Oct 252020
Now you’re thinking this is either clickbait or an arrogant person writing. But it’s neither…well perhaps a little of the former 😉 I’ve had many roles in my professional life starting from photographer, digital imaging editor, to teacher, to digital course materials designer, teacher trainer, content and copy editor, and my new and equally exciting role as research program manager. Once I tasted teaching and the feelings that if brings with it, though, I’ve always felt I needed to go back to the classroom after a break. When I’m not in the classroom, I miss teaching. I miss MY students – past, present and future. When I’m asked what I do, my spontaneous answer is always ’I’m a teacher’, then I might add other roles. Full-time teaching drains me, and I also like working on different things and then when ready, go back and give my full in the classroom again. Thinking about it, all the other roles either help me to be a better teacher or help others to be better teachers too. I’ve been long feeling the need to write this blog post, but what triggered it today was this music video. I was looking for something to listen to while writing some other blog posts, but when I read the singer’s comment, I had to write this now. Here’s a summary of the comment (which is the first one under the video if you want to read it yourself in Turkish or using a translation service): At secondary school the singer wasn’t good at school and thought even of giving up on his life. Then came his hero, his geography teacher, into his life. His teacher used to ask him frequently to sing this song for him and would praise him and take time to chat with him. This treatment motivated him to work harder and do better at school, just to please his teacher. One day his teacher and his wife visited them in their house in a poor area of Istanbul. He listened to his teacher praising him to his parents and telling them about all his positive sides, which he wasn’t aware about himself. They then told them about their ideas of how they would like to support me or how the parents should support him (I didn’t understand this part well). Their good relationship continued until the teacher was transferred to another city. But thirty years later, his teacher saw him as a successful artist and send him a message via social media, so they’re in touch again. Although many students have told me that I was ‘the best teacher I’ve ever had in my life’, I’ll often think they just want to me nice to me. I don’t think or am aware that I had such a great impact on anyone’s life, but I think every teacher in their heart hopes this to be the case. I don’t think many of us would secretly or openly hope and dream to be remembered for having taught a specific grammar point or piece of knowledge or skill. I think deep down we want to have a positive impact on our students lives, something that changes their lives to the better, something that brings out the good in them, something that makes them believe in themselves…perhaps even something that goes beyond that and we hope they in turn will go ahead and have a positive impact on others, on the world. Of course, we have to be good at what we’re teaching, but the people we’re teaching or training (if we are trainers) need to feel that most of all we care for them – whatever their background is, whoever the are, no matter how good or bad they are at what we’ve been teaching them, no matter how much they like or dislike our subject, or how much of a nuisance they are in the classroom, and no matter how much or how little they have been able to pay us…Show them you CARE for them! In return, they will care for you, for your subject, for their lessons, their grades, for improving, and they will REMEMBER and care for OTHERS. I remember a lot of my students and frequently think about them. The adult technician I lost my patience with once due to his constant complaints and disruptions, and sent out of class…then regretted it…This was a professional with his colleagues in the same class and we were in their work place! What was I thinking?! After class, I went to see him and apologised, but he said I was right. We talked a bit and developed some mutual understanding. It was my early days as a teacher and I developed a better understanding of adult learners after this incidence. After that, he was great to have in class and was very nice when me met after class too. The vocational high-school student who persevered as the only one of his class until the end in the extra weekend lessons I was providing them with, despite having to work after school. And he made it! Got the job he wanted, has been travelling the world and doing other great stuff. And I’m still following him on social media and it makes me happy. The problematic pre-sessional student who was always late, dressed oddly, never wanted to work with anyone except two more mature students, and who I’m ashamed to say I started dreading to see. It turned out her parents had been putting extreme pressure on her so she had left home young to study abroad in different countries, had had difficult times and had to become mature and develop confidence early in life. My attitude towards her changed and seeing and feeling that I cared made her change towards me and the class too. The future engineering students who had been learning English for many years without much success felt demotivated and felt they’d never learn English and it was all so complicated. I showed them a visual overview of a seemingly complicated grammar point that I had created for MYSELF when I was learning English. And the least hopeful, least interested and most naughty (to a point that made me feel uneasy sometimes to have him around) looked up, his face brightening up and understanding showing in his eyes and exclaiming: ’Teacher, this is so clear, so easy! I understand this!’ The retiree student I had once in Germany who was mostly taking the English classes as a hobby and to keep herself occupied with interesting things. I’d often just go for a walk with her with my notepad and pen in my pocket. We’d walk and talk and I’d take some notes. Back in my flat, I’d provide her with a bit of feedback. But she was a religious person, so the best help I provided her with was to suggest she joins the Anglican Church in our town, which she did. She became a very active member and once she invited me to her birthday to which the pastor and other community members were invited too. Not only did her English improve considerably, but she had made new friends and found a new role in her life. The pre-sessional student who I thought was the least interested, who wrote to me to ask whether he could keep in touch by email and since has been updating me infrequently but regularly on his studies, progress, achievements… There is one student, however, I also remember but with sadness. He was one of the students who I was providing with extra English classes and who was graduating from a vocational high school. They were being interviewed by a prestigious company for internship placements. The school had invited me to show me their school and sit in on the interviews if I wanted to. When I arrived, they had just finished interviewing this one student. The interviewer told me he hadn’t performed well, he lacked confidence and so wasn’t chosen. I then found out from his main teachers that he felt ashamed of his family background. Because of this, he had no self-confidence. He was one of those quiet students in my class, the kind that is neither distracting nor very well-performing, so don’t generally catch our attention. To this day, I regret not having learned more about his background before and helped him built self-respect and confidence, and not having acted on that fateful day for him. I could have asked to conduct an interview with him myself, or I could have at least talked to him and told him that his family deserves respect for feeding them and sending him to school, and that he deserves respect for being a good student. I haven’t seen him or any of the other students again. It was the end of school and my course. I hope he has overcome his lack of self-respect and lack of confidence and made it to where he wanted to get and is happy. I wish I had been THE person, the TEACHER who helped him with this, and who he would remember later in his life, like the musician, whose story about his teacher’s impact on him above made me finally write this blog post. My students have impacted on me a lot and they have helped me become a better teacher…and for some, perhaps I am really their best teacher. Now the song above is a sad one and it fitted the singer’s mood back then, but I want to leave you with a more upbeat song. This impromptu performance is not only mood raising and makes me smile, it also shows the artist’s skill, and his personality comes through: I’m eager to hear your stories. Why are you the best teacher? Which students and moments do you remember?
Apr 232015

