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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.

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On Philosophy and Teachers

 

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No two teachers are alike. Even if they are from the same race and culture and graduated from the same university, don’t expect them to embrace the same educational philosophies and to develop the same set of beliefs and values. You won’t see them apply the same methods and strategies in the classroom, approach teaching and learning with the same degree of passion, and treat the learners in the same manner.

Teachers are different in many ways.

Teachers decide which perspectives they would use in looking at their role as mentors and in treating their students. Such perspective depends on either the philosophical foundations upon which they are grounded or their personal set of beliefs… or may be both.

Teachers may have read too much of Hegel,  Kant and Plato that they may have developed idealistic tendencies indoctrinating their students into believing that they do not exist for themselves but for others and for a higher purpose. Or like Aristotle, Locke or Rousseau, who all tried to debunk the ideas established by Plato and company, the teachers maybe slowly training their students to subscribe to rational thinking, that the latter need to think critically and scientifically. They could be pragmatists like Dewey and Kilpatrick, guiding students to keep themselves in touch with reality for they believe that there is no other world aside from what can be perceived by the senses.

Their educational philosophies determine the way they talk, think, and behave as professionals.

Whatever values and beliefs teachers bring to the class don’t really matter for as long as nothing they say and do in the while teaching is inimical to the interests of the lerners. What is important is that everything that transpires in the classroom is intended to make the students the best persons they could be and make them prepared to live life.

So be it if  the teachers are like Satre, leaning towards Existentialism in guiding the students to take responsibility… in deciding who they are in order to make themselves authentic individuals.

Nobody can claim that this or that philosophical perspective in education is superior over the other. It’s fine if the teachers wish to embrace all the philosophies and combine their best features to serve and guide them in shaping their set of values and in choosing their methods and strategies.

Combining the philosophies, by the way, is not a novel idea. In Scholasticism, St. Thomas Aquinas, harmonized Idealism and Realism.

What about coming out with a philosophical perspective combining the four major philosophies in Education?

The philosophies aforementioned have shaped the teachers into the kind of educators that they are today. Whatever they knowingly and unknowingly say and do in the classrooms are offshoots of their set of values and beliefs. And this set of values and beliefs constitute their philosophy of education.

Teachers may have also accumulated  through the years a personal system of values that govern every decision they make in the classrooms. Thus we see them approach their teaching (and deal with their students) in different ways. We see them display different degrees of enthusiasm in teaching. Some display no enthusiasm at all.

There are teachers who are “sages on the stage” who believe, the way the realists and idealists do, that knowledge emanates from them being the authorities. So, the students should be spoonfed. Conversely, there are teachers, who, like the existentialists and pragmatists, act like “guides on the side” painstakingly guiding the students to self-discovery.

There are teachers who would choose specific methods and strategies without considering the specific needs of their students. But there are also those who would be conscientious enough to take into consideration the heterogeneity in the class before deciding what learning system they would put into effect.

There are teachers whose mere mention of their names would send shivers down the spine of students. Conversely, there are teachers who try to make learning fun making the students enjoy, and not fear, the classroom.

There are teachers who consider the classroom a workplace, while others consider it a playground. They work playfully or playfully work happy doing what they are doing in the classroom thereby rubbing off to the students their joyful spirit.

There are teachers who have seemingly forgotten that the students are not just empty sheets waiting to be filled-out as in Locke’s Tabula Rasa. The kids in the classrooms are not wax figures with empty minds which the teachers need to stuff with all the knowledge that the curriculum requires. These students are not just intellectual beings, they have emotions. They need more that education. They also need love and understanding. They should be treated the way parents treat their children.

Whatever the teachers decide to be… whatever system they implement… whatever method and strategies they apply… however they view learning… however they treat their students… would depend on their perspectives as dictated by their educational philosophy and their set of values and beliefs.

At the end, the way  teachers conduct themselves as professionals and the way they treat their students depend on whether they consider teaching a means of livelihood or a way of life.

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