What One Can Learn from Teaching

There is this book I have been reading, The Death of Expertise, whose pompous subtitle The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters initially made me think it´s going to be an <<unputdownable>>. The author argues that in times when everybody not only has an opinion, but that opinion also has to be respected as such by everybody else, here we are facing the situation where the lines between fact and opinion are awfully blurred and even more so, knowledge is something everybody has, on any topic whatsoever. Tom Nichols defends the expertise and experts, making a pretty convincing point that by sheer definition, it is that difficult to be an expert on any given field as it is easy to be the superficial owner of some very questionable degree of knowledge you can force on others to respect under the newly discovered virtues of tolerance and individual freedom of opinion. He blames among other factors the (American) higher education system that grants more people than ever access to a degree, thus invalidating the differentiation that the name itself bears. Okay, all good so far, at least good enough to keep reading. But then he goes on and says something that falls within the lines of downright shaming teachers who claim “I learn as much from my students as they learn from me”. He explains that “with due respect to my colleagues in the teaching profession who use this expression, I am compelled to say: if that´s true, then you´re not a very good teacher“.

Well, I beg to differ. This is when I do put down the book and can´t help but think that is not at all accurate. Leaving aside the “very good teacher part” — an utterly subjective matter of opinion nonetheless which asks for an entirely different conversation about peer review and student feedback (the author also argues in a bit of a questionable way that student evaluation is too subjective to be reliable enough) and the relevance and relativity of both when it comes to assessing educators — I do feel that I learn a lot from my students.

That is, I feel I learn just as much from them — about teaching, that is — as they hopefully learn from me about the English language or the strategies they have to master in order to pass an official exam for ESL, get good feedback from a job interview conducted in English or move on to the next phase of a call for applications for a position in the much coveted Spanish public system. And it is my learning from them that I think makes me a better teacher every day: I too get to refine my strategies to make students better understand conditionals or modals, synonyms or homophones, the use of connectors or the gist of a text. I honestly and yes, egotistically feel really joyous when I see that after years of teaching I have become more patient when explaining some of the beautiful twists and turns of language or trying to make students see that language is just another word for evolution, creativity, diversity, that languages explain so much in terms of culture, mentality, lifestyle, attitudes towards things that occupy some space in our minds and souls.

But then again, the perspective of this author is more that of an academic, expert, researcher and less that of a teacher or educator. And I believe there is a difference. When I look around, I see many of my fellow teachers long for a position in a university or higher education centre or school that grant them the time and space for research. And that is the process: you start as a teacher, in the classroom, and then the more you teach, the closest you are supposed to get to tenure, to that stable position of a professor. The more of an expert you become, the farther you get from students. This process is a bit flawed, I reckon, since any research led far from the classroom implies a lack of contact with the recipients of that research. At some point, I was thinking of asking some of my colleagues and friends when was the last time they were in front of a classroom full of students or they listened to or even got to share the results of their research with a new class. However, there must be a place for everyone, and choosing the academic path and while at that distancing oneself from the students and the classroom is just as legitimate in terms of a personal choice as is wanting to be in the classroom.

And this is where I realised why I put down the book that constituted the overture to this post: I for one love being in class; I love teaching and talking to students; I love discovering what they think and how they think. I find it amazing to know the million reasons why my students learn English and thus adapt and update my methods, my resources, my teaching. And yes, I find this is learning from them just as much I try to teach them.

I know teachers who are fed up with classes and students, who can´t stand teaching the same subject year after year anymore, who are even upset when asked to change things or update their syllabus, who complain about the lack of time for research. But then I also know teachers who actually long to be in the classroom as a means to get rid of the stress of quarterly reports and administrative tasks that come with the territory; teachers who actually enjoy being in class year in year out, and doing what makes them happiest. One fellow teacher once told me he considered his students actually unknowingly protected his mental health and he took the classroom as a refuge in a time when the small-scale politics of machinations among the staff at a small private language centre had come to be unbearable. I have personally come to admire the teacher who stayed on late one evening with a student who had come in late, just to make up for the time lost while waiting for the late comer. There is this colleague of mine who always appreciates new resources available to teachers, but who also never stops upgrading and updating her own materials based on what she notices in class, and not before sharing them with all fellow teachers. Another fellow teacher just never stops talking to students; not just teaching them, but talking to them after hours, on his own time.

The author of the book that prompted this post argues that the (American) higher education system is only one of the factors to blame for the death of expertise and the rise of the unconditional respect for just anybody´s opinion, no matter how flawed or loosely based on facts. I have yet to discover what he has to say about the internet, social media or the so called anti-expertise movement, but I do think this expert differentiating and somehow superior-deemed attitude is wrong when it comes to teachers. Teachers should want to learn as much as they can from their students, if only because that just makes them better at their job. That is what any expert should wish for.

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