Sunday, October 27, 2013

In transition: Reflections on the art of teaching, part 2

This is part two in a series of three or four reflections. In this post I’ll continue to reflect on some of the major things I’ve learned over the past 12 years of teaching.

Reflection 2: Everyone can learn, but not everyone will.

In the education world, what I’ve just written may be as close to heresy as I can get. Let me be clear that I am in no way advocating or excusing laziness or otherwise low-quality education. Nevertheless, it is simply true that some students will not learn, not because they cannot, but because they will not. This could have any number of causes, and some of them may actually be related to irrelevant, unimaginative or otherwise poor teaching. Yet this fact remains a heartbreaking truth, even if in only a few select cases.

I’ve had two such cases in my teaching career thus far. One student never wanted to be at the school, didn’t want to go abroad and didn’t want a degree. He simply wanted his parents, who wanted him to go abroad and get a degree, to get him a job. (This is not at all strange in China for those with connections.) Eventually he began intentionally failing exams so that they would have no choice but to withdraw him from the school. A second student spent several years at the school and never seemed to improve, falling asleep in almost every class. It was so bad that the teachers eventually suggested that he may have a medical disorder needing treatment. In the end it was revealed that he was simply up playing video games all night, almost every night, for almost three years.

I bring up these examples neither to shame the students nor to justify myself or the teachers. I still think about these students and wonder if there’s anything I could have done differently to spark their interest, to provide that moment wherein everything falls into place and they themselves realize the joy (not to mention the importance) of learning and of having goals. I hope the other teachers that knew them also still think of them and wonder what could have been. Nevertheless, I also recognize that given the situations in which both the teacher and the students were placed, perhaps the outcomes were simply inevitable.

As teachers we strive to motivate students, to impart a love of learning to students, and to provide the unique sets of circumstances needed to enhance students' acquisition of knowledge, be that mathematics or language or art. Try as we might, however, there may be some students whom we are simply never able to reach. Might we have? Of course it’s possible, but a teacher has limited time, materials, and ideas. Of a hypothetical 1000 different motivational techniques, perhaps #347 would have clicked with that one student, but we merely never got around to that one. Do we have remorse for the students to whom we never got through? Yes, we do, and we must, but we must have remorse with the knowledge that sometimes, with some students, for whatever known or unknown reason, we just will not be able to break through to be the change we want to be in those students’ lives. And it breaks our hearts.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In transition: Reflections on the art of teaching, part 1

In my first post I mentioned my life in transition: transition from one country and culture to another, transition from a relatively well-paying job to what I hope will be only temporary joblessness, transition from ethnic singularity to diversity. Transitions seem to bring with them a certain opportunity to look back, to reassess, to reflect. Recently I have been reflecting about many things: about life, about hopes and desires, and about teaching.

Through trial and error, I have learned a lot about teaching Chinese students over the past ten years. I have learned much about teaching English over the past ten years. I have also learned a lot about the art of teaching itself, in all its nebulousness. Different methods, different styles, different activities―many have been attempted, many have failed, and a precious few have succeeded. Nevertheless, what I began to reflect on today is not so much about the practice of teaching itself, but rather about some truths that simply are. In this post I address what will likely be the first of three or four reflections.

Reflection 1: Living in a mystery

Teaching, like life, is something that reveals more of its mystery the longer one persists in it. Experience is wonderful, and it is said (as my more cliche-loving students like to remind me) that experience is the best teacher. After 11 or 12 years in the classroom (depending on how one calculates it), I know vastly more about managing a classroom, motivating students and effectively delivering lessons than I did as a 22 year old college graduate. Just a few years "in the trenches" can lead to more insights than an entire undergraduate education program, and a few more can sometimes even surpass a masters program. But something accompanies experience that eclipses improved technique and broader knowledge: the understanding that one does not really know as much as he or she thought.

As a young man I was armed with my Drake University education background, a resume that included stints in rural and urban summer camps, a year assisting in special education, and the certainty that I was about to change the world. I was young and impetuous, confident and arrogant. Now, 12 years later, having tasted both success and failure, having clicked with some students and having been woefully unable to connect with others, having helped some students to reach their goals and all but shedding tears over seeing some students have to give up their dreams, I emerge a still confident but much more humble educator than I once was.  Do I change the world? I hope so, one life at a time. Do I have the best ideas? I have some good ideas, but even the best ideas fall flat on the wrong days. Am I going to solve the educational needs of my students? I will certainly try to address them, but I won't always (and perhaps rarely) help as much as I or they would like. Will my students acquire a passion for learning? Some have, and I can remember each one by name. Others never saw the light.

