Being a language student helps you be a better teacher

Studying Spanish at IMAC in Guadalajara

Here in Guadalajara, I’m studying Spanish four hours a day, Monday through Friday from 9 am to 1 pm.

Wow, does being a student illuminate mistakes a teacher makes! First, I must say, our teacher is great! She’s likeable, funny, warm, skilled and makes the class interesting! But, she’s human.

I learned by being a student that us teachers can be a little cocky, without realizing it!

Examples:

– Quick to interpret the students’ question and ramble on about an answer, but on the wrong track! And when students try to clarify, they don’t have enough language to correct her so they just let her go. And wait.

Also, it’s pretty easy to get drawn into an argument about some aspect of culture or language. The teacher arguing with students about their experiences or interpretations is a slippery slope. My view of culture or a place might be different than yours. But is one necessarily right? Another wrong?

The biggest eye opener was realizing more clearly that the fact that someone can speak a language fluently, with ‘no accent’, is an accident of birthplace. So, when a teacher begins waxing poetic about, well, we say blah blah. In our language, we use blah blah. And when they can easily pronunce a sound that we don’t have in our language, I realize something important.

I knew this, but I didn’t really know how it felt to be on the other side. Showing up and speaking a language ‘perfectly’, you can easily feel like some kind of virtuoso.

But it’s pretty different than being a star violinist. I mean, really, what did we do? We didn’t study with the finest teachers and invest in lessons and equipment.

We just grew up in an English-speaking country. It’s kinda like winning the lottery. A lucky break in a world where English speaking is a skill that others work for and pay for, and strive for their entire lives.

Sure we advanced our skills with work and schooling, but the foundation of our English has nothing to do with studying grammar or dissecting sentences. We just know what sounds right and we say it.

And one day I would have something down perfectly, and maybe an hour later it was gone. Then suprisingly it would reappear, then disappear. Teachers who take this as a personal insult don’t change this. They just make the students feel badly about learning, about the teacher and about themselves.

What I learned was that teachers would do better to:

– Be Humble! Be Humble! Be Humble!

– Really listen to the students. Don’t assume you know what they’re asking about. If they seem confused by your answer, back up and make sure you’re on the right track.

–  Don’t act superior just because you speak a language like a native speaker or know the culture inside and out. Consider this a gift to be shared, nothing more.

– Remember that students have lives outside of class. If they don’t do their homework, are exhausted or distracted, remember they are humans with full lives.

– Students want teachers to be: loving, funny, kind, smart, happy, quick to laugh,  understanding, and knowledgeable. In roughly that order.

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