Reaching: Relating & Teaching

 By Joyce Rafla, Egypt

This semester was a tough one for me. I’m starting a new job, teaching a total of 45 students in two sections of the same class (Fundamentals of Teaching & Learning for Early Years Teachers) and working on side projects. It was crazy. Aside from that, I had some “issues” with one section of the class I’m teaching. Now that the class is over, I am happy to get the chance to reflect on this semester’s teaching experience.

Teaching is Relating
I would say that my main lesson from teaching this semester is that teaching is relating. I found myself facing situations with the students similar to the ones I would face with my friends, family members, or even boyfriends! I remember standing in the middle of a feedback session, after the students communicated what they were uncomfortable with, and thinking to myself “God! This is turning into a bad relationship!” I was surprised at my own thought. That inspired me to write this blog post. Teaching and relating. I began seeing the whole teaching experience from the relationships lens.

Teaching & Dating: Compatibility in the class
Have you ever been stuck in a dating situation which is just not working? No matter how hard you try and how much effort you put into the relationship, the person is just not a good fit for you. Well, I think I experienced that with one of my sections this semester. They were perhaps looking for a more structured learning environment where their contribution is minimal because they believe that this is the “right” way of teaching; while I believe in the opposite perspective to education – I am merely a facilitator to their learning process. No matter how hard I try to explain and communicate this idea, they’ll agree consciously but refuse it subconsciously and believe that it’s my lack of knowledge or experience that is leading to that class structure. At the essence of this, there is a lack of trust that is binding for the instructor especially if s/he starts believing that they are incapable of leading the class.

Teaching & the Culture: Relating to the culture…
This led me to the second realization: in adopting a student-centered approach in an authoritarian culture, one has to expect and be prepared to deal with such reactions. It’s like we’re speaking Spanish in Egypt – no one would get it, although they might like your dialect. In relating to the culture, we have to be mindful of the dynamics between our beliefs and the extent to which it pushes people beyond their comfort zones. Teaching is, to use Vygotsky’s term, finding that “magic middle.”

Relational Values: Openness & Trust…
It’s important to be mindful of what is being shared in the class. While openness and trust are valuable qualities within a classroom environment, too much honesty might spoil the culture. There are things within the classroom environment that are better handled if they are not directly addressed. For example, if the instructor is younger than most learners, instead of directly discussing that, she can emphasize her role as a facilitator to dilute any potential resistance owing to her age.

Similarly, setting the pace and dynamics of the class are implicitly created in the first few classes of the semester. A classroom dynamic/culture will inevitably be created, we just have to be intentional and picky as to which behaviors are accepted and which are not. The consistency of applying our philosophy is the only measure of the sustainability of these ideas.

Teaching & Parenting
Although I’m not a parent and I don’t see myself as someone with more authority in the classroom, it is inevitable that I get to be the decision maker in the class. That being said, I don’t need to practice excessive control to prove that point. Hence, being flexible is key but having non-negotiables is the balance for that. For example, I believe that plagiarism is not to be tolerated in the class whatsoever. However, I do understand that this is not a very familiar concept to most Egyptian students so while I state my stand firmly, I do so gently as well.

Also, another element that reminded me of parenting is how I evaluate the learners. Most parents expect their children to be extensions of themselves. Similarly, instructors look for students who exhibit similar skills/attributes that reminds them of their student life. In a way, we do so for validation. However, a student-centered approach that upholds individual differences should move away from that stance. While your character will inevitably be projected in how the class is conducted, an attempt to remove yourself from your comfort zone will provide a better learning environment to the students.

Relating to Disagreements & Mistakes
The final lesson I learned is to not stick to my first reaction to learners’ mistakes but take a more understanding approach. At one point in the semester, a student plagiarised twice. The first time I gave her a warning and explained what plagiarism is but the second time, she failed the assignment. When I approached her to try and understand what led her to do so, I learned that she is not very comfortable expressing herself. I created an alternative assessment for her in the form of an on-going reflection between me and her on a Google Doc. She loved the assessment and became more comfortable expressing herself.

