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The Audience Shapes the Speaker

September 15, 2008

Last Wednesday, I presented to a group of university teachers in the morning, and then took a shuttle bus out to another campus to teach my first class this term. The experience reminded me of something all experienced teachers come to recognize – the audience shapes the speaker.

My first regular teaching job was teaching ESL to adult immigrants – in the Polish Hall on Barton St. in Hamilton. The teacher I was substituting for wrote out and explained the lesson to me ahead of time – a fifth level lesson in a series of six levels. I finished teaching it before the morning coffee break! While I was panicking, three of the students, recently arrived from then Czechoslovakia, invited me for a coffee in the Chinese restaurant next door. There, while “Hey Jude” played over and over – it was a long time ago;-> – these students gently told me that while I knew the English language, they knew the teaching technique and would I like them to help me. I had no hesitation in gratefully accepting. They shaped me as a teacher – I always try to learn from my students how they need/want to be taught.

Over many years of teaching I have found that I can teach using exactly the same lesson plan and get wildly different results. The time of day, the classroom, the size of the class, all these can contribute to the situation, but the overwhelming impact is the class’s willingness to engage in the learning. I’ve had classes who immediately engaged, I’ve had classes I could woo into engaging, I’ve had reluctant classes who engaged slowly and almost resentfully, and I’ve had – a bitter memory – a very few classes that made my teaching a hollow mockery where I was talking to myself. (I blame, in one case, an ignorant administration completely uninterested in teachers and students as people who fit or don’t fit together, but that’s an old story, thankfully.)

Last Wednesday morning, I was the fourth speaker talking to the group of teachers getting some professional development. My personal context is that I’ve been talking and writing about the pedagogical value of various free and easy web applications for at least four years. Often I have felt resistance or no response, whether to my blog posts, my presentations, or to informal conversations. I have taken solace by going to the edublogosphere where I read the reports of other teachers on what web applications they were using with their classes and I ‘follow’ their blogs and they follow mine. It’s a good community of practice, but it’s ll at a distance. Last Wednesday morning my audience was live, and and it was different.

I watched them respond to other presenters, and sensed their strong attention. The presenter immediately before me, Jim Cummins of OISE/UT, was fascinating and everyone responded strongly to him. I could tell the audience was highly open to being engaged. I relaxed despite my adrenalin flowing.

I was under somewhat of a handicap. My laptop couldn’t connect to the wireless, so I was using another laptop on another platform than I’m used to. As I spoke, using the wiki I had prepared on web basics for teachers, I discovered that the borrowed laptop I was using didn’t have the plug-ins for the videos I’d embedded! Another technical glitch! Usually that would throw me and my presenting skills would break down. Not this time, because I could feel the audience supporting me.

I haven’t had as much fun presenting in months. I could tell I was doing a good job because (my favorite test) they laughed at my bad jokes, and they asked good questions. Because they were such a good audience, I was a good presenter.

My afternoon class went well too. I was still ‘pumped’ from my morning, and excited about my first meeting with this class for a course I love to teach. A full room of students, some of whom heard about this course from previous students before they chose it, makes for a great audience. The class went well, and, as I took the names of those on the waiting list hoping to get a space, I felt the same kind of lift as in the morning. I hope the term goes as well as it feels it will!

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 17, 2008 7:12 am

    Hi Joan- Your post leaves me a bit less anxious as I approach a conference next week where I’ll be presenting. I don’t get out much (on a professional level) being a virtual worker so the thought of standing in front of a group of peers with my temperamental laptop is scary. Thanks. Glad to hear about your presentation and current class. Word-of-mouth students and waiting lists! Brava!

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