The All-Encompassing Package that is Teaching

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This week was my first week working as a teacher in my old secondary school. So much has happened in the short span of five days that I can’t possibly put everything down in nice concise sentences. I feel like a pet fish thrown into open water. It has been immensely tiring yet at the end of all this I feel tremendously encouraged to carry on. I feel at peace with myself after all this. It’s hard to describe this feeling precisely because it has been so long since I’ve felt this way; living my own life and doing the things I believe in. I guess one good way to visualize this would be to imagine a smooth flowing river, water heading towards the ocean, lost in its unobstructed flow, unhindered, free and purposeful.

 I knew before I stepped into my first classroom that I had to strip away all idealistic notions of what “being a teacher” meant. Sure, you get to touch lives and make lasting impressions, so on and so forth. That’s one message MOE advertisements have been trying relentlessly to instill in the public. But I knew with acute clarity that this was not going to be the case; at least not in the short space of one week. I held my reservations as I stepped into my first class.

My first class was a rowdy bunch of secondary three kids, which I was tasked to teach the fine and delicate subject of literature to. Yes, I should expect disaster when it comes to this. I was new, alone, young, and inexperienced. And chances are, these kids knew it. And besides, decades of social reinforcement show that literature isn’t a “guy thing”. First impressions are important. I could start by throwing a table out of the window and scare the living daylights out of these kids. I mean it’s actually not a bad investment. If you scare these kids enough you could actually have attentive lessons in the long run. When they let their guard down you could throw something else out the classroom or break a broomstick. Easy. And it is proven to work almost every time. However, I went for a different approach. Scaring them by being firm was just not my thing. If you’ve known me for any good measure of time you’ll know I’m not the type to be fierce or aggressive over anything involving another human being. I couldn’t be overly firm. So what else was I to do?

I did something one of my literature teachers did in the past. I made them come up with their own ideas after I briefly introduced myself. I asked them to come up with a word and branch out to as many words with an association to this particular word. We made a mind map of sorts. The class was noisy at first, giving unfocused and slightly age inappropriate replies. However, they soon caught on and started giving answers that I valued. If you want to gain a kids respect, it is important to pay attention and credit them for their opinion. I basically started with that, thanking everyone who gave valid answers, and soon the naughty ones started chipping in some valid answers as well, much to their delight.

I explained to them that this is literature in a nutshell: to find meaning, value and significance within certain words, circumstances and characteristics. Of course, I didn’t put it so nicely, but I got the message across. It was from there that everything went smoothly. I went about trying to answer questions, walking to their tables and talking to them face to face. If you could get up close and personal, and give them the attention that they need, it is only natural that they give you the respect you deserve. It is hard work and I admit that.

Later, I got them to write a paragraph for me in the best of their abilities, and at the end of the lesson found out that five of them were copying from each other all along. These were the mischievous five that never failed to cause the occasional ruckus. I could scold them the next lesson, and for a moment I was tempted to. But eventually I just wrote a short personal paragraph at the back of each of their papers telling them nicely not to waste their time and to have fun understanding the poem (probably sounded very lame to them) and to discover “something more” within each line. It didn’t make much sense come to think of it, but in retrospect I guess it didn’t really have to make sense. The fact that I was willing to write so much for them despite their behavior probably spoke the loudest to them.

They were much better the next lesson. I asked them to copy down notes this time and to my pleasant surprise, every last boy did it. Halfway through the lesson one of the boys in the mischievous five even asked me “Sir when are you leaving?” and when I told him probably by term two, he replied, “Sir, we want you to stay to the end leh.” I was taken aback by that and mildly touched. Sometimes you have to wonder, what makes these kids that seemed so horrible to work with at the start, say something so heartwarming?

I am very new to this and have no previous experiences to relate to, but if I had to go by first impressions, I believe it is absolutely crucial to let them know you care. Between all the harsh scolding and sending offs, a child often stops believing that you care. They deprive him of the attention he truly needs and in the end you will be unable to direct his energy in a positive direction. Sure, this is all very theoretical and abstract, but it’s all I’ve got to last the next two and a half months. Bottom line is, I have to continue paying close attention to these kids and understand them. These kids have encouraged and inspired me so much thus far. I feel hopeful when I take my literature class, hopeful when the kids smile and say hi when I walk past them during change of periods, when they bombard me with questions about the poem which they refused read just a few minutes ago.

So yes, that was my first week. Probably not the best indicator of the coming weeks but it is a highly encouraging start. Working here was never going to be a breeze and I knew that. There have been grumbles, curses and times I wished I were on the other side of the desk. This is part of the all-encompassing package that is teaching. And I know that for sure now.

It’s going to be an interesting and tiring next few weeks. I hope to continue working with my class, to understand what literature means to them both inside and outside the classroom. The rowdiness, raised hands, broken paragraphs and looks of heavy contemplation will be a sight to behold every day. And that in itself makes for good literature.

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