Do I teach what I preach? Teacher’s ambivalence

Madhav Kafle

In this narrative I share with you my recent realization that despite self-labeling myself a practitioner of critical pedagogy, I do keep following the old teaching tricks in most instances. To begin with, early on my academic journey as a learner, I had figured out that my answers can be only either right or wrong; and the more difficult and arcane words I used in my writings, the more impressed would my teachers be. My very attitude sustained during most part of my graduate teacher training both in Nepal and in the US. However, I was also fortunate enough to get an opportunity to work with champions of critical pedagogy in both countries, and to develop my teaching philosophy and practice accordingly. Nevertheless, I am starting to realize my current practice is not adequate enough to make the pedagogy truly critical. Let me first point out the gap between what I preach and what I practice.

What I think I preach: I’m a language and literacy specialist who believes that languages are mobile resources rather than discrete and fixed entities. What that means is we need to focus on the process of meaning making–not on a predefined form of grammar. Social practice outweighs the individual competence; therefore, assessment practices should acknowledge, if not reflect, that. Learners not only use language, they also change the language; we should not treat the target (language) community as a homogeneous one. Overemphasis to verbal features of the text is limiting as meaning is often created by integrating multiple codes and modalities. Similarly, language learning is a quite dynamic and complex system and does not necessarily follow the same incremental pattern. Even more, I’m all for integrating local epistemologies in my pedagogy;I would like to use what students bring with them as their resources to build up on. All of these sound great, don’t they?

Here is what I practice: Yes, I’m a language and literacy teacher, who keeps correcting my students based on the superficial grammatical errors they make rather than complimenting them on their ability to connect various texts. If they bring in some nuances I’m unfamiliar with, then, I think that they are wrong. I judge my students based on the product not on the process. Despite high level content, I penalize them for using a wrong article when, in fact, I’m still not confident about my own use of articles. Rather than being concerned with if they will be able to utilize their repertoire to accomplish some functions, I’m obsessed with if they will follow what I think are the correct features of academic discourse. And, I’ve to teach them how they should read and write, despite at times lacking knowledge of what goes on in their broader academic communities.

I suspect there is not much I can change in some academic settings. However, something must be missing in my current practice, which hardly can meet the goal of critical language and literacy teaching.Yet, I try to justify my helplessness. One mundane logic that soothes me: I’ve to do my “stuff” as it is generally expected, plus I don’t have a whole lot of time (and resources) with me to improve my practice. Next, in a multilingual class, I also take for granted my expertise in dominant tongue, which assists me to disregard the minority languages. Alternatively, I can pretend that I can’t do anything for the students because I don’t have a competence in most of my learners’ languages as they generally hail from China, Korea, and Puerto Rico than from Nepal. And, yet, I become wishful that whatever I do in class will somehow assist my students to be critical in the long run as long as I keep browsing the critical pedagogy literature. May be to test my pedagogical competence, some students from Nepal have finally landed in my current university this semester. Unfortunately, the current semester is already half way through, still I find myself at unease to do something really critical in class as the majority of the students are from elsewhere. But aren’t those lame excuses?

Now let me get real.In a nutshell, one of the major goals of teaching language and literacy is to enable learners to “language.” So, what does languaging entail? We use language for some tangible purposes. The real question, therefore, is in what ways we can involve our students in real actions, where meaning making can unfold by itself.Some might argue that since we have the hurdle of standardized testingand our academic culture also prioritizes the grades rather than the learning process, languaging is not a good option. However, while I do not mean to neglect these conditions, by being obsessed with gatekeeping we are already undermining students’ creative languaging. If we create some safe houses for them and let them play with the semiotic process judiciously that will provide an opportunity for the students to be real language users. I’m not saying that we as teachers can let students do anything they want in the name of providing agency. Nevertheless, we should not hesitate in letting the students to experience the process of languaging. Please share what you have been doing already or what possibilities you see in this light.

4 thoughts on “Do I teach what I preach? Teacher’s ambivalence

  1. It is obvious that many more experts and specialists are working on how we can make language learning more or less as natural as language acquisition. And there are several shortcoming and more and more exploration, search and research. What we cannot forget is that we can’t have anything materializing exactly the way we plan to. It is ever-existing conflict thinkers and specialists might find going on outside and inside. One thing is clear: we can’t set our learners free to practice language learning judiciously, because the word JUDICIOUSLY itself is controversial in a foreign context in the lack of natural nurture, when it comes to nature versus nurture. In the case of language acquisition it wouldn’t invite any dispute to say that nurture dominates nature.

  2. Suresh Ji, thank you very much for reply. You make a valid point that whatever approaches/methodologies we follow, it is unlikely that they will act as magic bullets. Additionally, I do agree that terms and categories are not transparent and we can’t expect the same uptake everywhere. However, as language teaching professionals, despite the heterogeneity of our geopolitical and academic settings, we have tremendous power in making pedagogical choices in local classrooms. Therefore, in most cases, it is the teachers’ professional responsibility to assess the pros and cons of implementing a particular method etc. That said, there comes the significance of localizing pedagogies. As regards “judicious” itself is political, I would say so are all our pedagogical choices in one or other way.

  3. After reading the article, I remembered one incident of a boarding school where a young English teacher taught one student wrongly in the classroom. The next day, his parents visited the school and made complaints that their son had learned whatever his teacher had taught him even the answer was wrong. He ignored his parent’s answer even if it was correct. That is to say, the wrong answers of the teacher were accepted happily by the student and he denied the right answer of his parents. When the teacher convinced him that it was really a wrong answer, then only he believed his parents. Here I want to attract the author’s attention on the incident because the context also creates the objectives which are followed by the teacher.

    In my opinion, the creative strategies and skills are inevitable for the English language classroom but it is depended and determined on the psychology and competencies of the teacher to judge whether he/she is teaching or preaching. The opposite of my nose can be taught the shape of seven but can the environment allow one to apply the art? Concluding my opinion, I should say that the modern syllabuses are designed to apply critical thinking and creative strategies in the upper classrooms. Teacher should not stand in the dilemma of preaching or teaching, he should just focus on the skills, activities and productivity which can be beneficial for the learners.

  4. Dear Dipesh Ji: Thank you very much for sharing your perspective as a response to my post. I totally do agree with your point of making our pedagogy “beneficial for the learners.” Additionally, I also concur with the point you indicate that context should be taken into account while designing and implementing teaching/learning activities. However, I’m afraid, I have some reservations about all “modern syllabuses” being foolproof and lending to “creative strategies and skills,” and being beneficial for learners. This is where, I would say, teachers should not “just focus on the [often assumed] skills, activities and productivity” but also constantly reflect on their own practices and make necessary changes, if possible.

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