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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

February 2009

Topic: How Did You Become The Teacher You Are?

Chuck Sandy

Years ago someone gave me a motivational bumper sticker that reads Teachers Change Lives, and wanting to think that I might be or become such a person, I stuck it on my office door. I didn't think about it again or even really see it until the day it got caught on something and tore -- leaving only the words Teachers Change intact.

While teachers do certainly change lives, that original bumper sticker was mostly a cliche meant simply to give teachers a little pat on the back. When it became Teachers Change, however, it became for me a powerful reminder that one never quite becomes a teacher, but instead is always in the process of becoming a better teacher. As in other forms of personal growth, one never quite arrives but is always in the process of getting there.

What's almost hard for me to believe now is that I have been in the process of getting there for over twenty-five years. I mention this because upon reflection I find that it has been the actual going out and getting into the classroom with students day in and day out, year after year which has caused me to grow the most as a teacher and as a person. I have become the teacher I am (still becoming) by teaching -- while at the same time being open to the process of both learning and growth. The growth I refer to here is both personal and professional -- for in the lives of teachers they amount to the same thing.

Teaching, by definition, is a transformative act and in the best classrooms this transformation works on every level. The longer I teach the more I realize that becoming a teacher means being willing to share with others that self who one is at this particular moment in time. What I have discovered is that if I am willing to fully share that self while also being willing to change in the ways I am asking my students to change, my students are more willing to come along and grow with me.

When I first started teaching, people were still thinking of language learners as automatons who just happened to be equipped with language acquisition devices which teachers could simply boot-up and activate by doing certain things in certain ways rather than certain other things in certain other ways. I am referring of course to audiolingual and post-audiolingual practices that put language rather than people first, and I suppose in some way my life as a teacher to date has been a process of me raging and struggling against that machine in favor of the human.

Over the years I have struggled with these questions: How can I get students to see language not as a mysterious code, but rather as a tool for self-expression? How can I make language learning relevant for all of my students? How can I make my classes more meaningful? What are ways in which I can get students excited about learning? What materials can I develop that do what Helen Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan is referring to when she says:

"I never taught language for the purpose of teaching it; but invariably used
language as a medium for the communication of thought; thus the
learning of language was coincident with the acquisition of knowledge."

I a™m still struggling to communicate that, and sometimes, of course, I fail miserably, but today I fully understand that we are teaching people, not language, and that in order to insure learning, we need to activate more than brains. We need to engage people in meaningful, relevant tasks while being willing to accept students shortcomings in the same way we are willing to accept our own. I say accept, but I mean that in a momentary sense. Once we accept our students as the people-in-progress they are, the job is to get them to recognize and overcome their shortcomings in the same way we should be willing to accept and overcome our own.

Over the years there have been days and classes so joyfully perfect that it seems strange that I get paid for doing what I do. Any teacher knows, though, that those perfect days and classes can be few and far between. Mostly teaching is a struggle, and at times the task of educating people seems an impossible one. When I feel that way, though, I look below that torn Teachers Change bumper sticker and see a quote I put there from the sculptor Henry Moore, who wrote:

"The secret of life is to have a task ... something you bring your everything to. And the most important thing is -- it must be something you cannot possibly do."

That's what teaching is: something we cannot possibly do ... perfectly, but which we can and do get better at doing the more we do it, the more we give it our all, the more we are willing to believe in and strive for the best in both our students and ourselves.

Though of course there have been very influential teachers of my own in my life, mentors along the way, gifted colleagues and coauthors, as well as friends willing to sit with me and think it all through, it really has been and continues to be the very act of teaching which has made me and continues to shape me into the teacher I am (becoming). It's the hardest work I know, but what could be better: the chance to change not only the lives of others but to change ourselves as well in the process. Teachers change and thank goodness for that.

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Marc Helgesen

How did you become the teacher you are? In a sense, I am still “becoming” a teacher and hope I always will be. We are all constantly growing and evolving as teachers. Thank goodness for that. There’s always more to learn. And it’s really the only way to stay fresh – excited about what we do.

