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Connecting with your students: Slow Listening (Part 1)

Teaching EFL is an art, not a science.  Though it comes with certain challenges unique to its field - such as communicating across linguistic and cultural divides – the core of EFL teaching is similar to many jobs in that it relies on the interaction of ideas, careful attention to detail, sensitive emotional management, and many other aspects of one essential activity: communication

There is no doubt that teaching a second language effectively relies heavily on researched, tested and proven methodology.  And it is crucial to learn EFL methodology well before venturing into the field. (Getting a CELTA is one of the best such places – I did mine in N.Y.C.) However, methodology can only get you so far.  And if you fail to get beyond the textbook and the pedagogy, you will ultimately fail in your most basic desired outcome of helping language learners get to the next level. 

So, what are the necessary elements of good teaching that go beyond the manual?  Well truthfully, there are many.  And much can be gleaned from experience.   But, in my opinion, you can narrow the focus of your teacher learning to one very simple principle: Be a SLOW LISTENER. 

Slow Listening is channeling all of your attention to the communication (verbal or non-verbal) from one student (or person) or group of students, and focusing your energy to understand the emotional or educational (see below)  needs of that student, without glancing at the monkey mind (see below).

The Monkey Mind

Let’s start with the monkey mind. This is that voice in your head that’s always nagging you with a to-do list, or preparing to answer a question before the question is finished, or complaining about your difficulties while listening to your friend describe hers; the monkey mind is any track that prevents you from being completely present in the ‘now’, in a current conversation.  This is why it’s called “SLOW listening.”  Because if you let the monkey mind take over, you’ll be racing around all over the place and you’ll be unable to give adequate, detailed attention to the needs of the person or group in front of you, which results in misunderstanding and a breakdown of communication.

The monkey mind is a problem for new teachers and veterans alike.  Often newer teachers feel a sense of pressure to perform well, to always have something to say; often they feel the judgment (whether positive or negative) of their students – and this can lead the monkey mind into high gear, focusing extra effort on sticking to the plan, getting through the prepared material, and not forgetting anything.  And while this may prevent mistakes and lead to praise, it's also quite easy to miss out on what your students are ultimately trying to communicate to you. 

Teachers with years of experience usually don’t struggle with nerves and pressure in the same way.  But the inverse problem is just as dangerous.  The perfected lesson plan, the ease of teaching, the same book; this can all lead to a repetition devoid of focused listening.  But of course, it doesn’t have to.

Newer teachers should strive to listen above all else, as this will lead them into a state of confidence and relaxed focus that will deliver the best results.  Likewise, experienced teachers should continually remind themselves of the uniqueness that each student and class bring to the classroom; enjoy the freedom that rehearsed lesson plans brings but use that freedom to hone in further on the needs of the students in front of you.


Once the monkey mind is off your back, it’s time to focus on the needs of the students: both educational and emotional.  Educational needs may be obvious – and this is where your EFL training kicks in.  But teaching isn’t limited to information transfer.  Many teachers fail to recognize the depth of emotional and psychological needs that their students bring into the classroom.  This is not to say that your job is to provide therapeutic counseling or support, but it is to recognize that no student will effectively grow in their language ability (or any ability) unless the emotional roadblocks are dealt with first.

Some of the bigger roadblocks could be quite serious, such as family or relationship issues outside of the classroom, or health concerns, or poor study/sleep environments that cause chronic fatigue.  These are outside of your control but it’s important to recognize that quite often these are the true causes of poor performance in the classroom.  That late homework assignment?  Might be an abusive parent to blame.  Sleeping in class?  Maybe poor diet is causing insomnia.  Maybe they are working a side job to support the family.   There could be a thousand reasons that all lie outside of your classroom – and are nonetheless HUGELY impactful on the students’ lives.

Other roadblocks are in the classroom and are treatable.  Many students suffer from anxiety – fear of speaking in large groups, fear of working with other groups, fear of speaking English (this is huge in Korea where I teach). There is no perfect solution to any of these problems, but a lot of times it’s necessary to deal with these roadblocks before you deal with the present continuous.  Remember when you were in middle school?  It didn’t matter how exciting the teacher was if the class bully was going to beat you up at lunch, or if the girl you loved just broke your heart and everybody knew it.  Try to put yourself in the shoes of your students and remind yourself before each lesson that emotional comfort and engagement is the prerequisite for academic improvement.

(By the way this is applicable to students of any age)

If you’re ready to tackle the monkey mind and engage with the educational and emotional needs of students through slow listening, then consider two skills that are necessary to develop in your slow listening: Humility and Observation.