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Automatic English For The People

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Great Teachers

by AJ

From Weblogged (via Teacher In Development)

Ive been thinking a lot about what I learned from those three influential classroom teachers I had growing up. Not much of what I remember has anything to do with content. I mean I remember some of the assignments and exercises, sure. But what I remember most, and the reason theyre still with me today, was their passion for learning, their willingness to go beyond the text or topic, their senses of humour.

They were the smartest three teachers I had, not so much in what they knew about their subjects but in what they knew about learning. They were always talking about things theyd read, and about how those ideas had relevance in their lives. They were sincerely interested in what I had to say, to make sure I was "getting it," no doubt, but also because they seemed to want to understand their own learning more deeply. They would challenge me, but even more, I got the sense they wanted to be challenged back. As opposed to the worst teachers I can remember, the ones who knew everything and knew exactly what they wanted us to know, these teachers consistently modeled learning, not teaching.


My favorite quotes from the above:

"They were sincerely interested in what I had to say....."

Thinking back on my very long education, I can identify, MAYBE, two or three teachers who ever seemed interested in what I had to say. Most were obsessed with themselves. Most were crazy about conformity... about making sure we heard and memorized what THEY said. But very rare indeed is the teacher who listens to their students. And still rarer is the teacher who listens and then changes their approach according to what they hear.

.."their willingness to go beyond the text or topic"

This is absolutely essential in the field of language education. Yet most teachers are slaves to the book. They plow through the Oxford/Longman "language points" one by one.

This really hit home in one of my first year classes. There was a textbook lesson on the "passive voice", in which the passive voice was broken into 5 or 6 variations,... ie. "The book was opened by him. The book had been opened by him. The book will be opened by him". Each variation had a chart, a list of rules for its formation, etc.

I looked at my students. Most were struggling to develop a base of conversational competence. Most still had not mastered the simple past tense. Then I looked at the charts, rules, and obtuse examples related to the passive voice. And I thought, "This is goddam insane. No way Im teaching this". And I didnt.

"...their passion for learning..."

Is it a universal law that education must be boring? Was I absent the day they distributed the commandments of teaching? Apparently so.

The worst thing about traditional education, the damn tragedy, is that EVERYONE knows it sucks. The students know its boring. And the teachers know it too. Yet they plod along doing the same old thing, cause "thats always how its been done".

I always got annoyed when I heard teachers complaining about students. Common overheard complaints were: "They can't think for themselves. They are lazy. They won't take initiative. They have no enthusiasm."

Yet these same "lazy" students are often maniacs away from school. They aren't lazy when learning the ins and outs of their computer. They aren't lazy about learning music. They aren't lazy when it comes to experiences that are interesting and relevant to them.

Most students are "lazy" in school because they think most of school is boring and irrelevant. And, of course, they are right.

I got the sense they wanted to be challenged back

This is essential. Teachers improve by being challenged by their students. The great teachers I had in the past (a very tiny group) loved challenge. I still remember my High School Political Science teacher-- what an amazing lady. She loved debate. She believed in free speech and the Bill of Rights and she made that belief real in the classroom. She loved to be challenged by students. She didnt just teach ABOUT democracy, she helped us experience it.

But most teachers, and nearly all bureaucrats, are terrified of this. They talk of "keeping the students under control". They obsess over "classroom management". They seem to think the students are wild barbarians, just waiting for their chance to murder the teacher.

So they clamp down on any sign of dissent. They censor or expel "difficult" students. They simultaneously tell students to "think for yourself" while crushing any sign of disobedience.

After such treatment (for years), can you blame the students for being suspicious? Can you blame them for not cooperating with efforts to "get their opinions"?

The truth is, no matter how nice you think you are... they don't trust you. And if you want to earn their trust, you've got to bust your ass to undo years of oppression.

Its not easy and its not quick. But its worth it.

Which brings me to my own quote:

If you listen long enough and carefully enough, the students will teach you everything you need to know

Put succinctly once again:

Its the students, stupid!

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