Teaching, Part II

It is already March. More than two months have passed since I first stepped into the staff room.

Remember my first post about teaching? I sort of acknowledged that teaching came with it’s own ideals, and that you have to dismantle every last one of them to survive. If you don’t destroy your ideals, they will destroy you. Well, that’s what I thought, and I guess it worked for a while. Teaching each class, I tried having fun while I could with them, and the boys have been largely supportive of me. Of me, meaning me as a person. They can like you, but will they like what you teach? Lesson time is almost always noisy, and needless to say, I’ve had to compete with all that noise. When your primary school teacher says things like, THERE ARE FORTY OF YOU AND ONE OF ME, she absolutely means it. It is tiring, and you get frustrated.

Funny story, when I started off I made this silly vow to never shout in class. Amazingly, for the first week, it worked. The boys were still in a daze from the holidays, fresh from all the slacking and unfamiliar with each other after such a long absence. I could be engaging, and they would listen. I knew this wouldn’t last, though. I had been a student before, and I just knew they needed a few weeks to warm up.

It may have been the second or third week that I shouted for the first time. Two boys got annoyed at each other, and the bigger sized boy pushed his classmate to the ground. I strode over and slammed my hand on the table so hard my palm hurt. I shouted at him to sit down, I shouted at him to think about what he just did, and I shouted at him to look me in the eye. I shouted at him as if we were fighting a war and there were bullets whizzing overhead and bombs falling around us. I shouted so loud the entire class froze, that everything seemed to stand still for a while. My throat hurt and I was trembling. The boys looked at me quietly, as if thinking but you’re just a relief teacher…aren’t you supposed to be nice? Yes, I am a relief teacher, but no, I won’t be nice if that means you get to injure your classmate. There is something more important than kindness, and that is fear: the fear of wrong choices. That day, I felt very surprised at myself, that I could actually be so stern. It felt good to be firm about something, yet it felt strangely out of character. After that first time, the subsequent shouting sessions didn’t matter as much anymore, and the same goes for most first time experiences.

The subject I teach is very interesting to me, and I find great meaning in it. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for all my students. Not that I blame them; no one can do six subjects in school and say they’re in love with every one of them. They tend to prioritize their energy on certain subjects and slack off on the others. It’s just my luck that Literature seems to be a popular “slack off” choice. So, weeks wore on and I could tell, that the interest level in the subject was fading. They were getting rowdier, clustering together at the back and disrupting my teaching.

Those were a tough few weeks for me. I thought I had prepared myself for it, but I was wrong. This is one problem that shouting wasn’t going to cure. There were a few attentive ones, but that was it. The rest were uninterested. They didn’t listen not because they were distracted, or that they were tired. They didn’t listen simply because they didn’t want to. That was, to me, very hard to accept.

I would wake up on some days and ask myself: is it worth it? Is it worth teaching when you know that a lot of what you say may not actually help the kids? Sure, it got interesting sometimes, the weird things the students say, and weirder things they did. It was all fun and laughter, but I couldn’t help but think, that beneath all that, how much was I actually helping them? My confidence fell at that period, and I worried a lot about how I could reach out to these kids. One of the students told me after lesson, sir, I can’t listen well in class because it is just too distracting, we’re not getting much done. That comment was so raw and honest that it scalded me. I felt so empty after that lesson, and so bitterly discouraged.

That low point lasted for about a month. I would go to school and find it so hard to face the lesson, find it so hard to understand these kids. I’d like to think I understood what they had going on in their heads, but I have to admit, I had left my student days clean behind. I was tired but tried not to show it, annoyed at myself but pretended to smile through it all.

What eventually saved me was that I never stopped trying. I had to abide by the universal truth; that you cannot expect the circumstances to change for you, that you yourself have to change for your circumstances. I just kept to the routines: planning lessons, shouting for attention, slamming doors, banging tables, and giving out worksheet after worksheet. I mixed things up, and attempted to make things interesting.

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Found this in one of my students’ essays. And it related well to my situation at that time, that the storms you go through will eventually define you.

I think that after a month or so, it has paid off. It paid off not because the classes got any easier to teach, and it certainly hasn’t made the rowdy bunch any more subdued. It worked because after trying week after week, my perspective started to shift. I started to believe that although these kids may not appear to listen, they actually need you. Sure, they don’t need you to survive by a long shot, and neither will they need you as a friend. But when they look back at their secondary school days, they will realize how big a role every teacher has played, just like how I realize it now. What they need you for is your role in their growing experience; one that may have turned out totally dissimilar had a different teacher taken my place. I remember every last teacher that had taught me, and I’m sure the kids I teach will (hopefully) remember me. I hope they remember the “values” that I have preached, the ideas that I’ve shared during lesson. Time keeps running, and these are irreplaceable moments in their lives that cannot ever be exchanged for anything else. As someone who is just a relief teacher, I am glad I could share these moments with them. As you can see, I’m pretty idealistic after all.

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It’s all about perspective, isn’t it?

It saddens me to say that I will be leaving soon. Maybe I’ll be back for a day or two in between holidays, but once the rhythm and routine is broken, it just won’t be the same anymore. This is probably a cliché in education, but I believe that the kids have taught me much more about life than I’ve taught them about literature and in some way that makes me feel selfish.

Learning purely from experience has been both terrible and fun, cruel and kind. The students have driven me mad, yet their kindness and (relative) innocence cannot keep me angry for long. I believe that to teach, you have to indulge yourself in such ironies. There were ups and downs, and that has made the journey a worthwhile and memorable one. Naturally, the next and perhaps the most important question I ask myself is: will I consider this as a lifetime career?

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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