This blog post has been a long time coming.
It is sort of a diary and sort of a running diary.
(Please excuse the poor editing job. I noticed some mistakes but left them be)
12:34 pm on Monday June 17th
My students in my “Korea and Global Politics” (there’s some info on the course below) class are currently writing their final exams.
I guess I have mixed feelings in these final hours of the course.
Come to think of it, I almost always have mixed feelings at the end of a course. Generally feeling happy but always realizing I could have done better that things could have gone better.
I know that I could have done a better job but I feel reasonably happy with how things went.
During this long spring I sometimes wished the course would be over and now it finally is.
Bittersweet might be the right word for these mixed feelings.
Teaching this course has surely been an interesting experience and I have learned a lot. The first area of learning that comes to mind is in subject knowledge. While I am still certainly not an expert I feel my subject knowledge on Korean (and global) politics has increased dramatically over the last few months. I have been involved with English teaching for more than 13 years. I feel like I must be very close to the vaunted 10,000 hour mark of in class teaching. This is not to brag but just to say I feel quite comfortable in an English language classroom.
All that comfort basically evaporated when I started teaching politics. If a student asks a random English question I generally have an idea or can speak based on some experience with similar questions. Or, I probably know where to find the answers and can get back to them with what seems to me as a thoughtful answer At the very least I can say things like “fixed expression,” “collocation,” “corpus data, ” and “prescriptive grammar.” When teaching politics I had no such luxury.
I feel I was generally quite well-prepared with what I was prepared for but I was not really ready for too much off the script. What a great and humbling learning experience this was for me. Perhaps I became a bit too comfortable teaching English classes and this was a bit of a wake-up call. This sense of dread about what might happen was a big change for me.
(This also gave me a new-found empathy for teachers who clutch their lesson plans tightly and feel naked without them)
My class was on Mondays. Mondays at noon. High noon. Since I felt severely lacking in my content knowledge that meant that Sunday nights, often late into the night, were spent trying to stay one step ahead of students. I tried to make sure that I knew enough to seem reasonably knowledgeable about the subject at hand and not to embarrass myself. I can’t say I had nightmares but I can safely say I had insomnia induced by fears of blabbering on like an idiot and sharing untruths, half truths, lies and inaccuracies with the world’s youth. I was terrified I would be stuck at the front with the eyes of these impressionable youths staring at me, disbelieving me, judging me.
So I was continually exhausted on Mondays after being pushed by fear to stay up all hours of the night
tweeting preparing enough to speak competently on the designated topics.
[This is not to say that politics classes or any classes really need be lectures (or that this one was) or that the only mark of a teacher is subject knowledge or that the whole point of a course is the transference of knowledge. Yet, the above are concerns I felt.]
My current thought is that truly good teaching is hampered when the teacher is overly concerned with their own choices and decisions and hangups, confidence gaps, and baggage they are not ready to attend to the students’ needs as well as they otherwise could. This might seem like a basic point but it became all the more clear to me this term in this class.
One student gives me his test, says goodbye and says, “I just wanted to tell you something…compared to other classes… I just… I learned everything. I don’t know if it is the way you teach or… but I just learned everything. I think I could restate everything from you class. You know, I just learned it. I learned everything.”
I was dumbstruck and didn’t really say anything. Just smiled and mumbled out some combination of “thank you and wow.”
My thoughts are changing and now I am thinking that the sense of humility and truly being a fellow learner and traveler cannot be underestimated.
Most of the tests are in.
Kind of weird sitting here and typing this while they are hard at work.
I don’t know what I *should be doing though.
I genuinely and generally liked all the students. So that is a plus. I have been trying to end on a nice note with all the students as they handed in their notes. Then I come back to this blog post and write a few words and wonder if I should post it.
I decide I am going to post this.
I worry that it might not be useful for anyone but remain strong in my resolve to post it.
This course has been a bit of a struggle for me. Especially in terms of time, energy, and confidence.
A friend gave me some great insight during the middle of the term when I was a bit overwhelmed. He said something like, “Maybe politics is not the only thing they are going to learn from you, maybe they can learn so much more.” I am not ready to say this is the case but I can certainly say those words were a shot of courage, confidence and motivation when I needed it.
One student who had a very high amount of background knowledge on Korean politics and politics in general says thanks and mentions that she really enjoyed the class. I am happy about this because I sometimes worried that things were pitched far below her level. I also noted she wasn’t afraid to surf the internet during class.
(Note: Seeing her with the Wikipedia page open for the topic we were discussing was an interesting moment for me as a teacher. It really underscored the need for the lessons to go beyond the basic facts that could be found on Wikipedia.)
All the tests are in. The test is over. The class is over. The course if over. lass is over. All the tests are in.
I think I have time for a burrito.
Additional thoughts and context
*The class was offered for international and exchange students and offered in English. I had 20 students and they were from all around the world, with quite a few from North America and Europe. There were also 5 students from Korea in the class, who mentioned a desire to learn from and with people from other cultures as a main reason for taking the course. They also mentioned that they wanted to improve their English. The vast majority of the Korean students were very strong in English. Most of the North Americans first language is English and the Europeans were generally at a high level. I think I stumbled into a real English as a Lingua Franca situation.
Critics might wonder why I was so woefully unprepared each Sunday for Monday’s class and might (justifiably) wonder how this came to pass each week. I have a variety of excuses and explanations (some of them are even reasonable) about this but I don’t really want to get into it here. Let’s just say that time I had set aside for the “Learn all there is to learn about Korean politics” before the course started project got sucked away by other commitments.
Returning to the class, it was interesting for me to be in a situation where my focus was simply on the messages delivered by students and not on how they delivered the messages. Of course sometimes, confusion came based on the English choices that students made (or maybe because of the lack of resources they had) but I think these were dealt with by the group quite smoothly without any explicit focus on my part.
(Sometimes I asked the L1 users of English to repeat what they said and sometimes I paraphrased what they said when I thought something might not be culturally or linguistically understood by their classmates.) This is something I would probably focus on a bit more next time, if only out of personal interest.
Additional additional thoughts
My other thought is that
language teachers *should try to teach something else when given the chance. For me, it opened up a whole new line of thinking and mad me consider what I do in my “day job” from a different perspective.
At this very moment I am thinking experienced and trained (English) language teachers tend to have a nice bag of tricks that can be applied to content courses like this. Perhaps this is a bit different fr those with more limited training on teaching but more training on content. I feel like this background served me very well.
Id also like to give a big shout out to the occasionally maligned Needs Assessment as the often unappreciated continual feedback. I think these served me well.
One word that continually comes to mind when thinking about this experience is “expert.” I am now wondering how much expertise teacher needs. By this I mean content expertise as well as teaching expertise. Lots to think about indeed.