If you want to teach English, be ready to learn

I’m going to say right now that I’m not a normal teacher. I didn’t like school, I wasn’t big on university, and I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher.

And, I believe, that’s part of why I’m a good teacher.

Why “teaching” doesn’t work

For better or for worse, the people I teach have been conditioned by years of experience that teachers teach and learners learn. And, as soon as they recognize that I’m teaching, most of their brain shuts down and they go into ‘learner mode’ which is just a step above ‘hibernation.’

And, learning (and teaching) does take place, but it’s an uphill, grinding process.

Sometimes, it’s what students need. But, I’m lucky that I hate doing it as much as they do, and they can see that. Then, they’re willing to accept that it’s something that I, in my professional opinion, think is necessary and know I’ll try to get us through it as quickly as possible.

The important thing is this: nobody thinks that I shift to ‘teacher mode’ to avoid demonstrating my ignorance of their work.

Learning is a better model

First, most EFL teachers will agree that we never understood English grammar so well as when we started teaching it. There’s something about teaching that makes you really understand a thing.

Once my students are able to start putting coherent sentences together, they learn a lot more if I ask them to teach me. Then, building on the fact that they’re fully engaged in trying to explain something — with pictures and gestures as well as with language — they’re quick to pick up vocab. (I only have to introduce the word ‘screw’ once, if it’s important for explaining how to use their product.)

This builds on a few things. First and foremost, most people in highly specialized jobs are used to (but not happy with) being surrounded by people who say “this is my husband, he is an engineer but I don’t really understand what he does.” They’re ready for someone to want to understand.

Second, most people are, by their nature, helpful. If I can find something even tangentially related and can genuinely need their help, they’re engaged and motivated to use the language.

How to be a teacher who learns

The trick, I think, is to be humble and curious. There is no shame in saying “I don’t understand your work, but I understand practicing an instrument. Is it like that?”

The first lesson or three with me is generally spent getting to know the person, of course, and establishing what they’re goals are, but my agenda is mostly to find the things about their job that I think are interesting. Once I have found those, I try to ‘master’ them if I can (“take me to your desk and show me how you do this”) and get to understanding other parts of their job relative to them.

I am blessed in that I enjoy building up my mental model of the world, and can be fascinated by the design processes of battery systems because they help me think about other things better. If you’re not naturally curious, I suggest you figure out how to be unnaturally curious.

An example

I will be restarting private lessons with a woman who works as the head of the accounting department in a company nearby. In the last block of lessons, she was willing to endure book exercises, but only really spontaneously used vocab when talking about sports (not what she was paying me to get better at discussing) or teaching me to appreciate the nuances of finance.

If I could find a newspaper story about a company selling its building and leasing it back, I knew I had an hour of conversation just by going in and saying “why does this make sense?” She was proud of what she did and happy to show me why some things that seem counter-intuitive (why sell something that you know you will need) actually can make sense.

As I approach restarting the lessons and I need a plan, I know we’ll stick with the book we had, but I bought myself a copy of Financial Intelligence for Entrepreneurs. If I ever want to be an entrepreneur I need to learn it, and I know that I’ll have conversation material for a half year’s worth of lessons.

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Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring

Something you may not know about me is that I am working to learn how to play piano. My motivations are many: I’ve always envied people who could, I once believed I couldn’t and want to prove myself wrong, and I want my kids to see me working hard at learning and not fall into the lie of “either you’re good at it, or you’re not.”

Recently, my family has started passing around videos of us working at our music, and I thought I would share the video I made. Watching it was good (but painful) for me, and I’m thinking of making more videos. A Christmas concert?

From Tree To Shining Tree

In Radio Lab’s latest (lastest in my queue? I’m falling behind) episode, you get to hear about trees communicating, sharing, saving, adapting. I don’t think that any of it is anything that I hadn’t heard before in one place or another, but there wasn’t a moment of it I would have cut… and I was sad when it was over.

Give it a listen! The episode is named From Tree To Shining Tree.

Forming Habits

It’s hard for me to tell what is typical of me, and what is part of ‘the human experience.’ That is: it seems obvious to me that I’ve organized my life into a series of habits and routines that I could carry out in my sleep, which may be part of the reason that I’m able to function as sleep-deprived as I often do.

But, I don’t know if more people are more. . . conscious. To me, it seems like the way that people move through the world, and it’s a ‘model’ that I often use to explain the actions of others to myself. (“He probably wasn’t looking for me there, probably didn’t see me.”)

However, where I was once proud of my ability to set up routines and habits that I thought were constructive, I’m beginning to feel trapped.

Not trapped in my habits, trapped in my inability to form new habits.

Looking back, running was the last habit that I’d set up deliberately. And, perhaps some of my knee-jerk don’t-use-that-tone reactions that I have with my children.

If I’m going to continue thinking of myself as a work-in-progress authored by myself, I realized, I’m going to need to work on the authoring.

So, aside from fitness — I’m trying to get into the habit of doing strength-training every day — I’ve set up a few habits to get into. In the near future, I’d like to be a proficient fireside guitar player. Even more, I’ve decided to learn Latin.

I can sell guitar-learning as a brain-plasticity, do-it-for-the-kids kind of thing. After all, I’d like to have some campfires with them. Why not be able to do some songs.

Latin is easy for me to get: I’ve been meaning to learn another language, but I didn’t know which one. Part of living here and being in the international community, I know a ton of people who actually speak something other than English or German natively, but none of them do I know well enough to learn their language (it’s like asking someone to take you to their hometown… if they don’t invite you, you don’t go). So, I was stalled.

But, more than travel, I like obscure armchair-level scholarship. And, I like ancient Rome. Why not learn to read some texts in the original, wind up having a good base from which to learn another language? That’s what I’m doing.

Of course, I tell people I’m doing it to get the experience of learning a language as an adult, find tips to suggest to my own students. Look for opportunities to say “This is what worked for me…” And, that might be part of it, but really it’s just how I mention it to people in the hope that they’ll keep me accountable.

So, look for updates on the guitar and Latin here.