The water hissed and simmered in the massive iron kettle to my left. Dipping a bamboo tea scoop into the hot water, I drew out a cupful and poured it into a ceramic bowl, adding it to the green matcha powder at the bottom. I reached for the tea whisk, raising and lowering it as my teacher had demonstrated, rotating it slightly above the tea bowl with each turn. As I whisked the water, my teacher corrected my form, pointing out the placement and angle of my hand holding the bowl. I found the tearoom to be calming, but as a beginning-level student straining to recall each step, I also found it challenging to progress without explicit instruction.


After class, I stopped in the coffee shop across the street. Since students weren’t encouraged to take notes during class, I mentally reviewed the lesson, drawing pictures and scribbling notes, as I sipped a cappuccino. My class was taught in the same traditional way my teacher had learned in Japan: by watching, observing, and establishing muscle memory through repeated practice. Having struggled with this approach, I realized I needed to supplement the class instruction with online articles and videos. (This frantic research often happened at the last minute, as I scrambled to prepare for the next day’s class!)

Life’s “Aha” Moments:

You may have heard Oprah Winfrey speak of life’s “aha” moments (the term even appears in Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries now): those moments of insight when something makes you look at life or a situation in a different way or with a new perspective. Taking lessons to learn the Japanese tea ceremony was an “aha” moment for me: since the delivery of instruction was fixed, I knew it would have to be me, as the tea student, who had to become flexible in other ways in order to thrive in class.

Instructional Choices:

Fortunately for our students, we’re not similarly tied to one method of instruction; as educators, we have the flexibility to adopt a range of instructional choices in our classes. We can consider how to design a classroom or distance learning experience where all of our students can progress, improve, and succeed. In my case, I needed lots of practice for my tea ceremony classes: to remember the pattern of steps into and out of the tea room, and to remember how to hold the tea scoop as I drew water from the kettle. Simply watching my fellow students wasn’t enough; I had to digest the information in a different way: it was a change in perspective.

Now how did this experience transfer to my work at school? My revelation from the tea ceremony class made me look at my own students and wonder about new ways I could try and match lessons to their particular learning style. One example where a student was struggling in my class led me to collaborate with an occupational therapist on staff. We discussed identifying the student’s strengths and when it might be necessary to provide support during the day to allow for greater success in the class. As I was new to the school, she explained the vast array of tools (desk timers, fidget tools, visual schedules, trackers, exercise equipment, and oral motor tools) that she had available. For those students who struggled to keep up in the class, as I did in my tea ceremony class, I now had a variety of resources I could use to enhance my instruction.

During this COVID-19 period, we’ve all become students in one way or another and learned to fill our days with new routines. Maybe you’ve taken online exercise, cooking, or art classes; maybe you’ve become a Zoom master and hosted virtual gatherings. Have you developed a new perspective or had a flash of insight about your learning style? What was your “aha” moment?  Leave a comment on social media or tag @SavvasLearning referencing this blog post to share your thoughts.

About the author: Susan Gavin started an ESL consulting business after graduating from Northern Illinois University. For the next 14 years, she taught ESL to Japanese expatriates living in the Chicago area. She also spent time teaching ESL in Taiwan and Japan. Susan then used this experience in her work as a senior editor at Pearson Education, working on curriculum development in the Social Studies, Math, Science, Reading, and Digital Literacy departments. She is currently working in elementary education in the Chicago suburbs.


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Susan Gavin

Susan Gavin

Educator and Editor

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

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