“I don’t know how to teach” (#Teach2Teach Question 3)

This is a response to #Teach2Teach Question 3 from Jennifer, about troublesome experiences (full question below). Special thanks to Amy Lenord and Karen Tharrington for starting the #Teach2Teach movement and to those who have responded to their call!

Here is Jennifer’s question:

“What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?”

This is me in the Colorado River, but it represents me in the First Year Teaching River.

This is me in the Colorado River, but it represents me in the First Year Teaching River.

It’s difficult to pick the most worthwhile story to tell here, as the word “troublesome” is delightfully multivalent–should I go with what has been most difficult, most disturbing, most painful, or most obnoxious? I’ve had the class that kept me up late every night trying to figure out how to cope with the particular temperaments of and relationships between the students. I’ve had the parent who suggested that, like all males under 35, I wasn’t mature enough to teach high school girls. I’ve had the philosophical disagreements that result in multi-hour email-writing sessions in twenty-email threads leading nowhere. I’ve dealt with the aftermath of breaking windows, light fixtures, whiteboards, and walls–yes, walls–in the heat of animated teaching.

But for this post I’ve settled on something more fundamental: the moment when I realized that I didn’t know how to teach. I’ll say up front that the admissions I make below, though I’ve made them before and am happy for them to play a role in someone else’s development, are pretty embarrassing!

My inability to teach was rooted in two problematic equations:

Problem 1: I equated teaching with giving a presentation.

Problem 2: I equated my students’ learning journey with my own.


Problem 1

Early in my second year of classroom teaching–I’m ashamed that it took this long and I’m not sure why it did–I finally realized what every teacher needs to realize, that delivering information, even in a fun way, does not constitute teaching.

I had always loved presenting information. Not much in high school energized me, but giving presentations and taking oral exams did. When I started teaching high school, I consciously equated teaching with giving a presentation. I even remember answering a friend who had asked me how I felt about becoming a teacher, “well, if you know the information and you can present it clearly, you’re set.”

You know better than I did, so I won’t say more about this here, though I’m happy to answer questions about it.


Problem 2

I figured that my students would learn languages the way I did. I didn’t consider how different my experience was from theirs: I grew up in a bilingual family in Europe. I had been reading multiple languages for pleasure since age four. I had attended a Viennese public school whose graduation requirements included proficiency in at least four languages. I had been tutoring older students in French for money since 8th grade. I had scored 5 on the German AP exam in 9th grade and the French AP exam in 10th grade. I had degrees in linguistics, languages, and literature. I was still tutoring students in French, Greek, and Latin. I occasionally taught crash courses in Italian and Hebrew for travel groups.

My students were almost all monolingual English speakers who had lived in California their whole lives.

My starkest realization that I was being subconsciously stupid about my students’ background experience came in a school workroom where I overheard a biology teacher–a close friend and a superb teacher–helping a student remember the names and order of the phases of mitosis. After hearing the teacher say the names in order, I said aloud, though mostly to myself and with genuine interest, “I guess that’s obvious, when you think about it.” She heard me and replied, with a justifiably withering look, “Only if you know Greek.”


What I did about it

Fortunately, my idiocy about myself and my students was matched by my desire for students to gain proficiency by any effective means. I badly wanted for my students to learn in a way that comported both with their experience and temperaments and with research on language-learning-and-teaching. So I literally typed “How to teach” into Google and, after some digging, discovered language-teaching-specific and language-specific forums. Soon I was participating in email groups for teachers and reading an hour a day about language-teaching-and-learning, both anecdotes and peer-reviewed research. (I had conducted academic research myself on Second Language Acquisition and on Bilingualism, but, like many researchers, I had not connected my research with best practices in teaching and learning.) I started explaining to my administration, my colleagues, and my students’ parents what I was learning and doing. The following summer I attended my first conference. I started observing skilled teachers doing their thing. If I had known about #langchat at the time, I would have been all over it. (I discovered #langchat in October 2014, when I finally started using Twitter to connect with other teachers and learners.)

It helped a great deal that, while the silliness of my problematic equations was high, my attachment to them was not. In other words, I wasn’t teaching badly because I really believed in teaching the way I was or even because it was an ingrained habit. I just hadn’t thought of teaching differently. I talk to many teachers whose transition into new ways of teaching is more distressing, even harrowing: they’ve been teaching a certain way for ten or twenty years and have trouble shifting, for one or more of many understandable reasons. Teachers with the guts to change their teaching after many years of doing things a certain way are my heroes.


What happened then

What were the effects of my connecting with colleagues and research and modifying my teaching accordingly? Well, more and more of my students became joyful, successful understanders and users of the language. My retention rates from any class to the next in my first two or three years of teaching were around 50%. By my sixth year, the retention rate was 98% from Year 1 through Year 4. That is, practically every student remained; occasionally one student would choose not to, usually in favor of an elective subject in which the student intended to pursue a career. All this in spite of the facts that students were only required to take two years of a language and that my upper-level classes were competing with popular electives and AP courses.

Another effect was that I started being asked to present at conferences, teach guest lessons, partner with other schools’ world language programs, and be observed by current and future teachers, which have become joyful and regular parts of my work, and which have led to further exciting connections with and lessons from other teachers.

Yet another effect, one not to be dismissed even if it seems fluffy, was that I made really good friends in the language-teaching community.


What about you?

If you’re a preservice language teacher, you should have a methods class that will expose you to teaching philosophies and techniques that I had to find for myself. But don’t think that this obviates the need for staying connected once you have your own classroom. For starters, I recommend #langchat, #Teach2Teach, a relevant email listserv–maybe one about language-teaching in general and one(s) about the language(s) you teach, and whatever your state language association has to offer. I also recommend frequent, direct contact with fellow teachers.

Happy teaching and learning!


See also Preparing a Lesson vs Preparing Yourself (#Teach2Teach Question 1) and Rising Above School Politics (#Teach2Teach Question 2).

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