Tuesday, February 03, 2015

ITA story

In our business we are the gateway; if people are good and capable teachers, at least as far as their speaking goes, they go on and teach at the university, and if their speaking, or some aspects of their teaching, falls short, they stay with us until everything improves. We are always afraid of disasters further up the chain. If there is a teacher at the university who can't be understood by students, that's indirectly our fault.

Yesterday afternoon at about 3:30, there was an explosion in the Chemistry building. Today, I decided to see what I could find out about it, and I checked my roll until I found the one student who was in the Chemistry department. After class, I asked her if she knew anything about the explosion.

In a nutshell she said this. There were two students under the direction of one TA. The TA was in her lab; she knew the TA (both she and the TA were Chinese). One of the students poured an acid in with a base, in a toxic waste container, and it blew up. People ended up in the hospital and came back with bandages covering glass wounds. Nobody was killed, fortunately. Also, it was the second explosion at the Chemistry building, although I know nothing about the first (I remember it vaguely, and I think it was worse, but I didn't do research on it, and have no idea what caused it, or how much worse).

Then I asked her about the TA. She said, you passed this very TA in the summer workshop, whereas you flunked me, so here I am, in your class. Now this floored me. I did not remember flunking this particular student, although it could be possible; in the summer workshop there are many students, and we often grade them for very short presentations and hardly see them the rest of the month. Same with the name she gave me; it sounded familiar, but I didn't recognize it as someone I knew well.

But the question remains. I'm a father, so I know how you can have native English, and still give someone instruction, and still have them do something stupid, or dangerous, or both, for no better reason than that they weren't thinking. Lots of times, it has nothing to do with language at all. But if you're a good teacher, and presumably Chemistry students want to be chemists, at least on some level, and if your communication is clear, and if your instruction is clear, generally they don't dump acid onto a base, even in a waste container. So, to what degree could this have been caused by language, or communication skills, or some other kind of failure?

Good question.

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At 11:27 PM, Blogger Serdar Kaleli said...

When I read your post two things came into my mind: What I heard from most of the students who took your speaking course was: Students work so hard to memorize a text before they take the performance test;and after they pass from that class and approved to teach, most of the TAs simply ignore what they have learned in that class. Another thing is -I don't know if it is only me but- I always have hard time understanding Chinese people speaking English. Maybe her student understood something else instead of what she was saying. I agree that your job is not easy and also I don't think that incident was related with your teaching abilities.

At 11:44 PM, Blogger Serdar Kaleli said...

After I read your post, there are two things came into my mind: What I heard from most of the students who took your speaking course was; before the students took their performance tests they memorized a text and that way they looked like they learned a lot and they were ready to be a teacher. After they pass from the class and approved to teach most of the TAs simply ignore what they learned. That way most of the students might had hard time understanding. Another thing is-I don't know if it is only me but- I always have hard time understanding Chinese people speaking English. I think their pronunciations are the hardest to understand. Maybe a student misunderstood what she was saying. I don't think you are the person to blame.

At 6:22 AM, Blogger tom said...

Thanks Serdar. I think you are right on both counts. The motivation to learn certain skills - tone, prominence, correct pace, etc. is much higher when you need to pass the ITA course, than later, when you have pressures of a syllabus and curriculum weighing on you. As for Chinese being more difficult to understand, they may well be most difficult for you, and they aren't easy for us, either, depending on the dialect. I sure HOPE this accident wasn't caused by language failure, but that's something they always say in the airline industry too. When I told someone it was their second accident they said SECOND? They've had MORE THAN TWO


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