Observing other teacher’s lessons has been a neglected area of my teaching career. Sure, I observed a few lessons during my teacher training and then later, when I was in charge of teacher training I graded each attempt at a 45 minute lesson.
However, during my teacher training I didn’t have much experience against which to judge a lesson and training was so intensive that lesson observations became more of a break than a learning opportunity. We were not tested on the observations, nor were we given constructive tips about what we should look for. I remember thinking one teacher spoke too much and another had a very hard job as half a dozen of her students came in late. They were Polish immigrants who had night shifts at minimum wages to support their families, and they were tired but loud in that very frustrating way that generally applies to drunk people and children who have stayed up past their bed time.
Later, when I was in charge of teacher training, I observed many more lessons of course. But these were students for whom teaching ESL, and often teaching more generally, was a new undertaking. I appreciated the ones who had listened to me and despaired at those who had decided that they knew best and produced a terrible lesson. The second notable point is that those lessons did not have foreign students, but rather the other classmates pretending to be foreign. Some of them were quite talented at acting, but unless you have a lot of experience, it is hard to mimic the kinds of questions and problems that face ESL learners.
Since being in Myanmar, I have had plenty of opportunities to observe lessons with the practiced eye of an experienced teacher. I now know how I run my lessons; what works and what doesn't. I can see boredom in the eyes of pupils and I can spot fake enthusiasm from the teacher instantly. I actually find that I really enjoy observing lessons. It is a chance to step back from the situation and gauge what needs to be tighter or more relaxed when teaching. I noticed things which I personally do, be they good or bad, which other teachers either do or have some modification on. Observing the lessons of others makes me a better teacher. It is a lot easier to see what works and what doesn’t when you are privileged enough to have a bird’s eye view of a lesson.
When I arrived in the village, I was disheartened, and a little offended to hear my plan described as ‘boring.’ I had worked hard to produce a Rakhine friendly syllabus based on conversations I had had with the volunteer teacher and the head monk of the school. I knew that there would be off days of course, and I was worried about the timing because it’s hard to time classes before you meet your students. I once planned to cover the present simple tense in 6 hours and it took twice that amount of time, plus the students almost inclusively failed the test! At that point I thought about leaving my students to figure it out for themselves before realizing that the set time of 6 hours was arbitrarily assigned on my part, and that I could probably borrow time from elsewhere once they had mastered the basic usage of the present tense.
As I had imagined, several of the students filed in late to the class. This lead me to think that there should probably be some kind of filler activity for those who arrive on time; although this lack of activity for early arrivers is something that I am also guilty of in my own classroom. A time limit of 10 minutes is set for a writing activity using the past tense. In the final minute, the teacher counts down out loud. I am shocked by this as it seems very off-putting. However, in our discussion after the class, he explains that without the oral reminder, students do not finish the task when the time is up and this frustrated him very much, so he set about dealing with it in some way.
After their writing, the students are asked to do a presentation for 3 minutes. The teacher does not push the students; he comments with resignation that he has given up forcing his students to do what they don’t want to do. He clearly wants to inspire them and show them that there can be more to life than the village and a lack of eduction. However, his pupils are shy and many would clearly prefer the traditional ways of sitting in a classroom and watching the teacher than having to interact with their peers.
The student teacher is quite different from the majority of young Myanmar people that I have met. His dreams and visions have been jaded by a grasp of reality that many seem to lack. He admits that he wants to follow the teaching of Buddha, but wants to make up his own mind about which God is truest, and that he doesn’t know what happens after death but he feels that worshiping a Buddha image and monks is not what was intended for humanity at the time of the Buddha. He says that sometimes he questions his own existence, which coupled with his admission of a lack of belief in an afterlife brings a philosophical edge to our meeting that I’m not sure I’m qualified to address.
I was also able to address the issue of the curriculum and try to fix the problem. I was nervous because if he honestly thought that the plan was boring, I would have to work twice as hard to create something new. However, upon seeing the problem I felt at once a mix of relief and mortification. Somehow, through emails, he had received the plan for only one lesson five times. This was the very first lesson that I had quickly planned and sent to him to confirm that he would be able to follow my planning style. It was not intended as a master plan, nor had I tried to send it to him 5 times! The head monk had not checked his e-mail, which is more reliable than the student has access to. Although, it is only reliable if one checks it! To the credit of the teacher, he has tried to teach this one plan for three days before giving up and changing course. I admired his tenacity in persevering, but I was slightly concerned about why he hadn’t thought to mention it earlier. In one way, it is my fault for taking my holiday at the exact time that the program began using the NEH curriculum. However, in another way, it was a good tester run as I will not be here forever, and communication is extremely important in the successful running of any education program or facility. I sincerely hope to have these road bumps smoothed out over the next couple of months, and be able to roll out the curriculum to more locations in Rakhine state.
The most evident thing from the presentations was the lack of the letter ’s’ in students speech. I am still working on improving this and figuring out why there is such a reluctance to voice the letter. I do not think that they have it in their native tongue; they have ‘sh’ as in shy, but not the plain ’s’ sound as in snake. Often, speakers here will confused ‘ch’ with ‘sh.’ This leads me to believe that they don’t have any words or sounds which require their tongue to stay flat on the roof of their mouth. On my next visit, I will check if they are able to make a clicking sound by flicking their tongue from the roof of their mouth. I need some way of encouraging the ’s’ sound, and it’s not enough to practice; the sound needs to be linked to some concept that's easy for the brain to remember.
Next, the students form a circle and answer questions. Some students hold side chats with each other; this concept need to be sped up and have more students taking part as it is quite teacher-led. I very much like the way that the teacher interacts with his pupils; he has that easy, happy-go-lucky vibe that combines instruction with joking. He laments that his students use their phones too much and that he doesn’t have enough control over the class, but I think that, like anyone who excels in their job, he is too hard on himself and focuses on the negatives not the positives.
With a command not to be late after the half hour break time, the teacher and I ran back to the other end of the village, shoveled in a bowl of rice (emphasis on the ’s’ please) and hurried back to the sunny library. We were late. The students were not. This class was focused on reading and was a little slower paced than the morning tuition.
While I would have preferred for the NEH curriculum to have been in place, it was a great learning experience for me to witness the teacher having to create a lesson from his own resources. It really helped me to re-focus on the NEH curriculum and be able to make adjustments now that I have both seen and taught in this remote rural environment. I still have every confidence that this young man can improve the English skills of these 20 youths as well as giving them transferable skills and inspiring them to return to their villages and encourage dynamic lessons where the pupils are receiving vessels not simply bodies in a room.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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