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'We teach best what we most need to learn:' Lessons from Japan 


Jane Berwick, Founder of The Adult Learning Hub, shares in this week's article, about her early experiences as a language instructor to Japanese adults and what she would tell herself (and other educators) if she could turn back the clock and do it all again.

I caught up with a former university professor of mine yesterday after almost 16 years of being in his classroom. He was the kind of educator that brought himself into his teaching, and allowed his students to do the same. As he was himself, we were ourselves. As he shared experience, so did we. Even before I studied adult education formally a number of years after being in his classes, I was learning about teaching through the way he was with us.

As we were talking and catching up after all this time, he shared this quote, which really resonated with me from Richard Bach - 'We teach best what we most need to learn.'

-Insert the resounding echo of a truth bomb here-

So often the advice or teachings we give to others is the exact advice we need ourselves. It's crazy that we sometimes don't see this in the moment or we are too scared to recognize this at all. And how true it is that we often hold ourselves to some ridiculous and unattainable standard of perfection. 

I thought about my early days, as a 20 something Canadian, instructing adult second language learners in Japan. I was a new to working with adult learners, I had never taught before. I was just a fresh Psychology grad, armed with my diploma and a desire to experience a new culture. I was teaching some students who were more than four times my age with a lifetime of rich experience; others were doctors & lawyers; and some were stay-at-home moms looking for something to occupy their day. We didn't share the same language or culture. How was I to approach teaching in this context, with such a diverse group of individuals? I mean, who was I to be tasked with their learning? What did I have to offer? Could I ever be the 'perfect' teacher I wanted to be? And, why was this all of a sudden important to me?

I remember at the time, in order to FEEL like a teacher, I thought I had to BE a certain way, SPEAK in a certain way or assume some kind of identity that I wasn't familiar with. As if living in Japan wasn't foreign enough...the role of 'educator' felt even more far away. 

Thankfully, my students wholeheartedly embraced me and they became my greatest teachers. I experienced hospitality like I never had before; they met my family when they visited Japan and I met theirs; as they shared their life experiences, I listened and absorbed as much as I could. We exchanged regular dialogue about culture, language, food, travel, and shared in some of the most wonderful belly laughs together. They didn't just come to learn English. And I didn't just come to teach. I gradually became more comfortable and at ease trying new activities, games and introducing discussion topics. The classroom was so much more than just learning a language. But, this realisation didn't emerge because of my training or qualifications, it was through lived experience. It couldn't really be 'taught.'

Looking back at those early days, I wish I could have stepped outside myself.  I was constantly trying to prove that I was a teacher or educator (of sorts). 

Even later in my career, as I moved through different contexts - from training teachers internationally to leading learning and development programmes in profit and not for profit sectors, and eventually going on to study a graduate degree in Adult Education - the desire to learn never left me, but feeling the need to assume a particular role has also somehow remained. This is an internal journey I work at navigating to this day.

However, instead of now fighting against it, I've learned to embrace it and let go, knowing I don't need to appear a certain way, but be my most authentic self wherever I am. Embracing my mistakes, learning from them, not being afraid to ask questions, and loving my imperfections.

If I were to go back to that time, and 'teach best what I need(ed) to learn most', as Bach suggests, I think I would tell myself (and other educators operating in diverse contexts):

  • Find ways to bring yourself into the classroom. Don't leave yourself at the door. This is apart of your identity. You are a whole person. Just as your learners are. 
  • Ask questions. Be curious about the 'why' of what you do.
  • Treat your journey, as an adult educator, like a narrative. It's a story being written. Make it a good one. 
  • Find your 'critical friend' or another colleague who can help and give you feedback.
  • Celebrate mistakes regularly. And maybe give permission to laugh at yourself from time to time? :)
  • You are your own teacher. Start with yourself, first. Challenge your own assumptions about what what it means to be an educator of adults.
  • Listen to your learners. They are your teachers too. 

Perhaps many of you have experienced a similar journey. Or maybe completely different. Even if you haven't lived in another country, but are tasked with the learning of adults in your context, your identity is shaped and formed in a unique way. It's important we talk about it, share experiences with each other, ask the right questions and locate our practice together. 

There is so much we can gain from a community of educators coming together, that we cannot get on our own. Despite the diverse group of learners we work with, be it language learners, students studying online, employees increasing their chances for a promotion or adults returning to school after a number of years, we as educators 'teach best what we most need to learn.' Stay curious about your practice. Check your assumptions and be a learner, yourself.

The Adult Learning Hub is an app-based membership community, bringing together passionate adult educators and practitioners in academic settings, community contexts and corporate environments. Our purpose is to develop a more informed and flexible approach that meets the needs of diverse learners; to build on skills that allow us to remove barriers and facilitate meaningful learning, and proactively address workplace challenges as part of a supportive group of fellow educators, so that we can confidently navigate our rapidly evolving world of work and increase our impact for the learners we serve.

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