Talking Points, May 2013
Memorable, Meaningful Memories
Chika: For this month’s discussion, Alison and I have chosen to talk about the teachers that made the strongest impressions on us when we were students.
Reflecting on my student life, one of the most vivid memories is of Kamimura-sensei, the vice-principal in my old elementary school. My first encounter with him was when I was in the first grade. I didn’t expect that anyone other than my class teacher would know my name at the beginning of the year, but Kamimura-sensei knew my full name and even started talking about my family. To me, he seemed like a magician or someone who had a special ability. Later, I was very surprised to find that he had memorized all the names and faces of students as well as their parents. Looking at his kindness towards students and even their parents, I gradually came to trust and respect him as a teacher and as a person.
Kamimura-sensei made a lasting impression on me, and I think he was one of the reasons I decided to be a teacher. However, Kamimura-sensei left the school when I entered the second grade. I still remember how much I missed him. After he left, I had many other influential teachers and classmates and enjoyed my school life. Then when I became a sixth grader, to my surprise, Kamimura-sensei came back to my school as the headmaster! He remembered my name just as he had when I was in the first grade, and talked with my classmates as well, referring to specific memories he had about each student. We students felt some hesitation as he mentioned naughty things we did when we were first graders, but I believe every one of us was very happy to have him back again in our final year in the school. He must have been happy too and also surprised to see how we had changed after five years. When he saw us first we were the “babies” of the school and the seniors were taking care of us. But now we were the seniors taking care of the new first graders.
Alison: I wonder if Kamimura-sensei’s talent for remembering names and faces – as well as the impression that it made on you as an elementary school child — is the reason that you now put a lot of time and energy into remembering the names and faces of your own students?
I have to admit that I never had a very favorite teacher in the way that you did. There were teachers who made a strong impression on me, however. The most impressive was Mme Belhatchet, who scared me half to death at the time, but who I now think of as my role model as a teacher. Mme Belhatchet taught the French A-Level students, of whom I was one, in their last two years at school, but she sometimes filled in for the other French teachers when they were off sick. Mrs Clark, my French teacher up to O-level at the age of sixteen, was English. She enjoyed reading French sentences aloud from the textbook in a French that, even to our innocent ears, sounded quite peculiar. But the good thing about Mrs Clark was that she was very safe. She followed the textbook meticulously; there were never any surprises. Mme Belhatchet, however, was all surprises. Within five minutes she threw aside the textbook and insisted on teaching us the future tense so we could talk about a school event that was due to take place the next day. It was most alarming: we weren’t supposed to learn the future tense until Chapter 20! What would Mrs Clark say?
Even as an A-Level student Mme Belhatchet made me quite nervous. But she also had the most wonderful creative ideas for learning French. The one I loved most was the instruction to write about an everyday event in the style of a famous French author. This got me looking at the authors I’d met in schoolwork and others I’d only heard of, and trying to copy their style in my own very flawed French. I described eating breakfast in the style of Andre Gide, taking the bus à la Albert Camus, and, best of all, sitting through school assembly in the wonderfully odd style of Alain Robbe-Grillet.
My most vivid memories of learning, however, come from my admiration of classmates who were just so much better than I was: Amanda’s French accent (much better than Mrs Clark’s!), Nick’s essays on Tolstoy, and Charles’ on Lenin’s New Economic Policy. I believe that my beliefs about teaching are very much influenced by Mme Belhatchet’s passion and creativity, while my beliefs about learning are coloured by the memory of my desire to be more like my clever and capable friends. So, Chika, I guess Kamimura-sensei is your role model as a teacher?
Chika: You’re right. I’m very much influenced by Kamimura-sensei because of his care and attention to each of us as individuals. My sincere desire as a teacher is to have my students feel that each one of them is acknowledged and valued by remembering their names in the same way that I felt acknowledged and valued by Kamimura-sensei. I also approach students and, as much as time allows, talk with each one to understand their unique characters and personalities. As a result, in the following class I can see their faces brighten with excitement as if they can’t wait to get started immediately when I enter the classroom.
Unlike me, it sounds like that you are more influenced by your friends, or “near peer models” (Murphey, 1998). I also think students can have a powerful influence on their classmates who are around the same age and share similar interests and background. Moreover, your clear memory and understanding of your classmates’ strengths tells me that, as a teacher, you would pay close attention to each student and identify their strengths. I often feel that students tend to judge each other critically, especially in a Japanese context. Even if I have a group of students with similar English proficiency levels, their strengths and weaknesses are different. Some are strong in receptive skills, others are stronger in productive skills. As such, I believe it is desirable to create a learning environment where students accept the differences among them and mutually support each other to tackle their individual weak points. Another concrete approach I have for supporting individual differences is a learning preference survey to understand students’ preference for learning styles, after which students try out various learning approaches in and outside of the classroom. Even if some of these approaches do not fit their learning styles, I personally think it is important that students themselves are aware of their own learning preferences, as well as different learning styles, so that they come to their own decisions about what kind of learning style best suits them.
Alison: I share your view, Chika, about the importance of students’ individual differences, and I agree that it’s important to create an environment where all students are respected and valued for their strengths, whatever they may be, and are supported in their efforts to address their weaknesses. As the teacher, there are certain things I can do to help create this kind of environment, for example, through the design of the syllabus and the kinds of activities I organize.
But to return to what you said about near peer models and drawing on my own experience of learning so much from my peers, I do believe that we learn (and learn to learn) by emulating the people we admire. For this reason, I’ve found Tim Murphey and his collaborators’ work on near-peer role models, and more recently on present communities of imagining (PCOIz) (Fukuda, Fukada, Falout, & Murphey, 2012), to be very compelling explanations for motivation and learning. Again, as a teacher, I can facilitate practices or activities that enable learners to find their own role models in the classroom, in their families, and elsewhere, and to think about what kinds of things they would have to do in order to become like their models.
Sometimes, however, role models can be retrospective. In my case, when I was at school and had no intentions of becoming a language teacher, I never thought of Mme Belhatchet as my role model. It was only many years later, when I moved to Japan and became a language teacher, that I found myself in a social and professional position that reminded me of her. Here I was: a very English English teacher in Japan, and probably just as exotic and alarming to some of my students as Mme Belhatchet was to me when I was at school. I don’t want to be perceived as exotic or alarming; I don’t try to be a cultural ambassador in my class, and I do try to be kind and encouraging and helpful. Like Mme Belhatchet, however, I have to be true to myself, comfortable with my own identity, and interested in my students as they learn and figure out their own ideal identities during their time at university.
Dan Lortie, in his classic sociological study, Schoolteacher (1972), makes the point that all teachers serve their apprenticeship in the classrooms in which they spent their school years. Chika and I can look back to people – teachers and students – whose influence we still feel is important to the way we are as teachers and as people. Who or what are the main influences in your life as teachers or learners? We welcome your comments and stories on the blog.
Fukuda, T., Fukada, Y., Falout, J., & Murphey, T. (2012). “Holistic timing and group framing of motivation.” In A. Stewart & N. Sonda (Eds.), JALT2011 Conference Proceedings (pp. 380-391). Tokyo: JALT.
Lortie, D. (2002). Schoolteacher (2nd edition). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press
Murphey, T. (1998). “Motivating with near peer role models.” On JALT’97: Trends and Transitions. Available online at KUIS.