Lessons in teaching from student in Cambodia

Courtesy of Ilan Levine

I am learning more from others on the Cambodia term abroad than I could have ever imagined. It is coming from the dual internship part of the program where each of us are placed in a classroom and expected to teach students an array of skills, ranging from computers to science to English.

Being the teacher instead of the student for once has given me a perspective on education that I cannot get any other way. It has showed me that there is more to teaching than knowing the subject matter; teaching successfully comes from connecting with, relating to, and caring for the students who are giving you their time to learn.

Teachers have often told me that they learn in the classroom too. Well, they were not just saying that to be nice — it is absolutely true.

On this program I am both a teacher and a student, and I am learning much more from teaching than I am from being taught.

That is not to say that I am not learning as a student here, because I am learning a tremendous amount: the culture, the history, the politics, the language, the problems, the solutions — the list goes on and on.

There is a new kind of learning, learning from teaching, which I cannot get from any other experience. I am by no means an expert at teaching, and so what I write here is my novice, humble opinion based on what I have discovered firsthand from being a teacher in multiple classrooms over the span of about one month.

The number one most important part of being anybody’s teacher is to first establish a connection with students.

If you do not make a connection with your student, then he or she will hardly learn from you. The hard part is making this individual connection with each and every student in the classroom. That is why you will often notice in classes a student or two in the room who are out of focus, tired and bored-looking. There is a high probability that there is no relationship or bond between the teacher and that student.

It was especially hard for my peers and me to bond with the students in our two classes as teachers’ assistants in the rural Chey School because of the immense language barrier. One thing that we did to overcome this challenge was to implement stretching exercises at the beginning of every class.

During these five minutes we would share laughter with the students as we struggled to reach our toes, goofily jumping around the room, flapping our legs together in a butterfly stretch and enthusiastically wiggling our entire bodies into a shaking frenzy.

It is remarkable how natural it becomes for a student to ask for his or her teacher’s help after having both shared laughter at each other’s silly stretches just moments beforehand.

The second most important part of being a good teacher is being able to relate the lesson’s material to the students’ lives. Part of building a connection with a student is being able to relate to them, and for them to be able to relate to you.

However, being able to take the concept of a connection and put it into the class material is the next necessary step to teaching. Students cannot just be able to relate to their teacher, they have to be able to relate to what is being taught.

In a lesson about the size of the universe, I taught my students that if it were the size of the classroom, most of the students would not be able to find their own country on a globe.

In the same computer class, we spent part of a lesson experimenting with a Google app that showed the universe in the correct ratio of size and space. When the earth popped up on the screen, the child I was sitting next to stared blankly at it — it didn’t mean anything to her because she had never seen what our planet looks like from outer space.

I grabbed a globe and showed her Cambodia. Then I pointed to the globe and to the picture of the earth on the screen and said, “same same.” Her eyes opened wide with astonishment and I was able to see the curiosity that children are filled with as she realized just how big the world is. Everything she has ever known is not even visible when looking at the entire world. I was able to relate the world to her by showing her something she recognized and pointing it out on the new image.

I would say that the third most important part of being a good teacher is actually wanting to teach.

You can try all you want to bond with all of you students and make their lessons relatable to them, but if you don’t want to be there, then neither will your students.

The same goes with your commitment to what you are teaching, not only to just teaching in itself. If you are not genuinely enthusiastic about what you are teaching, then your students will pick up on it and lose interest themselves. And if your students are not interested, then they will not learn. It is the best way to explain the magic in a classroom that you cannot explain, but you know it when you see it.

If you have these three points integrated into your classroom, then an exchange takes place that you cannot get anywhere else. You learn from your students: you learn about their lives, what makes them tick, what they enjoy, what they hate, and how they express themselves. You become a master of people; you learn how to take charge of people simply by relating to them.

Teaching also teaches you about yourself. There is something that you continue to learn about yourself every time you walk into the classroom. You learn how to act and react spontaneously to any situation. You learn what does and does not work when trying to communicate to others. You learn what annoys you and you surprise yourself with how you deal with it. You also learn what touches your heart, and are often surprised with how easy it is to be reached.

This is not everything there is to teaching — it is just the foundation. In my opinion, if you have these three points then you will thrive, teach and continue to learn every day.



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