Teachers are like detectives

Take it from the students’ point of view.

Imagine you’re learning a foreign language and just barely have the pleasantries down–hello, how are you, my name is, etc. You’ve never practiced with a native speaker before, but you’ve seen television shows where they did their thing and wow, can they talk fast. You’re about to walk into a classroom with one of those people. How on earth are you going to keep up with something like that? How are you supposed to explain you don’t understand? …How many times can you say you don’t understand before things get awkward?

So you’re sitting there in this classroom and the teacher comes in, all smiles, but that’s just because they’re paid to do that. The pleasantries are exchanged, and then suddenly they’re asking you to… read things. To pronounce things.

It’s hard. You can’t figure out how on earth they differentiate between Rs and Ls, or why on earth you need to learn something as hard as “observation tower” right this second. Hasn’t anyone told this person you’re a beginner? So you go on the defense; you shorten your answers as much as possible, you do as you’re asked and not much else just to survive this lesson.

The worst part happens during the end of the lesson: the free talk. The part where you supposedly use the grammar you learned today, but the possibilities of other topics popping up are nigh-endless and you just want it to be over so you can go home.

“So, what are your hobbies?” your teacher asks, leaning forward in their chair to gaze at you intently.

Your answer is one sentence. You imagine that’ll be the end of that; the teacher will nod and say it sounds interesting, then ask a different question, and that’ll lead to something else you have to-

“Oh really? My friend does that over in the next town! I’ve been wanting to try it too,” the teacher says.

Wait, what?

“Actually, I have a question about…”

You blink.

They’re interested? And not only that, they’re interested enough to know something about your hobby and ask about it?

You straighten your posture in your seat. You cast about in your head to find an answer.

The teacher seems delighted. They start taking notes on what you’re saying. “So it’s like this?” they ask, showing you the paper.

You smile and shake your head. “No, it’s….”

You show them.

It’s awkward; you don’t know most of the words required to share the specific details in this foreign language. You have to gesture and fumble a lot. But the teacher, magically, comes up with the words, writes them down for you, confirms they’re what you want to say. Something’s opened up, and you’re scrambling for every scrap of the language you know to show them everything you know.

The ten minutes are quickly over.

Have you experienced something like this? I have, but mostly as the teacher. I once had a student who could barely answer the question, “How are you?” telling me all about her calligraphy certification once I found out that little interest of hers.

It’s a skill that I think more than just foreign language teachers possess; it’s an ability to tap into something that’ll make the other person lean forward, scribble notes intently, and make an effort on their part to reach out to you in the same way you have to reach out to them.

I’m not saying I’m great at this yet, but I will say when a student promises to see you next week and strides out with their head high, you feel like you’ve not only taught a lesson, you’ve solved a case.

Good job, detective Stefanie.

Go get the next one!

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