A Taste of Teaching Triumph

12 Dec

“Your class was hard. You’re very demanding! But we learned a lot in your class.”

Some ex-students actually said these very words to me last week, and I almost keeled over from teacher ecstasy. It was music to a teacher’s ears, music like when you do karaoke to Madonna’s Like a Prayer or Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, or whatever is your favorite jam from the 80s, with your very best friend (yippeeeee!). It was that level of thrilling, and yet I didn’t have a hangover the next day.

I am that vexatious teacher that’s always on their case, asking them extra questions, coaxing them to talk and to SPEAK LOUDLY PLEASE; I CAN’T HEAR YOU. I am always insisting that they can do more- or at least they can try to do more, at least during their English class.

Thoughts on Homework

I do not, however, insist they can do much more in their spare time, because they really don’t have enough of that- especially my nursing students. I do strongly encourage 15 minutes a day of review/study, but that’s about it. Most of these students will not go on to use English for much more than reading some scholarly articles, listening to music, and a brief conversation with an English-speaking tourist every once in a while. Most of them will be able to accomplish that regardless of homework, if they just attend our English classes most days for their 3 years of required English. (Yep, three years, y’all. That’s six semesters. So quit complaining about your 2-4 semesters of required foreign language.)

When my level one class first started this semester and we discussed ground rules for my class, I asked them what else they needed or wanted in order for us to have mutual respect and to have a good class environment. One of my cheerily cheeky students said, “No homework!” I told him that I agree, that I know how much homework they already get from their other classes and that to me it’s disrespectful of their right to free time (and sleep) to add to their list for English class (a class that is obligatory but doesn’t count towards their grade point average).* The whole class looked surprised and/or pleased by my answer, but this student was so tickled that he said- slowly, but in English, no less, “Teacher, I love your class!”

Questioning the Teacher is Good for You

The only thing that makes me happier than a student disinterestedly telling me that they learned a lot (disinterestedly as in they aren’t trying to talk their way into a better grade or changing their attendance record) is when my students start to question each other- and me! “Why? Where’s the evidence?” they’ll half-mockingly ask another student (mockingly because they’re partially mocking me by using my standard, constant question from our reading comprehension practice. I am like a broken record with the “why” thing. “How do you know?” and “Where is the evidence?” are the only rivals in popularity.)

Questioning me about my vocabulary or grammar in Spanish is kind of nice, especially because lately I feel like I’ve lost a good portion of my language skills in Spanish since moving to Mexico. (Oh the irony!) Once upon a time, Spanish was one of my two majors. At one time, I was writing scholarly articles and reading novels and watching movies and facilitating parenting workshops at one of my jobs and doing a zillion other things all in Spanish. In the US, I was living my life about 65% in Spanish. Here, on the other hand, most days of the week I only go to work and back home. At work I teach English, and talk to my coworkers in English. At home I insist on speaking to my children in English to guarantee their learning of it. Furthermore I now speak at least half of my words to my spouse in English, so he doesn’t forget his English, too. I read mostly in English, because I take advantage of what my mom has on her Kindle account, which is linked to mine. (Thanks, mama.) And it shows that I no longer use Spanish more than English. “Use it or lose it!” As my Nonna used to say (about language and your body). Thus, anytime they can critique or correct my Spanish, it’s good for me, and it’s good for them. I try to keep up my language use and they get a decent chance to feel how they should feel- more like learning peers than students vs. teachers.

Thus, I appreciate their questioning me about my Spanish, but the extreme kudos and bonus points are for questioning my teaching or my English. This mostly only happens with Biology students and the occasional Forestry student, for reasons that my sociology-trained brain strongly suspects but doesn’t want to comment on at this time. I don’t count my Animal Science students’ incessant “Teacher, finished class?” as questioning, although if I did, they would be the hands-down winners of questioning the teacher. My nursing students rarely question me… or anything else.

This is what frightens me the most- the lack of questioning. Nurses are scientists, too! Different than biologists, sure, but their brand of science is just as important. Instead of teaching them to question, though, they’re mostly charged with memorizing. They’re the only students on our campus who have to wear uniforms. They’re the students most likely to be sleep-deprived, staying up all night to finish coloring some anatomy chart or make a board presentation or cram for their rote-memory exam. They don’t really get vacations because they’re always doing practicums. I hear it’s like this for nursing students in the US, too. But to me it’s a way of telling them that their own well-being doesn’t matter, even though they’re charged with taking care of the rest of us in our most vulnerable moments. Seems like bad policy to me, but what the hell do I know, anyway?

But back to the questioning me business. The other day, I was making my 2nd year students practice writing in English. “Does the author think moving humans into space is a good idea? Why or why not?” I asked them. Of course the author didn’t state his/her opinion. I wanted them to note the fact that all the reasons given in the article were pro moving into space, and that theoretically we can deduce, or at the very least suspect that the author is interested in the same. But as a couple of students rightly pointed out, the author was giving reasons by other scientists; we don’t know what the author actually thinks. Well played, pupils, well played. Extra applause for critiques and input in your learning proccess! Success!


Yeah, I applaud errors consistently, and failure is valuable. But it’s important to feel some kind of successful about something some of the time. 

Bragging Rights

Am I sharing the teaching gaity and triumph to toot my own horn? No, but also yes! This post started as a monologue about the importance of critical thinking. But lately I have about six blog posts going at all times and don’t finish a single one of them, so it’s only partially about critical thinking and questioning.

Regardless, as it turns out, I am absolutely in favor of tooting your own horn, because sometimes we are good at something, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that. There’s enough to be ashamed of, (what with the state of my bathroom alone), to not have to add to the list with things that I am actually proud of. I’m doing a crappy job at various things in life, (baby nap schedules, keeping up with the laundry, having time to finish a blog post, for instance) but at least there’s this triumph! This ain’t arrogance! I have a healthy dose of self-doubt about some things I do or don’t do in my teaching too, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with celebrating when I do something that actually seems to help students learn. I’ve been teaching formally for about six years now, after all, so there damn well better be something I do well at this point.

And this is my best thing. My best two things. I appreciate and respect my students, even when they are giant pains in my head in the middle of the day. And I make them question and look for the evidence. For every freaking thing. All the freaking time. And they hate it and love it. So there. I’ve got loads more to share on this and other teaching-related, student-related subjects, so hang on for part two. Hopefully I’ll be back in the swing of blogging by then, and perhaps I’ll even be able to keep on the same train of thought. Only time will tell!

*I’m not saying all homework is useless in all contexts, by any means. But it doesn’t work well for my classes, and I certainly think we should question homework’s purpose and function.

2 Responses to “A Taste of Teaching Triumph”

  1. juliainman December 16, 2016 at 7:29 pm #

    Toot that well-deserved horn, niece o’ mine! Because you rock and your Nonna would be so proud. Mom used to get stopped in public (Kroger’s, Target, etc.) for years after she quit teaching, to be told, “Ms. Inman, I learned a bit of Spanish in your class, but most of what I learned was about life. And I’ll never forget you.” My guess is that your students will feel the same way. Miss you every day. Your Aunt.

    • exiletomexico December 25, 2016 at 1:05 pm #

      Just seeing your comment. Thank you. You know thinking about Nonna like that is icing on the cake to any good teaching moment. Miss you like crazy.

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