141. Be courageous: make teaching personal

Originally published on King’s College Blog.

“Don’t get emotionally attached with students.” A friend suggested me. He had been teaching for some years. “Don’t smile,” he warned, “Or they will never take you seriously.”

I was jumping into the teaching profession without prior training. And I was seeking proper guidance.

Another friend of mine chipped in. “We have to maintain the teacher-student hierarchy.” Why? “Because that’s the way it’s been. A guru must always reside above a chela. A teacher’s job is to instruct, and a student’s responsibility is to follow.”

Their suggestion seemed to make sense. After all, a teacher is the ‘owner’ of knowledge and students are the ‘receivers’. A teacher is the supreme one who pours knowledge into the empty heads.

They also told me to maintain a distance from the students. “They will start dancing on your head and you will not be able to control them. Don’t let them near you because they will manipulate you and your decisions.”

As I was listening to them, I thought about my own teachers. Most of them were strict, imposing and unapproachable; they rarely treated us like friends. I could recall only a few faces of those who had smiled at me, hugged me, and asked me about my life. Unfortunately, the faces of those who had canned me, thrashed me, and bullied me also flickered, like a scene from a Hitchcock movie, in front of my eyes.

I come from a school system where beating the hell out of students was glorified. Teachers, principals and even parents – believed that students must be beaten to straighten them out. A lot of my teachers therefore would (happily) crush our fingers with wooden dusters. The pain. The embarrassment. The hopelessness.

I rarely had any emotional bonding with my schoolteachers. And now, my friends were also suggesting me to be like those schoolteachers. They wanted my teaching to be cold, cruel and detached.

But that’s not teaching, is it? Would you – as a student – want a teacher like that?

So, I threw away the ‘teacher’s guide’ my friends prescribed for me. I would rather not be a teacher at all than be the ghosts of my former teachers. If I’m spending 90 minutes inside the class, I don’t want to act cold, cruel and detached. Instead, I want to spend the time making my teaching personal, winning the students’ trust, and motivating them to do what they are supposed to do: enjoy, learn, think, discuss, and question.

Some teachers might want to play safe: follow the rules, implement the lesson plan, and conform to the protocol. Go to the class, teach, and come out. No headaches. But, is that teaching? Is that teaching enough?

Someone has said: all humans are created equally, but some are more courageous. And those courageous one choose to be teachers.

Therefore, I invite all teachers to be courageous and make our teaching personal. Let’s not make our teaching a monologue, but a dialog where students and teachers engage in conversations, reflections and assimilations; where students and teachers end up learning from each other; and where teaching is meaningful. Memorable.

139. Being my own critic

workshop

Once I attended a workshop. Just because I didn’t want to get bored staying home. The workshop was horrible. I couldn’t get anything out of it. I should have instead slept in my bed the whole day. But I did learn after all. I learnt how not to conduct a workshop. That was a big lesson. In the hindsight, I could have snored my day away, but I ended up learning even more.

I have attended many teacher-training workshops and terribly wished I had been somewhere else. I have hated the trainers for being cocky, smartass and condescending. But I have also learnt from them on how not to behave with the participants. Every workshop, good or bad, is full of lessons.

The big question – what about what I do in my own workshops. Hurling nasty comments at others is easy while I pretend to be a Mr-Know-All trainer.

137. Published: 5 BAD HABITS OF WRITING YOU MUST DITCH

(Published on the Republica daily on December 23, 2015.)

five bad habbits

“How many of you think that you are a good writer?” Every time I ask this to my students, I see only a few of them raising hands. I feel disappointed because even the ones who do write well think that they don’t write well enough.

I teach academic writing to grad and undergrad students. And I see a lot of them struggle with writing. A few have a knack of writing well, however, most can’t compose a simple essay. Besides, they take writing as a burden, and even annoyance. As a result, they invest little time in developing this skill.

In general, many think writing is difficult (which is partly true). And I can empathize with them because many a times we all struggle to write. However, just like creating great music or taking amazing photographs, writing is about developing a habit, staying focused and remaining committed.

So here’s my attempt to make wrongs ‘write’. Similar to “writers are born, not made” delusion, these five malpractices might be holding you back.

