TEACH AND LEARN
“If a doctor, a lawyer or dentist had twenty-five people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs and some of whom didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for ten months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.”–Source Unknown
My first years at school were daunting. I remember vividly that my initial stumbling block was my surname. I faced a bunch of bullies who kept teasing me because of it. The name Rabello is closest to the spelling and pronunciation of the word Cabelo, which in Portuguese means hair. So it was like being called Eliane Hair. And that was not something anyone found beautiful, much less when genetics made my hair hard to be tamed. The pun devastated me, but it made my friends’ day. Little did I know that was only the tip of the iceberg as far as miserable school days were concerned.
Time passed by like a blur to me, and nothing was worse than when I was awoken to go to a school so far from my house. I came to enjoy the distance in the long run because it gave me time to store up courage to face my classmates. Once the surname teasing died down, they chose to pick up on the brown bag I used to carry. I solved the problem by throwing away its contents first chance I got, forcing myself to starve at lunch breaks.
Being the youngest of five, I used to wear only hand-me-downs. Thus, my shoes were always old and torn. One way my parents found to cover up the obvious was to constantly make me wear bandages to make it look like I had hurt my toes. No one ever convinced them that that was worse than the holes themselves. My feet drew attention from the distance and granted me the mummy feet nickname.
School records left a lot to be desired because I decided to bottle up the abuse I suffered. That was when Ms. Pereira came along. I had to miss classes because there was no money for bus fare for a week. They sent me to have tutoring classes with this teacher, who looked like an angel. She welcomed me with the brightest of smiles and made no signs of noticing my bloodshot eyes or the way I avoided body contact. She kept her distance, but assisted me repeatedly. Her words sounded genuine, and classes with her were the reason I started wanting to go to school.
I continued struggling with grades, but her concern and attention fed me more than the lunch I devoured when I got home from school. School life was never a breeze, but I learnt to keep a low profile, and in time bullying had become bearable. However, the care and attention I got from Ms. Pereira made my mouth water. I was always hungry for teachers’ attention, but they didn’t allot much time to mediocre and standoffish students like me. I found that person only years later when I was studying English Literature. Ms. Pollock was very different from my first guardian angel. Her presence rocked my world though.
She was very demanding and challenging, never accepting latecomers, late assignments and less than full commitment. I was scared to death of her and was determined to quit her class. One day she told me I was running away not from her but from myself, finding comfort in being the underdog. At first, she scared me with her blunt remarks, but deep down I knew she had hit home.
Ms. Pollack also introduced me to the world of reading. I became the best student in her class because she pushed the right buttons in me. She gave me a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s “Self-Reliance” and told me no one could hurt me without my consent. Her influence was so far reaching that it extended to all areas of my life. She lit a fire within me that I still keep burning up until today despite all the doubts I still cast on my way.
Ms. Pereira and Ms. Pollock are two examples of teachers who did more than teach. They both cared. They were teachers committed to play their roles in the classroom, and in so doing they served their purpose and rescued a student from her own demise. Ultimately, they’re living proof of the power teachers have in their students’ lives.
“I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow my own advice.”–William Shakespeare
Needless to say, the years we spend at school are imprinted on our minds forever. They register both landmark moments as well as disheartening ones. The difference between one and the other may lie in the hands of teachers, whose job encompasses being more than an educator, but also a psychologist, motivator, doctor, actor and more. Such responsibility puts a lot of pressure on the job, and it’s easy to lose sight with each passing year. The only way not to fall prey to that pitfall is to keep learning. And teaching is indeed one of the best avenues to learning. Yet, in times when the stresses of teaching threaten to overwhelm, practicing what you preach ceases to be part of a teacher’s lesson plan.
Teachers in this category are just like the doctor who smokes, the writer who never reads, the parent who doesn’t follow his own advice, and the religious leader who fools his congregation engaging in wrongful doings. They all shortchange themselves. The effect my two teachers had on me was big enough to inspire me to become one myself. I am an EFL teacher. In other words, I teach English as a Foreign Language in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
‘We don’t know one millionth of one per cent about anything.” –Thomas A. Edison.
