jueves, 31 de julio de 2014

What does it mean to teach?

According to most dictionaries, teaching means 'to impart knowledge' or 'to help someone learn something by example or experience'. Teaching doesn't involve keeping order in class, lecturing, quizzing, or giving grades. Something I have observed is that everyone loves teaching, even children. I've come to think that teaching is a human emotional need. We are all learning something new every day, and we have the urge to share it with someone else, to show them our truth or better way of doing things. This need must be specially strong in people who choose to teach as a career.

So teaching is a great thing, because sharing is loving, and teachers are sharing their knowledge and skill. Everyone is a teacher, but teaching is not easy. The best teacher is not the one with the most knowledge but the one with the ability to let learn. That is so difficult to do that even children, of whom I think are the best teachers, have sometimes trouble accomplishing. The best teacher of all is the one who knows when to back off.

We are all born natural explorers. Human beings are by nature very curious and eager to learn. Every child comes into the world with wonder, curiosity, awe, spontaneity, vitality, flexibility. These capacities are unfortunately stifled by many parents and educators, and at a very early age. It starts at home, as soon as the baby shows an interest in touching things or going 'off-limits'. I am amazed at the amount of times I've seen and heard a parent say 'no' to a baby who's put a pebble in his mouth, for instance. That is an example of bad teaching. A good teacher would instead describe the pebble and tell the child why it is dangerous to have it in her mouth. If for the first three years of everyone's life everyone around them was physically impeded from uttering the word 'no', the world would be a better place.

By the time most children go to school they have effectively learned something that is not true. It's something their parents tell them, and even though it's not true, it's not a lie either, because the parents believe it too. This untruth is that they need to go to school for someone to teach them something. Teachers are expected to motivate children, to instill in them the love of learning. In other words, it is the teachers' job to do something that children are already born with but are encouraged, often unconsciously, to suppress. What's more, teachers have to prove that they are successfully passing their knowledge and experience to the students, hence the need for students to regurgitate facts and demonstrate skills.

Testing is a big pet peeve of mine. I find it terribly judgemental and condescending. Yet most adults do it. It used to irritate me no end when one of my kids would ask an adult a question and the person would not just give an answer but then ask the child to repeat it. My children have never been to school so they quickly grew suspicious of people who did this. Most often it was well-meaning friends and family members who wanted to help me in teaching the kids. I used to tell them I don't teach the children, they teach me. How else do you explain that I don't need to check that they are listening to me? I trust my children, and I know they do listen, and if they don't, it's because I am boring them! Which I do sometimes, but they always let me know.

The truth is the teaching goes both ways. I don't like to use the word 'teaching' because it has lost its original meaning and most people associate it with children sitting at desks and an adult hovering over them. I don't do what most people think teachers do or are supposed to do. I am a teacher in the most authentic way and that is why most people get the impression that I do nothing, that the children are actually not learning anything from me. That's why I usually say I don't teach them, I guide them. Whatever you want to call it, we are always learning, all of us.

The problem with learning is that most people think that it ends, especially if you don't go to school. They seem to think that all those inspirational stories such as the one about the eighty-year-old grandma becoming a pilot or the author of Angela's Ashes learning to read at eleven are unique cases. It shocks me every time (and it happens a lot) I hear an adult say that there's only one thing they can do because they didn't study or train to do anything else. As if it were too late to learn a new trade, or to speak a foreign language or to play a musical instrument. It is never too late to learn anything, I firmly believe this. I am so confident in my ability to learn anything I want, that I know I could become a doctor if I really wanted to. All I need is the motivation to do so.

Many years ago, I was a traditional teacher. I also tutored kids who needed reinforcement. I enjoyed it, but those kids were different from my own. They expected me to teach them. So they just sat there and waited for me to spark their interest. Every day I had to think of ways to do that, and it was a lot of work. Now I'm a different teacher, and I only teach my own children and, for a few months, my eleven-year-old niece. I would never dare 'teach' other children, because I already know their parents wouldn't understand. I still get looks of surprise when I say I never taught the children any Spanish. All I did was talk and read to them in Spanish. The only important rule was sticking to it. I did and it was not hard at all.

It is so much easier with my kids because Dave and Alex are active learners, they have always been. They don't expect anyone to motivate them, they are self-motivated. And they learn whatever they want, not what anyone else wants them to learn. This is the reason why they still refuse to take lessons from anyone. When they need to know something, they ask and I tell them. If I don't know the answer, I say, 'Let's google it.' They also watch a lot of videos on Minecraft, which is their main passion at the moment. And they learn a lot from them.

My niece Mar is here to learn English. Her parents thought the best way for her to learn the language would be going to school here. I readily agreed. I thought she would learn more in a school environment, interacting with boys and girls her age who only speak English. At home we speak Spanish, Catalan and English, and if Mar stayed with us she wouldn't have to make an effort to speak English. She's been to school three days only and I'm already having doubts about this. During the month she's been here, we've watched a movie in English every day, read books in English together, and she's been studying on her own every day and totally of her own accord. I don't give her lessons or lectures, but answer all her questions. Now that she's going to school, there is no time for all that. We've gone out and interacted with people, but every time someone talked to her, she looked at me for help and seldom said a word. That's why I thought school would be good for her. If I or the boys are not there for her to do all the talking, she'll have no option but do it herself.

I sincerely hope this will happen, but Mar is more worried about this than I am. Last night she asked me, 'Do you think I will be able to learn English in two months at school?' She's so worried because if she doesn't show some progress in her speaking, she might be forced to go to school for another term. She says school is not as bad as she thought, and she's making friends, but she'd rather not go, because being with us is a lot more fun. In the one month here that she didn't go to school, she learned lots. Not only English but many other things we do at home and out and about. She comes from a competitive environment but has had no problem adapting to our way of doing things. I told her why 'I was first' has no value in our family and she loved it. She's here for five months and one has already gone. If I could have her for a year, I would send her back to Barcelona not only speaking fluent English but also with a broad knowledge about many things we talk and read about that she finds awesome, like the fact that Uluru is the biggest rock in the world.