Learning – For Better and For Worse
Juraj Stredansky has been in ELT since 2008, teaching English and German to corporate clients in Slovakia. He graduated in translating and interpreting, but turned to teaching during the last year of his studies and never looked back. He has always been interested in what happens in teachers' minds just as much as the students'. After almost having given up on teaching, his main focus has been teachers' motivation and how to keep oneself going after having spent years motivating others - our students. His teaching and studying focus has shifted towards ESP (legal English). This change of perspective has provided him with a new world behind our work and the English language which is a world worth sharing with fellow colleagues.
Do you like what you teach? I mean, really, do you? Even after all those years, explaining the same thing over and over again, day by day, commonly multiple times to the same student? Do you find it fascinating? Do you, really?
If your answer to the questions was a multiple “yes“, you may not be the target group of this article. Fair enough, I was just testing you... BUT! If you thought anything between “yeah, I guess...“ and “meh...“, and you are thinking of remaining in this profession for longer than just “until something more appealing appears“, you may consider changing your approach to what the focus point of your daily work activities is.
We all have heard a lot about learner-centered teaching (although, at my school, we like to call it learning-centered), the communicative or the humanistic approach, but, as strong a promoter of them I may be, still not so long ago, little was spoken about “teacher-centered“ teaching and the importance of looking after oneself before taking care of the others - in other words - saving oneself before trying to save “the rest of the world“.
I like to call it the “oxygen-mask rule“. Just like in times of emergency on a plane, when parents are instructed to first put their mask on, and only then their children´s, I strongly believe that we cannot expect to ignite the fire of interest, and thus motivation to study, in our students if our own has long gone out. For parents and teachers alike, this may seem counter-intuitive, but statistically, it is vital to the number of survivours. After all, how can we be (and stay) there for them if we ourselves struggle to keep things going. In my opinion, this analogy does not only work well because it reminds us of how urgent self-protection is, but also because it points towards the similarity of the parent-child and teacher-student relationships regardless of our/their age.
As early as after 8 years into my teaching career, I arrived at the feeling that this may just be it, that I couldn´t hear any more of “He haven´t many money“ or “I working in X company X years“. As I was later to realise, it was not because the sun had set on my love for teaching itself but “only“ due to “organisational matters“ – i.e. how (much) and what I had been teaching. After having changed employers and rearranged much of the content of what I had considered “my job“, I was able to realise that the crucial element missing from my routine was learning. Coming back to my oxygen-mask metaphor, it had felt like being in oxygen debt. You are propelled by a supply of a resource which is very close to running out and know that, if you don´t stop soon and take a deep breath, you will have to give up the race altogether.
We tend to draw such a thick line between us teachers and them learners, although, ultimately, there is no difference in how to motivate oneself to do one´s job or to study in order to learn a foreign language. Like many, you may assume it is money. However, in language-learning or in employment, it only serves as a short-term motivator. Don´t get me wrong, I come from a country where teachers are severly underpaid, and people tend to think we chose this profession because we couldn´t do any better. Therefore, I truly understand that money is the basic need that must be satisfied. However, money itself will not do the trick in the long term.
It is widely agreed, and that is my contention, too, that the feelings of success, achievement or overcoming an obstacle are highly addictive – we simply like to do things which we (feel we) are good at. Not everybody gets terribly excited by the process of learning itself but we sure all like succeeding in it – having learnt something, solving a mystery or cracking a code. The more often we can ensure giving ourselves this feeling the more we are going to want to do it. The best learners are the ones who like learning. The ones who like learning are the ones who feel they can do it. The ones who feel they can do it are the ones who have succeeded in it. And the same goes for teachers. If you don´t like learning yourself, how can you make somebody else excited about it?
You can start small – organise a (bi)weekly sharing session with your colleagues or peer-observe them every now and then, and afterwards, discuss what you have seen. With a few like-minded ones, agree to hold a workshop for each other every month. We know more than we think, and we all do our jobs differently, so there is so much to learn from each other. Do you like going to conferences? Why not make it a more frequent than just the that-one-time-in-a-year event? As daunting as it might seem, most of us are well able to speak at a conference, too. The preparation may take a while but then you can travel Europe presenting and refining your session with every next time you present. And what´s best about it... in fact, you will learn much more on the way than any of your spectators. Or maybe you have an interest which not many people do. If, in any way, you can imagine turning it into your specialisation, you have got yourself a competitive niche which may give you the upper hand over your colleagues. Most importantly, don´t just do learning for learning (although that itself is worthwhile enough), but immediately try to think of it from the practical-application point of view. Bottom line: Learning is not something extra, it is the essential part of our job; it is the oxygen that our teaching breathes.
I would not dare to tell you where to start, you alone know that best. Or maybe you do not yet, but no one else can find out for you. In my case it was, to my big surprise, switching my focus to legal English some two years ago which has triggered many changes in what I do ever since. In one way or another, I can “tick off“ many of the above-mentioned activities as part of my routine, and thanks to that, I discovered a new world behind a language and a profession which had started to feel monotonous. As for our students, for us too, the language is merely a door to a world of opportunities. Not always do we open the right one, but how else could we find out if not by at least having a peek through.
And do you know what? Learning leads to higher qualification, and higher qualification, if applied correctly, to higher income. So my best advice is – start opening those doors and see what´s behind them.
For more on the topic of teacher motivation, see works of Sarah Mercer, Zoltán Dörnyei, Magdalena Kubanyiova and many more.
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