13 Mar 2008

It’s NOT About You!

I’ll never forget the words of an early mentor at the beginning of my teaching career: “The students will learn in spite of you.” She said this to reassure me, to give me the freedom to screw up and not beat myself up for it. I took it to mean: whatever mistakes you make, the students will still learn something. It did reassure me.

Over the years, though, her words have come back to me with my own various twists of interpretation. My students will learn in spite of me because my good methods always outweigh my missteps. Early years. My students will learn in spite of me because they are self-motivated enough to wade through the muck that is English language learning. Later years. My students will learn in spite of me because they are younger, smarter, and worldlier than me. Recent years. My students will learn in spite of me because their learning is not about me, it is about them. Now. Epiphany. Students will take what they need when they need it. No less. No more (unless unintentional!).

I suspect this is what my early mentor had actually meant but sometimes we can only hear what we need to hear. My husband often talks about “taking himself out of the equation” in business dealings, about just listening to the client’s needs, forgetting about his own if even just for awhile. A teacher taking himself or herself out of the equation means all the obvious things and more: a student-centred classroom; a relevant curriculum; a needs-based syllabus; less “teacher talk”. There is another aspect of stepping back and out that we teachers often forget, however many times it came up in our theory studies: not getting trapped in the students’ affective filters.

Remember that term? I’m certain you do. All the things that can get in the way of learning. Family. Health. Stress. Culture. Fear. Money. Work. Um, life. An endless list that can lodge itself in a student’s brain and block his or her openness to learning. Basically any adult has an affective filter as thick as the Bible. Perhaps it is my recent work with adult immigrants but it seems that suddenly, it’s not “get a life”, but “hey, got a life and am just squeezing you in” or “have no life ‘cause I’m cramming English to jump through some hoops”. Either way, it’s got nothing to do with me. The missing homework assignments. The falling asleep in class. The absences. The attitude. Even the good stuff: the perfect grammar score; the impeccable essay; the creative journal entries; the animated presentations. My doing? Not so much. The reasons for both the good and bad results are countless, and none of my business. I’ve stopped sweating my students’ affective filters.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a call to inaction or worse, apathy, but rather a reminder to relax. Teachers can offer, inspire, and support. Students? Well, students will do what is necessary, to and for themselves. The future is not ours to see. Que sera sera.