To Be a Truly Effective Teacher: Learn Something that is Difficult for You

Student lost and confused traveling abroad

I have been teaching various levels of reading skills and composition to native and non-native speakers, to immigrants and U.S. citizens, to people with talent and interest, and I have one thing to say:

In order to teach well, you need to learn something that does not come easy.

We need to be able to teach all of our students. Our students come to us with various levels of interest in actually attending our class. Some are confident about their fluency and ability in the subject matter and are ready to jump in. Usually, I find those that are eager to engage are easiest and most enjoyable to teach. However, some of my students are not in that space of confident curiosity, and even sitting in my class arms folded, head down, is an exercise in vulnerability.

What must that feel like? Do you remember?

Many of us can understand that level of vulnerability intellectually by reading about teaching. We have read many articles on how to engage both students who are labeled, either by us or others, as “successful” students and “at-risk” students. However, in order to truly understand it, we need to experience it.

In our undergraduate experience, most of us took a class or two that was not part of our skill set. Maybe we remember those moments, and maybe we don’t. Maybe those moments were years ago.

To continue to be effective teachers, in addition to reading, writing, and researching about teaching, we also need to put ourselves in learning situations where we are not sure if we will be successful. Continually, coming in contact with our own vulnerability and failure will shape our teaching with empathy and other communication skills that we can use to reach students that are harder to engage with.

For many of us, in our classrooms, we teach a subject that comes easy to us, or at least a subject matter with which we are now some level of expert as we read, write, and research that area.

How would it be to sit in a classroom where you are not known as a teacher, an “intellectual,” or a “good student” and try to learn something that you are not sure you can?

How would that experience impact you? Your teaching?

For me, it impacts me dramatically. Because many of my students are non-native speakers of English and are learning, speaking, and communicating at a college level in a language that is not their mother tongue, I decided that I, too, would work at learning languages.

I chose Spanish for its beauty and practicality—for many of my students their first language is Spanish—and Russian because it, for me anyways, is truly difficult with its Cyrillic alphabet and culture that for many reasons has been mystified and at times vilified by American culture.

Sitting in a classroom in another country has taught me so much about the “fish out of water” feeling that I know my students must routinely have.

I had the nervousness of finding the school—is this the right corner to turn left? Is this the correct bus? I experienced being hungry but nothing that was offered tasted right, and nothing really fed me in a way that food from home did. I sat in a class and was completely mystified by what the teacher was saying and what I was supposed to do with what appeared to be instructions. I looked around and saw other students seemingly understand. What did this mean? What was I doing here? I worked for hours on homework only to be told what I did wasn’t quite the assignment. I got so hungry in the middle of a lesson that I thought I was going to faint. I couldn’t find the bathroom and was too shy to ask. I wore the wrong shoes and had blisters on my feet that made it hard to do anything but sit. I just wanted to hide.

What I learned:

  • Things that I think are intuitive probably aren’t for some of my students. To accommodate this, I try to over explain and explain using as many mediums as possible.
  • I try to be approachable. It’s scary not to know, and it’s scary to ask for help. Those two facts of living make it hard for our most vulnerable students to ask questions.
  • I walk students to the bathroom, to the library, to the academic success center, to the water fountain. Students have probably been shown these things once and feel “dumb” because they have forgotten. However, being in a new situation where everything is new means you don’t retain everything because your brain is on overdrive. Yes, my hosts told me which numbered busses would get me to school, but do you think I remembered them all? No. Probably because they also showed me the grocery store, the market, and which corner to turn on to get to the school all at once. Something was going to give.

This is also true for our students, and although I knew this in my head before experiencing it; I had read the brain research that talked about retention, nerves, and new things.

But after experiencing it, there is a way I walk with my students. I understand in my bones what it is like to board a bus in an unfamiliar city, hope you are on the right one, and be too tired to form the question to ask in a new language. I know what it’s like to walk across the threshold to a classroom and be unsure if you belong, or even if you even want to be there.

From these experiences, there is now a kinder way that I tell my students something I have already told them three times. I realize that they don’t remember, not because they weren’t listening the first three times, but because even when they were listening, it didn’t stick.

There is a way I talk to the student whose project is completely different from the expectations of the assignment. This student isn’t trying to get away with something, and they were probably listening when I explained it. In other words: everyone was doing everything “right” and still here we are. There’s a quality of gentleness and respect one uses with someone who you think has been doing something right and still ends up with more work to do.

And yes, I have read what new students need and what students who come from different languages and cultures need in order to be successful in a different classroom, but when I was the new student, and was the one who was scared, the one who still didn’t quite understand after the third explanation, it lands not only in my head, but in my heart.

And truly, that’s where the best teaching happens, isn’t it? When the head and heart are married, and we push through our exhaustion to explain something one more time to another human being.

Bio: Susan McDowall, PhD, has taught English to native and non-native speakers of English for over 20 years. Her research interests include teaching and learning and effective communication styles. She’s been teaching composition and reading skills for 15 years at Central Community College in Central Nebraska.