Who do you teach?

Kate Adams

In conversation after conversation among colleagues or friends, the question is “What do you teach?” The what is where the interest lies. The what is what we feel justified in researching, planning, studying, and obtaining our master’s for. Yet, again and again, the classroom experience is not dictated by the what. It’s by the who in front of us. And, until we take the who seriously, we as teachers will miss out on connecting with students and, most importantly, our students will miss having a truly transformative learning experience.

Think about why you went to college. Yes, for a job or to study, but it was the sounds on the other side of the door, the new ideas, that beckoned. A class could be just a class or a riveting, eye-opening discussion. I remember reading Paulo Freirie’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, highlighting every word as it shot like an arrow through me. The semester when I took Philosophical Foundations of Education, I hung on every word the professor said. Not every class can be the meditating of souls, but is it enough to just meet an objective?

Not that objectives are bad. Where I teach, we align student learning outcomes with assignments, rubrics, and tests. I write an outcome on the board each day. The transparency and clarity help both the students and me focus on content and evaluate ourselves in terms of this outcome. Measuring whether students have achieved an outcome such as “identify the main ideas in an excerpt from an academic lecture using cues for organization” helps students in a variety of different academic contexts. It arms them with know-how to negotiate content and process information in other classes. It may even motivate them to participate in class, complete assignments, and apply this skill in order to achieve better comprehension. But as any teacher with any amount of experience can testify, achieving that outcome is never an assurance of an engaged, or even a good class.

Each class has a pulse, a palpable beat. It’s the weight, or the alternative buzz in the air. It’s the words that you or a student says and the energy of the class hums, quiet for a moment, tense. No one who teaches can deny the power of the moment when everyone is thinking, focused, and attending. And yes, that can be the result of working toward on an outcome, but so much of it has to do with connecting to students. In the age of hyper-connection, how do you connect to students?

Give the Big Picture
  1. Before you embark on the objective or outcome, whether it’s using passive voice or identifying pronoun reference, there has to be a bigger picture presentation. The question to ask is “Why is this important?” or “What does research have to say about this?” For example, in my listening class, when focusing on predicting lecture content, I tell students the research behind it. That predicting content primes the brain so it can remember information better and assimilate it. By predicting lecture content, you stay focused and involved in the class. It takes two minutes to make this connection or invite student to make it, but, afterwards, the lesson feels focused.
Talk to Your Students
  1. You have to say something to your students. This is the eighth class you’ve taught on paraphrasing, maybe the second one that week. You have your explanation down and an animated powerpoint! There’s enough student-centered activities to get you featured in a video for the Communicative Approach. But who are these students? What are they interested in? Who is the student that wants to joke? That will answer first? That won’t answer but definitely knows the answer? This is about rapport and the reason why you went into to teaching. Because, although all of us have an interest in language and the myriad ways we use it, we worship foremost the classroom and the meeting of minds.
For most of us, there’s a student we relate to. For instance, I have patience for the student that emails questions, sits in the front, answers every question, and still needs clarification after every class. Hello, student. I was you. But I also appreciate those that are quiet, reserved, but turn in insightful work. There’s the nervous student or the lackadaisical student. You can acknowledge these students, their strengths and weaknesses. It’s worth figuring out what makes them laugh. It’s worth giving them some resources they can use when they are stressed, depressed, or homesick. You teach students English, but they need your help in other ways. At the beginning of each semester, I show my students this video made by international students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It’s a way to acknowledge how difficult it can be to be an international student and also give them confidence in their multilingualism.


A great tool to incorporate into the classroom is Voice Thread. It’s a way to have a conversation outside of class. Both students and instructors can record voice comments, post pictures, and do numerous other tech-savvy things. (And yes, part of connecting with your students is demonstrating ability with technology in the classroom.) But, mainly, what I use this technology for is to give students personal feedback with a human voice. I follow the same advice I’ve been using in the publishing world for many a year, over a decade: Give some constructive criticism on what’s not working; then point out what is working.
Listen to Them
  1. You’ve created a mastermind of a lesson, but no one is participating. There’s an energy in the classroom, but it’s all you. It’s time to take a step back and evaluate. Chances are you aren’t meeting students where they are at. The content is either too difficult or too easy. You may need to scaffold. Create a note-taking template, provide more directions, supplement the curriculum with a more interesting or applicable lecture excerpt or reading. It’s also a good time to get some student feedback. Use a Google form or even a Google doc to have students take a quick (and anonymous) survey to let you know if they are getting enough time to complete tasks in class, respond orally, etc. Voice Thread is another great way to have this conversation outside of the classroom. Ask students to discuss these answers and record at home.
Sometimes, you connect with a class student by student. I was talking with a professor at the University of Illinois in another department about the personal use of phones during class. She said she talked to a couple students one on one about their off-task phone use during class. They thanked her for taking the time to talk to them respectfully about it. I knew another professor who threatened to throw the next person’s phone he saw out the window. I think we know which strategy worked and why. Because when you listen, you see who you are teaching, and, consequently, the classroom dynamic changes. After all, you’re not just teaching English- you’re teaching students.
Kate Adams teaches ESL at Illinois Tech and is the author of Inside Writing 3 and Trio Reading Levels 1 and 3.

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