shouldn’t have and I am relieved to say, I didn’t. At one point, I snuck off to get dictionaries for those students who were having trouble with explaining, and the rest they did themselves.

Believe me, it was pretty painful for me! Where were the questions? Where was the dependency? Where was the attention I normally get?! I guess for one class I’d moved from “Expert” to “Facilitator”.

At the end, we went through any still unclear meanings and I praised students who gave good examples/definitions with their words.

And they loved it. I suppose I did too – a few hours later, when the swelling on my bruised ego had started to calm down.

But is this a good way to “teach”? Was I irresponsible?


  1. I’m a firm believer that language requires action, and a lot of it.

    Your students were active— using it, questioning the language, analyzing what the others were saying was right or not. Of course, you can guide them in this process (joining the little groups), but if they don’t actively participate, or even at times, “run the show”, I feel they miss out on a lot of growth.

    So, I have a feeling you weren’t irresponsible and that, to the contrary, you were an expert facilitator ! Cheers, Brad

    • Thanks for your comment Brad. I think I was more “facilitator by default” rather than an expert but it seemed to work well enough – and I’m always way too vain to turn down a compliment anyway!

      And trust me, I tried to join groups but my “are you ok”s were always met with a dismissive wave and a “yes, yes”! The whole experience rather reminded me of the CLL phase where the students end up “rejecting” the teacher’s involvement!

      And I totally agree about not just leaving them to their own devices – that WOULD have been irresponsible, I think.

  2. Yes it is definitely the way to teach,mate

    • Thank you!

      I guess the question is – can we do that all the time…? Sadly, what with various professional and time constraints (syllabus…exams…) I’m tempted to say, no…?

  3. “teach, then test, then get out of the way” (Stevick 1980).

    Recently been experimenting with the Silent Way in some of my lessons and students seem to really enjoy it and respond to it well. It fosters peer collaboration and encourages students to self correct and correct their peers, which they have been doing very effectively. You don’t have to go in hook, line and sinker with all the rods and charts and other paraphernalia, but I see nothing wrong with taking a step back and letting the students do the work once in a while. Give it a whirl!

    • “get out of the way”! – great quote!

      I suppose I have always found it hard to take a back seat, even when things seem to be going swimmingly with the students without my involvement – but the best class I’ve ever seen was one where the teacher wasn’t present at all. More to come on that one day…

      Your comment about the letting the students do the work once in a while is particularly important for this I think – I still a class where I find it near impossible to get them interacting at all and I don’t like the fact that some classes just want to sit back and be taken for a ride, as it were.

      So… I might well try your idea – quite seriously. Fight fire with fire – or silence with silence! I think it just might work very well! Thank you Jonny!

  4. Wasn’t the way they taught each other quite similar to the way you usually teach them??!! I bet! thanks Al for sharing this!!!

    • Apart from the fact that they weren’t intereted in hogging the limelight or worrying about whether the whiteboard markers had been refilled, maybe!

      And of course for the students I think there’s a lot more opportunity to talk, explain, even translate – things that on my side of the classroom we’re not usually supposed to do much of…

      Makes me think that perhaps everything we’re told in teacher training isn’t necessarily true?

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