Last week I was in Tsukuba for the JALT international conference. The sun was out, and the leaves, red and yellow, hadn’t yet started to drop in earnest from the trees. But now, winter has suddenly arrived here in Nara.
I’m sitting around the hibachi with Anna Loseva and Mamico. We’re waiting for the water in the heavy cast iron pot to boil so we can make tea. Anna has suggested we take a few minutes, maybe hours even, to just think and write about teaching.
When I was in Tsukuba, I saw Tom Farrell present on reflective practices. During his plenary presentation, he asked us what kind of teachers we were. He asked if we were open minded, if we could heed facts and admit we might be wrong. He asked if we were responsible, if we thought about the choices we make and the impact it has on our students in and out of the classroom; finally, he asked if we were wholehearted, if we continually reviewed our own practices. The #KELTCHAT-ers had a slowburn chat today which was loosely connected to a workshop Professor Farrell also did at the conference. As I sip the tea (the water heating over the charcoal finally came to a boil), I’m answering a few of the pre-chat questions posted on the #KELTCHAT site.
▪ “Good teaching requires more than application of methods; it requires self-knowledge.” What does self-knowledge mean to you in this case?
Self-knowledge, I think, first means taking the time to step back from a situation and make sure you aren’t just reacting based on old data. It means seeing the student in front of you, the situation that is unfolding around you, and being able—at least partially—to mitigate the biases that might prevent an authentic interaction from taking place.
▪How can we go about acquiring this knowledge?
I think there are an infinite number of ways to acquire this knowledge. Blogging about your classes, taking notes as class is happening, recording and transcribing a class. But I don’t have time for any of that right now. The best I can do is simply take a few moments to think about what I am going to say to a student before I open my mouth. And I just need to ask myself, honestly, before I talk if what I am about to say is going to help this student, or do I want to say it to meet a personal need which might have nothing to do with the person in front of me. And then, after I do say something, if I can take a moment to look at how the learner reacts, their facial expression, body language, how they participate or don’t participate in class after our interaction, I can learn something about how I am behaving and how it impacts the people in my classroom.
▪How can knowing about ourselves impact our teaching?
Knowing about myself is how I can make a better choice the next time I’m in a similar situation. But to do that, I need data. That means I need to be aware of what’s happening in class. I need to know what my students are thinking and feeling. When I can tie how I behave in class directly to how my students experience class, I can start to make changes in my behaviours that lead to better outcomes for my students. I don’t have time to do a lot of the blogging and video taping that I did last year, but I do have enough time to say something like, “During the activity today, you weren’t really participating, so I wrote the first letter of each word of the dictation on your paper. What did you think about that?” I do have enough time to chat with my students about what they thought happened in class and how they felt about it.
The #KELTCHATers also put up a list of sentence stems to finish and help us think about our own ideas about teaching.
1. To me, the word teacher means…
…someone who helps learning take place. Sometimes that means by actively taking part in the learning process. Sometimes it might mean almost removing oneself from the process entirely.
3. I believe teaching is a calling because…
…I don’t believe it is a calling. I believe it is a job. And we can get better at it. We can learn how to relate to our students. We can learn how to be empathic. We can learn how to make people feel safe. It’s not a calling. It’s hard work. Hard work with moments that are touched by the ghost of truth. But perhaps all work is so touched.
4. When I first started to teach I…
…thought I could be a great teacher by knowing the right activity to run and understanding how the English language worked.
7. I enjoy going into school each morning because…
…I don’t have to follow a manual. I don’t have to have all the answers. I can learn from my students as they learn from me. We can muddle through a class period together and probably all end up in a better place than if I ‘knew’ how to teach the hell out of English.
12. The worst aspect of my life as a teacher is..
…I will never have enough time to do everything I want to do. I will not even have enough time to do the things I should do. In fact, I probably, regardless of how long I do this job, rarely have enough time to do even the things I need to do. So every choice I make as a teachers means that some student, sometime during the week, is not going to get as much individual attention as they need.
14. My students believe in….
…each other. They rarely if ever get frustrated while waiting for another student to answer a question. They believe that their friends and classmates can and will learn. They are a constant reminder that, more than anything else, my job is to believe in them as well, and have the patience and the compassion to make the space where that learning will happen.
* * *
For the past few months I’ve been feeling incredibly guilty that I don’t have the time to engage in reflective practices. No teaching journal. No regular blog posts. No video recordings of lessons and transcriptions. But answering these questions, I’m starting to think that maybe those things, while an important part of reflection for many teachers, are not sum total of what it means to be a reflective teacher. 6 months into being a homeroom teacher (and 3 cups of tea into this blog post) I’m thinking that this year, in learning how to take a breath, make a space, and be in the moment with my students, I am finding a new way to be ’open minded’, ‘responsible’ and ‘wholehearted.’