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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

January 2005

Topic: What are 5 things you wish you'd known when you started teaching? (Part II)

(This is a continuation of the theme discussed by panel regulars Marc Helgesen and Peter Viney, as well as guests Stephen Krashen and Michael McCarthy, last month at the JALT 2004 national conference.)

Chuck Sandy

1. It's About People
Though this is something that has become increasing clear to me, I cannot remember any talk in any of my graduate school classes about the very people who we would be teaching. We learned about methods. We studied linguistics. We discussed the theory of students' needs and motivations and even learned something about classroom management, but we never sat down and talked about people as actual living human beings with their usual joys, sorrows, attitudes, psychologies, and issues.

"We never talked at all about the true messiness of the human condition and that we would be facing it in all its pathos and glory each and every day of our career."

We never considered the possibility that there would be students who would come to class after having heard a piece of devastating news and then suddenly burst out crying. We never talked about those students who would sit in the back and refuse to learn. We never learned anything about how best to include someone who does his or her best to remain isolated from the group. We never talked at all about the true messiness of the human condition and that we would be facing it in all its pathos and glory each and every day of our career ­ yet that is exactly what teachers do.

While it's true that I relish this work and work hard at reaching out to all students in whatever ways seem possible, I do wish that I had been better prepared for this real work. Though current MA programs now deal with issues such as learning styles and multiple intelligences and the various strategies and motivations which learners either apply or don't apply, I feel that this is still somehow missing the essential point: we work with people and it's impossible to classify or qualify them into a particular set of rubrics.

Every new teacher should be spending more time reading Carl Rogers' On Becoming a Person and Paulo Freire's The Pedagody of Freedom and Thomas Merton's No Man is an Island and Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach and less time learning about contrastive analysis and the history of language methodology. Such things, of course, are necessary, but they are like gardening tools. The readings and study of the human condition are the soil itself.

2. You've Got to Be Flexible
What do you do when you ask a question and no one answers it? How do you segue from an activity that is a complete failure into something else? How do you respond when your well-thought-through lesson plan falls flat on its face? What do you do with a class that does not respond very well to your teaching style? Well, you change what you're doing and come right back at the work from a different direction, of course. That answer is obvious, but it's one that has been hard learned over the years and which requires some maturity to accept.

The simple truth is that many times, more often than not, you will be wrong about how best to approach a class. The first step then is to admit this to yourself and then move on from there. Of course, this is much easier said than done. I wish I could have back all of the early classes I taught in some pig-headed way, approached as if I in fact did have the answer and the correct approach, but since that is clearly impossible, the best I can do is to not ever do that again.

3. You'll Get Tired
It constantly amazes me that a full day of doing nothing but talking with people can be so exhausting. It is exhausting in a way that pure physical labor is not. Still, at the end of a full day of teaching, my body feels as if I had spent the day taking down a stone wall, and my mind feels as heavy as the heaviest stone. True, like with any labor, there is often the satisfaction that comes from having done a good day's work. To ever assume, though, even for a moment, that teaching is not heavy labor of the most rigorous sort is a mistake. I do not know what I would have done differently had I known this when I first thought about being a teacher, but I might have been a bit more prepared for the work that it is.

4. You'll Change Your Mind
As I have mentioned elsewhere, there is part of a bumper sticker on my office door which once read "Teachers Change Lives." Now, it simply reads, "Teachers Change" and I think this is more to the point. It would be hard to count the number of theories I once had and once firmly believed in that I have now completely discarded, or to quantify the ways in which abandoning these ideas I once held dear has made me a better teacher.

To just give you a few quick examples, I no longer believe that the Communicative Approach is the answer to much of anything. I no longer believe that it is essential to only speak the target language in class. I no longer feel that textbooks, even the ones I write, are of much true use. I no longer feel as if I know exactly what I am doing, but am now smart enough to realize this.

When I first walked into a classroom over twenty years ago, I was armed with a head full of theories and activities that I knew would work. Now I walk into a classroom with some ideas that could work if I can manage to convince the learners I have been charged with to give them a try. And what I find most often is that it is these very learners then show me how best to approach and carry out the ideas I have come in with in the first place. We, then, learn together. This much more reasonable and flexible style is in direct opposition to the earlier dogmatic self I was, and so when I look up at that bumper sticker on my wall, I just say yes. I have changed and continue to do so.

