A language teacher’s legacy (A year of inspired insights #8)

The phone rang in the Halifax apartment that I shared with my university roommate. I answered it and heard the voice of my favorite, cousin, Brian. He was calling to wish me a happy 22nd birthday.

Brian was not only my cousin, he was a lifelong mentor and personal hero. He was the first person in my entire extended family to have ever earned a bachelor’s degree. He had a degree in French. Not only did he have a degree, he had a degree in a foreign language. He also spoke Spanish and had travelled throughout Latin America and other parts of the world.

After getting his degree in French, Brian went on to teach English as a Second Language teacher at a CEGEP (college) in the small community of Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, Canada. As a language teacher, Brian was my first professional mentor. He knew that from an early age I wanted to be a teacher too and he encouraged me to pursue that dream.

A taste for adventure

Brian was a much-loved character in our family because of his adventurous nature, his playful sense of humour, an insatiable curiosity about the world around him and most of all, his willingness to try new things.

My mother once told me the story about a time she and might Dad had an argument. My Dad went out to clear his head. Brian happened to call and my Mom told him about the fight. He said, “I know what will make you feel better! I’ll bring over a pizza!”

Brian arrived some time later, with a fresh, hot pizza. As they sat down to eat it, Mom said, “It tastes funny. What’s on it.”

Brian grinned and said, “Octopus!”

Without thinking, she gagged and spit it out. Even though it was the 1970s and my parents did their fair share of experimenting, the idea of eating an octopus was too far out of her comfort zone.

Offended at what he perceived to her ingratitude for the delicacy, and lack of willingness to try new foods, Brian stood up, slammed the pizza box shut and then tucked it sideways under his arm as if it were a book and said, “There’s more to the world than pepperoni!” He too, then took his leave.

But he was easily forgivable and won others over easily. I often wonder if there is a gene in us that predisposes us to be willing to try new things. Like Brian, I have tried my fair share of exotic foods… everything from deep-fried Guatemalan ants to Alberta “prairie oysters” (bull testicles) and cajun alligator. I don’t mind octopus either, if it’s cooked properly.

A deadly secret revealed

Something in his voice on the phone that day didn’t sound right. He was serious, and Brian was almost never serious. “I know it’s your birthday,” he said. “And I am calling to wish you happy birthday, but I have to talk to you about something.”

“O.K.,” I said, sitting down.

“I am HIV positive.”

“What?” I asked, stunned.

Even though Brian had never officially “come out”, he had also never had a girlfriend or a wife. His private life was never a topic of conversation. His numerous trips around the world provided more than enough fodder for entertaining stories. His most recent trip, however, combined with his overly free spirit were to be his demise.

“Are you sure?” I asked, trying to process what I had just heard.

“Yes, I wouldn’t be calling you if I wasn’t sure. The test results are certain. I got it when I was in Thailand. I was stupid. I had unprotected sex.”

The conversation went on from there. It was the early 1990s… We knew about condoms, but their use was not as widespread as they are today. I had never met anyone before who was HIV positive or had AIDS. We cried together on the phone that day and promised to stay in more frequent contact.

Brian’s legacy

Our phone calls increased in frequency from a few times a year to once a month. There were no “phone plans” then. Every long distance call cost money. Brian knew I was a student, so he often initiated the calls. Nevertheless, I did not want to abuse his good nature and spent a fair amount of money on long distance calls, too.

A year later, I started teaching Spanish. I had no formal training as a teacher. I was a Master’s student and had been awarded a “Graduate Teaching Assistantship”. In the department where I studied, that meant I was given a textbook and a list of my students and told, “Go teach”.

In the first year of my teaching career I struggled to plan my lessons and engage my students. I often found myself at a loss for teaching activities that were interesting and purposeful. The textbook we used was not bad, but it contained only one or two activities for key concepts. My students needed more practice.

During one of our regular phone calls, I lamented, “This textbook we are using just doesn’t have enough activities. Do you have any ideas on how I can teach these basic language concepts?”

Brian replied with, “Sure I do! Don’t worry, textbooks often lack either activities or explanation. You get to fill in what the textbook lacks. That’s the fun part! I’ll send you a few ideas…”

The next week, a package arrived in the mail. Brian’s version of “a few ideas” was 75 or so exercises that he had created himself throughout his teaching career. Every activity included annotations about how what parts of speech it focussed on, how to set it up, how to lead the activity, how to evaluate it and how to connect the activity back to the language concept it addressed and how much time to allow for the activity in class.