  1. Starting without an outline

Classic mistake. Many students jump into writing without a plan and come up with “chheu na puchhar ko” essays peppered with disjointed ideas, irrelevant examples and illogical ending. Starting without an outline is like giving the reigns to the keyboard; you won’t know where you’ll end up.

Some may say that outline restricts creativity and natural flow. It’s true. However, for writers who don’t write enough, outline is their best friend as it prevents the text from being loose, out of place and full of holes. An outline can be just a rough plan and it can give your text cohesion and consistency.

Cure: Write a basic outline to support your point. Also, start from the end and build your outline. Follow the plan as you write your first draft. Improvise but don’t drift too far off the plan.

  1. Trying to get perfection immediately

Unless you are Mr. Perfect of writing, your first draft will never be ‘awesome’. And, that’s okay. First drafts are meant to be ugly unorganized heaps of ideas. They are also meant to remind us that perfection doesn’t drop from the sky.

A few gifted people can articulate their ideas in a single attempt. But they are as rare as Devkota. Most of us have to slug – word by word and sentence by sentence – to weave a presentable text. It does get frustrating and quitting looks like a rational choice.

Cure: Only when you give the first draft a rest should you start adding, editing and polishing your text. Remember: every writing is a re-writing. A ‘perfect’ book you read must have gone through a countless re-writing. 

  1. Making an excuse of writer’s block

When writers get stuck in the emptiness and can’t put words on paper, they let themselves sink into a pool of excuses, like Writer’s block. But this is just a myth. You don’t need a mojo to start writing. Neither do you have to meditate in seclusion and wait for a lightening. You need a habit. Or unless you have a decision fatigue or cognitive overload or a real mental condition, writer’s block is just plain procrastination.

You may struggle to find the right word; you may have a solid outline but can’t get started; you may get distracted every 10 seconds – but that’s not a block. You may only be trying to avoid the sweat to get your writing done.

Cure: Don’t beat yourself up for getting stuck. It’s normal when you don’t have a writing habit. One remedy is to take a short break. Go out. Or, read a story. Or, watch Jimmy Carr. Give yourself a deadline. Start writing and finish the text.

  1. Shying away from feedback

We are reluctant to show our text for a review because, as we’ve learnt from experience, people laugh at our mistakes and spelling errors. How can we forget our teachers spreading the red-ink-terror during school days! Yes, it’s scary to think that people will judge our work, and even worse, they will judge us.

But if you want to improve, drink up a can of courage and face the bull. Because, feedback – negative or positive – gives you a reader’s perspective. It can also help you break the spell of dreaded ‘curse of knowledge’. You might learn why readers can’t understand the concepts that seem so simple and basic for you. Feedback can therefore help you express abstract concepts in a clear and meaningful way.

Cure: Print your text and give it to your friends (or to your enemy). Email it to the people in your writing circle. Send it to your teacher seeking improvement. Post the text in your blog and ask for feedback from the readers. There’s nothing shameful in trying to improve.

  1. Seeking unnecessary length

I blame the ‘bibechanatmak uttar’ – long answers for 20 marks we had to write in school days. As a result, most of us grew up with this mindset: if you want to score high, you have to write long answers filling the entire answer sheet. We would repeat the same ideas three times, elaborate the examples in great lengths, and write in endless circles to confuse the examiner.

Your teacher may give you high score (without even reading) for your answer. Your reader may not. One simple reason: everyone’s busy. And even if the reader has free time, she will think twice before reading a lengthy text that sucks energy and causes ulcers. Start with short articles, short stories and short essays. Your reader will love you.

Cure: Follow the KISS formula: keep it short and simple. Unless your teacher demands a 3000 word paper, never write a bloated text. Don’t beat the dead horse; get to the point. Let your reader know where you’re headed, and throw them enough hooks so they go through your lines.

That’s it. Those are the five ‘bad’ habits that hinder your writing and possibly destroy your self-esteem. They have one mission: to pamper you and keep you distracted. Toss them away – you’ll improve your writing. You’ll want to write more often. And, you might just write a perfect text!

