Teacher, I don’t like my level. Can I change class?

This, or a variant on this question, will be familiar with Director of Studies who have worked in summer school before. You may be running to a meeting, covering a class or even eating your lunch when a student or Group Leader approaches you with this question.

When put on the spot like this, it is important that you don’t make a hasty decision. In most circumstances you won’t be able to give the issue the consideration it deserves, especially if you are doing something else at the time. The most sensible thing to do is to politely ask them to come to your office or the teachers’ room at an agreed time. Even if your offer is met with an insistence that you need to act now, you really shouldn’t. The fact is, unless you are sat in front of your desk with your class records at hand, you are likely to make mistakes which are difficult to unpick later on. Imagine you are approached while having lunch. The student is insistent; you are hungry and relent just so you can eat in peace. Then, you quickly forget about it. The student assumes they have been moved to a different class but your records have not been updated. Imagine if the move is unwarranted? The student may have an ulterior motive e.g. to be with their friends, or pressure being placed on them to move up by their Group Leader or even a parent. I’m sure you could add to this list.

As a rule of thumb, you should retest the student. This usually means sitting down with them and talking. You may not have any specific analytical scales, but you will have a concrete idea of whether a move up (possibly down, although requests like this are rare) is justified. If in doubt, call the class teacher, or see if any notes have been made to cast light on the situation. I personally like to make decisions there and then with the student present. The fast ephemeral nature of summer school makes the ubiquity of ‘let’s wait and see…’ not really an option.

The fact that the student has taken the time to come and see you means that you should treat their requests with sincerity. Also, this process never works through an intermediary, if the Group Leader comes to see you, ask them to go and find the student in question.

When is the best time for students to come and see you? I always set aside an hour every week day for this purpose. I make sure that I’m in the teachers’ room at the same time every day and delegate this job to someone else if I have to be absent. For me, this session, or ‘clinic’ is part of my routine.

Depending on your student numbers, you are likely to find a steady stream of people coming to see you. Although some may wish to speak to you about other issues, many will want to level up. You will find that your busiest sessions will be earlier in the week. This, of course, is obvious as you will have just tested and placed your new student intake and even with the most rigorous testing system, you should account for 1-2% of these students querying their level placement.

In some circumstances, students clearly do need to move to a class with other learners who share similar competences. Although sometimes we get students who feel their first lesson failed their expectations, e.g. there was no grammar component or quiet reflective study, which may equate to them as ineffective teaching/input or being too easy. In this circumstance, I would not move the student to another group, instead I’d be keen to show them what they learnt and how they did it- grammar for its own sake is not the be-all and end-all. Fundamentally, moving a student requires you to make a judgement call based on what is best for that individual learner. You may find that moving a student sideways e.g. from one intermediate group to another, may benefit them based on the class dynamic, nationality mix and the teacher.

Moving learners to be with their friends from the same nationality group is almost never a justifiable reason. There may be behavioural issues that surface from your actions; we want learners to form positive relationships with other students using English as a medium of communication. Learners who group themselves by nationality or other clan like allegiances are hermetically sealing themselves off from the opportunity to do this. On the rare occasions I have taken this step, it was because there were welfare issues at play. I remember two very homesick teenage girls from Spain who were so distressed at being separated for any length of time, it was starting to affect their well-being. The most sensible thing to do was to bring them together.

You may have very full classes or classes that are full at certain levels. Do remember that there will be guidelines on what is the maximum number in a class. Don’t be tempted to move someone out of one group to another group that is already full. Until there is space, they will have to stay where they are. Breaking ratios is a slippery slope and will be noticed by an eagle eyed Group Leader who may put in a complaint. Ratios have not been arbitrarily set and breaking them make also compromise other rules and regulations that act as a safety net for all concerned.

Every time a student comes to speak with you, write down what has happened. It doesn’t have to be detailed; some simple notes and a date will be adequate. In our centre we use a digital register which allows us to record notes directly onto a platform. This is also handy as teachers may have commented, too. Sometimes, a student will come back to see you later in the week, and you may not remember them. This in itself is a good reason to keep records you can refer to at a later date.

If we acknowledge that our students are on holiday and that much of what happens in class revolves around spoken production, discussing levels with students serves little purpose and may create an unhealthy competitiveness, something we may wish to avoid. Having said this, if a student does come to see me and asks what their level is, on a one-to-one basis, I may suggest they are around a particular level. I would, however, be unwilling to make a pinpoint declaration, however, saying that their spoken competence is around B1, for example, is acceptable practice and will satisfy their own curiosity.

The last thing on the matter is that you should be open and welcoming to all who come to see you. Look for reasons to make positive changes rather than looking to do nothing. Don’t be suspicious or defensive when students come. Allow them to speak, think what course of action is best and then make your decision. Sometimes our work takes us far from the shop floor and having an opportunity to engage with the recipients of our efforts should always be relished.

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