What makes a student memorable? As an instructor, I’m not supposed to have favorites, but I have to admit that I do. Typically, these favorites were my troubled, unprepared, or lazy students. They became my favorites because I worked with them closely, counseled them, and got to know them as people, not just a warm body sitting in my classroom.
One of my most memorable students, Ali, attended an intensive English program (IEP) in Arkansas in the United States. This program focused on academic skills and taught classes split by skills such as reading, writing, grammar, and speaking. Ali was repeating his level’s reading course. He struggled a lot, even the second time through. Because he was a Saudi student, many of the instructors didn’t have much faith in him. He was assumed to be a loser, a waste of time, and impossible because of their experiences with other Saudis. Unfortunately, compared to the students from other countries, our Saudi students did not come with the same academic preparation, work ethic, conversation skills, or global knowledge that our Panamanian, Iraqi, Brazilian, Rwandan, Ukrainian, or other students did. Many of our Saudi students never finished the program. Yet, despite his struggles, Ali did work hard. He always did his homework, asked questions, went to tutoring, and spoke English at every opportunity.
The semester he was my student in the English reading class, we focused on intensive and extensive reading. As extensive reading, we read The Alchemist as a class. My students were having trouble understanding the context and cultures in the book. I happened to have 5 Saudi students and 5 Panamanian students in my class. One day, I completely threw away my lesson plan and asked my students to create two groups based on religion (Muslim and Catholic). My instructions were to work as a group and list the 5 most important facts that someone should know about your religion. Later, we wrote them on the board to compare the similarities and discuss the differences.
A Panamanian student asked if she could ask me a question about Islam. I took a moment, and then stated that we had 5 experts in the class who would probably be happy to answer questions. I asked my Muslim group of Saudi students if they would be willing to answer some questions, and Ali lit up. I never knew he was a devout Muslim before that day, but he was thrilled to discuss and explain something he knew well.
My Panamanian asked her question, and my Saudis answered. This one question turned into an entire discussion that lasted most of the class period. I didn’t have to chime in or get the conversation back on track. The students took the class discussion and started to apply it to the reading. That was what I had been hoping to do, and they did it on their own. By giving them a safe environment to explore and discuss the topics we did, they achieved more than I could have planned myself.
That day Ali changed. He continued to work hard on his own, but he also started to reach out to his classmates and ask for help from the high performers. He started to grow his circle of friends and improved exponentially academically. I had never seen a turn-around like his before.
About two and a half years ago, he reached out to see how I was doing and where I was working. He told me that he still remembered that reading class. Those words made me feel warm and wonderful inside. Almost a year after that contact, he reached out again and I found, that this once hesitant student had graduated from an American university with a Ph.D.
As a teacher, one rarely gets to see the plants that grow from the seeds planted. I’m privileged to know that I played a part in Ali’s success.
Candace Lake-Ejim is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Hansung University in Seoul, South Korea. Her professional passion is to help other teachers to succeed by providing the same support and advice received from mentors and colleagues throughout the years.