Hi. Long time no see. Hope you’ve been having a good life. Things here in Japan are unusually chilly. That’s not a metaphor. Just the weather. I got a hot cup of coffee on my desk. I can see clouds through the window and all the green hints of spring so visible yesterday are just so much gray today. On Monday, students will come to my high school, walk through the doors, and a new school year will start.
When I started teaching twenty years ago, I thought that respecting my students meant doing my job and teaching them. Those words ‘teaching’ and ‘respect’, they’re pretty slippery. But back then, teaching to me meant giving important information to students, and respect meant treating them as capable learners who could absorb what I had to give them. Even now, I don’t thing it’s a terrible way to frame what most teachers do in their classroom. But somewhere along the line, I felt like it wasn’t working out for me or my students. In a lot of ways, it came down to numbers. If I wanted my students to really improve their English skills, you know, be able to engage in conversations, read a web page, send an email, they would need to:
- learn some basic vocabulary, perhaps the 1500 or so most frequent words in English
- develop their listening skills to be able to decode conversations in real time
- be able to read quickly enough, perhaps 150 or so words per minute, to make reading a viable and enjoyable way to obtain information
- be able to speak with enough fluency to keep a conversation moving along
There’s more I could add to this list. There is always more. That was the problem with me trying to provide my students with most of what they needed to learn to become competent English users. So I stopped trying to be the source of information and started to help my students learn how to study. I made a system for how students could create word lists, flash cards, and even Quizlet sets that required a bit more time and concentration, but which resulted in better retention and less focus on vocabulary studying. I created a set of meta-cognitive exercises so students could read a text and start to pay attention to how they were reading. I even put together a curriculum so students could do a bit of contrastive analysis in class and compare for themselves how Japanese and English structures were similar and different and then make their own grammar resource books which captured their developing understanding of the target language. If you are interested in any of these ideas, just let me know, I’ll send you examples and classroom materials.
Anyway, I was pretty happy with how things were going in my classes. My students were getting good scores on their standardized tests. They knew how to study effectively. They got into good universities. I thought I had arrived at a better idea of teaching and respect. Teaching was helping students develop the skills they needed to learn, and respect was trusting that students wanted to learn and would learn.
But the thing was, some students didn’t end up learning. In my classes of twenty students or so, there was always one or two students who didn’t do the work that would lead to developing the skills they needed to be autonomous learners. I wouldn’t yell at these students. I would sit with them, walk them through the process again and again when necessary. And when they didn’t complete the word lists we had started in class, or didn’t do the reading assignments I had reviewed with them in class, I kind of shrugged and thought that eventually they would. Eventually they would do the work they needed to do. I believed in them. I respected them. I was helping them develop the skills they needed to learn. Whether they did it or not, that was up to them. But when a student couldn’t meet the goals they had set for themselves, couldn’t get that TOEIC score, couldn’t get into that university, it didn’t make me feel any better to shrug my shoulders and try to convince myself that respect was an adequate substitute for learning.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned that providing some of these students with weekly vocabulary lists, concrete grammar exercises and explanations, and graded reading exercises with standard comprehension questions leads to better results. So in a way, I’ve come back to where I started twenty years ago. But not all the way. Because now I know that teaching is not about providing crucial information and it is also not about helping students develop a skill set for learning independently. Respect is also not about simply believing in my students. Teaching and respect is what happens when I face my student with a clear vision not of what I want them to do, but of who they are as a person and how we are relating to each other moment by moment. Teaching and respect are the result of two people, a teacher and a student, working together to understand each other honestly.
It is a gray and chilly day here in Japan. On Monday my students will walk through the front door of my high school, many of them for the first time. This year, I hope at least a little more than last year, my classroom will be filled with the the kind of respect and teaching that does not leave a bitter aftertaste of regret. This year, I hope my classroom, that all of our classrooms, are filled with those moments of clarity and connecting with our students that fills even the grayest days with the small true warmth of learning.