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Never under-estimate what your students can teach you! (by Berni Wall)

As an EFL teacher with a long career, I’ve been around the block a few times! I’ve taught all levels from kindergarten to mature adults and I think I’ve learnt one or two things along the way. However, for me, I think the lesson that I learnt quite early in my career remains for me the best and most important and that is; the need, as a teacher, to also be a student. Openness is essential, teachers don’t impart knowledge, they share it and if I can come away from a class, a course or even a lesson with more than I took into it then I believe that I have been successful.

I began my EFL career in the mid 1970s. I was an idealistic, I-can-change-the-world twenty one-year-old heading off to Indonesia with backpack and guitar in hand! I was a VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) volunteer and I can still remember the overwhelming feeling of optimism that in some small way I would revolutionise the lives of those I was about to teach! I had undergone 1 week of training in Edinburgh, had a degree in Music & English Linguistic Studies, a copy of Thomson and Martinet’s Practical English Grammar and a pocket Oxford dictionary – the future of EFL in Indonesia was assured!

It did not take long to realise that the problems in a country like Indonesia were complex and my arrival there would not make a great deal of difference!

My role during this posting was to prepare university lecturers to take language exams so that they could pursue higher degrees and training in the UK, US and Australia. These were highly experienced individuals in their fields (engineering, medicine, science etc.) and I felt very small as I stood in front of the class with my limited knowledge. They were some of the most amazing people I have met and they showed me that nobody is insignificant and that I too could give them something that they needed and had value. As for what I learned – it would take a series of blog posts – but I returned to the UK after two years with the feeling that I had been the only one to have gained from my experience. That is, until I met a former Indonesian student who was studying in London – had it not been for meeting you, she said, I would never have had this opportunity!

One lesson, which I learned from my Indonesian boss at the time, still strikes a chord even today. I was complaining in the office about several things, students not doing their homework, the Banda machine not working, no electricity etc..

“What’s the matter with you” he said “Did you have breakfast this morning?”

“Er, yes” I replied.

“When you go home will there be lunch for you – and dinner this evening?”

“Of course.”

“Then what do you have to complain about”.

Living in a developing country the point hit firmly home. It was a good lesson.

Another example I’d like to share is that of a Japanese student I taught. She was a middle-aged woman living in Indonesia with her Indonesian husband and two teenage children. She ran a flower business and taught ikebana (she was highly qualified in this). We started our lessons and 3 months later we were still on unit 1! She did not want to move to unit 2 until she was absolutely confident about everything in unit 1. I was somewhat frustrated but she was adamant (if any of you are familiar with Longmans Kernel Lessons Intermediate – the only book available in Indonesia at the time – you will appreciate this more). What I learned from this was the beauty of patience and attention to detail. When I saw her ikebana arrangements  I understood her need – they were truly exquisite.

I’m going to fast-forward for my final examples. The first, a member of a proficiency group I was teaching at a college in London. The class, as many advanced classes can be, was very female dominated but we had one very rumbustious Turkish student in the group. He was the class clown and played to the gallery at every opportunity. He always arrived late and although he was a very lively member of the group he rarely produced any homework and never seemed ready to take the exam. When he arrived at each lesson he would put his head around the door and ask

“Is it writing?”

If we were indeed doing writing he would scoot off to the canteen until the break. I always thought this odd as he was, by profession, a journalist. Most of the teachers had taught him at some stage and the consensus was that he was ‘lazy’. In actual fact (I’m sure everybody has had students like this) he was very uncertain of himself and his abilities and the clowning was a cover. So, don’t judge a book by its cover. Be sensitive to your students’ behaviour and don’t follow the herd when it comes to diagnosis!

One student I will never forget was a Libyan student who was blind. He was in an advanced class and this situation immediately posed many questions for me as teacher. Everything had to be oral/aural and I had to choose material very carefully. My second concern was how to balance the needs of this student against the others in the group. I didn’t have to worry. A core group in the class which included this student had been together for a long time and they all led the way. It was one of the most mutually supportive classes I have ever had the honour to teach. You have to allow yourself to be guided by others who are more knowledgeable and have more experience.

My final example is a Spanish student who was studying for the IELTS exam. She was a fully qualified lawyer in Spain and wanted to come and work in the UK in international law. On arrival she realised that she would have to take a new course in the UK before she could practise. She was accepted on to the course but needed to have an IELTS of 7 in each part of the exam. She found a job in MacDonald’s to support herself and began to study for the exam. She was soon promoted to supervisor. She changed jobs and went to work in the post office, again she was promoted. She and I worked together for a few weeks before she took the exam. She worked very hard and was completely dedicated. I think she showed me how very hard work and sheer determination can have amazing results. She passed with flying colours.

There are so many more examples I could give about how students have helped me to develop and grow as a teacher and a person and how they have often stopped me in my tracks and shown me another viewpoint.

As teachers I think we are especially privileged to participate in this process of flourishing and growth. As EFL teachers we are doubly fortunate in that we are exposed to different cultures and backgrounds which add even more to the experience.

Teaching is one of the greatest learning experiences.

