Observe thy learners

I’d been thinking for a while about my first post to the blog. There are so many things to discuss in the field of ELT, and a lot of it is already discussed by many bloggers in a way that I’m not sure I’d be able to do. However, after a very interesting evening with my friends, something in particular caught my attention and I decided to blog about it. The question that this evening’s situation made me wonder about is: how often do teachers really observe their learners and take them and their needs into account when planning their lessons?

I’ve seen many teachers discussing what they did in their classroom, some of them even like to boast about the wonderful activities they came up with and used in their last lesson. More often than not, I’ve seen teachers (not only in my work situation) worrying a lot about what to do in the classroom without really caring about what their learners might really profit from that lesson. And these teachers are more than aware of the fact that learners don’t necessarily learn what you teach. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they just did? But we’ve got to face reality and deal with the fact that our lessons are not always successful. But then, what can we do about it?

I remember that when I started teaching, I’d always follow the coursebook and the teachers’ manual was holy to me. Fortunately (or at least I like to think so), time has changed my perception of what we should do in a classroom. To put it in a nutshell, teachers are in a classroom with learners. Teachers and learners are people. Hence, teachers should be able to develop their people skills if they want to enhance their chances of successfully achieving their goal – that their learners learn. After reading one of Adrian Underhill’s texts from Scott Thornbury’s collection of texts – his old website – I guess I also feel my life as a teacher has had a similar progression.

I’m not here to say that Dogme has changed my life and that I abide by it and believe it’s the one and only solution to teaching. As a matter of fact, if I correctly grasped the principles of Dogme, I’d simply be going against what it really is about. I’m much more in favour of an enlightened approach, or an eclectic approach to teaching and learning, as Brown, Richards and others have put it. In my opinion, we’ve certainly (supposed to have) reached a post-method era. No one method can be considered to be the right method, and the more knowledgeable the teacher, the better he’ll be in terms of deciding what is appropriate to their learners at any given moment.

However, how could we do it if we have everything already figured out before we meet the most important “part” of the lesson – our learners. This in now way means that planning a lesson is a waste of time. Much on the contrary, as I think that by planning a lesson and carefully thinking about each stage of your lesson, the teacher can make informed decisions about what to change during a class. However, we must always bear in mind that our learners are people, and should be treated as such.

What I mean is that it doesn’t really matter if you have planned a fantastic activity if your students are feeling low, or if they are lively engaged in a discussion about something that happened 15 minutes before the lesson started. Teachers have to observe their learners in order to better respond to them. I guess one of the most important things in a class for me is having a good rapport with my learners. This means they can trust me enough so as to let me be part of their world, and tend to respect me and listen to my opinions and, most importantly, listen to my teaching much more willingly.

What has that got to do with what happened to me today? Well, think about your friends. Think about the many moments you have shared together. You may know a person for a long time, but still not be able to predict someone’s reaction to something you may consider insignificant. Why does that happen? We’re dealing with people, that’s why. And we have to respect what they think and believe in. We may even disagree with what our friends think, but we can’t assume they’re 100% wrong and we’re 100% right. We have to learn to see all shades of grey on life.

Coming back to our learners, it’s important to me, as a teacher, to try to understand what my students are possibly going through. I can’t simply expect to teach them unreal past conditionals if they’re much more concerned with a work meeting or a physics test in the next morning. Actually, I always try to listen to what they have to say prior to trying to teach them anything. First of all, there’s a good chance I can actually take advantage of what they are going to tell me to create a link with the topic of the lesson. Second, well, if they’re not ready to learn, I need to try to get them in the mood. I still haven’t been informed of a magic switch to turn on and off a person’s feelings and worries. If anyone has learned how to do so, please let me know.

We sometimes don’t notice that what we do or say may have a negative effect on our learners. Sometimes I’m under the impression that teachers only worry about the cognitive feedback they give their learners, and totally forget about the affective feedback. How can I expect a student to speak or write if he or she doesn’t like my reaction to what is said in the classroom? Whenever I put myself in the shoes of a learner dealing with a teacher who doesn’t think I may react to things differently, I always have the same thought, “if that happened to me, I’d never stay in this classroom”.

As a teacher, I’ve trained myself to use a lot what my learners bring to class. I like working with language that emerges in a class. I like it when we work together to change learning into something that’s meaningful to them even if that means I won’t be able to cover everything I had planned for that lesson. As a matter of fact, I have already changed my lesson plans many times and the results have always been wonderful. I’ve read it from a couple of different sources that sometimes the lessons which do not go according to plan somehow feel like they’re the best lessons we’ve taught. And sometimes, when we do everything we had planned for that lesson, we leave the classroom with the feeling that the lesson could have been better.

The bottom line is, teachers should never forget they’re dealing with a whole human being, not simply a machine who’s attending a lesson to learn a new skill. And if teachers learn how to really listen to their students, they can definitely change their lessons into memorable moments of sharing, growth, and learning.

Reading what I wrote, I believe I digressed a little. However, I really had to vent my feelings about certain things. This is why I decided to post it anyway. It’s only the first post, and I’ll try not to stray from the point as much in the other posts, I swear!

Anyway, how do you feel about the text?

2 thoughts on “Observe thy learners

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