Learning from student-teachers

This morning, I observed a superb lesson taught by a student teacher, K. The lesson was filled with meaningful communications between the teacher and the students, and between the students themselves during group work. The lesson design was rather content-based; all the language activities revolved around the topic of good eating habits. The topic was not there just to contextualize the language tasks. On the contrary, K’s lesson had a heavy focus on the subject matter itself, and the language used, whether it was by the teacher or by the students, and whether it was spoken or written, was not there for language practice per se, but for really talking about the substantive issue of good and bad eating habits. In other words, language was used for real-life, authentic, and communicative, purposes in the lesson. Furthermore, it was not a superficial, trivial, discussion of the topic that the teacher and the students had. Many of the questions K asked were higher-order, thought-provoking, questions. Yet:

(a)   The school, situated in a public housing estate, takes in students mainly from working class families. Few of them would be having private English tutoring.

(b)   It was a big class, with 39 students.

(c)    Almost all of them responded to the lesson with immense interest and enthusiasm. They spoke and wrote a lot of English during the lesson, understandably with some errors. But they were fluent, and eager to speak and write.

K’s lesson was obviously not perfect, but in many ways her lesson was thought-provoking to many of us veteran educators.

The following are some of the most frequent complaints I hear from teachers of English:

l   My students have poor English.

l   My students don’t have much family support in learning English.

l   They either don’t learn, or learn very slowly: look at the hundreds of mistakes they make in speaking and writing.

l   Their English is poor, so I have to use a lot of Chinese to explain things to them.

l   Their standards are low, so I have to use easier materials in order that they can follow.

l   The class size is big. I can only resort to traditional chalk and talk.

l   Their English is poor. I have to give them a lot of grammar and vocabulary practice. There’s no way I can get them to use English to talk or write about real issues.

The late American social critic, John Holt, once made a very strong comment: Schools are places where students learn to be stupid.

Yes, this is probably too strong a statement that most of us in education will find it unpalatable. Yet, we have all heard of the concept of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. If we perennially think that our students are incapable, then after some time, they will become incapable.

K’s lesson is a good reminder for me, and I hope, food for thought for veteran educators that:

  1. Dumbing down our teaching is not always the best solution to solving low achievement problems. In fact, we can unknowingly fall into a downward spiral.
  2. Students are cognitive beings: sometimes the best way to engage them is to present them with tasks that are appropriately challenging.
  3. Students are cognitive beings: they will be motivated by content that is interesting and meaningful.
  4. Distinguish between something interesting, and something fun. If students find the content interesting and meaningful, they will engage in the lesson on a deep level. On the other hand, things which are done purely for fun, for example games, will only have a short-term effect.
  5. In the process of learning English, students will make errors. While we need to deal with this, we should refrain from dumbing down our entire teaching, and falling back on massive doses of repetitive remedial drilling.
  6. Often, if we express higher expectations and show our confidence in students’ ability, they will respond accordingly. The opposite is also true.
  7. Have faith in our students’ potential.

I thank K for the thought-provoking lesson. I thank my 19 wonderful student teachers for reminding me how I can become a better teacher myself.

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Good teachers need, and deserve, a sense of pride

Jeff Chong, a Year 3 student teacher, was about to finish his first Teaching Practicum at a primary school. He received lots of thank-you notes from his students. He was deeply touched by the children’s expression of appreciation, put all the thank-you notes on his bed, took a picture of them, and posted the picture on Facebook. He attached this remark to the photo: 適當的吹噓是必要的 HAHA.

Jeff was obviously being humble. So I wrote him the following comment:

Jeff, that’s not bragging. I call it ‘a sense of pride’, which good teachers need, and deserve. You more than deserve all those appreciation notes.

There is no harm telling the world that your students appreciate your teaching. To earn their students’ gratitude, good teachers have to put enormous amounts of effort into their teaching. They also have to teach from the heart, which students can feel easily. Some people might argue: Shouldn’t that be what teachers are doing? But good teaching, and being a good teacher, require colossal sacrifices. A lesson may last for only 40 minutes, but a teacher who cares about good teaching may be investing three hours in designing and redesigning the lesson, and creating related teaching resources. Good teachers will give up their own time to help solve their students’ emotional and academic problems. Teachers differ from those in other helping professions, such as nurses, doctors, dentists, psychologists, etc., who have more concrete working hours, even when they are overworked. Teaching, on the other hand, can be a 24/7 job. Good teachers make unquantifiable sacrifices, and that is why they deserve their students’ gratitude.

