There is a scene in the film Anger Management, a film starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson, in which the main character (played by Sandler and, as it happens, called ‘Dave’ in the film) following a comical sequence of unfortunate misunderstandings finds himself attending an anger management group led by a somewhat unorthodox counsellor (played by Nicholson). At the start of the session, Dave is instructed to tell the group about himself in answer to the question “Who are you?”. He proceeds to talk about his job before being interrupted.
“I don’t want you to tell us what you do”, says the counsellor. “I want you to tell us who you are.”
Looking a bit flustered, Dave tries again, this time mentioning that he likes playing tennis.
“Not your hobbies,” comes Nicholson’s deep (and slightly creepy) voice. “Tell us who you are.”
Unsure how to proceed, Dave then asks for an example. “You want us to tell you who you are?” comes the mocking reply coupled with laughter before Dave finally loses it and shouts out “I don’t know what the hell you want me to say!!”
Image by Quasimondo
With a new academic year set to kick off here in Turkey tomorrow morning, this scene has spent much of the last week replaying in my head as I listen to colleagues discuss ‘getting to know you’ activities and ways they will introduce themselves.
Now, I firmly believe that getting to know new classes as quickly as possible is vital to establishing a firm foundation for a good year of learning. However, much like Jack Nicholson’s character in the film, I don’t believe that knowing about hobbies, favourite things or parents’ jobs is the way to achieve that. Nor does it make any difference if my students know that I’m from a small town in central England or that I’ve lived in Turkey for twelve years.
What I really need to know about them is what they respond well to, what motivates them, what they struggle with, what they need to improve and how I can help them. And what do they need to know about me? Not much really. I’m not that important.
(For example, there was one class last year that I had a really good rapport with. Lessons were looked forward to by both me and them, there was always a good atmosphere in class and they made a lot of progress throughout the year. I was invited to their end of year class party and received plenty of praise from parents for how I had motivated their kids. And yet, there were shocked to learn at the end of the year that I was British having spent all year believing me to be Australian (why? I have no idea!) They didn’t know basic facts about me but I think they knew who I was better than any of my other classes and I knew who they were too, without knowing where they lived, what their parents did for a living, or any of those other pieces of ‘personal’ information.)
So what will I be looking to learn about my new students tomorrow? First and foremost names. It’s a struggle to get going without knowing names so that’s always top priority. Luckily, that’s something I have a natural ability for and I will probably know most of my 180 students’ names by Friday (don’t ask me how - they just tell me their names and it sticks making me the envy of many a colleague, even those who only have 90 names to remember!)
Second, I’ll be looking carefully to see what they respond to. Will they pay more attention to what I say, what I write on the board or what I show them? What kind of humour (if any - my jokes are not always the best gauge!) will they respond to? Will they be more responsive when speaking, writing or involved in a different activity? The answers to all of these questions will inform what happens later this week and in future lessons.
Having said that, I will still do the classic ‘5 Things About Me’ activity. However, I will not be aiming to introduce myself or learn facts about them. I will be observing closely, looking for those things mentioned above: how they approach the activity, how they interact in small groups, how confident they are… All the other stuff - their favourite sports, favourite music, hobbies, brothers and sisters, etc. - will come up during the course of our time together but won’t necessarily form a part of finding out who they are.
I’ll go a bit easier on them than Jack Nicholson’s character did in Anger Management though.