Yet another controversial post for these critical times by a language teacher
I have never been a person who claimed to have the total truth about something or other. The same attitude seeps through this post, in spite of how dogmatic it may sound at times. If anything, I hope this reflection engages your thoughts on how you learn and teach languages and your comprehensive approach towards language teaching and learning. They say that we always write with an audience in mind. Who am I thinking of? I’m thinking of some of my colleagues, junior and senior; the language teachers that have taught me; a few secondary school teachers, whose work I am acquainted with and my students, as always.
Every engaged language teacher I know – and I have the privilege of knowing quite a few – worries about this: What makes the best language teachers?
So let me draw for you my own trajectory of worries:
1) When I was growing up… I am one of those few weirdoes who wanted to be a teacher since the age of nine and a language teacher since probably eighteen or nineteen… I started to think that it was all about grammar; grammar gave way to linguistics; and linguistics to sociolinguistics; and sociolinguistics to pragmatics. Through the years of my degree in English Philology, PGDE and first years of my PhD, I became obsessed with understanding all the aspects of the English – and a bit of the Spanish – language. I only realize now, years later, that this obsession was based on my primary school education. In Spain, in the EGB (General Basic Education) system, devised in 1970 (yes, you are right, still under Franco’s supervision – or that of his minions) and partially reformed in 1980-82, the teaching of the Spanish language grammar and morphosyntactic analysis was paramount. I am not that well acquainted with the subsequent reforms of the primary school system there (in the 1990 and currently) but from what I hear, they still do sentence analysis and training on first language grammar and syntax, be it Spanish or the other four official languages – and possibly on the other unofficial languages too.
In other words, my motivation to be a language teacher in its infancy worried about content. I felt rather intuitively that to be a good language teacher I had to be a master of the language in question that I wanted to teach. Mastery was understood by that young and naïve teacher-in-the-making in a rather scientific approach, not just bilingualism or nativism; but a rather academic command and scientific understanding of the multifaceted organisms called languages – and their manifestations (literatures, media, institutions, histories…). It turned out I was missing the point.
2a) The PGDE made me realize that I was onto something. Maybe I was not missing out, as much as I had ignored its importance. My career as a teacher probably started at fourteen or fifteen years of age, when I became a Sunday school teacher, or what we call in Spain a ‘catechist’. I was a catholic – I am no longer among their midst – but at that tender age, I had no deep knowledge of the religion in question or the bible and I started working with children for an hour a week back then. Later on, coming from a working class background and being the nerd that I enjoyed being, I needed to start teaching English grinds as soon as I started my degree, and with little communicative competence in this language. To my surprise, both groups of people, children in Sunday school and young adults in primary or secondary school, loved me as a teacher. What was going on? I had to go back down memory lane and listen to their little muffled voices: She makes things fun, she loves me, she knows how to explain things. I realized that the affective side of learning was much more important than I had appreciated before. And with that intuition, I moved to Brazil and then to Canada to start my teaching at university level at the age of twenty-two. My knowledge of psychology or social sciences was inexistent at the time, so my obsession with this aspect of teaching and learning did not become quite academic until a few years later, when I halted the PhD research that I was doing at the time (English Dialectology in Nunavut) in order to veer towards what had become my professional career by then: Teaching and Learning of Spanish. So instead of dwelling in libraries and engaging in article treasure-hunts, I went all experiential and became my students’ friend and learning companion at Trent University. My PhD dissertation stems from these years of student-centeredness. I invented a case study by which these wonderful students would share their views about language teaching and learning at university as a way to contest language acquisition theories and educational theories. My! Didn’t I have fun? Reading their journals, listening to their student-student interviews, being observed by them in my classes was definitely an enriching experience for all of us. This personal engagement with students at university level granted me a nomination for an excellence in teaching and learning award at twenty-seven; but it also led to high levels of stress and overworking. I smile now, contemptuously and affectionately at the same time. It turned out I was missing the point again. However, the case study that I had finalized with them had given me a few pointers in more definite directions.
