When new acquaintances ask me about my profession, I often jokingly reply that I am a professional chatterbox. Indeed, after a quarter century of teaching I can deliver a ninety minute lecture on various topics even in my sleep so to speak. And naturally I have a stock of stories to fill in any lull in a conversation if needed. To wit, most of our work is indeed talking, but not all of it. While we are standing at the board or strolling around the classroom, delivering explanations, checking on our students’ progress and general understanding, we do not have much opportunity for reflection. That usually comes later, not always at an opportune moment. Luckily for me I come from a family of teachers. My grandmother used to say, “We go to bed and we wake up with students, beware of too much reflection, don’t let it overshadow your own family life!” It is so very true. There is an inherent danger in continuous reflection because we work with real live human beings. If we are conscientious and empathetic we may slide into a loop, trying to analyze every lesson and come up with solutions to every current problem NOW. Since I always follow an individualized approach to EL teaching on any level, with any age, learner feedback is an ever present feature of my work.
As any experienced teacher knows, we may think out a lesson, a topic, gather all the necessary material, visualize it, sail confidently into our classroom, and sometimes see the whole structure disintegrate, turn into a flop. Why? We can’t always know. Children may be tired after a test in another subject; what seemed fascinating to us adults may evoke no interest in them. But they realize that they can freely share their thoughts and reactions with me, and do so. I listen. It pays to follow their inclinations and allow a certain amount of freedom. For instance if I allotted five minutes to a listening exercise or dialogue and they suddenly veered off into a heated longer discussion, I let them speak, simply steering the conversation in the desired direction. When they have to write a hundred words on a subject or fulfill a few exercises according to regulations, I tell them, for instance, that this is our training for an examination. Practically every class has one or two geniuses and one or two pupils who habitually lag behind. Both need extra attention and help. When I reflect on the previous lesson at home, I make sure that I have enough additional exercises or occupations for the ones who are sure to do the whole lesson in twenty minutes, not forty five; and I check the difficulty level for those who are not able to finish up every task on time. And then there may be one student who has a real disability or obstacle to learning. It is not always easy or even possible to determine what their problem is, nor are most of us trained in special needs education. I had several pupils with dyslexia who could not read or write properly; every lesson was torture for them and for me, with a difference. They would painstakingly try to read aloud any text, every long word turning into the only two they remembered, “beautiful” and “interesting”. Their spelling was atrocious and resembled nothing on Earth. I tried to find help, reading various articles. The biggest problem is, dyslexia is usually not recognized in my country, and thus every such child is automatically labeled “slow” or worse. Yet I could see they were all very normal communicative children.
My reflection turned into an obsession which began to have an effect on my own family life; that’s when I remembered the family wisdom. My advice in any difficult case which you feel you cannot solve by yourself: ask the school administration, consult the parents. Do not over-analyze. It is very important to distinguish whether an occasional failure is your fault or whether it is an objective obstacle which has nothing to do with you. How? Suppose you conduct your lessons and have a test afterwards. If all or the absolute majority of your class fail, that’s when you sit down, scan through your plans and try to figure out what went wrong. Then of course you conduct a new lesson and tackle the problem topic again in a different way, checking how your students understand it. If at least half of your class shows good results but a few fail the test, this is normal. You may give out recommendations to those who did not pass or arrange an additional session for them, and move on to the next theme with the class. There always are and always will be some children and adults who find it difficult to keep in step, to absorb the whole new material at one sitting. We try to help them all but it is not always possible to achieve complete success, so we do what we can.
In many Russian schools so-called profile classes are organized for the last three years. Typically they are phys-math, natural sciences, humanities, and general education for those who are not yet ready to choose their “profile” or major. They have the same number of lessons during their six-day week, but while in phys-math class they have more hours devoted to physical and mathematics, in humanities they have more language, literature and history. The basic curriculum is the same. Imagine teaching all those classes in the same week, one after another. I would have basic EL plus scientific translation with two classes according to their profiles, basic EL with the general education class, EL, translation, literature and culture studies with humanities. Naturally the whole approach to teaching is different. The feedback fortunately is continuous, teenagers would often express their wishes for the following lessons and tell me about their preferred or disliked exercises. I would always tell them which exercises and tests, including the ones they dislike, need to be done due to their future exams regulations. And allow enough leeway where possible. Truth be told, the time for real reflection comes much later, when I don’t teach at school anymore but have a good opportunity to look back and share my observations with my colleagues at teacher training and refresher courses.
Nina MK, Ph.D.