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When Students Don’t Learn

studentsOne morning, 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 details the things he discussed. Let me just say that he is every inch a native English speaker. His knowledge of the 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 that conversation. He had the attention of everybody present. It was difficult to judge the intentions of my colleagues whenever they (unsolicitedly) share their expertise like that. 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 a 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 have previously made a promise to myself 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 is still a long way to go. Then I quickly redirected our conversation to another topic after that.

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 also how my former students rate my performance as a teacher. What do  they really think  (and how they feel)  about me as their teacher?

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 is 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 evaluation. 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 first hand 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 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 a rocket science.

There are two things I learned before I officially began my teaching career – 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 their Mt. Everest.

For them, it’s the fault of the students when they fail.

How Different Are Teachers From One Another

teacherprofiles-infographic11No two teachers use the same lens when they view teaching as a profession. Even if  teachers are made to use similar lens, they would still look at their job (as teachers) differently. They have perspectives, educational and personal,  that are uniquely theirs – or  some of them may have none at all.

Teachers don’t have the same set of knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values either. Like their fingerprints, their mindsets, tendencies and other personal qualities are very unlikely to be identical.

When given the same course syllabus, we should not expect them to map out their daily lesson plans in the same manner. They would design learning activities and deliver or carry them out in ways they see fit. Some would not bother to plan anything

The work attitudes of teachers are also not the same.

There are those who are so conscious about the number of hours they are required to serve as stipulated in their contracts. You could not expect them to go overtime and do extra job – unless you give them extra pay or service credits.

Conversely,  there are teachers who are willing to go the extra mile. They assist their students beyond their assigned teaching hours and volunteer for tasks and do things not  written in their job description, expecting nothing in return.

Of course, the worst are those teachers who either come to class late or dismiss their classes earlier than expected – or both. For reasons only them know, they do not perform their assigned tasks the way they ought to. They submit required paperwork either late  or not at all.

If you are a teacher reading this, here is a question for you, “In which of the three groups do you belong? Of course, only you know. At the very least, be not the one described in the paragraph right above this one.

There are teachers who are eternal fault-finders always trying to find something wrong – either with the policies being implemented or with their colleagues and administrators.  And should they succeed in finding one, they would either whine or gossip about it, or both.

Teachers also differ in the way they treat their students.

Some teachers would set standards that are difficult to achieve while others know how to calibrate their standards to give even the slowest of learners a chance to succeed. There are teachers who have “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. Conversely, they have counterparts who understand that students have different learning styles, abilities, and personal backgrounds. They know that they must recognize the uniqueness of each student (or groups of students) and differentiate their methods and strategies as teachers. These teachers don’t believe  that standards are absolute.

Describing how teachers are different from one another could boil down to the following statements: 1. There are teachers who display both passion and compassion – they are passionate about their job and compassionate to their students; 2. There are teachers who have only one of the two; and 3. There are teachers who do not have both.

And again, if you are a teacher reading this, here is another question for you, “Which of the three statements in the paragraph above applies to you?”

If it’s the third one, you could be in the wrong profession. Think about it.

Now, let’s try to find out why teachers are not the same.

In doing so, let’s answer the following questions:

“Why do teachers view their profession (or approach teaching) differently?”

“Why do they have different work attitudes?”

“Why are some passionate with their job and compassionate to their students while the others are not?”

Before we answer those questions, it is important to note  that  there are only two ways to classify the way teachers perform – effective or ineffective; two ways to label their work attitude – good or bad; and two ways to view the way they treat their students – fairly or poorly.

What could be the reason teachers treat their students the way they do? Some teachers are perceived by their students as mean, unfair and inconsiderate. Is it because these teachers were not taught by their parents the values of kindness and fairness during their formative years? Did their experiences in life make them rude? Or were they treated in the same way by their former teachers and they are thinking that being mean, unfair, and inconsiderate to students is nothing but normal.

