For a long-time I have been telling my closest friends, half-jokingly but also dead-serious: “hey by the way friends save lives.” I made it into a hashtag for them, as means to bring levity and humor into the matter. They smile and laugh. However, it was entirely defined for me as a solemn statement: friends save lives; my friends have saved my life, uncountable times. As I hope I’ve done for them.
While it would be cinematographic to describe these scenarios as moments where they’ve pushed me out of harm’s ways, or I’ve CPR-ed them back into this realm, it isn’t that entirely concrete. So far. But equally crucial: through their generosity of thought, of care, and of time toward me, they have over and over again, kept me alive.
On one of the many days I (re)decided to start be-friending my demons instead of excommunicating them, it struck me as obvious that it is in this giving, in giving to them, my friends, where I find solace amongst the other, grimmer prospects of existing. It is in the pleasure of seeing the good, the great, and the intrinsically individual ways in which they can thrive that I secure a greater sense of happiness for myself. And in turn it makes the process of arming myself, preparing myself, conditioning my mind and body for any and all occasions that I will jump to protect them, to take care of them, just as they do with me, essential.
This same day it also struck me as obvious that this was why it had been so critical when a teacher had saved my life in the past. No, I didn’t choke on a chicken wing in the middle of class. A teacher saved my life by ever so carefully and lovingly seeing through me, right through me, and steering me in a direction I never knew possible. He saw through me, saw just who I was, what I liked, what I struggled with; what I was able and unable to do. And through seeing this he was able to help me. I think of him often. And as I do, I think of the other teachers who have also saved my life. I wonder how may I have done (if at all) the same for them.
It is from this place of acknowledgement that I was able to start noticing moments where I had felt truly overjoyed: moments during art critique for my art and photography students; the turning-of-the-tables and moments where I had been the student myself. I felt that the stage for both -the student and the teacher- was my favourite and safest place. I could mentally gravitate toward that stage and perform, produce, play, interact, operate and create in ways that were only possible under the shelter of that community: the class, the learners, the hungry for more. In all our queerness and restlessness. This felt like relief.
The best teachers I had did just that: gave me shelter. The worst teachers I had, alienated me, discarded me -and others- while excruciatingly betraying the code: to protect each other. If the code had been betrayed, at best the teacher simply did a shitty job and probably got paid very little. At worst, it abandoned someone who needed protection and safeguard, rendering her unmoored and adrift.
My best professor made me feel like I could create an infinite number of stairways, passages, secret tunnels, hidden gardens, and tree forts toward my –and mine only– home: where one feels relief, where you place your desires, the knowledge you’ve built, and the experience you’ve earned.
My worst professor made me feel –until this day– like I caused a loss so great -of his time, of his space, of his esteem- that I couldn’t possibly find any bit of myself that I liked, that I respected, in that midst. I was left for dead, unmoored and adrift with no clues, no compasses, no charms for luck, no way back home.
Learner’s needs: always keep an eye out for the underdog
At the time that I met the aforementioned worst professor, my learner’s need for his specific class came out of obligation: it was a requirement of my academic program to take that class. The fact this was paired with possibly the most subhuman type of asshole put on this earth was a dire coincidence, with catastrophic effects. Aside from failing the class, my confidence crumbled, and it affected my wellness in a way that became evident in other classes.
As a teacher, I specially look out for this student: the one who doesn’t necessarily like the class but it is needed for her/him to learn the material; the one who thus struggles greatly with the material. The one who is painfully shy, or painfully anxious. And without breaking the rapport of the group if it were in a group setting, I try and build the connections between me and them, and aid the building of the camaraderie amongst themselves. The most essential and vital word to keep in mind here is empathy.
Different learners have different motivations: some will want to study to advance their career and businesses, some will do it entirely for fun, some will do it to socialize. As a teacher you cater to all, and most importantly you make it entirely enticing, fun, and available at different levels and through different methods.
(And always, always, keep an eye out for the student who needs you the most. Defend the underdog)
Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s constructivist approach can be viewed in teaching through the metaphor of scaffolding: the student’s prior knowledge and social-cultural background informs how she organizes new information as she acquires a second language; new acquired material builds up on this structure, as the teacher provides a metaphorical scaffolding for the student as she expands on her knowledge. This teaching approach can be paired with certain aspects of American linguist Stephen Krashen’s monitor model: there is an inherent and subconscious nature to language learning, which is encouraged through meaningful interaction in the target language; the learning curve progresses as the student is exposed to comprehensible input that is slightly above her current linguistic competence (but not so far out of reach that it creates anxiety in the student); and affective filters exist, which can greatly distress the learning process. The teacher must always be observant and identify: low motivation, low self-esteem, debilitating anxiety, etc.
Methods and models to deliver language teaching
A useful method for assessing how to deliver learning techniques and learning aids to students comes from educator Neil Fleming’s VAK model: in which there are three different styles of learning: Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic. Visual learners prefer pictures, visual aids, and diagrams; auditory learners prefer tapes, videos, music; and kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience like moving, touching, and doing. This method ties in with American developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory: in which there are nine types of intelligence, summarized as: logical/mathematical (ability to use numbers, reason, and to recognize abstract patterns), visual/spatial (ability to orient oneself in the environment, to create mental images, and a sensitivity to shape, size and color), body/kinesthetic (the ability to use the body to express and solve problems), musical/rhythmic (ability to recognize tonal patterns, and a sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, and melody), interpersonal (ability to understand another person’s moods, feelings, motivations, and intentions), and verbal/linguistic (ability to use language effectively and creatively).
Role-playing myself as a student, I know I prominently learn via visual, auditory, and kinesthetic methods. As a teacher, I thrive while tapping into interpersonal intelligences and skills to communicate with students. In a scenario where an ESL learner has no acquired skills yet, I would heavily rely on the use of what Dr. James Asher refers to as TPR (Total Physical Response), through which one can establish communication via body language, much in the way that infants and mothers do.
In a scenario where an ESL has a basic acquired knowledge, then the use of interlanguage can be useful and accepted in class as a preliminary communication system used by the learner who is not yet fully proficient in L2 use: it is important to allow the student(s) to strive on their own as they form the building blocks in their L2 learning, while guiding them and providing them with corrections on tenses, grammar forms, and semantics, but without interrupting their flow, and offering praise and encouragement as they both self-correct, as well as when they are unable to do so on their own. Each possibility for self-correction builds confidence, and builds tools toward their own knowledge constructing for the future. To reiterate the teacher is there to offer the metaphorical scaffolding and support.
The classroom as a stage is thus one where the student(s) feels taken care of, confident, and relaxed. In this setting it is crucial to create memorable experiences via rapport, humor, contemporary cultural and socio-political references, mnemomnic techniques, visual and audiovisual aids, and inter-disciplinary activities that can tap into different styles of learning, and different kinds of intelligence of a diverse group of students.