We know that ‘teacher’ is defined as a ‘noun’ in dictionary. We have a belief that a teacher is a ‘knowledgeable person’ having degrees and sufficient skills to perform. But what is that ‘knowledge’ we have? Is it fixed or dynamic? Is it one-off or on-going? Is it co-constructed or received? These are some general questions we, teachers of English (ToE), should consider to critically assess our own role to facilitate students’ learning. In a more reflective and subjective fashion, in this brief post, I discuss how language teacher is a ‘verb’ not a ‘noun’. I will nuance this issue by framing my ideas under major themes associated with reflection on my own language teaching.
A brief narrative
When I started teaching at primary level, some 10 years ago, I believed that I would be the best teacher if I could make students listen to me. I tried my best to learn the meaning of words (all literal) from dictionary and write them on the textbook itself. I remember that my books were full of word meanings. Sometimes I could not get the meaning of the words in dictionary which made me feel diffident in teaching. Honestly, it was really hard time for me to understand some stories and I could not really explain well to my students. I still remember that it ruined my sleeps and leisurely times. I had no idea what I was doing. I did not even know whether or not my students were learning. It was really a dreadful experience. My students never talked to me. I was not confident to engage them in classroom interactions. But I was happy that they did not make any noise in the classroom. I could feel that they did not make noise because they were not making sense of what I was teaching and they were overwhelmed with the word meanings I gave them. I was curious to know why my students were so silent and whether or not they understood the stories. But I was reluctant to ask my students’ feedback.
I was able to perform in class but I was never sure whether or not I was helping my students in ‘meaning-making’ process. I never thought that students could learn better if they were given chance to personalize and relate the stories in their situations. I never knew that they could learn words by allowing them to use those words in their own sentences. I never provided them with feedback on their home assignments rather I used to simply identify what errors them made. I could not help them learn from their own mistakes rather I grilled them why they made those silly mistake. As I was imposing my ‘teacher’s authority’, my students were scared of asking questions even if they did not understand what I was teaching.
Many things changed! (I am not describing all those changes to save space). Informed by new courses, readings, trainings, seminars, workshops and continuous teaching, I could do a critical analysis of what I did in the past and learn from those experiences. Although I cannot explain my entire professional trajectories, I can draw following major themes which can be issues for my further professionalism.
1. Co-construction of knowledge: I could say that I did not know that students had rich ‘capital’ or resources (linguistic, cultural, and social) that I could use in the classroom. Now I realize that the knowledge construction process in the classroom is not a ‘one-way’ process rather it is a mutual meaning-making process in which students bring their own worldviews and use them as a basis for negotiating with others in the classroom. This indicates that teachers should consider themselves only as ‘a member’ in the entire language teaching-learning process. It does not happen when teachers simply say that ‘now I am going to co-construct knowledge with you’ but it works only when teachers corroborate students’ views and beliefs as an integral part of learning process.
2. Addressing students’ agency: Every individual has ‘agency’. This means they can decide their goals and strategies to achieve those goals. And they can use their existing knowledge and experience to learn new ideas. When I go back to my own narrative mentioned above, I now realize that there were stories or plots in them which students could easily relate to their life and society if I had asked them. But I never did so. What I am trying to argue is that our beliefs about the role of students as a ‘passive-consumer-like-recipient’ of knowledge may be a detrimental for students’ learning. Working with students’ own personal experiences and socio-cultural capital as a starting point may help us promote more equitable and sustainable learning.
3. Transmission vs. transformation of knowledge: Any kind of teaching including language teaching is related to the production of knowledge. There are different ways to produce knowledge. Traditionally, though still dominant belief, we believe in the transmission of knowledge i.e. we consider ourselves as a repository of knowledge and transmit to students usually through lectures and dictations. Guided with this assumption, we consider knowledge as a fixed and a one-off artifact. But is the knowledge we learned some 20 or 10 or 5 or 2 years ago still relevant to address students’ needs and complex soci0-cultural changes? Does the taken-for-granted knowledge fit into all socio-cultural contexts? These questions imply that we need to rethink about how to generate or transform (not transmit) knowledge in the classroom. This works when students all given opportunity to transform the knowledge discussed in the classroom to their own personal and social contexts. One of the ways of doing this, as I think, is to engage students in exploring and discussing locally situated issues which they are familiar with and can talk about. This process will not only help students learn language but also make them aware of their society and culture, eventually contributing to the transformation of society.
We see that language teachers have challenging responsibilities ranging from promoting students’ individual agencies to contributing to the transformation of society. This requires a lot of transformations in our own deeds, especially belief system. In this sense, teachers are an ‘agency’ and ‘actor’ but they are not simply a performer of what they know. As we do a lot of contested, conflicting and ideological activities, as a professional to promote students’ learning, we teachers are not a noun we are, in fact, a ‘verb’.