Why should we take it so personally (or not?)

On her last blog post, my dear friend Cecília posed a question that may intrigue many teachers out there. Are we indeed that humble so as to concede all merits for learning for the students, and yet be as worried as one can be when a group is not doing so well? Why is it that we tend to praise our students’ accomplishments so much more than our own? If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I do believe we should worry a lot more about students’ learning than with our teaching, but this doesn’t mean I think teaching should be underestimated. It’s more a matter of a change in our mindset and understanding of teaching than anything else. If only I were able to be succinct, I could probably sum it up in a sentence or two. As I can’t do it, I may still guide you to a previous post of mine: about teaching. Moving on to my answer to Cecília’s post, why should teachers take it personally?

In her post, Cecília asks a couple of questions, such as this:

Why do we see our students’ failure as our fault, and on the other hand their success as something they’ve achieved all on their own rather than something we’ve helped them achieve?

Share the load, shall we? / Photo by Vijay Chennupati on Flickr

If only I could say I had an answer for that question, but I can venture a guess. I’m pretty sure many teachers have already been asked why they have chosen to be teachers. There’s a big difference between being a teacher and being someone who goes into a classroom to teach a certain subject while still looking for a job. I’ve even had a skype chat with Cecília herself in which we briefly talked about why people choose to be teachers when we know for a fact we’re going to have a hard time making a living (at least in Brazil). Truth is, I don’t think we choose to become teachers – we simply are. There’s something altruistic about being a teacher, and our biggest rewards is our students’ mastery of whatever it is we’re trying to teach them. Teachers, in my humble opinion, enjoy seeing their students thrive, and as we see some struggle while others succeed, it might be only natural for us to believe that we play a very small role in their learning experience.

We couldn’t possible make a bigger mistake. Whenever I’m asked about a language course by any of my friends, my answer is always the same. And this is true for any kind of course. It doesn’t matter what you’ll find in this or that course; what truly matters is who you’ll find. After having been through a series of learning experiences, I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing replaces the teacher when it comes to learning – and it’s the teacher’s job to make him or herself unnecessary as time goes by. Contradictory? I’m sure most readers of this blog will agree with me. Teachers expect their learners to be able to walk on their own feet, to be able to discover new things and thread uncharted territories on their own. One of the best graduation speeches I heard was one in which the teacher said, “You’re now ready to learn the language.” We give them the tools, we teach them how to use them, and we are sure they’ll be able to use them effectively when the time comes and we’re not there.

Perhaps it’s because we care so much that it’s easy for us to concede all credits to students when they succeed, and it’s only because we care so much that we think we’re the ones failing when they seem to be struggling to learn something. If we didn’t care that much, we’d perhaps think differently, but, let’s face it, if we didn’t care as much, we wouldn’t be real teachers, would we?

To answer the last question in Cecília’s post:

When it comes to your students’ learning – or lack of – who’s responsible?

If we’re ever capable to analyse the situation from a more rational perspective when things happen to us, we’ll come to terms with the fact that we’re teachers and there’s only as much that we can do. There’s absolutely no way we can please everyone. We can only do our best to foster an environment conducive to learning, we can try to motivate learners, get to know them better so that our classes are more interesting. In the end, though, it’s paramount we understand we are not ultimately responsible for their learning – there’s a part of the process that depends on them and them alone. Teachers can make a huge difference, but they cannot be solely responsible for learning or lack of it. However, there’s one thing I’m sure of: good teachers can certainly help good learners to live up to their full potential and help learners with difficulties succeed. If a student has got a lot of potential but his or her teacher isn’t capable to challenge and push, it’ll all go to waste. That’s our responsibility – to make a difference. Theirs is to be the difference.

9 thoughts on “Why should we take it so personally (or not?)

    1. That’s a post that should be read over and over again, Adam! Many thanks for sharing it here as well. 🙂

      And, yes, that’s exactly the point: no matter how hard you try, if I have made up my mind that I don’t want to learn this or that, I won’t. It’s a 50-50 deal, right? 🙂

      1. Thanks a lot, Rick. Sorry for the delay in replying… we’ve just hosted an ELT conference at my uni so have been very busy.

  1. Coming at this from the YL perspective, where there are a whole host of extra issues like classroom mangement, discipline and the fact that English is mandatory to deal with, my classes over the years have led me to the following conclusions:

    A ‘good’ class will always be good, even with an inexperienced teacher, a disorganised one or a demotivated one just counting the days to retirement. Self-motivation and peer support are probably two of the most powerful forces in any learning environment and will see them through.

    A ‘bad’ class will always be difficult. Even the best teacher will struggle with the various and ever-changing issues that come up.

    It is with the middle of the road classes (which make up the majority) where we can make a real difference. A ‘bad’ teacher can pull the class down, making them demotivated or disorganised in their learning. A ‘good’ teacher can really inspire them to want to learn and equip them with the skills to do so.

    Oh, and a ‘good’ class with a ‘good’ teacher is a wonderful but all to rare thing. I got to experience it once a couple of years ago and it was like educational paradise – I’ve been trying to get back there ever since. 🙂

    1. Hi Dave,

      I think YL might be a good starting point. And you pretty much said it all. To be honest, I actually referred to your comment just last Tuesday in class when we were talking about the roles of the teacher and the learner, what kindof impact could a teacher have on students and so on. 🙂

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  2. Heinrich,

    Some heart felt questions and reflection!

    I’m not sure I agree so much with the fact that teachers think their student’s progress isn’t caused by their teaching. I’ve met many teachers who do espouse this type of causation. But I do agree many take the “no progress” as their own fault.

    I think the problem is really complex – made complex because language takes time to develop and for progress to be made. Often this is a 3-6 month window. A student studies hard, gets production opportunities etc… But this isn’t seen in their development for 3-6 months. Often, the teacher / student relationship is long ended. So often teachers beat themselves up because they don’t see the results of their labor – it happens much later and at a distance.

    Research backs me up on this. Language is organic and “roots” in the brain. It isn’t an immediate thing that develops.

    So I say to teachers, you are making a difference. Just you won’t see it right away. And that’s the rub, what makes teaching hard. We deal in the invisible – only people who have it harder are those merchants of the divine – imams, shamans, priests, rabbis et al….


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