Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn

There is an expression, “The best way to learn something is to teach it.”  I had heard this saying several times but it never resonated with me until recently.

Spain is my home country and Spanish the main language in the soundtrack of my life. In school we learned French as well, so upon arriving in the US, I already could read, speak and write in two languages. That made it easier for me to develop my command of English through college courses and everyday interaction. 

After trying my hand at a variety of things, I heeded the call of Spanish interpreting. That was 1996. I started as a freelancer and now I am a full-time staff interpreter for the New Jersey Judiciary. To reach my current position, I went the hard route: educational courses and examinations in the various modes of Spanish court interpreting; consecutive, simultaneous, and sight.  In the process I learned a lot, applied my knowledge to the tests I was required to take, and then to live interpreting scenarios, both within and outside of the courtroom.  My pride in my work is reflected in my professionalism. And I never cease to take advantage of learning opportunities, like the one below.

This year I was offered a position as a Spanish simultaneous interpreter instructor at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey.  Having never taught a class, I was hesitant to accept it, but did so nonetheless.  To say that I was fraught with anxiety and apprehension would be an understatement. 

In preparation for the classes I was about to teach, I did my homework: referring to study material accumulated over the years and researching new material from libraries, book stores, and the Internet.  I was proud of what I had put together to share with my students in a way I believed would benefit them. In preparing to teach, I re-learned, and learned a lot more.

Developing internal resources to support one’s teaching starts early in life and evolves through education, life experiences, interaction with others, maturity, focused dedication to a particular profession, and performance.  But, if all of that knowledge and talent is kept within a person, like keeping gold coins hidden in a safe, the broader level is not attained. Those precious nuggets of knowledge we collect must be shared to have value.  The value within a person must be shared with others.  In the process, you mine the precious metals within you, understand and appreciate their value, and share them. That is what teaching allows one to do. 

My learning continues as I stand in front of a class of eager learners, passing on my knowledge, helping them find their own nuggets to start their private collections.   Here I draw knowledge from those accumulated resources within me, mentally processing them before I speak and let my voice carry them.  It is a process of learning by teaching.  That brought the phrase “the best way to learn something is to teach it” to life. What an experience.


By Maria Teresa Perez

4 thoughts on “Learn to Teach, Teach to Learn”

  1. Gio Lester says:

    It is true: the best way to learn is by teaching. It forces us to research, be open minded and try new concepts, philosophies, tools…It makes life that much more beautiful.

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Maria Teresa.

  2. Vicki Santamaria says:

    This is so true! I was fairly fluent and literate in Spanish before I became a high school Spanish teacher (one would hope so, right?) but it was teaching students how and when to use accent marks that I finally mastered them myself. Same thing with the more difficult verb conjugations.

    Now I teach English to immigrants and I’m finding I really have to think about English grammar in a way I never have before in order to explain it to my students.

    This is just one of the ways teaching can be rewarding.

  3. Grace says:

    Maria Teresa, I am sure you make a wonderful teacher!

  4. Silvana Garetz says:

    Before I became a full time freelance legal and medical interpreter, I taught an ESL Computer Class to Adults for many years. The class was a mixed level class, which means some students were beginners, others intermediate and some almost fluent English speakers.

    It was a wonderful experience! I was handed by the previous teacher a binder with a few samples of projects for the students to learn by working on projects. The teaching/learning was meant to be project-based, but I wanted to take the concept to the next level, so I looked for simple ESL Computer textbooks with handbooks and I revised lessons and recreated many of them to adapt them to my class. I also joined ESL teachers’ associations to learn from other ESL more experienced instructors.

    After the first year, I thought I had already created all of the materials I would ever need, but I came to realize that each group of students was quite different from the previous one and I always had to adapt the materials to meet their needs. My students were my teachers as well as my students.

    Before teaching ESL, I had gone back to school to earn a Masters in English, T.E.S.O.L. Option. I am so glad I did! It gave me the foundation to understand about language acquisition, pedagogy, the process of learning, and the many factors that affect student learning, but experience is the best teacher.

    Good luck on your new endeavor! Indeed, you will learn a lot from your students as well!!

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