CAN WE REALLY "TEACH" ANYTHING?
It seems the most common definition of the verb to teach in many people's minds is something like: "to place knowledge in someone else's head." How this is meant to be done is a big question. Surgically? By injection? Using hypnosis or osmosis?
Hard to know, but certainly the definition is both misleading and self-defeating. Even the dictionaries get it wrong. Merriam Webster's online dictionary says it means "to cause someone to know something." Again, how? You can throw all the information you want at someone, but to "cause" them to "know" it? I don't think so. The Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary definition seems much closer to the truth: "to give lessons to students in a school, college, university, etc.; to help sb learn sth by giving information about it." [my italics] As teachers, we can't cause anything, but we can certainly do everything possible to help our students learn what they need to know, and keeping the following points in mind may help.
If there's a gap in your knowledge – and of course all of us have many gaps – admit it up front, then work with your students to fill that gap. By saying "I don't know, but let's find out," you are showing your students that learning is a never-ending process, and that their learning is as much in their own hands as it is in yours. Lead them to the tools they need and let them have at it. Rather than forcing knowledge on them, you are helping them to learn in ways that will stay with them throughout their lives.
Connect Learning to Real Life
For some students, exams and the expectations of parents and teachers may be enough of a motivation for learning. But for many more, if they don't see a personally relevant reason for learning something, it's going to be hard going. Help your students see how English (or math, or geography, etc.) actually connects to their own interests, ambitions and abilities. Music is a huge motivator, as are computer games, movies and TV shows. Some of the best sports teams come from English-speaking countries. Find out where your students have met road-blocks in their own lives due to lack of knowledge, then demonstrate how the knowledge you are offering to share with them will help them get past those blocks.
Make It Fun
Agreed, classes can't be all fun all the time. There are coursebooks to get through, exams to prepare for, exercises to check and assignments to explain. But students who are more relaxed, who are actively enjoying themselves rather than passively tolerating the situation, are far more likely to retain the information presented to them. Take frequent breaks from "serious" classwork. Have students bring in jokes, puzzles or short games to share. Stop and chat for a few minutes (in English) about something that your students care deeply about. Don't forget that learning anything is hard work, and that easing the pressure will make it that much easier. Which leads us to:
Put Yourself In Your Students' Shoes
"Why are they so distracted? Why can't they concentrate? Why don't they care??" I know all teachers ask these questions all the time, but surely you remember what it was like? If you think you don't, make a conscious effort to remember your schooldays. Children have problems at home or in their social groups, just as adults do, and these can make learning much harder than it should be. Adolescents and teens are full of raging hormones, new ideas, outrageous temptations and unbearable pressures. Maybe you and your school subject are among the things that are driving them crazy. This doesn't mean that you need to give your students a free pass, or write them off as unable to learn. Just try to keep in mind what they are going through day by day, remind yourself that their behaviors and attitudes are not aimed specifically at you (probably!), and try to make it clear that you are there to help them achieve what they can, not pour a lot of useless knowledge into their heads. In other words, give them the respect they deserve and they will return the favor.
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