Tina Brown, Kanda University of International Studies
Brown, T. (2021). Stressing out about being genuine: Reflections on a first advising session. Relay Journal, 4(2), 99-106. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/040205
*This page reflects the original version of this document. Please see PDF for most recent and updated version.
In this reflective paper I examine one of my first experiences conducting an advising session as part of a course on advising in language learning. Using a narrative approach, I put the session in context, give a brief summary of it, then focus on a specific interesting moment from the session to examine in detail. In particular I reflect on the importance I placed on feeling genuine while trying to learn and practice advising strategies and how this was a significant worry for me throughout the advising course. Lastly, I touch on the most noteworthy lesson I learned, that attending the conversation is the most important part of an advising session, and how I plan to apply this lesson to future interactions. This paper may benefit those who are new to language learning advising or who have an interest in how new advisors navigate the process.
Keywords: advising, Japanese university, genuine, reflection
In this reflective paper I will take a narrative approach to contemplate my growth as I learned about language learning advising in a course called Advising in Language Learning 1: Getting Started, offered by the Research Institute of Learner Autonomy Education (RILAE). I will first share some background information and place this session in context. After that I will reflect on my feelings before the session. Then, I will briefly summarize the session and share a key moment. Next, I will reflect on how my understanding developed after rewatching and analyzing my session and receiving feedback from one of my instructors. I will conclude by discussing how this experience influenced me to be attentive as an advisor and how I will keep this in mind in my future interactions with students.
Context and Background
I am a lecturer in the English Language Institute at Kanda University of International Studies (KUIS). I do not advise learners in any formal capacity, though students often ask me for help and advice in short, one-on-one sessions. I have been teaching English in Japan for more than seven years. Before that, I taught social and emotional learning skills to elementary school students and worked with a number of students with disabilities in the United States. I decided to take the RILAE advising course because I saw a lot of overlap between it and my interest in disability studies. Nearly all of my experiences working in education before coming to Japan had focused on small group or one-on-one assistance. Little of it was classroom teaching. I saw the ways that studying advising could have helped me serve my students better in the US, so I wanted to have that skill set available for my students in Japan to benefit from. For example, I was often in charge of helping elementary students make plans for regulating emotions and behavior. I can envision a conversation using metaphors that could help me understand a young child’s thoughts more clearly, thus allowing me to make a more effective plan for them. People cannot be divorced from their past experiences; thus, my experiences have influenced the way I understand and practice advising. One example of this was illustrated in an activity in the course, called relay advising. For this activity, several class members took turns advising the same student in one cohesive advising session. The manner in which each class member interacted with the student was unique, from tone of voice to vocabulary, and certainly in the questions they chose to ask. As I took notes, I found myself realizing I would have done something differently in several cases. This is not to say I thought my fellow classmates were right or wrong, just that everyone is different. We picked up on different cues from the student, or our brains took different paths and came up with different conclusions. While I had no formal advising training before taking this course, as I took this class, I realized I had been in an advisor role many times before.
A student who I will call Quin joined me online (using Zoom) in the spring of 2021 for a 28-minute advising session. I had some preexisting rapport with Quin, so we did not have to start from scratch, though we didn’t know each other well. Quin was majoring in Vietnamese but had to study English as part of their required curriculum. We both had our cameras turned on and spoke in English. The language barrier was not significant, but there was at least one time when neither of us quite understood the other. Quin had never met with a learning advisor before.
Because the purpose of this study was an assignment for a course I was taking, Quin was informed ahead of time that I was not a regular advisor and would likely not be able to continue advising them in one-on-one sessions after this meeting. However, I did make it clear that there were many skilled advisors who could take over the task should Quin wish to continue meeting regularly with an advisor. Quin also knew that since I was a student in the advising class, I didn’t entirely know what I was doing, but they were very understanding about the situation. The fact that the primary purpose of this study was for a class certainly affected my approach. I had some ideas ahead of time for what I wanted to try, though I am always open to changing course should it be advisable. This does mean I went into the session with a checklist of sorts, even if it was mostly subconsciously buried in my head and not a physical list.
Before the Session: Sounding Genuine
In the weeks preceding the session, I had practiced using the 12 advising strategies as described by Kato and Mynard (2016). Though we had many opportunities to practice both in and outside of class, I wasn’t able to try all 12, and many of the times I tried using them were just in everyday conversation. My opportunities to do actual advising were limited. However, I learned to appreciate all of the strategies, though there are some that are more suited to my personality than others. I felt that restating, summarizing, empathizing, intuiting, challenging, and sharing all suited my personality well.
I imagine I’m not the only person who, upon learning 12 advising strategies, felt like a big phony the first few times testing a new one out. I’ve been able to successfully connect with students many times in my career by being an attentive listener, not giving up, sharing some of my own experiences, and keeping promises. While I wanted to improve and strengthen any connections, at the beginning of the course I was more afraid of losing connections because I sounded like I was trying too hard. In the first simulated advising session during the course, I was repeatedly checking my notes, forgetting what I wanted to say, and having trouble listening carefully because of the other objectives I was trying to keep in mind. Of course, this was expected in this kind of course and practice advising, but it was still uncomfortable. Repeating is a good example of a strategy I was very uncomfortable with at first but which quickly became second nature. More than anything, I wanted the student to feel like they’d been heard at the end of the session. At that point in my advising journey, I thought it was important to try new strategies but also be true to my personality. Sounding genuine can be hard when you are trying something new. It would sound really strange if I suddenly started using metaphors. However, when added little by little I think many strategies could begin to sound natural for me.
