Any good educator will tell you that teaching is a two-way street – we impart knowledge upon our students, and we also learn a great deal from them. Of course, this is true. Depending on the age level and subject matter that one teaches, this student-to-teacher flow of learning may provide the teacher with ways to improve his or her pedagogy, inspiration to persevere in the face of adversity, concrete subject-matter facts, or a change of perspective that can only come from seeing the world through the eyes of a child.
While I certainly have had this experience while working with my kids at IES Leonardo da Vinci, bidirectional knowledge exchange is even more obvious in the conversation classes I teach. In addition to my regular classes at school, I hold a weekly conversation group for my coworkers, have four private classes outside of school, and I also teach twice weekly at an English conversation group at a bar, where students come for an hour and a half, are organized into small groups by level (no more than three students and one teacher), and chat in English over drinks and tapas. In the latter, we always have a list of five topics, often ripped from the headlines, to spark conversation among hesitant students, but we usually end up meandering across a wide variety of subjects, most of which are not on the list. In fact, I judge a successful session by how little I rely on the cheat sheet, since the goal of the sessions is to recreate, as authentically as possible, a casual social meet-up of friends at a bar in an English-speaking environment. My job, of course, is to guide the conversation, ensure equal student participation, and correct grammatical errors while offering new words and phrases to enhance students’ vocabulary, both during and at the end of each session.
English conversation groups at Chapoo Restaurant and Bar in Majadahonda, Spain. You can find me in the back corner wearing a blue sweater.
In both my private classes and the conversation groups, the truth of the matter is that I more or less get paid to speak in my native language. Easy peasy. Yes, I have to prepare material, and I must focus carefully on students’ use of English and delicately maneuver in-conversation correction without disrupting conversation flow or discouraging participation. But beyond that, I’m paid to talk. I can think of many a friend and family member back home who would do really well with this job description (ahem…you know who you are…). Being someone who is shy in new situations and quite chatty once comfortable, this has been an excellent crash course in being talkative from the start and managing a wide variety of personalities in a group setting.
But what does this all have to do with the idea of education being a two-way street? Well, while I coach my students in pronunciation, colloquial phrases, prepositions and false friends, they tell me about their lives. Their rich, varied lives. Save one high schooler, all of my students are 4-40+ years older than I am, and they each have a unique set of experiences and advice to impart upon me as they practice their English.
In my private classes, I have a student who is a camera operator on movie, TV and commercial sets as well as an avid mountain climber. His girlfriend, also my student, studied forestry and spent time living in Finland. I also teach a high school junior who knows more about European history than the Encyclopedia Britannica. Once, I tutored my landlady’s Italian daughter-in-law who is studying a Master’s in English literature, and had to brush up on my iambic pentameter (something I never quite mastered in 12th grade AP English and certainly didn’t master the second time around while preparing for this tutoring session) before an exam. Among my coworkers who participate in my conversation class at school, there are psychologists, avid travelers, economists, mathematicians, biologists and ingenious engineers, all of whom are also passionate and dedicated educators. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. In the conversation groups at the bar, I’ve had the honor of teaching dozens of Spaniards from all over the country, as well as people from Argentina, Switzerland, Cuba and Ukraine. One gentleman is looking to improve his English to get a job in Qatar to be closer to his wife who is working in Kuwait. Another woman joins us because she has extra free time in retirement and wants to keep up her English while studying French on her own and Italian at a language school. We have doctors, nurses, statisticians, pilots, businessmen, housewives, jewelry makers, journalists, chemists, architects, engineers and musicians, all of whom end up, through the course of a 1.5 hour session, teaching us a little something about their profession (and often philosophizing a bit about life while they’re at it). I have even learned about the world of corporate gifts (i.e. the pens you end up stealing from hotels and the calendars that real estate agents send you in the mail) – not a fascinating topic on paper, but the ins and outs of the field were actually quite interesting. Just this week, a young woman told us about her favorite hobby: scuba diving. And of course, we have lots of students who are also teachers, of both primary and secondary school, who share funny student anecdotes and useful tricks of the trade. To top it all off, I have received countless travel recommendations, as well as names of books, bands, films, restaurants and websites that I need to check out.
And all of this over a glass or two of wine and some mussels or patatas bravas. Not bad at all.