"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."
I recently had the pleasure and the privilege of listening to Dr. Jack C. Richards, the author of the New Interchange series for ESL students. He was giving a lecture at AUA Language Center here in Bangkok. Even though his speech was ambitiously titled,"Learning From Other Voices--- Collaborative Approaches to Teacher Development", it was both engaging and relevent. A timely topic in today's rapidly changing teaching environment.
Dr. Richards raised some very interesting questions about the topic of teacher development, and how schools can better help their teachers to improve their skills. Those of us who have been in the ESL teaching profession long enough already know that finding a school which is dedicated to the continual growth of its teachers is extremely rare.
Let's face it. Most language schools are small, have very few resources, and are run by greedy business people. Even the bigger schools are not immune to greed. They no more care about foreigners and the unique teaching skills a lot of us bring, than they care about their own people and the teaching skills that they bring. Money is the stuff these greedy business people smell. And the more of it they smell, the greedier they become. So hats off to schools like AUA and the few others who are dedicated to teacher support and development. These schools deserve to be in the spotlight.
For those of us who have taught ESL in at least three of four different countries realize a major problem. All ESL teaching is local. What works in Thailand can get you fired in Korea. I know that from experience. Most Thais like to have fun in the classroom and have problems focusing and concentrating on more serious matters. Most Koreans just want to practice speaking with little or no listening activities. Free talking, they call it. Most of the students in Muslim countries are too fixated on grammar to care enough to listen and speak effectively. Most of the Chinese and Japanese students are far too serious and think learning is best when their collective noses are being held to the proverbial grindstone. Having some fun in the classroom is the furthest thing from their mind.
For some, these distinct variations of learning styles and practices may not be a problem. It's just cultural. For me, it's a direct reflection of how little we all know about ESL teaching. It's a reflection of how little thought and effort the whole ESL community has put into the idea of how students learn another language. Instead of presenting students with universal propositions of learning the English language, we pander to their cultural instincts. Instead of being honest with them and letting them know where the "rubber meets the road"--- that it's hard work to learn a language--- to learn anything at all--- we give into the idea that it's bad to "rock the boat."
So most ESL students world wide continue to pay their money and get very little in return. It's everyone's fault. The students for actually believing that they can learn something from a 22 year old backpacker with a $30,000 student loan to pay off; the teacher, who has little or nothing in common with most of the students, and is just trying to "get by" in a foreign country; and most of the schools who couldn't care less about the students or the teachers as long as the money keeps rolling in.
I don't mean to sound so negative here. Believe it or not, this is the reality of much of the ESL world. It may be sad, but it's true. Fortunately there are some people who are trying to fix it. There are people out there who are putting some serious thought into how to improve the ESL profession. And it is a profession. Not just a way to pay off a student loan or meet exotic women.
Although Dr. Richards' speech was engaging, it was too "local" in scope for my taste. Dr. Richards is a good man with a very good series of ESL textbooks, but I would like to have heard of more "universal" ways to approach ESL teaching.
Success guru Dr. Stephen R. Covey will be in Bangkok this month. His "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is my Bible. It's also a great book for teachers who wish to organize their lives and teach more effectively. So after Dr. Richards' speech, I began thinking. (Always dangerous for me!) I began thinking about the mutual obligations that schools and teachers have towards each other. (I think that's what Dr. Richards was also talking about.) And with Dr. Covey coming to town, I'm thinking about the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Schools" and the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teachers." The two are not mutually exclusive. One cannot be discussed without discussing the other.
So here we go.
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Schools:
1) Education First; Entertainment Second.
Let's start with a basic fact. Students are paying money to learn English. Here in Thailand, it could be 15--20% of their monthly income. That's "Mucho Baht" for the average Thai. Schools and teachers have a mutual obligation to teach these students English. Yes, we can certainly have some fun (Sanook) while teaching and learning. That's important. I sometimes like to sing grammar songs in class. Mark Hancock's "Singing Grammar" by Cambridge University Press is always fun to use.
But some teachers get carried away by bringing a guitar to class and doing their John Denver impersonation. What's next, having the students sit on huge beanbag cushions and getting them in touch with their inner child? Primordial scream therapy, perhaps? Fun is good sometimes. But let's not lose sight of why we're really here.
The question that we should be asking students as they leave the classroom is, "What did you learn today?" Not, "Sanook, mai?" (Did you have fun?)
