Could You Teach If Words Lost All Meaning?

February 8, 2019 / by Brett Bigham

Imagine you step into your classroom tomorrow and all the kids were strangers and none of them spoke English.

I had the immense honor of being asked to travel to Bangladesh to meet some of the first special education teachers in the country. Asha Inc., a non-profit organization, supports several schools in Bangladesh and they needed a mentor teacher to go and share best practice. Would I be willing to go half-way around the world to one of the most impoverished countries to share my knowledge? You bet I would!

Imagine this: You are the first generation of teachers in your part of the world. There is no one with experience teaching what you teach.

That is the situation I found at the Tauri Foundation Schools in Bangladesh. The staff was incredible but they didn’t have mentor teachers. For my first couple of days, I sat back and watched, took notes, and discussed ways the classrooms could run better. What was glaringly absent in my observations was that I could not understand anything that was said in the room. I had to take all verbal communication and boil it down to tone of voice.

VIDEO: Connecting Globally Through Language & Travel

VIDEO: Connecting Globally Through Language & Travel

After a few days I had observed all of the classes. It was then that the teachers requested that I teach. That's how I found myself in front of a room of autistic kids whose language I didn’t speak.

And what this meant was one of my core tenants of teaching was about to be tested. Since most of my teaching has been with people who have severe disabilities, I have taught myself to boil everything down to the simplest gestures and words. And then I do them all at once.

If I want a student to sit, I don’t just say, “Go sit down, please.” Instead I say, as I move towards the chair, “I want you to come sit down, please,” as I point to the student and then point to the chair in one fluid motion. What I have done there is layer all of the different learning styles together. My words are for the auditory learner, the finger pointing and gestures to the chair are for the visual learner, and the movement involved is an invitation for the student to move, to tap into that kinesthetic learning.

VIDEO: Creative Movement to Express Global Issues

VIDEO: Creative Movement to Express Global Issues

It has always been my belief that we all learn in several modalities at the same time. And as teachers, this means we have to teach in several modalities at the same time. Because so many of my students have been nonverbal and haven’t responded to vocal commands, I've become accustomed to acting out many of the directions I give. On some days I am practically a mime. But, I still give verbal directions and rely heavily on words because using communication is always something I model for my students.

Bangladesh took my words away.

And I found myself with ten teachers watching me, their new mentor teacher, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to teach.

But that inner mime suddenly popped out and I began modeling what I wanted the students to do. I gestured to each step, I pointed for “your turn,” and though the words were lost, the tone of voice wasn’t. The kids responded to my “oohs” and “awes” and an excited “GREAT JOB!” combined with clapping and a shoulder pat, still got the message across.

VIDEO: New Teacher Survival Guide: Mentoring

VIDEO: New Teacher Survival Guide: Mentoring

And even with the language barrier, I was able to show the teachers every trick I have up my sleeve. Books can only show you so much about our profession. But having a mentor teacher to watch and share their experience is essential to good teaching. Words, I discovered, are not.

Topics: Professional Learning, Differentiation, English Language Learners

Brett Bigham

Written by Brett Bigham

Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. Connect with Brett on Twitter: @2014ORTOY.

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