I am still a relatively inexperienced father, my oldest son being only a month and a half past two years old. Despite this inexperience, I had a revelation one day in my living room, a revelation that I would wager most fathers before me have long since discovered. I was moving a coffee table (unrelated to the revelation) and thought, "I have read a lot of books and have talked to a lot of fathers, but I don't really know what I'm doing as a father. I'm just trying my best everyday. I'll bet that's what my father did, too. He didn't know everything or even THINK he knew everything, despite what my teenage brain may have thought. He knew he didn't know all that much, but he was doing his best with what he knew." I think it's the same with teaching. I've read a lot of books and journals, I've talked with other teachers, and I have a lot of tools I've developed, but when all is said and done, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, I'm really just trying my best to educate whomever will listen with whatever I have to offer. I can't but think that any honest teacher would say the same.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A new day dawning

Opening this blog, I am on the cusp of a major life change: relocation to the United States. Having spent the past 10+ years in China, this is no small endeavor. I started out as a young, single teacher yearning to change the world. I return a married man, a father of two, and a not-so-young teacher still yearning to change the world.

I'm not returning to the United States in the most joyful of circumstances; my three-month-old son has been diagnosed with a genetic disorder called tuberous sclerosis complex, often simply referred to as TSC or TS. The treatment options in China being severely limited, my wife and I have made the difficult decision to pull up our tent pegs and start a new journey in the United States.

There are definitely things that excite me about returning to teach in the United States, and there are naturally things that I will miss. This opening post is dedicated to three of each:

Exciting #1

Linguistically and culturally, I am excited to explore the variety of backgrounds that inevitably await me in a U.S. ESL classroom. Based on statistics alone, I can imagine a classroom of students from language backgrounds including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Persian, among others, each with their own unique difficulties in acquiring English. Such an environment would prove to be an exciting challenge, no doubt, but it will also be incredibly interesting, not to mention fun.

Less than exciting #1

On the other hand, I will miss working within a Chinese context. I would never call wasted the years spent studying Chinese or the years devoted to discovering the unique ways that the Chinese language background both enables and hinders acquisition of English. Nevertheless, those specific knowledge banks will be of much less value in a multilingual, multicultural environment. Of course, I also simply enjoy Chinese.

Exciting aspect #2

Rejoining a professional, cutting-edge workforce thrills me. Working in North American academia with professional development opportunities, access to the latest technological capabilities and freedom to explore new topics is truly a galvanizing prospect. I've long lived where professional development is rarely obtainable, in a context within which internet access was never a sure bet. Being able to mingle with other English teaching professionals, tour the latest in blended learning trends and engage students in a new range of topics feels liberating.

Less than exciting #2

Despite the complaints I've often uttered (e.g. I understand that China doesn't like Google search, but do they really need to slow down my Gmail!?), it has been enjoyable dealing with and learning to adapt to the limitations I've faced in China. "There's no multimedia access today? Think fast!" Learning to discuss sensitive topics in ways that promote discussion rather than anger has been challenging but rewarding for both me and my students. Fresh teaching challenges unquestionably await me in the United States, but likely few compare with those I've acclimated to in Changsha. I will miss near-daily tests of adaptability.

Exciting #3

I have no idea what to expect. My next steps seem completely unpredictable. It is roughly comparable to the emotions I felt before first going to China as a student in 2001 and later returning as a teacher in 2003. After more than ten years in the China, living and working in the United States presents a virtually identical sense of disorientation. In some ways it is a homecoming. In other ways it is very much like entering a new culture, getting to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of an entirely new, foreign milieu.

Less than exciting #3

Simply put, I will miss China. It has become home not just for me, but for my family as well (though it always was my wife's culture). Yes, I experienced culture shock and culture stress just like anyone else. It was not easy living in a city about which a local Chinese friend once remarked, "I you can make it in this city, you can make it anywhere in China." Yet over the years digging in roots, engaging a culture, and learning daily, I began to love a myriad of aspects of China that simply are not present in typical U.S. culture. I began to appreciate habits and traditions in ways that I never would have expected. Do I like everything about China? Of course not! But home is home. Now it is time for a new home, again.