Saturday, June 20, 2009

A moment of clarity


I've been pretty low-key this past week. For a few reasons, really, I seem to be having a hard time motivating myself to prepare for work outside of work. Last year, it really wasn't a problem, but the combination of different content in the classroom, a different structure to my teaching position, and just plain-old not feeling 100% for too long have made me into a bit of a procrastinator. I am still giving my best effort in the classroom, but I'm not quite seeing the direction I'm going in in regards to work these days.

I recently conducted speaking tests with my students in both grade 7 and grade 9. The results were, as expected, quite mixed. For anyone who knew the content of our hagwon teaching last year, you can know immediately about which I speak when I tell you that the speaking tests at my public middle school consist mainly of very repetitive, basic, and, unfortunately, banal conversation. This is born out of necessity - or at least the way in which the school and my classes have been structured.

I'm not going to lie though... it's kind of been getting me down lately. When you only see some students once every two weeks for 45 minutes, you don't really get to know them that well. That's just the way it is. You also don't get to have any really substantial or fair measure for their progress. Since I am not responsible for report card writing for anyone aside from my after-school club students, I am left with these bi-monthly speaking tests as my only real quantifiable gauge for my students' progress. It's a bit disappointing to say the least, but since I see over 700 students, report cards are not anything approaching realistic either.

So, sitting down to conduct these tests, which involve the most rudimentary of dialogues, I just started to feel a bit down. I know that my students value me - like most other foreign teachers here, I'm sure, I am always greeted with smiles, high-fives, and excited voices in the hallways and in the schoolyard, but for many students - once inside the classroom, they simply shut-down.

I remember remarking to a colleague last year that I was really interested in teaching a high level class (upper-middle school students who were planning on studying abroad) because I was needing a break from the basic early-level stuff. She more or less laughed at me and told me that I shouldn't be teaching ESL, then.

In retrospect, that's a fair comment. I think that even the most experienced and highly-trained teachers can at times feel lost. I am of course telling myself that to make myself feel better, but I also think there's enough truth there. In the world of ESL, you are limited in ways that I didn't quite anticipate. While it was easy in my classes last year of 10-14 students to communicate about ideas, this year, in classes that sometimes consist of 36 students - none of whom have anything approaching the English skill of my students last year, I am simply unequipped to talk about ideas in the classroom. The time doesn't allow for it, the language barrier doesn't allow for it, and the structure of the curriculum along with it's set goals certainly doesn't encourage it.

Well there you go... don't know if I'm quite ready to throw-out a flippant two-word condemnation for an entire country, but there's a little airing of negativity for you. Last year I could pretend for a while that I was an English Language Junior High School teacher - diving into comparatively obscure short work from Twain and Plath and actually bridging the language divide through the exploration of some very heady stuff.

That experience is just unavailable in my current environment. I have students (some low-level grade 7s, mind you) who are completely content to never learn a word of English in their year with me - at least that's what their performances have dictated. When students disregard the previous three months and throw-away a speaking test with a shrug and a show of complete lack of retention, I can't help but wonder what exactly my purpose here is. I am able to snap-out of it and value my place here, but I just have to re-centre myself if the rest of this contract is going to play-out well. Like I don't believe that I could successfully teach Elementary school back in Canada - a healthy fear that too much "Elementary" speak would limit my own intellectual progress, I'm not sure that I could remain in this teaching environment for more than one year. I watch the Korean language teachers create activities and events for their students - things that come from a genuine and realistic desire to connect about more dynamic concepts, and then I look at my text book, which is asking me to achieve what seems to be so comparatively insignificant.

This is the trap - I know that. Language acquisition doesn't happen fast for most, and trying to learn with 35 easily distracted classmates surrounding you can't be easy. Still, my head needs to be in the game. I feel that part of what I need is a dose of University-level conversation to clear my mind, and to remember that I can actually speak in complex sentences still. My students deserve to be inspired, and with all of these obstacles that I see in my way when it comes to making those 45 minutes of class engaging enough, well... I guess I just need to stop placing those obstacles there of my own volition. I have been inspired though - some students have really surprised me with their sudden interest born from a good effort in class one day, and a little encouragement to help it along.

It's about small steps for these kids. I need to keep reminding myself of a few things: that no teaching environment is perfect, that not every student is going to possess the desire to learn a second language, and those that do are going to need to do so at a speed that doesn't allow for the introduction of Mark Twain's "What Stumped the Blue Jays." It's too obvious, but I'll say it anyway with the hope that my putting it in writing will wake me up: it is also about me, but my time with my students is more about them.

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