PERHAPS not everyone will agree with Canadian author Martin Dansky when he said, “Teaching is useless unless you can learn from your students”, but it did get me thinking more seriously on the subject.
When I asked around among friends who were teachers, what they might have learnt from their students, the almost automatic response was the single word “patience”.
I thought about that for a while. Well the thing is when someone says that the most important thing they have learnt from a relationship with you is “patience”, it could make you feel a little uneasy.
You may be left wondering whether it was your own quality of being patient that became a source of inspiration to the other person or if it was in trying to put up with some of your less favourable qualities that the other person built up their patience levels.
Whatever the response meant, I soon realised that there were numerous implications to the word “patience”.
“The thing I learnt most from my students was patience,” said a teacher who had been in the service for almost 30 years and in her own words “seen it all”.
“When I first started teaching I was assigned to a class where the students were interested in everything else, except their lessons.
“It took all the energy I had just to get them to settle down at their desks. Getting on with the teaching was another nightmare. I must admit I was not very good at keeping my cool in that class especially when they were disruptive or rude.
“I was perpetually ticking them off. There were times I even lost my head and screamed or yelled. But I used to feel really awful after that,” she added.
Each time it happened, she felt like a failure as a teacher. But eventually, she learnt how to deal with the students.
“I realised that shouting and scolding or continuously telling them off did not work and that in order to keep their attention, I had to do something radically different in my teaching methods.
“And I did. I used music, videos, games, held little classroom competitions, even took them for little field trips, and although they were still for the most part an unruly bunch, I found that they actually enjoyed these special ‘treats’ and generally behaved better.”
But what was more remarkable was that she found herself being able to keep her cool and mete out discipline without losing her temper, she said.
And as the years progressed, she has become more understanding and patient when she has to deal with such students.
“Thirty years ago, I would have shuddered at the thought of having to teach such students for an entire year. Now, I just smile and get ready to take on the challenges.
“So if you ask me what I’ve learnt, it has to be patience and understanding and probably a very thick skin.”
“Learning to laugh at myself,” said another teacher.
What she’s learnt from her students is to be more fun-loving.
To her, being a good teacher meant that one had to be perfectly poised with a strict and serious expression at all times.
“I thought that it was most improper and undignified for a teacher to laugh, have a friendly chat with students or discuss anything that was outside the curriculum.
“After many years of being this way and actually thinking that I was a model teacher, I was taken aback when one day one of my rather chatty students asked me suddenly, ‘teacher, why don’t you smile, teacher ... don’t you like us?”
That outburst from the student made her realise that one needn’t appear to be unapproachable and distant all the time just to maintain discipline.
It took some time but the teacher realised that she needed to be less serious at times and even to laugh at some of the things the students said or did in the classroom, or even at herself sometimes when she made a slip right in front of them.
Another teacher who had been teaching History for a number of years said that it took a long time for her to realise that if a student said he didn’t like a certain topic or a lesson, it was not a personal attack on the teacher.
“ I also learnt not to take things personally. I used to be upset when a student yawned during a lesson and thought it was an insult directed at me.
“But now I realise that if someone was not as interested in my subject as they were in something else, it didn’t mean that he didn’t value me as a teacher.”
What almost every teacher will agree with, is that we learn what works in class and what doesn’t from our students.
It is the cues from our students that actually direct our teaching at times. We learn what to reinforce, what to discard, when to adapt and when to retain.
Students can even come up with novel ways of doing something which we teachers, may not even have thought possible.
While it is true that teachers ought to possess adequate content knowledge to deal with students, our students may at times be the ones presenting us with knowledge on a certain issue that they are especially interested in.
While at times it may not be very easy to accept, it shouldn’t make us feel any less competent or shake our self-confidence because our student happens to know more than we do about a certain topic.
In a way, having students who are constantly coming up with something new, or questions that are not main-stream, does develop us professionally.
It sharpens our own skills as teachers by making us carry out the extra research in order to be always relevant and possibly steps ahead of the students we teach in terms of subject content at least.
There were also teachers who gave rather different responses to the same question about what they had learnt from their students.
“Nothing,” said one teacher brusquely.
“It is they who learn from me, I don’t learn anything from them.”
“All the swear words,” chuckled another teacher.
Many teachers also spoke about how adept they had become in being able to tell when someone was lying.
“You become very good at differentiating and knowing genuine remorse from one that is fake.” said a teacher who had held the post of discipline master for more than 10 years.
“I know which expression of utter innocence is real and which one masks the most inventive offender in school.
“Believe me I have heard every excuse in the book that students come up with when they break school rules. I can tell just by looking at a classroom about the students who copy from one another during an exam.
“I could be very useful in crime-busting operations with all the skills I’ve acquired doing this discipline job,” said the teacher.
But among all the responses I received, the one that really stood out came from a rather young teacher who had been teaching for about three years.
“I wasn’t happy with my posting,” she confessed.
“The school was so far away from home ... in a remote area. I resented everything, the school, the teachers, even the pupils. I think they knew it too.
“One day, I accidentally left my brand new mobile phone on the teacher’s desk before I left the class. I returned almost immediately but it was gone. I knew how much the students had admired my phone.
“They had even asked to hold it once, so it was clear that one of them had taken it.
“I begged, pleaded with them to give it back, but no one owned up. Then I gave them the most severe tongue lashing of my life. I accused them of being nothing better than petty thieves.
“I was almost in tears when I left school that day and vowed that I wouldn’t stay there another year. When I went home I found the phone in my bag!
“All the words I had said in my anger came back to me and I felt like a truly horrible person. I went back to school the next day and was ready to apologise but when the pupils saw me with the phone, they swarmed around me excitedly with beaming faces that showed how happy they were that I had found my phone.
“Not one of them remembered what I had said the day before. No one mentioned anything about the unjustified scolding they had received.
“So if you want to ask me what I have learnt most from my students, it is about forgiving.”
Perhaps there are many other things that teachers learn from their students which are equally significant.But the innate ability that perhaps only children have, that of not harbouring resentment in their hearts but forgiving without even knowing they are doing so — that has stuck in my mind for a long time. MALLIKA VASUGI The STAR Home > News > Education Sunday September 14, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM