May 3, 2011

teaching and learning at the same time

One of the other English teachers in my high school invited me to go a teaching ESL conference this week in a different city, Thursday and Friday, with a bunch of other English teachers in Colombia. I agreed immediately, because it sounded like a great experience, a opportunity to network, and something different than the increasingly monotonous life here in Bogotá. 

However, I also agreed to prepare "something" for the conference before I had any idea what that something was going to be. So now I'm sitting here, with nothing really prepared, trying to figure out what I'm going to say for an hour in just a few days (but let me say, when I agreed to this I thought it was a 30 minute talk...).

I wanted to share with you some of my concluding ideas in quick blog format (below). Warning, I'm kind of short on time right now, so the thoughts may not be completely connected. I originally wrote them as talking points. Wish me luck and I'll update you all about the experience after I get back :)

teaching and learning at the same time

When I originally signed up to teach English, I didn't like it, and I didn't feel that I was good it. I'm an idealist, and I didn't think teaching ESL was something I liked nor that I had a talent for. Now I'm not so sure about the truth of either of those initial sentiments.

I think being a good teacher means being a good student. If you cannot learn from your environment, your experiences, or even your own mistakes, than you have no hope of being an effective teacher. In order to be effective you must know how to adapt - because no learning environment is ever perfect. This truth, specifically, has been deeply internalized due to my teaching experiences thus far in Ciudad Bolivar. I have read articles on teaching English to classes of twenty students, where all the students have notebooks, textbooks, where there is a TV, a projector, internet access in every classroom, and where the students come from homes in which their parents sit down with them to work on homework every night. But in Ciudad Bolivar, I have a white-board, dry erase markers, and 40 hungry students. If I wasn't able to adapt - if wasn't able to look back at my own teaching and the environment I help create - I would never actually have time to teach.

But being a good student also means admitting that you don’t know everything.

It means not only admitting that all the pedagogy and methodology you have studied may be situation-specific, and thus will need to be modified when the world around you is not perfect. And as we've already discussed, nothing in the world is perfect. But what is encouraging is that being a good teacher and student also means admitting you don't really know the life-long impact that you will have on a student or on a group of students. As individual teachers, we can never know the ultimate effect of our teaching on students in the long run. It really is about the limitations that exist in regards to what we can know about the future. Even though our students might not show it, they may be developing and cultivating a spirit of inquiry that will later persuade them to learn that which we are teaching with more focus and more vigor.

But we can know that if we come in with heart, and if we try every day, the results of our efforts will eventually be made manifest - though we may be unable to see it.  It’s like sowing seeds. You plant and plant, and, depending on the weather and conditions, the flowers may not bloom until you are gone.  So, part of the humility that we have to keep is that, even when we work our hardest, every day, yet still fail to see the success that we’ve been dreaming of, it doesn’t mean that we have transmitted nothing, that we've transformed no one, nor that we've not taught anything. Love and caring and dedication to the well-being of students work in ways that are immeasurable. For those who are teaching to make lives better, take heart in this fact.

Still, we can learn to be reflexive teachers, evaluating our actions and ideas, reconciling our theories with the reality of putting them into practice. Then, we can use those elements of the reality of our situation to revise our our preconceived theories and our methods so that we become more effective teachers. 

We can even learn to become reflexive people... However, this is something that, from experience, I recommend only once in a while. As humans, there are times in life when living in the moment is necessary, when riding the flow and feeling the next move is the best that we can do. It's part of being present. As humans, I think we should be reflexive only in moderation - it's also something that should be practiced... 

Really, it’s the same with teaching.  Some people have a gift that begins to shine the moment they set foot in a classroom, while others, well, don’t. Some people are naturally talented educators, and they have the presence that allows them to simply feel what it means to engage and motivate students. Others struggle everyday to get students to respect them and to give a damn about what’s being taught. They are who can use the tools of reflexivity to become better teachers.

And, lastly, if we really want to make an enduring change in education, if we really want to help students, we must also work towards making the institutions in which we find ourselves reflexive. Institutions are collective human creations that act as agents in society, that themselves create change: like schools, universities, governmental and nongovernmental organizations, businesses, churches, etc. Since people help create institutions, part of our task is to teach them to be reflexive agents. The beauty of this task is that it's subject-neutral. In social studies, art, philosophy, or even ESL - we can help empower students step back and reflect on their own learning processes, on themselves as people, and even on the cultural and societal trends in which they are currently immersed. We can teach them that being reflexive means that you take time to think, that it does not hinder - but rather increases - effectiveness, and that it can actually make life richer. And if, by way of example as well as instruction, we teach them to think reflexively, we will be teaching them to be responsible social agents who, in the future, will take part in the transformation of our institutions. In this way, even teaching something like ESL can be an act of social change. 


  1. Hi Zachary,

    Just found your blog and wondered if you might be interested in doing an email interview with me for a section on my blog called Expats in Colombia? It's 10 questions and a photo of you with a link back to your blog...

    Let me know!


  2. Zachary CharlesMay 4, 2011 10:06 PM

    um, me at :)