Over the weekend, I was copied in on an email from an online student complaining to our teaching manager, Lucia, that her teacher was slow to provide homework assignments.
“That’s the teacher’s job!”
Well, perhaps that’s part of it. I suppose it depends…
But surely, there’s more?
Fifty percent of any profession is going to be ‘below average’ in terms of their job performance, right?
I’ve had accountants mess up my tax returns, dentists damage my teeth, and yes, teachers waste my time.
But there’s a limit to this analogy.
I genuinely couldn’t have extracted my own wisdom tooth, and so was relying on the professional to do it for me.
OK, it took her three hours, but she got it out in the end.
Unfortuately, levering on adjacent molars did damage, which then lead to an infection and another, emergency extraction.
And everyone knows how impossible the tax code is to understand, especially here in Italy where a business can make a loss but still end up paying taxes, so further aggravating the situation (and they wonder why no one invests here?)
Professional help is therefore essential. And mistakes prove costly.
However, when I hire a teacher to give me individual lessons online, is it the same?
Am I placing myself entirely in the hands of a trusted professional, and relying on her to navigate me through what would otherwise be an impossible, unknowable, proceedure?
Exercise 1: “It’s the teacher’s job to…”
Read the statements below. Do you agree or disagree with each? Why?
- plan the ‘course’ (series of lessons)
- decide the content of each lesson
- select or create materials for each lesson
- ‘teach’ the lessons i.e. select, sequence, administer activities during the lesson
- give homework assignments
- during the lessons, give feedback on ‘errors’ and other weaknesses
- encourage me
- motivate me to study
- advise me on what to do to improve, besides the lessons
Beh, those nine statements seem uncontroversial, you’ll probably agree.
But hang on a minute… Isn’t all this the equivalent of saying:
“It’s the teacher’s job to know how best I should learn”
But what about me, the learner?
I’m not just a tooth being extracted.
What about my previous experience of learning?
My knowledge, as a student, of what works best for me, or doesn’t work at all?
My priorities as a learner?
In short, what about MY preferences for how the lesson should happen?
Exercise 2: “It’s the teacher’s job to…”
Read the statements below. Do you agree or disagree with each? Why?
- find out what the student’s priorities are
- structure lessons according to the student’s needs
- respect the leaner’s preferences regarding lesson activities and organisation
I’m being provocative, I know.
‘Priorities’, ‘needs’ and ‘preferences’ are very different things, for example.
But who knows best? The teacher, or the student?
Suppose one student is experienced and has clear priorities, and another student is learning a language for the first time and needs guidance?
Then I guess we’d expect less of ‘I’m the teacher and I know best’ with the first student, but much more of that (and reassuringly so) with the beginner.
And, in fact, that’s usually what happens.
A good teacher will approach experienced, knowledgeable learners differently – she’ll ask “How can I help you?”, “What’s your situation?”, “What are your goals?” – and proceed accordingly.
Sometimes, asking these questions, it’s apparent that a student has no clear goals, just a general sense that something needs to be done, and that they’re willing to spend time and money on making that happen.
“My mouth hurts. Help me, please.”
At other times, there’s a clear direction to follow. “I want to speak more fluently”, “I have to prepare for an exam in two months”.
Often the indications are contradictory: “I want to review all of the grammar and I want to do as much speaking as possible”.
In which case the professional will ask further questions to clear things up.
It might be, for example, that the client believes that studying all the grammar (again…) will magically result in conversational fluency.
Or that what they really want to do is practice, but would feel guilty ignoring the grammar completely.
“Hey, how about we just speak during the lessons, and you study grammar on your own at home? I could recommend a good book that you could buy…”
Once I’m done writing this, I’m off to our language school, where I’m assigned to ‘teach’ four classes, between the hours of 11.30 a.m. and 8.45 p.m.
The first two are English conversation groups, different levels, different students. The clients are there to practice. My job is to make sure that happens and, if necessary, to balance things out so that everyone gets a turn.
I’m the talk show host, the Oprah Winfrey figure, but it’s the guests/students who are the real stars!
We want to hear their stories. I’m just there to ask the right questions, so that happens.
The second class, a few hours later, is a small group of primary school students, aged seven to eight.
We have a course book to follow, but it’s not a lot of use.
Priority number one is to keep everyone safe and interested.
Priority number two is to teach them something, to push them a little further than they’ve already come.
Which is complicated by the fact that one student is new and knows much less than the others.
The final class is a group of intermediate-level adults, Italians mostly, learning English.
They need and want to practice, but also need input, something new, to keep them rolling along. The approach is basically a mix of the earlier two classes – conversation plus input, in equal quantities.
After teaching a lesson, I’ll ask myself if it was useful, if I made the right decisions, if the students were satisfied and happy, if they LEARNT anything.
The answer isn’t always yes.
Like the physician’s dictum, “First, do no harm”, I have my own motto – don’t waste people’s time.
Sometimes I do, sometimes it’s hard to know whether I did or not.
The problem, of course, is that teachers and students may disagree on what is or is not a waste of time.
In which case, it’ll come down to whether it’s a group class or an individual lesson.
“He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
In a group class, there’s unlikely to be a consensus, so the teacher gets to decide, though of course with the aim of keeping everyone happy, like a parent choosing the holiday menu.
With an individual lesson, the client is going to ultimately get what she wants, or she’ll take her business elsewhere.
If she wants something that is unreasonable, contradictory, or simply a waste of her time (it’s not unusual), then the teacher, who presumably has experience in these matters, has an opportunity, and perhaps a duty, to point that out.
And without, however, assuming that she, the teacher, automatically knows best.
People are different, have different values, and goals, and learn in different ways.
First we should ask, at least:
“Why are you here?”, “What do you need?”, “How can I help you?”, “What are your goals?”
And listen carefully to the answers, reading between the lines, asking further questions as necessary.
Only then should we decide that, this time, we actually DO know best.
And so go with whatever has worked before in similar situations.
We ask, we listen, we decide, and with individual students, if they’re not happy, we take the consequences.
THAT’S the teacher’s job.