Anyway, how did I get to the place I am now? I started teaching in a maximum security prison in Illinois. (Yes, I really was just a teacher. They let me out every night.). I had been an elementary education/early childhood major in my undergraduate years and I was working as an ABE (Adult Basic Education) reading specialist. After a while, the prison started sending a lot of Hispanics to my class because they couldn’t read. They couldn’t read English because they didn’t know English. So I bought a book on teaching ESL and started an English class. And, like most teachers in a totally new and unfamiliar situation, I was lost. Then I heard about something called Illinois TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages). I went to a conference. Wow. Amazing! Here were a whole lot of people who were doing what I was trying to do – and they actually knew how to do it. And they were happy to share what they knew. So that was one of the first things I learned as an English teacher – professional associations are really important. Here in Japan we have JALT and ETJ. There are local meetings and national conferences, regional EXPOs, special interests groups, and mini-conferences, websites, message boards, and discussion lists. There are a whole lot of people around us – people who are happy to help.

Anyway, while still working in prison, I went to grad. school to learn about this thing called ESL/EFL. And I continued to be active in Illinois TESOL. At one conference, I went to a workshop by Teachers College Columbia University Professor John Fanselow. The session was called “The Bridge It Done Begun At The Pasar”. At least that’s what I remember it as. Maybe that was the subtitle. Who would go to a session with a name you can’t understand? As it turns out, it was really three sessions: The Bridge, It Done Begun, and At the Pasar. And Dr. Fanselow went through them in reverse order – which matched he fact that he had stapled the handout together backwards. His point was this: figure out what it is you do, try the opposite and see what happens. And he’s right. You are certain to learn something in the process. And, when you take this attitude, it is perfectly fine to screw-up. You’re learning. And you stay fresh. That workshop was nearly 30 years ago but I still find the message important. It’s a useful way to keep growing. I think it is important for us as teachers to specifically look for change. As Harvard psychologist/researcher Dan Gilbert points out, a lot of people are neophobic. They fear change. This isn’t surprising since, for thousands of years, people grew-up and lived around members of their own tribe. It you met someone or saw something new, it just might kill you or eat you. No wonder people fear getting outside the comfort zone. But we are English teachers in Japan, so we aren’t as neophobic as some. If you are not a Japanese and in Japan, it means you’ve come to this foreign culture which is probably very unlike your native land. If you are Japanese, it means you make your living teaching people to connect with something outside the familiar. So as English teachers, we really are about change. And we can do that best by constantly changing ourselves and our teaching. Besides, it is that change that keeps us interested and engaged in what we are doing. And if we feel that way, the students will catch the energy.

After about five years in prison, I decided it was time to do something else (a sentiment I know a lot of the cons shared). I thought a couple years abroad would be interesting. So I came to Japan. A couple years? That was just over two and a half decades ago. And again, I got involved with the professional organization, JALT. This was the early ‘80’s when ELT was going through a paradigm shift. We heard a lot about the communicative revolution but there was another movement that was sort of a subset of that. It was the realization that we don’t just teach English – we teach people. People like Alan Maley and Mario Rinvolucri did workshops in Japan about what eventually became humanistic language teaching. Earlier models of language learning had treated students like language learning machines who could “listen and repeat” their way to fluency. We now assume that things like personalization and learner choice/autonomy are not simply motivation techniques and classroom management skills. They are basic to creating conditions necessary for learning. Humanistic language teaching and learning became and remains a major factor in my teaching and writing. It is also behind what I am currently doing with trying to create connections between ELT and positive psychology (The Science of Happiness)

So those are three things that I’ve learned and continue to use in my teaching – involvement in professional organizations, change and trying new things, and humanistic language teaching. I think they all fit into what we are trying to do with Think Tank. It’s good to be back.

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Curtis Kelly

For me, the question, “How did you become the teacher you are?” is intriguing, because I suspect the way I answer it might hint towards how all of us have become the teachers we are.

To start with, I’d like to suggest that we each have many teachers inside us, teachers that were there before we taught our first class, and even before we reached adulthood. We tend to think that our teaching style is a product of academic training, educational philosophy, or even the way we are taught, but I have come to the conclusion none of these causes us to be a certain kind of teacher, they are just boosters that move us further along an existing trajectory. These experiences just provide us the means to refine, empower, and verbalize what already is.

