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.
------ About 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.