Teachers need to be reminded of the importance of establishing a good rapport with the students. In several studies conducted, what emerged as among the  top qualities of effective teachers as perceived by students include “the ability to develop relationships with their students” and “patient,  caring, and kind personality.”


As Andrew Johnson puts it, “Teaching starts with a relationship. Until then, you are just a dancing monkey standing up in front of your students performing tricks.”

The hardest stone that school authorities could pick up and hit their heads with is if they would decide to hire a “nonteacher” to be a teacher. There are teachers in (some, a few, or is it many?) schools who are not really teachers by profession.  They either have non-Education degrees or they did not receive any kind of teacher-training but were lucky to be hired for whatever reasons only those who hired them know.

How could a “nonteacher” be effective and passionate in a job completely alien to him/her?

Being a math wizard doesn’t give one the right to become a Math teacher. Having a perfect accent and impeccable grammar in English doesn’t make one qualified to teach English. These are things I emphasized in one of my essays about teaching. It doesn’t mean that if you know it, you can teach it.

How do we expect somebody who has no training in pedagogy to be effective in preparing a lesson plan – to set objectives, to choose the strategies and methods appropriate for a lesson and the levels of students, to motivate students before delivering the lesson, and to create tests intended to measure and evaluate learning.

Do you really think that teaching is just another job?

How do we expect a “nonteacher” to understand what kind of work attitude teachers should have and to agree with Ben Orlin who sees teaching as an act of self-sacrifice, as a hard path undertaken for the greater good?

So, when colleagues in the academe are not performing and behaving the way a teacher should, check their academic background. They could be “nonteachers.” (And excuse me for using the word “nonteacher.” It’s not in any dictionaries I checked online, except for one –  I just can’t think of a word that could best label professionals in the academe that were allowed to teach even if their degrees are not related to education or they did not have any training as a teacher at all.

But a more serious concern in the academe is this – Why are there teachers who were trained  to be teachers who  act as if they themselves are “nonteachers”?

The way teachers perform are dictated by the personal educational philosophy they developed when they got exposed to the many isms they studied while pursuing their education degree. Such philosophy would evolve through time as they accumulate actual teaching experiences.  Teachers also have personal belief systems that inform whatever decision they make. Or their decisions are influenced by the colleague they surround themselves with.

The way teachers behave and talk reflect the kind of personal educational philosophy they have (or the absence of it). The way they conduct themselves as professionals depends on whether they adhere (or not) to the code of teacher professionalism.

When teachers act and speak strangely, it is possible that they don’t know that there exists a code of professionalism created so teachers would be guided accordingly. Or they chose to ignore it.

But even if let’s say teachers are not aware of the existence of such code of professionalism, common sense would tell them that they ought to be careful with whatever they say or do or else they will be charged with conduct unbecoming to a teacher.

That is if they care and it’s not only the paycheck they are after.

Getting Through The First Day Of Class

(A Personal Essay)

AAEach meeting with my students is important but it’s the first day that I consider very special – the most strategically important. It’s the day that I would attempt to accomplish one of the hardest things to do in education – to shatter the students’ image of the classroom as a prison cell, with them as  prisoners and the teachers as nasty prison guards. It’s the day when I begin to lay the foundations of what every teacher should endeavor to forge between them and their students – a good rapport.

The entire semester is a long haul and I know that winning their hearts  would make our journey together as enjoyable and productive as it could be. If I succeed in making them trust me during the first day, half-of-the battle is already won. Earning the trust of my Korean students is very important to me as an expat teacher teaching English. What makes that task  of earning their trust not only necessary but also (doubly) challenging  is the fact that I yes I am  an ESL teacher with the proper qualifications and training but I am not from any of their preferred native English speaking countries.

There’s nothing very special about the way I conduct my first meeting with my new students here in South Korea. It’s just a bit unconventional.

My introduction would always include telling my students the nickname which I adopted with the intention of eliciting laughter whenever I deliver a talk – Tonitonipoponibananananapoponinomimayfofoni. (Inspired by Laura Branigan’s song entitled “Name Game.”) Amazingly, when I tell my students that and jokingly threaten them to memorize it if not they would fail in my subject, they would try very hard to repeat it after me and laugh at themselves if they wouldn’t be able to say it.