Indeed, I was inspired by some great teachers, including one in elementary school; I was stretched by the humanistic educational philosophy I encountered at Vanderbilt University (check yours here ); and most of what I do in the classroom came from training in graduate school, from JALT, or from my peers. Still a fascinating theory I heard in an interview made me realize the seeds of what I have become were already in play before those experiences. The theory had nothing to do with teaching; it was about politics.

The cognitive scientist George Lakoff was interviewed on his book, Moral Politics. Lakoff posits that we have two conceptual models for right and wrong imprinted from childhood: the strict father morality and the nurturant parent (I suspect he really wants to say “mother”) morality. One values equality, accountability, and self-reliance, while the other embraces compassion, care, and protection. I’ll let you figure out which represents political conservatism and which liberalism.

Lakoff has been criticized as being simplistic, but maybe unfairly. He does not say we are one or the other; rather, that each of us has a complex mixture of moral standards that we apply selectively. For developmental psychologists who study transference, his theory rings true. Something chimes for me as well, but not in relation to politics, in relation to what we do in the classroom.

Society has always portrayed educators as being alternate parents, and for a reason. Anyone who has observed Japanese high schools sees the strict father morality in action, regardless of teacher gender, and similarly, the nurturant mother (Okay, if Lakoff won’t say “mother”, I will) in primary schools. To me, the theory explains the extremes I encounter in teacher attitudes towards lateness, grades, group work, curricula, and just about anything else related to English teaching, including societal expectations. Here are some examples from college:

Father Mode
  • If they are absent three times then they are out. It is a rule I use to toughen them up for the real world.
  • If they can’t follow the lesson plan, they shouldn’t be in college.

Mother Mode
  • They are absent because of all the things going on in their lives, so I make special accommodations for them.
  • I won’t leave anyone behind, even if that means using materials below college level.

By different attitudes, I don’t just mean the attitudes and policies held by different teachers, I also mean the simultaneous, yet opposite, attitudes I carry within myself as well. Class-by-class and student-by-student, I switch from one mode of morality to the other. I am a contradiction, but I make it work.

In the long run, however, I notice myself shifting away from the strict father, and more towards the nurturant mother. Training, educational philosophy, the way I was taught might be parts of the push, but only minor ones. The real shove comes from getting to know my learners more intimately than ever before. 

Although I have taught English in elementary schools, in high schools, in graduate schools, and in companies, most of my teaching has been done in Japanese universities. For the first ten years, I taught proficient, motivated students, but for the next eighteen, I taught what I refer to as 3Ls: students with low proficiency, low confidence, and low motivation. The more I understand about them, the more I see these things happening:

  • I reframe my role from being a language teacher to being a people maker.
  • I reposition 3Ls as being the primary target of my teaching, not the ones who study.
  • I realize that understanding and accepting are more powerful tools for enabling growth than scolding and punishing.

So how did I become the teacher I am? ... from being raised by others and then raising others myself.

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Dorothy Zemach

If I had two columns of space, I’d also write about how who taught me shaped the teacher I am. But with just one column, I’ll tackle how where I taught influenced me.

After graduating with a B.A. in French Literature, I drifted for a bit—tried out music administration and library work, and waitressed in the evenings … and then answered a 2-line ad in the local newspaper that said “Teach English in Japan! Call (number).” I knew nothing about Japan. Really nothing. When I went to the interview, the school’s owner showed me some photos that he said were “of the town and the school.” Although he’d said the school wasn’t much to look at, the first building I saw looked quite impressive for a school, quite impressive indeed, and I said so. He gave me a rather odd look, and said, “Yes, that’s because it’s a Shinto shrine.”

I kept meaning to learn something about teaching English before I went, but I took an intensive beginning Japanese language class during the day, and then was doing all that waitressing at night, and before I knew it, I was flying to Japan. Between the time I’d been hired and the time I flew over, the person who interviewed me had sold his school to someone else, who of course inherited me along with the operation. He met me at the airport in Narita, where his first words were, “I just hope you’re normal.” He took me to my apartment, where yes, he had to explain about taking shoes off and no soap in the bath (I also hadn’t found time to buy even a simple guide book—but I could read and write hiragana and katakana and carry on engaging dialogues about pens and ashtrays).