Before conducting this session I decided on three specific strategies I was hoping to practice: complimenting, metaview/linking, and powerful questions. My personal goal for the session with Quin was to at least try to incorporate all of these naturally in our conversation and decide if they sounded genuine to me later on. I chose to focus on complimenting because I wanted to practice giving more targeted, specific compliments. With students, I often repeat “good job” or other compliments without much substance. I wanted to practice saying something more personal to the student as this is harder for me. For example, “that’s a nice shirt” or “it seems like you really stuck to your schedule this week” and so on—anything that shows that I know this person and their struggles specifically, that I can’t say as a blanket statement for all students. I chose metaview/linking and powerful questions because I had not practiced them much and I was hoping to try them some more until they sounded genuine.
I was incredibly nervous before the session. I sometimes wish I could effectively convey to students just how nervous teachers can get. But perhaps it is better Quin didn’t know I was shaking and sweating and emitting more nervous laughter than usual. However, all of this nervous energy gradually dissipated as our session progressed.
Since Quin and I already knew each other a little bit, building rapport at the beginning was not difficult. I asked some yes-set questions, which are “easy to answer questions where the answers are usually ‘yes’” (Kato & Mynard, 2016, p. 72). When discussing Quin’s background and history with English, Quin mentioned that they wanted to speak more English but had no confidence. This was early on and the first time confidence was mentioned. Then Quin expressed their wish for me to give them ideas for resources to improve speaking skills. This is a question I am used to getting from students. In a classroom setting or when I have little time to spend with a student, I will recommend the student use the resources we offer in our self-access center (SAC), such as speaking with teachers who are on duty or talking with a learning advisor. But since my role was different this time, I mentioned none of this right away. We talked for quite a while about what Quin had already been doing, how they study their major language, etc. This brings us up to the key moment that I will discuss and analyze in the next sections.
One Key Moment
An interesting moment came about 17.5 minutes into our conversation. I had attempted some metaview/linking that was failing miserably (see below), and we had just gotten onto the topic of how to practice conversation on campus (KUIS 8 is the name of the building that houses our university’s SAC):
Tina: What kinds of things can you do in KUIS 8 to study?
Quin: We can watch English movies and talk to teacher and there are many English book so I want it studying English there.
Tina: Have you ever tried to talk with a teacher in KUIS 8?
Quin: No (laughs). But I met last year English teacher in KUIS 8, so I talked to her a lot.
Tina: Why do you think you haven’t talked to a teacher yet? Cuz you can sign up for times, go to the Yellow Sofa [a place to practice English conversation with teachers and other students] and things like that…
Quin: I haven’t confidence of my English so I can’t go there.
After this, I summarized our discussion so far, then encouraged and complimented Quin, and we continued our conversation.
Tina: It seems like your problem is confidence. Do you think that’s right?
Tina: I see. So maybe you need to build some confidence, and then you can go talk to people.
Tina: Can you think of any time in your life when you felt really confident?
Quin: I want to talk to Vietnamese teacher, but I haven’t confidence so, but, I went to [another university facility]…we can talk to a language teacher so, my friend is coming with me, I can go [there] but I’m alone, is…not confidence, so I can’t go [there].
Tina: Oh so, it sounds like maybe having a friend helps?
Quin: Yes. Mmm.
There are a few reasons this part was powerful for Quin. Previously, Quin told me their speaking study usually included things like shadowing YouTube videos, learning new vocabulary, and other activities that were not actual conversations. They also mentioned really wanting to have conversations but lacking confidence. Quin expressed no time management or organizational problems. In the very beginning Quin mentioned having no confidence, but I didn’t want to be the one to bring it up again later. It seemed like it would be better for Quin to remember this on their own. It took a lot of buildup, so I was really excited when Quin just said, “I haven’t confidence.” I think “Why do you think you haven’t talked to a teacher yet?” was a powerful question that finally helped Quin realize their main issue. I wish I’d chosen silence after that instead of listing things students can do in KUIS 8. Quin may have even thought of some things I hadn’t. Silence is rarely a problem for me in regular interactions, but it seems as soon as I tried to do this advising session I was so nervous that I tried to fill those empty spaces.
