12 nov 2015 A Great British Teacher
A true story…
10pm last Monday. I was just finishing off a 2-hour class with 4 students when one of them says ‘You are a great teacher!’
Despite my ego being suitably massaged I want more. It is, after all, late on a Monday night after I have been teaching from 7am. So I ask him ‘Why do you think I am great?’
And the answer was, quite disappointingly, ‘Because you are British.’
My heart sank. I was hoping for something about my superior knowledge of English and how I can compare it with Portuguese. Or maybe he was going to talk about the strategies I had employed in that class to help him and his classmates learn. Alternatively, maybe he was going to mention something about the material I had prepared specifically for them to meet their learning needs.
But no. The fact that I had a British passport meant I was a great teacher.
He seemed to think this was a compliment. He explained that he enjoyed talking about literature with me, as well as being challenged to think about popular culture, history and art. He also waxed lyrical about how interesting it was to get a different point of view from the ones he was normally exposed to, and that he liked our conversations about different economic and political systems.
I tried to point out that I was able to do these things not because I am British, but because I like reading, travelling, arguing and teaching. But he was having none of it. He loftily claimed that Brazilians (except for him, I presume) couldn’t do these things and this is why he was so happy to have a British teacher.
Lessons to learn
I didn’t try too hard to disabuse my student of his opinions. It was the end of a very long day and, besides, I want him to keep paying me so if he thinks I am great, for whatever reason, I am happy. However, it did get me thinking about certain issues that this throws up:
1. It’s not just about language
I have heard many conversations about how a ‘native speaker’ teacher is preferred over a ‘non-native speaker’ (whatever those terms might mean) because of the difference in language skills. This story shows that there might be a lot more to this preference than just language with just one of those reasons being an inbuilt prejudice.
2. It’s not just about teaching
I think I am a decent teacher, but my teaching skills were not mentioned once. It has been pointed out that a lot of the time the teaching skills that non-native speaking teachers possess can be better than their native speaker counterparts. However, what is the value of these skills if they are not appreciated by the student?
3. They don’t know what they are talking about
The fact that my student mentioned neither language nor teaching as a reason why I was a great teacher serves as further confirmation of something I have believed for a long time: most students, most of the time, haven’t got a clue about either learning or teaching. I spend a lot of time working with learning skills for this very reason.
4. Individuals are helpless
It is not unusual for me to hear Brazilians claiming that everything is better in Europe and that the only thing they excel at, now that the football team is not very good, is corruption, violence and evading laws. Despite my protests that life is just as bad/good everywhere else and stories about epic corruption scandals in Europe and the USA, it is difficult to shake this belief. I am sure that this feeds into the notion that foreign teachers must be better than Brazilian teachers simply because they are foreign. There isn’t much that I, or anyone else, can do about this in the short term except to continue showing why these assumptions are wrong and hope for a change in attitude.