Friday, July 19, 2019
When was the last time you sat in a classroom for 6 hours a day learning material that you weren’t sure that you would use on a daily basis for your job? I’m not talking about attending a CLE or an academic conference where you pick what you want to learn and from whom. I’m talking about taking notes, doing homework everyday, and being called on— you know, like we do with our students.
Well I’ve just finished this experience and it will change how I teach from now on. Since mid June, I’ve taken 90 hours of immersive Spanish classes—30 hours through weekend work at the University of Miami and 60 hours through Habla Ya in Panama for two weeks. I did this while teaching a transactional drafting course online (asynchronously), which required me to hold individual video conferences with my 16 students and markup and review drafts. I also worked on a time consuming project for a client. This was no vacation. At times, it was pure hell.
Here’s what I learned.
- The teacher really does matter. I often hear my students saying “I just can’t learn from Professor X.” I always thought it was a lame excuse from students who liked the “easier” or more entertaining professors (who weren’t always easier). Having had several teachers over the past few week, I now agree with the students. It’s not as though I didn’t want to learn, but there was a real difference between the teachers. You could tell who really loved teaching and who was doing it for the paycheck. It’s the difference between those who love teaching 1Ls or working with first year associates and those who have to do so to be able to teach their upper level course of choice or work with certain clients.
- Breaks are really important in long classes. When I teach classes of more than 1 hour 20 minutes, I give a short break. If students aren’t back from the break in time, I reserve the right to mark them absent. My classes in Panama had a break 2 hours in. By that time, my brain was fried and I was irritable. After the break, I was refreshed and ready to learn. That break was essential for me. Breaks are essential for our students too and not just so they can check Instagram on their phones.
- Listening to someone talk without having anything to look at is really hard. I’m a PowerPoint fan— I know many aren’t. I don’t use it as a crutch and my students find them helpful. The better Spanish teachers used a variety of visual aids and it really enhanced the learning. Those who didn’t lost our attention quickly and it impacted us to our detriment. What do our textbooks look like? How are we bringing the materials to life? It may be time to re-evaluate.
- There are differently learning styles. I’ve always believed that some people learn better by hearing, some by seeing, some by doing, and some through a combination. For this reason, I’ve always polled my students before class about learning style and have adapted, if possible. Generally, I tend to use a combination of tactics. I read somewhere that learning style theory had been debunked or at least had fallen out of fashion. However, I saw first hand how my classmates responded to different tasks based on how they were taught. The best teachers used all three methods and it kept us engaged.
- Make learning fun- Some of my best learning occurred during games in class. It broke the monotony and challenged us in different ways. When I’ve taught complex courses such as civil procedure and business associations, I’ve tried to be as entertaining as possible so that the students wanted to learn. For final exam review, I played jeopardy with them. Not only did they love it, but they really learned.
- Make it relevant. This seems obvious but bears repeating. I struggled in my Spanish class with some of the concepts and sentence structure because I knew I would almost never use it. I had 4 hours a day of group work with grammar and 2 hours a day of private lessons on legal and business Spanish. When I told them in advance that I wasn’t interested in criminal or immigration terms and that instead I wanted to learn business, legal, and compliance vocabulary, they made accommodations. When I told them that the very formal sentence structure they wanted me to master was good to know but I would never use it, they adapted. When we teach our students, we need them to have the foundation, of course, but we also need to think of the skills that our students will need in the real world. This is hard as we try to make sure students understand theory, can pass the bar, and have practical knowledge, but we owe it to them to try harder.
- Go slower. Spending 6 hours a day learning anything new is tough. We forget that we know the subject inside out and that the students do not. There were times that I wanted the teacher to slow down, but I didn’t ask. How many of our students feel the same way? My best teachers made it easy to ask questions. They also used formative assessment techniques to make sure we understood concepts before we moved on. Remember, our students are taking a number of classes and some are working. It may take more time for them to absorb concepts than we think.
- Don’t forget how much harder it is for students whose first language is not English. Not only did I learn grammar, I also learned complex legal terms that most people don’t use in any language. Discussing cybersecurity and EU data protection regulations in Spanish in hour 5 of a 6 hour day is grueling. I had to read in Spanish, translate in my head into English, and then translate back to Spanish to answer questions or explain concepts in role play exercises. My substance, vocabulary, and grammar had to be correct. I always knew in theory that it had to be harder for my foreign born students to learn in my classes, but I now have an even deeper appreciation.
- Give reasonable assignments. I had a lot of homework each night. Like many of our students, there were days that I did the work right before class. Sometimes we forget that our students have several classes, jobs, extracurricular activities, and personal lives. I got particularly frustrated when I did the homework (last minute) and certain teachers did not discuss it or even ask for it. I saw this as a lack of respect for my time. Our students likely feel the same way when we assign materials and never mention it again.
- Be flexible. When my teachers saw that certain things didn’t work, they made changes quickly. When I complained about some of the grammatical structure I had to learn, my teacher started to point out examples of what I had complained about in articles by CNN, Forbes etc. They put in context for me and I stopped complaining. We can’t always do that in our classrooms, but we should try to pivot when possible. Bring in current events. Let students know why what they are learning matters.
I plan to continue my immersion courses but have also started taking other courses online. I love watching other people teach. Being a life long learner will make me a much better teacher and I will then mold much better future lawyers. What have you learned from watching other people teach?