1500x1500-abstract-dfg4001I attended two plenary sessions at IATEFL in Manchester. One was good; and my simple criteria for this is that it made me think. The other one was a complete disappointment… This is maybe why I didn’t go to the one by Harry Kuchah. But lying in bed with a cold and not able to do much work, I thought I could spare an hour and watch the recording. I’m glad I did. Kuchah’s talk or, as he calls it, story is definitely worth watching and listening to.

He starts out by giving definitions from the literature of what “difficult circumstances” generally means (30-50 students in one class, few resources, …). Then, he shows us images that show what his difficult circumstances were (200 or more students in one class, no materials, no facilities, …). Adapting to the difficult local teaching and learning circumstances, he managed to get what we, in more “privileged” circumstances (meaning smaller class sizes, lots of resources, technology in the classroom, etc.) hope to achieve in our classrooms: learner autonomy, real collaboration, student-teacher partnership, authentic materials, responsibility for one’s own learning, sharing, etc.

He also talks about how he took what he learned during his MA studies in the UK and applied it to the local circumstances and how he has helped other teachers make the best of their circumstances. His research and the research “community” of teachers and students he built is remarkable. It shows how when teachers (and students) are involved in research and when teacher development takes into consideration local circumstances, it all becomes more meaningful and real change takes place. I suggest you watch the recording for details on his research and the outcomes. Again, just like above with what he achieved in the classroom, the outcome of his training sessions and his research is just as relevant for us as for those teachers in the local context of Cameroon.

