When in Rome, do as the Romans do, or is it better to say “when in America…?”
Before arriving in the United States, I was living and teaching Spanish in my own country, Spain, in France, and in Poland and I had had experience with students from all continents. However, it doesn´t matter how many previous experiences you have because students always surpass your expectations.
I remember that a few weeks before coming to Brown, I met someone who had been teaching here in the past. I will never forget what this person told me about Brown students. Her exact words were: “Brown students are the best students that you´ll ever dream of in your life.” In that moment I was very intrigued imagining what that meant. After three years working at Brown, I would like to reveal some characteristics of Brown students seen through the eyes of a foreign teacher.
Firstly, their high motivation stands out. During my first days teaching Brown courses I felt so shocked that I couldn´t stop talking about this with my friends. The reason was that when I asked something in class, a lot of hands were immediately raised to give the answer and, in one second, the classroom looked like a forest of thin trees looking for the sun. I had never been in this situation in my previous experiences. Usually, students have to be pushed to talk or most of them hide, or pretend to be looking for something interesting in their books …when the teacher asks. But here, the opposite happens. This used to cause me fun stress at the beginning because I didn´t know who to call on (I did not want anyone to feel upset.)
Another thing that left me perplexed the first days was that students were eating in class. Indeed, sometimes they even brought a knife, bread, and butter, and breakfast was prepared in the classroom. This left me stunned. I decided to ban this because the classroom always ended up smelling like the sandwich someone took or, what is worse, I got a terrible appetite. But how would they have time for breakfast if some didn´t even have time to change their pajamas? My friends do not believe that some students come to class in their pajamas. They ask me for evidence. I also wouldn´t believe it if I did not see it. But this fact shows that they feel relaxed in class and it´s known that lack of stress fosters learning.
I often wonder how they have time to learn despite all the activities they do everyday. Students at Brown are multi-taskers. They participate in volunteering, conferences, as tourist guides, briefings of whatever, sports, music, ballet, modern dance, salsa, theater… Some practice three hours of sport before coming to class, others work in cafeterias, libraries, etc. And besides all this, they have time to study and have fun. Breathtaking.
With all of this to do, it is normal that sometimes students feel tired especially during the mid and final terms and that they get frustrated when they do not get an “A.” Brown students are obsessed with the grade “A.” In many countries, “B” is a good score and, in some subjects, we pray to earn a “C.” Having a good academic record is very important but it is also important not to get frustrated if you do not get an “A” in everything. Grades are not a synonym for the value of a person. Sometimes, and this makes me feel very sad, on the walls of the bathrooms you can read desperate notes from people who can not handle the stress. Believe me, the time that you spend at the university is one of the best times of your life. Enjoy it. There is life beyond exams and grades.
Thinking about exams makes me think about the honesty of Brown students. Never in the three years I’ve worked here have I caught a student cheating on a test. Once in a while, someone might take a quick peek at a peer´s test, but that is all. They don´t even make cheat sheets!!! In Spain, cheat sheets are such an art form, they have a special word: “chuleta,” which means “pork chop!” If you multiply the word “incredible” by a thousand, you would have an approximate idea of the enormous surprise that it causes to all humanity. Of course:
1. Some students are not as honest but, fortunately, this is only a minority and it is on the verge of being extinguished.
2. Teachers, we are confident but not ingenuous and we keep watching anyway.
However, this honesty is not only reflected in exams but also in their general attitude. A good example of it is when students are ill. They usually clarify all details of the diseases because they really need to be believed. To avoid embarrassing anyone, I am not going to mention all the details that my students have given me about their diarrhea. Seriously, guys, we believe you when you say that you are sick. We do not need such detailed information.
Over three years, I have had the privilege to work with Brown students and I am convinced that I have learned more from them than they from me. During this time I have felt their frustration when they have not had the expected grade, their nervousness when they had a job interview. I have seen them taking a nap after running three hours before arriving in class or after having studied all night. Now, almost like a second mother, I know how they spend their free time, what their hopes and passions are, what they eat, how they sleep, and even what meals don´t sit well with them. One of the things I will miss the most about Brown is this closeness, finishing classes with every one of these brilliant students and individuals, leaving with a smile telling me, “Thanks, Tachi, see you tomorrow.”