Then I would add, “Whoever could say my nickname correctly will get an A+.” I don’t mean it of course. Luckily, up until this time, no one among those who tried succeeded. It was me who would always succeed – in getting their attention.

From there, I would give them the necessary information about me as their teacher. The most significant of those information (as far as I am concerned) is the number of years I have been teaching. It currently stands at (a few months more than) 30 years. The point I wish to drive home for highlighting to my students how long I have been teaching is – I wouldn’t stay this long in the academe if I don’t love my job.

The next part of my first-day-of-class script would touch the boundaries of philosophy.

I would be delivering something like an“eve-of-battle” speech. The way they do it in movies.

I would ask my first question: “Why am I teacher?”

Puzzled, the students would grope for an answer.

I would give follow-up questions after that – Would you call a woman a mother without a son or a daughter? Are your mothers and fathers mothers and fathers without you as their children?

Amid their “aahs” and nods I would then say, “I am a teacher because of the students. My reason for being a teacher is each of you. Without you, I am just a person – not a teacher.”

That’s my way of telling my students that the most important stakeholder in a school are them. Schools exist because of them. School administrators and teachers have work because of them.

That’s my way of telling them that I exist (as a teacher) to serve their interests.

I would end that part with the following statement: “Thank you for having me as your teacher.”

After that I would show them a video clip from the movie “Collateral Beauty” – that part where Howard Inlet, the character played by Will Smith, delivered a speech in a gathering of his employees at the beginning of the movie.

  • “What is your why? Why did you even get out of the bed this morning? Why did you eat what you ate? Why did you wear what you wore? Why did you come here?”

I would pause the video clip after each question and would ask them to give an answer.

Then I would ask them follow-up questions. (These were the only questions I asked when I was not yet using that movie clip.)


Why are you here in school?

Why do you want to finish your studies?

The last question I would ask – Why did you enroll in this class?

I never failed to ask the said questions because I want my students to understand that for them to succeed not only in their studies but in all their present and future endeavors, they need to set goals. They ought to know their whys. They must know the reasons why they do what they do, say what they say, and think what they think.

I would tell them also that the worst “why” to have for studying is to get A+  – that grades are not the be-all and end-all of schooling.

All of the foregoing would be finished in twenty to thirty minutes.

I would then ask the student to introduce themselves.

After all of the foregoing , I would proceed to the presentation of  the course syllabus – explain the course objectives, give the topics to be discussed weekly, and tell them what activities will be done in the class and how are they going to be graded.

In explaining discipline in the class, I would simply ask this question – “Are you small children?” They would of course say “NO.” Then I would tell them this – “I therefore expect you not to speak and behave like small children.”

Then we proceed to the finale – presentation of course requirements.

It’s not surprising to see the students frown when they see the course requirements on the last page of the syllabus. That’s the time that I would deliver the last part of my “eve-of-battle” speech.

I would ask – “Is learning fun?”

As expected, majority would say “no.”

My next question would be – “Is work fun?”

Of course the students would say “no” again. And every time I would ask that, one or two would say “There were many times I heard my father complained about his job.”

Then I would go on and tell them the following:

“Nothing is to be given to you in a silver platter. You need to work hard to achieve your dreams. Studying and working would require effort – you have to exert mentally, emotionally and physically. But something could make studying and working fun – your attitude. Your attitude towards studying will be dictated by your whys. Your whys put together is your philosophy.”

I would spend another minute or two to explain something about “personal philosophy.” At the end I would tell them that each teacher has a personal teaching philosophy and mine is as follows:

“The classroom is my playground. The students are my playmates. The subject is our toy.”

How surprised they would be whenever I say that when I come to class I don’t work, I play. Work is hard. Play is fun.

As we end the first meeting I would tell them, “Come back next week and let’s play.”

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