Today I met a group of students for the first time this semester. I know them quite well from working with them last term. If (for some reason) you’d like a more detailed report of today’s class you can click here. (Update: Here is how they were used in Spring 2014) These students are in a 2 year MA/professional training course on interpretation and translation. In December they will take a series of tests set up by the program in order to gain a professional certificate in the field. This exam weighs heavily on their minds and is a constant concern and stressor. Today, I was very pleased when a student asked me for some advice on preparing for this exam. I told her that I had some advice to give but that I had a source of advice far better than me. To some confused and happy looks as they wondered about who the better source was, I unveiled what I had been keeping for around 9 months; letters from former students.
Last December, after the aforementioned exam I asked my then students to pen a letter to their juniors, to those would be in their shoes a year later. They happily obliged. The letters they wrote were written in Korean and English as I said it didn’t matter what language they chose. Some actually wrote in a mix of Korean and English, using English to explain the importance of certain Korean words that were of utmost importance to students in such conditions.
Some letters were serious and heartfelt and others less so. Some of the advice was super practical. Warnings like avoiding energy drinks or too much coffee were common. Making sure to get enough exercise and drink plenty of water were common themes, as was dealing with stress. Some of the advice was a bit more on the personal and emotional side, encouraging students not to give up no matter how challenging things seemed. One letter was more fatalistic, saying something like, “interpretation is always going to be difficult so don’t ever think it is going to be easy and just get used to struggling and embrace it. At least you can be satisfied in knowing that you tried.”
Other aspects of the advice were centered around getting the most out of Mike’s class, which I appreciated. They gave some concrete tips about how to prepare for class and what to do after class to help things seep in and stick. If I might be permitted a
humble brag some students mentioned how useful my class was and encouraged their juniors to make the most of the opportunity.
An interesting talking point from a few of the letters was related to the graduation exam. Some former students wrote that the exam is of course important but it is not worth becoming obsessed over. They urged the readers to chill out a bit. They said the exam is not everything and that their successors would do better not to obsess about it but to continue to work hard and do their best and let the chips fall were they may.
The other most memorable advice as chosen from today’s class was the admonishment against comparing oneself to others. The advice read that while natural, comparing oneself to classmates is not likely to be helpful for anyone and that it is much more useful to think about your own strengths, weaknesses and goals. I was pleased my former students mentioned this and pleased it was picked up on by today’s class.
A lasting memory from sharing the letters today was one student saying something like, “They don’t even know us but the care so much about us. I can feel that they really want us to succeed and I appreciate it.” I was happy that I was able to share the letters and also happy that I didn’t share them in March as I had originally intended. I think perhaps today was a great time to share them in order to address some fears as well as provide some focus and motivation at a time when fear might be higher than usual.
Another aspect from sharing the letters I enjoyed was how the current students sort of interrogated the texts from those who came before them. They read into the letters and made hypotheses about those who wrote them. Students made guesses about who was smart and who had a hard time. They seemed free to disagree with certain aspects and to pick and choose the points that might be helpful for them. As an added benefit, some analyzed the language used and wondered if there were other ways to say the same thing.
As above, I am happy I chose to use these letters today. I was happy to give some support and help from what was perhaps an unexpected source. As a teacher, I also got the sense today’s students felt cared for by me and that they might have thought I was much more organized than I actually am. I think I will do something similar next year as well. Thanks for reading, and as always any comments welcome. I’d be particularly interested in hearing how other teachers set up or used similar ideas.
Unlike many teaching ideas I remember exactly when I first heard of, or more accurately–experienced, this one. It was on my CELTA course in 2004. We got a sealed letter from a previous participant. My heart raced as I poured over the words. It was like it was written especially for me, me a person the writer didn’t even know. The advice was solid and spot-on and again seemed tailored specifically for me. I remember how the unknown advice giver warned me not to challenge or question the trainers because their word was the word. This was great advice and something I probably could have heeded a bit more than I did. There was also practical advice on how to prepare for the practice teaching that was well-received and extremely helpful. The idea of getting advice from someone who was exactly in the same position was powerful and I feel like today’s class was another example of this power.