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Voices: A teacher relearns a powerful lesson

Teacher Jessica Keigan says a recent – and challenging – trip to Germany helped her remember what it’s like for her own students as they’re learning something new.

Sometimes I think there is no better way for teachers to improve their craft than to be thrown into a challenging learning experience of their own.

As teachers, we often forget that our students are experiencing for the first time what we have seen up to 50 times. By becoming learners ourselves, we remember that empathy is a powerful thing. After all, though each person has unique struggles, we all struggle in some way.

For three weeks over the summer, I lived in Germany. I went there with a group of high school students and the German teacher from my school in a GAPP (German American Partnership Program) exchange sponsored by the Goethe Institute. I was signed on as the female chaperone and was very excited about the chance to learn about the German people and culture. The one catch? I speak very little German.

As an English teacher, I am naturally fascinated by the art of language. Beyond this, I am also a person who very much cares about being polite, especially with strangers. These two character traits collided at times. With my limited German, I found myself talking like a toddler, speaking mostly in nouns and with terrible pronunciation.

Hope comes in peculiar places. While waiting for a train in Salzburg, I picked up a copy of Bill Bryson’s book Mother Tongue. In this book, he traces the history of the English language and analyzes the ways that we as humans acquire language regardless of which one we are learning.

The good news for me is that my process isn’t off track. I have a much greater understanding of the German that I hear, especially if I understand the context of the conversation. I am beginning to recognize patterns of grammar and inflection and have managed the first phrases common to most language learners: please, thank you and no.

Stumbling across Bryson’s primer helped me to be metacognitive about my learning process. While I feel pleased with my progress, I am also exhausted. It is difficult to listen so attentively to only understand two to three words per stream of thought, which makes me wonder how often my students, English language learners or otherwise, are in this same state as learners.

I think the key difference, and the takeaway for my classroom practice this fall, is that I am aware of myself as a learner. I know where to find information and when I need more information. Now it is my job to provide opportunities and skills for my students to do the same.

One of my German colleagues reminded me that our job as educators is to create problems for our students to solve. I can think of no greater problem for students to solve than determining how they learn and seeking opportunities for themselves to test their methods and apply their skills.

Unfortunately, I can’t always immerse my students in a foreign environment and ask them to figure out how to cope with the unfamiliar. I can, however, be mindful of the authenticity of the tasks and assessments that I put before them so that they feel the struggle that often comes from learning with intention.

I want to learn German so that I can communicate with new friends and colleagues. When I meet my new students this week, I hope that we can find similarly rich and purposeful problems to tackle as we explore our identities as learners in and outside the classroom.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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