August 7, 2011 by Willy Cardoso
I was a brilliant student in the first couple of years of primary school. However, on the third year, at the age of 9, I started to feel my motivation was evaporating. I remember my mom went to talk to the teacher because she promptly realized I was losing interest. The teacher, obviously, hadn’t realized that, but could give her the hell of an answer, ‘I feel unmotivated too’.
I couldn’t move to another school so I stayed there until the age of 11. When I turned 12 I went to a private school downtown and then moved once again to a better private school to do high school. But something was never right, I had lost interest completely. I didn’t enjoy any of the subjects. I was not a bad student, neither did I have any learning difficulties, but what I did was to study the minimum I needed to pass, or in many cases not to study at all and then at the end of the year cram like a lunatic and pass the big finals. I always passed.
I never really liked my teachers at school, I mean, to consider them role-models. There were some well-intentioned teachers but they couldn’t get to me and motivate me to find usefulness in their subjects, there were some nice teachers, nice as people, but there was an ingredient missing in their teaching . Their job as I saw it was to tell us about the content, test it, and carry on with their lives. My job as I saw it was to memorize some 60% of the content, regurgitate it in a test and then carry on with my life. Now I know it’s nothing like that, teaching is one of the most difficult professions there are; and being a student half or your day is the most burdensome thing to a teenager.
On the other hand, I had a few interesting teachers at the English language school, the main difference was that they bothered to be more interested in my life, despite the enormous quantity of display questions (i.e. the ones aimed at testing your grammar and absent of any social function, like Would you buy a Porsche if you won the lottery?), there was time to talk about things we liked, life experience and ambitions. In my English course I was able to give a presentation about ‘the history of the guitar’, I still remember that! Boy, where else would I have done that? Not in the schools I went to I’m sure. I had teachers who also played music and they motivated me a lot to do so and sometimes even after class we talked about music and Fender guitars. Some other teachers had traveled a lot and I loved to listen to their stories, my favorite lessons were the ones with cultural insights and the ones in which they brought some American sitcoms for us to watch, at that time it was not so easy to find authentic materials, especially videos, there wasn’t YouTube at the time and we didn’t have cable TV at home.
My English teachers saved my life in a way. When I finished compulsory schooling I celebrated that I was finally free from spending half my day and half my life not having fun (and by having fun I include learning something I like). But among all this exaggerated hopelessness I knew one thing and I knew it well, English. I finished one type of school and went straight to another, ironic as it may sound for someone who didn’t enjoy school, but this time I stepped into the classroom as a teacher, an English teacher, and I was happier than ever. The first school I worked with had three rooms only, which couldn’t hold more than five students at a time, we had one coursebook series only, one grammar book (guess which one?), no photocopier, no training, and a 4-dollar hourly wage; and I was freakin’ happy!
Eventually, I became a career English teacher. I wonder why…
On Friday, two days ago, a student on her last day in my English course said.
Thank you, Willy. Maybe you’re a good teacher (we laughed together when she realized she’d said maybe).
You’re very calm and you pay attention to all the students, that’s very good.
You have no idea what it means to me to hear someone say ‘Willy, you pay attention’. In the end, that is what really matters. I don’t really aim at being an expert in grammar or at knowing all the methods and approaches; I don’t really mind working with a coursebook or not, if there’s technology available or not; if the thinking we do in the lessons are critical, of higher order or inconsequentially silly. These are all important considerations of course, but secondary.
A teacher’s job starts by listening.
(I was completely unaware of this song until some weeks ago when my students asked to do it as a lesson activity)