2) Continuous Teacher Support and Development.
This Dr. Richards dealt with in his speech. And I dealt with it in my last column. Great schools support their teachers and help them to develop and grow not only as teachers, but as people. Support, development, encouragement and mentorship. It's an ongoing process.
3) Sell Teachers, Not Books.
Far too many schools get into the terrible habit of believing that textbooks are more important than teachers. This is wrong. While books are an important learning tool, schools should never forget that teachers are the school's number one resource. Even with the internet, people still learn best from other people. It's been that way since the beginning of time. By selling their teachers--- by putting teachers first--- great schools are reinforcing the important and profound belief that the human approach to education if still, by far, the best way for everyone to succeed.
4) Stress Quality Over Quantity; Substance Over Appearance.
Great schools not only have great teachers, they also have great students. Students that want to be there. And teachers that want to be there. Students that want to learn. And teachers that want to teach. Sensing a pattern here? Great teaching and great learning go hand in glove. Students that are forced to be there by a third party-- a parent-- can bring the whole class down. Great schools train their teachers well. They also choose their students well.
5) Bring the Teachers into the Decision Making Process.
It's not enough for schools to train their teachers well. They must also trust them. And have faith in them. And believe that they are doing the right thing where the students are concerned. Bringing teachers into the decision making process-- whether it be scheduling or classroom management issues-- shows that the school trusts itself enough to treat its teachers as full partners in the continued growth and success of every aspect of the school.
6) Be A Catalyst For Change Instead of Simply Reacting to Change.
Great schools lead the way. They realize that we live in an everchanging world. Great schools welcome change and thrive on it--- whether those changes are economic, social or both. They don't react negatively to change, and they certainly are not afraid of it. Great schools see change as a good thing. An opportunity for continued growth and development. And as an opportunity to propel itself, its teachers, and its students into further greatness.
7) Expect More From Your Teachers and Students Than They Are Willing to Give.
Great schools challenge their teachers and students. This is a touchy issue for a lot of people. Recently I had a discussion with a fellow teacher at AUA. We were talking generally about the ESL world and I was telling him that a major problem with language schools world wide is that they never demand more from the students than the students are willing to give. It's simply bad for business. I understand that. The students are paying money, and if they want to play games and sing songs, then they should play games and sing songs.
But it is PRECISELY BECAUSE the students are paying money that we have an added responsibility to teach them to the best of our ability. Great schools eliminate the tomfoolery. Expect more from the teachers and students and you will get more.
I would like to throw in an 8th habit here. Since Dr. Covey's new book, "The 8th Habit" is now in bookstores, I think it's only fair.
8) Designate Every Last Friday of the Month as "Free Pizza and Chicken Wing Day!"
For some this may be the most important habit of all! Who can resist free pizza and chicken wings? Especially when the school is footing the bill.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teachers:
1) Establish Trust and Mutual Respect From the Get-go.
It's extremely important to put your students at ease, especially during the first few classes.
So let the students know that you are on their side; that you want them to succeed. Create a relaxed and cordial learning atmosphere.
I knew one teacher that loved to bring New Age CD's to class--- nature sounds and all that stuff. I guess he thought that the students would love nothing more than to hear sparrows chirping, owls hooting in the forest, fish flipping in the water, and wolves howling in the wilderness as they conjugated verbs. Personally I would leave all of that mamby-pamby, artsy-fartsy, neo-hippy stuff exactly where it belongs--- on the tarmac at LAX.
Like I said, it's important to have some fun, so bring in a few activities from time to time. But establishing some ground rules right from the start is just as important. A few that I have are very simple:
1) No talking while the teacher is talking. Pay attention and stay focused.
2) Leave class momentarily if you must use your cellphone .
3) Come to class prepared to learn and have fun. Bring your books, notebooks, pen, and
You'll be surprised how many students sometimes don't follow these simple rules. These rules are for the student's protection. If they are broken enmass, then chaos will ensure and the whole class will fall by the wayside. It is the teacher's responsibility to make sure that that never happens. Once the teacher and the students begin to trust and respect each other, then these rules will help the class run like a well oiled machine.
2) Act as Their Guide and Leader, Just as You Would Want to be Guided and Lead.