He also included hand-written file cards as examples to use with the students. The activities included personal annotations such as, “This activity is good when students are low on energy.” or “Don’t use this one unless they already understand verbs in the preset tense.”

It was a treasure trove of knowledge, practical activities, insights and wisdom.

When the package arrived in the mail I called him and said, “Wow! This is incredible!”

Brian replied with, “Good, now try them and let me know how they work.”

“I do have one question though…” It seemed like an obvious question to me, but I needed to ask it. “You teach ESL. I teach Spanish. How are these going to work for me?”

He chuckled and said, “Some of them apply only to English, but most of them will work for any language. I learned some of them from my French professor in university. Try them. You’ll see…”

I put the activities to use immediately. Brian was right. The students responded well and the activities provided solid learning in an entertaining manner. I was thrilled.

Eventually the envelope that the activities had arrived in became tattered. I took the individual activity sheets, 3-hole punched them and put them into a binder. I still have that binder. Over the past 18 years of my teaching career, I have used every single activity at least once. I have used some of them so many times that I no longer have to refer back to the activity sheets. I just “know” them.

Brian passed away in 1995 from AIDS-related causes. His language learning activities became a staple resource for my professional teaching practice. As a young 20-something, it did not occur to me that he was leaving me his legacy. I was trying to navigate a new professional landscape. Brian not only gave me a map, he bestowed upon me a whole survival toolkit.

Inspired insights

Sarah Eaton speaker presenter keynote education literacyThe older I get the more I understand the importance of sharing what we have learned with those who are new to the profession. I have learned that excellent learning activities can often transcend individual languages. What works in ESL worked just as easily in Spanish (and apparently in French).

Too often, we divide ourselves professionally by the languages we teach. I have often wondered if this is due to language teachers’ own comfort speaking in the language they teach. Let’s face it, it is easier for native Japanese teachers to get together and do professional development in Japanese than it is for a number of people with a variety of languages to get together and share ideas in a common language (which is often English).

While I absolutely think it is important for language teachers to develop professionally and socialize in the languages they teach, I see no value in doing so at the expense of learning from other professionals who might teach a different language.

It is foolhardy to dismiss the validity or discount the wisdom of other teachers simply because they do not teach the same language as us. We have much to learn from one another as language teachers across the entire profession.

5 strategies to leave your own professional legacy

Ask yourself this: What legacy am I leaving? What have you learned over your career that could help others? Here are some simple strategies to capture those ideas, insights and activities.

1. Share your activities with other teachers.

The format is less important than the act of sharing. Whether they are hand-written notes, computer-printed worksheets you have created or digital activities, they are valuable and worth sharing.

2. Relate the activity to learning concepts.

An activity may be fun and engaging, but unless it relates in a functional way to a particular concept or language function, it has little pedagogical value. Help new teachers understand the “method behind the madness” by  making links between your activities and the language functions they support. Activities need to make sense and have clear links to content.

3. Add personal notes.

Have you ever seen a recipe book that is full-handwritten notes from the cooks who have actually tried the recipes? Maybe you have one of those cookbooks yourself. These notes add to the overall value of the actual step-by-step instructions because they share “insider’s tips” and knowledge that is only gained by actually going through the process yourself. Adding the notes personalizes the experience and helps others learn from what you yourself have lived.

4. Include ideas for evaluation or reflection.

In addition to knowing how an activity relates to a learning concept, it is also helpful to share ideas for evaluating it. Not every activity needs to be evaluated with a formal test or quiz. You can still increase a learner’s self-awareness of their learning with a simple reflection at the end of the activity. Sharing your ideas on how to effectively assess or reflect on a particular activity can be very helpful to others who are less familiar with the activity.

5. Share the best of your tried-and-true experience.

How many times have you tried an activity from a textbook and asked yourself, “Did the authors of this book even test this activity before they put it in their book?”

Leaving a legacy isn’t about sharing what you think would work. It is about sharing what has worked — and passing on the wisdom of what you learned from it. If you haven’t personally tested it, leave it out. Let someone else who has tried it share it. Your legacy is about sharing your authentic, lived experience and wisdom.

What are you leaving to the next professional generation?

 Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #7: What to do when a student hates technology

A year of inspired insights #6: You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.

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One Response to A language teacher’s legacy (A year of inspired insights #8)

  1. katenonesuch says:

    Thanks for Brian’s story, Sarah, and for your suggestions about how teachers can leave a legacy. Since teachers mainly work alone, too often when they retire or die, a world of experience goes with them. My own goal is to share everything I know about teaching adult literacy/numeracy before I retire. http://www.katenonesuch.com

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