Although I’ve been teaching for over half of my life, there are times I feel like I have barely scratched the surface. This awareness shows me I really know nothing. This very same nothing gives me the capacity to become an avid learner and have an insatiable drive for knowledge. Something I never had as a student. I’m afflicted with a terminal passion for words, and studying languages is good practice to quench my thirst. The studying and learning of a foreign language is twofold: it instills self-confidence and the respect of others. When you dip your toe in language learning and teaching, you’re captivated, and like Noam Chomsky put it “the studying of language is the study of the mind.”
I study German. That gives me the wherewithal to remember how challenging learning a foreign language can be especially to adult learners. I think all teachers should try to put themselves in the students’ shoes as much as possible so that we can be reminded that when it comes to learning we’re all on the same boat.
The English language teaching business has become one of the major growth industries around the world in the past forty years. No language is more widely studied or used as a foreign language than English. In English as a Global Language, the linguist David Crystal credits the widespread need of English as foreign language to the fact that English found itself at the right place at the right time. He pointed out that “it has been said with more than a little irony that the biggest potential setback to English as a global language would have taken place if Bill Gates had grown up speaking Chinese.”
English is taught as a foreign language in more than 100 countries. In Brazil, the teaching and learning of English is a massive enterprise, but it encounters major roadblocks. There is a great difference between teaching English in Brazilian Regular schools and Language Schools. The first abounds with heavier workloads, bigger groups and focus only on reading and writing, making the teaching far from effective. The second has the premise of encouraging students to use the language productively rather than just being able to understand it. Yet, many times these schools are just as flawed.
EFL teachers more than any other language teacher have to constantly update themselves to prevent becoming obsolete and rusty. Teaching a language outside the realms of native speakers is no walk in the park. On the contrary, it’s an around-the-clock struggle that demands nothing but full dedication.
“You cannot hold a torch to light another person’s path without brightening your own.”-Ben Sweetland
Over the years I have lost count of the number of times students taught me more than I taught them. The endearing and heartfelt stories we collect help us stay focused, and count our blessings. One particular student helped me see perspective when I was plain clueless as to how to proceed.
In teaching, when you are told you are in charge of a ‘special’ group, it means you’ll face troublemakers, rude, arrogant and even worse students. Mariana’s group was not different. Her previous-teachers told me she was the biggest complication in that class. On the first day I walked into a bedlam, stumbling into legs stretched out on the desks, paper balls flying over the room and faces threatening to make my life miserable.
It was undeniable that the teacher in that classroom was Mariana. Students did what she told them to do. I spent a good part of the semester trying to pinpoint what I had to do. I was about to throw in the towel when I decided to change tactics as a last resort. I called her at the end of the class once and asked for her help understanding soccer rules, something she was crazy about. She beamed. In between, I’d make a point at telling her she had the potential to become a better student if she put her mind to it. She just had to do as in soccer.
By the end of the semester we both had changed. The group had become manageable and Mariana started showing respect, shushing her classmates whenever I was interrupted. Last semester’s day, she came to thank me, baffling me beyond speech. She said she had ‘changed the score of her game in class’ because no one had ever said she could be better. She made me understand that before giving up we have to try again and again. I listened to what she was not saying. Her silence spoke volumes. My colleagues were mistaken. Mariana was not the problem in that classroom. She was the solution.
Low self-esteem is one of the most common feelings among students. The moment you’re in a group you compare yourself with others and those who are or seem better stand out. João Miguel was not different. He had phonological problems, which made it hard to learn a foreign language. He was always shy and afraid of speaking and drawing attention. I tried to work his confidence. I’d ask him to write answers on the board and be my helper.
As it happened, he had beautiful handwriting, and students tried to imitate him. That made him proud and more daring. When I pointed out to him that everybody felt insecure at one time or another, he wouldn’t believe me and state teachers never felt that way. Through tutoring and talks he simply changed for the better, surprising both his classmates and me.
