February 2009 Event

Posted in: Events
Joelle Ninin

Can Teaching Be a Source of Joy Nowadays?
By Thierry Dime Bolla

In doing research in preparation for this article, I recently read an article by a substitute teacher who described her new class as « a class of ducks where discipline slides off them like water off a bird’s wing. Individually, these children were charming; they smiled, were (almost) polite. But as a group, they didn’t follow any rules of society. They weren’t ‘bad.’ They were fidgety and chatty and in the end, didn’t do anything; neither the quiet ones nor the ones who kept talking. I was there for 15 days which wasn’t a lot; but I feel sorry for the teachers who are there for the year. »

This picture, which certainly doesn’t reflect the reality of every teacher, makes us question the actual motivations of teachers. In reality, we know that students are confronted with many demands, which are often implicitly expressed; they are confronted by a society where parents unload their responsibilities more and more. Certain parents think that school, and therefore its teachers, have the responsibility to educate their children, even though this is the first role of parents. However, the fault can’t be attributed only to parents or students because teachers also share a part of the responsibility: those unmotivated teachers for whom the only reasons to teach are job security, 20 hours of classes a week and three months vacation a year.

Faced with this cliché, doesn’t one have the right to ask the question, if, nowadays, teachers can still share joy with those who train? One is well aware of this profession where homework from the teacher should transmit knowledge and where a teacher’s love of the trade implies that they will give every chance to students to succeed in their scholastic goals. S/he has a responsibility with respect to his/her students and to try to pass on to them the knowledge to be better armed to confront life. To deepen/broaden our understanding, the editorial staff of Education Without Borders met with Lisa Guglielmi, a teacher at an international school in Canada.

Thank you for welcoming us into your class. Can you tell us what the difference is between an international school and a « classic » establishment?

It is my pleasure to talk to you. There are many differences between international schools and what we in Canada call « public schools. » Probably the biggest difference is that students who study at international schools come from different countries and are a range of ages. I’ve taught students from age 16 to 50+ in the same class.

Students in Canadian public schools are mostly the same age; for example, every student in Grade 12 is either 17 or 18. They are also Canadian citizens who generally share the same cultural background.

Another difference is the course content. At the international school where I work, we only teach English as a Second Language. Our focus is to teach the mechanics and technical skills of English; speaking, reading, writing, grammar, pronunciation and listening. In public schools, English is just one of many subjects (like History, Math, French, Biology, etc.) taught during a semester.

When someone enters your class, the first thing they notice is the diversity. In effect, you notice that your class is made up of twelve students who come from ten different countries. How do you manage these differences?

Well the first comment most students make when they come to this school is that they prefer to be in a class with people from different cultures than with those from their own cultures. So from the start, managing a class of 12 or 17 is relatively easy since many students start with an open mind.

I have, however, come into classrooms where all the Asian students are on one side of the class, the Europeans are on the other, and the South Americans in the middle. To mix things up, I pair them up with someone who doesn’t speak the same first language, or put them into small groups with people from other countries.

Since today’s world has become a smaller place and cross-cultural communication is one of the most important ingredients for international understanding, I encourage students to talk about their countries and cultures through various activities in class. It’s a topic they are familiar with and they not only feel comfortable expressing themselves, but they also enjoy learning about other cultures. It is always interesting to see the reaction of a Venezuelan student when they hear that in Japan, friends don’t kiss each other on the cheek when they meet. Sharing cultural information sparks conversation and breaks down preconceived ideas about people from different countries.

In discussions with your students on the break, they describe you as, « Lisa is a remarkable teacher. Her teaching methods are unique and we always enjoy coming to her class. With her, we don’t feel like students but like members of the same family where she is our big sister and we are her younger brothers and sisters. » What do you have to say about this?

I am very flattered to hear this. The intermediate class I have now work well together and they definitely feel like a family. There have been other students who I have taught for a few months, then moved to the next level. A week after they started the new level, they saw me in the lounge and told me how much they missed my class and what a great teacher I am. This happens quite a lot!

All the same, do you recognize that this isn’t the image that we generally have of teachers?

In all honesty, I am myself in class and don’t try to be anything special. Some students come to Canada for a purpose; to study English for their job, to get into university, to prepare for a Cambridge or TOEFL exam, etc. When someone accomplishes his/her goal, it gives me great pleasure. Then I know I’ve done my job.

In high school, my favorite teachers had an energy that made them stand out; they were willing to spend time with students after school, organize special projects and generally made the course work come alive. I try to emulate this style of teaching because I learned the most in their classes.

If someone asked you what the secret of your teaching method is, what would you say?

As I said earlier, I am myself in class. This helps to create a relaxed learning environment where students feel comfortable in expressing themselves. I think this is important when learning a language. Also, it helps when you show interest in students. Obviously you can’t know everything about every student, but taking time to listen to students while they work in groups or whatever the situation helps create a bond. Showing you care gives them confidence.

Do you think your students’ appreciation of your teaching is because of your character?

Maybe! I am not a « strict » teacher. Sure we learn grammar and other skills which require a serious attitude, but I think I am patient and always try to understand why a student doesn’t grasp a concept instead of just giving them homework for them to figure it out on their own.

Can you tell us one of the best experiences you’ve had as a teacher?

There isn’t one specific moment that stands out. What I like best is when my class has the confidence to take their learning to a level that is not in the textbook. We might get off topic and have a discussion about « real life » issues – something in the newspaper or that was on the news, that’s when I see them using the language. In those moments, I love teaching. It’s when everyone comes alive – even if they don’t know all the words, they try and it makes me so happy.

When you aren’t at school, what do you do with your time?

Good question! I often tell my friends I’m a teacher 24-7 (24 hours a day, seven days a week). Generally during the week when I’m not teaching, I’m preparing lessons, marking homework, doing research on different topics I think would be good in class, and looking for new or interesting lessons for my classes. Once I get to know my students, I like to personalize the lessons so they grasp the language better. Sometimes I make my own worksheets if the textbook is too confusing or I adapt something from the book into a speaking activity to give the class some different practice.

On the weekends I like to relax, visit with friends, do yoga, swim, etc. It helps to have a balance in life, although sometimes my friends say I spend too much of my time being a teacher!

To finish, our readers would like to understand if, these days, teaching could once again become a source of joy.

When I was in high school or even in university, I didn’t imagine I would become a teacher. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I discovered that I have an ability to communicate with people, no matter where they are from, or how old they are. Students at my school tell me things about them they don’t share with their friends, family or even their regular teachers. Sometimes I really feel like a « big sister. » I feel blessed with this talent.

Teaching isn’t for everyone. It takes confidence, energy, courage and the desire to help someone accomplish his/her goal. I don’t go to school everyday thinking I will make « X dollars » today. I always have a smile on my face because I will help my students climb a little bit higher to reach their goal. If you believe teaching is just a job, in the end, not only will the students’ education suffer, but you will feel empty as well.

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