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7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Teaching

September 27, 2021
By John Boktor

For me, teaching is a reflective endeavour at heart. Effective teachers are always questioning and challenging their own teaching methods in light of the changing needs of their students. I have been teaching English to young adults for the last 9 years. The majority of my students are pre-sessional English, with ability levels that range from B2 to C1 levels. They are generally highly motivated and want to improve their English. They understand that English skills are key to their academic and professional success.

In this article, I will share thoughts and ideas that came as a result of this reflective exercise. I want to focus on a number of areas pertinent to students' success. 

First, I will discuss the challenges my students have met in achieving their goals and how I helped them. Second, I will reflect upon the different ways to improve the tools at my disposal to increase students’ learning. I have learned that we should take a more holistic approach to teaching, one that acknowledges the complexity and opportunities for growth that are ever-present in the teaching context.

1. Challenges to achieve goals

Challenges that I encounter in the classroom abound by the day. For example, one student is often late. Another does not do their homework. A third is on their cell phone the entire time. A fourth finds a particular lesson boring. These challenges can be detrimental to learning if not handled early on in the course. It hinders these students' progress and affects the general morale in the class.

First, I wish I knew the underlying causes. There is this technique I learned from Kyle Schwartz in her book, I wish my teacher knew, in which she asked her students to write “I wish my teacher knew” notes. This activity helped her to uncover some of the root causes of a wide array of issues. I tried it and the results were astounding. I had this student who is always on his phone. I always asked him to put it away to no avail. Then I asked him to write an “ I wish the teacher knew’. He wrote “I found certain lessons helpful and others not so much.” It turned out that it was during these lessons that the student paid the most attention and was not distracted by his cell phone.

2. Prior learning

I wish I knew more about my students’ prior language learning experiences. These experiences shape their expectations as to what constitutes effective lessons. For one student, being able to navigate the intricate grammatical structures of English is ‘very helpful’. For another, being engaged in discussions using the newly learned language is ‘true learning’.

3. Assessment

I wish I knew that certain students did not get the material and were still confused about the meaning or use of certain words. I wish I knew of a way to ensure that everyone got it right and to know who is still struggling with it. When I started teaching, I wish I knew how to collect and ascertain evidence of my students’ learning. The way I learned about it was sort of serendipitous. As I was observing a colleague teaching, the students were only speaking - which is good. I learned that we can expect them to be accountable for their learning, and they can do this by taking notes on other students and responses. Another idea to provide evidence for learning is to get students to think and write down what they want to learn and how they know they have learned it. In this class, the students wanted to explore the difference between different countries. The evidence was for them to write a comparative paragraph using comparative forms.

4. Games

I wish I knew that language games can be personalized. Earlier, I would play scattergories, judge contributions, and assign points to decide the winner group. However, I felt that there was more to get out of this game. One day, as we were playing scattergories, the students started to give answers that relate to their personal lives and beliefs.  The task was to think of words that start with the letter ‘f’; one category was “things people hide”. A student wrote, ‘my fiancé’. This got us talking about her fiancé and how much she loves him to the point that she wants to ‘hide’ him from the rest of the world. Another student’s response to the category, “things you see in the park” was ‘homeless people’ and again this triggered a brief discussion on the underlying causes of this local problem and how the student felt unsafe because of it. Games seem like an effective way to engage students in genuine discussions.

5. Curiosity

I wish I knew that students can be curious; hence the reason we should ask them about their needs. One student note said, “I wish my teacher knew I wanted to learn more about local slang.” Acting on this knowledge, I made it a point to present vocabulary and their slang equivalents. The students couldn’t have been happier.

Students have their curiosities. Students are more productive and fulfilled when lessons are planned around their curiosities. That’s why I view it as my role as a teacher to recognize and cultivate my students’ passions and connect what we’re doing in school to what they actually care about.

6. Complexity

“I wish my teacher knew that I had just broken up with my boyfriend and needed to look for a place to stay,” another student had confided. This realization came about as I played a song about breakups, upon hearing it, that student broke down in tears. With the pandemic going on, the students have much more to handle on their plate and may need a listening ear.

7. Acknowledgement

Students lighten up when I notice and acknowledge their contributions. One student responded to a matching exercise in a creative way. Instead of matching two phrases that go together as per the instructions, she came up with a sentence where the two phrases connect. I acknowledged her contribution, much to her delight.

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