They do not need to feel uncomfortable about letting people know their hard work is being appreciated by their students. In fact, this sense of pride is good for teachers’ emotional wellbeing. They know they are doing good work, and they know their effort is being appreciated by their students. This knowledge will keep up their passion in teaching.

Haha, my turn to ‘brag’, or to share. These two months are the Teaching Practicum period for the PGDE programme. During this time, I go to schools all over Hong Kong for lesson observation visits. When I arrive at these schools, once in a while, I will run into a former student teaching at the school.

Yesterday, I visited PLK Grandmont Primary School for lesson observations. After the lesson, I had a post-lesson discussion with the student teacher, and half way into it, another student teacher knocked on the door, and said that a former student teaching at the school was waiting outside the meeting room, hoping to say hello to me. Immediately I went out of the room, and there waiting to greet me was this cheerful lady, whom, honestly, I had no recollection of. Fortunately, she took the initiative to jog my memory, by telling me her name, and where and when I was her teacher during teacher training. Miss Rita Tong then continued to relate episodes from her teacher training days, and how she was inspired by my effort and passion in teaching. Half-jokingly, I said: “Did I really do those things?” Well, those episodes probably did take place, though I couldn’t recall them. Rita then told me she saw my name in my student teacher’s timetable, and had been looking forward to meeting up with me. She continued to shower me with words of appreciation.

You know, we Chinese are taught to act humble, but I have learnt to accept appreciations gracefully. So instead of refuting or diluting her praises, I listened and then thanked Rita for taking the time and initiative to convey her positive feedback to me. I told her how I was cheered and motivated by her kind words. Her words confirmed that I was doing good work, and that it had made a difference, even if in a small way, in a teacher’s professional learning.

So, you see, I should be the more thankful one; I should thank Rita for grabbing the opportunity to outwardly express her gratitude to me. This has helped to reinforce my sense of pride in my work, and given me much renewed energy for meeting the new challenges ahead.

I am sure all of you good teachers out there have a lot of similar experiences to share. You run into a former student from many years ago, who report to you the wonderful things you did and which you have forgotten, and then you realise that without your own knowing, you have made a positive influence on somebody’s life.

To wrap up this post, before Rita turned up outside the meeting room, I had been pondering whether I should look up the Discipline Mistress of the school to thank her for the excellent job that the school had done in building the superb classroom dynamics in the whole school. I have observed more than 4 lessons at PLK Grandmont Primary School, and in all the lessons, whatever the grade level and the time of the day, the students behaved immaculately. They gave the teacher their full attention, and energetic response. This has made life so much easier for my student-teachers, who lack experience in classroom management. Because the students are so teachable and cooperative, my student-teachers can afford to be creative and adventurous in their lesson planning.

I was not sure whether I should look up the Discipline Mistress, whom Deputy Principal Fung told me was Ms Rita Tong, to thank her for the good job the school had done, because I could be distracting her from her hectic duties. So, imagine my exhilaration when I found out that the lady waiting to greet me outside the meeting room was Ms Rita Tong …

This could be the last time in your life …

This year, I have a wonderful group of student teachers. They’re all highly motivated, active, positive, sociable, friendly, fun-loving, and diligent. They’re enjoying their studies, and each other, so much that observing them, I sometimes become jealous and I would start figuring out how I could make life miserable for them. Hence, I am now issuing them with the following pessimistic reminders about this year’s possibly being the last time in their life when ……

This could be the last time in your life to be able to study on a fulltime basis.

If you embark on further studies in the future, you’re most likely to be doing it on a part-time basis. There is a huge difference in terms of learning experience between fulltime and part-time studies. When you study part-time, you will only be concerned to complete all the course requirements and get the qualification as quickly as you can, so that you can get it out of the way and get back wholly to your fulltime job. When you study part-time, you can forget about enjoying your university life.

This could be the last time in your life when you can make some lifelong friends.

Well, we know that the older we get, the more we want to protect ourselves, by not fully opening up to others. If you’re super lucky, you may be able to make one or two good friends in the workplace one day, but when conflicts of interests arise (e.g., competing for promotion), even such friends can easily become enemies. On the other hand, your college buddies can easily become your lifelong friends. You have more time to hang out together. There’re many things that require you to collaborate with each other. You won’t hate a fellow student because she got A on an assignment and you got A- (unless she has also stolen your boyfriend).

