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“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know from what you do.” – Sir Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington

"My dear. A lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears. "
- Violet in Downton Abbey

"By perseverance the snail reached the ark. "
- Charles Spurgeon

"Not all those who wander are lost."

30 juni 2016

"Teaching Immigration Law -1- (The student-teacher relationship)" by Wytzia Raspe

As a student at Leiden University in The Netherlands in Europe I was accustomed to teachers standing in front of a lecture hall filled with hundreds of students lecturing us about what was the study material of that particular week. I did not like it at all and just made sure I got my degree.

Years later as a lawyer I was allowed to go to the Nijmegen Law School and follow some courses there in immigration law. The group was small – around 25 people – and our teacher would walk in the classroom and ask us what we thought about a certain situation. And when we all had expressed our views tell us what the treaties had to say about a situation like that. I loved those courses.

Seven years later it was me teaching at a college and I had no formal teaching training so I just copied the way I was schooled in Nijmegen. My class was very engaged and when I got very ill just after they had their exam they mailed me cards and one girl called me for years once a year to ask how I was doing.

This year I was contacted by another college if I was able to give the lectures at their institute. I already taught at an online college for years but this was back to the classrooms. It turned out that all what did was summarize the studybook on Powerpoint sheets that were presented in class and then distributed via their intranet. Most of the students had not even bought the books or even opened their lawbooks. They completely panicked that I did not do it by Powerpoint but asked questions and discussed concepts, let the students see for themselves in the law and practised cases. Management did not have a click with me “because I made people nervous”. As a lawyer with 20 years of experience in immigration law who only had been teaching at 2 colleges prior I wondered what the hell I did wrong. So I joined a class on teaching.

For this class I have to write essays and this is the first one. The focus on the class is the relations a teacher has with students, co-workers, parents and things as cultural diversity and other subjects. This essay had to be about the relationship a teacher creates with his students.

One of my first eye openers was that there are two different types of teaching: The teachers that tell and the teachers that ask. That that combined with teaching either a narrow or a broad approach and how supportive a teacher is determines what kind of outcome there will be for the student.

This way that we interact with students in the classrooms is where the power lies in our classrooms. In depends on what kind of students we will create and let grow into professional grown ups. In my case what kind of lawyers I train them into.

What I had been doing and how I was taught as a student in Nijmegen was the method where students were asked questions and invited to join in. The last college I worked for had developed a method what was purely one set on memorizing I now realise. While I think that especially when you train lawyers it is way more important to try to go for the “knowledge” or the “understanding” outcome (see picture). Since laws change sometimes multiple times a year it is not so much the knowing how it is written down in detail now but learning the concepts and ideas what made the law, the mayor framework and know where to look for the current specific text later in life.

As we see in the diagram professor Townsend showed us in week 1 (see picture above) that means there needs to be a teacher asking question, a supportive teacher who interacts in a positive way and one that focusses on concept (the broad approach). Although in law we cannot avoid to train ourselves in facts (the narrow approach) too but that still leads to students that have mastered a mix of understanding and knowledge.

As professor Townsend says in week 1:
“if a teacher asks lots of questions, if those questions are about really
important elements of learning. And if the teacher then supports
the students to find the answer, then what we're really doing is trying
to promote student understanding. Rather than memorising
individual pieces of information we're helping students to
understand what that information means. We're helping them to develop
their own learning strategies.”

But to get to that goal the law professor needs to realise that teaching is not just blurting out a one way stream of legal facts, showering the students with Powerpoint sheets but he or she better gets the student really thinking about the pitfalls in immigration law, the moral dilemma's, the things that can destroy someone's claim for asylum, that immigration law is so much more complicated then what it seems to be. It will have the students more actively involved. I can still remember one case our law professor Thomas Spijkerboer asked us 16 years ago.

We as the one teaching have to make clear from the start that there are no stupid suggestions or questions in the classroom and people can speak up freely because the students are here to learn not to become stupid lawyers in the future and of course they still are in training so not expected to be as eloquent or correct as a Supreme Court judge. Only then people will feel free to open their mouth and will not hide themselves behind a more brave classmate.

Being afraid to admit you do not know something can flatten your learning curve. My worst day in court was right at the beginning of my career. I worked for the Dutch government and had to defend them in cases were illegal aliens who were caught in criminal acts were deported to their homelands. As someone in training my mentor would meet me in the train, we would go over my cases on our way to the city the court was assembled and then I would represent the government but she would sit in the back of me to help in case it was needed. That day she did not show up at the railwaystation and I had to do it all alone and flunked big time. In despair I said (remember I was still very young and in training): “But Your Honor I do not see what is wrong with these cases and what I am doing wrong”. Then I felt like the ground opened up under me so ashamed I was. The judge looked at me – he was a parttime university professor – and said to opposing council “You just sit and keep quiet. I will explain something to your colleague." And then very friendly told me he would explain. "Miss Raspe are you not still in training and normally miss X accompanies you being your mentor?” I explained she had not showed up in the train. He said she should have come as she had to teach me things but he would explain it to me himself now. He did. I felt like a total moron and even more because miss X made it my fault when she heard and not her for not showing up. No it was me who was stupid and had flunked the case. But I never forgot the explanation the judge had given me. Years later I met the same judge again in another court. I had to defend the government in a long line of cases that would take up all morning. My knees felt a bit like jelly because I remembered what had happened the last time I saw him years prior. At case number 3 the appellant had not shown so it was just me and the court. I started my official plea. The judge interrupted and said; “Miss Raspe there is no need to try to impress me. I watched you in the prior two cases and it is clear to me you have become a fine lawyer since that last time we met. So just answer the two things I need to know in this case.” and gave me a wide smile. His reaction and that of my mentor are explanatory about what is the difference in teaching in a supportive way or in an oppressive way.

I think what apart from interaction, support and teaching concepts is also very important when teaching law is trying to show your students why knowing the
ins- and outs of something potentially boring as law can be fun. Be enthusiastic! Hand out the love for your field of knowledge. Explain how life changing things can be for a person and how they can be able to help that person.

And if those students ask you for an extra lesson because they want to excel in what you have been teaching do not think “I am not getting paid to do that” but smile and say you are glad they are so eager to learn.

This was an edited version of an essay I had to write as homework for my course Foundations of Teaching for Learning 8: Developing Relationships. You can find that one here:

Oh and remember: We all make mistakes and if you are clever you try to learn from them. And that will make you stronger!

 This article was posted originally here: by @wytzia on @LinkedIn

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