A new teacher has arrived in the village. He smokes. He smoked a cigarette followed by two local cigars. We watched. We were somewhat aghast as he sat puffing away.
He is politically minded and upon request I spent 15 minutes soliloquizing on the nature of democracy in England and Scotland. After a good hour of conversation and getting to know one another; in which we learned that Arakanese is not his native tongue, that his local language is very different in fact and cannot be understood by the locals in the village, that he harbors a desire to become a journalist and that he was most confused about what the monk had designated him to teach at R.E.C, he bid us goodbye and went off to find some rice. He had been due to arrive in the village earlier, but due to complications had not arrived for a further 4 days.
As we crossed the monastery later that day, after our daily wash in the higher than normal river, complete with branches, twigs and leaves, the second of our two trainees told us that the new teacher was in the main hall with grade 11 students. The monk had asked him to teach the lesson that we had observed the previous week: the silent library lesson. Van and I hurried to the lesson which was already 30 minutes in to see if the atmosphere was anything more like a party than a mortuary. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that actually the new teacher was moving around the spacious classroom doing something akin to monitoring. I say akin because monitoring should be a touch more active. This teacher was performing all of the right moves; walking slowly, inclining his head, but he was not actually reading the texts of the students. Instead he was providing a presence, lurking and keeping them on track. There were only 10 students; 4 girls sitting in the first row of the classroom. Each girl was seated at one of the neat wooden desks with 6 boys sitting behind them. One of the boys was selected to be actively monitored. The new teacher wrote in the student’s book and spoke briefly with him about the possible mistakes in his work.
After a short time of silent work, two of the students were selected to write on the board. It was unclear to us exactly what the topic of the lesson was, but there was some grammar being corrected in a sentence about the Indian clarified butter, ghee. It was nice to see the students being active in a lesson and I liked that they were up writing on the board. I would have preferred to see some group work or discussion, but I’ll take what I can given the rather unusual circumstances I find myself in. I think that at this point it would be foolish to extend the teacher training efforts to include a third teacher; already I am observing two lessons a day in addition to co-teaching a third as well as planning a full curriculum and fitting in feedback. That’s in addition to all the boring but necessary things I must do in the course of a day such as eat, sleep and wash!
Later we arrived at an evening class touted as ‘globalization.’ We were curious as to how the new teacher would run this class and we saw it as a golden opportunity for feedback with our bright young teacher trainee. There had been talk of me training the new teacher as well, but the training process for a new teacher is very intensive; especially when the teacher comes from a background of bad teaching and learning, that I cannot take on a new pupil at this time. As we watched gleefully we wrote many notes. It was a classic lesson which would be classed as good by many untrained eyes, and even actually many professional teachers. However, once the surface is scratched, there were many typical mistakes strewn throughout the 45 minutes. I was eager to get to the feedback and see how much of the teacher training had been absorbed and how many of the classic errors would be spotted by my teacher trainee. I was practically skipping home when both I and the trainee were clothes-lined by a fallen electricity wire. It only grazed my nose fortunately, but caught my poor trainee across the neck. This accident elicited the telling of a very sad tale of a local child who had died from electrocution when he tried to retrieve a fallen wire from the river.
During feedback (for which the new teacher was not present), we stated how there wasn't an engage section in the lesson. There had been something of a warm-up which involved the students sitting and standing to answer various questions about their families. The critique that my student had was that this was not related in any way to the rest of the lesson. I had to agree, and although I felt that the activity had merit and could be used in a positive way, the lack of tied-in topics made it a waste.
I felt over the moon when my trainee started his next sentence with ‘Before I met you, I would have said it was a really good lesson.’ That is what I have been working for. Many of my recent entries have been on the pessimistic side, and I will readily admit that I find it hard to stay upbeat in the face of so many bad lessons. I know that my students also feel bad and like they are letting down the side and the overall atmosphere becomes one of depressed pessimism. However, when I heard that beautiful sentence uttered I felt a sense of relief that the hours of hard work were paying off. Eager to understand why my student had had a change of heart and desperate to see why he would no longer consider the lesson good, I gently concept checked. I did not want to ask leading questions and I certainly did not want to give the answer to my student. The more he discovered for himself, the better I have done my job.
The main problem with the new teacher’s lesson was a distinct lack of concept checking; he asked “did you understand?” and “can you explain?” to the poor volunteer teachers, who could not explain in English words even if they did happen to understand the somewhat haphazardly chosen topic words. There was no discernible link to globalization in the class despite the billing. A few of the students gallantly volunteered explanations to the vocab words. This is where concept checking comes in. It is hard. It is not natural. But it is necessary in an ESL classroom. Often the student will understand a concept, but simply does not have the words to explain it. Teachers mistakenly assume that they can bark a definition at the bewildered student who in turn can parrot back that sentence to them. They can’t. Ever. The human brain is not designed to withstand that amount of pressure and memory retention is not that fast-paced. By thinking about what properties are unique about the object in question, the teacher must design simple questions that have a closed answer for the student to demonstrate their knowledge.
During feedback, we brainstormed concept checking questions for the words used in the lesson to my pleasure; my trainee is showing a significant improvement in the speed of his question making. Of course, these questions should still be pre-planned. Even I pre-plan my questions as it such a delicate procedure in which it is far too easy to confuse a student. I do have a reserve bank of concept check questions which I have used and developed over many years, but even now the procedure is hard work as you must decide on the unique properties of an object, then find words which are simpler than the language in question and make sure that your question only had one or two possible answers. You need at least 3 questions to fully concept check; 5 if it is an especially difficult word or idea.
We discussed the lesson for an hour and a half before breaking to plan the grade 8 lesson for the following day. As I set my alarm for 12 midnight I had a fleeting thought of how unhinged this must seem to the locals before lying my weary head down for a brief nap.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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