If you are working in an under-resourced classroom with very large classes, the key is to draw on the varied talents of your pupils, writes Harry Kuchah
You might not believe it, but my early childhood ambition was to be a bus conductor, and then in secondary school I wanted to be a police officer.
But both ambitions melted away as I grew older and was inspired by a few amazing teachers who made me love the profession.
Of course, I also encountered a number of teachers whom I wish I had never met. But both the positive and negative encounters with teachers were essential in defining what kind of teacher I would become.
After graduating from high school, I sat the entrance examination for the university college of education to train as a bilingual (English/French) secondary teacher.
I passed the written examination but failed at final interview and had no other option than to enrol into the only National University at the time in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.
I graduated in 1994 and was lucky enough to be selected to train as a teacher trainer for primary school teachers. In Cameroon, teacher trainers at this level do not need to have gone through a professional track to qualify; direct training is offered, although a majority of candidates who make it through come with years of experience plus a degree.
I was amongst those who came straight from the university with no formal teaching experience apart from one-off remedial classes I had taught younger peers in school and university.
Upon graduation, I was sent to work in the far north, in a village which was nothing like my home in the south. My students in the local teacher training college were all older than me but they were very respectful and encouraging.
The college had never had a trained English teacher and trainer before, so there were huge expectations. During my time there, I had the opportunity not only to teach English and methodology, but also to accompany my trainees on their practicums.
So, I was also able to immerse myself in the classroom, teaching kindergarten and primary school kids English and learning along with my trainees as part of a reflective process.
The most significant and life changing experience I had was working part time in a secondary school and having to teach 235 teenagers English in a classroom built for sixty. Overall, I was responsible for teaching four different classes, the smallest of which had 117 students with an average age of twelve.
As I recounted in my 2011 article with Richard Smith, this seemingly large classroom with fewer than 19 textbooks was, and still is, the most resourced classroom I have ever taught in.
I learned from these students that the learner is king of learning nut if only we give them the royal status they deserve, if you permit me the metaphor. They were my biggest ever motivation.
As a researcher I was inspired by my own experience as a students and a teacher in large under-resourced classrooms, I also became interested in researching large classes and ‘difficult’ learning circumstances more broadly because of the lack of voices from contexts like mine. What is meant by large classes, or under-resourced ones is not straightforward. What we might consider a large under-resourced class might be considered small and quite well resourced by a teacher in a different context.
Voices from the field tell us that large classes pose a significant number of challenges for classroom behaviour and activity management.
How to ensure that all students are performing a task? How to organise group work with no space to move seats around? Or assess 200+ essays while planning and delivering lessons? The list of questions is long, but so too are the pragmatic responses of resilient and creative teachers around the globe.
I believe that where resources are few and learners are many, there is no better way of getting round the challenges than to draw on the variety of talent in the student population.
Students are capable of being creative, resourceful and – as researchers like Annamaria Pinter have shown – of researching what might make teaching and learning effective.
We stand to learn a lot from our students. To do this we need to empower them, to teach them how to learn and help them explore their potential.
Students can simply blossom when we know that they can attempt different things and make mistakes without being ridiculed or punished.
They come into their own when they develop learning through the provision of materials and other resources which they find relevant to them and when they know they can suggest topics for discussion and learning activities.
Myth: ‘The earlier the better’ is the key to second language learning
The myth that comes to mind, because of my interest in young learners and my experience of growing up in multilingual context, is the misconception that when children are exposed to a foreign language early in their schooling, they learn it better than adults.
As you my know, the English language has become a hot commodity now and perceptions about its socioeconomic value to individuals and communities are very strong.
This is particularly true in countries in the developing world where the provision of quality education is still a challenge.
So, more and more children are being taught English as a second language and in many cases, being taught other subjects through the medium of English.
But they are being taught in conditions that already do not meet the minimum global requirements for quality teaching and learning.
State schools, in my home country of Cameroon for example, rely on teachers with limited (in some cases, no) proficiency in the English language to teach children English in French medium schools.
This additional strain on teachers can be demotivating and consequently damaging to young children.
Even where teachers are proficient in the second language, success is not a given.
If the foreign language is not part of the daily medium of communication in the children’s environment, it is difficult for early exposure to have any positive impact on their long term second language development.
Associated with this is the misconception that using only the target foreign language in class will make students develop proficiency quickly.
It is possible to make people speak in one language, but just because they are producing words in doesn’t mean they are communicating.
Besides, in multilingual environments, foreign language-only policies tend to prevent students from making use of their huge range of linguistic ability to develop foreign language proficiency.
There is very little evidence that English-only policies have made students any more proficient than a bilingual/multilingual approach to language teaching and learning.
As a multilingual myself, I sometimes find English limited for expressing my emotions.
In conversations with friends, I tend to draw from other languages to express profound feelings; you may call that translanguaging, but for me, it is just a natural process of communication.
As second language teachers, we need to remember that the languages we teach may be enablers or barriers to the educational evolution of young multilingual children.
We must be sensitive in how we approach the teaching of these languages in relation to their existing language backgrounds.
Harry Kuchah is a lecturer in the department of education at the University of Bath and a speaker at Iatefl 2018. He previously trained teachers in his home country of Cameroon.