A lesson in trust

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What could be more weird than a language teacher who almost never speaks in class? Maybe a dancing teacher who can’t dance.

That’s what I did many years ago. The lesson was recorded and a kind person transcribed it but I’ve only now translated it into English and put it on line here: A Dance Lesson.  The lesson couldn’t have taken place if my student (and friend) Christiane Rozet hadn’t trusted me and I hadn’t trusted her. It also helped that we both adhered to the same conception of how people learn and what the teacher’s role is.

Most of my professional life was spent quite otherwise: teaching a skill I do master myself. I’m a native-speaker of English who is lucky enough to both speak with a variant of RP and to write Standard English with very few hesitations. I also know quite a lot about the language: grammar, phonology, history, etc. Over the years, I’ve picked up hundreds of pedagogical techniques for “getting across” various aspects of the language. But all that can be a hindrance to being simply present to a particular student and responding to their needs “here and now”. Choosing to “teach” a subject about which I know next to nothing freed me from all that irrelevant baggage. It was scary but also exhilarating.

It was scary because I was taking a big risk in front of my peers: it could have not worked. I mean, the student could have learned nothing and I’d have looked foolish. (This did happen another time with a different student: she didn’t really trust me and so I couldn’t get her to work on her problems.)

It was exhilarating because I had only my student to guide me as to what I should say next. I couldn’t lead her because I didn’t know where she needed to go. I had to rely on her to express her problems with clarity so that I had a basis for suggesting something new. Christiane reread the article recently and commented: “What precision you forced me to have!” But from my point of view, it was she who was forcing me to be precise.

I dream of having more opportunities of teaching subjects I know next to nothing about, especially the ones that really terrify me, say physics or maths. Any takers?

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4 thoughts on “A lesson in trust

  • Luigi Magnano

    Enjoy reading your blogs, please Keep them coming. Your site is very Well organized and professionally prepared.

  • Cédric Lefebvre

    Really loved this article. I was a bit sceptical at first as how one could teach something about dancing with just words, but I got my answer by reading on. 🙂
    I was very excited with the whole idea, because I realise it’s something I’ve been doing more and more lately, without giving it much attention. I’ve tried to help people stuck with various problem, whether academic (ranging from psychoanalysis to advanced grammar -to which I know next to nothing-) or more practical (e.g. acting or fixing a car), with series of questions that lead us closer to some important awarenesses. Now I want to be more present to what I do when this happens and maybe try to make some useful discoveries.

    • Glenys Hanson

      Glad you liked this article, Cédric.

      We do a lot of things without having a specific word for them. People have been subordinating teaching to learning for millennia – fortunately – but only now, thanks to Gattegno, can we name it. This gives us tremendous power to use it deliberately. It’s the same in all sciences. Just think how the world has changed since electricity has been named and defined.

      Have fun making discoveries!