Opportunity (n.)

‘Opportunity’ comes into English from Latin via Old French, meaning a fit, convenient or seasonable time; the Latin opportunus itself derives from the phrase ob portum veniens or ‘coming towards a port’ (etymonline). To have an opportunity, therefore, was to be travelling with a favourable wind towards a place where you could make landfall. In addition to this wonderful metaphor, I’ve always liked the Welsh word cyfle, which combines the prefix cyf- meaning something like ‘with’, and the word for ‘place’. If you have an ‘opportunity’ in Welsh, therefore, you are with a place. In English, we now use the word ‘opportunity’ in the broad sense of ‘a situation where it is possible for you to do something’ (Cambridge).

I make regular use of the word ‘opportunity’ when giving both oral and written feedback after doing classroom observations. Live teaching is full of opportunities, many of which are more easily spotted when you’re not the teacher embedded in the situation, but rather the critical-friend-observer, seated in a corner at the back of the room. That is to say, it’s not the planned portions of lessons I find myself most interested in, most of the time, but the unplanned moments. The moments when benefit could be derived from doing something that was not carefully thought out ahead of time. Sometimes, I think, we can be so deeply attached to the plan we’ve carefully designed (and this effect can be heightened when you have the Director of Studies watching you), that we miss opportunities where magic might happen. And I realise the word ‘might’ is doing a lot of heavy lifting there.

I find myself advising that teachers ‘exploit every opportunity to…’ or ‘plan more opportunities when…’. The opportunities I want them to seek are almost always those when students produce something (pronunciation practice, compare answers in pairs, discuss something meaningful with a classmate, and so on). I want to see my teachers letting go a bit more and letting the students do a bit more work, be a bit more expressive and be a bit more productive. These moments can be beautiful: students comparing in pairs, discussing and debating, a light bulb moment and a lesson possibly learned.

Moving to a more broad context and away from the classroom milieu that so often informs my writing. I wonder how many opportunities we miss in our everyday lives and how many of those would be more beneficial and enriching than the things we are so focussed on when we miss them: opportunities for reflection or connection, moments of awareness or appreciation. Recently, the commuter train system in Madrid has been somewhat problematic and unreliable, but I’m setting myself a goal for this week: seek an opportunity to smile during each commute each day. What opportunities will you seek?

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