I had the next day off to see the town of Narita, which I had been warned was small and sleepy. I arrived on January 3 though, with New Year in full swing, and the streets packed solid (in those days, Narita-san drew about 2 million visitors during the January season). I put off a planned weekend trip to Tokyo because I wasn’t sure, if this was “small,” how on earth I’d ever handle “crowded.”

My second day in the country I observed three classes; the following day I taught on my own. Fortunately, Japanese students are kind to new teachers. They ask you questions, they introduce themselves, they let you know what page they’re on. Years later, when I tried my first homeroom of American middle school students, I felt like I was being torn apart by wolves; but the class with the Japanese was enjoyable, and the students seemed quite forgiving of what must have been my obvious cluelessness.

I was fortunate to have a boss (Bill Casey, now a professor at Chiba Keiei University) who was also a teacher, and who additionally made teaching supplies. He had a knack for drawing and made stacks of flashcards and posters to supplement the textbooks. He also enrolled me in JALT and drove me to each monthly meeting. JALT was like a mini certificate course in teaching. We had great presenters who demonstrated practical things. I learned a new technique every month, and then had four weeks to practice it before the next session. I directly credit the help I got from those JALT meetings with being active in professional organizations now.

My students were friendly and hard-working, but they let me know how hard English was. After all, they’d studied for years and still struggled with pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, idioms, spelling. And I believed them. They made such a convincing case for the difficulty of English, and at the same time my Japanese wasn’t progressing beyond that first semester I’d had at home—which I put down to some insurmountable gulf between the two languages rather than my spending most of my time with English-speaking friends.

After three years of teaching in Japan, I returned to the US to get an MA in TESL at the School for International Training. Following my graduation, I worked for a year at the American Language Center in Rabat, Morocco.

Moroccan students were a whole ’nother ball of wax, as they say. They had some obvious advantages over Japanese students in being bilingual in Arabic and French. Between those two languages, they had every sound that English does, and from French they had a wealth of cognates. But what stood out was their great attitude. I like to ask my students on the first day why they’re learning English. In Japan I used to get three answers: for work; for school; blank stare. In my Moroccan classes, about half the students would give answers like “I just like languages.” “I want to read English literature in the original.” “Foreign languages are fun.” Fun … and apparently easy. I asked a class of complete beginners once how long they thought it would take to learn English. Most thought it would take about a year or 18 months. And you know? Most of them were right! Because they were convinced that English was fun and easy to learn, it was indeed that way. They’d argue grammar points with downright passion. “Teacher! Isn’t possible to use the present perfect continuous here? and if we used that tense, wouldn’t it have a different meaning?”

They trusted themselves to learn the language, and they trusted me to teach it. Japanese students would let me say that I didn’t know the answer to a question but would find out and tell them the next time; Moroccans demanded that I think on the spot and would keep questioning me until they had teased the answer out. I had only one student who even carried a dictionary, and when I asked him once to look something up, he said, “But why? It’s much easier to ask you.”

When I returned to Japan, where I taught for two years at Sumitomo Electric Industries in Osaka, I took those memories back with me. I refused to buy into the whole “English is difficult” paradigm. In fact, I banned the word “difficult” from my classes. I made students use “challenging,” or sometimes “interesting” or even “enjoyable.” They’d laugh … but you know, what you say really does influence how you think, even in a foreign language. I also spent more time trying to show students the “fun” side of English—I set up international keypal exchanges, we listened to songs (yes, even in “business English” classes), we read stories, we analyzed English jokes and humorous anecdotes. Of course, by this time had my MA and more years of teaching behind me, so I was also simply a better teacher.

Japan is a great place to teach, and Japanese students might always be some of my favorites. But I encourage people who’ve taught only in Japan to try teaching elsewhere, even if it’s just a summer program. Try teaching multi-cultural classes if you’ve only experienced monocultural ones, or teach in an English-speaking country. Even if you come back and settle permanently in Japan, your experiences will positively impact the way you teach.