I am truly impressed and inspired by Kuchah’s achievements. However, one thought that also kept popping up in my head was this: I wonder sometimes whose circumstances are more difficult? Sometimes, I look at students such as those of Harry Kuchah and envy their teachers as the students seem so motivated. To me not having technology or coursebooks is not that challenging. I like working with the language (needs) that emerge in the classroom from the students. I’d find the large class sizes very challenging, I admit. But I think the main challenge we have in many “better off” countries is learner motivation. If learners are motivated (and teachers, obviously), I feel, other problems can be overcome more easily.

Anyway, take the time and watch the full story: I wanted to embed the video, but it doesn’t seem to be allowed. You can watch it here.
(At the same link, you can also download the slides and handouts.)


Apr 162015

It was a day like any other day on the pre-sessional EAP course I teach. I was with my second group, who I had for the Academic Speaking and Listening classes. The usual mix of nationalities. Mostly MA students, but also one undergraduate and two PhD students. It was a relatively “standard” Academic Listening lesson. We talked a bit about the lecture they had attended the day before and the notes they had taken during it. Then I led into the listening and note-taking task that was to follow. I don’t remember anymore what exactly we did, but we discussed the topic, which was perfectionism, whether it was something good or bad, etc. When I thought they were ready, I instructed them to listen to the short lecture and take notes. Everything looked normal. We were several weeks into the course and the students knew what they had to do. I was standing near the computer and making sure the technology was working well and occasionally glancing at the students making sure everything was fine, without being intrusive…

Suddenly, I had the feeling that something with one of the PhD students was odd, but I didn’t know what it was that made me feel like this. My eyes went from one student to the other, then I glanced back at this particular PhD student. Her head was lower than usual. She was looking at her book and writing, but then I saw it… tears were dripping down from her eyes onto the pages of the book! I didn’t know what to make of it or what to do. I looked away, looked at the other students. I didn’t want her to notice that I had noticed that she was crying. I thought that maybe she was homesick or had received some bad news, as it happens sometimes. But then it hit me. It was the lecture that made her cry!

The lecturer was talking about research into perfectionism, about the downsides of perfectionism, how it can lead to burnout and other negative psychological effects, etc. This student, I knew, was a perfectionist! I had noticed from the start that she was trying too hard to improve her English, her note-taking skills, her every skills. She was often disappointed with herself and her performance, even when I told her it was good. She came to see me after the lesson, sometimes, to ask me how she could improve… So, I had already been worried about her a bit. How would she cope with the pressure of doing a PhD I asked myself, but I hadn’t found a way of talking with her about this other than reassuring her during tutorials.

Now, the tears were falling more frequently. She had taken out a tissue. Should I tell her she could stop and go to the bathroom? Would she want others to know she had been crying? I decided not to do or say anything just now. When the lecture had finished, she had regained her composure. The students had to compare their notes, then they talked about the topic. Were they surprised to hear about the drawbacks of being a perfectionist? etc. The PhD student was participating in the discussing in her group with two other students. She seemed fine now. I decided I would talk with her after the lesson.

She told me that she was a perfectionist, and that she had put so much pressure on herself when doing her MA in her home country that she even had to be treated in hospital for some time as it had affected her physically and psychologically. She had had a very difficult time. And now, this lecture had brought all the memories back plus the worries about the PhD and how she’d cope, with her family and boyfriend also being far away. We talked for a bit, including about some coping strategies if she felt the pressure mounting again, I reassured her again and explained that the University also offers help in such situations. After that, I also occasionally sat with her and her friends during lunch and we chatted. I knew telling her it wasn’t necessary to be a perfectionist wouldn’t help. All I could do was to help her relax about this course a bit and let her know now who she could turn to when she felt she needed help.

I try to make lessons relevant and interesting. However, I had never thought the content of an academic lecture would make a student cry. That morning, when I was expecting it to be a “normal” lesson on listening and note-taking skills, this student reminded me of what we know as teachers but can sometimes forget in an intensive course when there is so much to get through: that we always need to be aware of the fact  that we are working with people each of whom brings their own baggage with experiences to the class, some good, some negative, and that this will affect their studies. And this is why it is so so important to take time to get to know one’s students on a personal level too (besides their language and academic learning needs) and establish good rapport and an atmosphere of trust.