2b) As I was on contract during those years in Canada as well, and I have always been an eager person to learn anything interesting, I did not only engage with my students in a sympathetic and friendly manner. Apart from the case study project, we did other social things together: several plays, bands, radio, scheduled coffee table chats… Little by little and without realizing we became a community, albeit small but a defined community. In this community, some of the strongest students shared my worry for the weakest students and helped each other. That is probably why I find it difficult to disassociate the affective and the social side of language learning. At the time, little I could foresee that a focus on the social side of learning also has its disadvantages. For example, when a group of students is not interested in socializing at all, or has real social anxiety, or simply does not get on. I was not missing the point, but I was not right on target either.
3) Then I moved. I moved back to Ireland, whose secondary school system has so little to do with the one that had raised the students that had previously taught me how to teach. I said ‘moved back’ because I had been a student at UCG in 1996-97. But didn’t I go through cultural shock? Not directly from the Irish culture, but from the Irish Schooling Culture. I had been instructed as a teacher of students that were curious, engaged (paying high fees for a ‘semiprivate’ university), self-confident, forward and assertive. They were quite verbal about their personal characteristics (sometimes to their detriment). I was well-used to the ‘I’m a visual learner’ statement, there. They were not shy when it came to asking for what they thought they needed, be it a ‘grammar concepts’ course or extra practice. The majority of them had been forced-fed a second language, about which they did not care much (French) or at least not as much as Spanish, based on geographical representation by population. Most of them had been sent to Québec for immersion experiences. So they had experienced different modes of language learning. The majority of them had no problem making mistakes in spoken class. They were comfortable learners and they understood mistakes as part of the learning process. Rest assured I am not idealizing them. These levels of comfort and attitudes towards language learning varied from student to student obviously but the cultures of learning in which they had been raised were on the other side of the spectrum to the ones in Ireland, in many ways. At the beginning of my contractual years as a teacher, and with no clear intention yet to stay in Ireland, I took refuge in the realms of Information and Mobile Technology. It was my shelter while coming to terms with a less active learning culture. I tried the theatre plays and some other things and they worked with a few. So I kept the things that I had learnt and enjoyed going but decided to develop the dormant ability of creating multimedia materials and catering for more learning styles. It was not totally new, I had dabbed into this area creating a CD with my previous employer, but I did not foresee how much it would engage my creative side and that of some of my students. If anything, it reinforced the collaborative and cooperative side of language learning. I still have lots of fun but I am not entirely happy with these technologies either. I can’t help but see lots of loopholes in the way we tend to use them to language learning purposes. Am I still missing the point?
For all I know, as I started saying in this post, I may be. After all, as years go by, my methodologies seem more spread out, my interests seem wider. I am still adamant that linguistic knowledge of the language that you are teaching is essential – but not sufficient – to be a good language teacher. In fact, the best language teachers I ever had were not native speakers of the language they were teaching, giving them the advantage of having had experience as learners of the same language as well. I care for my students. It’s in my nature and I firmly believe that we have to develop flexible educational institutions and systems that take into account the affective and social side of learning. I am a level 2 or 3 computer nerd. In other words, I still have a long way to go to be an IT guru, but I’m quite fluent with learning technologies and the obsession that individuals and school systems have developed around them is scary – just like any other obsession can be. They definitely have not helped language learners to become more active or socially-oriented yet. Watch that space! But hey, I try to incorporate all these aspects, which are important to me, and to language learning on what I do as a teacher.
I am not on contract any more. I’m one of those privileged university teachers, which can avail of job continuity, power and a certain amount of freedom. This inclination towards a settled teaching job, instead of the nomadic one I previously had, has obviously led to the exploration of more materials aspects of language learning: curricular, cultural, spatial/temporal… (My new pet area). If I only focused on those aspects, I would still be missing the point. All in all, I guess what I was hoping I’d say is that from where I stand, there is a need more multifaceted language facilitators and less single-approach teachers. Depending on which country and teaching/learning culture you are in, there will be a need to develop more one area rather than the other. In Ireland, I struggle constantly with the lack of linguistic knowledge of English or Irish, in most teachers and students. In the university where I teach, I keep on complaining about the misconstrued focus on affective issues and an overemphasis of the social, instead of a focus on learning. I am slightly apprehensive of the use of mobile technologies as the only means in secondary schools around here too. And don’t start me on issues of space and time…
Bleak picture I am painting. But after all, it is just a picture. Feel free to colour it in if you got any pencils.