Sunday, December 8, 2013

Teaching tip: You can only be you

Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson  [Quoted here]
Teaching corollary: Teach how you will, but no matter how you do it, you'll always be you. 
Whether you're teaching in hagwon or EPIK, chances are that if you're teaching in Korea, you will have heard about your predecessor(s) in the classroom. Maybe you're like me and you not only met her, you were neighbors with her. And chances are that in doing so, you have heard students or teachers talk about what predecessor X did for a lesson or how X's differed from yours. It's inevitable when considering all of the different people who go abroad to teach English here. In hearing about X, you may feel tempted to compare your classroom performance to him or be more like him in the classroom. But however you think of X, resist trying to be X. 

While it's good to draw inspiration from teachers past and present, it does no good to try to be someone you're not. You can only be you, especially in the classroom. By all means, learn from your colleagues and emulate the masters, but remember that trying to be someone else is futile.

During my first year here, I thought about the woman I replaced and how my style compared to hers. Since we were neighbors for a time, comparisons inevitably popped up in conversation. Students called her the "games teacher" and referred to me as the "educational teacher." She had a kinetic and whimsical style; I moved more deliberately. She so spoke highly of her former girls middle school students and the lessons they did together that I wondered how well I was doing. The questions came in flashes: Was I boring them? Should be I more like her? Should I jump around more? What if they resent me because she's gone? I'd get into that pattern for a while before the thought of hey now, you're not her and never will be--relax already! came to mind like a Seattle sun-break and I moved on.

As the months grooved along and found my footing, those questions dissipated and were replaced with more practical questions about how to adapt her good lesson ideas to my classes. I couldn't be her, but I could certainly emulate her. Doing so helped alleviate the anxiety and allowed me to concentrate on reaching the students because above all, the students will know when the teacher's on uneven footing. They can sense it and are masters at spotting uncertainty. Like Emerson said above, we can only be who we are, but we should strive toward becoming the best possible versions of ourselves. The students will adjust to you because you are not the first foreign teacher they've had and nor are you likely to be the last. In short:

  • Do the best you can, because you can only be who you are.
  • There's no one way to teach and there are many different styles.
  • The students will adjust to you. They have plenty of other teachers who teach differently. You're no different.
  • The students will know if you're going too far out of your comfort zone. 
  • Overthinking leads to mental fatigue
And as I'm a fan of bookends, let's conclude with more of Emerson's wisdom from his essay Self Reliance:

There is a time in every man's education when we arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is give to him to toil. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he tried.

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