Timely Advice

by Nicholas Murray

It is amazing how a potentially disruptive incident can result in a learning experience both for students and teacher alike. My enlightenment came in an Oral English class towards the end of last semester. It came through the ringing of the ubiquitous mobile phone. Because of its disruptive effect I had previously banned it from my classes. Little did I realize then that one day it would bring me a timely message.

David was a twenty four-year-old student, one of four male students in a Freshman class of thirty. Most of his fellow students were in the 20 or 21 age bracket and I often wondered how he finished up in that class at all. Having been graded on the basis of their entrance exam, this was a bright, alert and enthusiastic class, all of which qualities seemed to have bypassed David.

Still he was a pleasant and likeable character when awake! He had studied for a few years in another institute and unfortunately had imported with him some annoying habits, such as arriving late for class and then proceeding to drop off to sleep. It was rumoured that this was the result of long hours spent in the Internet bar. David himself, however, attributed it to his having a part-time job and thus being worn out from the exertion. His younger but more enthusiastic classmates were not impressed and Cynthia, the class monitor, took it upon herself on a number of occasions to remind him that his conduct was unacceptable and not appreciated. As a teacher, I had also made my feelings known on the matter but had eventually come to the conclusion that it was better to let sleeping dogs lie!

Since our class was an Oral English class, the emphasis was on comprehension and the expression of ideas. To highlight this focus I insisted on giving the class the rather prestigious name of Proficiency in English Communication. Specific topics were selected for discussion each day and students were encouraged to express their views and insights. This is something that does not come easy to Chinese students in any subject, but gradually it catches on and one is often treated to some inspiring insights and ideas. Usually a daily handout relevant to the topic being discussed triggers this off.

On the day in question David arrived late and, after a due period of settling, promptly fell asleep. The handout for the day was entitled Things to Remember and began with the advice: ‘Before you say anything to anyone, ask yourself is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’ Further down the list we read: ‘Forget about counting to 10. Count to 1,000 before doing or saying anything that could make matters worse.’ Count to 10 was a completely new expression for my students so I explained it in some detail, seemingly rather successfully as can be seen from later developments.

Just as I finished my explanation, as if on cue, David’s cell phone rang. Being in a deep sleep at the time he did not realize what was happening. A judicious nudge from his seatmate brought him to life, and he concluded he was in deep trouble. He grabbed the phone from his pocket and bolted for the door, even before I had time to react. Then from the other side of the classroom came the kind and plaintive voice of Cynthia, ‘Count to a hundred, Nick!’ Kind and timely advice no doubt.