136. Reflection of a Procrastinating Researcher

 

(Originally published in Nelta ELT Forum, December 2015 issue)

just do it tomorrow

I confess: I hate research. Because I am not good at managing time or setting priorities. I feel terrible. But I feel happy knowing that many others too suck at time management and motivation. I am not alone in this world where people wake up screaming in the middle of the night from a recurring nightmare of deadlines, priorities and commitments.

But little did I know that this research – through a painful yet invigorating learning experience – was going to change me into a new me.

Overcoming the inertia

As the final part of my M.Ed ELT program, on October 2014, I kicked off on a research journey with excitement of a teenager in love. However, I landed on the motivational rock bottom so many times that my initial fire cooled off in a few weeks.

To start out, I realized that the concept of language ideologies was very abstract. My topic was: Language ideologies of EFL teachers – beliefs, practices and effects. I felt like I was trying to walk through a vast desert of vagueness. Next, the theme of ideology was something we had not studied during the two-year program. Thus I had to start from the scratch. I started reading articles and books on ideologies, and then, I started losing my mind. To add to my misery, at KU’s library, I did not find any prior research documents related to the theme.

Amid the chaos in my mind, I started swinging from one research topic to another.

May be I should conduct research on pragmatics of English language. Or, may be on student motivation. Or, may be on training of English language teachers. In desperation, I summoned just enough reasons and zeal to crawl out of the confusion and get on with my original proposal. (In an adventure like this, there’s always a yoda, and he kept pushing me until the end.)

Extracting the data

My research participants were seven English language teachers working in private schools of Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. During the interview sessions, I probed into their ideological beliefs about English language teaching. Then, I observed them in their classrooms to explore how their ideologies shape their teaching and interaction with the students. During observation, I also felt their nervousness and awkwardness as a stranger sat in the back of the room taking notes and recording their sessions.

Feedback is essential for personal and professional growth but we hate being judged. Therefore I could relate to what the participants were going through. For most of them, it was the first ever observation of any sort. I knew that they must have felt anxious about me observing them, taking notes about them and judging them. Even though, I was not there to judge them. A participant, after one such session, even told me that she felt like she was taking SLC examination one more time.

Interviewing the teachers and observing their class was a very exciting experience for me, however the fun stopped when I entered the next phase: transcribing, coding and trying to get the meaning from the unorganized mass of information.

Hitting the wall, again

A mountain of tasks stood in front of me and, once again my motivation level plunged to zero. I wished I was a full time student and that I didn’t have to work and take care of my family. And that I had super powers. (Grow up, Umes). And that I had chosen a different research topic. I kept on making excuses. I kept on procrastinating.

Seeing my predicament, one friend even suggested, “hyaa kina dukha gari raa? Shankar Dev agadi ko photocopy pasal ma gayo bhani sabai problem solve huncha”. He meant: go to those photocopy shops near Shankar Dev College in Kathmandu, choose any thesis from a list they provide and pay Rs 3000 to get them customized for you. I was tempted beyond my wits, but I chose the tougher way.

Only after several months did I wake from my self-imposed self-justifying slumber to re-start the dreaded research journey. On a blank sheet of paper, I wrote a proverb and stuck the paper on the wall near my computer. “The best way to eat an elephant standing in your path is to cut him up into little pieces”. This became my mantra. I developed a schedule and promised myself that I would write at least 1000 words every day. It would take me 30 min, sometimes 3 hours but I made sure to reach the word target every single day. And, piece by piece, I gobbled the whole elephant.

Learning the hard way

Besides gaining invaluable insights from the research participants about their ideologies, this research has made me reflect on my own beliefs and practices. It has made me question my decision to be an English language teacher. It has also made me realize why research matters for teachers, especially in language education and in education overall. And, a big lesson on setting priorities.

This research might not create major shockwave in academia. In reality, it’ll get stacked in the lonely KU library and get covered in dust for years to come. But I feel ecstatic knowing that I’ve learnt vital skills on conducting such studies and on writing a research paper. After diving into the chaotic sea of academic research – and almost drowning, I believe I’ve come back to the shore with enough courage to swim across an ocean.

I confess: I still hate research. But now, I know how to eat the elephant.