For me, teaching is a passion which probably leads me to transfer skills I learn from close relationships to the teacher-student relationship I experience in the class. Just like relationships, to teach well you have to be comfortable with who you are, believe in yourself regardless of constantly being judged by your students, firmly stand your ground, trust and have high expectations from your students and above all, teach with a passion that dilutes all the differences.

JoyceAbout the Author: Joyce Rafla graduated from Teachers College, Columbia University in February 2013 with a Master of Arts in Cognitive Studies in Education. She has a passion for knowledge and a strong interest in the dynamic interplay between education and beliefs. She currently works as a Pedagogy & Assessment Officer at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo where she also teaches as part of PED, a teacher education program.


8 thoughts on “Reaching: Relating & Teaching

  1. Love this post Joyce. What comes out absolutely throughout the entire post is your passion and commitment to your students and doing the best by them, to achieve the best outcomes for them. And when we look at commonalities across contexts, I think this is perhaps the one thing that might stand true across any context: although we may have different considerations, audiences, practices, and other nuances of local context to consider, passion and commitment to outcomes may be one constant across context. And I think this is probably going to be quite apparent through the posts that land on this site from contributors.

    The other thing that really struck me when reading this post and considering its relevance to my own context is the flexibility and personalised approach you take – I love, love how you customised that assessment to make it a an ongoing reflection – and most of all that you took the time to understand the reason behind the plagiarism and adjusted your approach to the assessment instead of just dishing out more punishment, as most would’ve done. This level of customisation, flexibility and personalisation is the thing I most struggle with in my learning context. elearning design and particularly in a corporate environment tends to mean standardised multiple choice assessments and content (and increasingly so). Technology used in this way can often result in a de-humanised experience which doesn’t lead to the best outcomes for anyone, least of all the students. So it’s inspiring to see examples like this and to consider ways we might be able to integrate similar levels of flexibility and personalisation in online environments (although it might well require a change to the format of assessments, and reduction in automation…)

    1. Tanya,

      Thank you for an encouraging and perceptive response. The customization element was sometimes hard and overwhelming but I always remind myself to stay true to my education philosophy. It’s interesting to read how my experience compares to yours given the different contexts we’re in. There are a couple of online tools that might allow for such reflective assignments although I’m not sure that will work without a face-to-face interaction… it’s worth a shot anyways.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Joyce, your reflection has made me recall my beginning of teaching graduate students of management education here in Nepal. Teaching business students was a completely a new context for me when I started, but I facilitated the learning process than instructing them. In the first few days, I have closely observed my teaching styles, especially to find out what worked well and what not. Another thing that was most striking those days and is still effective in my class today is relating points of my discussion with those of business and management of their interests.

    It was very interesting to go through your blog post wherein you have creatively linked teaching with relationships such as dating, parenting, culture, relational values of openness and trust and disagreements and mistakes.

    I appreciate your approach of identifying learners’ weakness and applying alternative approach for those learners who failed to complete the common assignment. This is one of the impacts of student-centered approach and its successful application relies on teacher-student relationship.

    1. Engaging students through their interests is definitely necessary! This makes me re-think the topics and applications that I’ve implemented in my classes…. hmm…

  3. I found myself nodded to myself so many times while reading your post! And speaking Spanish in Egyptian- I get that. I no longer know what to call myself but in sum, I’m from a strong Indian cultural background but born and raised in Sweden and now living in Egypt. I work as an educator dealing with Indian, Swedish ad Egyptian students living here. And every time I “enter” a teaching environment- it’s like my game face changes. When I work with the Swedish school I have so many different factors to consider, the same goes with working with students from
    An Indian background and so forth. It would be interesting to try and comply or just reflect upon what key factors to take in to account when entering any teaching situation that involves cultural factors that may or may not enhance learning. What you wrote about the freedom of learning and that many do find that to be difficult to adopt to, what do you do? How to teach these tools?

    1. That is such a deep and rich experience to be teaching students from different backgrounds. I’m sure it is challenging but I can see how this might raise your metacognitive abilities in teaching!

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