What Teaching has Taught me

I never planned on being a teacher – the thought never even crossed my mind until a few months before we moved to Asia.

And yet, somehow, I ended up standing before more than forty teenagers at a time, first in Bangkok, Thailand, and later, in front of smaller groups of five-year-olds in Vietnam.  It has been quite a journey, and, somehow, I am convinced that I have learned more in two years of teaching than I will ever be able to teach others in a lifetime.

I would like to share some of the most important lessons with you:

1.  Screaming doesn’t help

I’ve had to learn this the hard way!  Being a relative calm person by nature, the simple fact that I totally “lost it” more than a few times is enough to prove that kids can really drive you crazy.  The only problem is that you cannot get anything done if you let them do it.  No one wants to listen to a crazy screaming mad woman, including our husbands, children, and those around us.

2.  Don’t get stuck on the bad days

No matter how well-prepared you may be, most classes will not go according to plan (at least not in Asia). There will be bad days, embarrassing moments, and unspeakable frustrations. However, there will also be good days, funny moments, and inexplicable joys in teaching others. So, getting stuck on the bad days is one sure way to miss out on the good ones.

3.  If you never make mistakes, you miss the opportunity to learn from them

Especially in Thailand, “saving face” is paramount. People will avoid making fools of themselves at all cost. This makes language acquisition and development very difficult since it is par for the course to make some blunders here and there. It is impossible to learn a new language without making mistakes; sometimes, getting it all wrong is the best way to learn how to get it right.

4. Teach to learn, learn to teach

The best decision I made in an attempt to be a better teacher was to become a student myself.  First, I studied the Thai language, and later, Vietnamese.  It gave me so much insight into the world of my students and a better understanding of the reasons behind their most common mistakes, which happened to be my problem areas in speaking their languages.

5. Remembering names

“People do not really care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”  – Theodore Roosevelt

A simple way to show interest is by memorizing their names. In Bangkok, this was difficult because I saw more than 800 students each week.  In Vietnam it was much easier with smaller classes, and it really made a difference in teacher-student interaction, as well as with relationships with colleagues, the cleaning lady, and even the security guard.

6. Asking questions is important

One of my colleagues once said, “If I had known that my teachers would have loved it, I would have raised my hand much more often in school. As a teacher, I love it when my students ask me questions.”

Asking questions is probably the only way to learn without making mistakes.  If you have a question, no matter how silly it might seem, never be afraid to ask it.

 7. Everyone is a teacher

Whether you realize it or not, if you are a mother or a father, a husband or a wife, employee or a boss, a volunteer or a therapist, you are always teaching someone something, even if it is as simple as “how NOT to do something”.  Someone is always watching and learning from you, most especially children.  Even animals pick up a lot from our behaviour and respond accordingly.

Standing in front of a class and being called a “teacher” simply makes you more aware of the fact that you always have the opportunity to teach.

 8.  The best motivation is the option to fail

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to fail a course in Thailand.  I know this because I have personally failed students only to see that their final reports have miraculously changed into 50% or more. Most schools will save you the trouble by simply telling you that you are not allowed to fail students.  Of course, students know this as well, explaining why some of them won’t even bother to come to class.  Unfortunately, it is hard to raise standards in an environment in which failure is not a possibility.

 9. The “system” will probably get worse

This leaves one with two choices ….be bitter or be better. Too often, we resort to complaining.  We love to point out all the problems with the “system” without realizing that if we have the ability to identify the problem, we might also have the ability to find a solution.  And if we have no desire to find a solution, we might be better off simply making peace with the process.  “Mai pen rai”, as they would say in Thailand, which means, “It doesn’t matter”, so don’t worry; be happy.

10.  It is worth the reward

At the end of the day, even though teaching was never my main reason for moving to Asia, I will never regret the experience or the lessons I’ve learned.  I look forward to a life of learning from the greatest Teacher.  It doesn’t matter if I end up being a Physical Therapist again, or a teacher, a housewife or whatever. There will always be lessons to learn and stories to share and the reward will be well worth it.

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