5. You'll Have to Be Political
Anyone who works with others in any sort of school, be it in a language school or university, will have to face up to this. Like it or not, a teacher within such a group is forced to be political -- for even the act of refusing to participate is in itself a political stance. There will be factions and sub-factions to contend with. There will be colleagues to deal with who do not feel the same way about things that you do. There will be meetings to attend and committees to serve on. There will be stands one has to take both in favor of and against the position held by one's employer. There will be days when all of this becomes so much that you'll want to quit.

I never knew any of this when I first began teaching, and in fact it is probably a good thing because this is the one area I find most difficult to deal with and manage. Still, it is unavoidable and, as Curtis Kelly has pointed out in his wonderful essay Meetings For Dummies, is even something one can become good at. I'm trying, as best I can, though it still remains difficult for me. No man is an island ­ especially in a school.

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Curtis Kelly

As a college professor with 25 years of teaching English in Japan, there are some fundamental things I have learned along the way I wish I had known before.

1. Human beings are language machines
We are built to process and internalize language, but only when it is meaningful, in other words, related to a communicative experience. We in the EFL world must ensure students have communicative experiences before all else, especially before teaching vocabulary or grammar.

2. Schools don't know what they are doing
If you read any school's academic mission statement (if they have one), you'll see something like: "to develop independent, self-sufficient members of society" etc. Bunk. Think about what we do at school. We really teach the opposite of independence, through what Eisner calls "the hidden curriculum." We teach them that they must be in their seats at a certain time that we have designated, that they cannot speak unless we tell them to, that they must learn what we have decided is important to them, and that they have almost no choice. Worse, most schools don't even have a mission statement, except one buried somewhere in the school pamphlet. They just do education because that is what they have always done, with no clear goal.

"Just because I teach something, I can't assume students will learn it."

3. Studying is not learning
It wasn't hard to figure out that teaching does not equate learning ­ meaning that just because I teach something, I can't assume students will learn it ­ but it was a little harder to figure out that studying does not equate learning either. This is one of the paradoxes of education. We know that motivation and time on task, ie. studying, is correlated to learning, but the correlation is weak. Despite our best intentions, our brains are selective in relation to what they will learn, as if they make this decision all on their own, ignoring conscious will. No matter how hard we study, we have trouble learning things that have little relation to our daily lives, and thus real value. Our students' eyes, ears, and mouths wrestle down foreign words, while their brains just kind of fold their arms and laugh out: "Come on, you don't really expect me to keep that nonsense for more than an hour or two, do you?"

4. It's not about me
In the early days, I was so nervous and worried about whether I was really "doing my job." I was hired to teach English, and any failure to get students to plod through the textbook was a failure of responsibility. The word "Teacher" seemed so lofty and sacred. In other words, it was all about me. What a fool I was. Now I know it is all about them, and I try as hard as I can, in every encounter, to forget me (which includes "course objectives," "school policy," "educational standards," etc.). I am no longer an English teacher, I am a people grower, but not like a God thing. I am more like the farmer that shovels on a little fertilizer, sprinkles a little water, and hopes something will pop up towards the light.

I am still bound to the system to some degree, but not as much as I thought I had to be before. I do not treat them all the same, I don't allow myself to get angry or dominate, and I listen a lot more.

5. We all have disabilities
On the Four Corners Tour last week through Kyushu, I met a Japanese college professor who told me about one of her students. Every single class, about halfway through, this student asked if he could go to the bathroom and then he disappeared for awhile. "Yep," I thought. "I have had students like that. They use the bathroom ploy to get out of class, and in one particular case, to apparently take illegal drugs." I frowned and shook my head. Then she said that she asked the Health Center about this student and found out he suffered from severe hemorrhoids. Sitting on a hard seat for 90 minutes was too painful, and he was embarrassed to bring a pillow, so he went to the restroom in order to stand up. "Oh," I thought, "What could we do for this poor boy?" How my outlook changed with that bit of information.

