What we get from students

Maybe, after reading this post’s title, in your head you’re already listing some of the gifts you’ve been given by students at the end of term or end of their studies with you…. Thank-you cards, a calendar, tea, a bookmark, chocolates, wine (if you’re lucky!), and so on. Don’t get me wrong, us teachers are mere humans, and we like a present as much as anyone else (any students reading this – please do feel free to give your teacher a present at the end of term!). But I’ve been thinking recently about other ‘things’ (for want of a better word) that students have given me; perhaps unplanned, some students have gifted me with more valuable, ‘deeper’ things. And I think it is important for teachers to take a step back sometimes and notice what they have gained from their students; if nothing else, it will stop us from viewing teaching as a one-way street. So here are a couple of things that occurred to me as I reflected… please feel free to add more of your own thoughts in the comments section below.

1) Ideas for the classroom

A student came to collect her work from me the other day and we ended up having a nice little chat in my office (anything to save me from doing more marking…!). Now this student has been studying English Studies with us for five years and is very nearly finished her degree. And during the conversation, I realised just how many different classes (lectures, seminars, language courses, etc) she has completed and how many different styles of teaching and classroom activities she has seen. She started telling me about some of the trends that she has experiences… some periods where every lesson involved a different layout of the classroom furniture, phases where teachers had seemingly all discovered how to include social networks in their lessons, and so on. Since she’s fairly advanced, she was able to reflect on what had worked well for her learning, and give me feedback from a student’s perspective. One idea she mentioned struck me, as it fits well to a question I was pondering… the key word here is tag-cloud, sometimes called word-clouds. (See here for an explanation, and here to try making one; it’s easy, I promise!).

 

Here’s a tag-cloud of this section of the post:

word cloud

And during our conversation I was already thinking about how I could use these clouds to teach good summary writing. My idea: students read a text and note down what they think are the most important words in the text. The teacher has made a tag-cloud in advance, or does it ‘live’ on the computer if the classroom allows this, which also shows “important” words from the text – the students can then compare the cloud to their own notes and analyse why certain words are so important, etc. Maybe the cloud will highlight words they’ve missed, or they might want to argue that terms on their list are very important, although the word-cloud doesn’t display them as such. The clue, of course, is that the tag-cloud simply represents how often a certain word occurs in the text and doesn’t judge the significance of the terms for the meaning of the text; but exactly this deeper analysis is what students should do when summarising.

 

2) Spontaneous Praise

Most of us probably receive what I am going to call ‘prompted praise’ at the ends of terms. Most institutions and/or teachers run some form of evaluation when a course comes to an end, and usually this includes the question “What did you like about this course?”. Naturally, alongside this ‘prompted praise’ we also get ‘prompted criticism’, as most evaluations include a question on what students liked less or didn’t like much at all about the course. More often than not, I find that what some students say they liked, others say they did not like, and there is often no way of telling how much they liked or disliked something and what exactly we as teachers could do about it in the future. I’ve come to notice recently that spontaneous, meaningful praise/thanks (or criticism, though this probably occurs much less frequently, I suppose) means a lot more to me as a teacher. It is also easier to assess how seriously the comment is meant by the student, as it obviously stood out to them as particularly worthy of mentioning to me in person.

Just today as I was leaving the office, a student caught me on the stairs and made a point of stopping me to tell me that she was so grateful for the exam preparation materials we had worked through on a course of mine she took last year. She told me that she even recommended my worksheets to her friends who were preparing for the same (really quite important) exam, because she found them so accessible, and much clearer and more relevant than any published materials she had looked at. She said that using the materials reminded her exactly of the lesson in which we had covered certain points and exactly what I had said about the answers and the exam tasks. This kind of feedback is much more specific than bullet points on an end-of-course evaluation form. It meant so much to me as I’ve always hoped to be that ‘kind’ of teacher students remember (for the right reasons, of course!), and this spontaneous praise proved that I’m at least on the right track!