This could be the last time in your life when you can work hard and play hard.

Once you’ve started your career in education, you will only be able to work hard. Your students will play hard, but not you.

This could be the last time in your life when you can enjoy what you are doing.

You might be thinking that you’re quite overworked already, with assignments, tests and exams piling up quickly. Well, until next September when you begin fulltime teaching, you have no idea what it means to be overworked. To any teacher, there are always more than one thousand and one things waiting to be dealt with. And you only have five hundred in hand (including many from Paul, of course). When you are a teacher, you may want to enjoy your teaching, and your relationships with your students. But the truth is, most of the time, you will be dashing from one thing to another. (That’s why you don’t see many fat teachers around.) Your only concern will be to get as many things done and as quickly as possible. You will find that enjoying what you’re doing is such a rare luxury that soon you will chuck it out of your vocational vocabulary.

Conclusion: Carpe diem!

The Last Ten Days

“Should I go for a Master’s degree to increase my competitiveness, and while I’m still in vigorous academic form?”

“Should I try something else before starting to teach in order to gain a wider range of life experience?”

“Will I be made redundant in a few years if the population begins to drop?”

“Will I be able to cope with real-life teaching?”

“Will I be able to find a decent teaching position?”

“Am I really competent enough to be a teacher?”

“Will my parents be disappointed if I really go into teaching?”

For many of you in my CALL course, your undergraduate studies will come to an end in ten days. I’m sure the above is only a partial list of the worries that have kept gnawing at your minds, while you are toiling round the clock through the very final assignments of your university days.

This is a taxing time for you. On the one hand, unless something goes terribly wrong, you know you are going to get your degree soon. But on the other hand, there are still heaps of long assignments lying ahead to be cleared. One student moaned on Facebook: “It’s so near, yet so far away.” Another groaned: “What an inhuman life I’m leading!” To make matters worse, even when you can take your mind off the assignment on your desk for one minute, some of the above destiny questions will immediately pop to the front from the back of your mind.

As far as assignments are concerned, the only thing I can say to you is: Hang in there! Think of the thousands of assignments, tests, and examinations, that you’ve gone through, and cleared, in your life. You will survive this final 100 metres sprint.

As for worrying about whether you will make the right destiny decision in the next couple of months, well, that’s a tricky part of life. Yes, you will finish one chapter of your life soon, and are going to start a new one. Unfortunately, deciding on which course of action to take, is not like buying a shirt or a handbag in a shop, where all the options are laid out before you, so that you can examine them, feel them, and compare them up to the last detail before deciding on which item to stake your money on. Life is full of uncertainty. No one can tell you with 100% confidence what will happen to the teaching profession in a few years time, what may happen to you if you try something else, or even what kind of person you will become two years from now.

Yes, I know it’s difficult to make this kind of decision. One moment, you want to be absolutely objective. The next moment, you want to follow your heart.

If you go for the totally objective decision, you may still be wondering whether you will miss out on something more meaningful and worthwhile in life.

If you follow your heart, you are afraid that one day you may regret your “naivety”.

How we wish we had the crystal ball!

But it is this uncertainty that makes life intriguing. What fun would there be if we could see everything that an important life decision would lead to?

If at this moment, you mind is more important to you than your heart, then weigh all the factors that you are cognizant of, and make the most rational decision you can.

If your heart is more important to you than your mind at this moment, then tell yourself you are still young (yes you are), then follow your heart, and decide that no matter what this turns out to be, you will not regret this decision later.

Like for many important events, such as marriage, having children, emigration, further studies, very often there is no right or wrong decision. It’s making the best decision you can at the moment. Sometimes, it’s simply just making a decision. Looking back at the important decisions I’ve made in my life, I can see that some of them led to an undesired outcome, like landing a job that I later found unrewarding. But I did not blame life, or myself, because I had earlier made what appeared to be a sensible decision under the circumstances of the time. Furthermore, even a negative experience is an experience, and will always contribute to, in some way, to our later life!

Lastly, if you’re having doubts about your ability, remember that no one starts with all the ability required for any job. We all learn on the job. Throw yourself into it, and you will get the ability.

All the best!