Master Teaching

a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher

The Problem with Pagodas

Pagoda.jpgby Maggie Courtright

Many years ago, when I was much younger, and I thought at the time, much smarter, I gave my Chinese class of English language learners a writing assignment. The students had been reading about different architectural structures, including the skyscraper. (This was before the boom in the Chinese economy and the successive addition of tall buildings throughout the country.) In my sincere attempts to be culturally sensitive, I assigned the class a description of the pagoda.

After the due date had passed, I had to call one of my best students into my office; she had failed to submit her paper. I can still see her sitting in my office, preparing to explain as I gently asked her why she had not completed this “simple” assignment on a “culturally appropriate” topic. It took her a moment or two, through huge tears, to confess that she had never SEEN a pagoda!

She might have thought for a second that I was laughing at her when I responded with a sigh of relief that I didn’t care WHAT kind of structure she described, and that we could easily decide on a subject that she was more familiar with. I was actually laughing at myself. I had been so proud of myself and my sophistication as a teacher! Pride does so often go before a fall, but this time, I had almost taken a beloved student along with me to the floor.

In addition to a well-deserved dose of humility, I learned that stereotyping–the placing of an entire class of people into a category based on citizenship or cultural identity–did not always serve me or my students well. Of course, we all tend to (over?) generalize, and as I later learned in a cultural anthropology course, different cultures often do cover a distinct band or range of characteristics. However, it is usually a range, and not a monolithic trait or characteristic. I just recently cringed in a Sunday School class when a woman who works with international students, in addressing a Korean graduate student, pronounced that “all international students were under enormous stress, due to their poor English and intense family pressures to succeed.” It can be very dangerous to assume anything about a person without getting to know her/him, OR, simply asking a question instead of presuming.

Finally, I learned how far a little compassion will go, not only in building relationships, but in aiding learning. As I stated, this was one of my better students; I KNEW that something was wrong when she didn’t submit her work. I regretted every moment of anguish that I, with my very best of misguided intentions had caused her, and told her so. I apologized for the stress, through my laughter and her drying tears. As I recall, she completed the amended assignment with her usual excellence, and we both learned a few lessons through the experience.

One lesson I have learned from the Master Teacher is to always be a learner, especially at the feet of the Master Teacher Himself. With age and experience, it is often too easy to think that we have seen it all–and consequently, know it all. Jesus really did know it all; He could see into the hearts of His “pupils,” and know exactly what each needed, and how to communicate it effectively. Our prayer as teachers should always be to emulate the Master and do our very best to teach in the same way, but we must always realize that we will never be as effective as our Teacher. And that should humble us.

The older I grow, the more I realize I have to learn, both as a learner, AND as a teacher. May the Master Teacher grant each of us the humility, grace, and compassion to continue to learn from Him as we serve our students.

Further exploration

  • Philippians 2:5-8

What’s your perspective?

  • Can you think of one or two generalizations you have made about a class or a group of students you are teaching or have taught in the past? Have those generalizations helped you in any way to serve students more effectively?
  • When you learn something new about a method, approach, or student population, how do you test it out? How eager or reticent are you to apply something that you have learned through study?
  • Think of one time when there has been a breakdown in communication between yourself and a student (or a class). How did you deal with the communication repair? Which side bore the responsibility for any misunderstanding?

Post Author

Maggie.jpgMaggie Courtright is a recently retired English Language Instructor who has worked at universities both inside the United States and in the People’s Republic of China. Most recently, she has been teaching a hybrid on-line course for the Master of Arts in Teaching English as a Second Language at LCC International University in Lithuania. Maggie enjoys teaching, traveling, cooking and sharing a meal with good friends — wherever she finds herself.


Photo Credit: Schristia via Compfight cc

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2015 by in intercultural communication, Maggie Courtright, once upon a classroom.

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Photo Credit: Eric Fischer via Compfight cc
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