a blog for teachers who follow the Master Teacher
by Scott Gross
(This post originally appeared on Scott’s closed blog for teachers he mentors.)
The metaphorical oxygen masks had fallen and this plane was headed into the side of a mountain. After another long nervous inhale the audience was treated to a “sophisticated err ah practices ahhh of the teacher” utterance by one of the three students giving a presentation in their English for Primary Education class in Vietnam. There was a pregnant pause. The audience was made up of 30 female students huddled around umbrellas as the sun poured into this room that once was a terrace and now resembled a greenhouse. The thick air of the post lunch boredom was broken by whispers and giggles. The young Professor D. chimed in with a big smile on his face, “What exactly does this mean, ‘sophisticated practices’?” The students looked at each other and attempted to regurgitate the sentences like a line in a play. A bigger smile spread across Professor D.’s face as he motioned to them with his pen and said “Okay sit down. You’re done. You did not prepare. Please stop.” As Professor D. finished saying this, his smile transitioned into silly laughter. The heads of the presenters hung low, but as they made their way to their crowded desk-tables, one could see that there was a smile of relief behind the embarrassment. “Okay. Next group please,” ordered Professor D.
It was at that moment that I froze in awe and wonder at what I had seen. I pushed aside my action research notebook and looked at the imaginary documentary film crew sitting next to me and said, “It was just that easy. He just told that group to stop.” And it was true. He just ran them off the stage, and he did it with a smile on his face. What’s more is that the class seemed to appreciate this action that seemed totally appropriate for a teacher in Vietnam yet totally inappropriate for a culture that values “trying your best.” In my mind’s eye, I could see all the terrible, unprepared presentations that I had let sit out in the sun turning dry and white. After a post observation chat with Professor D., he stated matter-of-factly that what he had done was just normal in the culture for the situation. I now felt a new freedom to do the same. I would never have to sit through a presentation by a group that had not prepared. I was a changed teacher, an educated teacher, and an “inculturating teacher.”
It really is amazing what we can learn by observing teachers, especially when we are teaching English as outsiders in a culture. We have so many assumptions about a classroom based on our years of experience as students or teachers in a particular culture. We can often misinterpret situations going on in the classroom, and that can lead to frustration and at times unnecessary stress and cloud the language teaching objectives. Seiko Harumi studied classroom silence in EFL contexts in Japan and found that to Japanese students silence could be positive whereas British people only interpreted it as “disinterest, boredom, or laziness.”
How about your teaching context? Are there things you could learn about classroom management, motivation, or student interaction from local teachers in your local culture? Is there an issue you have found yourself running into in the classroom, and you wonder if it might have more to do with a cultural difference? As we strive for growth as teachers, it is important to be asking these questions and learning from the great resources we have with local teachers. Who knows, perhaps the humility you show by asking local teachers for help and insights will break down barriers of insecurity and lead to a friendship or a professional cooperation.
 Seiko Harumi, “Classroom silence: Voices from Japanese EFL learners”. ELT Journal, 65, no. 3 (2010): 260-269.
 Kathleen Bailey. Language teacher supervision: a case-based approach. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 315.
Observe a national teacher in the classroom for at least 60 minutes and reflect on what you see and experience. For those teaching in their home culture, find a teacher who is not from your home culture and observe them! Try your best to focus on positive, useful, and insightful aspects of the teacher and the lesson. Then ask yourself how you can apply that to your own teaching. It may be a good idea to think about a particular aspect of the culture and focus on that during your observation. As you see things that might be unclear or confusing, do your best to keep an open mind. Often times a post observation meeting with the teacher can lead to more insights and clarification on what happened in the class. Be sure to make proper arrangements with the teacher and make it clear that your intentions are to learn more from them about the educational culture of the country. Don’t be surprised if a teacher politely declines as it might be very intimidating for them to have you observing.
We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.
After completing “Try it out”: