Sunday, April 10, 2011

I used to be so cool...

First, let me say a sincere thank you to the family and friends who wrote me with concern after my last post. It's not a response I was fishing for, but for the lack of regular conversation I have with these people across the sea, I suppose this blog also works as a bit of a dialogue. Anyway, thanks for letting me know you're there.

Just wanted to add a further note. Yes, something specific did happen to set me off, and I have requested a meeting to clear things up, and most importantly, to iron-out some new standards for the classroom based on the collective expectations of the 7 English teachers at my school including myself. Really, this isn't anyone's fault so much as it is a collective inadvertent shirking of responsibilities on all our parts... at least, that's the politically-correct way to say it. I think there's a good chance that something good will come out of tomorrow's meeting, but cross your fingers for me.

For my part though, I think I have come to a realization that was foggy before, but quite clear now, and it is this: I have all but run-dry of my collected "cool capital" with my students, and (less importantly) with my teachers. For the grade 3 students who began with me over two years ago, the last dime of that stuff was spent long ago.

A good friend suggested a while back that I might try to capitalize on my "cool" with the classes that were giving me the most grief. But the problem is perhaps best explained this way...

As explained to me by various teachers throughout the years, teachers (and I'm talking teachers anywhere) are generally overwhelmed in their first year, but inspired by their first experience having a group of young charges they are directly responsible for in some way. By year two, they think they have a handle on things. By year three, they are starting to become tremendously frustrated with the things they cannot change, and starting to recognize limits. In year four they are bored, and year five traditionally brings some sense of excitement with knowing that you've survived this long and have a few more tools in your belt. The following year, the cycle starts over again.

Not all teachers will agree with this summation, but many do.

Knowing full well that my job is simply different from that of my co-teachers, I hazard a suggestion that perhaps my position makes this 5 year-cycle problematic in a way that doesn't apply to those of the native Korean speaking variety.

What I mean is this: I cannot develop relationships with the majority of the students I teach. I've said this in many ways over the last two years. For me, this is a huge problem and I recognize it for what it is. I teach the entire school population, so just by simple math, by relationships with my students will be limited a great deal by time. I believe that my greatest strengths as a teacher come out through my ability to connect in a real way with students - and I continue to struggle to find meaningful connections in the time I have with each. But this is old news for people who read this blog regularly.

Of course, the other big issue is language. Before I give myself a harder time for not being further-along in Korean language learning than I would have hoped to have been at this point, let me first say that as a teacher, it's not my role. I am NOT permitted to speak any Korean in the classroom. I break this rule a bit just to throw a bone to the lower level kids in my class, but it's rare and sporadic. Students need to understand that to communicate with me, they need to try what English they have - very little is better than none.

But further to my point is that fact that, over the course of two years, I have lost my cool capital. Low level students, at first, are jazzed by the fact that I'm different. I'm all tall and stuff, and I don't have dark brown eyes, and I have a high nose, and the list goes on. But, eventually, kids that were once excited by my very presence now couldn't give a rat's ass if I jumped out of the soup tureen at lunch time. In class, it used to be, "Wow! Look at him... he's tall and handsome..." (their words, not mine) "... he kind of looks like Harry Potter.. or is it Bill Gates... he is funny when he talks... I like Teacher Dave's class... he gives me candy when we win..." and so on.

Now, kids who were low level when I started at the school over two years ago, have somehow slipped back further on the ladder. They stare at me with eyes that seem to say "you used to be so tall and handsome, and shiny and new... but I still can't understand what the hell you're saying, so I think I'll be setting my head down on this desk and... zzzzzzzzzzzz.."

And you know what? Fair enough.

There is of course more to say, but I think it's worth recognizing semi-publicly that my previous post stems at least somewhat from the fact that I am effective only as a paid clown for a high percentage of my students. I know this because jokes and activities that worked the last three years are as good as new as far as my new grade 1 students are concerned. Sadly though, for the majority of the rest, I am simply not of interest anymore. If I can't be an effective clown and we lack the communication opportunities and I lack to the authority to make reasonable demands of them on a regular basis, then what I have left is... not much.

