The teacher’s least favorite sentence

Ana Gvozdic - Ecuador


November 4, 2016

„ Ya acabé“ tells me my student Samantha at least 5 times each class. Translated to „I finished“, this sentence could seem as a rather nice indicator that a student of mine has finished with whatever task that the class is working on,  and help me have an overview of the class. So, why is this my least favorite sentence? Beyond the literal meaning of the sentence, I sense a feature of the educational system in Ecuador (which I also find very similar to the one in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and probably many other parts of the world) which I dislike a lot.

 

To understand what this has to do with Samantha’s sentence, I need to explain you my instinctive response to it. As rude as it sounds, my first thought is always “So what?!”, even though I obviously never say it out loud. It didn’t take me a long time to understand why I respond in such a way: I immediately got a flashback of a conversation I’ve had with my mom in 4th grade when some of my friends’ parents were motivating their children to study by promising them gifts at the end of the school year if they achieve a certain average grade. Having been a good student, I hoped that this would be my way for getting some of the things I wanted at the time, so I proposed this compromise to my mom. However, she disappointed me by responding “I am not giving you any gifts. Why would I? You are studying for yourself, not for me.” (And I can’t even stress how grateful I am for it now!).

 

I sensed a request for a different kind of gift in Samantha’s eyes when she said she finished the task – a gift of confirmation, expressed through a “muy bien” with a smile or a slight nod. Later during the class, I found myself repeating my mom’s sentence even though I was quite aware that its meaning won’t stay for long inside their heads (as well as most of my monologues that I simply can’t hold back at moments). I recognized the issue: the students don’t study for themselves. They do their homework to get it signed by their parents and graded by their teachers. They review the class material only if I bring it up in class again or announce a test, at which they want to get good grades and they strive for good grades motivated by reasons similar to those of my 4th grade friends. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame them. I don’t blame them for not recognizing that a homework assignment is an opportunity to practice what has been learned in class, or that a grade is an indicator of their knowledge, a sort of a compass that points whether they need to study more/differently, or their efforts are paying off.

 

I blame the educational system, because it is organized in a way that the students do not recognize the link between the content studied in class and the real world, which makes them alienated from their education. While designing the curriculum for an English course I am offering in a local library (on the request of my host mom), I tried getting the sense of their motivation for learning English. The “best” answer I got was “because I want to speak two languages” without any explanation for why that is a positive thing. The only concrete request for things they wanted to learn I received was a copy of their middle school English syllabus. (Again, can’t really blame them considering that they were missing an English teacher for a month and knowing that in many schools in Ecuador English is taught by social science teachers who don’t speak a word of English.) What I hoped to hear instead was that they wanted to understand the lyrics of the music they listen to or that they wanted to be able to talk to people in another language, but I guess that simply by having my course in a context similar to the one of formal of education, anything I could possibly teach immediately became disassociated from the real world. This gap doesn’t take me by surprise considering that they need to spend about 16 years in a classroom setting before they get to work and utilize those skills in practice. As I am approaching my university education, I have a clearer idea of what I want to do in the future, and can choose my university courses accordingly. A child dreaming of becoming an architect, doctor, policeman, a lawyer or anything else isn’t studying anything nearly related to it, so where else is the child going to draw its motivation for studying from, if not from the parent’s or teacher’s approval? What I guess we need is bridging the gap between the classroom and the real world, whether it is through applying what we learned in school or even learning through experience, as well as linking what we are learning to their interests through problem-based-learning.

 

I wish Samantha’s “I finished” meant “I finally understood why something happens, or how something works, or how I can do something.” However, I am also grateful to hear her say “I finished”, with its current meaning attached to it, for the frustrations of this experience are helping me recognize the downsides of conventional education, and perhaps once in the future I might actually use this comprehension to contribute to the improvement of education, either as a parent or a member of an educational institution.

 

 

 

 

 

Ana Gvozdic