15 August 2011

Meet Them Where They Are

I could use this rare blog post to talk about the nerve-wracking job search situation this summer, but instead, I'm choosing to focus on what's truly kept me feeling useful these past few months. No, not copious amounts of Mountain Dew and catching up with Weeds On Demand (although Weeds is not useful, necessarily, but it did give me a purpose for a little while. It's okay to be a little "Judgey McJudgerson" right now.). It's the other thing that I do every day, something I don't think I've ever blogged about before--my work teaching conversational English to South Korean adults.

So, here's a little background for those who don't know me. Late last summer, I began tutoring Korean adults over the phone. When I got my long-term sub position, I took a leave, only tutoring during school breaks. When the long-term position ended in January, I went back to my position as a tutor. I primarily work with my students to develop their conversational English skills. Most of my students work in large, and usually global, companies, as engineers, CEOs, researchers, and office personnel. They must be able to easily and frequently communicate their work to their foreign partners, and this is what motivates them to improve their conversational English skills. From my understanding, English is a core subject in Korean schools from very early on, so most of my students have the basic English skills to communicate clearly enough. That said, there is still a huge variance in skill level among my students. I have some students who can communicate clearly and fluently, to the point where one might wonder why they feel they need to take lessons. In this case, these students are usually motivated by a "use it or lose it" mindset, but also by the desire to delve deeper into the English language, express themselves in more complex ways, and learn how to be culturally responsive in the communication. Other students can communicate in only the most basic sense, and with these students, understandably, motivation comes from a more basic place. They simply (although, I don't think "simply" is the best word to use, because I don't believe that it's simple at all) want to find ways to clearly communicate their ideas and beliefs, interests, backgrounds, and needs. 

When I first started this job, I was concerned that it would be so vastly different from any classroom teaching experience I'd had that I wouldn't be able to reconcile the differences. For one thing, I work with adults, most of them far older and far more established in their adult lives than I am. For another thing, I work with my students over the phone, only speaking for 10-20 minutes at a time, and during some of those times, our conversation largely involves me explicitly referencing and correcting mistakes. Truly, this teaching experience seemed like it would be comprehensively counter to everything I've learned how to do. 

It's been anything but. 

My adult Korean students are more like my adolescent American students than I could have imagined. And I've come to find that my Korean students have taught me equally as much about teaching American students as actually teaching American students has. (I reread that sentence, and I hate the way it looks, but I can't think of a better way to say it.) The similarities are rooted in motivation. In every American classroom I've ever taught, my students' motivations mirror the continuum I described among my Korean students. I think any teacher, of any discipline, can agree. I've taught students who have read every piece of literature taught in a course multiple times before school even starts. Or who write so clearly and with such voice that you don't even want to go through the process of putting a grade on their paper, simply because you enjoyed it so much and don't want to taint it by constraining its "goodness" to a scale that they went so far beyond. These are the students who need a teacher to challenge them, to allow and help them to explore the content in more complex ways. More often, I've taught the students who feel out of place in an English classroom, for any number of reasons. Maybe they are deeply conscious of their skill gaps as compared to their classmates' skills and their teacher's expectations. Maybe they've never felt success in an English classroom. Maybe they have a hard time seeing how they can apply English language skills to the things they are really interested in. Or maybe they've never been made to see that what they already know and are adept at is valuable and important to furthering their learning, as well as their classmates' learning. What do these students need? Is it different from what students at the other end of the spectrum need? Hardly. They need a teacher to challenge them, to allow and help them to explore the content in more complex ways. What is different is the place where their teacher needs to meet them in order to do that effectively. 

It is differentiation, and that does not mean making the end goal different or easier for different students. It's not even creating a drastically different or easier path for different students. It is holding the same high expectations for every student and making the path they're all on a little less treacherous (or more interesting) for those who need it. You never remove an obstacle, but you do give them the tools they need to overcome it (and preferably, you make sure those are tools that they can use later, too). You never make them just wait for everyone else to catch up, but you do guide them to someplace interesting to visit while you bring up the back. 

Granted, this is more difficult to manage in a classroom with 25+ students than it is in a one-on-one setting, like that with my Korean students. Not to mention, if I could spend 10 full, one-on-one minutes every day with each of my high school students… 

Regardless of how difficult it might be in any classroom, I've come to find that students appreciate your effort, and they don't hesitate to tell you. Maybe you get a note at the end of the year from a high school student saying, "Thanks for discussing Greek theories of reasoning with me during The Odyssey. I have read it a bunch of times, but you still made it interesting for me." Maybe a English language learner who struggles to complete a sentence without intense frustration makes it a point to say to you, out of the blue, "I thank my teacher for teaching me every day. Thank you for your kindness. I like English lessons." Know your students, and meet them where they are. Push them to succeed. Give them tools to do so. You won't regret it.

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