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29.1.11

Student Becomes The Teacher

I call them my kids, but they are young adults with college degrees embarking on their first big job.

This group was all computer whizzes in the field of IT. They've been hired by a major international oil company in the support services, and the company wants them to have above-average skills with the English language. To that end, they are enrolled into an intensive class, one month long, five days a week, eight hours a day. In that time, they do nothing but read, write and speak English.

The part that is important to me is that I develop a relationship with my students. I am able to gain a good insight into their strengths and weaknesses. I am able to adjust the materials to suit their learning styles. Hopefully, I am successful in transferring what I know about the langhuage to them, many of whom have never been taught by a native speaker.

For me, it is one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. To give a key to someone that unlocks new avenues of learning and experience is something beyong ability to express. It can only be experienced.

Nearly all of the most influential teachers in my life have been my English teachers. Joe Zarantonello, Lou Swilley, Pat Schereib, and most importantly, my mother.

My mother was a task-master. I had to read constantly. When I wrote papers, they had to be perfect not only in structure, but also in penmanship, which is nearly a dead art these days. Oh the tears I cried, wathcing my papers get torn up and having to start again. The endless re-writes. The late nights trying to ensure that every letter on two pages of writing was perfectly formed, not to mention the grammar and spelling.

These days, my mother would be considered a monster. The current paradigm is to accept whatever a child does as being 'their personal best,' so that we don't damage their fragile self-esteem. Rubbish. Though the work was formidable, I have gained a skill for life that I have made a good sum of money from using. I have written articles, stories, scripts, manuals, and presentations in my professional career. I have won awards for my wordcraft. And the skill has served me well throughout the world, not the least of which is my exant situation.

I am not a vocational teacher. I have had a full career in media. In the latter half of my life, however, I have settled into teaching both as a means of eating, and as a way of transferring my experience to people who can use it to further their own aspirations. Hopefully, their skill will increase their earning power and open opportunities to them, as well.

I have never taken any 'education' clasees. My certification only means that I have been trained in the various standard techniques for teaching English as a second language. However, I have found most of the 'standard' approaches to be nothing better than jumping off points. They are a place to start, but the individual student determines what will best open the door of learning.

My teachers were as different as night and day. Joe Z was the poet, Swilley the reader of ancient texts, Schereib enjoyed old and middle English epics. But, Stan Norman taught me to interpret the word to the stage, thus bringing it alive. At the base of all that was my mother who gave me the desire to read, the skill to write and a large and useful vocabulary.

I use everything they taught me every day. In my classes, we practice the techniques, we read the literature. We imagine ourselves in real life situations and role-play them in improvisational skits.

And one last teacher who influences me: my father. He was a history teacher, and that gave him a passion for the etimology of words and the precision of language. He ensured that I studied Latin in high school. I hated every minute of it, but it has served me well over the years. Not only has it deeply influenced my writing, but it has opened ancient texts and the impenatrable fortress of 'the law' to my prying mind.

So, I got misty today as we wrapped up our month-long course. I made the students read the daily paper, so they made hats out of folded newspapers. I spent time playing with language, not only English but Indonesian. I told them about the Indonesian word I made up, memberlihat-lihatkanilah. I said that it means, "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt," though in Indonesian it is pretty much unintelligable. Never-the-less, they gave me a T-shirt with my imaginary word on it. They also gave me a photo, a LARGE photo, framed behind glass, of our group together outside on the campus.

I was floored. I wanted depereately to make a quick escape before I let loose too much emotion. They, of course, wouldn't let me go that fast. I was overwhelmed by the gratitude and thoughtfulness of their gifts. I wish that I could extend that moment, but I can only cherish it: the feeling that I did something for a group of people that opened some locks. And that they were so moved as to invest time, effort and money to show their gratitude.

So, as I write this, wearing my T-shirt emblazoned with 'memberlihat-lihatkanilah,' I am in the presence of the ghosts of teachers past. Perhaps I can never tell them personally (though I have already told my mother) how grateful I am for what they gave me, but I can take those tools and pass them on to others. I can use them to open doors and offer some measure of what those tools have done for me to another generation.

With any luck, they will use the tools to make their part of the world a better place. Hopefully, something I did will lead to greater understanding and new insights. But, if nothing else, I hope they will be enriched both financially and spiritually by something they learned in my class.

The key word there is 'hope.' Hope is such a strong motivator and powerful weapon. The greatest gift anyone can give, is hope. And in my case, I was the recipient. It strengthens my spirit and empowers me to hope that the future is better than the past. I teach not just to give hope, but to get it.

By the way, who made the British the arbiters of the English language, anyway? Most of them can barely speak it themselves! Half of English is Latin, which means a Roman would be just as qualified to teach English as a Brit.

I'm just sayin'.

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