I don’t always get things right as an educator. I make daily mistakes and I have many weaknesses that I’m working on. However, I do pride myself on being a lifelong learner. A willingness to learn is an essential quality of any teacher in order to be a positive role model and to keep up with the ever-evolving field of education. On several occasions, I have written about my own risk-taking and growth mindset. Now, it’s confession time: actually, I am not always the shining example of a lifelong learner. There is one area where I hold a somewhat fixed mindset: learning languages.
I teach at Victoria Shanghai Academy, a unique PYP school in Hong Kong. We offer bilingual teaching and learning (English and Mandarin) through our co-teaching model. For more information, visit our school website. It’s a tongue-in-cheek stereotype that English people do not learn other languages and that we expect everybody else to speak English. This stereotype is, sadly, one that I enforce. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I was determined to be different. I very much admire my colleagues who have taken the time to learn and I wanted to do the same. In a school that places such importance on bilingualism, I felt it was my duty to model this. I never expected to speak Mandarin fluently, but I wanted to make an effort. I regularly talk with students about the wonderful opportunity they have as bilingual learners. How can I say this without embracing the opportunity myself? As an educator, I am in a position of influence and I take this responsibility very seriously (you might be interested in my guest post for The Learning Scientists on this topic). Keen to practise what I preach, I attended weekly Mandarin lessons for over a year.
But then I gave up. It was too hard. My progress was minimal and I embarrassed myself every time I tried to speak. I used my blog to justify giving it up because I struggled to balance both activities. I stopped going to Mandarin class around the same time that I started blogging. Being honest, this wasn’t really the reason at all. I gave up because my fixed mindset told me that I couldn’t get any better. To my shame, the same grit and determination that I promote in my students were lacking in my own learning. What example does this set?
“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”
I think it’s hugely important to promote a growth mindset in the classroom. One way I do this is by making reference to the stretch zone. Being in your stretch zone (as opposed to your comfort zone or panic zone) means that you are learning and that your brain is ‘stretching’. This is the zone of appropriate challenge, so it’s essential to hold a positive attitude towards struggle and inevitable mistakes. Going back to my Mandarin journey, I now realise that I was in my stretch zone every lesson. My progress was slow in comparison to others, but I actually came a long way on my own journey (comparing ourselves to others is another student sin that teachers are guilty of).
“A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.”
It’s true that I can barely speak Mandarin, despite months of lessons. Mandarin is a tonal language which adds another layer of challenge. It’s these tones that usually cause me problems and result in confusion and misunderstanding. But focusing on my weaknesses distracts from the progress that I did make. I can understand significantly more than I can speak. Whenever Mandarin discussions take place in school with my teaching partner, my students or the parents, I can often follow them even if I can’t contribute to them. I like surprising my students by writing short messages on the board in pinyin. I like seeing the shocked faces of the parents when they realise that I can understand some of their discussions. I am proud of the little Mandarin that I do know and I often wonder how much further I would have come if I had stuck with it.
I am therefore setting myself a challenge. Please keep me accountable for it. I’m getting back in the game! Before, I was moving forward on my own journey and, like anyone, I am capable of moving forward further as long as I adopt the right attitude.
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
Here are the steps that I will immediately take:
- Use my daily commute to revise using books and videos
- Find a weekly Mandarin tutor
- Use pinyin when messaging my girlfriend, my Chinese colleagues and anyone else who understands
- Speak Mandarin to my students at least once per day
- Speak Mandarin next week when I visit Xi’an
I see this as a professional goal rather than a personal one. It’s not even about speaking Mandarin (it isn’t even the local dialect in Hong Kong). It’s about setting an example and modelling the learning attitudes that I expect my students to adopt. Wish me luck as I get back on the road and continue my journey! If you are aware of any apps, YouTube channels or other resources that might help, please leave details in the comments section. Thanks a lot!
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