Yesterday evening I taught an English class, and totally messed it up. I say ‘totally’ because I could feel it slipping rapidly into the abyss DURING the class, rather than reflecting on it afterwards and realising that I could have made better decisions, which happens often.
The kids I was teaching reacted differently from the way I had expected. Instead of focusing dutifully on the A3 photocopies I had distributed, one little girl had hers rolled up like a telescope and was peering through it towards some distant horizon. At least half of the rest of the class had flipped theirs over to see what was on the other side, then remained there, transfixed by some image that was clearly much more engaging that what I had hoped they would be doing.
When things go wrong so badly in a lesson, so unexpectedly, there’s a feeling of panic. Followed by a certain amount of thrashing around, looking for a way out, or an alternative. It can be tempting to shout at the students, which rarely helps. Yet barely half of the hour-long lesson had passed and my plan was clearly shot. What would I do??
It felt like it had been a couple of years since I last taught so badly (below-average happens much more often), so I dwelled on the experience for the rest of the day, then part of the night.
I quickly concluded that, of course, it wasn’t the kids’ fault, though the class is a awkward one – most of them are in the first year of elementary school, so just learning to read (and not getting on as quickly as I had expected). One child is a year younger (so doesn’t read at all), while one strapping lad is twelve months ahead, and tackles everything I throw at him with enthusiasm and aplomb.
In short, the group is nigh-on unteachable, I consoled myself. But that’s because of decisions we had made ourselves, so I couldn’t claim not to have known. Insomma, there was no escaping the fact that I’d royally messed up.
At which point, experience tells me, I should put that car-crash of a lesson behind me, and simply resolve to make an extra effort next time. Sometimes bad lessons happen. The important thing is that they’re the exceptions rather than the rule, and that we learn from them.
Which brings me to today’s point: what about when we are LEARNERS and experience a bad, or good, lesson? Whose fault is that? Or conversely, to whom goes the credit if a lesson goes wonderfully? You and I are adults, not first year elementary school children. So don’t we have a role in the outcome, and thus a share of the credit or blame?
Call me controlling – amazingly, people have – yet during my four online ‘lessons’ as a student each week, I’m reluctant to cede responsibility to the teacher for ensuring my learning pleasure.
My focus is invariably to practice speaking French (Tuesdays), Swedish (Thursdays), and Turkish and Spanish (Fridays), which means ‘conversation’. Which, like ‘making babies’, takes two. The responsibility cannot be off-loaded onto just one of the participants, even though one is paid and one is paying.
For an optimum result, it’s important that both student AND teacher know – if the goal is a natural and satisfying interaction – that the student needs to do a good chunk of the work. Equally, that the teacher needs to be willing to ‘let go’ with the grammar explanations and so on, and throw their heart and soul into helping the student participate in as authentic a conversation as possible.
My four online teachers all do this extrememly well, for which I publicly thank them here. But they were, and are, helped considerably by having a student who knows exactly what he wants. I am not five or six years old, so can bear my share of the responsibility for a successful outcome. Equally, my teacher need not lose sleep if our thirty-minute chat turns out to be a disaster, for I will take at least part of the blame!
Today, as mentioned, I have two ‘lessons’ online as a student, and one as a teacher. After an hour of conversation in Turkish, I’ll be ‘teaching’ English to one of our online Italian teachers, who feels the need to invest in her skills.
Last week we did the first lesson, which I did not rate as a shining success (though it wasn’t nearly such a catastrophe as yesterday’s…) It felt like a rather combative half-hour, unsurprisingly given that we are two professional teachers, meeting for the first time, at least one of whom was playing an unfamiliar role.
It’s lesson two today, but I’m encouraged! My new student emailed (in near perfect English) to tell me that she had reflected on the experience (brava!) and realised that she needed to be clearer, to herself and to me, about what her goals for the remaining lessons would be.
The satisfied glow that email engendered in part helped compensate for the lingering guilt and shame of yesterday evening’s disaster.
N.b. What if you’re NOT a teacher, as most people aren’t, and so feel you have NO SINGLE CLUE as to what your needs are, or at least not at first?
Keep an open mind then, at least at first. Trust the teacher to have planned a lesson that should, in theory, be appropriate for you. But give feedback. If you like something, then say so! If an activity or lesson doesn’t ring your bell, then tell your teacher. I don’t suppose she’s telepathic.
Several years of being an online student have convinced me that the best ‘learning relationships’ (between you and your teacher or conversation partner) take time to take shape, and for each party to understand and to be happy with their role. Speed up that process by giving feedback. You can expect to be listened to, but should also be willing to put work in to ensure your lessons are a success and your learning maximised.
A lunedì, allora.
Next week we’re publishing a new ‘easy reader’ ebook! Watch this space for details. The level is super-advanced (I found it difficult in places), so if you’re not up for a challenge, browse our shop for something a little less intimidating…
Did you read/listen to yesterday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news, yet? If not, you’ll find it here.