I called his mom to praise him, and that put a big smile on his face. His grades were better, and he finished the semester feeling much more confident. I always felt he wanted to tell me something at the end of the classes, but his shyness wouldn’t let him.
Once school holidays were over, his aunt contacted me saying Miguel had passed away after an accident in his judo class. I was devastated. She brought a note from his mom saying he had told her he had had the best time of his life in my class.
She was grateful for that. I can still picture him leaving the classroom and looking at me. Now I know he wanted to thank me. If only he knew I was the one thankful for being present watching his improvement. For every student we rescue, we save ourselves as well. It’s always a two-way street.
After Miguel, whenever I have a student with self-confidence problems, I tell him or her of my own hardships as a student. They always take it with a pinch of salt, relying on the misconception that teachers know it all. A belief I’m afraid is still nurtured by many in my line of expertise.
Unfortunately, teaching is another field marked by professionals who carry a God complex and have egos the size of mountains. Those are the ones who refuse to leave the ivory tower and embrace new challenges. They forget that in teaching the name of the game is learning. As such, we’re always the students with our own share of faults and shortcomings.
Truth is it doesn’t matter how long we teach, it’s impossible to master all. Also when you think you’ve been through it all life presents another lesson. I was reminded of that a year ago. I was too tired and down to begin the day with a group of students who had never studied the language, requiring more effort and theatricality. When I finished preparing the class, I was less than satisfied, but accepted I wasn’t going to be 100% myself. Over the years, experience, in other words, mistakes, teach you that that happens more often that you’d like to.
At the end of that class I felt exhausted and dissatisfied. However, the class by itself was great, yet not because of me. It was because the liveliest student I had ever had in my life carried the show. He was smart, funny, dynamic and friendly. Every teacher’s dream.
While getting prepared to leave the classroom, I was surprised with the loud, happy voice in the hallway claiming he had loved my class. Vinícius Azevedo had brought his mom along and told her about the class with much enthusiasm. Soon afterwards, my heart skipped a beat. His mom informed me Vinícius had a rare brain tumor and every Saturday had chemotherapy sessions that took all day long.
She thought I should know that he might not be as active in class if in pain or might need to miss classes. I felt a lump in my throat. When she finished, he himself told me not to worry because he was the strong type. I had little doubt about that. If anybody was weak in that room it was the one who felt tired and down over something not even close to his ordeal.
Having Vinícius in my classes was one of the best gifts I ever had as a teacher. He faced this terrible disease with such strength and optimism that made any problem seem small. He always came to class despite the aftereffects of his treatment and was never unhappy or less engaged even though he was in pain. He always carried the group, and students fell in love with him too. Who wouldn’t?
Subsequent operations forced him to stop studying after his eyesight was compromised. One would think that that was when he got discouraged. Not Vinícius. After a very risky operation and while still in atrocious pain, he told his mom that he knew why he was going through all that. “I’m sure God has a plan for me. I’m going through all this, so I can help others in the same situation when I grow up.”
When I have a bad day in class or when life seems onerous, I try to picture Vinícius’s exuberant smile and how he painstakingly struggled to learn a foreign language. We’ve become close friends and when time allows, I talk to him on the phone or drop by his house. He’s doing really well, getting high grades and overcoming every stepstone with his lively personality. His tumor hasn’t been defeated, but backed down. Today more than ever he says he has high hopes of better days. I don’t dare believe otherwise. He’s a warrior who’s fated to stand out in every field he embraces in life.
At thirteen years old, Vinícius taught me a lot over the time he was under my wing as a student. He showed me that wondrous things can happen even through pain. And it pays to continue and fight for life no matter how hard. He still amazes me with his high spirits and contagious smile.
In a field where our efforts are most of the times not taken into consideration and wages are outrageous, lots of teachers still aim to make a difference. Everybody wants a pat on the back and longs to hear he or she is special. Sometimes all it takes is just an appreciation of progress, a small kindness or just listening. These things all make up for life-determining differences. After all these years, I’m happy to admit teaching made me a better student. I teach, therefore I learn.
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