Interview with Sara K. Othman, PhD:
Interviewed By Aras Ahmed Mhamad
AA: What are the most important things that you first teach your students? How do you prepare them for the year psychologically?
SO: This is a very good question ‘What to teach first?’ Before teaching any item, students should be prepared psychologically that the teacher is only a guide and that with students they cooperate together to get a target which is learning new items and having a new year of experience.
Psychological preparation comes at first in all of the stages. I personally always try to tell my students that a teacher can be a close person to you whom you can trust, love, and respect ; whom you can talk to whenever you want to in order to learn. At the same time we tell them they have to work hard and to trust their abilities that at the end of the year they have experienced new things and got new items successfully. I like to have a flourishing start with my students.
AA: Student, teacher, and curriculum: How do you look at this triangle? Which one is more central to education?
SO: This is a triangle: which is, if you remove one item of it, it is no more a triangle. I think they all work together. Students cannot be in the process of learning accurately without having a guide, who is a teacher, and both the teacher and the students cannot do a great thing if they do not have a curriculum in hand.
People cannot teach randomly, you cannot reach anywhere and, as much as they teach, they feel there is still more to be said and taught. There are situations where the teacher is a qualified one and there are students willing to learn, but there is no curriculum in hands, or the books recommended may not be at their understanding level. The result will not be successful. The same can be applied to the other angles, i.e. the students and the teacher.
AA: Weak students usually feel unappreciated and become stressed. How do you engage them and let them gain confidence?
SO: A qualified teacher is the one who expects that he/she will have different students of different levels in a group, including weak students. Sure, weak students feel stressed and inferior. They shouldn’t be neglected in class and every now and then should be given roles to play and, whenever they have a correct answer, they are to be appreciated and thanked. in turn it is a kind of encouragement. Discrimination among students is unfair.
After all they also come to learn. We have to bear in mind that, in spite of those students who are neglecting their homework and are careless by themselves, the level of understanding and comprehension is not equally distributed among people. So it is expected that there are weak students in all groups.
AA: Education is every citizen’s essential right, regardless of religious beliefs, political affiliations, gender, skin color, ability, etc. What is your comment on that?
SO: Yes, it is the right of every human being to have and there is no proof to show that these distinctions among humanity cause different levels of learning. If it were like that, no doubt, we would hear different approaches of learning based on different races, different colors, etc.
AA: What are the key strategies for increasing student involvement, motivation and understanding? What do you think is the most suitable pedagogical way of teaching?
SO: So far there is no single, 100% percent, way of learning that is adequate at all levels for all types of students, but we can say that the communicative approach is one of the best kinds, where the teacher is only a guide and the students are more involved in the process of learning. It is a student-dominant class.
Students are motivated to speak, to comment, to act and to teach sometimes. The role of the teacher is to observe, guide, and help in the class. In the communicative approach, the teacher is helping the students to have the materials in hand and asking the students to prepare the materials as much as they can, then giving them the role to play by discussing among their friends in a group or talking to all the students in class. In this way the student is given the role of a teacher and at the same time he is a student trying to learn.
AA: Which one is preferable and productive: the student-focused approach or teacher-centered approach? What are the hurdles a teacher faces in communicating with their students effectively?
SO: In my opinion, the student-focused approach is more preferable than the teacher-based approach, as students feel they are part of the learning process. They feel more active and can learn even from their mistakes, but the role of the teacher as a guide cannot be neglected.
One of the obstacles teachers are facing is that there can be some chaos and noise while the students are speaking and commenting, and there might be some students who can exploit the situation and waste time. Still nothing is impossible, there are more advantages in the student- based approach than in the teacher –based approach. I believe a good teacher can sometimes skip from one approach to another and see what is workable and not boring to do.
AA: How can teachers initiate and maintain classroom interactions, develop a student’s self-confidence and improve outcomes? From your experience, can examinations determine the true value of a student?
SO: Good teachers are those who teach best, and best teaching is done when there is a programmed plan in the hand of the teacher and an experienced teacher teaching in class who has control over all situations. Teaching is successful when there is not only the teacher, but also the students involved.
I don’t think that always examinations show the true value of the student. During the whole year a teacher can see the role, the activities and the part the student is playing. It is unfair if all the marks of the course are given to the exam only.
AA: Fear of making mistakes, inability to take responsibility, unwillingness to read and lack of confidence: these are the most observable traits of some Kurdish students. What is your opinion of this and what are some characteristics of a good teacher?
SO: I totally agree with that; these are the things common to our Kurdish students. Most Kurdish students do not have trust in themselves that one day they can be very good speakers of English. I can say that the teaching process cannot be successful by the effort of one group or one person, i.e. a teacher, but by the cooperation of both.
That is why a teacher cannot be a good one if there are not enthusiastic students, or students having no confidence in themselves. For Kurdish students, I believe partly it refers to their personality, not only in learning a foreign language but also in learning other materials as well. So it seems to be difficult for the English teachers to develop the students to speak English very well.
AA: What are the seeds of learning? Is it the arranged curriculum?
SO: It is true that learning is not always easy. There can be some plans for it. The arranged curriculum is that programmed plan. In the curriculum the lessons are arranged according to the stage of the students and are put week by week and month by month. Within the curriculum I believe the facilities of learning should be included. A teacher needs a lot of strategies for teaching. But one has to bear in mind that it is not only the only seeds for learning, but the triangle of “the teacher, the students with the curriculum cannot be forgotten”.
AA: What are the most obvious characteristics of a successful student?
SO: I can say a successful student is a hard-working student, but not always a clever student. Because through being a hard worker, he/she can be clever. In addition to this, a successful student devotes himself/ herself for learning and for education. He is aware and indulged in the process of learning. A successful student is a good reader, a good observer and a good performer. He/She is an active speaker in class, and an excellent participator.
Sara K. Othman is a Lecturer and a PhD Holder at the University of Slemani- Kurdistan Region, Iraq. She has been teaching as a faculty member at the Department of English –School of Languages since 2003, teaching English Grammar, linguistics, morphology and semantics. She got a B.A and M.A at the University of Slemani in 1998 and 2003 respectively. She got PhD in Cognitive Linguistics at the University of Salahaddin in 2013. She also lectured at the University of Human Development in Kurdistan in 2009-2010.
Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelancer. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART magazine, an independent English magazine that focuses on ‘Literature, Language, Society’. He is the Top Student of College of Languages at the Department of English/ University of Human Development, 2012. He is the Cultural Analyst at the Kurdish Review Newspaper.