When Students Don’t Learn
One morning a few years ago, I witnessed how an English teacher masterfully discussed the intricacies of the English language. It would take a paragraph or two should I explain in detail the things he talked about. To say he is proficient in English is an understatement. His knowledge of phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, syntax, and context is impeccable. He dissected the language so skillfully and the way he did it almost made me envious. I was reduced to being a listener uncertain whether I just wanted to make sure not to miss anything new (something I don’t know yet) from what he was saying or I have nothing more to share because he had everything covered about what he was discussing. I wasn’t really sure what prevented me from saying anything. Maybe I was intimidated by his evident mastery of grammar, semantics, and pragmatics or I just did not like to gatecrash into his moment to showcase his brilliance.
That teacher held court in his impromptu lecture. He had the attention of everybody present. It was difficult to judge the intentions of my colleagues whenever they (unsolicitedly) share their expertise the way he did. Was it to impress upon us (their co-teachers) that they know that much or they simply would (good-naturedly) like to help us learn more about the subject (English) we’re teaching.
Later that day, I changed upon a student who attended my English class in the previous semester. That student was one of the best in my class. Like me, he was heading out of the campus. After the exchange of greetings, I asked “Who’s your English teacher this semester?” The student already started responding before I recalled that I promised never to ask any of my former students that question for the reason that a few of my previous attempts led to the opening of “a can of worms.”
But it already happened – I asked that stupid question again.
The student named the teacher – he was the one I heard deliver an impromptu lecture about the English language earlier that day. After that, the student heaved a sigh and said, “We could hardly understand what he’s teaching.”
I looked at him seriously and all I could say was “Really!?”.
He nodded and said one more thing, “He is also very serious.”
Before he could open wider that “can of worms,” I told my former student to give that teacher more time to adjust since the semester was still a long way to go. Then I quickly redirected our conversation to another topic.
What’s amazing is that the occurrence – of me one day hearing a colleague deliver a brilliant impromptu lecture but later that same day (or within the week) I would meet one of his students (who used to be my student also) claiming that they, in the class, could hardly understand what he is teaching – did not happen only once. If my memory serves me right, that’s the fourth time.
It finally made me reflect. That’s the reason I wrote something about it.
It made me wonder (again) how my former students rated my performance as a teacher. What do they really think (and how do they feel) about me as their teacher? What would they say to a colleague or their fellow students when asked about me?
Students evaluate the performance of their teachers every semester. It’s hard to tell how reliable and valid are the results of such evaluation. Whether or not the results are a reflection of the true professional and personal qualities of the teachers is a matter of debate.
But valid or not, reliable or otherwise, it’s hard to ignore what students say about the performance and behavior of their teachers. Teachers get to read what students write in their evaluations. They could either agree or disagree with the results of their evaluation. But what the teachers would not know is what students say about them in informal discussions. Only the most naïve among teachers don’t know that students talk about their teachers.
In gatherings, teachers do talk (or should I say gossip) about their students – their performance and behavior in the class. Conversely, students do the same. They talk (or gossip) about their teachers. There are only two possibilities – they either praise or curse their teachers.
One of the most unacceptable things that students could say about a teacher is – they do not (or they could hardly understand) what he/she is teaching.
Witnessing firsthand an English teacher discuss with ease the complexities of the English language and hearing a student claim that he and his classmates could hardly understand what that teacher is teaching is quite paradoxical.
So I asked myself this question that night – Which is true… my impressions about that English teacher or that of his students?
What could have gone wrong?
My former student said that their current English teacher is very serious. Is that the problem – good rapport does not exist between him and the students? It is no secret that a teacher’s personality is correlated to students’ academic performance.
I tried to think of other reasons.
Then I recalled my teaching demonstration when I was applying for a job right after my graduation. When the high school principal called me to her office to discuss the results, she told me I did great. But she said there was a problem – I explained things in a way that only students enrolled in a graduate program could understand.
Could that be the reason?
If that teacher carry out discussions in the class in the same way he explained the grammar topic to us in that gathering earlier that day then that exactly is the problem. You cannot discuss a grammar point to students trying to learn the language the way you would to teachers teaching that language. I think that is not rocket science.
There are two things I learned before I officially began my teaching career – to adapt my strategies and materials to students’ levels and simplify my language.
The problem is there are teachers who have a “one-size-fits-all” mentality thinking that educational processes and approaches to teaching and learning are standard and could not be tailored to meet individual needs. They wouldn’t buy into the idea of differentiated learning and teaching.
They will never accept responsibility when their students don’t learn.
Their standards are as immovable and high as Mt. Everest. The students have no other choice but to climb that Mt. Everest.
For them, it’s the fault of the students when they fail.