Saturday, July 16, 2011

My last day of teaching

Well, I should clarify - it's actually my last day of teaching regular classes at my middle school. Mostly, this means two things:

1) I won't ever again have to share my classroom with person X, who has demonstrated week-in and week out since coming to our school in March that she should have been put out to pasture as a teacher long ago. People are people, but when apathetic and vile people adversely affect my work and my students, it's time to call a spade a spade. Shaking off this thick soup of negativity that I've been swimming through 6 periods per week this semester will feel great. I can only hope, for the sake of next year's student population, that the rest of the staff step-out of their usual avoid-confrontation-at-any-cost stance on work-related conflict and actually make some changes. I can only hope that the students at our school matter more than saving face.

2) I will have to say goodbye to 래송 ("Rae-song", who wanted an English name so I gave him "Raymond".) Raymond is one of the grade 3 students in our school who will be graduating this year, and who I will miss.

Raymond is not a strong English student - he began that way and will leave the school without having learned too terribly much. He's got curly hair, he's badly in need of some orthodontic work, he's bigger than 99% of the school population (including staff), and as he walks our halls with his familiar apologetic lope, he's reminiscent of a shy Jar-jar Binks with a Jheri Curl.

Raymond is large and ungainly, but gentle, and though he's not what I would call "popular", he has a lot of friends - most of whom are so small comparative to him, that when Raymond sits down at his group desk during lunch, it seems like he's about to read them all a bedtime story.

Raymond had always been in my lowest level-differentiated class, until this year when the grade 3s were all grouped-together in their complete homeroom form for their time with me. In the first year, Raymond went from not speaking at all, to quietly repeating one word at a time with me, but only if no others were around. I clearly remember the very first time that I called on him in class. The question was "How are you today?" Raymond looked down at his desk like he was Lennie and I was George and I had just told him to "shut-up about the damned rabbits!" Raymond avoided my gaze for the first three months - head drooped-down like a child: "If I can't see him, he can't see me." During the entire first year, Raymond never came to class with a book. Daily, I asked him where it was, but never scolded him.

In year two, he graduated to speaking slowly in class, but only when called upon, and not always then. Still, Raymond would freeze-up completely during a speaking test, and more often than not, get a score of zero.

This year, something changed. Toward the end of year two and into this year, I made a point of caring less about the initial potential of embarrassment and awkwardness, and would sit beside Raymond from time to time in class during the small group worksheet portion of the activity. Previously, during this period, students could be counted upon to do anything with their worksheets from making paper airplanes, to tearing them into tiny shreds, to actually writing something of some educational and practical value on them. Raymond could be counted on to stare solemnly at his for a good 10 minutes with no hint of progression.

I decided it would be on me to help Raymond out this time around. It really is the smallest thing - taking 3 minutes of our class time to focus on someone who needs a little focus. Turns out, Raymond is capable of a whole lot.

This semester, Raymond proudly says hello to me in the hallway, and a few times, he's even sought me out at lunch time or in the hallway between classes or after school, and he seems to have lost all shyness with me as he sometimes adds to his greetings with the offer of a candy - usually a blue lollipop in the shape of a hand - available at the convenience store around the corner from our school gate.

For my last speaking test, I focused on asking a set of prescribed questions about the students' researched travel destinations from our "Travel Korea" lesson. It was easy for those that did the work, and impossible for those that didn't. Just rewards for the dedicated, as it turns out. During this multiple-week lesson, Raymond came to class with a new folder, upon which he had written the words "English Class Teacher Dave". Each day, he would open it up to reveal his worksheet that was steadily looking more and more complete as the weeks past. Raymond even came into my office one day at lunch to show me his progress and to have me check his work. This blew my mind.

When the speaking test day came for his class, Raymond was the last student on the attendance list, and therefore the last one to take the test. The other students had left the room as the bell had already rang. Though they were finished, four or five of Raymond's sheepish little friends stayed behind to cheer him on. Raymond sat down across from me, wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, and we began. I was cheering for him and hoping for a ten, but when he emerged from the test with an 8, he stood up, did a silent fist-pump, and had the goofiest grin on his face. I swear he left the classroom telling his hangers-on about each segment of his grand 45 second war with the English language, and how he had emerged victorious through the deft relation of why Everland Amusement Park was a famous place, and how far it was from there to Daecheon Beach, and how he had arrived there by car. Raymond was also one of the only students in his class to have a completed answer sheet, which was considered as a portion of the grade for the speaking test.

That was the last time that I will teach Raymond, and realistically I have no reason to think that he is on his way to becoming a more dedicated learner, but I have a little more reason to hope.

I told all of my students this week that I was leaving. Sadly, I didn't get to teach Raymond one last time because of a scheduling conflict with student outings on our regular class day. On Thursday, all students went on a brief morning field trip: the grade 1s to a nearby park, the grade 2s to the National Museum, and the grade 3s to the Korean War Memorial and Museum. I did my best to visit all three venues through the morning, but made it only to two. On my way to the entrance of the War Memorial, I saw that many of the students were already on their way home. I saw Raymond and his friends walking past and I called his name. He looked at me and smiled and said "Teacher... Canada?"

I said "yes."

I asked another student to take this picture. The statue behind us is entitled "Brothers".

I've still got one blue hand lollipop in my fridge and it may be one of the most meaningful mementos I will take with me when I leave Korea for a year this August. Certainly, it is the most meaningful souvenir I take with me from my time at my school.

There's been so little caring to witness in our halls and classrooms in recent months. It's disheartening, to say the least. But I'm honestly grateful that something so small as Raymond's joy at his 8 out out of 10 on a speaking test can still make me feel like a teacher. It's so easy to lose these moments. I know there have been others. It's what I want teaching to be.


Anonymous said...

Awesome story Dave. My favorite part was the image of Raymond sitting down with his classmates at lunch to read them a bedtime story. You built it up so well that I was really hoping you'd run into him in the park. Then I saw the picture. Damn. That kid is huge. Next to him I'd look like I was in elementary school. Very cool post.

Douglas said...

I was just pettin' it...I was just pettin' it George!

Do you plan to make the switch to high school when you come back to Korea?

Tuttle said...

You made a positive difference in that kid's life. That's what teaching is all about, isn't it?

Thanks for sharing.