Sometimes I Surprise Me!

Some would say it was a baptism by fire… or being thrown to the wolves.  I made a rather spontaneous decision this year to accept some middle and high school substitute teaching assignments. Truth be told, I’d been thinking about it for a while, so maybe it wasn’t that spontaneous. But when I accepted my first two assignments, I didn’t have it all worked out in my own mind and, for me, that means it was at least somewhat spontaneous.

spanish-375830_1280So I found myself standing in front of a high school Spanish class, feeling a bit distracted and inadequate–not a good thing with a roomful of teenagers funneling in. At some level, I was thinking “How did I end up here?” while re-scanning the lesson plan which was, fortunately, written in English.  I was definitely out of my comfort zone.

Most of the kids at least knew who I was–that was a start. There were a few “high fives” as students walked in and took their places. Some of these kids I haven’t seen for a few years, so I was careful about calling people by name. Most seemed happy to see me and expressed surprise that I was going to be their sub. As the pre-class banter subsided and I began to take the roll, a student in the front asked, “Mr. Boomsma, do you know Spanish?”

I should have anticipated that question and prepared an answer, but this was a bit of a last minute assignment. So without much thought, I replied, “No I do not know Spanish. But I do know how to teach Spanish.”

By the time the words made it to the back of the room, I found myself surprised at the wisdom of that spontaneous answer.  I was even more surprised that my answer satisfied the kids, giving them confidence that today’s class wouldn’t be a total loss and might even be a learning experience.

Truth be told, they probably had more confidence in me than I did.

By the end of the class, I shared their confidence. There were several times I had to remind them, “I don’t know Spanish,” but together we got the work done  and they figured a lot out on their own. I found it interesting that some of them were surprised as well–at how much they were able to do and figure out.

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the day, another aspect of this has become apparent. Obviously, there’s an additional half to this equation. I could have said,

“No, I don’t know Spanish. But I know how to teach it. And you don’t know Spanish either–at least not much. But you know how to learn it.”

Perfect! (Fantastico!) Here we have the perfect blend of people  who know how to teach and people who know how to learn. We also have some structure (a lesson plan) and resources (dictionaries, worksheets, etc.). Teaching and learning will take place!

The line between teacher and learner should be very fuzzy. Perhaps in some ways, it should disappear.  I don’t know how you can teach without learning. And I don’t know how you can learn without teaching, if only yourself.

In what was hopefully an obvious play on words, I announced a few years ago “I’m Giving Up Teaching.”  One of the problems with “teaching” is that the teacher has to do all the work. There’s a wonderful quip about how lectures are a way of “transferring the instructor’s lecture notes to students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either.”  What I’m proposing here is often called “interactive learning” in more pedantic circles. I’m not going to suggest it’s easier

“Teaching” in the traditional sense becomes something the teacher does to a student. What I’m proposing here is often called “interactive learning” in more pedantic circles. I’m not going to suggest it’s easier for the teacher. But when it works, both the teacher and the student are involved and working–and everybody’s brain is engaged.

I am not recommending we have people “teach” something they know nothing about as a matter or course. But we need to believe they can. If for example, you’re a parent who’s frustrated because you think you can’t help your child with his or her homework, I’ll bet you can. Just don’t make it all about teaching; make it about learning. You just might surprise yourself.


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