Becoming a better teacher by being a student again
Thursday, June 22, 2017
In my free time, I’m taking a sewing class at a government-run trade prep school here in Mexico. As we approached the end of the term, the instructor asked to see the completed school uniform she’d assigned at the beginning of the term. Not a single student answered responded and the teacher left the room without another word.
It struck me how similar that scenario was to my interaction with my high school English students when it comes to their follow-through on assignments. I experienced what it was like to be in the students' shoes at the same time I empathized with the teacher.
Like most of my classmates, I had my own agenda when electing to take the course and learning to make a school uniform hadn’t been one of them. I wonder what intentions my students have when they enrolled at this high school, where English is was part of the required curriculum.
In my sewing class, I negotiated with the teacher on the issue of the uniform offering to make one for my daughter’s teddy bear, the only family member I thought might make use of a traditional school uniform. I succeeded in completing a shirt and sweater but never got to the skirt — I was too busy making Christmas presents for the living, breathing members of the family.
As an adult, I had nothing against the teacher, no reason to go against her as an act of rebellion. I just moved on to something that interested me more and neglected the skirt.
Yet, when I’m in the role of teacher, it’s easy to assume that my students are leaving assignments incomplete due to some sort of personal vendetta against me. In some cases, that may hold some truth, as they are adolescents, not middle-aged adults.
However, in light of my own dissent from authority, I began to wonder how much of their seeming lack of interest stems from the reality that they would just prefer to read a book in their own language, talk with a classmate or text a friend in the bathroom.
My students may feel pretty satisfied with their current abilities. Maybe my assigned uniform skirt with its out-of-date pleats is their formal essay with its antiquated formal language and structure.
At their level, they can watch movies and listen to songs in English. Their level of writing surely allows them to tweet or send an Instagram post in English, so they could easily be thinking what I am trying to teach them is irrelevant to their lives.
I imagine my sewing teacher with her curriculum, dictated in part by her superiors, with the institutional goal of preparing the enrolled students for the world of work. Surely there is a set of criteria that she has to cover. The placard over the entrance to my classroom clearly states Industrial Garment Manufacture.
I entered the class on my own free will, clearly knowing that my goals to learn how to make clothes for my kids were not in line with departmental goals, and clear that at no point in my life do I want to be an industrial seamstress or anything of that nature.
So even if my students enrolled at this high school with the knowledge that they would have to pass an English class, can I expect more of them than myself?
Since making this connection, I’ve seen my role as a teacher a bit differently. In addition to giving them the material, I’ve made an effort to connect it more to their lives and give them examples of situations where what they are learning could be useful to them in the future.
And in my sewing class, I have tried to change my attitude and become more open to the possibility that the skills I am being required to learn may have value somewhere down the line. Who knows, school uniform skirts could be all the rage in a few years!
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