Accounts by an artist who has become an English teacher
Thinking about a way to introduce myself in a learning and teaching context, I start recalling my first English class in a well-known English school in São Paulo and good memories come to my mind. I remember my teacher looking at me and saying “Oh, it seems we have new faces today!” I was happy I could understand what she had said, as I knew she was talking about me due to my absence in the previous class.
My classmate who was beside me and who also had missed the previous class looked at me and said hopelessly: “Não entendi coisa alguma” (I didn’t understand anything).
Today remembering that scene I ask myself: “Why did I understand what my teacher wanted to convey and my classmate didn’t? Why did I become a successful learner and my classmate didn’t (I heard this classmate of mine had given up the course when she was at the third level).
At least, I can talk about what has happened to me and guess what happened to that colleague by observing my students in these thirty years…
First of all, I’ve always enjoyed English. In fact, I started enjoying it when I was about six years old when the first man stepped on the moon in 1969. I remember that time very well and started paying attention to the English language when my father gave me a magazine with a record that had the voices of the American astronauts on it…As at that time I had dreamed about becoming an astronaut and as that one was speaking English, I imagined that if I could speak that language I could go to the moon someday!!! Learning English to become an astronaut was one of my greatest intrinsic motivational tools!!!
Being a grown-up now I can realize I haven’t become an astronaut, but at least I could learn English properly and broaden my horizons as a professional and as a person. I have never been to the moon but I’ve sure been in touch with lots of interesting people who could share experiences, beliefs, different cultures , ideas and English has enabled me to do that. This is one of the most rewarding parts of my personal and professional life.
Maybe that classmate of mine who gave up the course easily, hadn’t developed the same interest as me. We were about 17 years old at that time and my friend had never paid attention to the word “new/ faces” in films, songs, or even in regular English courses at schools. It’s amazing to see how people become “blind” and “deaf” to the exposure of the language we have.
English is a universal language and we have been exposed to it more often than any other foreign language such as French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. When I started learning the language at that English school, I could remember when I turned on the radio, I could hear a song in English. When I went to the movies, I could watch them in English…
Nowadays this exposure has been stronger due to the sites in English on the internet and programmes on cable TV.
Even though, we can see students coming to classes and saying “Não entendi coisa alguma” “I didn’t understand anything” and this kind of learner ends up giving up the course or trying out several different methodologies in order to have a miraculous solution.
How can we, English teachers, encourage students to find a meaningful reason to learn the language besides that one imposed by external interests such as jobs?
How can we make them curious about the language?
How can we make them practice in spite of their busy life and other interests?
How can we make them ENJOY it and succeed in learning it? These are some of the questions I’d like to help you answer.
As the old saying goes “Practice makes perfect” and I can add that if we don’t feel like practicing it can become a hard burden to stand. Therefore, by recalling my first English class, I could figure out one of the most remarkable tools to start studying the language:
Teacher: Motivate yourself to motivate students.
Student: Motivate yourself.
So, how could that teacher touch my colleague who said : “Não entendi coisa alguma” “I didn’t understand anything”? and make her feel more at ease?
First: The teacher forgot it was a class for beginners. She couldn’t take it for granted that there would be only false beginners like me.
Second: She took it for granted that everyone would be able to understand what she said in English and become comfortable about that. So, her “breaking the ice” idea by welcoming students “ It seems we have new faces today” pleased me who was a false beginner but scared my classmate who was a real beginner. I am not trying to judge that teacher. She was really good and the methodology she was using was effective for many students.
However, what I’ve been trying to do is to draw the attention to the ones that aren’t much fond of English, the ones that haven’t realized how they can progress, the ones that need a little more help and that need to learn ( and I believe the number of students like that is not that small…)
From that early experience, I could realize there is an approach in teaching that teachers should avoid:
“The take it for granted approach”. What is it?
It’s the name I’ve given to approaches that take it for granted that:
- all students enjoy English
- all students are interested in learning English
- all students will learn English the same way I did
- all students have to be hard working the same way I was
- all students are curious about English
In fact, after many years of practice I could notice that:
- some students might really enjoy English; it’s difficult to enjoy something you don’t master. Most beginners feel anxious and impatient for not being able to communicate the way they wanted.
- some students might really be interested in learning English. Most times, students come to classes mainly because of an external reason, that is, a job promotion, to please their parents, to improve their grades at school, to travel…
English has become more like “needs” than “wants”…
- Several studies have proved that students have different abilities and learning styles. Observing this, teachers need to figure out new approaches and touch the learner.
Besides that, most students keep themselves busy doing other activities or working. So, it is a good chance to review our methodologies and see how we can optimize the course by using other resources and ideas to enhance informal learning.
- Sometimes students are so busy doing other things that they leave their English homework as a second plan. It results in less practice and low achievement. Maybe it’s about time we talked to them about that.
5 Some students might be curious and attentive to the language, but most of them need to learn how to have their eyes and ears open to the language. Teachers can show them the way.
So taking into consideration the aspects we , as teachers, take for granted, and the facts we can observe in our classes, it is possible to build up a way to help our students meet their goals: that is, learning English.
As a warming up I can introduce myself bearing in mind that I am a singular person and each student of mine has his/her differences. We may relate to each other and get along well but one thing is for sure: we are different although we have similarities as human beings!!!
Working with similarities and differences in our lives is not an easy thing to do and what happens to us teachers and to our students in our classroom deserves careful attention.