What my teachers taught me
(Oops, forgot to post this last Friday. Yes, it’s another post that’s basically serving as my diary. Dear Diary…)
Today was my last day of class, definitely for this module, probably for this school, and possibly for Dutch. I want to continue learning the language, I am nowhere near thinking about being able to express the possibility of someday reaching the verge of becoming fluent, buuuut… How do I say this respectfully? I don’t know how, I’ll just have to hope my last teacher doesn’t read this.
The main thing my last Dutch teacher taught me, was how NOT to teach language.
This was actually of tremendous use, and since I am lucky enough to live in a country where they speak the language, and my partner is fluent in it, I don’t really need a good teacher. Nice to have, it speeds things up tremendously, but I can learn it elsewhere. It’s not like I’m trying to learn Swahili in Korea, and if my teacher funks out, I’m left stranded.
Actually I have been very lucky with regards to my Dutch teachers, both in their ability to teach me the language, and in their ability to teach me about teaching.
The first teacher was perfect for a first level class. She was ferocious. She grilled us on pronunciation, and hounded us on the basic details She would seemingly get angry at us for making mistakes. A third of the class dropped out, one poor little Polish lady, bonelessly sluffing down the stairs after her last class before quitting saying “I…can…no more!” (But she said it in Dutch!)
So I learned the importance of being demanding on students, especially beginners, to help them avoid establishing bad patterns which will be harder to dig out later, but also the importance of patience, pacing, and encouragement.
My second teacher was much more relaxed, with a friendly classroom where no one was frightened (or as close as language classes ever get) and systematic mistakes were corrected, while the gazillion details of forming a correct sentence were given some leeway. I think this friendly approach is particularly appropriate for adult education classes, where we are already a little uncomfortable about talking like children, we don’t want to be treated like them too.
But for a class of young learners especially, I would be a little harder. I think students will rise to whatever level you require of them. (Though I fear/suspect it may be different for something as fundamentally difficult as a new language, and with students who may not have much experience of education. I have a lot of opinions for someone who has never taught a single day of class, no?)
Then there was the current teacher. One of the key things a language teacher does is present the students with authentic language models. This teacher certainly did that, talking a lot in class. A lot. Okay, pretty much the whole damn time. Buuuut, the language needs to be scaled to match the learner’s ability. If the students don’t know the vocabulary or structures you are using, and you don’t ever (EVER) explain them, then it is wasted time. Wasted, passive, soporific time.
Presenting authentic language is particularly important when the students wouldn’t otherwise hear it. But we live in Belgium. We are going to hear Dutch all the time. We didn’t need to spend all our class time listening to incomprehensible language that washed over us without leaving any silt of knowledge. We already have the radio for that.
This last class was an utterly passive experience, where I experimented with new techniques for falling asleep sitting upright. I spent more time in Lala Land in this class than I have at any time since that one sociology class in college that I stopped going to altogether after my snoring disturbed my neighbor…I suspect because it interrupted his nap. (That professor had to average six syllables per word, twelve words per minute, seven minutes per sentence. And it was an evening class, 5:00-7:00 with air like blankets. I am getting sleepy just thinking about it.)
Back to this Dutch class, a couple weeks ago a classmate documented my somnolent experiments with the camera on his cell phone, so there I am on facebook, falling asleep in class. Thanks Hamad!
The only speaking we ever did was when the teacher went around, prying into each of our personal lives and finances. How much do you pay for rent? How much do you earn or receive in welfare? Do you work?
Those were all just really pleasant exercises, thank you. Not at all awkward. But the best was “when was the last time you cried” which was complete with several stonefaced moments of minimalist answers clearly unwillingly given. Life is hard for everyone, but when a large percentage of the class may never see their family or home again, or when that family and home is engulfed in war, maybe making them talk about their sorrow in front of the class is not really a good idea. I’m just saying.
So anyway. The first teacher gave me an appreciation for intensity and really nailing the details, especially at first. The second gave me a comfortable and productive model that I can ratchet up a bit. And the third showed a classroom presence that was affable and completely useless.
God, I love how much there is to learn in this life!