Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Value of a Multi-Generational Teaching Staff

heyer_picBy Sandra Heyer
ESL Teacher and Author of the textbooks True Stories Behind the Songs and More True Stories Behind the Songs
Songs and Activities for English Language Learners

When I walked into the classroom of my 24-year-old colleague, a popular song was softly playing – but the music didn’t seem to have anything to do with the lesson. The students were hunched over their desks, filling out a worksheet on irregular past tense verbs. When I looked at my colleague quizzically, she explained, “I play music when they do worksheets – otherwise it’s too quiet in here.”

“Really?” I thought. A quiet classroom would be undesirable during, say, a class discussion. But is a quiet classroom always undesirable? I grew up in an era where music and TV were not life’s constant backdrop, so the song in the background struck me as distracting. But when I looked at her students, all adults in their 20s and 30s, I couldn’t deny that they looked focused, yet relaxed. Perhaps they, like my younger colleague, were more comfortable in settings that were not “too quiet.”

I teach in a small community-based Adult ESL program with a multi-generational staff. Two teachers are in their 20s, one is in his 40s, and I am in my 60s. I think both students and teachers benefit from this range of ages: Younger teachers tend to bring fresh approaches that are particularly effective with students close to their age, and older teachers tend to bring insights that come with experience.

On a snowy evening last January, I arrived for class to find no students in the classrooms for levels 2 and 3. (I teach reading to all three levels and begin making my rounds after classes are underway.) The teachers, both in their 20s, were working together at a laptop, writing bullet points for a grant application.

“Your students didn’t come tonight?” I asked.

“Because of the weather, we had only three students between us,” they explained. “It didn’t make any sense to have a class with so few people, so we sent our students to the level 1 class tonight.”

Alarms went off in my head. It was too late to retrieve those three students from the beginning class, but later I circulated this email:

Please go forward with your lesson plan even if there’s only one student. (Tell the student, “You’re lucky! Private tutor!”) Otherwise, I’m worried that we may perpetuate the low attendance: If students think there won’t be a class at their level if only a few students show up, they might decide not to come.

Unfortunately, my warning proved prescient: Not one of the three students who’d been sent to level 1 returned for the next class. How was I able to predict that outcome? Early in my career, I had made a similar mistake.

I think the inter-generational exchange of ideas benefits not only the professional lives of the teachers in our program, but our personal lives as well. I enjoy the casual conversations I have with my younger colleagues after class, and I hope they do, too.

Once a colleague in her mid-30s confided in me that her mother, a woman about my age, had “lost her filter.” Clearly baffled, she said, “I don’t know what happened when my mom turned 60. It’s like everything she thinks goes right out her mouth.”

I had to smile because I found my colleague’s comments about her mom oddly reassuring. I’ve been writing practice-oriented articles for professional publications my entire career, but it’s only recently that I’ve become comfortable writing for blogs like this one, expressing opinions that, for what they’re worth, are simply my opinions.

Maybe I’ve lost my filter.

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