Saturday, July 25, 2009

THE TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF TEACHING


The following entry is a guest post from Toby Crowley from Bite-Sized-English. Both new and old teachers would surely appreciate his thoughts about the noble profession of teaching.

I think I'm different from other teachers in that I am more than a little bit embarrassed to be teaching. I come from a family of teachers and, logically, I hated them all my life long. Becoming a teacher was, for me, like going over to the Dark Side.

I was convinced, when I made The Switch that I'd be different from 'those teachers.' I'd be cooler, I'd engage the students as human beings and not as a nine-to-five job, and I'd be in it for more than just the long summer vacations. And I think I can fairly say that I did, and I was.

Every so often, though, I catch myself failing to engage my students and, you know, teaching. I don't mean it in the sense of 'instructing,' I mean it the dirty-word sense: I was talking to blank faces, and I didn't know what to do about it. A lot of the teachers in the school where I teach write a certain number of students off. It's a private school, we teach mostly English and mostly to small groups or private students. And the students who got written off were labeled 'boring' or 'impossible,' moving the blame from the teachers—hey, we're teachers, we're fine, right—and putting it on the students.

And I—so full of dreams and ideals—did it, too. And I didn't think twice.

That's the power that the front of a classroom has: you don't have to stand there very long and you quickly become something you're not. Or, you find something inside yourself that you never suspected was there.

The story could stop right here. This could be nothing but a precautionary tale. But it isn't. I want to tell you about something I do when I catch myself teaching, something so heinous that my wife can't believe I do it to unsuspecting students.

I unleash the power of the front of the classroom on them.

It doesn't matter if I'm teaching one person or three or thirty. . . I haven't met a student yet who was able to resist that mysterious power at the front of the classroom.

When I realize I'm talking halfheartedly to disinterested faces—teaching—I unleash the power of the classroom. Invite a student to the front of the classroom to lead an activity or to explain something about their job, and they, too, will be unable to resist the transformative power. They start talking, they ask questions. I've seen quiet, docile students start correcting their classmates, just because they stood in the front of the classroom holding a dry-erase marker.

Like I said, my wife thinks it's unscrupulous for me to ambush students with what amounts to 'public' speaking on students, but I'll tell you this: mean or not, it works. It breaks up the 'predictability' of lessons, it lets the students use English to communicate and not only to work, and often, there's a lot of spontaneous laughter. Also, I find that the quietest students—the won't-speak-unless-spoken-to students—open up and have fun, because it's more 'real' than lessons.

It's something you can do at all levels. Some ways to get lower-level students to the front of the classroom include:

Have them take turns interviewing each other about their work experience. This is good for work vocabulary, obviously, but also for 'for three years,' 'three years ago' and 'used to. . . not anymore'

I like to have one student turn around so that he or she can't see the board. Another student stands at the board and asks the 'blind student' about the proportions and contents of their apartment. While the student at the board draws and fills a floor-plan, the 'blind student' draws their version on a piece of paper. When they're done, we compare what's on the board to what's on the paper.

At higher levels, your options are basically limitless:

Have students teach one another their jobs. This is great in a mixed class, where they aren't all colleagues together. I've had a shoe saleswoman explain to the class what was important—and what was only hype—about kids shoes. There were two very interested moms who asked a lot of questions in that class. Everyone has a job that's interesting to an outsider, and if not, they have an interesting hobby.

I like ridiculous meetings, but that's just me. There's a lot that's ridiculous about my classes, not the least of which is 'punishing' someone who comes late with 'leading' a meeting to discuss something important. I've had them invent grammar (there's a verb form in German that there isn't in English—it was their job to invent the English equivalent) and write folk-songs by committee (bring a rhyming dictionary).

With a bit of creativity, you can find a way to bring students to the front of the classroom in any lesson. It changes things up, it wakes everyone up, and—I know this from my own experience—there's a magical, transformative power in the front of the classroom that helps people see themselves in a different light.


For Further Reading,
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Woman Behind A Teacher's Odyssey

My name is Miracel Juanta and I write ATeachersOdyssey to help students and teachers create better English. I have been in the teaching profession for more than 10 years. My field of expertise includes ESL,IELTS,TOEFL,Business English etc. If you have questions about English, feel free to email me at msjuanta@yahoo.com or add my twitter @msjuanta.