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Peter Viney

I was dragged backwards screaming into TEFL. My first experience was over four years as a student, teaching teenagers during my summer holidays. That filled the mornings. The evenings were more exciting, doing the lights on summer variety shows for Tom Jones, Tommy Cooper and Ken Dodd. I learnt more about communication skills by watching professional comedians doing the same act twice-nightly for twelve weeks than from subsequent teacher training. I finished a research MA and got a job with what later became a well-known band. It was Christmas, we’d just got back from Germany. The band were in the doldrums. My brother-in-law was teaching TEFL at Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth and was offered a better job abroad. The school said they couldn’t possibly find an experienced teacher at short notice at Christmas, so he pointed at me … and there I was on January 4th, teaching. I intended to teach for three months only but I found a lively scene … there were weekly drama shows featuring Colin Granger and Guy Wellman. I met Karen, my wife and co-writer, doing the shows. We started writing original material together weekly for the shows. The classroom was a constant theatre. We had a props cupboard with wigs, hats, and all sorts of stuff next to the staff room. Lessons were fast-paced, funny, involving, and extremely hard work. Lord Reith, the first head of the BBC said the three purposes of the BBC were information, education, and entertainment. His 1970s successor, Billy Cotton Junior, said that entertainment should come first because without it you would not attract people to be educated or informed.

Most of us at Anglo-Continental were in our twenties and believed there was a direct correlation between teacher energy input and student language output. There’s some truth in that, but it took me ten years to find out that you could get the same results more calmly. In this “tick boxes” society, you are forced to adopt a teaching stance appropriate to your age. The twenties are the time to power through on energy and enthusiasm, the thirties to early fifties on technique and knowledge, and at my age, 61, the stance you try to get across is guru (-lite), i.e. wisdom. Like any stance, it’s partly an act for most people. Or mainly, in my case.

Why TEFL? I had disliked French at school. I enjoyed Latin because it was 30% history, and no one could criticize your pronunciation. Early on in teaching at Anglo, I was confronted with a class with, among others, a Mexican pilot, a Spanish sea captain, and a German photographer. Another teacher referred to them as the “thickies” because they were beginners. These were interesting, intelligent, and accomplished people who had failed to learn languages well at school. They’d thought language learning for its own sake was BORING and so were forced to take three months out of their interesting adult lives, and spend time on an intensive course learning English. I totally agreed with them. Language learning is dull in itself (as so many recent course books have proved beyond doubt). My mission was to make it funny and involving … not for the language specialists who could learn English from a telephone directory … but for the rest of us. That means involving and enjoyable tasks too, not just amusing presentation. I’ve co-written books with “natural linguists” and they don’t have a clue how hard or dull it is for everyone else. I try and make it interesting via content and presentation. I’ve become adept at making grammar transparent in the meantime. Most people want English as a tool to do something else, not as a study in itself. Those who do see English as a study in its own right are more than adequately catered for by existing materials. I’ve always written for the people who are not interested in English for its own sake. By an accident of birth and time they need to learn English. I’d hate to have been in the position in life of “If you want to make a living you need to learn Chinese.”

My Streamline co-author, the late Bernie Hartley, and I would discuss everything we had experienced in (bad) language classes and work out how to do it differently. Bernie had spent years analyzing the micro-skills of the teacher. Bernie could do a two hour training session on just eye contact, or pausing before a question or a cue. Bernie could give you thirty minutes on where to stand and what to do while using a cassette player. He taught me that there were a set of teachable and transferable professional skills for language teachers, and to get past the “personality” teaching I was used to.

I’m now a full-time materials writer. What is the challenge for the future? As Marshall McLuhan predicted in “The Medium is the Massage” forty years ago, the media, including television advertising, movies, video games, and MTV are changing the way that people think. When we were mainly educated by reading (or teacher explanation, or TV and film with a linear narrative thread), it promoted linear thinking, and cognitive process. Kids are now exposed to rapid multi-sensory stimulus on TV and on computer and game screens before they can even read. This alters the way people make associations and fundamentally affects the way they think and learn. Devising ways to harness rapid multi-sensory stimulus input as an educational process is beyond people like me who grew up in a linear world, but hopefully I can contribute a few pieces to the 3D jigsaw.

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Chris Hunt

"Excessive Preoccupation with one’s self is a constant source of torment.”

Matthieu Ricard.

I don’t like teaching. It gets in the way of learning. When I think about teaching language the William Hull quote from John Holt’s “How Children Fail” invariably springs to mind, “If we taught children to speak, they'd never learn”.

