Thursday, March 25, 2010

Creative Teachers in Challenging Situations

Dear All,

Below is an article from the Phillipines written by a well-known ELT personality whom I met at the AsiaTEFL Conference in KL some years ago.

It's an inspiring write-up on how teachers cope and thrive eventhough the situation was challenging & less than ideal.

I hope the ideas will spur us to think outside the box to solve problems and constraints in our particular locale.

As the saying goes' "necessity is the mother of invention".

What do you think?

Rodney Tan

Agenda For Hope -- Maria Luz C. Vilches

Creative teaching in public schools
Every teacher’s wish is to engage students in a class discussion or have them atleast listen with interest and show in their faces a promise of insight. Making students want to learn can be an onerous task. But, it can be done -- even in adverse conditions.

I observed how things work in practice in six public school English classrooms in Quezon City, and two teachers are featured here. Let’s look at the teachers’ creativity in pushing beyond the limits of their teaching situation and engaging their students in fun and meaningful learning experiences. While popular opinion harps on what is perceived as a deteriorating quality of Philippine education, there are teachers who are not discouraged by the bad press but, instead, continue to do their best to make a difference in the lives of their students and take pride in what they are able to achieve.


Gina was teaching the grammar structure of asking and answering questions when I observed her class. Her classroom, with 42 first year high school students, was under a staircase on the ground floor, tucked into a corner of an old school building close to the fence beyond which are residential houses. Noise was coming from different directions and humidity enveloped the room.

To be able to manage the class in these challenging conditions, Gina had to decongest the center space by seating the students around the room -- two rows on each side facing the front so that the students faced each other during the discussion. The seating arrangement also freed up the space in the middle for better mobility by both students and teacher during group work.

Gina’s lesson springboard was a local daily’s news item, copied onto Manila paper and tacked on the board. She read it first and then asked the students to read it in unison. In groups, using the news item, some students asked questions while others answered. Later, Gina asked for samples of the students’ questions. She praised those who did well and corrected those who needed improvement.

Because Gina’s friendly disposition created spontaneity in the way teacher and students related to each other, error correction became a collaborative effort. When a student asked "How did it happened?" another student repeatedly uttered "happen, happen," to which Gina directed the attention of the class.

Gina also knew how to spring a surprise question at an appropriate occasion that would break the routine of the exercise. When a student asked, "What did the protesters do?" instead of moving ahead to the next question, Gina asked, "Yes, what did they do?" The student answered, "They protested!" Laughter ensued, and Gina gave the class clown an endearing smile. She went on to explain that "What did they do?" also meant "How did they protest?"

Finally, on the question, "Who did protest?" Gina did not point out the inaccuracy outright. Instead she asked for other ways of improving it, so the students came up eventually with: "Who did the protest?" and "Who protested?"

Ordinarily, that grammar exercise would have been a boring one, but clearly, the experienced teacher in Gina knew how to use any emergent matter as a learning opportunity for students. She showed genuine interest in her students’ contributions. She kept them attentive and involved despite the humidity in that cramped and dark classroom. They took the cue from her enthusiasm and energy in animating the grammar lesson through her varied activities. Her strong support and non-threatening demeanor encouraged even the most timid in the class to attempt to give an answer.


I observed Grace’s literature lesson for a third year class with two sets of students inside one classroom: 32 regular students occupying two-thirds of the room and 19 physically challenged (deaf-mute SPED students) occupying one-third. The latter had a teacher interpreter for Grace’s explanations, instructions, questions, and other aspects of classroom work. In effect, there were two teachers in front of the class. Grace conducted her lesson without a need to slow down her speech, treating everyone like a regular student.

It was amazing how the SPED students were very participative. During group presentations, the two teachers were simultaneously processing the activities in the presence of two sets of students whose interactions seemed seamless -- smooth and lively -- despite the competing noise of incessant corridor talk of students passing by and the continuous hammering in a nearby construction area.

Grace’s lesson on characterization, made the story in focus jump out of the page to engage the students’ imagination. For introducing vocabulary, she used photos; students matched words with descriptions of the people in the photos. She introduced categories of character descriptions (physical, emotional, etc.) and using flash cards, engaged the students in a contest of fill- in-the-appropriate-category-slots on posters on the board. She also integrated vocabulary building with character analysis through a group game where each group, lined up at the back of the class, picked out a representative who ran to the front of the class to identify which of the adjectives on the posters on the board matched the descriptions of character excerpted from the story and read by the teacher. That game animated the entire class. It embedded a fun way of learning words and the appropriate uses of these words in the context of character analysis and story interpretation.

Although Grace seemed to be effortless in drawing the interest of the students and their use of imagination and creativity, she confessed to having exerted so much effort in doing so. She holds on to the principle that because every class is different, a teacher should not take things for granted. The performance of her good students always brings a smile to her face. The struggles of the underachievers, on the other hand, challenge her to become a better teacher.


Observing classrooms brought home a clear point: teachers’ imaginative, adaptable, and resilient temperament enabled them to pursue their responsibility of good teaching that encouraged active learning despite the sometimes insurmountable limitations of their contexts.

Four areas can help shed light on this disposition. First, the teachers came prepared with their visual aids -- simple and often improvised but complete with trimmings and artistry. Second, their well-planned lessons used a variety of learning opportunities that maximized student-teacher as well as group work interactions. Third, they chose teaching material that was relevant to the students’ lives and interests and challenged their creativity, imagination, and value judgments. Lastly, more than well-prepared and enthusiastic, the teachers were also attentive to the dynamics of interpersonal exchange, as well as caring, supportive, and creatively responsive to opportunities that encouraged and sustained student learning beyond good English grammar.

What does it take to have more of such types of teachers in the public schools? The Quezon City division supervisor is convinced that one of the main secrets of a teacher’s success is a pro-active principal who can uplift morale in the work environment and support the teachers in discharging their duties creatively, in bending backwards to engage their students, and in not giving up the goal to do better always. By their example, they hold the power to influence the youth to value and cultivate imaginative thinking, adaptability, and resilience.

If the youth are the hope of the fatherland, it is their teachers who mold them to be that hope. It is heartening to discover, as I have discovered, that in public school classrooms where uncertainties often prevail, this hope not just lives, it thrives!

Dr. Maria Luz C. Vilches is the dean of the School of Humanities at Ateneo de Manila University. She has played key roles in English teacher development in the public schools under the auspices of the Department of Education, the British Council, and the Ateneo Center for English Language Teaching.


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