It was a day like any other day on the pre-sessional EAP course I teach. I was with my second group, who I had for the Academic Speaking and Listening classes. The usual mix of nationalities. Mostly MA students, but also one undergraduate and two PhD students. It was a relatively “standard” Academic Listening lesson. We talked a bit about the lecture they had attended the day before and the notes they had taken during it. Then I led into the listening and note-taking task that was to follow. I don’t remember anymore what exactly we did, but we discussed the topic, which was perfectionism, whether it was something good or bad, etc. When I thought they were ready, I instructed them to listen to the short lecture and take notes. Everything looked normal. We were several weeks into the course and the students knew what they had to do. I was standing near the computer and making sure the technology was working well and occasionally glancing at the students making sure everything was fine, without being intrusive…
Suddenly, I had the feeling that something with one of the PhD students was odd, but I didn’t know what it was that made me feel like this. My eyes went from one student to the other, then I glanced back at this particular PhD student. Her head was lower than usual. She was looking at her book and writing, but then I saw it… tears were dripping down from her eyes onto the pages of the book! I didn’t know what to make of it or what to do. I looked away, looked at the other students. I didn’t want her to notice that I had noticed that she was crying. I thought that maybe she was homesick or had received some bad news, as it happens sometimes. But then it hit me. It was the lecture that made her cry!
The lecturer was talking about research into perfectionism, about the downsides of perfectionism, how it can lead to burnout and other negative psychological effects, etc. This student, I knew, was a perfectionist! I had noticed from the start that she was trying too hard to improve her English, her note-taking skills, her every skills. She was often disappointed with herself and her performance, even when I told her it was good. She came to see me after the lesson, sometimes, to ask me how she could improve… So, I had already been worried about her a bit. How would she cope with the pressure of doing a PhD I asked myself, but I hadn’t found a way of talking with her about this other than reassuring her during tutorials.
Now, the tears were falling more frequently. She had taken out a tissue. Should I tell her she could stop and go to the bathroom? Would she want others to know she had been crying? I decided not to do or say anything just now. When the lecture had finished, she had regained her composure. The students had to compare their notes, then they talked about the topic. Were they surprised to hear about the drawbacks of being a perfectionist? etc. The PhD student was participating in the discussing in her group with two other students. She seemed fine now. I decided I would talk with her after the lesson.
She told me that she was a perfectionist, and that she had put so much pressure on herself when doing her MA in her home country that she even had to be treated in hospital for some time as it had affected her physically and psychologically. She had had a very difficult time. And now, this lecture had brought all the memories back plus the worries about the PhD and how she’d cope, with her family and boyfriend also being far away. We talked for a bit, including about some coping strategies if she felt the pressure mounting again, I reassured her again and explained that the University also offers help in such situations. After that, I also occasionally sat with her and her friends during lunch and we chatted. I knew telling her it wasn’t necessary to be a perfectionist wouldn’t help. All I could do was to help her relax about this course a bit and let her know now who she could turn to when she felt she needed help.
I try to make lessons relevant and interesting. However, I had never thought the content of an academic lecture would make a student cry. That morning, when I was expecting it to be a “normal” lesson on listening and note-taking skills, this student reminded me of what we know as teachers but can sometimes forget in an intensive course when there is so much to get through: that we always need to be aware of the fact that we are working with people each of whom brings their own baggage with experiences to the class, some good, some negative, and that this will affect their studies. And this is why it is so so important to take time to get to know one’s students on a personal level too (besides their language and academic learning needs) and establish good rapport and an atmosphere of trust.