After my first review of this session I thought my next question, “Can you think of a time in your life when you felt really confident?” failed because Quinn didn’t really answer the question how I expected them to. During the session, I was a little confused by their English, so I thought Quin had told me about a time they didn’t have confidence, which was the opposite of my question. After listening again I was able to understand their English better, and I also realized that even an answer about a time they didn’t have confidence would be helpful and interesting. Upon further review, listening a few more times, and reflecting, it seems like this was the point when we both got really excited about having some actionable tasks Quin could walk away with. I remember being told several times during our advising course that in the first session it may feel like nothing has been accomplished, but it seemed clear from the beginning that Quin wanted something concrete to do. This was just my intuition and nothing Quin specifically said, aside from the request for ideas to improve speaking. After Quin told the story about being able to study Vietnamese if a friend came along, I sounded genuinely surprised when I replied that having a friend might help. It was something I hadn’t considered, and I really hadn’t expected that kind of answer to my question. I suppose that’s another reason I assumed my question had failed after my first review of the session. After that, Quin had some other ideas and made a plan to go to KUIS 8 with a friend in the next two weeks. I was impressed with Quin’s ideas and really happy to see their progression. Quin came into the session nervous to talk to me and was still nervous at the end, but it was clear to me that it was a different kind of nervous. Quin was at least somewhat comfortable with me, and instead nervous that they’d actually made a plan to really go talk to a teacher to practice English conversation.
Another point worth mentioning are the themes of unexpected situations and failure. I mentioned thinking a question had failed during the session in the previous paragraph when I thought Quinn had answered it in an unexpected way. Later I realized that it hadn’t failed after all. However, I was willing to accept that perceived failure and move on with the conversation quickly. It is important both during and after sessions not to see these unexpected situations as failures, but as opportunities for all parties concerned to learn and grow.
Overall I feel good about the session. I think Quin left satisfied and maybe even energized. I have some evidence for this from an email Quin sent after our session, thanking me for giving them the confidence to go make an appointment to talk to a learning advisor. They had already made the appointment! It was really exciting to receive this email. I’ve encouraged students to talk with advisors before, but most of them never go. I think the personal touch and the thoughtful conversation really made a difference. I must have sounded genuine enough for Quin.
Of course, this isn’t to say everything went perfectly. There were times when my English confused Quin or I asked a question at the wrong time so that it didn’t have the desired effect. Another thing I might change is how much time I spent asking why Quin wanted to improve their speaking abilities. I was hoping they’d have some sort of life goal that we could link to so that I could get in my metaview/linking practice, but it wasn’t really working. I think I tried too hard to make that happen. I don’t think it had a significant effect on the session, but I could have saved time by just letting it go. Quin wasn’t interested in that conversation. This is a really great example of how my own goals got in the way of effectively advising the student. As I mentioned before, I had wanted to try some specific strategies, and while I was willing to be flexible, I couldn’t let go of this one for a while. I was convinced it would lead somewhere productive, and it took me too long to switch gears.
One other strategy I had wanted to try was complimenting. I found some specific things to compliment Quin on, but also defaulted to “that’s great” and similarly bland compliments a couple of times. If I could go back, I’d try to use more specific compliments more often. Perhaps I could have thought about that ahead of time and even written down some example compliments or sentence starters. This is a strategy I’ve used before when I’ve been asked to give specific feedback to students, and it has worked well when my brain is too full to do everything at once. It also has the benefit of still sounding genuine because it is simply a list of ideas, not a script.
After receiving feedback from one of the advising course instructors, I was able to think even more deeply about this process. The instructor suggested I reconsider using the word “problem” in an advising session, referring to when I said, “It seems like your problem is confidence.” While confidence is indeed at least one of the issues Quin was struggling with, use of the word “problem” can carry some baggage. I am not sure it’s wrong to phrase something as a problem, but I definitely think there is merit to rephrasing words like this to put a positive spin on them. I also think it’s a good idea to avoid being the person to call something a problem first. At the very least, it seems best to wait until an advisee refers to something as a problem, rather than assigning a problem to them.
During the entire advising course the thing that concerned me more than anything else was sounding genuine. The last thing I wanted was for students to feel like they were not being heard or taken seriously. I knew I wanted to improve my skills, but I also knew that I might sound awkward and unnatural along the way. What I learned is that practicing new skills is important, but attending to the conversation is the most important thing. This is something many of us know in our heads but sometimes have trouble actually doing. During my session with Quin, I sometimes tried too hard to use the strategies I wanted to practice in order to fulfill my needs, instead of entirely focusing on the conversation and letting it happen naturally. But I also did well at times. Occasionally I almost forgot that there were strategies I wanted to practice, and the conversation was natural and genuine. The discussion may have been a bit stilted at times, but Quin was forgiving. Practicing the 12 strategies before this session helped me attend to the conversation much better than if I’d just read a book about them. Of course this lesson is not limited to advising, so in any communicative experience I have in the future, I hope to remember lessons from this research project and thus have better relationships throughout my life. Students want to be heard and, when possible, understood. By listening carefully and responding appropriately I hope that my future students will be able to trust me and feel comfortable in my classes.
Notes on the Contributor
Tina Brown is a lecturer at Kanda University of International Studies in the English Language Institute. Tina has been teaching English in Japan since 2014 and has a wide range of research interests. Currently Tina is focusing on researching disabilities in relation to language learning.
Kato, S., & Mynard, J. (2016). Reflective dialogue: Advising in language learning. Routledge.