Today my students had 30 minutes in which to teach a topic of their choice. One student is currently doing his final year university exams, which are a week long in Myanmar. He came to the practical class on his one day of rest from his exams. I am pleased by this commitment, however, the exam does mean that he has missed valuable class time last weekend. As expected, the students who attended all of the weekend sessions performed the best when it came to crunch time.
I enjoyed seeing the practicals from my students. I like watching other people teach because it helps me to think about my own technique. I like watching the parts that I know the students have gleaned directly from me, and seeing how they've added in their personality and often do something unexpected that works really well.
We started promptly, with me sitting off to the side near an electric outlet with my phone to take some photos and videos and my laptop to document everything happening in front of me. I wasn’t really sure what to expect as I know that traditional styles of teaching are ingrained within the national psyche and over the course of training I have noticed a couple of alarming things being said and done, not least the idea that children should have fun and adults should work hard without fun as I mentioned.
The first student was my university exam attendee. His presentation was a touch short, but his attendance and enthusiasm to go first somewhat made up for it! As I said, the students who attended all of the previous weekends gave a much better lesson. They had more student activity and less teacher talking time.
Unfortunately, two of my students who have not had the best attendance record arrived two hours late to class. As a teacher, I find myself in an uncomfortable position; I want to share knowledge and help as many people to become better teachers as I can during my time with NEH. It’s why I’m in Myanmar after all. However, the somewhat casual attitude would not normally be something that I would accept or agree with. My previous jobs have all involved strict timing and attendance policies with the slight exception of some classes in Greece. Knowing that culturally I don’t want to alienate people, I welcomed them in and told them to sit down as we were just in the change over to the next practical lesson.
This is when I heard muttering from where the latecomers were. It’s one thing to arrive late, but talking when other students are presenting is something I really hate. I went to ask them to be quiet, and noticed that the pair of them were planning their practical lesson from the previous lesson! Now, as a teacher this kind of thing with homework frustrates me. I appreciate that writing a few sentences in the past simple tense doesn’t really take very long. I dislike it when students do their homework just before class, but as long as they do it and they practice, I don’t mind too much. However, planning a lesson takes work and time. You cannot create a student centered active environment 20 minutes before you are due to teach with no resources unless you have been teaching a very long time. Even then, it is beneficial to be able to print or draw on paper to create activities. This blatant disrespect did annoy me, perhaps it shouldn’t have, but I knew right when I saw the planning that neither student was going to deliver a well-thought out, well paced, student centered lesson.
I wouldn’t be able to do a great job of teaching 20 minutes on the fly, and this is what I’ve done for the past 5 years in 4 countries! These students wanted to practice and deliver their ill-planned lessons. As a teacher, it is necessary to make hundreds of instant choices over the course of any lesson, including deviation from the plan. Many teachers enjoy quoting the old adage: teach the students not the plan! I was faced with letting them deliver what I highly suspected would be a sub-standard lesson, or say, thank you for coming, but no thank you. I naturally dislike confrontation as well as always wanting to give my students the benefit of the doubt and for them to do well in any situation. I have always been 100% on my students side even when they occasionally annoy me by throwing their shoe at the child opposite or using the informal second person singular to address me instead of the formal whilst their friends snigger. So weighing this information, I decided to allow them to practice.
Perhaps they would exceed my meagre expectations and if nothing else I could use it as a point in case of how not to plan and teach a lesson. I sat back and prepped my fingers lightly onto the home keys to record the final two lessons of the day with a feeling somewhere between failure and sadness. Why had these two pupils not prepared? It must be my fault somehow because I am the teacher and the one who is responsible for imparting knowledge. I should be able to motivate them more. Sadness that the students didn’t take the course as seriously as I would have hoped and a desire to hurry home to make improvements to the next training course I run, as well as a touch of hunger; after all we were working through lunch time in order to finish early!
The first of the two latecomers had a questionable context for his lesson on ‘who clauses.’ I believe that context is king when it comes to any aspect of grammar or vocabulary learning. Some items lend themselves to some contexts more easily, but as long as you choose one context and stick with it throughout the lesson or module if possible, the easier it will be for students to remember, and for you to slip in the necessary grammar. Something like making a smiley face from vegetables for children if you will indulge me. I once had a trainee teacher use Ironman as the context for the homophones ‘too, to and two’ complete with plastic Ironman doll!
The lesson on ‘who clauses’ could have been a very good one. I liked the context. What I did not like was the iron grip that the trainee had on what he thought the context should be and the answers that the students should be giving. Even I was confused at points about what he wanted and I’m not only a native speaker, but a teacher of English! The only student activity was answering a few questions which were then proclaimed as wrong by the teacher. In the final 5 minutes, the teacher switched to the local language. In my opinion, if you need to use your L1 or native tongue to explain the lesson, you are doing it wrong. The point of task based learning or the discovery method or using role plays is that the students are exposed to and implement the language in a straightforward way that makes sense.
The final lesson of the day started out well; the students did a partner activity which involved speaking, listening and drawing. So far, so good. I was happy making my notes in the corner. Then, after the impressive start, this trainee talked at the board for 20 minutes. The last 5 minutes in the local language. Lecturing, actually, is not something that I am 100% opposed to. I think that it is a useful way to throw a lot of information at an audience in a short time. I attended lectures during university as a Literature major and often the lectures helped me to consider my own views on the book or the historical context for that week. For language learning, lectures are unsuitable. In fact, I think I am in the minority for actually enjoying lectures full stop regardless of the subject matter. I have taught grammar in a lecture style, and in a heavily context-based discovery style. The students always perform better on tests with the second method.
I will admit, that overall I was disappointed in the practical lessons that I witnessed. Certain students showed more potential than others. All of them made strange errors in judgment which I don’t fully understand. These include a warm-up which had nothing to do with the topic of the lesson, a mix of emotion adjectives and moment verbs which weren’t linked together in any way, and finishing a lesson with a very student centered game which was completely devoid of the subject matter of the previous 23 minutes.
I believe that for Myanmar, showing by example is actually the best thing that I can do as the teacher. To me, this feels slightly like cheating, as what I'm basically asking is that my student teachers learn my style of teaching and repeat it. What I really want is to give them the ideas and the way of thinking to be able to create such lessons for themselves. I must be realistic though, and realize that copying the way that I teach is more useful than lecturing at their pupils, and that enough practice should allow them to think more critically about why I am doing what I do.
This course was an enlightening experience for me and my students. I look forward to taking on the challenge of the next teacher training with the hindsight to see where I could have made changes which will hopefully lead to the changes that we want to see in the Myanmar education system.
NEH Coordinator and Teacher Trainer
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