when the tables are turned: what I learned about my instruction while being a student

This January, we’ve spent three weeks in Rio doing a Portuguese course at a local language school. Now, as I head home to the kiddos that I miss and the job that I love, I cannot help but reflect on what I learned while being an emerging bi(tri)lingual student.

  • The Teacher. When I think back on my educational experience, it is people I remember…not lessons or curriculum. The teacher matters. Humanity matters. The same goes for this experience: I felt much more engaged when I connected with the teacher; I felt much more motivated when I respected the teacher. What created this dynamic? Patient, present, and authentic listening. A remembering of details. Facilitation rather than sage-on-the-stage-look-at-me-showmanship. A sense of humor. Well-timed feedback that corrects but doesn’t interrupt. Intentional lessons that are relevant to my zone of proximal development. Attention to all modes of learning: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. An encouragement of beneficial resources and a caution against resources that in the end undermine learning.
  • The peers. Since learning is never in isolation, peers have a critical influence on achievement as well. As I was learning a second language, I was slow at times to formulate what I wanted to say. Nothing irritated me more than when a peer would jump in to save me, or steal my struggle, or finish my thoughts. I also was highly annoyed by those who dominated air time. Of course, this goes back to the teacher’s role as well. How do I build community? How do I honor struggle? How do I regulate participation? How do I ensure all voices have air time? How do I equally challenge the “know-it-alls” while supporting other levels?
  • The space. It is hard to learn in uncomfortable chairs in a room that doesn’t feel cozy. It is hard to learn when sitting for hours on end. It is hard to learn when I have limited space. Of course, it is not impossible. But as I think about my role as a teacher, I wonder how I can create the space for optimal learning…especially when I don’t have my own classroom.
  • The learner. Ultimately, my experience in Rio learning Portuguese was up to me–the student. I had to practice. I had to do homework. I had to take risks. I had to struggle. I had to make mistakes. I had to ask questions. I had to engage. In my last week when things shifted to a different classroom, a different level, a different teacher, I didn’t engage fully. And though I may criticize the root of this, in the end… it’s on me.

As I begin my second semester teaching abroad, these are the things I’ll keep in mind.