In my work, I am usually involved in teaching either individuals, or pairs of students of a similar level. I have however run several group classes for Italians learning the English language on behalf of local business groups or community organisations in the region where I live. I have found that groups of students do present a completely different set of challenges from individuals, and my groups, which have been mostly made up of adults, rather than children, have shown me a stark comparison in the requirements for group dynamics and classroom management skills, despite the actual, physical and educational makeup of the group scenario being similar.
One of the first challenges I encounter when faced with a multi-level group is deciding how to divide my time between giving attention to individual students and the group as a whole. A group comprised of students all of a similar level in learning would obviously be ideal, but realistically improbable, plus the kind of work I am involved in doesn’t really allow for this and there always seemed to be someone who failed to keep up with the rest of the group, or who excels and wants to gallop ahead in front of the others. In these environments, we all tend to focus on this as a problem, yet constraints such as this can be used to your advantage if you take a little time to do some exploratory work from the start.
The approach I have chosen to take with my classes is to spend the first lesson assessing my group’s abilities and personalities. If you are clever you can usually find one or two natural classroom assistants in there who will willingly assist you with the others throughout the course. In fact, most of the students I choose get a kick out of the fact that I have asked them to help in the first place, it acts as a confidence booster for them and allows me to focus more on those who really need my time and attention. It is a very simple technique and a way to help everybody progress in the classroom. Whilst I see it as a management technique I have brought with me from my previous career, in that I delegate some tasks to those capable of doing them, in reality it is also something that you can use with kids to help boost issues of motivation, confidence and self assurance.
In truth, I have found that I can adopt many people management techniques easily in the classroom. Specifically with adults they can be extremely useful, sometimes invaluable and highly effective. Why? Well, once adults enter the workforce they immediately become familiar with hierarchical management and taking instructions. So, when faced with a troublesome student, someone who is disrupting the class either intentionally or not, I manage them in the same way I used to with my team back in the UK, and the group responds well to this, which may not work quite as well with a group of kids.
I have found that working with groups also hones your instant ability to assess the different needs and levels of students as they are often presented in sharp contrast with each other, side by side. In return, these abilities have been an invaluable aid to me with my individual students; I can assess their level of comprehension easier due to the comparisons I have noticed within the groups. I can also address solutions to their problems quicker, and can also see the advantages for some to transfer to a group or individual learning environment.
I have noticed that some students perform better in groups and progress much quicker, when individually they had struggled with some aspects of learning, but have been much better motivated since I introduced them into a group environment. Groups can be very good at motivating each other, as sometimes the peer pressure can push students to new levels and as long as it is managed effectively, all of those within the group can benefit. Peer pressure can also be called upon by an effective teacher to deal with strong personalities within a group, helping to calm them down and integrating them into the group as a whole, rather than having them trying to lead. I find adult peer pressure is the positive opposite of child peer pressure. Kids want other kids to fall down, whereas adults want to help other adults do well together.
All in all, I would say that teaching larger, multi-level classes helps to enhance both your teaching and interpersonal skills and is great at building confidence in your own abilities as a teacher. Teaching large classes with mixed abilities has been a fun experience for me personally. Overcoming some of the difficulties I have faced has been a challenge, but it has also been a great personal achievement and one that has actually made me a better teacher.