Teaching and Coteaching

Posted on October 28, 2011 by

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I’ve been falling a little bit behind on updates. I find that my life in Georgia, much like my life before, has these ebbs and flows – sometimes I have seemingly more time than I know what to do with; other times a whole month will pass before I can blink. I generally try to regulate this stuff so that I’m evenly busy but it just never really works out that way.

This month I have been facing an extended adjustment period. Coming back to school and teaching with the new Macmillan books has been a real challenge. There honestly doesn’t seem to be an obvious place for me in the process – the books are so comprehensive and the listening material so abundant that my role in the classroom has diminished a great deal. In addition the Georgian teachers have all been trained on the new books and I haven’t, which means that they have adopted a somewhat more rigid attitude towards my contributions.

I also find that the kids are generally too noisy to make any of the coteaching strategies we’ve been instructed on really feasible. We can’t reasonably divide a class into two groups in any way without the noise becoming completely intolerable unless we physically move one group to a different classroom, which is not an option at my school as far as I know. That rules out most coteaching methods available to us. Team-teaching is difficult, requires a ton of work and planning, and is best done when the two teachers have a good relationship, good communication, and mutual respect. I haven’t had the opportunity to work in that sort of environment yet. That leaves only the “less desirable” methods where one teacher teaches while the other… well, you know, doesn’t.

The other day one of my coteachers had to leave due to an emergency and I taught an entire lesson solo to a group of 5th graders. We had a great lesson. I taught from the textbook, but added new words where appropriate – for instance, there were pictures and I taught the students words for the things in the pictures that they could not identify (like “sink”); I also reviewed “top-bottom-left-right” so that we could talk about which picture we were referring to without resorting to pointing. By the middle of the lesson I could ask the kids “so what’s going on in the bottom-left picture” and they could answer me correctly. Then we had a story – “Jack and the Beanstalk” – and I made them not only tell me what Jack did, but evaluate the moral character of his actions – in fifth grade terms, I asked “was Jack a good boy or a bad boy” and made them tell me why. Some thought he was good because the beans he got were really cool and he must have been visionary to realize that. I reminded them that Jack had disobeyed his mother and asked them if boys could be good if they didn’t listen to their mothers.

Let me digress a little bit more on this. My philosophy is that understanding is a process with multiple stages. At the earlier stages, you can explain an event or a sequence of events, like “Jack took the cow through the fields” and “Jack traded his cow for some beans.” But my feeling is that you don’t *truly* understand that sequence of events unless you can also synthesize the events and tease additional information or judgment out of them. In other words, you don’t understand something unless you’ve also thought through its implications. I can’t say I know how important this enhanced understanding is for language learning per se, but I do know that stretching out that mental muscle that draws conclusions based on information – in other words, practicing and enhancing the capacity to reason – is at least as important a life goal as enhancing the capacity to speak some particular language, and I would also argue that it does help to improve language skills because language, like many things in the world, is somewhat systematic and can be understood better through the use of reason.

So anyway, I would love to contribute more to lessons and to be able to engage with the kids on this sort of level – making them *think* in English in addition to just speaking in English – but I’m not really sure how to get that across to my coteachers at this point. Also, it’s hard because the coteachers generally have little patience and don’t like to try multiple strategies for communicating with the students – if the kids don’t understand something, they’ll generally just translate it into Georgian without really giving the kids a meaningful chance to understand it. That’s a shame, because the hard work of trying to understand a language doesn’t get any easier in the real world. Doing it in the classroom is what actually makes the kids learn, much more than just memorizing texts. And so my concern – and this tended to happen during activities at Buckswood, too – is that if I were to try to do some critical thinking questions with the kids, or teach them something a little extra outside the book, the coteachers would derail my attempt to get the kids to engage in English by either cutting me off, because it’s not in the books that they’re supposed to follow, or by translating what I was saying into Georgian (or prompting the kids or giving the answers or otherwise letting them off the hook). It’s happened to me so many times that I’m actually shy about teaching with Georgian teachers around.

I know the answer is more communication and asserting myself more – it’s just that I’m a little shy and I hate being overly assertive. Also, the language barrier is still significant (of course my coteachers know English, but as many of them have never interacted extensively with native speakers, and learned using methodology that did not involve speaking and listening exercises, it often takes a great deal of effort for me to make myself understood). Also, even if I do get them to agree to let the kids grapple with the material a little even when it’s hard for them, in practice if they slip and translate something I won’t want to cut them off or castigate them in front of the students.

I’ve of course been in touch with TLG regarding this and other issues. They have been extremely responsive but to a certain extent the ball is in my court when it comes to addressing the day-to-day interactions between myself and my coteachers in a classroom. I’ve only just now – and by now, I mean today – solved the scheduling issues that have been making my days really hectic for the last month. That involved getting two new coteachers – in other words, the opportunity for two fresh starts – and I’m going to make it a priority to improve my coteaching relationships in November. It’s just that I think about the six weeks that have already gone by, and – like I said – it’s like I barely had time to blink and it’s already going to be November.

Anyway, I’m actually really glad that I had that solo lesson because it has really helped me to formulate and articulate (and demonstrate, if only to myself) what it is exactly that I want to be doing in the classroom at this stage. That’s good, because I spent a lot of last year focusing on what I could bring to the table with my older students, and so I spent most of the last six weeks completely in the dark about what I could bring to the younger students. Of course, this only applies to like, grades four and five – I still have to figure out what to do with my second-graders….

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