Giving Back II

Mentors help us become better teachers. But sometimes they do even more than that, sometimes they help us become fuller and more aware people. In the second issue of the iTDi blog dedicated to the mentors in our community, Michael Griffin, Maria Bossa and Kevin Stein celebrate the teachers who have helped us to feel that what we have to say is important. The mentors in our community remind us that the act of giving is also an act of receiving, how reaching out and helping someone else enriches us all. ‘Giving Back’, a tribute to the mentors in our community.

Kevin SteinTO LISTEN

A teacher by any other name

Michael Griffinby Michael Griffin

This is a post mostly about me. One teacher plays a very prominent role here but she will remain nameless. Perhaps she would prefer the anonymity anyway. She is quite humble.

I’m not even sure when or how we met. I only know it was online. I’m guessing it was in 2012. Late 2012, probably. I know iTDi was somehow involved. If I recall correctly, she took the “English for Teachers” course at some point. She now regularly takes advanced iTDi courses. I don’t actually remember any of our initial interactions. It was as though, all of a sudden, she was there and she’d been there all along. I do remember having a great impression of her from the very start even though I don’t know exactly when that was.

Although I have never met this teacher in person I have been lucky enough to hear her speak in webinars as well as video and audio recordings. In these moments, her compassion could be clearly seen and heard. Her compassion and passion are also clear in her writing. Her blog is one of the few blogs I make sure there are no other tabs or windows open on my computer before reading because I want to savor every word.

Although I have never met her face-to-face I have bonded with other teachers sharing our respect and admiration for her both on and offline. My opinion of others changes when I learn they know, like and interact with her. Just three days ago I was meeting someone in person for the first time and he mentioned how welcoming, kind, knowledgeable, and helpful she is. She is a connector, whether she is in the room or not.

Although we have never met in “real life” we talk online on Twitter and Facebook. We don’t chat all that often but in our conversations seem to pick up right where we left off before things like sleep, work, and life got in in the way. A few times a quick clarification or question on Facebook turned into an hours-long conversation. On these occasions it was easy to lose track of time because of the interesting and honest conversations we had about teaching, development and our respective contexts.

She has helped me see many things in different ways and I think she is a great model of how to communicate effectively and honestly with those we disagree with. I see her as a positive force and a non-selfish person in world where this is too rare. She has helped me to consider the reasons behind decisions made by myself and others even if the answers are not always pretty or flattering.

One of the most important things she has helped remind me of is the realities of many teachers around the world when it comes to money and time. As an example, flying off to the IATEFL or TESOL Conferences is not realistic for many teachers around the world. Similarly, having the latest fancy tools and gadgets for teaching is impossible for many teachers.  She has helped remind me of such realities. It is very easy to fall into certain bubbles and ignore much more important issues happening in the field. I appreciate her helping me see this more clearly.

In terms of teaching, her views on giving students choice and autonomy are things I consider throughout my teaching and planning. I cannot always implement as much student choice as I’d like to but it is something I keep in mind more often now. I feel more capable of finding small ways of doing so.

Rose Image for MichaelI am filled with gratitude when I think about her and all the other fantastic teachers I have met online. She is a wonderful model of passion, empathy, kindness, compassion, humility, and honesty so I sincerely thank her for that. She is also a great model of being onto others what we want others to be. I thank her for being a fellow learner, fellow traveler and fellow human.

If I were to share a private and personal message to her (publicly on this blog) I would say that there is hope and that good can still win. The world just needs more people like her sharing their light.

Personal Development is Professional Development

Maria BossaBy Maria Bossa

It is hard to describe what happens when we meet a friend for the first time because we need to write about one individual moment, deep feelings and sudden emotions, but in this case… it is very easy. I ‘met’—in the virtual sense of the word—this teacher the very last day of an online course back in 2011. I had written my final reflections about a session on using web 2.0 tools in the classroom when a stranger suddenly popped up in my messaging application and wrote that my words were the exact words she, “wanted to say but didn’t know how to express them.” Since that first exchange of messages, we have become colleagues, friends and sisters-of-the-heart, sometimes even referred to by people who know us as the ‘online twins.’ Ayat Al-Tawel is not only a teacher of English from Cairo, Egypt but might also be seen as my “serious half”.

Maria and Ayat photoAyat has been teaching English for some time and recently she has also become an Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) trainer. She has helped me a lot in my professional life because she is always willing to “jump in” on one of my crazy projects. In fact, right after that course on using Web 2.0 tools was finished, I decided that I wanted to use Skype in my classroom, and I wanted Ayat to be a part of it. The idea was that my students could interview her. I didn’t have any specific topic in mind, just to interview her as part of using a new tool and for my students to have contact with someone from so far away. Ayat and I discussed this idea and she liked it. Then, she decided to do the same with her students but in her case, she introduced the topics of ‘forests in South America’ and ‘Messi, the Argentinian football player’. Students from both classes were eager to ask questions and participate. One of my students even danced Arabian music for Ayat! Ayat and I felt there was no need to let all that energy simply disappear, so we created the Facebook group called ‘ArgentEgypt’ and for three months our students in Egypt and Argentina shared everything from birthday wishes to dreams about their futures.

When I was ready to take the next step in my professional development and wanted to reach out and share what I was doing in my classroom in a more formal setting, Ayat was there for me again. She helped me to organise my experiences into presentations for webinars. And when I was unexpectedly invited by the Secretary of Education to talk about our “ArgentEgypt” project at an Education Congress in my city, Ayat advised me on what to include in the slides; with her help, I ended up expanding my presentation to include other ways I had used information technologies in my classes and, I hope, conveyed how important ICT is to learning in general. Ayat wasn’t able to attend my presentation physically, but she was there in every word I spoke, from beginning to end. Last year I was honoured to receive a scholarship from the University of Oregon (USA) to do a professional teacher’s course there and was named “City Ambassador” by our city’s mayor. This recognition of what I have accomplished wouldn’t have been possible without Ayat.