The reason, I feel that overt teaching fails is that it inevitably teacher centred. Even the most child friendly and child centred lesson suffers from the flaw that it springs from the needs of the teacher rather than the wants of the child. Let’s face it, what child in their right mind would want to be in school being told what to do and when to do it? How is school anything more than a prison and how are teachers anything but well intentioned jailers? Please let me know if your experience murmurs otherwise. As I cast through the waters of my mind almost every catch confirms this dismal fact.

My first memory of school is being led through a room where children were playing with bricks. I was asked if I would like to come again and wanting a go with the bricks I said yes. I never saw those bricks again. I was four. When I was six we moved house and school was further away. My mother walked me to the school and when I realised I was going to be left there I struggled to escape. The teacher grabbed me and I kicked her in the shins. She didn’t let go. I guess she got to like me because I remember one time she gave me two puzzle books as a present. I used to take her flowers. Another time, much to my mother’s consternation, she took the whole class to visit our garden, no permission slips in those days. But I remember when I wanted to put guns on a model ship I was making out of cereal boxes she wouldn’t allow it. I did get permission from a visiting trainee teacher who showed me I could secretly use straws as retractable barrels. It was a great victory over unreasoned authority. But thinking back I must already have become conditioned to accept control as I sought permission in the first place. Now, whenever a child I am working with hamstrings their creativity with submissive requests for permission I inwardly wince.

I guess I was 16 or so when I first stood up to authority. I had been called to the Headmaster’s office with several other students. The school wanted to make us prefects. It was an honour. It was a responsibility. We would have the power to give orders, enforce school rules and put those who disobeyed on detention. When the headmaster finished explaining this to us he asked if we had any questions. In a quavery voice I told him that I didn’t want to be a prefect. I guess I was the first in his experience ever to refuse. He was momentarily rattled but decided to conclude by congratulating the others who said nothing. He made a point of shaking everyone’s hand but mine. He resorted to emotional blackmail by telling me that two teachers that I liked had put me forward to be a prefect and that they would be upset if I turned the honour down. I caved. But as a result, perhaps, I was never put on bus duty, which meant staying late until everyone travelling by bus had gone. I got to supervise a top floor corridor all to myself.

On that top floor I was a king. It was the school policy to force everyone but those in the final year out into the playground. I used to let those who wanted to stay indoors in a far room, as long as they were quiet. One time the school caretaker came by on a surprise sweep. He was about to check the room but just in time I saved myself by calling out that I had already checked the room and he didn’t bother to open the door. Another time I remember I refused a couple of third formers access to a different corridor because they were cheeky. They wanted the favour of a friend but treated me like an enemy. I guess this incident is one reason why now mutual respect is so important to me.

If we teachers were truly respectful of children then we wouldn’t teach in compulsory situations. Various situations in my life have pushed me towards teaching but it was only when I got to Japan that I began to accept it was a job I could do without self-loathing. In the private sector I found that I could put the interests of the child first before the demands of the parents. Ideally, I would only work with children who are passionate about English but in practise I do work with children who are ambivalent about it. One thing I think adults can do is to help children to find their passions. Another is to help children realise when they don’t like something and then help them not to do it. Helping a child to quit English can be as important as helping them to get better at it, probably more so.

Rereading my words above, I realise this piece is like trying to fill a bucket with a sieve. I’ve mentioned a couple of incidents, passed by many more and ignored my own experiences of language learning. I know one holiday I made a board game to practise French conversation and it blew out of the back of the car on the way home. I remember passing O Level French, it was compulsory, and after the exam our teacher was so convinced that most of us would fail that he made us keep studying. As the rest of the year whiled away the closing weeks after the exams playing cricket, football, and the like we had extra French lessons to get ready for a resit. In the event, all but three of us passed and many of us deliberately forgot to return our French books to the school by way of protest. Mine are still in a cupboard somewhere in my parents’ house.

Only one word can describe my feelings about learning French. Tedium. The Audio-Lingual method was in and it drove me out. I guess the complete lack of choice at school and the crushing boredom of so many of the lessons are why I am now so committed to providing choice and using games when I work. I’ll never force a child to do anything though I will get stroppy when one disrupts another. Refusing authority dies hard, but I’m working on it.

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