Tag Archives: teaching

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.

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When Hate Catches You Unaware

When I first decided to share my first post on several Facebook English teaching groups, little had I suspected I was already on a bitter path. The kind of path that you find yourself on when you ask for opinions and what you get is an open personal attack based exclusively on where you were born. One could also say I was looking for it, just by being there.

Did I not know there are people who still think like a century ago when it comes to language, race, culture or religion? Did I not at least suspect that there are people who are still willing to use nationality or birthplace to label, judge and condemn all at once? Did I really expect to have a decent conversation, however controversial? Absolutely. What I never intended was for a question about the appropriateness of teaching English as a non-native speaker or what and how native speakers feel about sharing a profession with non-native counterparts to lead to aggressive verbal attacks from some of the former.

However annoyed a native English speaker might have felt when reading my question, did that even begin to justify my being called “you and your people are the scourge of Europe and nothing will get the smell of campfire out of you”? Did that somehow explain my receiving private messages with pictures of poorly dressed people in front of an ATM, allegedly trying to rob someone and supposedly sharing my nationality, only to help make the point that my countrymen know nothing better than stealing as if that were somehow a fact? Did my question actually justifiably provoke people to lash out on my English accent, even though they had never heard me speak? Did that somehow logically result in a discussion about the wrongs of immigration, the reasons some voted for Brexit or what a mistake the EU was?

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This Obsession of Labeling

There was this Woody Allen movie I once saw – Vicky Cristina Barcelona – where at some point, Scarlett Johansson’s character gets The Question popped after she confesses to her friend that she´s living with her lover and his girlfriend and she´s pretty okay with it. So the friend asks her something like “so what, you´re lesbian now? Or bisexual?”. And the answer is memorable – and not just because I remember it now for the sake of my latest blog entry – : “you know what? Why should I have to put a label on it? I don´t know what I am. And I don´t really care for naming it. I just know I´m happy and for now it just works out for me just like that” or something along these lines.

No, I´m not trying to get into a heated discussion on that topic. The point I´m trying to make is that ever so often I feel it´s just a sad little world we live in (by the  by, some food for soul: “what if our whole existence is some forgotten C-graded school science project gathering dust on the upper shelf in some alien kid´s room in another galaxy?”. A science blogger was asking himself that and I keep thinking of it whenever I just want to move to the Moon, hopefully, while it´s still unpopulated.) if people keep trying to put names on stuff and label experiences and thus necessarily corset any human possibility within the confined space of limits. I hate that word and everything it implies. Put a limit to thinking, put a label on what people are or are not and you´ve got a pretty full stop for just about anything.

Most recently, I get to be disappointed verging on furious when so many Spaniards who want to learn foreign languages (mostly English) because they suddenly realized they need to go out in an unfairly English-favoring world start by labeling themselves – “how would you assess your English level?” ; “a B1+”, comes the mind-blowing answer. As a teacher, I am always going and waiting, with this general question, for something less self-demanding, like: “I am pretty good at reading and writing, I come up short with speaking and listening and I have issues with understanding”, so, of course, my follow-up questions are around these lines. Then they label me, because “no matter how bilingual you may be, you still can´t master the language as a native speaker, and I can figure out from your accent that you are not native” – whatever that means. Most surely, they say that and they realize “my accent” is different only after they find out directly from my most sincere and foolish self that I, well… am not native. I am also not blonde, I am pale rather than fair-skinned, my eyes are black, I am not tall and most importantly, I am not just yet in possession of an American or Commonwealth passport. But I guess that doesn’t help either.

Let me share my limits with you, as well as the labels I supposedly have to carry along. Continue reading