Do you have a “happy teaching memory”?

people-3137672_640I have a trainee on my current CELTA course, Mini, who asked me very early on: “how do you know if teaching is for you?” She asked me if I could share a happy memory – something that happened in class and with a student, that made me think “this is what I want to do”.

I found this weirdly difficult. I realised I have many powerful memories of things that happened in class with students – but often “happy” isn’t the word to describe them (you can read about some of them here, here and here). I also have many, many reasons why I love teaching and why I’ve stayed in this job – but they are largely to do with amazing people, cultures and countries…I found it hard to pick out specific moments in class with students.

Surely, in 23 years of teaching there must be something good I remember? Why can’t I pick out these amazing teaching moments?

It seems like, on reflection, my typical, ‘safe’, first-world, adult language learning classroom isn’t full of ground-breaking moments (unlike, perhaps, if you work with kids, or migrants, or refugees, or people in need, or in low-resource contexts, or in developing countries…) But I can say that it is full of triumphs, little and often, that empower people more to recognise and use the linguistic tools of the world around them. I can say that, while students may take away more or less from a lesson than I had hoped, every time they take something away, and I really try to maximise this (as my friend and colleague, Beth Grant, used to put it, they always go out “weighing heavier” than they went in). I think, as teachers, we might not experience that as a significant “happy” moment, but sometimes through feedback from learners/participants we learn that we had a bigger impact on them than we thought. Which is wonderful.

But now that I think about it, I also realise that – like most people? – I tend to skim over the positives in feedback and take note of only the negatives: what I didn’t do; what I could do better. Mini’s question reminds me how important it is to reflect on the “what went well” of lessons.

There’s a bit of a mantra in my team at work to “celebrate success”. It’s tongue-in-cheek, the way we use it, but I really do think it contributes to more acknowledgement of and sharing of good practice, rather than a focus on negatives. I’ve also been keeping a “compliments jar” for the past year or so, where every now and then I try to actually keep a record of some positive feedback from friends, colleagues, or course participants. I’m re-reading some of it now, and…it’s amazing. And it reminds me we might not always have someone to pat us on the back, but we all need that, and this is way you can do it for yourself.

So Mini…I wish I could answer your question, but I know I haven’t. Maybe some other people can?

How about you? Do you have a “happy teaching memory”? How do you “celebrate success”?






6 responses

  1. My happiest teaching memory thus far is the same one that made me cry afterwards: It was the incredibly successful unassessed task I ran with the Intermediate class, where one half of the class had to sell the contents of Bob’s house and the other half were shopping for Barbara’s new house. That activity was the first time any of us had seen the class just come to life, interact with every single member of the class with so much genuine enthusiasm and interest, and the first time we’d really seen them laughing and smiling. They took the given context and ran absolutely wild with it, with the sellers telling buyers things like “This is a REAL Italian sofa from Italy, you know, not just from an IKEA in France!” (And buyers retorting “Well, that’s okay, we’ll just go to IKEA then. Keep your sofa.”)

    And in feedback buyers even brought up the subject of return policies- because one buyer had bought 3 sofas altogether from three separate groups! 😂 It was such a lovely hour and it honestly changed the dynamics of the class from that point on. It was amazing that a random activity I wanted to run turned into an experience that I’ll never, ever forget. It was in that moment when I was laughing at what my students were saying that I realized how quickly and easily you can win someone’s trust, and how equally quickly you could lose it.

    And of course, you already know what happened after that class when I was just brimming over with joy and wanted to go get my phone so I could find someone to share it with- and that singular moment changed the dynamics within my group, too. It’s funny how fickle relationships between humans can be, isn’t it? And funny how easily such a lovely memory can be tainted to become bittersweet.

    But anyway, I celebrate success by using it to fuel my reckless optimism. I celebrate by remembering these little moments and making myself smile at the most random of times, which in turn makes other people smile, which then perpetuates itself in a cycle of shared happiness. So perhaps the short answer is: I share my happiness to celebrate success. :3 But when I can’t share, good chocolate, a bottle of Bailey’s and a great chat with the stars in the night sky (or just posting my stories on Facebook) are great outlets too. 🙂 (Or sometimes I just cry into my favourite pillow and call it a day. Whatever floats the boat, really.)

    • Thank you for commenting Padmini, and for inspiring this post! That sounds like a really fun lesson, and it’s experiences like those, where there is real engagement, that have helped me stay in the classroom too. Thanks for sharing it! And thanks also for the reminder that there might be a time and a place for celebrating success. In any teaching team/staffroom – and this is still true for me now – there are moments where one person is having a positive experience, and someone else isn’t, for any number of personal or professional reasons. It’s important to remain sensitive to that as well.

  2. I just wanted to share some stories from Facebook friends who responded to this post:
    From GE:
    Had a student with ADHD who was on meds for most of what I knew him. He bought a friend into the school one evening who wanted to learn English. He was 16 and couldn’t tell me his age. His dad was a road worker and they had no money. Long story short, he studied for free on condition that he does exactly what I asked and he did. He made me the nicest handmade card I’ve ever gotten, and he passed a CEFR B2 level exam last year(4 years later in Taiwan). Another person might have given him the wrong advice. Another school would have turned him away. My best story and the one that keeps me going in tough times
    From AJ:
    The first class I taught. They were a pre-intermediate class and I was fresh off the CELTA. I’d spend hours preparing lessons and at the start, when some of the activities didn’t work, it was frustrating. One day one of my students came to me with a strange question. She couldn’t sleep because she’d left her favourite blanket that had the texture of a terry towel back at home in Japan. Could I help her locate a similar one in Syd? We went to a shop in World Sq and found her a very large beach towel. She was so grateful! There were a few such incidents in that class that made me realise that I was playing a much larger role than just being a grammar guru. We still keep in touch and they are still my favourite class.
    From PC:
    I have so many happy teaching memories, mainly from teaching in Thailand. One such memory is there being a very lively debate by students who were from different parts of Thailand about the correct way to prepare tom yum kung. Some had tomatoes in it; others a dash of carnation milk, and on it went. All in English and led by the students. A true Dogme lesson (and I had never heard of Dogme) where I was introducing English vocabulary for things such as galangal, and action verbs such as slice, simmer. A most enjoyable lesson for all!
    From AB:
    Most of my lessons with a class of refugee women. I remember teaching them what and how much they need to eat during breastfeeding (they only ate rice and meat) and how to start their toddlers on solids (which fruits, veges, how often, kitchen tools etc) all while I was going through the same thing with my first baby. We had a good connection.
    From SL:
    My EFL /FCE students preparing a recital with songs from the 70s It was poetry and music worth of best concert hall. It was amazing and it was the talk of the town for months.When I was about to leave my home country, they gave me a special notebook with their poetry and messages in English . The first thing I packed and I keep it as one of the most important memories – always close to me.
    From BSE:
    I have so many. Every time I go into the classroom I laugh and that’s why I have stayed teaching. I think there are few jobs where you get to meet such interesting people and share so many happy moments.
    (Having someone sing ‘you raise me up’ was a wee highlight 😄) Most of all I love seeing people become close friends (and sometimes meeting their true love 💕) while learning English and including you in that experience.

  3. I won’t post a happy memory because I’m the PC in the above post from Sophia. However, I wonder whether your problem, Sophia, was due to not clearly defining “happy memory”. You allude to it when you say:

    “I think, as teachers, we might not experience that as a significant “happy” moment, but sometimes through feedback from learners/participants we learn that we had a bigger impact on them than we thought.”

    I reckon that constitutes a happy memory in itself!

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