But then it hit me. We bend over backwards to help someone with an external physical disability, but when it comes to an internal, psychological one ­ such as fear of looking stupid in English, the inability to motivate oneself to keep doing something that continually brings failure, or just the inability to sit for hours in a classroom ­ we just get self-righteous and indignant. Yet, how can we say that a psychological disorder is any less painful than a physical one? We do not really choose our psychological dispositions, and they are usually related to some physical condition, like levels of serotonin. A psychological problem can be just as disabling as a physical one, so we should give their owners the same loving care.

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Chris Hunt

"At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look; At 45 they are caves in which we hide."
F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 - 1940)

"(He) may look like an idiot, and talk like an idiot, but don't let that fool you, he really is an idiot."
Groucho Marx (1890-1977)

Oh my goodness, I feel like George W. Bush. When asked at a press conference if he had made any mistakes, he couldn't name any. Asked to name five things I wish I'd known before taking up teaching, my mind runs an equal blank. I think I'm going to stumble through this, grinning aimlessly.

"Silence can be tyrannical, but silence with a smile is another matter."

Oh! Found one! Aimless grinning. I think that was what carried me through my first year in Japan at a private language school that could have bubbled up from hell. There were three teachers, including me, when I started. The others quit without notice after a month. The school probably ran through one new teacher every six to eight weeks. I found myself cast as the main teacher, even though I had minimal experience. I grinned a lot. Without realising it at the time, I think my affable-gullible demeanour did three things. It kept my sanity (one teacher was driven to a near nervous breakdown), it allowed me to acquiesce to trivial indignities and successfully ignore and reject excessive manager demands, and most importantly, it gave the students head and heart space.

Silence can be tyrannical, but silence with a smile is another matter. I guess if I'm being picky, I can demand that the kind of smile be defined. A sinister smile is hardly likely to relax and inspire, though nowadays some children will tell me to be "scary".

Picky ­ now that's scary! The school where I started out had its own method, and teachers were required to pounce on every mistake. It got to the point where I could notice mistakes in my own speech as I was talking.

After I left the school, I used to ask adult students how picky they wanted me to be. I gave them the choice (I can't count this as one of the five as it has been pretty much a constant for me). Nowadays, I wonder about the usefulness of focusing on mistakes. I learnt to praise self correction by students and to correct mistakes by remodelling the correct form back in their faces (direct correction was seen as confidence-eroding). But what do students really learn from this kind of correction? Rather than noticing errors, I guess they more likely just learn a repetitive style of discourse. I've seen various students get stuck with the habit of repeating direct questions and comments. They are also able to introduce errors at the same time, which really suggests that this kind of focus on errors is of limited value. But this is something for me to now unlearn rather than something unknown before I started teaching.

Teaching, never wanted to do it, kept finding myself doing so. Probably because I associate it with schools, tests and oppression, I find the word uncomfortable. I have found, especially with children, that the less I teach, the more they learn. Direct teaching seems to compress head and heart space, it seems to inhibit curiosity and squelch discovery. As John Hull said, as quoted by John Holt in How Children Fail, "If we taught children to speak, they'd never learn." So, being a non-teacher is what I aim for. I'm tempted to write 'facilitator', but sometimes non-teaching involves obstruction. Sometimes the way to lead a horse to water is to gently pull its tail or block its path. It might be more likely to drink as well.

I'm getting there. Before I started (non) teaching, I definitely thought the water of a lesson was language. I brought four books with me when I came to Japan. Two were on games, one on drama and one on music and song ­ all were applied to language learning. Now I know that I'm not teaching language, anything but. Communication, expression, inventiveness, intuition, learning, self, awareness, consciousness, choice, strategy, spontaneity. A ragbag of skills, a patchwork of qualities all revolving around the process of change.

When we invite students to learn, we are inviting them to change.

Where am I? Grin gently, there are no mistakes, avoid teaching, embrace change. One more ­ avoid competition. This has been my own personal odyssey. Before I began teaching in Japan, I couldn't really have imagined non-competitive and co-operative games, perhaps with the exception of role-playing games. Having been inventing games since around the age I could ride a bicycle, I found it second nature to create games for language learning. I found it much harder to eliminate competition. It required a different mindset. Now co-operation is the norm. Caring and sharing, exchanging roles and realities, teacher now student, students now teacher, we learn and change together.

On a good day.