Even though we became fast on-line friends, I only first met Ayat in person in December 2012 when I traveled to Cairo. We had finished the ArgentEgypt project and I felt such a strong connection and sense of gratitude that I went to visit Ayat’s school and her students. My trip was a bit long as I had to travel from Buenos Aires to Rome and from there to Cairo. It was nearly 24-hours of travel in total. Ayat was at the airport with her sister and when I walked through customs we immediately knew we were going to be friends forever. When we were finally standing in front of each other, she gave me the best and warmest hug two friends could ever have. And here is the thing, it was spending time with Ayat that I learned that Professional Development and Personal Development are one and the same thing. The welcoming and warmth of Ayat’s family, spending time in her home, learning about her city, all of these things were just as important to me as spending time at her school and seeing how Ayat taught. I rode a camel, I hung out with King Tutankhamen, and I climbed the pyramids! And as I grew closer to Ayat as a friend and explored and shared her world, I also grew as a person.

No matter how many kilometres apart Ayat and I may be geographically, we are always emotionally close to each other, our hearts just one small step of empathy apart. Yes, I know it is important to support other teachers. I know that we should respect and further each other professionally. I know we must help each other grow as teachers. But I also know now, thanks to Ayat’s example, how much kindness and openness can also help us grow and develop as people. As her “older crazy sister” I just want to say “thank you”. Thank you for helping me learn about myself and the world around me. Thank you for being my sister. ‘Thank you’… It’s quite simple, right? Amazing how a simple message of thanks is often enough to allow us to both give and receive so much.

[In Argentina, we celebrate “Friend’s Day” on July 20th. Though I called Ayat very early in the morning, I could not give her a gift in person. In honour of, and to celebrate our friendship, I dedicate this post to my friend and sister Ayat Al-Tawel.]

to listen

by Kevin Stein

Kevin SteinAt my high school, we have a licensed psychologist on staff once a week to meet with the students. Her name is Mrs. Kumazawa, although everyone, staff and teachers alike, simply call her Kumi. Recently I’ve noticed that she leaves a heartbeat or two of space before saying hello each morning. In that moment, she looks at you in the eyes. She sends a clear message, “I’m not saying hello to just anyone. I am saying hello to you.” Her job is to help my students stay in school. Like all teenagers, my students are struggling with what it means to become an adult. They are learning to take care of themselves while also trying to figure out when and how to take care of each other. And if that isn’t enough, many of them were bullied in junior high school, or come from families that have weathered storms of domestic violence or the loss of a parent. My students often need the extra support that Kumi can provide.

Human_Ear kevin postSometimes a student will ask for me, their homeroom teacher, to be in the room when they talk with Kumi. I’ve seen how Kumi listens to each student. The way she does not hold back her tears when a student is telling a story of deep pain or loss. The way she is open to everything a student says. And especially the way she honours students’ feelings by acknowledging those feelings as real and valid. She says, in a soft voice, things like, “You were trying so hard, and no one noticed you trying. It must have been so lonely.” When a student has finished talking, saying everything they want to say, Kumi asks them, “What do you want to do next?” She never puts forward a suggestion. She waits as long as it takes until a student comes up with a way to move forward, however small and stumbling the step might be.

It is Kumi’s job to talk to the students. It is also Kumi’s job to let me know how those students are feeling and to help me find a way to help them stay in school as well. But I would be lying if I said I never bristle at what my students sometimes say to Kumi. I would be lying if I said that I never wanted to tell my side of the story, to defend my classes, to defend myself. Kumi has told me a story of a student feeling lost and overwhelmed in class and I have said, “If he did the homework once in a while, maybe he wouldn’t feel so lost.” Or about a student who cannot connect up with the other kids in class, I have said, “If she doesn’t talk to anyone, of course she will feel disconnected.” But the longer I work with Kumi, the less I feel the need to defend myself. What am I defending myself against? Do I need to defend myself against the fears, needs, and hopes of my students?

Over the past few months, there have been a number of issues that have been discussed in the ELT community: discrimination faced by non-native English teachers, the role that gender plays in a teacher’s ability to be recognised by the community, issues of class and access to professional development. When I started curating the iTDi blog in March of this year, I wondered what role the bloggers I work with and the platform that iTDi provides us could play in these discussions. In the end, I decided that before I could address any of the issues directly, I needed to prove that the space I was curating was safe, that teachers could say and share what they wanted to, and that they would be supported as they found and used their voice. So from March to now, the last issue before the summer vacation, I have encouraged teachers to blog about the issues, inside and outside of their classrooms ,which impact them as teachers and people.

Perhaps some people might say that simply listening is not enough, that simply providing a space for people to share will not create the change we need. To that, I can only say I am sorry if I should have done more. But over the past few years, Kumi and the others mentors who have taken time to help me grow have all taught me one important thing, first we must listen. When we truly listen, we are creating the space for our students, our friends, and our coworkers to take the next step. It is through listening that we can say, without speaking a word, “I believe in you. You know what to do next.” We have started to have some very important conversations in ELT. It is my hope that the iTDi blog, by giving teachers a chance to share their struggles and joys in and out of the classroom, has and will be a part of those conversations. It is also my hope that, as curator, those conversations will be grounded in the idea that every teacher’s voice matters, and that community is not the problem, but the start to any solution.

I would like to thank all the bloggers who have joined on the first few steps of this journey, the ones who have shared stories of their heroes, their coworkers, their students, and their families. I have learned about myself by working with you and having the privilege of publishing your stories of needs and abundance. I hope that in some small way, I have managed to give something back, to the community of teachers who has given me so much.