But, I'm having a meeting tomorrow that at least offers hope for more effective collective classroom management over the next few months. And I need to let go of those who have long ago done the same, and focus on those who have managed to cross bridges far enough to meet-me half-way and still care about their limited time with me. Some are obviously of the higher English level variety, and some haven't made great strides, but want to try when they see me trying for them. These are students for whom I will shed tears when I leave, and for that I know I should be grateful.


Tuttle said...

Sorry I did not respond to your last post (had a busy weekend), but rest assured I feel your pain. Building relationships has been one of the key aspects--and rewards--of teaching in my life. It is extremely difficult to do in our situation here, and is totally reliant on students to take the first step. Well, most of the steps. All we can do is encourage them to keep talking--coming by the office/classroom during lunch or off-times, walking together, etc. Doing our best to be available for it.

Now, I'm not very "cool"--I gave up aspirations to that 20 years and [mumble] pounds ago--but I can devise class activities that the large majority of students will buy into. It's all task-based learning for me, nowadays.

I think that it's simply not about "me"--it's about what I can get the students to do, in terms of generating and/or practicing spoken English.

Halfway through my third year, I've gotten up a reasonable collection of lessons that succeed (and I've tried a lot more that don't). In my situation, with my spread of student levels ...

Dealing with co-teachers is a bear, I can especially imagine for a younger teacher--I am (almost always) older than all my cos, which frankly gives me an advantage. Still, I phrase my critiques/suggestions for them as if I am looking for their advice and help. "What do you think we can do better about this situation? When you see this happening, do you think it would help if you slide over to that table and just let them know you're waching?..."

Anyway, good luck in the meeting tomorrow. And keep on truckin', as the cool dudes used to say.

Mr. Genius-Face said...

Hey dudeman,

I remember feeling a similar way when I was about to leave Youngdo - but that was a long time ago and I hadn't been a teacher for as long as you have.

I think what I learned most from your style of teaching, which helped me survive the job to a large extent, is that, despite your best efforts, there are always going to be troughs to the peaks - whether it's due to stupid school policy, angst-filled students, alignment of the planets or whatever.

There was a girl I used to teach who, in my first floundering weeks, approached me with a sticky note - it was a drawing of herself with a speech bubble that read "I'm try hard."

Two months later she was pinching and punching me and I asked her as I cowered away from her tiny yet deceptively-painful fists, "What happened?" Her response: "You changed."

Did I? Probably. Did she? I would say so. Things change and people change, we live in an inconsistent world and blah blah blah. Mostly, though, when I look back on the experience, I think to myself "Were there more days when I bluffed? When I put the chips down on giving a shit when I knew there was no chance I would win?" And I'm happy with the answer - despite the fact that, ultimately, there's no end by which one can judge a situation. I have faith that you'll feel the same way when this is over for you - whether that's tomorrow or 30 years from now.

Regardless, the point I'm trying to make, which you already know quite well, is that things can just as inexplicably make a turn for the better. When they do, you don't want to have cracked your eggs before the chicks could hatch. Unless you're in China and you're into that - I saw a show and a dude seriously ate a baby bird straight from the egg. Disgusting.

I guess there's no way I can express empathy without some wacky analogy here. Anyway, keep your stick on the ice, haha. Actually whenever I have a bad day I like to watch this video.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Hey, lads - I can't thank you enough for your thoughtful comments - both much wiser than I could muster on the subject.

Tuttle - you're absolutely right about the task-based learning thing. Some of my similar lessons have gone over like gang-busters while others have failed miserably, but there does seem to be greater chances for success in hands-on activities. I think though that my biggest challenge lies in trying to wrestle even some of my best and brightest out of the funk they seem to fall into as soon as they walk through the school gates in the morning. More importantly, knowing when to just let the disinterested ones be disinterested without it killing me on the inside.

Olivier - thanks, man. Really. Youngdo was a different thing for me. I did struggle from time to time, but then I was seeing my kids regularly and that made all of the difference in the world. That, and I had been around apparently long enough to be forgiven when I ignored some of the more bone-headed decisions from on high.

Regardless, wanting to be a good teacher and feeling like I'm only treading water with the concept is not a fun feeling, but I'm going to look at it as motivation.

Thanks again, guys.