3) A success story

When a new term starts, it often feels like we are settling down for the long hard slog of giving, giving, giving. After a few years of ‘slogging away’, it can be easy to lose sight of why we’re even bothering. Probably, a high number of our learners go on to bigger and better things, using the skills we’ve given them to climb up the career ladder and so on. But we don’t very often hear about them, do we? And what do they say, out of sight out of mind? So we can get stuck in the rut of concentrating only on our current students, on the pressures rife at educational institutions, or on the monotony of it all. What better a lift out of this mundane slog than a reminder that what we do makes a difference?

I have two favourite success stories. One is a student who took my advice to combine their interests with their studies when considering career options. Most teachers say the same kind of thing; you are more than just your qualifications, you’ll have your job for the rest of your life so pick something you will enjoy! This student got fed up of people telling him that playing computer games was not an effective use of his time. He put his love of gaming on his CV, alongside his degree in English Studies and excellent language skills … and voila he’s now a video game translator who earns more than I do!! Another of my students was on a teaching degree programme, but was worried about the school-university-school route she would likely be forced to take. When I asked her what she would really like to do, her answer was to travel, see the world, and experience ‘real’ life in other countries. To my reaction, “well, then do it!” she  responded, “you know, I just might.” And now she’s head of department at a school in Dubai. She spent new year’s eve with a sheik, has a boyfriend who travels around the US for his job and takes her with him, and former pen-pals in Australia whose farm she sometimes helps out on during school holidays. All of this would have been very difficult to achieve without good language skills which she learnt… you guessed it… in my classes! Hows that for a success story to put a spring in your step when you next enter the classroom?!

 

4) Help

We all know the situation when you’re heading to class, laden with books, papers, coffee, and trying to lock the office with the key between your teeth! Colleagues are often too busy to help, but if there’s a student nearby they can almost always be commandeered into helping – they feel they can’t refuse because you’re their teacher! That’s not the kind of help I’m talking about. I also don’t mean the “helpful” students who inform you when you’ve made a spelling mistake on the board or handout! What I want us to think about is the students who, of their own accord and on their own initiative, do something that helps us teachers with a difficult task, no matter how big or small.

Small examples that come to mind are a student with a ‘useful’ friend, and an early-bird! The useful friend came in handy in a cultural studies class where we were discussing Scotland’s potential independence from the UK. This topic really got my students going, and then had questions that neither the literature nor I (from London) could answer. Luckily, a student came to the rescue who had spend her year abroad in Aberdeen and invited one of her Scottish friends to come and stay for the weekend – so the ‘lass’ from Scotland was volunteered to come along to our lesson and talk through some of the points that had been troubling us. This was all my student’s suggestion, and made the course much more authentic. Secondly, the early-bird gave me a hand every week for a whole term! It was the dreaded 8am phonetics class. Dreaded because our language labs, although well equipped, have such complex networks of computers that the individual workstations take ages to start up. This student always caught an early train to get to university on time, and volunteered (after I had stressed about wasted class time) to go straight to the lab when he arrived and turn on all of the PCs, so that when the rest of us arrived everything was ready to go. One small act for student-kind, one huge help for me as a teacher!

The latest example of student-initiated help actually provided something of an answer to a question I didn’t really know I had! I’m in charge of European university exchanges for our department, but the number of students applying has been rather low in recent years. Of course I knew that this was less than ideal … but it sure made choosing candidates easier! Then last week I received an email from a student who is heading to Kent for the next academic year. He wrote that he had decided to start a blog (inspired by mine, yay!) where he would post anecdotes and pictures of his year abroad. Apparently, this idea started as something like a personal journal, but when I happenned to be talking about it to someone else, he suggested that I could share the link to show potential exchange candidates what a year abroad is really like, and maybe encourage others who are currently abroad to do something similar. A round of applause, please, for forward-thinking, helpful student!

 

I have to admit, this blog post also started out as something of a personal reflection. But I do think that these students deserve recognition (albeit anonymous!) for what they have given me. And if I’ve inspired you, other teachers, to stop thinking that students just take, take, take, then posting it here has been worthwhile! 🙂

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