And on a bad day... it still makes a difference. I'd be misleading you if I suggested that by cutting out competition everything is filled with warmth and light. Conflict can occur, especially when children arrive tired or grumpy or when individual rights are trampled on (usually by over-helpful mums). But there is a qualitative difference one can only find when competition has gone and co-operation is the norm.

To illustrate what I mean, I'll mention a recent kindergarten class. We were doing weather and I had 6 copies of a B4 sized poster showing 8 different kinds of weather. The children divided into groups and I gave each group a poster. There were well over 50 children, so each group had between 8 and 10 children. The game was to find the kind of weather I called out.

If we were playing competitively active children would have been racing to slam the right answer with their hands. Instead, I showed the children how they should start by pointing up in the air and then touch the answer with just one finger. If nothing else, this method has the advantage that the picture is not hidden from view by a tomb of tiny hands. But it had another that I only discovered on that day. There were so many children that sitting around the poster was difficult. In several groups one or two children were sidelined. I went around the groups and encouraged them to join in. In some groups the focus changed from finding the right answer to making sure everyone could touch the right answer and where this happened the change was electric. It was simply more challenging and more fun all doing and succeeding together.

Next time I do the activity I'll incorporate this change of focus. I can learn, too.

At 18 our convictions are caves from which we peer. At 45 they are spires from which we soar.

He may look like a teacher and talk like a teacher, but don't let that fool you, he really is a teacher.

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Mark O'Neil

I saw Curtis's posting on the ETJ list and his list of 5 things he wished he'd known then, and I was intrigued by his comments as much of what he says mirrors my thinking over many years. I have added my comments to Curtis’s headings:

1. Human beings are language machines
We are also forgetting machines. Rob Waring has been talking about this for some time in relation to vocabulary on the ETJ certificate course, but it applies to our whole lives - language included. We cannot - and would not want to - remember everything we experience. (What did you have for breakfast on the 3rd of October, 1988?). So our memory is deliberately selective. It seems to me that some things are higher 'priority' for our memories, and language is one of these. Higher on the list would be things that cause us pain, for example. We only need to be burned once to learn (not remember) that fire is hot.

"Only a syllabus aimed at encouraging students to learn will truly succeed."

2. Schools don't know what they are doing
Most school curricula and course material is geared toward remembering, not learning. I believe that only a syllabus aimed at encouraging students to learn will truly succeed. True, some students succeed anyway, but they are generally motivated to do so and hence will find their own learning process, perhaps even in spite of the process imposed by the school or teacher. What schools don't acknowledge and students aren't told is that they can pass 'the test' by remembering. After the test, they then forget. OR they can learn, pass the test and have language for life. At JHS, I remembered French but learned Physics. I blame my French teacher (in addition to blaming myself) for the fact that my French has gone but thank my Physics teacher as I still know now what I learned way back then.

3. Studying is not learning
This is so true but is missed by many teachers ('I taught you this already!'). A true teacher facilitates learning. I have been harping on that "learning and remembering are not the same thing" for several years on the ETJ certificate course. Remembering and forgetting are natural opposites. That is, what we remember can be forgotten. What we learn is for life.

4. It's not about me
You mean me - the teacher? Some teachers tend to impose their own beliefs on their students, when what students need is to discover their own learning process. That is, in order to learn most effectively, students need to become 'individual explorers'. However, most teachers have groups of students bigger than one (!). Perhaps the most efficient model for teachers to aspire to is of a group of 'democratic explorers,' where students recognise that the group class needs to meet a democratically acceptable set of needs. (Breen and Littlejohn, I think)

5. We all have disabilities
Yip. And mine is affecting my liver!

True false quiz:

1. All students learn the same thing at the same time for the same reason.
2. All students have the same abilities, interests and motivations.

Both false, I hope you'll agree. In fact, if 2 is false, then 1 must be false, too. The teacher's struggle (notice this T/F thing is not just about language - it could equally apply to learning the piano!) is to match their lessons with the students' different abilities, different interests and different motivations, so that students can learn for their own reasons and at their own pace. NOW write the textbook!

My thoughts here heavily influenced by: Classroom Decision Making by Breen and Littlejohn (2000, Cambridge), and Psychology for Language Teachersby Williams and Burden (1997, Cambridge).

Curtis - thanks for getting me thinking.

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