Just as the school supports you as a teacher; just as the school helps to develop your skills as a teacher, so should you, as a teacher, support your students and assist them in developing their skills as learners. Great teachers support and help to develop their students.
Great teachers are leaders and good listeners. Classrooms are not "free-for-alls" where anything goes. Students look to us for leadership, and setting guidelines will earn a good teacher the respect he or she deserves.
3) Know What Your "Serving Up" to the Students.
This habit I learned from Dave Hopkins, a Teacher Trainer at TEFL International in Ban Phe, Thailand. He was also the Director of AUA. I guess another way to say this is "Know your students well", or "Know what your students are capable of." Challenge them, but don't give them more than they can chew. Some teachers employ what is referred to as the "A + 1" technique-- ability plus the next level. ESL learning one level at a time.
4) Maximize Listening and Speaking.
"Listening is learning; speaking is refinement." That's another Dave Hopkinsism. At least that's where I learned it from. While reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary are important, very important in some ways-- listening and speaking should be the numbers one and two punch in learning English.
5) Don't take "Yes, Teacher!" for an answer: Go Beyond Simple Understanding.
I used to make the same mistake over and over again. Whenever I finished explaining or modelling something, I would ask the class, "So, do you understand?" Ten or fifteen students in unison, "YES, TEACHER!!!! " I And I used to believe them. Concept check by asking "Wh" questions and "Yes-No" questions. Demonstrate and model exercises and activities--- even the simplest ones-- until you can see the whites of your student's eyeballs.
I try not to let something go until most of the students fully understand. It could be frustrating at times, but it's also professionally fulfilling once they finally do "get it." The students will also respect you for putting in the extra time and effort.
6) Expect More From the Students than they Expect From Themselves.
ESL students are notorious for expecting very little from themselves. Just as great schools expect a lot from their teachers, great teachers expect a lot from their students. So push them whenever you need to--- but not too much. Let them know that failure is not an option.
And laziness and lack of effort on their part will neither be ignored nor overlooked.
7) Learn From Other Teachers. Be Open to New Ideas and Approaches From Your Peers.
I have a dear friend in the ESL world--- a few of them, actually. We taught together in Korea in 1998-99. I learned so much from her about teaching and about life. She was and still is a great teacher and a good friend. She's still teaching in Northern Africa. But she did have this bad habit in the past, and hope she's over it.
She is a wealth of great teaching, and has a plethora of great activities for the ESL classroom. However, she was almost always reluctant to share them with other teachers. (I was one of very few that she shared them with, and I am forever fortunate and greatful for that.) This reluctance was sad because she was really generous of heart and spirit. So many people have so much to learn from her. If you have great teaching ideas, then please don't hesitate to share them with your fellow teachers. They will be greatful for it, and will in turn share their ideas with you. I am greatful when other teachers share ideas with me. And I promise to share my ideas as well--- once I have them!
For the students who put in the effort it takes to learn, guide then, support them, encourage them. Let them know that you expect them to succeed. Expect success and you will get success far more often than you realize.
Again, an 8th habit.
8) Reflect, Reflect, Reflect.
This may be the most important habit of all. Great teachers are reflective teachers. They constantly ask themselves, "What could I do to improve my lessons?" and, "What could I have done to teach that last l class better?" Sometimes I'm up nights wondering about this. It's a good habit to get into.
If I am to be honest with myself, I am not a very good teacher. At least not now. I am not near the level of teaching ability and effectiveness that I want to be. But day by day, week by week, month by month, I am improving. Right now I'm very lucky. I'm surrounded by great people who are helping me to become a much better teacher. And I am greatful for that.
In the end I think that great teaching comes down to very few things--- like the ancient proverb that I began with. It's okay to give someone a fish now and then. It shows that we can reach out to people; it shows that we care; it shows our humanity. But teaching someone how to fish goes way beyond simply reaching out to others. It connects us all in ways that we, in our limited wisdom and intelligence, can hardly imagine.
Teaching people how to fish propels humanity into the 21st century, whether or not we are prepared for it. Teaching people how to fish forces us to look into the eyes of another human being and see ourselves. When you give a man a fish and feed him for a day, you can then send him on his way and forget about him. When you teach a man how to fish and feed him for a lifetime, he becomes a part of us--- of you and me. We cannot send him on his way. We cannot forget him. And he will certainly not forget you.
As great schools and great teachers, let's teach our students how to fish.