Back to school.

Picture Source: atbaker and Animal Photos!

Reading Ania Kozicka’s excellent guest post on Ken Wilson’s blog this morning, the thing that struck a chord with me was not the main topic of her piece, but something she mentioned at the end in her biographical information.

“When you see me you may catch me…- writing a script
– listening to music
– dancing
– enjoying the sun – the best source of energy
– reading a book
– watching the Smurfs – they always make me smile!
– sitting with a Spanish grammar book – I believe a teacher cannot understand their students unless they are students themselves.”

It’s that final point that got me to thinking about my own experiences as a learner as opposed to a teacher. I absolutely agree with Ania’s point, but my relationship with language learning has always been complicated.

Like almost everyone, my first experiences were at school, studying French. My memories of the lessons are very hazy, as you would expect after 20 years, and aside from my almost unrelenting cheekiness (Mr Sheppard, if you’re reading this, I apologise for being an irritant of monumental proportions), I’m not sure at all of what we actually did in the classroom.

Nothing unusual about that, I don’t remember the make up of any of my other classes either, but as a language teacher I am especially curious, particularly as I know I studied French for at least three years, got a B for my GCSE and yet at no point in my life could I honestly say I could speak French, or even be close to it. If I was to join a French class today, and I’ve just moved to Belgium so this isn’t entirely unlikely, I would have to be in the beginners class. So now I’m burning with curiosity, trying to fathom what we could have been doing for those years that, even if you take into account my own reticence to study the language, led to a situation where I can just about read a menu and say “Le singe et dans l’arbre“. If you can answer that question for me, I’d be grateful.

My next experience was after moving to Brazil, some 15 years later. I took Portuguese classes for a couple of months before I became a teacher, which I quite enjoyed, although I was by no means the class swot. That experience was invaluable to me, because I can still remember the feelings of inadequacy and frustration I had as the class happily sung along with a pop song while I understood absolutely nothing, and had to sit there in stoney faced silence. I remember the repetitive annoyance of being asked a question by the teacher and overhearing the answer muttered under her breath by another student who was quicker than me and impatient of my slowness. And I also remember the pleasure I got from getting the answer right, of pair work with an anarchic New Zealander, and the general amusement at the man who refused to stop speaking Arabic.

In other words, I think it’s essential for a language teacher to have these experiences so they can know what it feel likes to be an adult language student with all the occasional frustrations that can involve. I’m not someone who loves to learn languages, for me it’s a struggle and I’ll never be one of those people you hear about who ‘pick up’ a language in no time at all. That’s my reality, and I’m not complaining about it, it’s just something I have to accept. But what it has done is enable me to understand that all students aren’t wide eyed enthusiasts who just can’t wait to learn.

When you teach adults, there will always be a percentage of your students who are there because they have to be, or think they have to be. As a result, I can understand their frustrations and feelings, and there are two benefits of this.

Firstly, it makes it easier to empathise with their situation. I have worked with teachers who talked about adults learners who “need a kick up the backside”. To me, this simplistic approach fundamentally misunderstands the complex nature of language learning. If you’ve been there, and had that bad day, or forgotten to do your homework, or said soap when you meant to say ice cream, you are more likely to understand that this can lead to sensitivity, shyness and embarrassment.

Secondly, an awareness of the students situation leads to a greater understanding of how the teacher can act as a motivator in trying to engage them in the class and their studies. Rather than dismissing them as lazy or too quiet, the teacher can think about their own role in stimulating the students by perhaps encouraging a more positive learning style and subsequent outcome. (The subject of learner motivation interests me, and I’ll come back to this at a later date.)

These experiences, I think, have been essential in helping me to become a better teacher. As a teacher of adults, disciplinarian is a role that I never feel the need to occupy. Friend, adviser, and counsel, however, are positions that from time to time are required. Without understanding their feelings this is impossible, and the experience of being a student makes this much easier for the teacher.







7 thoughts on “Back to school.

  1. Thanks Ken for entirely proving my point. You see, I really can't speak French!

    And you get extra points for getting the Eddie Izzard reference. I did put a link there, but for some reason it doesn't show up. Great sketch. (By the way, Eddie used to live around the corner from me and he once handed me a leaflet for the Labour party outside Kensal Green tube station. True!)

  2. Thanks for the Ania introduction:-)

    I entirely agree with your points. When I was a secondary school student, I used to learn German. I usually had good grades on tests and I quite enjoyed learning the language. However all I remember after 8 years now is 'Guten Morgen. Ich heiße Ania'. Why? I should highlight I really liked and respected my teacher..but all we did during the German lessons was grammar, translations, rewriting endless vocabulary lists, some reading and listening tasks. Speaking? 'Not at all' answer ( which my memory suggests) would be a lie but 'not much' is a good one here. Lack of real lg usage prevents students from lg fossilization – after years we remember nothing, no lg chucks in our heads.
    However…- I started learning English 20 years ago. I still remember songs I learnt during my first year of my adventure with English language. 'Ring the bell and open the door say hello, sit on the floor.' – the teacher engraved the lg chunks in my head. It seems a lot depends on the teachers. If the song was in German, maybe I would b teaching German now!:-)

    Coming back to the main point, I think teachers-learners realise better their students' lg needs, their shyness, quietness and sometimes lack of homework
    Positive attitude, enthusiasm, encouragement and EMPATHY- success guaranteed!

    Ps. I’ve just found out I’m going to teach English to my Spanish teacher- hope she will realize now why I sometimes speak Spanglish in her class! 😉


  3. Thanks Ania. It seems like we had similar experiences, except you have the positive experience of studying English to compare it with. Just think of how things could be different for so many people if we had all received better tuition.

    By being an adult learner, teachers have more skills in being able to assist their students towards their goals. What could be more important than that?

    Good luck with your Spanish teacher. It should be an interesting experience for both of you!

  4. This is spot on James. Every time I go to my Pilates class (which I am rubbish at) I understand my weak pupils better and also see the value of positive reinforcement when the teacher praises my pathetic efforts. We have to remain lifelong learners both as teachers and as individuals.

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