An EFL teacher/lecturer/teacher trainer since 1977 teaching in Indonesia and then the UK, I set up my language training company RLI in 1995. I launched Gapfillers E-learning site in 2007. We work with advanced level English language students helping them continue to improve and develop. Having taught 6 years of primary school through to university I have seen the ‘education’ process at all stages. My desire is to see more excitement and wonder in learning.

My blog Radical Language

Twitter: rliberni

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15 Comments

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Barbara Sakamoto, paulmaglione. paulmaglione said: RT @barbsaka: Fabulous guest post from @rliberni "Never under-estimate what your students can teach you" http://ow.ly/1MpGR #elt #esl [...]

  2. Barbara says:

    What great lessons to share, Berni! To be honest, I wasn’t sure whether to post this under “Stuff all EFL Teachers Should Know” or “Lessons Learned from Students” since it really is both!

    You main point, however, that we should never underestimate what we can learn from our students, is a powerful message that is definitely something all EFL teachers should know. (But I did compromise, and file this post under both series so that future searchers will come across it in both categories!)

    The next time I start whining about transportation headaches, or challenging children, or equipment that seems bent on ruining my lesson, I will remember the breakfast I had that morning and the meal awaiting me on my return, and know that I really don’t have anything to complain about :-)

    Thanks for the reality check!

    1. Berni Wall says:

      Thanks Barbara, I think this applies even to young learners if we pay attention as teachers to the two-way process then there is always something new to find.

  3. Oh great post!
    I’m wondering if we’re witnessing the birth of a powerful blog-meme – great lessons we’ve learnt from students.

    1. Berni Wall says:

      Hi Vicki and thank you for your comment. Sounds like a very good idea!

  4. Once a teacher, always a student! I couldn’t agree more with you, Berni! Thank you for sharing these valuable experiences with the rest of us.

    1. Berni Wall says:

      Thank you Christina, it was my pleasure and I love your maxim! All teachers should keep it as their mantra!

  5. Lovely post Berni! Very inspirational.

    I thinks the other way around works fine too: Never over-estimate what your students can learn with you. (na, doesn’t sound so inspirational : )

    I picked a quote out of my pocket that I thought would go along well with your first three paragraphs.

    “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

    1. Berni Wall says:

      Hey Willy thank you for your comment! You are right it’s always a two-way process!
      I really love your quotation from Mother Theresa – exactly what I was trying to say only she is more eloquent!

  6. David says:

    Great stories! I think you highlight how we as teachers should be “open” to change/learning within our own classrooms. That we should be humble enough to say — “hey, you students know this (something) better than I do!”. No posturing but being mature enough to let go…..

    I learned that lesson too far along my learning curve. I was teaching Grade 8 ESL. Teaching like I always did, like my teachers had taught me, from the front, book in hand. Explain, do the exercises. However, one day I was teaching Algebra. Basic stuff but I didn’t know it well and it showed. For some reason I gave the chalk to Jasmine, one of my Iranian students who the other students looked up to. Wow! She just captivated them, explaining, chalk flying. So I decided to just step back, drink my coffee and get to know my students as Jasmine taught. (of course, never telling a soul on the staff!!!!).

    We learn so much in teaching – even that sometimes we know so little.

    Thanks for the great read and start to my day ….. stories speaking so loud.

    David

    1. Berni Wall says:

      Lovely story David!

      I think as new teachers we feel we have to be in charge and the traditional role of teacher is as you describe, at the front with all the answers. I think it is a sign of maturity when we realise that others (even the very young) have even better answers than we do.

      I agree that we learn every day as a teacher and what can be more wonderful that that!

      Enjoy your day :-)

  7. Marisa Pavan says:

    Great anecdotes, Berni! I agree with you that teaching is a learning experience.
    In general, my students have helped me become open-minded and tolerant. As teachers, we learn to accept diversity and to understand that each person has their own internal rythm.
    Teaching is also a way of releasing the mind from trouble. It happens to me that when I’m teaching, I forget about all and concentrate on the class. I’m thankful as this profession has allowed me to overcome difficulties.
    Regards,
    Marisa Pavan

    1. Berni Wall says:

      Thank you for your comment Marisa.

      You are right about teaching helping us to be more open-minded and open-mindedness is the best state for learning.

      I know when I teach that I probably do know more about English than many of my students – that’s why they are there, but I learn a lot about English through hearing about their languages and how they work and what the relationships are within languages and even when they are like chalk and cheese to each other. This informs my teaching and I hope makes it better!

      I suppose teaching can be very cathartic and in some fields it can be heart-wrenching and very difficult but what it is or should never be, is about us – the teacher.

  8. Amy says:

    Lovely post Berni! Very inspirational.

    I thinks the other way around works fine too: Never over-estimate what your students can learn with you. (na, doesn’t sound so inspirational : )

    I picked a quote out of my pocket that I thought would go along well with your first three paragraphs.

    “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean, but the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

    1. Berni Wall says:

      Thank you Amy for your comment. I love the quotation – it’s very apt and is exactly how we should think as teachers about what we do.
      Berni

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