Our contributors in this edition are Karin Wolfahrtsberger and Andrea Moser-Pacher, who both teach in Austrian secondary schools. Although their audiences are quite different, their tales show that students have one thing in common: they often occupy a world which is not always in sync with the teacher’s. Karin and Andrea both show that a teacher must often have special senses like a “clairvoyant” to decipher and understand the student’s world. They also both offer the advice to simply “roll with the punches” when unexpected things happen in the classroom. They also encourage us to recognize that our students are more than “learning machines” and that sometimes more unorthodox approaches in our teaching can reap the greatest rewards.
Go with the Flow
by Karin Wolfahrtsberger
I have taught English for almost 40 years and, looking back, there have not been many instances in which I have been thrown off my stride but I wouldn’t be human if I said there had been none. I think what I have learned in my years of teaching is that “you have to roll with the punches”. Once you have rolled a bit, you can take another look and perhaps find out what caused the disruption. I hope a few examples will show what I mean.
Imagine you are in the middle of explaining some difficult grammar points and one of your eighth grade students topples from her chair. You are quite sure that you didn’t stress the correct usage of “since” and “for” so much that a student would faint in despair. But something has definitely happened to the poor girl. It pays to stay calm—especially since the rest of the class is probably falling into a panic. Pick the girl up, ask her if she has had breakfast or is having her monthlies. That settled, return calmly to your agenda.
As interesting as we are, we can’t expect to enthrall all the students all of the time. It is, however, disconcerting when a student (in my case a 10-year old boy) falls asleep in your lesson, especially when all the others seem quite keen to listen to what I am saying. A child who falls asleep in school usually has a good reason for doing so and in this case it was quite a tragic reason. The boy had to make sure his alcoholic mother didn’t set the apartment on fire with her cigarettes and since she didn’t go to bed until after midnight, he had to stay up as well.
Times change. When I was in elementary school we were taught to parse sentences. Later on at university, I was taught English grammar the same way Latin was taught. When I myself started teaching, I thought nothing of teaching grammar to my fifth graders by referring to “third person singular” or to “adjective” and “adverb”. It took me far too long to discover that my students had no idea what I was talking about. Unfortunately, the students probably thought they should know and so didn’t dare ask.
If I had to put my advice in a nutshell, I suppose I would say “keep an open mind”—things aren’t always what they seem. We should not be afraid to ask “why”… a love for what you are doing and love for your students should keep you on the optimist’s side of the fence, unafraid of the unexpected answers you might find.
Eat Teach Love
by Andrea Moser-Pacher,
Technical High School for Mechanical and Electrical Engineering
“It doesn’t matter,” a colleague said to me just as I was again doubting myself, God and school because we were at a standstill in the classroom: “rien ne vas plus” as they say at the gambling tables. “Make a fruit cocktail,” she suggested.
Fruit cocktail? That’s all you can do. “I take bananas, I take apples and I take pears…” year after year.
I teach at the Technical High School for Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in a middle-size town in Austria. I have a number of students who have come to me from the B or even C streams and who perceive themselves as being “bad in German”, their mother tongue. Most of my students are male and the image they have of themselves can be repeated in their own words: “I was always bad in German, I was never good in spelling, always made lots of mistakes.”
Well, if we focus on what the students CAN’T do, and think and act accordingly, then we and the students are in real trouble. Sometimes students just do not improve dramatically … but does that mean that we as teachers have to feel bad? Perhaps we need to have a paradigm shift; namely, to stop focusing on unattainable learning goals and outcomes and focus, instead, on what we DO have: a sense of progress and be happy about this instead. Look at the delightful fruit cocktail in our classes …
A young colleague teaching in an East Berlin comprehensive school located in an educationally challenging neighborhood (children from immigrant families, socially deprived children) was telling me about how difficult it was when she began teaching. In despair, she asked her more experienced colleagues what she should do and they said “Eat.”
From then on, she brought breakfast rolls to school in the morning and began the teaching day with a new ritual: eating breakfast together. For children who might have come to school without eating a proper breakfast at home and who perhaps were unfamiliar with the joys of eating a meal together, this new ritual was reportedly a warming addition to their lives.
Frank McCourt recounts a similar experience in his autobiographical book, “Teacher Man”. He, too, was experiencing difficulties in a New York high school when he finally had a breakthrough: he introduced the idea of using recipes for ethnic food in connection with creative writing.
Once I conducted a “what kind of learner are you” quiz in a first-year vocational school.The results were predictable: most students were the “emotional” type which indicated to me that I would have to incorporate feelings such as feeling comfortable and happy into theirlearning process. A colleague and I introduced eating and going to the snack bar as part of the class activity. This also satisfied the students’ need to move about a bit during the school day. Eighteen-year-old, fourth-year students were no longer allowed to eat in the classroom. I told them that they were moving into the adult world and would have to heed its conventions and also that, in contrast to young boys, as men, they would have to learn theconcept of “delayed gratification” or simply have to learn to exert willpower and patience.I also explained to the students the pedagogical reasons for having allowed them to eat and drink previously; namely, that this was part of feeling comfortable which was the basis for their learning style. Whereupon one of the students called out “You’re clairvoyant! You should have been a fortune teller!” Unfortunately, I can’t convey the boy’s broad Styrian dialect here on paper but I still have the sound in my ears. And then I witnessed a surprising phenomenon: this boy who had been diagnosed with serious reading and writing weaknesses and who, due to his home environment, was not exposed to classic aspects of literature underwent a surprising transformation. His conception of me as a clairvoyant; i.e., that I used my senses to understand him and not my intellect, motivating him to become so ambitious that he improved his poor spelling and even received a good grade in German.
I remember when I tried to teach my students the typical features of a short story using a text by Wolfgang Borchert. This boy, who was then 14 or 15 and sitting in the last row, raised his hand and blurted out in broad dialect “Yesterday me and my dad watched ‘Basic Instinct’”. OK, what chance does a teacher have faced with the attraction of a sexy film? The didactics of literary theory are no match for this. The best thing to do is to learn to understand his world, and I also had to realize that there is a parallel world in the classroom: namely, the world of the teacher’s words and the world in which the students find themselves out of class. I had to learn to accept their parallel world and learn to find some bridge to connect the two as best I could.
My perception of these events is, of course, subjective and I realize that everything is relative and could also be interpreted differently. Nevertheless, by writing about my own personal experience in the classroom, I hope to add a mosaic piece to the complex picture of the teaching-learning process and to show how our students are complex human beings and not simply the “learning machine” which the traditional syllabus seems to cater for.Sometimes information transfer works with this method and perspective. However, pedagogical and methodological influences are often seen only much later – what is sown is often reaped at a later point in the future and often in an unexpected new form.
Sarah and Gabi would like to remind readers and friends of readers that we welcome your contributions to this series of “Teachers’ Tales”. If you would like to contribute, need more information regarding guidelines or have any questions regarding this series, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Andrea Moser-Pacher teaches German and Geography in a technical college in a small industrial town in the eastern part of Styria. For several years she has also been a lecturer for Fachdidaktik (Didactics of German) at the K.F. University in Graz. Her favorite book in this field is “Reads Like a Novel” by Daniel Pennac, 1994. (original title: Comme un Roman).
She used to be a gymnast when she lived in Linz, later on she became an avid player of badminton. She has written a manual for the Austrian Badminton Association and, together with HR Prof. Dr. Helmut Aigelsreiter, several booklets and a book about ski training and fitness.
Karin was also responsible for the Students-Exchange-Program in her school, which took her and her students to Alabama, England, Ireland and Greece.